Mexico City is a place that I think everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime, it has big city energy but also small-town charm, European-looking neighborhoods, the most museums in the world, amazing traditional cuisine, a booming craft cocktail scene, the list goes on and on, the only real problem is, where does one start?
If you are wondering what are the top things to do in Mexico City as a first-time visitor, this post will give you the bones for your trip to the capital.
What To Do in Mexico City as A First-Time Visitor
Historic Center of Mexico City
The Mexican capital extends far and wide, so the best place to start your adventure is definitely at the heart of it all, the Historic Center of Mexico City.
The Historic Center of Mexico City is a great place to wander around to get a better understanding of the country and its history, in this area of the city you will come across ruins from the Aztec empire as well as the Colonial architecture that came after.
My favorite thing about the historic center of Mexico City is that it is as eclectic as the city itself, it has high-end hotels and elegant restaurants, but also lots of street vendors, taco stands, and street performers, the Gothic Metropolitan Cathedral sitting next to the ruins of the Aztec Empire.
Visiting the Historic Center of Mexico City is a non-negotiable if you are looking for the best things to do in Mexico City as a first-time visitor.
While walking through the Historic Center of Mexico City you will inevitably end up at El Zócalo, also known as Plaza de la Constitución, Mexico City’s main square and also the biggest one in all of Latin America.
Before the Spanish conquest, this place operated as the main ceremonial site for the Aztecs, nowadays it is used as a cultural and political stage for all kinds of events throughout the year. It is also the main square where the Mexican people gather, whether it is to celebrate or protest something.
If you would like to enjoy this view of El Zócalo square make sure to check out our post on how to do the Historic Center of Mexico City like a local.
Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral
Right by El Zócalo you will find the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral, the oldest and largest Roman Catholic cathedral in Latin America.
The Cathedral was built on top of an old sacred Aztec area, right next to the Aztec Templo Mayor, to make a point of the Spanish power over the natives and their enforcement of the Catholic religion.
The construction of this emblematic building started in 1573 and expanded over a period of 250 years, which is why the architecture is so influenced by so many different styles, such as Gothic, Neoclassical, and Baroque.
This impressive structure should be at the top of your list of things to do in Mexico City as a first-time visitor.
Ruins of Templo Mayor
As mentioned above, right next to the Metropolitan Cathedral you will find the ruins of Templo Mayor, the most important sacred building of the Aztec civilization, and a now protected archaeological site.
Templo Mayor used to consist of two temples, one dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, and one to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and it used to stand at 42m tall, but nowadays is all closer to ground level, where you can only see some of the steps and decorations that laid at the feet of the temple.
As mentioned before, the Historic Center of Mexico City is a place of contrasts, and for me, this is one of the loudest ones, being able to see the physical history of the two civilizations that make up the modern identity of my country, the Aztec sacred temple on one side and the Roman Catholic Cathedral on the other one. It’s a very loaded sight.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Also in the beating heart of Mexico City, you will find the beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes, the palace of fine arts, Mexico’s home for all things art and culture, as well as the Alameda Central, a lush city park with street vendors, and a night market.
Seeing the structure of Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of the top things to do in Mexico City as a first-time visitor, and if you want to further immerse yourself in the culture you can check Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts event schedule here.
Angel de la Independencia
Angel de la Independencia, or the Independence Angel, is one of Mexico City’s most iconic monuments, which is why stopping by it is one of the top things to do in Mexico City as a first-time visitor.
It was inaugurated in 1910 to commemorate 100 years since the beginning of the country’s Independence war from Spain. As the name suggests, the main feature of the monument is an angel at the top of a tower that stands at 94m tall.
Nowadays El Angel remains a relevant part of modern Mexican culture since it has become a key meeting point for the country to celebrate or mourn national, cultural, political, and sporting events.
The Chapultepec Forest is the living lungs of the densely populated Mexico City, it is almost twice as big as the world-famous New York City Central Park, and just like Central Park, it has four lakes, a zoo, and a castle, but Mexico City, once again, shines for its cultural offerings by having eight museums inside the forest premises.
Inside the park, you can rent pedal boats on the lake, take a leisurely stroll through the greenery, or visit one of the many museums—if you only have time for one, I would definitely recommend visiting Chapultepec Castle.
El bosque de Chapultepec, or Chapultepec Forest, is the perfect escape from the buzzing city center, that’s why visiting it is one of the best things to do in Mexico City for a first-time visitor.
La Roma and La Condesa neighborhoods
La Roma and La Condesa are the two most popular neighborhoods in Mexico City and for good reason. These neighborhoods feel very contrasting to the ever-expanding capital, here nothing is rushed, and everything is walkable.
Roma and Condesa have a very relaxed European feel to them, with their tree-lined streets, avenues with pedestrian corridors going through them with fountains and benches, and little cafes and bakeries everywhere, you will feel like you are no longer in this monstrous city but in a welcoming village instead.
These two neighborhoods are a staple when it comes to the social life of the city which is why they are a must-see in Mexico City, they are packed with restaurants, food trucks, street markets, coffee shops, bars, bookstores, boutiques, museums, and lots of green areas to relax. An area very loved by locals and visitors alike.
La Roma and La Condesa are by far my favorite area of the city and spending some time exploring them is one of the best things to do in Mexico City for anyone visiting, whether it is for the first or the tenth time.
Coyoacán is a laid-back artist borough with a very quintessential Mexican town feel to it—the streets are cobblestone, the houses are quaint and colorful, and there is a little town square with a chapel next to it.
Besides being full of charm, Coyoacán is also full of history and great cultural and intellectual value due to its proximity to the National University (UNAM), which caused a lot of recognized artists, writers, and intellectuals throughout the years to settle down in this area.
That is why, besides being a lovely area to visit and stroll through, Coyoacán is also home to a variety of museums, one of the most famous ones being Frida Kahlo’s blue home.
Whether you visit for the cute artsy town vibe, or for a museum day, we still think you should definitely add Coyoacán to your list of best things to do in Mexico City.
If you are all maxed out on tourist attractions and museums and all you want to do is to sit back and relax with a beer out in the sun, why not do it Mexico City style? On a colorful boat on an Aztec canal.
One of the best things to do in Mexico City is to spend an afternoon with friends navigating the canals of Xochmilico on board a flamboyant boat, eating some antojitos (Mexican street food), and sipping a beer, with your own playlist blasting from a speaker.
All you need to prepare for your picnic on the water is to stop by an OXXO on the way there to get some drinks, (max 3 beers per person), and the antojitos you can buy at the entrance of the canals.
I did this for my birthday once and it was so much fun! This is one of the top things to do in Mexico City, for tourists and locals alike.
PS: Do not drink anywhere outside the boat area as this is illegal in Mexico and will get stopped for it… we learned the hard way that there is a police station right across the street.
Day Trip to Teotihuacan
If you have the time in your itinerary, one of the top things to do in Mexico City is to take a day trip to see the grand pyramids in Teotihuacan.
I passionately believe that anyone that ever goes to Mexico City for longer than four days should absolutely make the day trip out there to see the impressive city of Teotihuacan. I have visited other archeological sites around Mexico, but the size and magnitude of this ancient city are like no other place.
To help you plan your trip there make sure to check out our post on everything you need to know to visit Teotihuacan.
We hope you found this list of the essential things to do in Mexico City as a first-time visitor helpful.
Mexico City is a place that is easy to come back to over and over, so it’s good to cover the basics on your first trip, so you can then move on to peeling other layers of the buzzing Mexican capital. Have you been to Mexico City before? Do you think there are any other essentials that we are missing? Let us know.