Here’s How to Navigate Big and Colorful Mexico City

Tap into all that energy without getting exhausted.

A rainbow of chaos and colors paints Mexico City throughout the year, from the purple jacaranda blossoms in spring to the sunny marigolds of Day of the Dead in fall, and daily in Xochimilco's festively decorated boats and the glittering masks of lucha libre wrestlers at Arena Mexico.

The size and density of Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) brings everything together. Some of the world’s best restaurants line the same streets dotted with humble, delicious taco stands. Traditional crafts share gallery walls with famous artists. And hundreds of museums show off the country’s cultural niches and rich Indigenous roots.

Visitors often start at Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, but that only begins the journey into the artistic soul of the city. Because no matter how much time you plan to spend in Mexico City, there are more things to do, art to see, and tacos to eat. This guide at least gets you started.

Only in Mexico City for a day?

We've got you! Check out the condensed—but still awesome—version of this travel guide, featuring only the must-see and must-do itinerary items.

zocalo mexico city
Palacio de Bellas Artes is just down the street from Zócalo. | Richie Chan/Shutterstock

Start at the center

Mexico City’s grand scale and immense cultural wealth smack you in the face as soon as you exit from the Zócalo metro station—a perfect welcome to one of the world’s biggest cities. The enormous main square anchors the Centro Histórico and the city itself, with the 16th century Catedral Metropolitana on the northern perimeter and the Palacio Nacional to the east; free entry makes them both easy first stops. One of the biggest and oldest cathedrals in Latin America, the Metropolitana’s gilded interior brims with art and artifacts, while the latter boasts one of Diego Rivera’s most impressive and famous series of murals, “The History of Mexico.”

Tucked between the two and set back from the main square sits the archeological site that preserves the ruins of the Templo Mayor. Spanish colonizers disassembled most of the buildings erected by the area’s Indigenous people, reusing the materials from the Mexican city of Tenochtitlan in nearby structures (like the cathedral). At the archeological site, you can see a portion of the temple dating back to the 14th century from the free viewing platform, or pay to enter the Museo del Templo Mayor to see thousands of artifacts and learn about the excavation that began when electrical workers stumbled on them in the 1970s.

Continue down the pedestrian street of Avenida Madero from the Zócalo’s western edge to the iconic orange dome of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which hosts various shows befitting the fine arts of its name, including the Ballet Folklórico (livelier than the name implies to English speakers). But show or no, the murals covering the interior walls and rotating art exhibits deserve a stop before you take a break among the inviting benches and shady trees of the neighboring Alameda Central park.

Miles of trees lead you to Castillo de Chapultepec at the pinnacle of the park. | Indivicdual/Shutterstock

Spend a day at Chapultepec Park

The Alameda park sits just off Reforma, the grand boulevard Emperor Maximilian built leading to his residence at Chapultepec Castle—now a National History Museum. The castle sits on a hill inside the Bosque de Chapultepec, a 2,000-acre green space that counteracts the paved valley around it. Walking paths wind through the park’s forests, playgrounds, more than 100 monuments, and about a dozen museums.

Keep an eye on the time at the National Anthropology Museum, lest you accidentally spend an entire day of your trip wandering the world’s largest collection of ancient Mexican art and watching performers demonstrate the traditional “Dance of the Flyers” atop a 100-foot pole. Follow it up with a quick stroll through the Museo Tamayo, a contemporary art museum with works made by and owned by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, including from Calder, Rothko, Dalí, Picasso, and similarly lauded names. The neighboring Modern Art Museum also features works by Tamayo, as well as Kahlo and Rivera.

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Eat every salsa you see in CDMX. | micompachava

Eat through the wealth of dishes in one of the best foodie cities in the world

In the age-old argument about the world’s great food cities, Mexico dominates in at least one way: good food is everywhere. Stands line the sidewalks whirring fresh juices, expertly patting out frijoles-filled tlacoyos, and ladling up warm champurrado.

The city’s best restaurants deserve their fame. Dishes range from street-fare to high-end at Quintonil’s nine-course tasting menu, whereas Masala y Maíz invents its own cuisine from the intersections of Mexican and Indian cooking.

But one of the absolute best ways to spend an afternoon in Mexico City and explore outside the well-trod tourist track is to pick a neighborhood, wander, and just eat tacos for a few hours. Schedule a taco dinner if your trip spans a Sunday. Most restaurants close that night, but the stands along Bucareli near Calle Articulo 123 don’t, nor does El Vilsito in the Narvarte, home to top-notch tacos al pastor.

Reserve Sunday morning for barbacoa, the time-intensive pit-cooked lamb dish sold in the street and at specialists such as Barbacoa Renato’sEl Hidalguense, and Los Tres Reyes. But breakfast in CDMX deserves your attention every day, from the ceramic ollas full of stews and lardy eggs and beans at Fonda Margarita to the ethereally light tamales at Doña Emi.

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Don't limit yourself to just tacos when there are so many tasty tostadas. | masalaymaiz

Eat lunch fashionably late at Mexico City’s old school charmers, where classic elegance and formal service meet fantastic food. Nico’s deeply researches heirloom corn before nixtamalizing it for pozole, serves tableside guacamole, and brings mezcal on a roving cart. El Cardenal turns dairy from its own ranch into incredible cheeses and creams (dip your concha pastry into the nata) and features seasonal specialties like ant eggs.

Contramar epitomizes the see-and-be-seen Saturday lunch tradition while showing off the city’s stunning seafood in its much-imitated tuna tostadas. On the other side of the Roma, Mi Compa Chava takes a trendier approach, with long lines for its lip-searing shrimp aguachiles and eye-catching cocktails crowned with fresh-shucked oysters.

In the evening, explore more elaborate cocktails at below-ground bar Xaman, or tone it down and taste your way through Tlecan’s small, precise menu of artisanal mezcals. Mexico’s non-alcoholic drinks take center stage at La Rifa Chocolatería and Yonke, a coffee shop that offers “Popurrí,” a progressive tasting of Mexican coffee.

Mercado de Jamaica is a 24-hour frenzy of flower shops, food, and gifts. | Linka A Odom/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Shop for souvenirs and ceramics

Finding the 20-foot iPhone cord or scratch-made mole paste you want at the Mercado de La Merced requires navigating many blocks of colorful plastic trinkets. If you aren’t easily overwhelmed, simply go and wander—plan to exit by subway, which is always easy to find. If you find it to be too much, skip it or hire a guide. (The same warning applies to the equally entertaining Sunday flea market at La Lagunilla.) Otherwise, explore at your own pace at the more manageable Mercado Medellín, and make sure to stop for a snack from the ladies patting out blue corn antojitos just outside each door. Bring home some of the colors of Mexico City from the floral wonderland of Mercado Jamaica, the sweet-smelling 24-hour flower market. Beyond the blooms, it sells all sorts of food and party supplies, including all sorts of creative piñatas.

Search for souvenirs at the dozens of stalls filling La Ciudadela Mercado de Artesanías with all kinds of crafts and clothes from around the country. Much of the same stuff sells elsewhere, likely cheaper, but the variety and convenience helps tourists on a timeline. With time to explore, check out The Green Door in the Santa Maria, which sells a nice selection of Mexican handicrafts.

Peregrinas Natural specializes in artisanal food, particularly honey, but that extends to interesting small-batch edible souvenirs and kitchen-related handicrafts, including colorful ceramics. Ceramics enthusiasts should also make their way to Anfora’s warehouse for a huge selection of affordable basics or make an appointment at Valtierra for beautiful, unique art pieces.

best hotels mexico city
So many affordable options put you right in the heart of Mexico City. | Le Méridien Mexico City

Where to stay in Mexico City

Skip the AirBnB for the many convenient hotels in CDMX. At these easy lodgings, you can mine the knowledge of a concierge to confirm erratic restaurant hours or navigate ticket sites that hate foreign credit cards (looking at you, Casa Azul). Embrace the incredible value and gluttonous availability in Mexico City’s hotelscape at gems like the Red Tree House, which combines hostel-style friendliness with wine-bar maturity in the heart of the trendy Condesa. In the Centro, Circulo Mexicano brims with understated luxury using modern, local craftsmanship, and the swanky rooftop bar overlooks the neighboring Templo Mayor and Catedral Metropolitana. Halfway in-between, just north of the Juarez, the all-suite Le Méridien offers plenty of space to spread out and puts both the tourist sites of the Centro and restaurants of the Roma within walking distance.

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Naomi Tomky is a contributor for Thrillist.