Today I’m launching a new series of posts called “One Perfect Day in…” The idea is to fit the very best of a place into a single day. It’s often hard to discover the essence of a place in a short time, so we’ll be exploring ways to get the richest possible experience when there’s not a lot of time to explore. I would love to have readers contribute to this series! If you see this and would be willing to write a post in this style, contribute photos, and suggest activities for a perfect one-day itinerary, please contact me via the Contact page, or via the comments.
Mexico City. When most people who haven’t been there imagine it, they think of a dirty, polluted, third-world metropolis. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. While there’s no doubt Mexico City has some issues with poverty, traffic, and pollution, it is also chock-full of beautiful places on par with Manhattan, London, and other large cities all over the world. It has huge green spaces, delicious world-class food, and breathtaking colonial architecture.
If you only have one day in Mexico City, you’re in for a whirlwind. Mexico City is geographically huge, but many of the sites are very central. Most of the day will be spent in the colonias of Cuauhtémoc, Condesa and Centro. This is the very heart of Mexico City, as well as the oldest and most prosperous part. Most of the country’s banks have their headquarters on the Paseo de la Reforma, a long, wide thoroughfare designed to match the marquee boulevards of Europe such as the Champs-Elysées. This is where you’ll be starting your day, at the Angel de la Independencia. If you happen to be here on a Sunday morning, the street is closed to traffic and you’ll see hundreds of runners, cyclists, and walkers enjoying a workout.
Breakfast and Natural Beauty
For breakfast, walk up Rio Guadalquivir to the Valentina Cafetería de Especialidad, a spectacular coffee shop that serves freshly-made pastries and traditional Mexican breakfast fare. The shop itself is a gorgeous European-style cafe on a quiet, tree-lined street. The weathered wood cabinets and tables make this a quaint, country-style place to relax and enjoy a meal before a busy day.
After breakfast, walk back to Paseo de la Reforma and west into the Capultepec Park. If you enter from Paseo de la Reforma and continue walking on the wide pedestrian path past the fountain and up a steep path to the top of the hill, you will find the Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), a former fortress, military academy, and now the museum of national history. Spend an hour here walking through the exhibits, including many gorgeous portraits and the former imperial apartments. The castle is a splendid reminder of the colonial era and Mexico’s rich imperial history.
If you still have time before lunch, try to spend a few hours at the Zoologico de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Zoo). This is an absolutely first-class zoo with hundreds of beautiful animals. Though all of the animals are interesting, the high points are the Giant Pandas (for which the zoo is most famous) and the many species native to central and South America, including a number of leopards. Entry to the zoo is completely free, but this means that it is often quite crowded. If you decide to visit some of the indoor attractions like the butterfly house (which is also very good as the monarch butterfly breeding grounds are very close to Mexico City) you will pay a few pesos.
Once you are done at the zoo, take the Metro from Chapultepec to Salto del Agua and walk north on Eje Central Lazaro Cardenas, turn right on the pedestrian walkway at Avenida Francisco Madero, and continue towards the City’s main plaza, the Zócalo.
Lunch and Colonial Grandeur
Before you explore the Zócalo, visit the pleasant and upscale Azul Historico restaurant for lunch. You’ll dine beneath the trees in the central courtyard of colonial mansion, and the food is superb. We had the Enchiladas de Mole Negro, which come with bread and a generous helping of the tasty mole sauce.
After you recover from your food coma, return to the Zócalo and explore the many historic sites. Depending on how much time you have, the Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace (with jaw-dropping Diego Rivera murals), and Templo Mayor (Ruins of the great Aztec Temple) are all worth a visit. The square itself is an attraction, and at the time of our visit there was a festival honoring the many diplomatic friendships of Mexico, complete with food and cultural shows from over sixty countries.
Once you’re done at the Cathedral, retrace your steps towards the metro and drop by El Moro Churrería. This old-school churro shop has exactly two things on the menu: Churros and hot chocolate. You can pick from a variety of hot chocolates, from the Mexicana (less sweet and with a hint of peppers) to the Española (incredibly sweet and thick). Each hot chocolate comes with four full churros, though you can order more. Even my mighty appetite was defeated by the Española and four churros. El Moro is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, so if you don’t have time now, you can always come back late in the evening. The shop has even remained open during Mexico City’s greatest disasters for over 80 years, a source of great pride.
At this point you will need to walk off a whole lot of churro and chocolate, so head to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a concert hall and art deco treasure containing more Diego Rivera murals. Depending on the weather, consider spending the afternoon strolling down the Paseo de la Reforma towards the starting point of your day. You will likely need a little time to rest after the 30-40 minute walk back to the Ángel de la Independencia.
Dinner and Adventure
When you’re ready for dinner, walk behind the US Embassy to Rio Lerma and stop by the hole-in-the-wall Taquería El Caminero. This hangout for Embassy employees and locals serves up generous platters of any type of taco meat you want, a stack of tortillas, and a huge bowl of guacamole and salsa with each order. We ate dinner here every night we were in Mexico City– it’s that good. It’s basic, stick-to-your-bones Mexican comfort food, and it’s amazing.
Finally, for a little fun, hop on the metro at Insurgentes (which movie fans might recognize as the subway station from the original Total Recall) and travel to Cuauhtémoc, then follow the signs (and crowds of people) to Arena Mexico for a night watching Lucha Libre wrestling. Make sure to check the schedule before venturing out, and don’t get scammed into paying a high price to take a tour bus out. The neighborhood is safe and there are plenty of people around, and tickets are incredibly cheap. A Lucha Libre mask also makes a great souvenir, and can be had for under five dollars US. The wrestling matches themselves are hilariously entertaining, if a bit… unenlightened. If you’re looking for highbrow theatre, this isn’t it. It is still an incredibly good time and a memory you will likely have forever. For extra fun, try the incredible variety of foods available from the roaming vendors– giant beers, popcorn with salsa, pieces of cake, handmade sandwiches– you can have it all for pennies.
The fights end by about 10:30 PM, so there’s still time to go out and hit the bars, or you can retire to your hotel room knowing that you’ve experienced one perfect day in Mexico City– delicious food, beautiful colonial architecture, and some plain ol’ rough and tumble fun. Mexico City is all of these things, and if you’re anything like us, the only question left on your minds will be, “When can we go back?”