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Mexico City for beginners in 11 easy steps

Mexico City for beginners in 11 easy steps

The Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

When it comes to visiting Mexico, many tourists opt first for its coastal resorts, with destinations such Puerto Vallarta known as being very LGBTI-friendly.

However, for a very different sort of break, don’t overlook the country’s huge capital, Mexico City. With a population of approximately 9million, this sprawling dense, bustling city offers centuries of history, over 180 different museums and more street food than you’ll possibly be able to sample.

I made my first visit in late October, in part to report upon the annual LGBT Confex, a business forum on LGBTI diversity and inclusion. It also happened to coincide with the city’s Day of the Dead celebrations.

Is it safe?

A little alarmingly, the first thing people said to me when I told them that I was going to ‘Ciudad de Mexico’ was usually along the lines of, ‘be careful!’

Yes, the city has a reputation for crime, and the heavy presence of armed police on the streets would suggest it’s not a reputation wholly unfounded. At the same time, it should not be blown out of proportion.

Mexicans I met told me the city is much improved, particularly in relation to LGBT visibility. Others pointed out that many confuse Mexico City with the neighboring Mexico State, where crime is more common.

Like any city, there are some neighborhoods that you might want to avoid after dark, but the advice of ‘just use your common sense’ ensured that I never felt threatened or concerned during my own stay.

In fact, bear in mind that Mexico City’s crime rate is ranked less than Washington DC, Chicago and New Orleans.

Mexico City
Mexico City Kasper Christensen | CreativeCommons2.0

Here’s a beginner’s list of recommendations…

1. National Palace

The ‘Palacio Nacional’ can be found on the historic thoroughfare known as Moneda. It’s free to enter, but try to aim for a quieter time of day to avoid the queues. Although government offices take up much of the building, it’s a must-see for the stunning murals of Diego Rivera.

The National Palace borders the Zocalo – the largest city square in Latin America, which also offers the grand Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption. The square is also the location of various festivals, including the annual LGBTI Pride gathering and Day of the Dead festivities.

Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace in Mexico City
Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace in Mexico City David Hudson

2. Palacio de Bellas Artes

The Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of the Mexico City’s most distinctive landmarks. The art deco-ish building dates back to the early half of the 20th century. It plays host to exhibitions, ballet and theatre productions, and features a distinctive orange and yellow gold dome. It’s worth a visit just to admire the interior lobby.

Opposite the building is Sears. Visit the 8th floor café for its stunning, balcony view of the Palacio.

3. Frida Kahlo House

Mexico is second only to London in the number of museums that if offers: over 150. The Frida Kahlo museum, found in the famed artist’s former home, is one of the most popular.

You won’t see a great deal of Kahlo’s art on display (most of which is housed in big galleries or private collections), but you get a glimpse into the fascinating life of this 20th century enigma.

A word of warning though: you must buy tickets online in advance if you want to avoid queuing for hours.

Frida Kahlo - self-portrait
Frida Kahlo – self-portrait David Hudson

4. Chapultepec Park

Chapultepec is Mexico City’s very own Central Park, only considerably bigger.

Besides acres of greenery, it plays host to markets and cafes, as well as the Museum of Modern Art and fascinating Anthropology Museum – the biggest museum in the country. The modernist building was designer in 1964 by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, while the displays tell you everything you may have wanted to know about Mexico, its people and history.

The Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
The Anthropology Museum, Mexico City David Hudson

5. Teotihuacan Pyramids

Around a one-hour drive from Mexico City are the ruins of Teotihuacan. These are a must-see. Dating back to a civilization that ran from late BC to around 900 AD, they mark the location of the biggest, earliest urban city in the whole of Latin America.

At its peak, the city had 20,000 inhabitants, who dedicated themselves to a frenzy of temple building. Construction of the biggest began in 200BC and took around 400 years to complete. The pyramid-shaped temple is 15-minute climb: provided you’re OK with some pretty steep steps! Tour groups operate from Mexico City.

David Hudson at the Teotihuacan ruins
David Hudson at the Teotihuacan ruins David Hudson

6. La Gruta

If you visit the Teotihuacan temples, do try to eat at La Gruta. This unique, large restaurant opened in 1906 and is housed within a local cave. There is a large opening on one side, so it’s not actually claustrophobic or dark and gloomy. The menu offers a selection of classic ‘pre-Hispanic’ Mexican cuisine, including chinicuil (‘chilli caterpillar’) and escamoles (or guijes/ant larvae).

La Gruta restaurant
La Gruta restaurant David Hudson

7. Downtown Mexico

Downtown Mexico’ is a hip hotel in the downtown district, but it also sits atop a boutique shopping mall and restaurant space. I enjoyed amazing sea food at Puntarena (Calle Isabel la Católica 30, Cuauhtémoc, Centro), a courtyard restaurant with an amazing wall garden. On the first floor of the mall is the equally tempting chocolateria, Que Bo – showcasing the best in Mexican chocolate creations and truffles.

Puntarena, Downtown Mexico
Puntarena, Downtown Mexico David Hudson

8. Xaman Bar

Do you love cocktails? Check at Xaman Bar, hidden away in a side street next to the Marriott Reforma. The bar stocks every sort of liquer imaginable, including plenty of tequila and mescal, as well as row upon row of herbal extracts and tinctures.

9. Nicos

Nicos is rated as one of the best 50 restaurants in Latin America. Although the interior of this upmarket establishment is a little canteen-like, the food, created by architect-turned-chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, is amazing.

I visited and tried a six-course tasting menu, which came to 850 pesos (roughly $41 Or €39?) – it would cost at least twice that amount in London or New York for this quality of food. It’s well worth a taxi ride to the Claveria neighborhood.

10. Condesa, Roma and Polanca

Neighborhood-wise, Zona Rosa is the area with the most LGBTI bars, but is also the red light district, so can feel rough around the edges. The neighborhoods of Condesa, Roma and Polanca are quieter and more genteel – and popular with those hunting for designer boutiques and restaurants. Treat yourself to sushi at glamorous Japanese restaurant Tori Tori in Polanca, before browsing the large fashion store, Common People.

11. Gay scene

In the Zona Rosa district, I highly recommended local bears bar, Nicho. Decked out with plenty of cute lucha libra paraphernalia, the resident DJs spin a camp-leaning selection of pop. Other Zona Rosa bars to check out include Kinky and Lollipop.

You’re more likely to hear Mexican music at downtown bars such as Marrakesh, Purisima and La Perla. If it’s cruising you’re seeking, head to Tom’s Leather Bar in Condessa. Despite the name, it welcomes guys in any sort of clothing. Nearby are also Guilt, Envy and Saint.

Monumento a Cuauhtémoc, Reforma, Mexico City
Monumento a Cuauhtémoc, Reforma, Mexico City Mexico City Tourism Trust

Follow the official Mexico City tourism board at @MexicoCityLive (Facebook and Twitter)

Looking for guidance? Check out local tour guide Antonio Suárez (@antoniohsuarez) for private, personalized walking tours: [email protected]