I spent Thanksgiving in Mexico City (one of my three travel goal destinations for 2016). The trip was excellent and the city was as surprising, often beautiful, sometimes gritty, and generally exciting as I had heard. After pulling together a quick travel guide from memory for a colleague recently, I decided it was time to finally write something about my time in one of the world’s biggest cities.
After a short ~2 hour flight from San Antonio, I arrived in Mexico in the mid-afternoon. Checked into my (wonderful, well-located) Airbnb, chatted for a bit with the host, and struck out in search of a nice walk while the sun was still high in the sky. Two of the neighborhoods mentioned in all of the guidebooks are Roma Norte and Condesa, and I stayed right in the middle of the two.
I wandered over to Avda. Amsterdam, a circular road with a shaded, tropical-feeling path in the middle, popular for running and dog walking. I was shocked at how many dogs there were here, of all sizes, most off leash but closely following their owners.
On my little loop, I passed a lot of fun, bright houses, public art, and adorable shops, but with light fading and more to explore, I didn’t stop at any of them that first day. Instead, I wound my way through a number of parks, watched groups of all ages playing soccer, and peeked into the windows of the first of the many (many!) neighborhood libraries I saw in the city, this one nestled right in the park.
After checking out the neighborhood, I stopped for a casual dinner—with a side of hot sauces and salsas—at La Cervecería del Barrio, around the corner from Contramar (which, as it turns out, is only open for lunch). I enjoyed the people watching but was mostly pleased to be just a short walk from my bed after a day of travel.
Mexico City sits at an altitude over 7,000 feet, and is smoggy as all hell, so I did notice that my eyes watered quite a bit and I felt more lethargic than expected, especially on day 2. Nothing that some earlier-than-normal bedtimes and eye drops didn’t basically fix, but worthy of note.
So the next morning, I wandered bleary-eyed to Lalo!, a hipster neighborhood coffee shop, where I had bomb chilaquiles, coffee (with almond milk!) and a pistachio pastry.
Fortified with caffeine and carbs, I made my way to the Museo Frida Kahlo, where I was greeted with a long line but (hot tip!) I was able to book timed-entry tickets about 10 minutes later on their mobile website and jump the queue.
You can see how it’s also known as Casa Azul. It was a charming museum, a number of exhibitions (one straight art gallery showcasing Frida’s work, another the living quarters Frida and Diego shared, plus Frida’s art studio, and finally a fascinating display of her clothes and myriad braces and medical instruments) all focused around a lush, internal courtyard.
After the museum, since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to swing by and see the absolutely monstrous four-sided mosaic at the Central Library at Ciudad Universitaria Campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (better known as UNAM). It was fun to soak up the energy of the university campus at lunch time and the murals were really pretty astounding—I had to walk way back just to be able to capture the whole building in my frame.
After a quick wander through the stacks, I caught an Uber back to the center of the city with a few hours left for a late lunch at Eno and time to check out the famous Museo Nacional de Antropología before it closed at 7.
The museum is both enormous and overflowing with incredible artifacts. The central courtyard, with this massive monolith/fountain, is a memorable start to a world class museum experience (which, in Mexico City fashion, costs about 4 USD).
I loved how dramatically the scale differed—from tiny carved sculptures to the 12 foot high, 25 ton Aztec Sun Stone.
Possibly one of the highlights, the ancient ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
After a long day of wandering, I had a tasty dinner with mediocre service at Fonda Fina, which bloggers seem to love but I found a bit oversold in a city full of places to have fabulous food (without the side of attitude).
The next morning, I got up early to head to the pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan, a UNESCO world heritage site. There are buses that head from the city 30 miles north to the ancient pyramids, but my Airbnb host recommended a local driver who would take me before the first bus arrived, which ended up being the right choice for me. Being all alone in this place that used to be the spiritual and cultural center for an entire civilization (archaeologists think the city reached up to 100,000 inhabitants at its height between 100 BC and 600 AD) was really something to remember. The early morning mist added to the eeriness.
Archaeologists think all of the layers of the buildings were once very colorful, with painted panels covering the intricate rock work beneath. I liked seeing the combination of inside structure and little bits of lingering color here and there. Overall, components of the site seemed incredibly well preserved (or maybe carefully restored?) from my clueless layman’s point of view. Also fun to climb.
After a few hours of climbing pyramids, it was back to the city, once again passing through some of the roughest areas in the metropolis as seen from the highway. Miles and miles of hillside shanty towns (and glimpsing more than one policeman with a machine gun) gave a small picture into life outside the up-and-coming city center.
Speaking of CDMX being the new place to be, I spotted two of my friends from Austin, on Instagram, posting from the pyramids at Teotihuacan. A strange but wonderful coincidence, so we decided to meet up for a drink and a wander through Roma Norte once I was back in town. We met up for ice cream on Avda. Amsterdam, stopped for appetizers and drinks at some spot with shark on the menu, returned to a new, high end liquor store they had passed the day before (tellingly called El Liquor Store, highly recommended for mezcal and Mexican rum tastings and souvenir bottles to bring home), and made one more quick stop at La Clandestina before they were off to a concert and I was on my way to Lucha Libre, which was just as ridiculous and funny as one might expect.
With only one day left in the city, it was time to wander a bit more around Condesa, Roma Norte’s upscale sister. Breakfast is always the right place to begin, so after a walk through Parque España, I enjoyed a spread on the patio at La Buena Tierra.
I wish I could have spent more time in Condesa, but I enjoyed the stately mansions and chic cafes I did pass by. Since I didn’t make it to the more famous Polanco location, I did stop by El Péndulo bookstore in Condesa and browsed a bit.
One of the greatest features of the street cafes of Mexico City: personal coat and purse racks.
I spent a good portion of the afternoon trying to get into the city center, where it turns out traffic was totally stopped, the metro trains were completely jammed, and the streets were filled with police and military-looking types toting semi-automatic rifles, all in the name of a parade. I went into the main cathedral at the Zócalo, fought the crowds for a bit, had a memorable lunch at El Cardenal as recommended by a friend from the city, and then made my way to La Ciudadela Centro Artesanal, a large market filled with Mexican handicrafts of every variety perfect for souvenirs.
A few tips: bring cash, including small bills, because almost no one accepted cards. Do a loop before committing to anything, because quite a few of the booths sell the same types of items (or one version that’s much higher quality than another), and don’t be afraid to barter a bit. I ended up buying a small punched-tin mirror, sterling silver earrings and bracelets for presents, a hand embroidered top for myself, some embroidered linens, and a collection of adorable, insanely cheap blown glass swizzle sticks/cocktail stabbers. I figure they’ll make great hostess gifts but mostly I just couldn’t resist the cute.
I mentioned that I passed a bunch of cool shops on Avda. Amsterdam on my first evening, but I didn’t specify that there was one I couldn’t get out of my head. I didn’t really remember the name of it, didn’t recall exactly where it was, but I knew it was on Avda. Amsterdam, which went in a circle, and that I’d spotted some great shoes in the window. So on my last morning, I set off in search of shoes, and ended up finding the recently opened Toco Madera.
The shopkeeper was busy unpacking tons of boxes of new merchandise, apologizing profusely for the mess, but I was too busy checking out the beautiful shoes and leather goods to care too much. Almost all of the shoes and bags were either leather or canvas with touches of one of a kind, handmade textiles to add color and pattern. Like so many handmade shoes, they were also extremely comfortable and, unlike a lot of handmade shoes, they were less than $65 per pair.
After waffling for a few minutes trying to decide between a pair of brown ankle booties a bit like these (but with different colored tapestries) and some unique black shoes with red backs a bit like these, I did the only sane thing and bought both pairs.
Boxes in hand, it was time to head to the airport and say “hasta luego” to Ciudad de México.
I have to say—it was wonderful to speak Spanish. While I definitely think you could navigate the city just fine without it, being able to speak it and getting the chance to practice for the first time in a long time added to the relaxation and sense that I was really “getting away” from my normal day-to-day.
I’ve been asked a lot about safety in the city, which is one of those questions that’s somewhat personal and hard to answer. In general, I would say that I was on my toes more than I would be traveling domestically, but that I generally felt safe traveling alone. I took the advice of a number of blogs and sites and avoided taxis (which have a reputation for taxi crime), choosing Uber instead. Uber was both extremely easy to use and dirt cheap there—most of my rides cost only a few USD. I have since deleted the app in the U.S. but might consider re-adding it for travel in CDMX. After about 9 pm, I called a car instead of walking unless I was going to be traveling a short distance on very well-lit, busy streets. The security business is flourishing in Mexico and many nicer houses and restaurants have full-time security guards standing outside, but it’s hard to know whether that’s in direct response to high crime, for appearances, a vestige of a more tumultuous time, or some combination of the above. What I can say is that Mexico City felt a LOT like Spain to me—not just for the language, and in many of the best ways, and with pretty similar levels of safety within the most popular/tourist-friendly neighborhoods.
Flights to Mexico City’s Benito Juárez airport are both frequent and cheap. My round trip cost about $200 from San Antonio. An Uber from the airport ran about $7-8.
The value of the peso fluctuates quite a bit against the dollar, so you’ll want to check exchange rates, but I found Mexico City to range from very reasonable to dirt cheap. I saw decent looking Airbnbs in the center of the city for less than $30 a night, but ended up “splurging” for one that was more like $80/night with fees, in a converted mansion with a rooftop patio, within walking distance to Roma and Condesa.
Of course, there’s a TON I didn’t see, including some of the places at the top of my list. Because I’ll most certainly be back, I’m listing some of those spots for the next time:
Palacio Postal · Churrería El Moro · Pastelería Ideal · Diego Rivera murals at Palacio Nacional · Nico’s · Azul Histórico · Zinco · Fce Bella Época · MUAC · Museo Rufino Tamayo · Museo Franz Meyer · Luis Barragán’s house · Museo Soumaya · Dog school at Parque México · Parque+Castillo Chapultapec · Mercado de la Merced (maybe with a tour from Eat Mexico) · Biblioteca Vasconcelos · El Péndulo Polanco · Tortas Been (Républica del Salvador 152, Centro) · BO Pastelería (Fernando Montes de Oca 114-B, Colonia Condesa) · Boutiques on Colima · Romita Comedor · Museo Dolores Olmedo · Centro de Abastos · get a reservation at Pujol (this time I just ate at Eno, the casual restaurant by the same Michelin-starred chef, which was good but nowhere near the same)
Questions? Recommendations? Is Mexico City on your travel list? I’d love to hear others’ experiences.
(all photos by me)