Mexico City is a sprawling city with so many neighborhoods and attractions and history that it’s not possible to see it all on a quick trip. That said, this blog entry will give you some ideas on historic and modern cultural points of interest at affordable prices.
My husband Tedly’s take on Mexico City is that it’s like New York City at a fraction of the price. Ride a tour bus on a 24-hour pass for seven bucks. Get panoramic views from a skyscraper for a few dollars. Enter a museum with amazing history for three dollars. See amazing art by one of the country’s most well-known artists — for free.
On our visit this year, we were in town two full days. What we saw and where we went are covered below. We also spent several days in Mexico City last year, but I never got around to writing a blog entry about the first visit, so a few highlights are included from that time, as well.
This list is by no means exhaustive – and we have been to many more places than is on this list, such as Teotihuacan — the ruins to the north of the city. That can be a whole day trip. We took the public bus and didn’t take an official tour, so we did that for about $10 each.
So while this is not all inclusive of ideas, any combination of the sites below could make for an excellent overview of Mexico City on time and money budgets. Take your pick and make your quick trip to this vibrant city a memorable one.
Let’s start by getting around because not everything is in the same section of the city. Let me also tell you that I always felt safe on the subway lines we took. Mexico City’s subway is easy to navigate. Look at the map here.
An interesting point – there are subway cars for women only. Usually it’s the front of the platform marked by ‘women only’ signs colored pink. This is a theme in Mexico. I’ve also seen ‘women only’ seating on buses that go long distances. The idea being, men can be dogs and women deserve peace. I so love Mexico.
Torre Latinoamericana and two museums inside the tower
To me, this building looks like it’s tilting every-so-slightly on its side. Tedly didn’t see it. This tower has survived some large earthquakes with no problem. It was the tallest building in Latin America when it was built in 1956.
Go up to the 44th floor for great views of the city. I recommend you go when it’s a clear day, and try to go in the morning or early afternoon when the sun is high enough to enjoy the panoramic views without looking into the sun (also the smog may not be as heavy in the mornings). You will get a map that shows points of interest from the different views on the observation deck.
There is a small museum a few floors down from the observation deck that has an exhibit featuring the history of buildings in Mexico City. Go see this if you have any interest in architecture or a general interest in the city’s past. The photos are fabulous, and most displays have at least one sentence in English. This museum also includes, of course, the history of Torre Latinoamerica, from planning to building to today.
Admission for the observation deck and the architecture museum is 100 pesos, or about $5.50 USD at the time of this writing. This was the biggest splurge on this list. Going back to the NYC comparison, Tedly looked up the price to go to the top of the Empire State building. It’s $34 for the standard observation spot, $80 to skip the lines, $175 for the premium tour. Of course, that’s NYC – no other place like it on the planet. Still, Tedly cringes at the thought of money flying out of his wallet.
Back in Mexico City’s Torre Latinoamerica, there is another small, temporary museum to honor the city’s centennial celebration. This cost another 20 pesos (another $1.25). I enjoyed this exhibit as well, but it would have been nice if some of the displays had a bit of English – everything was only in Spanish.
The tower’s website is here. At the time of this writing, the tower’s front page has a press release stating the building is in “perfect condition” following the latest big earthquake in September 2017.
Before the Spanish arrived, indigenous life flourished in what is now Mexico City – on the parts that weren’t underwater. (Most of Mexico City is on an old lake bed). Ruins from those indigenous cultures are underneath today’s city streets. That’s what Templo Mayor is all about: it’s a museum and its grounds display some of those ruins right in the heart of the city. The museum is huge and we easily spent a few hours there.
Admission was 70 pesos at the time of this writing. Find the museum’s website here.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
This building is gorgeous. People go for special events, like special concerts and performances. People also go for some art inside, including a fantastic mural by renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera called Man at the Crossroads, also known as Man, Controller of the Universe. There is so much going on in this mural – as with all of Diego’s work. The overriding theme I see in all of his work is stark in this mural: humility versus greed past and present, and what it could mean for our future.
I didn’t see the theaters in the Palacio when we went, because there were no special performances we wanted to attend during our short window in Mexico City. But definitely check out what’s playing while you are there – you may luck out with something great. The Palacio’s website is here.
Central Alameda Park (commonly called Hidalgo Park)
Right outside the Palacio is a large, lush green park with free public wifi. This is Mexico City’s oldest municipal park. There are fountains, benches, lovers, families. Sometimes there are small performances or bands. Bring a snack and chill before you head to your next point of interest.
It borders avenidas Hidalgo and Juarez. A map of the park can be found here.
Palacio de Correos de Mexico
Close to Hidalgo Park, this is a cool, quick stop. I’ve spent the better part of two years in Mexico and I once saw a mailman. I have seen post offices in some places, and mail slots in homes, but mail in Mexico can take some time. A friend claims he mailed something to Germany and the recipient received it a few years later. That said, this building is beautiful and ornate. It’s in use, so you can’t go all over the place – only one section of the lobby area.
A map of its location is here.
This was a free visit and two things stood out to me. First, the living quarters of Benito Juarez is truly a special place. This former Mexican president is honored all over the country with statues and parks and streets named after him. He is the only president honored with a national holiday. This museum showcases his family’s living areas and some personal memorabilia, special photos, and the room where he died. I didn’t feel any special energy in the room where he died in 1872 – but I did feel something in front of his and his wife’s portrait in a nearby room. (Tedly didn’t deny feeling some kind of special energy there, as well.) This is definitely a special space.
The second thing that stood out to me was another fantastic Diego Rivera mural called “The History of Mexico.” Both Rivera and Juarez had love for the common folk, and this theme is evident in this giant mural on a massive stairwell. Even though the Mexican government commissioned the painting in 1929, Rivera was no fan of authority.
Admission is free, but you must leave ID at the door to get a visitor badge. This is a place where day-to-day government operations are run, so sometimes the sights are off-limits to tourists if there is a big political event. That happened to us – we meant to go there on day one, but an event had the palace closed to the public, so we were able to circle back on day two.
Since Mexico City is sinking a few centimeters each year due to its development on an ancient lake bed, and because it suffers from earthquakes, there are portions of the palace that have obviously been structurally reinforced. I saw this more here than in other buildings we visited.
The National Palace is on the Zocalo, or main city square (which is yet another thing to visit). A map is here.
Secretary of Education Building
This was my favorite place to see Rivera’s fantastic work — at the nation’s education department headquarters. The volume is incredible – the guy just kept painting and painting and painting on the first floor courtyard, some stairwells, and much of the second floor corridors. Each mural is story in its own right, but taken together the entire thing tells a giant story. There are 235 panels done by Rivera, and more murals were done by other artists.
We easily spent a couple of hours here, and my neck hurt from looking up at all of this wonderful art. (I got a massage an hour later.)
Admission is free. Like the National Palace, this is a government building used each day for business. You’ll see people at work in rooms while you are marveling at Rivera’s fantastic art.
If I had to pick just three panels as favorites, they’d be The Orgy, Wall Street Banquet, and The Arsenal.
Massage by vision-impaired people at Plaza Santo Domingo
We stopped at a cafe in a small park at the Santo Domingo church after looking at Rivera’s amazing murals in the education building. While sitting in the park with my cofffee, I saw people giving massages in those ‘sit up’ chairs. The service was only 70 pesos so I went over and had an amazing massage – as good as it can get in a public place while you are sitting up and leaning your face on a plastic covered cushion (I used my scarf as a buffer). Turns out, the people giving the massages all are vision-impaired. The massage was supposed to be 20 minutes, but I got more like 26 minutes. I gave the woman who made me feel so much better a big fat tip.
I do not know if they offer this every day, since there is no store front, but swing by and give it a try if you’re in the area and need a quick refresher. A map of the park is here. The massage chairs were on the east end.
All this sightseeing made us hungry! For authentic Mexican food, we stopped at Casa Churra on a pedestrian street near the Zocalo. We chose this place because it was packed with locals. That’s always a good sign. Plus – vegetarian pozole was on the menu! It was quite tasty, but a churro with chocolate as a total splurge for dessert is what really made me smile. All that – and it was reasonably priced.
There are a few locations. Their website is here.
Pedestrian-only walkways through the more touristy part of town are an excellent way to take in the sights. Almost every large Mexican city seems to have them – San Cristobal and Oaxaca City come to mind. These are great for strolling along at your leisure with no worries about cars (except for the occasional cross street).
On one pedestrian street in Mexico City, people set up an impromptu market with their wares laid out on the ground – everything from hair brushes to headphones to hats. These streets are usually packed with mobs of people, as you can see in the distance of the accompanying photo.
Speaking of markets, this year we stayed in an Airbnb near the Mercado Jamaica – a huge and delightfully smelling market. Never saw so many beautiful flowers in one spot in my life – and that’s what makes this market special. The arrangements were spectacular. Think FTD or flowers.com on steroids. The website is here.
You may not want to go all the way to this market from wherever you’re staying in Mexico City just to see flowers, but check out what markets are near wherever you are staying. Local markets always are always a fun, inexpensive way to experience a culture.
Lucha Libre bleacher seats
If you don’t want to run the risk of bodily fluids or bodies falling on you, seats up high are just as good as the ones on the floor. The bleacher seats on the uppermost level are concrete, and cold on your fanny. I sat on my jacket. That said, we sat in the fourth row last year, and it was a total silly blast – if you want to splurge on better seats. It was about $20 USD each last year for the good seats. This year, we paid just 45 pesos each.
Info on how to get tickets and not get ripped off: go straight to the box office. Don’t let the scalpers or the ‘helpers’ rig you into buying tickets. These men stand right in front of the box office. Some of them wear neck badges that make them look official but they’re not – and they’re looking for gringos to make a buck off of. I don’t fault them for trying to make money, and you may decide to use them for better tickets you may not be able to get at the box office.
The wrestlers and their fans rule the house at Arena Mexico. For a schedule and location info, the official arena site is here.
A final few ideas from an earlier trip to Mexico City
We also managed to relax a bit at our Airbnb during these 48 hours this year. But if you still need some ideas, here are a few more from our trip last year, when we spent five days in Mexico City.
Turibus tour bus
Turibus is a must do if you have all day to devote to this. You can get all over this sprawling city for a nominal fee on a day pass – 140 pesos weekdays, 165 pesos weekends ($7.30 – $8.60 USD).
There are several routes on the official city tour bus – and you can see so much in a short time. This is even good for people who prefer to get around topside, as opposed to taking the subway. Bring earbuds – you can plug into a narration about different stops such as the old Olympic site. The narration is available in many languages.
If you plan your day well enough, you can use the tour bus as transportation from one side of the city to another as needed, and skip pricier cab fares, while learning about sites in the city. Or, you can stay on the bus for an entire route and listen to the actual tour. Or, listen for awhile, hop off to explore something, and hop back on another bus when you’re ready. Tedly likes to say if this had been NYC, it would have cost a hundred bucks easy.
Info on the bus tour is here.
Diego Rivera’s & Frido Khalo’s homes
I felt incredible energy at Rivera’s home and studio – and would highly recommend this stop for anyone interested his art and outlook on life. At Diego’s studio and home, Frida’s separate but connected home was interesting to visit, as well. Both buildings are connected by a walkway on the top floor, and both are now museums. Info can be found here.
We also went to Frida Khalo’s childhood home, which is where she went to die. That is also now a museum, and worth your time. It’s in a different part of the city. Info can be found here.
These two locations are in different neighborhoods. A map showing each location is here. Honestly, I don’t recall admission prices, but I’m certain is was just a few bucks or we likely wouldn’t have gone. (We weren’t using the Spending Tracker app last year.)
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
This site, with a shrine and several buildings, is sacred to Catholic Mexicans. It’s built near the hill where the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to Juan Diego. The newer Basilica has the original cloak of Juan Diego, which holds the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The image is behind the altar, downstairs. Crowds move by it on a conveyor walkway. This lets you stand in place and look at it – but it keeps you moving and you go quickly by the image. (Tedly got the money shot of the cloak, pictured below, with his fancy camera.) Millions of people go to see this every year so the crowds can be large.
Every time we are anywhere in Mexico around December 12, we enjoy the celebrations honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast Day. There are processions and parties in the days leading up to this holiday. It was quite something to visit this place – an important pilgrimage site to this faith – even though I’m not Catholic.
That’s about it. Of course, there’s more. I mentioned Teotihuacan at the beginning of this post. That has the famed Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. That’ll take a day if you have the time. Also, there are good places for cheap eats with views overlooking the Zocalo, as well as the famous Revolution monument, the anthropology museum, and much more.
I hope some of these ideas will help you enjoy your stay and save money in Mexico City – a culturally important and fun major urban center. And, I hope there are no earthquakes during your visit.