Mexico City travel guide
Sprawling across a valley encircled by ice-capped volcanoes and mountains, atop an ancient Aztec civilisation, Mexico City is North America's highest city, and one of the world's most densely populated. With a long and fascinating history that runs from ancient native civilisations through to the invasion of the Conquistadors and subsequent colonial rule, Mexico City has a vast number of fascinating sights and attractions.
In the city centre, constructed out of the stones of the ancient palaces and temples, is the vast open space of the Zocalo - the main city square - said to be the second largest in the world after Moscow's Red Square. At La Merced you'll discover the city's largest and most vibrant market, with a vast array of bizarre and exciting stalls, while the huge expanse of the Bosque de Chapultepec park houses the National Museum of Anthropology, with a fascinating collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts. At Teotihuac visitors will discover one of the most impressive and mysterious archaeological sites in Mexico, constructed by an ancient, and long forgotten culture.
The sprawling capital of Mexico is a place to both love and hate, with everything you'd anticipate in a large city. It has some world-class museums and galleries, a remarkable architectural legacy and elegant buildings, palaces and cathedrals, green open spaces and colonial suburbs, historical ruins, attractive squares, modern skyscrapers and great economic, cultural and political importance. It also has poverty, overcrowding and slums, incredible pollution, traffic congestion, crime, unemployment, and a constant cacophony of people and noise. It is exhilarating, frenetic and fascinating, overflowing with all that is good and bad about urban life.
Despite its problems and somewhat bewildering energy Mexico City is a magnet for Mexicans and tourists alike: a modern, cosmopolitan and ever growing city that is attractive in many ways. Despite its renown for the appalling, throat-rasping levels of pollution, Mexico City's skies often remain remarkably clear, and the smog does make for incredible sunsets.
In the middle of the Mexico City's historic centre is the
enormous paved Plaza de la Constitucion, or Zocalo, the second
largest city square in the world, and Mexico City's centre of
government and religion. The Presidential Palace dominates one side
of the square, a magnificent colonial building that was built on
the site of the former Aztec Palace, with remarkable interior
murals narrating the story of Mexico's history. Dominating an
adjacent side of the square is the great Metropolitan Cathedral,
displaying a wealth of architectural styles and occupying the site
of the once sacred grounds of the Aztec. The ornate interior
contains its chief treasure, the King's Chapel and gilded altar.
The Cathedral is one of the buildings subsiding into the soft
ground on which the city is built and builders are continuously at
work to prevent its uneven descent.
The square itself is always filled with activity, with vendors and buskers, informal traditional Aztec dance performances, family groups, workers on lunch break and passing tourists. It is also the main site for demonstrations, government rallies and protest marches (which tourists are advised to avoid), as well as festivals and public holiday events. Every evening the presidential guards, in a show of great ceremony, lower the national flag from the central flagpole. The square is constantly encircled by the city's ubiquitous green Volkswagen taxis, and is a good starting point for those wanting to explore the city.
Templo Mayor (Great Temple) was the principal temple of the Aztecs, believed to mark the centre of the universe. It was part of the sacred complex of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, and today it has been excavated to show the multiple layers of construction, viewed from a raised walkway with extra explanatory material available in the form of audio guides and tour guides. The temple was first built in 1375, and enlarged several times, each rebuilding accompanied by a frenzied bloody sacrifice of captured warriors to rededicate the sacred area. At the centre is a platform on which stands a sacrificial stone in front of the shrine to the tribal god, Huizilopochtli. Within the site is the excellent Museo del Templo Mayor, a museum displaying artefacts from the original site and providing an overview of Aztec civilisation. The most important display is the first artefact to be discovered on the site, the great wheel-like stone carving of the Aztec goddess of the moon, Coyilxauhqui. The entrance fee covers admission to both the museum and the archaeological site. Photography is permitted, but there is an additional charge for those wanting to take video footage. There is a book store and museum shop for those wanting to buy souvenirs.
Address: Seminario 8, Historical District
Transport: Take metro to Zocalo. Templo Mayor is off Zocalo, to the right of the city cathedral if you face it.
Opening time: Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm.
Formerly a separate village, San Angel is one of the more charming of Mexico's suburbs, an exclusive neighbourhood with ancient mansions and colonial houses along cobbled streets. It is famed for its Saturday craft market in the pretty Plaza San Jacinto, which brings colour, crowds and a festive atmosphere to the area, and has excellent art and handicrafts for sale. The suburb is crammed with little restaurants and cafes, offering the city's best dining experiences, albeit expensive. There are several museums of interest, including the Studio Museum of Mexico, which boasts great exhibits on famous Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The El Carmen complex is one of the prime attractions of the neighbourhood: El Carmen consists of a lovely triple-domed church, a former monastery, school buildings, and a museum. The monastery was founded in 1613 and the church was built by 1626. The museum is one of the most visited in the city and exhibits a number of historical artefacts from the complex, a collection of colonial era art, and a crypt area dedicated to mummies which attracts many curious tourists. San Angel is surrounded by a volcanic rock bed called the Pedregal, formed in a long-ago volcanic eruption and parts of this unusual landscape have been declared protected areas where visitors can see the endemic flora and fauna.
Address: Southwest of Mexico City
The Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) is the city's major dining, nightlife and shopping district. It is a compact area, a dense knot of streets crammed with bars, shops, boutiques, restaurants and hotels. The streets are all named for famous cities such as Londres and Hamburgo and the best activity here is to people watch from a chic sidewalk café, as the endless stream of tourists and a mixture of the city's purposeful middle classes pass by. The district has subtly shifted in its appeal recently and whereas it was once a fashionable hub for youth and the upper classes, the Zona Rosa is now also frequented by the city's gay community and tourists. The symbol of Mexico City, a gilded statue of Winged Victory which is the Independence Monument, looms above the district and is one of the city's most photographic features. Although there is plenty of accommodation available in the area, travellers are advised that it can be noisy at night and is best suited to those who will be enjoying the revelry and making the noise. Tourists should also watch out for pickpockets and opportunistic street crimes, as thieves do tend to target the area. Do not walk alone at night or publicly display wealth.
Transport: Line 1 on the metro to Insurgentes Station
Situated 31 miles (50km) from Mexico City, the UNESCO World
Heritage Site of Teotihuacan is the site of Mexico's largest
ancient city, constructed by a long forgotten culture, and dating
from around 300-600 BC. It is believed that after thriving for
about 2,000 years, a great fire caused the city to be abandoned and
the Aztecs arrived in the region to find a forsaken city.
Recognising signs of its previous magnificence they named it what
it is today, Teotihuacan, 'place of the gods'.
The central thoroughfare of Teotihuacan is the Avenue of the Dead, a 1.3-mile (2km) stretch lined with the palaces of the elite and connecting the three main site areas, the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Citadel. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world, a huge red painted structure built over a cave, found to contain religious artefacts relating to sun worship. From the top of the stairs the views over the ruins are fantastic. The smaller but more graceful Pyramid of the Moon is situated at one end of the Avenue, with an altar in the plaza believed to have been used for religious dancing. The Citadel at the other end of the Avenue is a large square complex that was the residence of the city's ruler. Within the walls is its main feature, the Templo de Quetzalcoatl, and some striking serpent carvings. The Tepantitla Palace holds Teotihuacan's most famous fresco, the faded 'Paradise of Tlaloc'. There is a museum housing excellent displays of the city's artefacts, models and explanatory diagrams of the site.
Transport: Teotihuacan bus departs from Gate 8 of Mexico Citys Terminal del Norte every half hour
Opening time: Tuesday to Sunday 9am-5pm.
Guanajuato is considered to be one of Mexico's colonial gems,
founded around the rich silver deposits discovered by the Spanish
in 1558. It is a city of history, where the cry of rebellion
against the Spanish was raised and the struggle for Independence
began, a history of wealthy silver barons and oppressed Indian
miners. The city has an unusual layout, crammed into a narrow
valley, with houses and streets forced into irregular positions due
to the naturally hilly topography. Brightly painted
higgledy-piggledy houses perch on the slopes, reached by narrow
crooked alleyways of cobbled stone, hidden plazas, steep irregular
stairways, underground tunnels and thoroughfares lend the city much
of its charming character.
Along with its picturesque setting and unusual beauty, Guanajuato has many historical buildings and magnificent architecture, including several churches and museums, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most narrow, and most visited, alley is the Callejón del Beso (Alley of the Kiss) where the balconies of the leaning houses on either side almost touch each other, a feature in the local romantic legend about furtive lovers exchanging kisses. Cultural events are an important part of the city, which hosts several festivals during the year. Every weekend the famous strolling musicians, or callejoneadas, in traditional dress, lead processions through the narrow winding alleyways, strumming, singing and telling stories to the crowds that follow.
Transport: Bus from Mexico City (about four hours).
Marking the end of the festive season, 40 days after Christmas, Candlemas Day (Candelaria) is a nationwide traditional celebration, partly a Catholic tradition and partly a pre-Hispanic ritual. The day is primarily a family celebration and a time of reunions and religious worship; often a chosen member of each family hosts a party, offering tasty tamales and atole (a beverage made from corn). There are numerous street parades with groups carrying representations of Baby Jesus to church where special masses are held. This aspect of the festival is clearly a nod to the Jewish tradition of waiting 40 days to present a newborn baby at the temple, which is the origin of the Catholic celebration. The 2nd of February is also the mid-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is therefore a date celebrated in many cultures as a marker of seasonal change (for instance, Groundhog Day). The festival is celebrated all over Mexico but places like Mexico City, Veracruz and Tlacotalpan host the biggest markets, street parties, and bullfights, turning the religious celebration into a festive, public affair; whereas the smaller towns and villages often restrict their celebrations to the church and home.
Venue: Streets and churches throughout the city; Date:2 February annually;
Mexicans celebrate the anniversary of their independence from Spain with great gusto, particularly in Mexico City where the Zocalo (main plaza) fills with throngs of people from early morning the day before the event, as spectators await the appearance of the president on the balcony of the National Palace. The president duly appears to shout 'the Cry', a re-enactment of the 1810 call to independence by Father Hidalgo. The original Cry or Grito was pronounced in the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato, and marked the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. Mexico only became officially independent after more than a decade of war, in 1821. The emotional crowd replies with 'Viva!' to the president's re-enactment and the city erupts with excitement, abuzz with street parties and fireworks. Most towns, villages and cities have similar gatherings in their central squares, with lots of festive paraphernalia like confetti and whistles in the Mexican colours of green, white and red. The following day a three-hour military parade begins at the Zocalo in Mexico City and ends at the Angel monument on the Paseo de la Reforma. Independence Day is one of Mexico's biggest celebrations, if not the biggest, and it is a wonderful time to be in the country!
Venue: Zocalo and city streets; Date:15 - 16 September annually;
Day of the Dead
A Mexican tradition with Aztec roots is the honouring of the departed with traditions that nowadays closely resemble those of Halloween celebrated to the north. The main function of the holiday is to celebrate the memory of the departed with prayers, parties and visits to graves. In most regions of Mexico November 1st is celebrated in honour of lost children and infants, whereas November 2nd is in honour of dead adults; for this reason the first day is actually called Dia de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents. The Mexican celebrations coincide, aptly, with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. In Mexico City markets and stores are liberally stocked with flowers, candy skulls, paper skeletons and candles. Processions are made to cemeteries, where vigils or even parties are held and the favourite foods and possessions of dead relatives are often left at their graves. Visitors to Mexico City who want to make the most of the celebration should head for Mixquic, a mountain pueblo south of the city, which hosts an elaborate street fair and solemn processions to the town cemetery. Travellers should note that although the Day of the Dead looks similar to Halloween, and does often involve parties and happy celebrations, it is essentially a sombre holiday which has deep meaning for participants and shouldn't be taken lightly by foreigners.
Venue: Various; Date:1 - 2 November annually;
Migration of the Monarch Butterflies
In Autumn each year the Monarch butterflies gather in southern Canada and begin a journey across North America to Mexico. The insects that begin the journey in Canada will never see Mexico, but their great- great- grandchildren will eventually make it to the small town of Angangueo in Michoacan province some 3100 miles (5000km) from the start of this epic journey. Like the butterflies, tourists flock to the small town of Angangueo to see the millions of bright orange butterflies obscuring the sky and some say you can literally hear their wings beating. The annual migration of the Monarch butterflies is one of nature's great mysteries and continues to baffle biologists and nature lovers worldwide. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Only some areas within the reserve are open to the public and tours can be organised to see the incredible spectacle from the city of Morelia (visit the Tourism Office for information). Getting to the right area in the reserve takes about 45 minutes on foot or shorter on horseback. The best time to see the butterflies is between January and March each year. Don't forget your camera!
Venue: The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve; Date:February and March annually;
Cinco de Mayo
On every Fifth of May (Cinco de Mayo) in the state of Puebla, the famous Battle of Puebla is commemorated with traditional music, dancing and general festivities. The battle saw a far outnumbered Mexican army defeat a large and better equipped French army on 5 May 1862. The French invading force, then considered the strongest army in the world, encountered fierce resistance from Mexican defenders at the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, with the 4,500 Mexican troops unexpectedly defeating the 8,000-strong French force. Ironically, the day is probably more celebrated in the United States than it is in Mexico, in a similar fashion to the celebrations of St. Patrick's Day. Even the name Cinco de Mayo is used more by the US, as the Mexicans often call the festival El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla. For the US, the battle came to symbolise the fight for freedom and democracy and was an inspiration during the American Civil War; today, in the US, Cinco de Mayo is a general celebration of Mexican heritage and pride, when Mexican food, music and folk traditions are embraced. In Mexico the battle is still commemorated enthusiastically, mainly with street fiestas and parades, but the epicentre of the festivities is in Puebla.
Venue: Puebla, east of Mexico City; Date:5 May annually;
By far one of the world's most popular, fun and colourful cuisines, fiery Mexican fare is loved by many and is one of the most distinctive styles of food. With plenty of spice and flavour it packs a real punch! What westerners know as 'Mexican food' includes dishes such as Nachos, Burritos, Enchiladasand fajitas, tortillasand tacos,but there is plenty more on offer when dining out in Mexico City.
Food varies greatly by region in Mexico and this is largely due to the difference in Spanish influence on the indigenous inhabitants. The north of Mexico is known for its beef, goat and ostrich dishes, the Yucatan for its penchant for natural sweetness, the Oaxacan for its savoury tamales, and the west for its dishes like goat birria(goat in a spicy tomato-based sauce). Mexico City is a wonderful melting pot for these culinary traditions and the best place to sample the variety of Mexican food.
For an authentic Mexican dining experience, look no further than one of the old converted Haciendas, such as Hacienda de los Morales or Antigua Hacienda de Tlalpan on the outskirts of Mexico City, which are actual ranches that have been converted into restaurants. With charming décor, historic architecture and mouth-watering cuisine, these kinds of restaurants attract travellers from far and wide.
Street food is perhaps the most ubiquitous type of food in Mexico City where fast food outlets and puestas(street side food vendors) pepper the streets selling all the usual favourites for very reasonable prices. However, the Central Market, La Merced and the Mercado San Juan Arcos de Belem,are the best places to go to indulge on really good, really cheap Mexican fare.
Being in the capital city there are, of course, hundreds of restaurants to choose from where everything from Indian and French to Japanese and Irish cuisine can be enjoyed. Foodies should head for the districts of Polanco, Condesa, Centro, Zona Rosa and Sante Fe to gorge themselves at some of the country's finest restaurants on regional cuisines or just a good old taco.
Tipping in restaurants is the norm, with 10 percent of the bill being a good rule of thumb. Lunches are generally long and lazy and much cheaper than dinners. Travellers should note that most restaurants offer a comida corrida(set menu) and this is a great way of getting a good hearty meal at a reasonable price.
Angelopolitano is a fairly new but very popular restaurant which serves classic Mexican dishes with a modern gourmet twist. The setting is trendy and intimate and the portions are generous and extremely tasty. Downstairs there is a restaurant store selling traditional Mexican preserves and sauces of high quality. They serve lunch and dinner daily, open between 12pm and 11.30pm.
Address: Puebla 371, Colonia Roma, Mexico City;
Café de Tacuba
Dating back to 1912, Café Tacuba has a very colonial atmosphere, its décor featuring brass lamps, oil paintings and a mural of nuns working in a kitchen. The authentic Mexican menu offers traditional dishes including tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and pozole, while their pastries and hot chocolate are legendary. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner; reservations recommended.
Address: 28 Tacuba, Centro Histórico; Website: www.cafedetacuba.com.mx
Cantina La Guadalupana
albóndigas(meatballs). Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner; reservations recommended.
Address: 2 Higuera and Caballo Calco, Coyoacán;
La Opera is a luxurious dining venue with dark wood booths and linen-covered tables, its décor featuring gilded baroque ceilings and beautiful oil paintings. An added feature is the bullet hole which revolutionary general, Pancho Villa, supposedly put in the ceiling when he galloped into the restaurant on horseback. The menu offers an array of sumptuous cuisine including Spanish tapas and red snapper with olives and tomatoes. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, and Sunday for lunch. Reservations recommended.
Address: 10 Cinco de Mayo, Centro Histórico;
langostinos(baby crayfish). Open daily for lunch and dinner; reservations recommended.
Address: 3 Republica de Uruguay, Centro Historico; Website: www.danubio.com
Nightlife options in Mexico City are vast and varied, ranging from piano bars, music lounges and traditional Mexican bars to salsa and jazz clubs or trendy nightclubs. San Angel, Polanco, Condesa and La Zona Rosa are popular nightlife areas in the city, and there are many late night venues that are open till the early hours. There is a weekend entertainment guide in The News, available at local newsagents, which can be useful.
Popular nightlife areas in Mexico City include the Condesa district, as well as Polanco. Here you can find anything from English and Irish pubs, to sophisticated clubs with great jazz music and authentic Mariachi venues scattered everywhere in between. Some of the best nightclubs in Mexico City are all located in the Roma district, while many of the top hotels in Mexico City offer live entertainment at their in-house discos and lobby bars. It is safest not to walk around alone at night in the city and only official, pre-ordered taxi cabs should be used.
Shopping in Mexico City is a fun experience promising authentic local crafts as well as all the major brands and stores one might expect in any big capital. The best Mexican souvenirs tend to be Talavera tiles and ceramics, embroidered garments, sterling silver jewellery and accessories, and hand-woven rugs and blankets.
One of the most popular shopping areas in Mexico City is the Centro Historico, home to most of the city's original stores, while La Zona Rosa is also well established and the popular shopping centre Reforma 222 can be found there. Avenida Insurgentes and Avenida Jaurez also offer a wealth of shopping opportunities. Most recently, the La Condesa and Polanco areas have developed as strong retail centres. Centro Santa Fe, in the western part of the city, is the largest shopping centre in Latin America, while the upscale Perisur shopping mall to the south is also a good stop.
Malls are essentially the same all over the world, but the city's markets reveal more character. There are many markets in Mexico City offering handicrafts, including the San Juan Market of Mexican Curiosities and the Mercado la Ciudadela in Centro Historico, as well as the Bazar Sabado (Saturday Bazaar) in San Angel. Fonart outlets throughout the city also sell local crafts such as hand-painted crockery and blown glass.
Most shops in Mexico City are open from 9am to 8pm, with smaller shops taking a break between 2pm and 4pm. The 15 percent VAT charged on goods can be reclaimed at the airport on purchases exceeding 1200 pesos. Travellers must present a completed reimbursement request form, banking information, passport, immigration form (visa, tourist card), plane ticket, purchase receipts and goods purchased.
Mexico City International Airport
Location: The airport is situated six miles (10km) east of Mexico City.
Time: Local time is GMT -6 (GMT -5 between the first Sunday in April and the second last Sunday in October).
Contacts: Tel: +52 (0)2482 2424.
Transfer between terminals: Passengers can ride the free Air Train between the two terminals. The general public have to take the public transportation bus between the terminals at a nominal charge.
Getting to the city: The Mexico City Metro subway system links the airport to downtown Mexico City. There are also suburban bus services including Autobuses del Oriente (ADO) and Autobuses Estrella Roja. Some hotels offer a pick-up service; however, it is worth checking their charge as it is generally cheaper to take a taxi.
Car rental: Car rental companies include Avis, Budget and National.
Airport Taxis: Taxis are regulated and passengers can pay in advance at the taxi counter in Arrivals. Authorized taxis are mustard yellow with an aeroplane logo. It takes about 45 minutes to the city centre.
Facilities: Facilities at the airport include ATMs, banks, bureaux de change, business facilities, a post office, restaurants, shops, hotel reservations and tourist information.
Parking: Parking at Mexico City International Airport is charged at MXN 44 per hour, up to a limit of MXN 288 per day.
Departure tax: US$18 to US$38.
The efficient and very cheap public transport system makes Mexico City surprisingly easy to get around; it consists of the metro, buses, trolley buses and minibuses (peseros). The metro is the best method of travel, being fast and easy to use (6am to midnight), but bus routes are also very extensive and the buses are generally reliable, although more complicated for non-Spanish speakers to use. Peseros are smaller, more comfortable, and faster than buses, but slightly more expensive, and can be stopped anywhere along their set routes. All forms of public transport are heavily crowded during peak hours and are best avoided at this time. Visitors should also be aware that crime levels are high on all buses and the metro, particularly when crowded; visitors should avoid travel on public transport at night and should take care of their possessions. Visitors should not hail taxis on the streets. Most hotels have official taxi drivers assigned to them or hotels and restaurants can call radio taxis, both of which are more expensive but safer and more reliable. Driving in the city is a nightmare and cars should be left in secure parking; renting is expensive and lone drivers are prone to criminal assaults at night.
Mexico City has a subtropical highland climate, with warm summers and mild winters, and an annual average temperature of 64°F (18°C). Seasonal variations in temperature are small, but May is the warmest month of the year, and January the coldest, when night frosts are possible. The average maximum temperatures of late spring and summer may reach up to 77°F (25°C), and the average low winter temperatures reach 45°F (7°C). Mexico City has a high average annual rainfall, most falling in summer, the wettest month being July, and the driest month February. Even during the summer rainy season, travellers are likely to get plenty of sunshine between showers. Mexico City suffers from terrible air pollution and the city is often smoggy, with poor visibility. This air pollution is at its worst during winter. The city is a year-round travel destination, but the best time to visit Mexico City is in the spring months of April and May.
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