One of the largest cities in the world, Mexico City is the sprawling capital of Mexico. This incredible metropolis is jammed full of history, scintillating culture, mouthwatering food, and amazing art.
Originally an Aztec settlement – as evidenced by the ruins of the 13th century Templo Mayor – there are plenty of buildings that point back to its Spanish colonial past as the capital of New Spain. Baroque churches and ornate palaces lie among cobblestoned old lanes in former villages, now part of the city itself.
Founded as Ciudad de Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in 1521, this is the largest city – and oldest capital city – in North America. It’s also the world’s largest Spanish-speaking city. Its location, 2,250 meters above sea level, makes it one of the world’s highest capital cities, too. The city has a long relationship with art and has been the home to famous intellectuals and artists throughout the years, including Mexican icons Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Map of Mexico City
1. Centro Historico · 2. Polanco · 3. Zona Rosa · 4. Condesa & Roma · 5. Lomas de Chapultepec · 6. Coyoacan · 7. San Angel · 8. Santa Fe · 9. Del Valle
With its centrally located international airport, comprehensive metro system, buses, and a tangle of roads, getting to and around Mexico City is made simple for visitors – if a little busy during rush hour. Choosing where to base yourself in one of the dozens of neighborhoods that make up Mexico City can be vital if you don’t want to run the gauntlet of public transport daily.
Whether you go for something central or decide somewhere quieter and more bohemian is more what you are looking for, everywhere in Mexico City is practically bursting at the seams with things to do and places to go.
As you might be able to tell from its name, Centro Historico is the historic center of the Mexican capital. Here you will find most of the fantastic heritage sights that make up the oldest part of town. Not only is it the original site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, but it is where the Spanish colonial city first took shape. Most of the buildings here are centuries old, and the neighborhood is centered around the Zócalo – the central, historic plaza.
Here, you can see the famed Diego Rivera murals, marvel at the ornate Mexico City Cathedral, be wowed by the grand National Palace, and take in masterpieces at the National Museum of Art – but the stunning neoclassical building itself is worth a visit alone. It’s safe to say that the heart of Mexico City is full of all the culture and history you could ask for.
When it comes to finding a place to stay in Centro Historico, expect design-led boutique hotels as much as budget lodgings, and hotels set inside historic buildings.
To the west of the historic center of Mexico city lies Polanco. This upscale district is home to designer shops, boutiques, and some world-class restaurants. Foodies should make a beeline for restaurants such as Quintonil or Pujol, often cited as some of the best eating in the whole of Latin America. There really is all this luxury living and more lining the premier shopping district of Avenida Presidente Masaryk.
Polanco is also home to tree-clad side streets, where you’ll stroll past ornate mansions and swanky apartments. But this high-class area is not just about expensive taste and prime real estate.
Head to Nuevo Polanco in the north of this district, and you will find the amazing Museo Soumaya, home to a private collection of art that you can see free-of-charge – including a fantastic collection of Rodin sculptures. Or explore Acuario Inbursa, a sprawling aquarium.
To match the luxe atmosphere of Polanco, you will find some of Mexico City’s most high-end accommodation. Needless to say, it isn’t cheap to base yourself in this decidedly upscale district.
Set between the Centro Historico and Polanco, Zona Rosa is a relatively tourist-friendly zone, with plenty of shopping opportunities, parks, art galleries. It’s upmarket, but not as upmarket as Polanco. It’s known for the Angel of Independence, a large sculpture of the goddess of victory symbolizing Mexico’s independence.
Zona Rosa – which means ‘Pink Zone,’ a name that dates back to the 1960s – is said to allude to this part of the city being ‘white’ during the day but ‘red’ at night – hence, ‘pink.’ However, Zona Rosa is also known for its gay community and features many gay-friendly establishments as a result. More recently, this part of town is also playing host to a growing Korean population, too.
It’s a pretty part of town complete with European style mansions, owing to the fact that wealthy inhabitants had their homes here in the 19th century. Today, visitors can stay in historic buildings, chic boutiques, or modern chain hotels – all in a fantastic location.
Condesa and neighboring Roma are known for being the cool, hipster-friendly areas of Mexico City. Set to the southwest of the historic center, this is the place to go for funky nightlife and fantastic food. Though Polanco is home to an excellent culinary scene, Condesa and Roma are formidable rivals when it comes to restaurants.
Join the cool crowds of Condesa as they walk their dogs in the leafy Parque Espana, browse the fashion boutiques, then stop for a coffee at a sidewalk cafe and watch the world go by. In Roma, many of the new eateries and coffee shops are housed in neoclassical and art nouveau buildings of the early 20th century, making for a picturesque slice of gentrification.
If this sounds like your scene, don’t worry; there are plenty of cool places to stay in these areas. Trendy hotels, mixing modern with traditional style, are dotted throughout. Sleek and stylish, these are the sorts of places you won’t want to leave, they’re that nice.
Founded in the 1920s as one of the city’s answers to a housing shortage, Lomas de Chapultepec is set further west of Polanco and is known for its decisive air of exclusivity. With mansions and gated communities, it’s where many of the city’s most wealthy choose to live – including business owners and politicians. Even Google’s Mexican headquarters can be found here.
Chapultepec Park, in the south of Lomas de Chapultepec, is a good place for walking around, but is also where many of the main things to do in this area are found, including the Natural History Museum and the Poet’s Walk – a trail dotted with the statues of famous poets. A sprawling green space twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, this is a great place for families; you can even rent pedal boats and enjoy some time on the water.
Staying here is all about high rise hotels – some of which overlook Chapultepec Park – as well as loft apartments with their own swimming pools and plush suites with everything you’ll need for your Mexico City trip. In a word, this is the place for sophisticated living.
Set in the south of the capital, Coyoacán used to be a village but has since been engulfed by the urban sprawl of this vast city. Coyoacán is famous for being the hometown of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. As such, it is the location of the Frida Kahlo Museum – also known as La Casa Azul. This is the same building where Kahlo was born in 1907, and where you can learn about her life and works.
Interestingly, Coyoacán is also where Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky lived in exile until his assassination in 1940.
The streets in Coyoacán are quiet and residential but come with color pops, making for a quaint place to wander around. With its cobblestoned lanes and plazas, there is an old world, small town, almost bohemian feel to Coyoacán. In the main plaza, there’s the Church of San Juan Bautista – a beautiful baroque building. There are also other sights, like the 15th century home of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes.
As you might expect, the accommodation here is all about quaint guesthouses and traditional villas for a charming blast from the past.
Another of Mexico City’s neighborhoods that was once a hamlet, San Angel is set to the west of Coyoacán and features much of the same charm. You’ll find cobbled streets lined with luminous trees and flowers for a charming village feel. However, it’s still well connected to the Mexico City metro network.
At the weekend, you should make your way to the Plaza San Jacinto for an art bazaar, when this square comes alive with stalls selling locally made crafts. After that, you can browse the bright boutiques of the area or stop for a cup of organic coffee. The Museo de El Carmen is set in a monastery built in 1615 and is now a display of striking religious artwork – as well as a collection of mummies!
In 1987, San Angel was declared a historical monument zone – or Barrio Magico – which means it has been protected against urban development, helping retain that picturesque feel. Families still live in the district’s centuries-old houses – exactly the sort of places where you can stay, too, complete with gardens and terraces.
Situated on the western edge of the city to the south of Chapultepec Park, this is a modern and cosmopolitan part of Mexico City. Not full of history like other parts of town, Santa Fe is all about its role as a business district and features skyscrapers and high rises.
This district is known as the home of Centro Santa Fe, the largest mall in Latin America – complete with over 500 stores and an indoor skating rink. Another mall, The Garden Santa Fe, is located underground and is tipped to be an environmentally friendly shopping center.
You will also find Parque La Mexicana here, which is said to be “the new lungs of the city,” and comes with bike lanes, running paths, and plenty of greenery. The park is edged by some of the more striking modern architecture of the area.
Not served by the metro, the commuter train and bus routes connect Santa Fe to the rest of town. Accommodation here consists of shining high-end hotels for a sleek, contemporary stay in the Mexican capital.
With its iconic mid-century design, Del Valle, set in the borough of Benito Juarez, is a relatively quiet area of Mexico City that’s all about its tree-lined avenues, parks, and family-friendly atmosphere. Metro stations and bus stops dot the area, keeping it well connected to the historic center, as well as other areas of the capital.
Del Valle isn’t just about its 20th-century mansions and leafy streets; however; there are sights here too. These include the Templo del Purisimo Corazon de Maria, which featured in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo & Juliet, the compact but historic Church of San Lorenzo Mártir (built in the 16th century), as well as the Plaza de Toros México – the world’s largest bullring. There’s also the Sunken Park – or Parque Hundido – which boasts the quaint accolade of having the largest floral clock in Mexico.
If you’re thinking of staying in Del Valle, you will have a choice of hotels ranging from the low-key and more affordable to the shining high-end.