Three days in Mexico City
by Josien - 10 May, 2020
I have been to this city many times and I even lived here for 6 months straight, but in this blog post, I recommend the things to do if you only have three days in Mexico City.
From the airplane window, Mexico City looks like an untamable monster. There is no end to the sea of buildings, cars lining up on the five-lane roads and the soft grey smog blanket takes your breath away in advance. The 8,000 square kilometer city, with its 22 million inhabitants, is dazzling. Mexico City is huge, busy, and dirty. But it is also a surprisingly friendly, traditional and hip city.
Previously, Mexico City had a bad image: too big, too dangerous, too dirty, and too chaotic. Tourists preferred to travel directly from the airport to the paradise beaches on the Caribbean coast or to colorful colonial cities such as Oaxaca or San Cristóbal de las Casas. Mexico has a lot to offer as a country, so why waste time in a mega-polluted city?
But once you’ve landed, the world looks a lot brighter. “Welcome to Mexico,” says the immigration officer at the airport, with a smile that is unprecedented for this profession. The city also looks inviting outside. The brightly colored houses and the warm friendliness of the population make the panic disappear.
Skipping the capital is no longer an option. Mexico City has become the cultural capital of Latin America with an overwhelming selection of museums and galleries, a vibrant nightlife, and intriguing cuisine. And ancient influences mingle everywhere with modern city life. Mexicans are proud of their ancestors, cherish their traditions, and breathe new life into old customs. It’s a great place for a long layover during your travels or just a weekend/ 3 days trip in Mexico City.
Aztecs ruins Mexico City
“El Gran Tenochtitlan”, as the people of Mexico City affectionately call their hometown. Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztecs, one of the greatest civilizations in history. The Spaniards arrived in 1519, to end the Aztec empire in a few years. They destroyed Tenochtitlan and built the capital of their overseas empire on its ruins.
Over the years, the city grew and it swallowed up entire villages. But the provincial atmosphere is still very much alive in neighborhoods like Tlalpan and San Angel. The smell of freshly baked corn tortillas hangs in the streets. At the bakery, women in floral aprons are chatting and waiting for their turn. A knife sharpener drives past on a cargo bike, an old lady sweeps her sidewalk and tries to entice passersby to chat.
The spirits of the Aztecs have never left Mexico City. They live in the kitchens of trendy restaurants, where chefs work wonders with corn, cocoa, and chili peppers. They wander around in music and dance schools where young people master the rhythms of their pre-Columbian ancestors. And they appear as tattoos on bodies, as graffiti on walls, as names on buildings, streets and metro stations. It gives the city, in all its modernity, its typically mystical character.
Xochimilco Mexico City
When the Aztecs arrived in 1325, Mexico City was made up of isles. The Aztecs used canoes to move between different parts of the city. In the southern district of Xochimilco, the old waterways are still intact. “Discover old Mexico,” shouts a man from a brightly colored gondola in the harbor. An obese Mexican negotiates briefly and then gets into the gondola with his wife and children. Mariachi musicians offer their services from canoes. Other boats do good business as a sailing taco takeaway. You can rent your own boat and driver here and see the canals for yourself.
Pro tip: bring your own booze and make a party out of it. There is a lot of music going on on the canals and there is always a party happening. Yes, during the day.
Hot air balloon Mexico City
Fifty kilometers northeast of the capital is the holy city of Teotihuacan. The name means ‘place where gods originate’. The city was built in the first centuries AD, long before the Aztecs came on the scene. Schoolchildren wander between the temples in their red-gray uniforms and climb the pyramids. “People were sacrificed here for centuries to the gods,” says the teacher, pointing to the stones on top of a pyramid.
We recommend doing a hot air balloon ride over the Pyramids of the Sun in the early morning. You have to wake up early, but watching the sunrise from the sky is the most amazing experience you can have when you only have three days in Mexico City. An ultimate dream for photographers or for anyone who is looking for a unique activity.
Even Mexico City’s hipster cafes cannot escape the wandering spirits of the ancestors. The locally brewed beers have names in the Aztec language, Nahuatl. Brightly colored skulls hang on the wall and menus feature centuries-old dishes. Such as in café El Mexicano, where a waiter puts a cup of chapulines on the table with a graceful wave. The roasted grasshoppers are salty, spicy and crispy. “We also have fresh pulque,” he says. Pulque is made from fermented agave, the plant from which tequila is also made. In the time of the Aztecs, pulque was the drink of priests and the wealthy. The Spaniards did not like the milky stuff, and after independence in 1810, it became popular among the poorest of the poor, as it drives hunger and gives off a buzz. The drink has been booming in recent years, even in the poshest neighborhoods, pulquerias are emerging.
After three days in Mexico City, all concerns from the plane have more than evaporated. The indomitable monster turns out to be a friendly giant. The Spaniards filled the city with impressive colonial buildings and imposing churches. In the two hundred years since independence, Mexicans built five-lane roads, an elaborate subway system, gleaming skyscrapers, and grand monuments. And the Aztecs gave the city its pride, character, and soul.
Tacos are at the heart of Mexican food culture. Taqueria’s come in all shapes and prices, but our favorite is El Califa. You also see a lot of taco vendors in the streets. Mexicans sit comfortably on plastic stools by the stalls. The offer varies per stall. There is often grilled pork, but for the adventurer, there are also taquerias where intestines, kidneys or chicken claws are put in a taco from a pan of boiling oil.
Mezcal is made from agave, but unlike tequila, it is traditionally produced. The drink is at least five hundred years old and on the rise. The city’s best mezcalería is Bósforo (Luis Moya 31, Centro), a long, narrow bar in the center. Bósforo started out as an illegal bar and still has a somewhat mysterious atmosphere.
Mexico’s most famous chef is Enrique Olvera, featured in the Netflix series Chef’s Table in 2016. Using traditional ingredients such as ants and grasshoppers, Olvera serves a mole (traditional cocoa, chili pepper, and spice sauce) that he infuses for a thousand days. To conquer a spot in his Pujol restaurant (Calle Tennyson 133, Polanco) you need to book weeks or even months in advance. An alternative is Nicos (Avenida Cuitláhuac 3102, Azcapotzalco). Here, too, chef Gerardo Vazquez redefines ancient dishes, such as rabbit in pulque or crab in amaranth sauce. Nicos is less fully booked than Pujol, the atmosphere is more informal and the prices more affordable. Chef Vazquez also opened his own restaurant in 2016, Fonda Mayora (Campeche 322, Condesa).
The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is the largest university in Latin America. The campus is large and green and contains the inspiring energy of young intellectuals. Various works of art by Mexican muralistas can be admired on the university grounds. This movement of wall painters originated in the early 20th century and combines elements from pre-Hispanic cultures with nationalistic symbolism. Diego Rivera, the husband of painter Frida Kahlo, painted the university stadium of the Unam. The university also has its own museum of modern art.
HIP NEIGHBORHOODS OF CONDESA AND ROMA
The Condesa and Roma neighborhoods are southwest of downtown and are Mexico’s bohemian neighborhoods. In the well-maintained stately Art Deco buildings, you will find trendy shops, cocktail bars, and hipster cafes. Many artists and foreigners live here and there is a wide range of theaters, cinemas, and galleries. If you’re in Mexico City for only three days, this is the place I recommend you to stay.
Mexico City is full of music. Such as on Garibaldi Square (Plaza Garibaldi), where mariachi musicians hang out in their tight, gold-decorated suits and play request numbers for a fee. Ahead is Alameda Central, a park where cumbia is danced on Sunday afternoons. The parties are popular with the older locals, who dance like they are in love for the first time. In Mambocafé (Insurgentes Sur 644) you imagine yourself in Cuba. Not only because the salsa music is alternated with Cuban son and mambo, but also because the dance floor is invariably filled with excellent dancers. For jazz, you can go to Zinco (Motolinea 20), in the center of the city. In the basement of what was once a bank, there is the languid atmosphere of a jazz club from the 1950s.
After the Spaniards conquered Tenochtitlan, they made Mexico City the capital of their overseas empire. The Zócalo, a square of almost 60 thousand square meters, is the heart of the city. On top of the ruins of an Aztec temple, the Spaniards built the largest cathedral in the western hemisphere, next to it was a palace that still houses the government. The Zócalo has pleasant chaos: street vendors, pickpockets, self-proclaimed shamans, and anti-government protesters form the permanent furniture of this square. From the terrace of Balcón del Zócalo (Avenida 5 de mayo 61) you have a fantastic view of all activity. The historic center has undergone a metamorphosis over the past fifteen years. Dilapidated colonial buildings have been refurbished, in particular thanks to investments by Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico.
If you only have three days in Mexico City, I absolutely recommend to visit the city centre, but just for a couple of hours. There is a lot more to see in this city!