48 HOURS IN MEXICO CITY
A weekend in CDMX with Leah, pushing the limits of what we could eat and explore in just two days
The decision to go to Mexico City started over lunch tacos in D.C. I was so taken with my meal that I suggested we go for a weekend. Nearly all of my travel revolved around outdoor exploring, and time spent within a city was reserved for layovers and car rentals. We made an aggressive itinerary to make the most of our time there.
I wasn't a fan of most weekend itineraries online for Mexico City. Neither of us were interested in shopping, we didn't care for family-friendly destinations, we were open to a lot of exploring on foot, and I was more interested in food than in museums. I'm putting together this guide not only to document what we did for my future self, but also for you in case you're visiting CDMX (Ciudad de México) or are just open to being inspired to visit.
Our trip was in early June 2018. For a list of some practical tips, scroll to the bottom of this page.
1PM | Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México
I took the Friday off work and spent my morning in transit. Leah's flight would land an hour later, so I had time at the MEX airport to exchange my dollars into pesos since several places we planned to eat at were cash-only food stalls on the street.
Our Airbnb was in a neighborhood north of Zócalo, the main square of city, because of price and views from the rooftop. The neighborhood was quiet, with not a lot going on. After checking in and a quick shower, we were back out into the city to start exploring.
4:15PM | Mercado de San Juan
Our first stop was an old market in the center of the historic district. In addition to fruits, uncommon meats, cheeses, and tiny restaurant stalls, there were also scorpions and grasshoppers. We arrived just before the market would close for the day, but there were still locals shopping and grabbing a meal, as well as vendors calling us over to them. It's a great place to take in the sights, smells, and sounds of a neighborhood market.
5PM | El K-Guamo (also known as El Caguamo)
Our first meal was at a food stall around the corner from the market. The Tamariz family has been serving seafood to locals for over 40 years from this street stand. They opened up a sit-down restaurant a block east, but we opted for the cramped bar stools at the original location.
We ordered tostada de jaiba to start and got two crunchy tortillas topped with onions, lime, and a generous portion of blue crab and avocado slices. Leah was drawn to the octopus on the menu and we got what may have been the largest serving we've ever been served.
We were still tired from the flight, so we stopped into Cafe Cordobés a few feet away for a small café con leche. The coffee shop was striking in how traditional it looked and the strong, earthy smell of coffee wafting into the bustling street. We even saw an older woman making whipped cream by hand.
5:30PM | Tacos Cocuyos
We walked a little further to a taco stand close to the main square. Tacos Cocuyos was another spot that came highly recommended. The menu has a whole range of meats that we weren't be used to seeing at home, like eyes, ears, and brains. All the meats were simmering in a large, bubbling broth with an occasional hand digging in to pull out and chop up whatever was ordered.
Our tacos were soft, juicy, and over too soon. I ate my first one before realizing where the salsa was, so I asked for a second one immediately. We sat on the red, plastic stools around the shop and watched the steady stream of customers placing orders and listening to the sounds of the street occasionally punctuated by the whack of a cleaver mincing meat for another taco.
6PM | Plaza de la Constitución (Zócalo)
We needed a break from eating so we headed over to the main square. There was a festival for Spring with vendors selling flowers and local products under massive tents. There was also military band performing on stage and marching in the center of the square surrounded by onlookers singing the national anthem.
7:30PM | Gran Hotel Ciudad de México
Just before sunset, we headed over to a very fancy hotel with a roof deck overlooking the square. We didn't have any issue getting a table, but we did see the look of disappointment on the waiter's face when we told him we were only here for a drink.
Our view of the square was obscured by the large festival tents, but we did get a good look at the cathedral to the north. The cocktails here tasted more like juice, so maybe consider getting a cold beer and a mezcal to sip on instead.
10:30PM | La Casa de Toño
We went back to the Airbnb to relax on the rooftop overlooking the neighborhood before heading back out for a late dinner. We got to La Casa de Toño and were met with a large crowd waiting to get in. After getting a number from the hostess, we waited only five minutes before being seated, since nearly everyone ahead of us seemed to have left to go eat somewhere else.
Our quirky, old Uber driver asked if we'd be getting the pozole which is what they were known for here. It was cheap and more than enough for the two of us. The stew was a hearty mix that was perfect for the slightly chilly evening. The restaurant itself is impressive in how efficiently it's run. All of the waiters seemed to be making a dramatic display of sprinting with arms full of plates and coming to a halt just before colliding with a table of customers. Also worth noting is that the salsas provided were one of the best mixes I've ever had.
11:30PM | Xaman
We were tired and had an even bigger day ahead of us tomorrow, but we agreed to a nightcap at Xaman. This bar was on a very quiet side-street and marked with an eye above a staircase leading to a basement. It wasn't hard to find, since there was a short queue ahead of us. We were let in after a few minutes.
This cocktail bar is one of the better ones I've been to anywhere. From what I'd read, they were at the cutting edge of the cocktail culture in CDMX. The vibe of the bar itself was great, and the moderate lighting, couches, and low-key electronic music made it feel more like a cool friend's house party.
8:30AM | Rafaella Panaderia
The following day, we woke up a bit later than planned and made our way over to a bakery in the southern part of the city. After placing our order, we were visited five minutes later by another waiter who re-took our order. Apparently our Spanish was so confusing to the first waiter that he sent someone else to take care of us. The cafe is open and airy, with a large glass window inside looking into the bakers working magic on the pastries.
9:30AM | Viveros de Coyoacán
I heard about a tree nursery in the city and we decided to check it out since we were nearby. There were lots of morning joggers and others doing yoga in deeply secluded areas between the trees. We explored a bit, wandering through the small pathways crossing the park, but wished we had woken up earlier to see more.
10:30AM | Museo Frida Kahlo
Leah suggested we go to the Frida Kahlo museum and got tickets in advance. There was still a wait to get in, but it wasn't too long. I didn't know much at all about Frida Kahlo, so it was an entire learning experience for me.
I enjoyed being in the courtyard more than the inside, since I'm not comfortable shuffling along a queue in a tight crowd. I appreciated seeing her work first-hand though. It was moving and inspiring. I could understand why she has such a special place in the hearts of many people I know.
12:30PM | Contramar
We headed over to the Roma neighborhood to eat lunch at Contramar, another seafood destination that came highly recommended. I was a bit surprised at the number of seafood recommendations we got, given that Mexico City is landlocked, but I later learned that both coasts of the country would bring fresh fish daily, especially from Veracruz.
We had a reservation made weeks before, so we had no issue getting seated in the very popular restaurant. It was clear that this was a tourist favorite. I got the raw tuna tostada (tostada de atun), which wasn't as heavy as the tostada from yesterday, but was cleaner in taste and more buttery on the tongue. It would be my favorite thing that I'd eat all weekend. We also got the signature dish, pescado a la talla, which was a grilled snapper rubbed half with red chilli adobo and half with parsley. I wasn't too excited about it, and would have preferred to have sampled more of the menu instead. Contramar is certainly a place I'd like to come back to.
2PM | Roma neighborhood
We wanted to explore the trendy neighborhood of Roma and also walk off our large meal. It was different from everywhere else we've seen, and parts of it felt more like a cross between an posh Parisian district and Brooklyn's Williamsburg. There weren't many people out in the street; most were taking shade in the many parks we walked through. Leah and I both noted that the city felt more lush and green than back home, and we reminded ourselves that we were quite far south.
3PM | Blanco Colima
While wandering through Roma, we caught sight of a mansion with large windows that gave us a glimpse of an attractive restaurant inside. We needed a bathroom break at the moment, so we decided to stop in for a drink.
Blanco Colima nails the luxury aesthetic and is very beautifully and thoughtfully decorated. The main bar is made of white marble and sits in a room with walls shooting up three stories to an open ceiling that gives a view of the sky. After hydrating ourselves, we set back out into the sun.
4:30PM | Helado Obscuro
We had a quick dessert stop at a place that mixed ice cream with different liquors. I don't have much of a sweet tooth at all, but I enjoyed a full three scoops of pineapple and rum.
The staff inside was friendly and patient with our limited Spanish and our fascination with the unfamiliar fruits listed among flavors. We sat outside on the benches, enjoying our last minutes in Roma before taking a cab to head west.
5:30PM | Bosque de Chapultepec
Bosque de Chapultepec is the largest park in the city and twice the size of NYC's Central Park. It's divided up into three sections, with the easternmost part containing a zoo, several museums, and the Chapultepec Castle (which houses the National History Museum today). This section has the most foot traffic from both locals and tourists. The second section holds a large amusement park, and the third area to the west is known for it's wooded areas and wildlife. We stuck to the first section and spent the late afternoon wandering around.
A 1987 article in the NY Times called the park a microcosm of Mexico. We walked through areas with small vendors, clowns entertaining crowds of families, children chasing each other, and more tranquil places where couples were relaxing under large trees. I was glad we came here on a weekend, where we could witness the city's local community enjoying themselves. Here's some history from the NY Times article:
There has been a continuous human presence in the park since at least A.D. 1122, when the Toltecs arrived and gave Chapultepec its name, which means Hill of the Grasshopper....Later, the Aztecs came and, overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the area, chose Chapultepec Hill as the repository for the ashes of their rulers...Chapultepec also proved to be a favorite place for the emperor Montezuma Xocoyotzin, who built a zoo and arboretum.
7PM | Condesa neighborhood
We did have a goal of staying in Chapultepec til sunset for a view of the city from the top of the castle. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that access to the castle is closed off after 5pm.
We were close to the Condesa neighborhood and took a walk through there on our way to dinner. Compared to the trendy and chic neighborhood of Roma, Condesa had more of a fashionable, bohemian vibe with many tree-lined streets tracing boutique shops, homes with uniquely art deco architecture, and hiding small pockets of nature like Avenida Ámsterdam.
7:30PM | Parque México and Churrería El Moro
As the sun was setting, we watched the last few minutes of a soccer game in Parque México. A churrería that had been recommended to us was nearby so we decided to get a sugar fix before dinner. Churros are basically fried strips of dough tossed in sugar and canela (Mexican cinnamon). It's a fairly simple, comforting dessert and El Moro has been serving what many say is the best in the city since 1935. The old-fashioned blue aprons of the servers and the minimal geometric aesthetic patterns make this Instagram-fodder for a lot of visitors.
8:30PM | Azul Condesa
Our dinner for tonight would be at Azul Condesa, easily the fanciest restaurant we'd be dining at all trip. I almost dismissed it because I assumed it would be too pricey. After converting the pesos on the menu into dollars, I realized it wasn't far off from the cost of a standard dinner in NYC, so I made a reservation. Azul Condesa is headed by Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, widely regarded as a top chef in Latin American cuisine. Of all his restaurants, Azul Condesa reflects the diversity and richness of the Oaxacan region's coastline, valleys, and mountains.
After a drink, we started off with the crema de flor de calabaza soup. I was intrigued by the description, which noted that the soup was made with 18 flowers found in Central Mexico. It was incredibly velvety and delightfully floral.
We were also curious to try the guacamole con chapulines, basically guacamole topped with crispy, fried pieces of grasshoppers. They were served alongside totopos from southern Oaxaca, a round chip similar to a tortilla except baked in a clay oven and originating from the Zapotec people. The grasshoppers added a fun texture to each bite and had me thinking that fried grasshoppers should be more common back home in the US.
The highlight of the meal was the legendario mole negro: a serving of chicken thickly coated in a black, smoky mole sauce. We cleaned the plate up for every last bit of the sauce, and it may have ruined mole sauce for me in the future by setting a new bar.
10:30PM | La Clandestina
Leah's co-worker happened to be in the CDMX that week so we agreed to meet up at a speakeasy-like mezcal bar. She invited several friends who were visiting as well, but had lived in Mexico City for years. We had the locals order our mezcal for us and exchanged stories in a cramped corner room with a slow-moving ceiling fan above our heads.
While chatting with our new friends, a man appeared with two metal rods connected to a control panel. It was part of a game where we'd pay the man to electrocute us. The idea is that everyone holds hands to form a closed circuit with the metal rods. The goal is to hold on for as long as possible without letting go as the voltage slowly increases. We didn't last for very long but it was very entertaining for an unexpected drinking game.
9AM | El Cardenal
Our last meal of the weekend would be breakfast, and we were lucky that El Cardenal was a short walk from our Airbnb.
The restaurant is housed in a four-story Parisian-style mansion and occupies an rare space of being comfortably familiar while also feeling grand. It was founded in 1969, but revamped about a decade ago and established as the go-to destination for a refined traditional meal. We sat next to a family celebrating a birthday and several elderly couples having a meal before heading to church.
The menu is quite large and I had a hard time settling on only one item. Leah says El Cardenal had the best food of any place we visited all weekend. It's certainly a spot worth revisiting multiple times. We were lucky in being seated quickly and in a quiet room. There was a crowd snaking out the the door on our way out.
We planned to grab a juice before our flight at Jugos Canada around the corner, but they hadn't opened yet for the day. We left the remainder of our pesos with someone on the street and got into a cab heading for the airport.
MY TOP TIPS FOR MEXICO CITY
I'd love if every person who read this was convinced to go to Mexico City, or anywhere in Mexico. I hope you stay for longer than we did as well. I'm eager to go back and learn more about Mexican food, the landscape, people, and culture. For the short period that I was there, I picked up some tips that may help anyone who does choose to visit.
- On the flight to Mexico City, carry a pen for the immigration form.
- When the plane lands, don't push people to get off the airplane. If you're in a rush to get to customs, just walk faster after disembarking the plane. A few minutes of cardio will save you many more minutes of waiting in a line.
- After successfully passing through immigration check, do NOT lose the bottom stub of the form that you've filled out to enter. You'll need it on your departure. If you lose it, you'll pay $30 and it'll delay you up to 30 minutes when leaving.
- When exchanging currency at the airport, walk 3 minutes further from your gate and you'll immediately see better conversion rates. Come prepared with $100 bills instead of smaller bills if you want to get a better rate.
LOGISTICS AND PRACTICAL ADVICE
- Uber is extremely cheap. We didn't bother trying to figure out the metro system because of how quick and cheap it was to get in an Uber. We also didn't even try using local cabs.
- Pay for a data plan so that you can use Uber.
- Download Google Translate's Spanish translations offline and download Google Maps's area for Mexico City offline. Test these out in offline mode before you visit. This may help if your data plan isn't unlimited.
- Bring sunscreen and moisturizer. Mexico City is at a pretty decent altitude (7,382ft | 2,250m) and was quite sunny when we visited. If you're doing a lot of walking, you may get dry and sunburned quickly.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
- Food is extremely cheap here, even at high-end restaurants. With the exception of Contramar, we saw many more (if not entirely) Mexicans than tourists everywhere we ate.
- When drinking mezcal, don't shoot it. Sip on it and enjoy at a slower pace.
- Spend the time in advance to make a reservation for a restaurant, or just go when they open. We saved hours of waiting by planning in advance. For places that require you call them for a reservation, try emailing them nicely if you don't want to call and make a reservation verbally in Spanish.
- Tip well wherever you go! We had full meals that cost us the equivalent of $5 each, and it felt unusual to leave a 20% tip on such a small total. Tip generously.
WHEN TO GO
- We visited Mexico City the weekend after Memorial Day in the US. We suspect that may have played a role in why there were so few Americans everywhere (i.e., most of them had visited the weekend before).
- Buy tickets to the Frida Kahlo Museum in advance. This tip is everywhere online, but it's worth repeating. There were many people who didn't buy in advance and were waiting in a long line. Even if you do have tickets purchased in advance, get to the museum 15-20 minutes before your scheduled time since there's also a line for ticket-holders.
- Sundays are challenging to plan mornings for, since many places may be closed or will open late because of church. This is may be a no-brainer to some people, but it was something to get used to for someone who lives in NYC.
- You can't entirely trust the hours of operation listed on Yelp and Google. Many places we went to were open later than what was posted.
Despite missing out on a large part of the city we did our best to get a sense of what Mexico City was about, and loved it. I'm glad I can share a window into the experience and hopefully convince you to also prioritize visiting Mexico.
Already looking forward to my next visit. Thanks for reading and hit me up with any feedback or questions.