If you happen to look out your window as your plane begins its descent into Mexico City, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed by the sheer expanse of it. With 16 boroughs, this 573-square-mile, elephantine city looks like an endless sprawl from above.
And it doesn’t feel any less intense on the ground.
Mexico City is brimming with vibrant neighborhoods you’ll fall in love with, each with its own trove of unforgettable attractions, experiences and quirks. A year isn’t enough to explore this aesthetically, culturally and gastronomically effervescent city, let alone a week’s vacation.
There are, however, a few basic sites to start with if you’re visiting for the first time.
Metropolitan Cathedral and Zócalo
Strolling up and down the cobblestone streets of the Centro Historico is essential, even if it is the most touristy part of the city.
Make your way to Zocalo, the Main Square, and ponder the fact that, before it housed all those grand Spanish colonial structures, it used to be the center of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
There are five important buildings that border the square, including the National Palace. The most stunning of them, however, is the Metropolitan Cathedral, whose magnificent Baroque façade is just as awe-inspiring as its elaborate interiors. While there, take the time to admire its majestic organ and go on the next tour up the bell tower.
Palacio de Bellas Artes and Alameda Central
While in the Centro Historico, you’ll be hard-pressed to miss the delicate-yet-imposing dome of Palacio de Bellas Artes. The cultural center is one of Mexico City’s most notable landmarks and an exquisite combination of Art Nouveau architecture and Art Deco interior design.
It’s irresistibly beautiful, especially early in the daytime before the crowds arrive.
Afterward, walk around the neighboring Alameda Central. Splendid fountains and outdoor sculptures abound in this tranquil area of green space at the middle of the city. Slip into a quiet and lazy rhythm here, perhaps with a cup of morning coffee from nearby Maison Keyser.
Xochimilco and its Canals
As one of the oldest boroughs in Mexico City—and one of the few remaining ones in the city where old traditions are preserved and still celebrated—it’s not hard to find a reason to visit Xochimilco.
However, many come here primarily to ride a trajinera.
While it might sound a tad too kitschy for some, meandering along the old canals of Xochimilco on a traditional trajinera has its charms. Along the way, you’ll see blooming gardens, “floating” houses and boat vendors selling drinks, chips and roasted corn. Pack a feast, rent a trajinera by the hour and, with a glass of cerveza in your hand, allow yourself to soak in the slow pace.
Museo Frida Kahlo and Coyoacan
Few Mexican artists are as prominent as Frida Kahlo, who is iconic just as much for her fascinating work as her avant-garde style. A visit to her charming, yet humble home-turned-museum is a must for any Mexico City vacation. Set in Coyoacan, the Frida Kahlo Museum is as educational as it is full of Instagrammable spots.
Next, take some time to explore the neighborhood. There’s so much to love about colorful Coyoacan, where modest, Spanish colonial houses—painted vibrantly—are decorated with flowering bougainvillea, impressive doors and cool street art. See the inside of Parroquia San Juan Bautista and pop into Café El Jarocho for a cup of blended cappuccimocha.
More than anything else, Mexico City is known for its dynamic and formidable culinary scene. It’s home to many amazing restaurants that serve creative, modern takes on classic fare as well as great spots for traditional Mexican cuisine.
Places to consider include upscale Quintonil in the neighborhood of Polanco, Corazon de Maguey in Coyoacan, and Dulce Patria, which makes the most elaborate dishes you’ll ever feast on.