Mexico City, the capital of Mexico and the only true blue “city” in the entire country, is a hulk of a metropolis, sprawling intimately across 573 sq. miles. There is so much to see and do within this urban jungle that a good 6-7 days is what you will need for some meaningful exploration. But if you have only three days in Mexico City, you can still manage to get quite a few things crammed in your itinerary, including an awesome Mexico city street food tour and exploring Diego Rivera murals and paintings. Although we missed a few Mexico city attractions such as the Teotihuacan pyramids and several CDMX art museums due to lack of time, we did manage to squeeze in quite a few activities as you will read in this 72 hrs in Mexico city guide. Scroll down to read what we did in Mexico city, including valuable tips on where to see tons of Diego Rivera murals in Mexico city for free and without any crowd, recommendations on where to eat in Mexico city and other CDMX sightseeing activities. For more inspiration on Mexico, do read my fabulous Oaxaca city guide, Oaxaca city street food and of course a guide to Tulum, in the Yucatan Peninsula. Here is another fabulous guide to 19 destinations in Mexico that you need to visit by an expat living there and this one on 5 day Copper Canyon train ride if you are interested in seeing the natural beauty of Mexico. If this is your first time here, this guide on useful traveling tips for Mexico will definitely come handy
Three days in Mexico City: Know before you go
a) Mexico city is huge and has crazy, chaotic traffic. The best way to navigate the city, if you are not driving, is by using UBER, like we did. Although I am not a huge fan of this corporation, I read several articles warning tourists about potential rip offs by taxi drivers and so we opted for Uber. We are also not fluent in Spanish and did not want to spend time looking for “authorized” taxis, and so rideshare was our best option. We had a 100% safe and great experience with UBER in CDMX and the drivers were extremely friendly and courteous. Here is an excellent article on public transportation in Mexico City and an expat’s guide to Mexico city metro for those interested in exploring beyond rideshare.
b) We visited Mexico City in November and were greeted with mild, cooler weather, much like what you see in San Francisco (18-21C/65-70F). A jacket and possibly a scarf are good enough for that weather.
c) The currency of Mexico is “Peso”. Although we did swipe our cards in some cafes and restaurants, it is always good to keep cash in handy for tipping during food tours or for museum fees.
d) Mexico city has friendly patient people who are not offended by your lack of knowledge in their language. But it’s best to learn a few phrases if you are visiting without having any linguistic prowess. Phrases like “how much” and “where is this” or “what is this” are very helpful to know. Also, please keep an eye on your belongings, especially your bags (have them slung across the shoulder with the body facing front) in crowded places like Zocalo, so as to avoid any unpleasant experience of pickpocketing in that crowded place.
Where to stay in Mexico city? Mexico City Neighborhoods
During our three days in Mexico city, we opted for accommodation (entire apartment) via the ever popular AirBnB and chose to live in the trendy neighborhood of Condesa. Our apartment was on the westernmost edge of the neighborhood, near the famous Chapultepec park which is touted to be one the largest parks in the western hemisphere. The park is home to several Mexico city museums, such as the Museum of Anthropologie, two art museums vis Rufino Tamayo museum and the museum of modern art , a zoo, the Chapultepec castle located on top of its namesake hill and many other attractions. Ironically, we gave this very park, a mere 10-15 min walk from our place, a miss due to lack of time. Besides Condesa, we also spend some time in the equally trendy neighborhood of Roma, which boasts of some of the best Mexico city restaurants and mural sightings. The upscale neighborhood of Polanco, again teeming with good restaurants, posh bakeries, stylish boutiques and with close proximity to the park is another great option to stay. Here is a good guide to different neighborhoods of Mexico City.
What to do in Mexico city in three days?
This Mexico city attractions guide is mainly centered around food and art, two of our prime interests. Continue reading if you are curious to know about the best places to view Diego Rivera murals in Mexico city (which are completely free and unknown to many), Frida Kahlo’s home, art museums as well as recommendations on good eats and an amazing Mexico city street food tour.
Diego Rivera Murals in Mexico City
A) Centro Histórico and Zocalo
This historic center is undoubtedly where all the action is as you make your way through people thronging the Zocalo, the city’s main square and also the world third largest public square. The ruins of the ancient Aztec temple/ Templo Mayor are right here and have been converted to a museum which requires a fee to enter but you would be wise to lean against the gate and see the ruins from a distance rather than paying the fee. What is of greater interest though is visiting the scores of museum in and around this area as well as the government buildings, the latter being free to enter upon showing a valid ID. Of these, the National Palace (full of tourists) and the Secretariat of Public Education building (hidden gem and unknown to tourists) are must visits since these are virtual treasure troves of Mexican murals and frescos by Diego Rivera, arguably Mexico’s most celebrated artist and possibly the world’s most famous muralist. While the National Palace has his mega mural depicting the history of Mexico via Aztec, Spanish conquest, consequent freedom, labor movement and communism, there are several other small murals elaborating the different aspects of Mexico’s indigenous past and colonialism.
B) Secretariat building
One of our best findings in CDMX (thanks to a friend) were the at rows and rows of Diego Rivera murals and frescoes at the Secretariat of Public Education building where the theme is even more varied and in sync with the building’s mission, i.e. forming the educational policies of the state. The first floor has murals depicting prehispanic as well as rural scenes and are simple, bold executions in color. The second floor murals are based on science and other disciplines while the third floor murals depict the artists sympathies towards the labor movement and hence communism with his brush coming down heavily on American capitalism via the scathing depiction of “Capitalist dinner” or “Wall street dinner” where the protagonists sitting across the table are either simply chewing on money with great discontent or busy pouring over balance sheets. His recurring theme of the rise of communism in Mexico via the labor movement appear in several murals, one of which features his wife and Mexico’s most iconic symbol Frida Kahlo, at the center of the mural (my favorite). These treasure trove of Diego Rivera murals in Mexico city is virtually unknown by tourists, is free for viewing (you need to show a government issued ID) and is one of the best kept secrets of Mexico city!
Mexico City Museums
A) Bella Artes Museum
We completed Diego’s trail of murals by visiting the Bella Arte Museum, in Centro Historico, which had several small exhibits but the main draws were the murals again, both by Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, another famous Mexican muralist. Tamayo’s Mexico de hoy (Mexico today) and Nacimiento de la Nacionalidad (Birth of Nationality), a symbolic depiction of the creation of the mestizo race (person of mixed ancestry, i.e. indigenous and Spanish) identity were captivating. But perhaps the most famous mural that lies here is Diego’s Man at Crossroads, which he recreated here in 1934 after his original was destroyed at the Rockefeller center in New York because of the displeasure of the Rockefellers over the anti-capitalist theme of the mural and the controversial addition of the famous Russian communist leader Lenin to it. It is a very provocative mural, and one with an enormity not contained in my camera lens; so here is a photo of it (the link also tells you of its interesting past). The recreated mural has a new name at the Bella Arte, which is “Controller of the Universe”. You can read more about it in Wikipedia’s article.
B) Trotsky House (Casa Rojo)
The neighborhood of Coyoacán, a good 40 min drive from Condesa/Roma area, is a quiet residential neighborhood, its ordinariness barely concealing its role in Mexico’s socio-political history, drama and enigma unfolding around its famous residents, namely the exiled Soviet politician Leon Trotsky, who was granted asylum in Mexico city in the late 1930s and spent his last years here prior to his assassination engineered by Stalin. Trotsky was a devout Leninist who spent a lifetime of persecution and exile in the Stalin regime before finding a so called safe haven in Mexico city, brokered by Diego Rivera. He lived with Diego and Frida in their home (Casa Azul/Blue house) for sometime before moving out to his own home nearby which now has been converted to a museum. The museum has photos chronicling the life of Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova in Mexico city and his home has been well preserved with all the rooms and their artifacts as intact as they were when inhabited by it’s famous resident. This house/museum stays quietly under the radar of tourists and barring a few curious visitors, does not get a lot of foot traffic. However, if you are a history buff, a plain curious person or are intrigued by the association of Trotsky with Frida (they were rumored to have a romantic relationship) and want to know more about the turbulent life of the former and the tragedy that beset his life due to opposition to the ruthless dictator Stalin, then a visit to this house is a must. We spent some time there and loved the quietness of the place as well as the neat and tidy house, reeking of history. The entrance fee does not cover photograph, for which one must pay separately.
C) Casa Azul/Blue House/Frida Kahlo Museum
A stone’s throw away from Casa Rojo lies Casa Azul, Coyocan’s top attraction and the reason why tons of tourists visit this quiet neighborhood. The famous blue house stands here which was the residence of Mexico’s most celebrated couple Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and is now a museum with several of Frida’s drawings, her possessions and other fascinating exhibits such as her garments and dresses that have inspired famous designers worldwide. Frida, arguably even more famous than her husband and possibly the most renowned female artist of the 20th century, led a fascinating life full where her imagination took flight in her neo-surrealist, yet distinct artistic expressions to escape a life of physical pain and longing to be a mother. Those who are familiar with her life’s works will see these themes recurring in her canvas which were mostly her way of self-expression of herself as a Mexican woman, a Latina and a vulnerable being left to shards by her crippling pain (multiple surgeries had left her body dissected owing to a terrible childhood accident) and husband’s infidelity. Although she traveled extensively with Diego to North America (NYC, San Francisco and Detroit) and Europe (Paris), her heart belonged to Mexico and all her paintings are proud representations of her ethnicity and self.
The Frida Kahlo museum (their house with a beautiful garden) has some of her select paintings in the lower level and the upper level hosts her painting studio (where she painted her self portraits) and her bedroom where she breathed her last. To escape the long line near the ticketing booth, it is best advised to buy tickets online (a mere $6-8 USD) and pay separately at the coat/bag check in for photography inside the house (it’s free in the garden). Another must visit attraction if you are spending three days in Mexico City.
D) Dolores Olmedo Museum
Once you are done with Casa Azul, its best advised to move southward for another 30 min drive to arrive at the palatial residence and gardens of Dolores Olmedo, a Mexican businesswoman and art collector, which has now been aptly converted to a museum by that name and that boasts of a collection of Diego Rivera’s paintings that are hitherto unseen. The museum is in Xochimilco , a neighborhood in the southern part of the city and is not only famous for its artistic possessions but the majestic peacocks that roam around its gardens and the hairless Xochimilco dogs running around their equally lifelike statues. Apart from Diego’s soul stirring paintings showcasing his prowess over the art form and different styles (he was influenced by the Cubism movement in his early days), there was another exhibit on Frida’s photos as well as a fun one on Day of the Dead (Dia de los muertos), a pagan/folk festival celebrated in south and central Mexico. Further south (4.3 miles) is the famous Xochimilco lake, a popular Mexico city tourist attraction, but we did not have time to visit and get a ride on the lake on the colorful water boats.
Shopping in Mexico City: Artisans Market (Centro Artesenal Cuidadela)
If you want to pick up local souvenirs as gift, then stop by the central artists market lying midway between Condesa and Centro Historico for shopping as well as supporting local artists. This is an open air market and lots of stalls selling every Mexican artisanal stuff imaginable ranging from touristy knick knacks to beautiful mirrors, bags, metal artwork and handlooms. You are best advised to not make all your purchases in the front stalls but have a good hour or two in your hands to explore the market and get good deals from inner stores. Bargaining, specially if you are fluent in Spanish, is not a bad idea at all. We certainly struck gold with a few things we bought as gifts for friends and family while shopping in Mexico city.
Where to eat in Mexico city?
A) Mexico city street food tour
Mexico city is known for its street food (read this excellent guide to street food in Merida, Mexico here) , standing tall and proud with its fine dining options. We decided to get some guidance on where to get the best chow on the streets without falling sick with the help of a professional street food tour (if you have never been on one, here is my guide to street food tours). We went with Eat Mexico, a reputed food tour company and touted to be one of the best in business and opted for the Mexico city street food tour. Our tour guide Anais, took us on various stops in the busy Cuauhtémoc neighborhood and we sampled various kinds of street food (tamales, bambozas, Mexican Quesadillas, fruit cups, juices, fresh tortillas and tacos al pastor) from different street vendors. Anais was an expert guide who knew the culinary scene of Mexico city like the back of her hand and made our tour super enjoyable with several fun filled trivia on Mexican food and dispelled many incorrect notions, such as sour cream being an alien concept in Mexico (they have crema that is nothing like sour cream) and that it is super illogical to have rice in burrito and therefore a Mexican burrito does not have one. This was hands down one of the best food tours we’ve ever been on in terms of tour quality, food diversity and food history. The tour is extremely filling so please come on an empty stomach. The tour also accommodates vegetarians but you have to notify beforehand. The street food tour ended with a visit to a popular Mexican confectionary and Anais also provides us with a map of all these places that we visited lest we wanted to make a return visit. For another yummy food tour and more dining options that we could not cover in only three days, here is Lisa’s guide to where to eat in Mexico city, filled with delicious dining options!
B) Mexico City restaurants and cafes
Although we had only three days in Mexico city, we still managed to hit several Mexico city top restaurants that came highly recommended online in many foodie forums. We could not get into likes of Pujol or Quintonil due to lack of reservation (need to reserve 2-3 weeks in advance) but made pit stops at the old-school Nicos for lunch (touted to be best restaurant in DF/District Federal/Mexico City), Baja Californian Merotero for dinner, the wildly popular Contramar for lunch (seafood), Pasteleria Suiza and Panaderia Rosetta for baked goods, Lalo for dinner again, the hep and trendy Eno and Delirio for breakfast/brunch. Obviously three days is not enough to sample the mind boggling spread of Mexico city, but once you’ve eaten here, it will be tough to taste anything peddled as Mexican food north of the border. Fresh ingredients, simple cooking that bursts with flavor and the sheer creativity with food makes Mexico city one of the most exciting culinary destinations of the world.
That brings me to the end of this blog post on visiting Mexico City in three days. Let it’s size and traffic not intimidate you, rather embrace its beauty, its history, culture, art and the dynamic food scene. Remember, keep that wanderlust going and build bridges, not walls!