In my view Mexico City is hugely underrated. Before I moved to Puebla, just a couple of hours away from the capital, my only impression of it came from school geography lessons where we were told that it was horribly polluted and intimidatingly enormous. Little did I know then how easy it would be to fall for this dynamic and captivating city...
This 48-hour guide makes for a busy couple of days, so if you are able to stay longer it's worth spreading the itinerary out for a more relaxed stay. In my experience, you're likely to be pleasantly surprised by this agreeable and modern city, and with so much to see and do there's no chance of being bored.
The easiest way to get around in the day is by tube: there's an inexpensive and efficient network of underground lines that connect all corners of the metropolis. For shorter distances and at night, hop in a licensed Beetle taxi.
A good place to kick off any visit to Mexico City is the Zócalo, the lively main square of the modern-day capital and once, too, the heart of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs built their capital, Tenochtitlán, on this very land – or more accurately, what was then a lake. The city’s aquatic origins still make themselves apparent in the slowly sinking buildings that you may occasionally spot while wandering around!
Just beside the Zócalo are the recently excavated ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor, which give a palpable sense of the city centre's heritage. You’ll also see a good model of it in the Zócalo underground station. Nearby La Moneda is one of the city’s oldest streets and makes for a good stroll.
Visiting the Diego Rivera murals in the National Palace, which adjoins the Zócalo, is another must. Paintings by the renowned communist artist line almost every wall and stairwell, viscerally depicting all the key episodes in Mexican history with a disregard for political correctness that is all the more noticeable for its setting here in the seat of government.
From the Zócalo, a short walk down Francisco I. Madero takes you to the Palacio de Bellas Artes and an attractive plaza. The Torre Latinoamericana – the skyscraper to your left – offers some of the best views of the city and is well worth the small fee to ascend.
Clear the rest of your afternoon for the Anthropology Museum, as this won’t be a short visit. Undisputedly one of the finest collections of its kind, it’s a real treat for anyone with even a passing interest in history and culture. It also has a fantastic location in the east of the vast Chapultepec Park, and it is thoroughly enjoyable to wander through this green haven and grab some snacks from one of its many food stalls before entering the museum. Don’t miss the delicious fresh mango and watermelon.
In the evening, head to Plaza Garibaldi for a simple, traditional Mexican dinner accompanied by live mariachi bands.
The spectacular ruins of Teotihuacán are a perennial favourite of tourists, and I’d advise you to head out there as early as you can manage to enjoy them in relative peace and in the cool of the morning. Buses leave for Teotihuacán from Mexico City’s north terminal and take around an hour. The ancient city was the forerunner to Tenochtitlán, and the views from its Sun and Moon pyramids are impressive.
Once back in the city, quench your thirst by heading to one of the great saloon bars of Coyoacán for lunch and a michelada – a surprisingly tasty mix of beer, Worcester sauce, lime, chilli and salt. A few blocks apart from each other in this district are the former homes of Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky: both are rewarding but choose Kahlo’s Casa Azul (‘Blue House’) over Trotsky’s bullet-ridden hideout if you are short of time. The artist’s brightly-painted home and studio are evocatively decorated with pre-Hispanic artefacts, textiles and of course Frida’s own paintings.
Finally, take a taxi from Coyoacán to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, which have the appearance of canals but are actually all that remain of the lake that the city was built on. There’s a carnival atmosphere, particularly at weekends, as you glide across the water in a colourful trajinera (punt). These are charged by the boatload, so you may need to join up with other tourists to make a large enough group. Boatfuls of mariachis and vendors of food and drink regularly float past – try the traditional drink pulque, made from fermented agave sap.