Life is what you make it, and at no point does this feel more true than when you’re got a whole day at your disposal to explore one of the world’s largest metropolises. Mexico City is vibrant, complex and full of things to do and see. What shape will your Mexico City adventure take, and how well can you get by with your knowledge of Spanish, regional slang and cultural instincts?
Let your curiosity guide the way as you click your way through your own customized itinerary, complete with things that were probably on your list already and little surprises you definitely couldn’t have planned for.
Choose Your Mexico City Adventure
You wake up freshly rested in your hotel in the centrally located Centro Histórico. The day is new! After you freshen up, you head downstairs and realize you haven’t really made a plan.
Good call, it’s never a bad idea to ask a local for their take on what’s considered a “must-see” around these parts. He recommends you start with the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), which is arguably the city’s most iconic cultural center.
You’re ready to get your art on, but you need coffee (and ideally a pastry) first. You can’t decide between a quick, spiced café de olla or a fancy coffee at Isabella Café, the charming pink and floral coffee shop your friend told you about. The only problem is that Isabella Café is a little out of the way and would require a short trip on the metro.
Let’s not waste any time on the way to the museum. Plus, café de olla is the traditional take on Mexican coffee, so it’s a must!
I’m willing to do what it takes for a fancy breakfast. Let’s go to Isabella Café.
You pop into the coffee shop closest to the hotel. The barista says, “Hola, buenos días. ¿En qué se puedo ayudar?” Eager to dust off your Spanish, you flawlessly execute “Por favor, me da un café de olla.” The barista tells you they’ve actually just run out, but they’re brewing a fresh batch. “Ahorita,” she adds.
Fun fact: In Mexico, ahorita means anywhere between “in a few seconds” and “never.” You begin to realize this after waiting 25 minutes in line, but you do your best to remind yourself that people just aren’t in that big of a rush here. Thankfully, you manage to strike up a conversation with a friendly local in line, which makes you feel like you’re doing the whole serendipitous thing right.
Eventually, your new friend inquires about your plans, and they invite you to skip the museum to hang out with a couple of their friends instead. “Vamos por unas chelas,” they say.
This wasn’t a bad call on your end. In Mexico, ahorita means anywhere between “in a few seconds” and “never.” You get your caffeine fix and a concha (Mexican sweet bread) and then set off for the Palacio.
You get on the metro only to quickly realize that you did exactly the thing you were warned not to, which is to rude during la hora pico (rush hour). Oops! Let’s hope this breakfast is worth all the hype.
What are you having, since you went through all this trouble to get here?
Amazing choice. This is truly living. You get over whatever momentary feelings of self-consciousness you may have felt before Instagramming your extremely Instagrammable food and then getting to work on your meal.
As you’re slowing down, you hear someone next to you mention that there’s a butterfly garden nearby inside the Bosque de Chapultepec. Change of plans?
At long last, you make it to the Palacio. What are you interested in seeing?
Cool! Lots to see here, including Diego Rivera’s El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads). As you soon find out, this isn’t the only place where you can encounter Rivera’s work around Mexico City. Perhaps after you’re done here you’ll embark on a scavenger hunt to find the rest of his murals?
I like the sound of that. Maybe I’ll even end up at La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s childhood home.
I love art, but I can only take it in limited doses before I get hungry. I think I’d rather get some lunch after this.
You’re in luck — you made it just in time for a riveting performance by the Ballet Folklórico de México. You’re feeling extremely cultured, if not a little hungry. What next?
Turns out chelas is local slang for “beers.” Whether you’re a day drinker or not, it’s time to show your new friends you can hang.
But first, a grammar checkpoint. Which pronoun do you use to address them (as in: “you all”)?
That’s right — for the most part, Ustedes is used in Latin American Spanish, whereas vosotros is used in Europe.
You feel an immediate sense of belonging as you get to know your new friends, but you quickly realize they can easily drink you under the table. You feel like you’re on a roll with how your day is going so far though, so you pace yourself and feel your Spanish getting better and better with every drink.
Before you know it, your new friends invite you to a super secret speakeasy called the Hanky Panky Cocktail Bar in La Juárez that you’d never be able to find on your own. You eagerly agree and follow them to the back of a nondescript food shop. But wait — you’re not on the list.
The bouncer seems like he’s heard this one all too many times before, and unfortunately, they run a tight ship around here.
You thank your friends for the good time and decide to take the scenic route down Avenida Álvaro Obregón. You stumble upon a Churrería El Moro — nothing better for a case of drunk munchies than Mexico City’s famous churros, going strong since 1935.
With your craving satisfied, you start to feel a little sleepy, but you’re not ready to go back to your hotel yet. You decide to walk over to the Bosque de Chapultepec, the giant park in the city center, for a little nap.
Should you nap near the zoo or the art museum inside the park?
Weird — in your half-awake stupor, you somehow managed to get on a bus and a ferry headed to La Isla de la Muñecas, a creepy island full of dolls miles away from the city center.
You picked a good nap spot. Too good, unfortunately. When you eventually come to, it’s almost dark. Looks like someone needs to get some tacos as a hangover cure and retire for the night.
Weirdly enough, your antics make the bouncer smile. He ushers you all in. Sweet.
Here’s your next test of true belonging. How do you say “this place is really cool!” like a local?
Oops — that’s what they say in Madrid, not Mexico City. Guess you’re not invited to the after-hours bar that’s coming up after this.
Nice work — you’re officially a chilango.
After a couple drinks at Hanky Panky, you and your entourage head to Patrick Miller in the Roma neighborhood, a hip dance party taking place in what appears from the outside to be a warehouse. You somehow wind up participating in a dance-off, and a video of you goes viral the next morning. Congratulations on truly making the most of your day.
Yikes! They can definitely tell you’re not from here. For the most part, vosotros is used in European Spanish, not Latin American Spanish. That’s okay, though. No one’s judging.
You quickly forget your flub, but then you realize your next challenge: your new friends can easily drink you under the table. In your eagerness to redeem yourself, you force yourself to keep up, and before you know it, the only thing you’re ready for is a nap. At 2 p.m. Oh well — at least you made it off the beaten path a little.
What a delight — the Mariposario Chapultepec is full of thousands of butterflies that fly freely inside the enclosure. Better yet, there’s an incubator full of cocoons that hatch so often, you get an opportunity to release a butterfly yourself. According to a Nahua legend, if you make a wish on a butterfly on its first flight, your wish will come true.
What do you wish for?
Yeah, seems like it’s time for lunch. What’ll it be?
Great choice. As you order your tacos, the guy at the counter says, “¿Sus tacos con copia o sin copia?”
What do you say?
This literally translates to “with a copy or without a copy” and is a common phrase in Mexico City taco restaurants — essentially, it means, “Do you want an extra tortilla to hold that greasy taco together better?” You made the right choice from a messiness standpoint, and the tacos themselves absolutely deliver and then some.
This literally translates to “with a copy or without a copy” and is a common phrase in Mexico City taco restaurants — essentially, it means, “Do you want an extra tortilla to hold that greasy taco together better?” You refused an extra tortilla, so unfortunately, your tacos (delicious as they are) drip all over your shirt and force you to go back to the hotel for a change of clothes.
The Mercado de San Juan is a lunch adventure for sure. Here, the busy chatter of vendors and customers creates a din over the numerous stalls filled with virtually any kind of food you can imagine — including fried insects, iguana meat and lion burgers.
Since you’re here, you definitely can’t go with something boring. What’ll it be?
You know, some people say insect protein is the way of the future. Once you get past the texture, it’s delicious — but you quickly find yourself reaching for a drink to wash it down.
You make your way to a vendor selling pulque, a traditional pre-Hispanic beverage made from fermented agave sap.
While talking to the vendor, she recommends you go to the Mesón del Cid next, a themed restaurant with medieval nights and magic shows. You feel obliged to take her up on the recommendation, so you take the scenic route there and cap off your evening in a very respectable manner with entertainment from actual court jesters.
Bold choice! The flautas are a dream, but you really weren’t expecting the reaction you were going to have when you took a bite of the scorpion. Unfortunately, you kind of feel like fainting now. Time to go back to the hotel, it seems.
Almost immediately upon making your wish, you hear someone next to you talking about a weird island a couple of miles out from the city that’s full of creepy dolls. It seems like fate has intervened and you have no choice but to follow them now.
At La Isla de las Muñecas, an island in the Xochimilco canals, you learn the story of a man named Don Julian Santana. Long ago, he left his wife and child and moved to the island alone. It’s unclear whether a young girl actually drowned in the lake nearby or whether he imagined it, but he spent the rest of his life collecting and hanging up hundreds of dolls around the island to honor her soul and to ward against danger. He was eventually found drowned in the same part of the lake where he believed the girl died.
You decide to do some exploring on your own after the tour finishes, but when you get back to the ferry stop, you realize the next one isn’t coming until after dark, so you’re stuck here for at least a couple more hours. At least the dolls are happy to have you as a visitor.
You make it to the arena and find that there are still some last-minute tickets available for tonight’s match. You purchase an obligatory luchador mask from the souvenir shop and sit down. You get to talking to the person sitting next to you, who’s also a tourist from your neck of the woods. They ask if you want to place bets on who’s going to win. “YOLO,” you think. Who are you betting on?
Even though El Fantasma appears to be more of a household name around these parts, Super Elektra wins! You graciously accept your pesos and invite your new friend for a beer after the match.
Even though El Fantasma appears to be more of a household name around these parts, Super Elektra wins! Too bad, too — this means you don’t have any extra cash on hand to take a cab back to the hotel. At least it’s a nice night out.
As you wind your way through the colorful, inspired streets of La Roma, you eventually find your way to the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, a public space with a fountain in the middle that looks perfect for people-watching.
Where do you want to sit?
Ugh, looks like you sat in some doo-doo. Time to go back to the hotel and change.
As you sit and observe the activity around you, you notice an attractive stranger who appears to be noticing you. They ask you for your name, and then they signal to wait as they turn around and buy you a rose from a vendor.
Smitten, you agree to join them at the mezcal bar nearby, and the remaining hours go by in a flash as they take you to all their favorite spots in the city. By the time they walk you back to your hotel, you’ve already thought of ways to extend your trip here just a little bit longer.
Seems like a fairytale ending, but if you want, go back to the top and try a new Mexico City adventure.
Yeah, planning is overrated. You step outside the hotel and look around you. To your left is a colorful street art mural. To your right is an abuelito at a jugo (juice) stand. Which way do you go?
You walk over to take a closer look at the mural, and you overhear some other tourists talking about their plans to find Diego Rivera’s murals around the city, perhaps ending up at La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s childhood home.
Are you inspired by this plan?
You spend the rest of your morning experiencing the city by foot and without a plan, taking in the architecture and the noises and the people around you. This just so happens to be one of your favorite ways to move around a new place.
After a couple hours of this, though, you figure it’s time to change course. What next?
You’re brave, and brave gets results. You see a group of approachable-looking people roughly your age who remind you of your friends back home. You walk up to them under the guise of needing recommendations for things to do, but then you smoothly segue into asking them about themselves.
What do you ask them?
Bringing up politics and religion is generally a big faux pas around here, especially as an outsider. At least you didn’t say anything blasphemous.
Nice, that’s always a good conversation-opener, and Mexican people love talking about their food and culture. Before you know it, they invite you to go with them for “unas chelas.”
Of course, breakfast first! You greet the vendor with a “Buenos días” and ask for a grapefruit-pineapple juice and a concha (Mexican sweet bread).
As you’re making your transaction, a beautiful butterfly floats by and you comment, “Que bonita.” The vendor goes on to recommend a magical-sounding butterfly garden in the Bosque de Chapultepec. What do you think?
Diego Rivera’s murals can be found all over the city, including at Palacio Nacional, Secretaría de Educación Pública, Museo Mural Diego Rivera (a small museum dedicated to his work) and Palacio de Bellas Artes. The murals at the Secretariat of Public Education Main Headquarters are especially popular, as this is where his first big project is exhibited.
Between having all these pit-stops and a trip to La Casa Azul to top it all off, you have more than maxed out on your fill of art and culture for the day. How would you prefer to decompress for the evening?
Following the music, you discover a little old-school jazz club in an Art Deco building. You’re sold. You get a table and a drink — perfect opportunity to get your sketch pad out and do some drawing.
After a while, a stranger approaches you and asks for a dance. Do you accept?
How delightful! The dance gets your blood pumping and lifts your spirits. Your dance partner then invites you to another bar where some of their friends are hanging out. They invite you for “unas chelas.”
With your limited Spanish, you simply say “No, gracias,” but you didn’t realize that it’s actually kind of rude in Mexican culture to say “no” that directly. Now you just feel awkward.
You thank your dance partner and close out your tab so you can head to your next haunt. However, in your slightly inebriated state, you somehow wind up becoming part of a public performance art installation, and now you’re trapped. At least you wind up in lots of people’s Instagrams.