Mexico’s capital city is often referred to as just “Mexico” by people living in the country, traditionally termed El DF, referring to “Mexico, Distrito Federal“—Federal District—although since January 2016 the capital dropped its iconic “DF” status and is now officially referred to as La Ciudad de México.
The metropolitan area of Mexico’s capital is one of the world’s most populated urban expanses with an estimated 22 million inhabitants living inside an area of 750 square kilometers (290 square miles).
The Mexican capital is situated at an average altitude of 2,250 meters (7,400 feet) above sea level and is watched over by two mighty volcanoes. It is one of the oldest cities in the world. Originally a “floating city”, served by a large and complex network of canals when it was the epicenter of the Aztec empire, today, the nation’s capital is one of the world’s most populous mega-cities on our planet.
The Spanish conqueror, Hernán Cortés, was one of the first Europeans to have set eyes on the immense Aztec capital, then named Tenochtitlán, as he reached the heart of the Aztec empire’s political and administrative center. A restored ruin of the most important temple of that ancient city, Templo Mayor, can be seen today in the archaeology park next door to the cathedral in the heart of the historical center. The rest of the architecture in the old city downtown has a distinctly Spanish feel about it.
Mexico City is the center of government, business and culture in Mexico. Over one-fifth of Mexico’s population works, lives and plays here. The city never seems to sleep and the ever-present energy is one of the big attractions of this metropolis.
Flying into the city, it’s hard not to become overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of the metropolis passing by underneath you. The city goes on for as far as the eye can see: if you fly in at night, it’s like gliding over an enormous ocean of lights.
Fortunately, a lot of the really attractive features of Mexico City are clustered together in easy-to-get-to areas. Three or four days here will ensure that you manage to experience all of the main attractions.
Mexico City has a feast of experiences waiting for you to enjoy and savor. From a world-famous archaeology park to a world-class zoo and everything in-between – you’ll find it in Mexico City.
The choice of restaurants here is immense: Whatever food you like or want to experience, you can in Mexico City.
For shoppers, Mexico City provides an enormous variety of shopping experiences, with an enormous variety of colors and flavors. From fruit and vegetable stalls at local markets, specialist markets and bazaars selling arts and crafts, chic boutiques, designer fashion houses and jewelry, right through to the multi-million dollar US-style shopping malls —it’s all here.
Aficionados of history, culture and archaeology will find a rich panoply of areas and places to feed their thirst for new insight and knowledge: World-class museums (including the Anthropology Museum, one of world’s most impressive and most important of its kind), arts and theater, sculpture, murals and plazas, and a history which extends back over 12,000 years, to the first animals and inhabitants around Lake Texcoco— the lake Mexico City was built on—and on which bed it still lies.
Mexico City also has several parks and natural areas where people go to relax, converse, meet and just watch the world go by. Like to play golf? Hiding behind the busy streets are tucked away no less than two great golf courses right in the pulse of capital.
For general entertainment, Mexico City will fulfill just about any activity you have in mind that can logistically be catered for in an urban area. The night life is energetic and varied; during the day you can play sports, go to a funfair, ice-skate, play tennis or attend a top quality spa, go horse racing, watch movies, experience a huge selection of festivals and events, and much more.
Not everyone who visits Mexico visits the nation’s capital city. Many fly into its airport, only to connect to a flight elsewhere, usually a colonial center or beach destination. However, Mexico City is a great place to experience because there is a certain magic here that most often leaves a dust on its visitors’ shoes: the kind of dust which in many cases keeps you coming back for even more next time, or keeps you away for evermore.
Mexico City is still one of the world’s most vibrant, charismatic and extraordinary cities. Take the time to wander around some of its attractions and enjoy the experience of one the most contrasting, exciting and inspiring capital cities in the world.
The main areas of Mexico City with Key Attractions for visitors are:
The Centro Historico (Historic Center) focuses around the Plaza de la Constitucion (Constitution Plaza) or more commonly known as the zocalo (main plaza), the second biggest in the world—only Moscow’s Red Square betters it for size. This is the heart of Mexico City and its government, main business and financial centers all operate in and around this area. There are over 1,400 colonial buildings in this area: the feel is distinctly Spanish— they built their new city on top of the destroyed Aztec City of Tenochtitlan. Off the plaza you can find the city’s Catedral Metropolitana and Palacio Nacional (National Palace)— both are examples of glorious colonial architecture. You can see some of the remains of the old city by visiting Templo Mayor—the archaeological site in the heart of Mexico City. You can discover Templo Mayor with Mexperience.
Translated, this literally means, “the Pink Zone”, referring to the pink colored tiles on the street, still there today. It was once the high-class residential area of Mexico City, before tourism, shops, restaurants, hotels and commercial office space took it over. Today, it is the center of commercial activity in Mexico City. This area, along with Polanco and San Angel (see below) is one of Mexico City’s main night spots.
These two colonial areas make up districts of today’s Mexico City, but it hasn’t always been this way. Not so many years ago, these areas were separate colonial towns in their own right. They both have a colonial atmosphere and charm all their own and are well worth a visit— especially at the weekend.
Coyoacan – The Central Plaza is a classic—with its street performers and ambulant vendors; a real family place on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The streets in this area are all cobbled; the area is home to some of Mexico City’s finest mansions and great museums. Many present-day celebrities live around here, as past celebrities have, including: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky.
San Angel – Once a quaint town on the outskirts, now a suburb for the rich and/or famous with cobblestone streets and leafy lanes. Some of the houses here are more modern, but there is also a great selection of colonial houses, mansions and haciendas. Some of these places have been turned into fine restaurants and fashionable night clubs. San Angel is also one of Mexico City’s prime night spots. See below When Night Falls.
Mexico City’s large green area, Chapultepec (From the Aztec, meaning “Place of the Grasshopper”) is the largest area west of the city, and incorporates: Chapultepec Park itself, the Castle where Maximilian ruled from before he met his fate in Queretaro, Mexico City’s extensive zoo, the world-famous Anthropology Museum, Chapultepec Fun Fair with its famous “Russian Mountain” wooden roller-coaster, several top-class museums and cultural centers, and some of the city’s finest hotels and restaurants. Just north of Chapultepec is the district of Polanco, an ultra-high class residential area, which is also host to Mexico’s biggest and most elaborate US-Style shopping mall, Santa Fe.
Xochimilco, pronounced “soh-chee-MIL-koh,” was considered ‘outside of Mexico City’ as late as the 1970s. Today, it has been engulfed into the massive reach of the capital’s city limits, but the floating gardens—so called because of the the brightly decorated boats that float on a network of canals which is 50 miles long—and dates back to the time of the Aztecs.
In years gone by, the boats would be decorated with real flowers, thus “floating gardens”, but today only paint is used, save for special occasions, often requiring pre-booking and payment by the sponsor.
Xochimilco itself is an old colonial town. Although run-down and in a seeming state of decay, the area has a great colonial center, and a couple of good markets. You’ll pass these on route to the canal ports (of which there are several)—so take time to stop and experience them if you have time.
You can hire a boat and oarsman to take you and up to 40 other people on a tour of the canal and environs. Boats come in three sizes; the small will seat up to around 10 people, the medium up to about 25 and the large up to about 40. Prices vary according to the size of boat (“Lancha“) you want, but prices are very reasonable.
A bucket with beers and soft drinks will be placed on the boat; you pay for what you consume, plus a small tip for the vendor when you get back to port.
While you’re on your canal tour, you’ll likely be approached by “floating merchants” selling anything from pottery and textiles to a full five course meal. Mexican Mariachis may float up beside you on their boat, and in exchange for a small fee, will serenade your cruise or party with a feast of traditional Mexican music. Don’t miss this opportunity. Remember to take cash with you; credit cards are no use on the canals.
Museums and Art in Mexico City
Mexico City is packed full with great museums—including the Anthropology Museum that is, unquestionably, one of the world’s best (see below). There are so many, that there is only space for a mention of the main ones here. You can get a comprehensive list from a good guidebook or one of the local tourist information booths in Mexico City.
Museo de Arte Moderno (Modern Art Museum) – A selection of contemporary art by famous Mexican Artists. Located in Chapultepec.
Galería de Historia (National History Museum) – Also known as the Museo del Caracol, this museum tells the story of Mexico’s history and its struggle for independence and recognition as a republic. Located in Chapultepec.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Anthropology Museum) – This museum is one of the world’s finest: It would take you weeks to see all of it properly; but just going there for a day will give you an insight into the importance of this awesome museum. Situated in the heart of Chapultepec Park, the anthropology museum is stocked with priceless artifacts chronicling the history of Mesoamerica. The building itself, inaugurated in 1964, is a masterpiece of architectural design. Inside its twenty-six halls you’ll see outstanding examples of pottery, textiles, agricultural implements, religious icons, traditional costumes and more gathered from all corners of Mexico. For travelers visiting Mexico City, the Anthropology Museum offers an opportunity to experience one of the world’s truly astounding museums.
Museo Rufino Tamayo – Rufino Tamayo is one of Mexico’s most famous contemporary artists and this museum has a collection of his art and art from around the world—a collection donated to Mexico by Rufino and his wife.
Museo Frida Kahlo – Frida Kahlo is one of Mexico’s greatest artists; her life and work is revered in Mexico, and world-wide. Her work has enjoyed a recent surge of popularity, spurred on by an excellent biographical film (wiki) and a global tour of her art pieces. Her former home in Mexico City — which she shared for a time with her eccentric lover, husband and intellectual friend Diego Rivera — is today one of the capital’s most visited and most celebrated museums. The house is on Calle Londres in the Coyoacan district of the city. The museum contains many samples of her work, her personal goods and chattels, as well as other Mexican arts and crafts. It’s best to visit on a weekday, outside of school and national holidays. At weekends, and during holiday periods, build-in additional time to your schedule if you visit here, as you will need to line up to gain entry and your visit through the property will be slower and more crowded. Learn more about Frida’s extraordinary life here (Wiki).
Museo Leon Trotsky – Trotsky fled Stalin’s Russia after being expelled from the Soviet Union and found refuge in Mexico, aided by his friendship with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. His small house on Calle Viena (No.45) is where Leon Trotsky was murdered. It has been preserved much as it was left when a Russian agent, acting on Stalin’s orders to kill Trotsky, finally carried out the infamous deed.
Museo Franz Mayer – This museum is hosted in the serene surroundings of the 16th century Hospital de San Juan, on Avenida Hidalgo. Franz Meyer was a German philanthropist who moved to Mexico, obtained residence and citizenship and proceeded to build a colossal collection of Mexican arts and crafts including textiles, silver, pottery and furniture. The setting does justice to the works on display here— this is a truly serene corner in Mexico City’s energy-filled metropolis. Located in the Colonial Center.
Museo Mural Diego Rivera – Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s most famous, if not THE most famous artist (muralist) to date, was best known for his stunning mural works. As you travel around the city, you may see some of his work; a lot of it is painted on civic buildings and also around the university area. Come to the museum to see examples of his murals, with full interpretations written in English and Spanish. Located in the Colonial Center.
Museo Nacional De Arte (National Art Museum) – This museum hosts art from every type and style and technique of Mexican art throughout the 20th century. The building dates back to the early 1900s and has a magnificent marble staircase.
Cathedral and Churches
Mexico’s Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), off the zocalo in the city center is a magnificent work of Spanish colonial architecture, although other parts have been added since its original construction. Engineers have reinforced the cathedral’s foundations to stop it from sinking into Mexico City’s soft foundations (the city was built on top of Lake Texcoco, now drained), which means that scaffolding has had to be erected inside while this work continues, but the cathedral is a must-see on a tour of colonial Mexico City.
One of the most revered religious places in all Mexico is the Basilica de Nuestra Señora Guadalupe. The church is modern and spacious, allowing thousands of worshippers to gather together at once; the legend behind the Image of the Virgin Guadalupe, hanging behind the main altar, is one that every Mexican child knows. Back in 1531, an indigenous boy saw a vision of the Virgin, who told him to tell the local priest that he should build a church on the spot where he was. The priest did not believe the boy’s vision, so he returned to the the spot, when he saw the Virgin for a second time. On this occasion, a gilt-edged imprint of her was miraculously placed on his coat. When he returned, the priest believed him. A microscopic sample of the material the printed image has been sent for tests, but the substance is not identifiable. The ink that makes up the image is also an enigma, and many miracles have surrounded the Virgin’s presence. People from all over Mexico come to worship the Virgin, and many crawl on their knees on the way in to the Basilica itself.
Palacio Nacional (National Palace) – This is where the Finance Minister has his offices (the presidential residence is a place called Los Pinos, southwest of the city center). The land occupied by the Palace has a fascinating history, dating back to the Aztecs. Cortez destroyed the Aztec Palace and built his own, in the Spanish style with large courtyards. Later destroyed by revolutionary riots, it was built again and even now, takes up the entire eastern side of the Zocalo.
Monumento de la Independencia – Probably Mexico City’s No.1 Landmark, situated on a roundabout in Mexico’s downtown area, the Independence Monument is a statue of a gilded angelthat sits atop a tall column. Known as “Angel de la Independencia“, or just “El Angel“. The sculptures that surround the base represent Law, Justice, War and Peace. The Statue was inaugurated in 1910. The monument recently underwent a complete restoration.
Monumento a los Niños Heroes – The Monument to the Young Heroes, in Chapultepec Park , is a bastion of patriotism in Mexico. Six columns represent the six Cadets, who were based at the Castillo de Chapultepec (Castle of Chapultepec), then a military academy. Each wrapped themselves in a Mexican flag and jumped from the castle to their deaths rather than surrender to American troops who had recently stormed the city.
By Air – Mexico City is the main airline hub in Mexico. From the USA, you can fly to Mexico City from cities including Chicago, New York, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and others; From Europe via London, Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid. The airport is quite close to Mexico City on the northeast side of the capital. You can arrange for a shuttle or car to pick you up from the airport (see Airport Transfers, below), or take a taxi from the airport. If you take a taxi, for safety reasons, only take official taxis; you can buy tickets from the booths inside the airport terminal building. For detailed information about flights and flying, see the Mexperience guide to Air Travel in Mexico.
By Bus – You can travel to Mexico City on a luxury bus from main cities and towns across all of Mexico: Mexico City has no less than four bus stations (one at each compass point) and all roads in Mexico lead to Mexico City, as do the bus routes. Some buses travel overnight, allowing you to sleep and make the most of your available time. For detailed information about bus transportation read the Mexperience guide to Bus Travel in Mexico.
By Car – Mexico City is the airline and road hub of the nation; wherever you are in Mexico’s mainland, you’ll see signposts to Mexico City (signed simply as “Mexico“). See additional information about Driving in Mexico and Mexico’s Toll Roads on Mexperience.
Car Rental – To explore Mexico independently, consider renting a car for your visit. Having your own car will give you more flexibility than using public transport options and, in some cases, offer you access to places which are otherwise difficult to visit without the use of a car. Read our guide to Car Rental in Mexico to learn what you need to know about car rental in Mexico and connect to the Mexperience Travel Center to reserve your Rental Car.
Taxis – Mexico City’s Taxis are metered. Taxi travel is very affordable in Mexico, in comparison to the USA, Canada and Europe, and so provides a viable means of public transportation in Mexico. Your hotel can arrange taxis for you; some post their rates on a board in the lobby; taxi hotel rates are usually higher than cabs you hail off the street. If you speak Spanish, you will have a distinct advantage in your negotiations with local taxi drivers. For detailed information, read the Mexperience guide to Taxi Travel in Mexico.
Getting Around the Capital
Traffic Congestion – Mexico City’s traffic is very congested these days. Even with the introduction of “second level” sections of the city’s main ring-road, traffic congestion has reached epidemic proportions. Allow extra time in your schedule to travel around the city—especially during the busiest morning and evening rush hour periods.
Traveling just a few miles can take a long time if you are unlucky; and “rush hour” is no longer restricted to certain times: it’s virtually constant during the weekdays.
Don’t look at the map and assume “that’s close”: It isn’t when you factor in Mexico City’s near-gridlock traffic. This means that you should build-in additional travel time when you’re touring Mexico City—especially getting to and from the airport. The exceptions are: weekend mornings, when traffic levels are much calmer; Easter, during this time the city ’empties out’ and traffic congestion seems to vanish by comparison; Christmas week, the days between Christmas Day and the 30th December traffic levels are also subdued. NB: Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve on the city’s roads are usually a nightmare, as people undertake their last minute shopping and make final preparations for their festive celebrations.
Mexico City Metro – Mexico City’s metro system is quite efficient, and inexpensive to travel on, but it does get very crowded in the mornings and afternoons, during rush hour (6:00am – 9:30am / 4:30pm – 8:30pm).
Watch out for pick-pockets – They work in groups and it’s not just tourists they’re after, but tourists do stick out on the Metro. It’s best to avoid using the Metro after dusk, unless you know the area and you know where you’re going.
Tip for women travelers on the Metro- dress down, and avoid the rush hours on the Metro. Women and children are allocated special carriages on the Metro at peak times on the busiest routes: check for the sign and head for the front or back of the train (it varies).
Metro Travel – General – You’ll find that metro carriages and stations are clean and tidy and that the service is generally efficient. Travel by metro can be faster than traveling by car or taxi if the traffic outside is heavy. During the rainy season (May-October) trains can run considerably slower after rain storms on tracks that run along the surface. The system is similar to the one in Paris, France: rubber tires on flat metal tracks; when it gets wet, trains must slow down to avoid skidding.
Tren Ligero in Mexico City: The southernmost point of the Metro network, at a place called “Taxqueña”, is extended by a tram system called the “Tren Ligero” (Light Train) which can take you from Taxqueña into the heart of Xochimilco. The Tren Ligero gets particularly crowded during the rush hour (6:00am – 9:30am / 4:30pm – 8:30pm), and on days when there is a football soccer match at the Aztec Stadium: the tram has a stop (named Estadio Azteca) which has a bridge leading directly into the stadium grounds. The tram is the best way to get to the stadium, provided that you arrive much earlier than the game is scheduled to start AND leave to catch the tram out before the final whistle blows and the stadium empties out—with tens of thousands of fans heading for the tram system.
Local Buses / Mini Buses – You’ll see green and white minibuses everywhere in Mexico City. They connect the main Metro Lines with the ‘rest of the city’, and literally keep people in the city moving. Without them, getting around Mexico City effectively would be almost impossible without a car. Their costs vary, depending on how far you intend to travel, but are very cheap all the same. As the Metro, they get extremely crowded at rush hour. Also read the article about traveling on a bus/mini bus in Mexico City.
“Metro Bus” Lane on Avenida Insurgentes – Since 2005, the inside lane on each side of the enormous Avenida Insurgentes (at 35 miles long, said to be world’s longest commercial boulevard) was converted into a dedicated “Metro Bus” lane with stations dotted along various points of the central reservation dividing the two sides of the road. To ride the bus, it’s necessary to purchase a plastic card which costs only a few pesos and thereafter is “topped up” with credit at special payment machines and swiped each time you board. The Metro Bus connects the city’s southern area near the Perisur shopping complex (adjacent to the Periferico ring road), through the trendy San Angel area (near the National University – UNAM) in the south, past the World Trade Center and the now hip Colonia Condesa, and then travels all the way to the north of the city to an area known as Indios Verdes. Indio Verdes is one of the capital’s most northerly transport terminals (also a Metro train station) and is situated just inside the city limits. Because of the dedicated lane and priority the Metro Bus is given at intersections, it’s an efficient (and very inexpensive) means to cross this very busy and very congested capital city.
Telephone: Connect to the guide about Communications in Mexico on Mexperience for detailed information about keeping in touch and the latest table of national dialing codes.
Exchanging Currency: Banks with ATM machines can be found throughout Mexico City. During business hours, they and the local Casas de Cambio (exchange houses) will buy traveler’s checks and cash from you as well. For detailed information about exchanging and managing your money, read the Mexperience guide to Money in Mexico.
Travel Insurance: We recommend that you are adequately covered with travel medical insurance and/or travel assistance insurance when you are visiting Mexico. Read the Mexperience guide to Travel Insurance in Mexico for full details and links to specialist insurance suppliers.
Internet Access: Internet cafes can be easily found in towns and cities across Mexico and WiFi is increasingly commonplace–from cafes, shops, hotels, and some cities even offer free WiFi in some defined public spaces.
Traveling by Taxi in Mexico City: Read the important practical and safety advice about traveling in a Taxi in Mexico City on the Mexperience guide to Taxi Travel in Mexico.
What to Wear: Mexico City, like Guadalajara is a ‘conservative dress’ city. Beach clothes, high-cut shorts and sandals are best kept for the beach.
Pollution in Mexico City: Mexico City does suffer with a pollution problem, similar to that of Los Angeles in the USA, and care must be taken, especially by those with respiratory problems. You may get watery eyes, a runny nose and a sore throat; or you may sense nothing, depending on the climate at the time of your visit. November through January tend to be the worst months for pollution. The colder air traps the contamination in the atmosphere, and it can just hang over the city. During the monsoon rainy season (May – September) the afternoon rains really clean the air and leave it refreshed. Windy days have a similar effect. Mexico City is at altitude (2,250m or 7,400 feet above sea level, or put another way, about one and-a-half miles up in the sky!), so when you combine heat, altitude and pollution, you may find yourself easily tired or feeling irritated. The remedy for this is to relax and rest, drink plenty of water, and slow your activity schedule down.
All of the arts, crafts, foods, drink etc. produced throughout Mexico are brought from every state in the country to Mexico City to be sold. The capital city’s ‘internal market’ for Mexican goods is huge —c.22 million consumers— so the domestic market alone is a vibrant one for the traders of these goods.
If your available time to travel to the regions is limited and you want to purchase some kind of regional specialty item from a place you can’t get to (for example, black clay pottery from Oaxaca), Mexico City is an ideal place to procure it—because you’ll be sure to find it here.
Conversely, if you plan to visit the regions, don’t buy anything in Mexico City that you could buy (possibly—directly from the makers for less) in the provinces!
Ask locally at your hotel or even at bars and restaurants about the location of markets, craft centers and specialist suppliers of specific goods in the vicinity. Allow yourself a good half-day to go and find what you want: if you’re really lucky it will be around the corner, but if not, Mexico City is big and getting around can take hours—literally. Getting to your market or craft center, finding what you want, and getting back will take more time than you realize. Don’t look at the map and think: “that’s close”— it isn’t when you factor in Mexico City’s near-gridlock traffic.
Mexico City’s climate is temperate all year-round. Summers are warmer, and temperatures can reach into the high 80s F (low 30s C) during the early afternoons, so if you’re traveling in the summer months, bring light clothes.
Note that it is not that common to see adults wearing shorts and in particular “beach” wear around Mexico City (except at leisure centers, sports clubs, etc). To blend in while walking the streets on hot days, wear light clothes (natural fibers like cotton are ideal) that are not shorts or loud beach attire.
In the winter months, temperatures are spring-like during the daytime, but cooler in the mornings and at night. Bring a sweater and a coat.
The rainy season lasts from May to the end of September. Rains tend to come in the afternoon, are fierce, and leave the evenings dry and cooled off. If you’re traveling during the rainy season, a light, rain-proof overcoat will come in useful.
Weather & Climates in Mexico
Learn more about the weather and climates through the seasons and regions by connecting to the Mexperience guide about Weather and Climates in Mexico