The sprawling metropolis of Mexico City is one the largest cities in the world, so you can guess how overwhelmed I was when I decided to turn a six-hour layover into a three-day detour. My plane landed in Mexico City around midnight. Curious at what the wonders of Mexico City could possibly offer, I entertained the possibility of sticking around a few days and skipping my connecting flight. Once I connected to the airport Wi-Fi, I checked out flights back to Chicago and was excited to find out that flights were only $125.
A steep $125 for just three full days in Mexico City was severely more appealing than sleeping in Mexico City’s airport for the night. I quickly booked a hostel in the Condesa district of the city and ordered an Uber. I left the airport around 2 AM, wondering if it would have been smarter to just stay at the airport for literally two more hours until I could check in to my flight home. However, when the travel bug bites, it takes a lot to ease the itch. After experiencing the wonders of Latin America for the past few months, I was not ready to go home without one last hurrah.
Without any research or knowledge of what to do, I struck the jackpot by picking a hostel in Condesa for a Saturday night. Not only is it a great area for nightlife, but its close proximity to Chapultepec Park is extremely ideal. Having just come off a flight and arriving at the hostel around 2:30 AM, I did not get to experience the nightlife, but I was too tired to care. The next morning, I set off for a walk without any idea where I was going, but I knew the park was nearby so I should check that out. Perfect timing.
Day 1: A Day At Chapultepec Park
Mexico City has a surprising amount of parks and greenery, but none anywhere near as prominent and vast as Chapultepec Park. This is the largest urban park in any Latin American city. The park is home to museums, zoos, art galleries, and a castle on the hill with a great view of the city. If you’re lucky and happen to be on Mexico City on a Sunday, entry is free to almost everything. I can’t speak for everything, but I did get to go to the Museum of Modern Art, National Museum of Anthropology, the Zoo, and Chapultepec Castle for free.
The view of Mexico City from Chapultepec Castle.
Even if you are not into museums or castles (um, who are you?), the area is a great place to spend a day. I could have spent all day at the Anthropology Museum, but since I had three days, I had to condense all my visits to every museum. I left the park at around 5 PM, walking down Plaza de la Reforma until I reached the famed Angel of Independence. Don’t waste your time walking here. It’s just a little statue on top of a big pole.
Instead, make your way to Mercado Roma for dinner where you can have some incredible food. You might be exhausted after walking and exploring all day, so going back and taking a quick siesta before a night out is recommended. Staying in Condesa will put you at easy access to a number of good nightlife spots, but definitely do not wander too far off the beaten path. While Mexico City is a pretty safe city, there will be some dodgy areas, especially for unsuspecting tourists. I had a night out in Condesa but decided to leave early while my friends stayed. They wandered well away from Condesa and into an empty bar at 4 AM and were promptly separated from their belongings and wandered back into the hostel with a black eye and a bit of skin off their scalp. Be smart.
Day 2: Making My Way Downtown
If you’re hung-over or exhausted, it doesn’t hurt to have a little lie-in. Take the metro over to Zocalo, the city center, and experience the heart of Mexico City. The cathedral is one of the largest in the world, and boasts an incredible interior. The square, also one of the world’s largest, is always buzzin’ and there is no shortage of things to do in this area. The ruins of Templo Mayor, once the Aztec’s largest temple in Tenochtitlan, are just outside of the square. You should be educated on Mexico’s history and culture by now since you went to the anthropology museum, right?
If you want, there’s a number of other museums and landmarks in this area, but a walk down Tacuba street is a cool experience in itself. It is one of Mexico City’s oldest roads, and was once a bridge leading into the city when Mexico City was situated on a lake. Saying you walked on the bridge that Cortes crossed to invade the Aztecs is pretty cool, and you’ll pass the Postal Palace on the way.
You’ll be by the Palacio de Bellas Artes by now, and for $65 pesos, you can see some of the finest art Mexico has to offer. There’s a big, relaxing park next to the Palace, and is a good place to chill while you contemplate your next move. If you’re hungry, there’s a lot of food in this area, from taco carts to actual restaurants. If you’re willing to walk a bit (or take the metro for a few pesos), you can go to another food market. San Juan market is a big food market that has some small restaurants (more like open kitchens with a few stools for customers) where you can get cheap, delicious food. I ate two meals complete with soup, tortillas, and two drinks for under $4 USD. It was delicious, too.
I stayed at Hostel Joven Mundo Catedral seconds away from the main square and had an incredible time there. The location is hard to beat, but a big highlight is their rooftop bar where I watched an incredible sunset over the cathedral. It is a good place to meet other travelers, and unlike most hostels I’ve stayed at, there was a wide range of travelers of all ages.
Day 3: The City Where Men Become Gods
If you only have a limited amount of time in Mexico City, then you absolutely cannot miss Teotihuacan. Of all the ruins I’ve seen in Latin America, Teotihuacan comes second only to Machu Picchu. The sheer size of Teotihuacan means you can easily spend an entire day here. The glorious sun and moon pyramids are well-preserved and unlike the more popular Chichen-Itza, you are still allowed to climb them. These ruins are arguably the best in Central America and are very close to Mexico City. Getting there by yourself is pretty easy and cheap. However, if you don’t feel like figuring out the public transportation system, then it only costs a few dollars more to go with a tour.
There are a few pros and cons with going through a tour. The one I went with also lumped Teotihuacan together with the underwhelming Plaza de Las Tres Culturas and the world-renowned Basilica de Guadalupe. My super religious mom strongly recommended I go, and suggested I change my theme to The Praying Traveler. I decided to meet her halfway and go to the Basilica and avoid changing my theme. The Basilica was definitely worth going to, but I felt rushed during the visit to both the Basilica and Teotihuacan. I didn’t have much time so I didn’t have much of a choice. If you’re more the type to get your pictures and go, then going with a tour should be fine.
If I chose not to go to the pyramids, I would have gone to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco. If you’ve got a little extra time in Mexico City, I recommend checking it out before the once magnificent attractions disappears completely.
Overall, Mexico City was one of my favorite places I have been to. The combination of its old cultures and traditions with the modernity makes it a great destination for all sorts of travelers. I had very little expectations going into Mexico City, (other than just wanting to keep my Latin American adventure going on a little longer) but I left with a satisfying last hurrah in a city that I will definitely be returning to.
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My Complete Mexico Itinerary
Be sure to check out my complete Mexico backpacking itinerary, a jam-packed 60-page guide covering 25 of my favorite destinations in magical Mexico.
My Complete Mexico Backpacking Itinerary
By popular demand… Here is the complete itinerary for one of my favorite countries in the world, Mexico. In this 68-page guidebook, I cover 30 of my favorite Mexican destinations, including how to get to each city, where to stay, and the best things to do in each city. I also include tidbits of useful information like things to know before going to Mexico, as well as my favorite party destina…