4 Ways to Explore the Charismatic Chaos of Mexico City

With a population of 9 million people, Mexico City’s vastness can feel overwhelming. Where should a traveler even begin to explore? Local Lauren Cocking shares her tips.

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Photo © Getty Images / Starcevic

Ask 10 different people for their thoughts on Mexico City and you’ll get 10 different answers, so impossible is it to put together a cohesive, comprehensive overview of the massive megalopolis that is the Mexican capital. I didn’t take to it instantly. It’s big, it’s chaotic, and it can all be, honestly, a bit much. But it grows on you, getting under your skin until one day you look up and realize that, actually, it feels like home.

First-timers, with no connections in the city, typically beeline for the well-established, central neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa. It’s understandable. They’re overflowing with amenities and accommodation, and offer proximity to some of the best art galleries, restaurants, and bars in the capital. They’re fun and photogenic places to be, replete with Art Deco architecture and some of the best street art in the capital. I always send people there if it’s their inaugural visit, although I also gently suggest they venture into the nearby Juárez neighborhood for hot chocolate and tamales, too.

However, if there’s one thing I quickly learned in my time in Mexico City, it’s that there’s no way you can do everything in one trip, or even one lifetime. But you can try.

Start With the Food

It’s the main attraction in the capital and while the Polanco, Roma, and Condesa neighborhoods are known for some of the best restaurants in the country, skip the "elevated" dining scene and instead eat street-side, perched on plastic stools. Tacos, tlacoyos, tortas, tamales (and a few dishes that don’t start with ‘T’) are sold morning, noon and night, right across the city. Eating unites, so just look for the stands with a long line of locals waiting to be served and you’re good to go.

Street tacos. Photo credit: Getty Images / Jon Lovette

Move On to the Art

The Coyoacán neighborhood is an obvious bet, famed for being the one-time home of Frida Kahlo, and it was always my favourite place to escape for an afternoon. Skip Sundays though, when it gets busy as hell and go midweek instead to enjoy your churros, coffee or mayo-and-cheese-smothered elotes in the relative peace and quiet of the central plaza. And while you’re in the vicinity, hop from Coyoacán to neighboring Xoco, to take advantage of a daytime screening of [insert arthouse film that takes your fancy here] at the Cineteca Nacional.

I always like to namedrop the UNAM Campus to potential visitors too, because what better way to make myself seem cultured. It’s a place with a fascinating, revolutionary reputation (check out the Central Library and its Juan O’Gorman murals, and the sculpture park), as well as being something of a hotspot for urban murals. For photo-ops that go beyond Roma, this is the (quieter) place to be.

I can’t not mention the trajineras (canal boats) in the floating gardens of Xochimilco. You’ve probably heard of them, and taking a ride through the canals of the capital while you’re in town does make for a fun afternoon. Don’t believe the hype about the Isla de las Muñecas (Island of Dolls) though – it sounds creepy-cool but in reality you won’t get to see much.

Trajineras (canal boats). Photo credit: Getty Images / Orbon Alija

Avoid the Tourists

If you’d rather go somewhere with fewer tourists, then Santa María la Ribera should be next up. While there’s generally little appeal to the northern neighborhoods of Mexico City, this is the exception which proves the rule and became my go-to barrio when I fancied something different. (Full disclosure: that something different usually involved hanging out at the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, whose shelves – like a space-age Harry Potter set – seem to float in mid-air. My other go-to library is the little-visited, mural-tastic Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada in the centro histórico.)

Palacio de Bellas Artes. Photo credit: Getty Images / Starcevic

Don’t Miss the Historic Center

Give yourself an afternoon in the historic center. While rough and ready at times, you can’t leave without having stopped by the sinking cathedral and the cluster of impressive buildings which fan out from the central square, aka the zocalo. It also means you can mosey over to Parque Alameda, the most peaceful people-watching spot you’re going to get right in the heart of Latin America’s most densely-populated capital city. While away a few hours doing not very much, and then pay a visit to my two favorite buildings in Mexico City: the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Torre Latino Americana skyscraper. Whiz up to the glass-walled, 41st-floor bar of the latter for an impressive view out over the shimmering tiled roof of the former.

There’s really nothing that compares to living in Mexico City. Like I said, it gets under your skin.

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