Okay, let’s keep this intro brief and dive right into how to spend 3 days in Mexico City. First off, though, I do need to say that, no matter what, three days is simply not enough to fully appreciate this enormous, wondrous, wildly varied city. Mexico City is huge and it has tons to offer. I once spent three months straight there and still feel like I barely scratched the surface. That said, it is still possible to enjoy Mexico City in three days. But I’m warning you, you’ll almost certainly want to come back for more—and you should.
So before we truly begin let’s clarify that we’re assuming you’ve got three full days, that you arrived, say, on Monday and that you’re leaving Friday, with Tuesday (Day 1), Wednesday (Day 2) and Thursday (Day 3) to explore the city, with your arrival and departure days not allowing for anything beyond a quick meal and a trip from and then to the airport. If you’re actually arriving on day one and departing day three I’d call that little more than a weekend trip so pick only one or two of the days in this itinerary. There, that’s all cleared up and so we can really get going.
Day One – Centro and Reforma
It’s your first day so might as well check out Mexico City’s Centro. Here you’ll find colonial-era architecture, food options to suit any budget, performances by indigenous people, as well as plenty of shopping opportunities and world class museums. All this and the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square.
Depending on where you’re staying (see below for suggestions) you could metro, cab or Uber in and then simply walk around. Be sure to study a map ahead of time and mark off the spots you especially want to see. A good place to start is at the Palacio de Bella Artes then make your way east to the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Zocalo. Walk around, stopping in at any of a half dozen or more museums in the area, and don’t miss Templo Mayor, the remains of a temple of the Mexica people, right there in the heart of the city.
A tip: bring a hat or buy one once you get there. The sun is bright this high up (it’s easy to forget that Mexico City sits at an elevation of 2240 meters) and there’s little shade in the Centro area.
Once you’ve had your fill, make your way to the Reforma area to walk along the Paseo de la Reforma. This is especially nice at night (it’s safe, don’t worry) as many of the buildings and monuments that line it are lit up once night falls, notably the impressive Angel of Independence. This area offers a completely different side of the city, modern and stylish.
Now, if you want to cram as much as possible into that first day and/or you aren’t much for walking around for hours, there is another option: the hop-on-hop-off tour bus. This is the Turibus and you’ll want to book your tickets in advance, but it will take you all around Centro and Reforma, giving you a good overview of these areas.
Where to eat: Really, almost anywhere if you’re up for street food. Scratch tacos al pastor off your must-eat list—if you don’t try tacos al pastor while in Mexico City then you’ve never truly been to Mexico City. If you prefer a sit down spot, Sanborn’s is a high end chain that serves excellent food (they make especially good chilaquiles, though those are more of a breakfast dish) and they have a location in Centro. There’re plenty of restaurant and bar options in Reforma but keep in mind these will likely be more expensive.
Day Two – Choose one: Teotihuacan, Coyoacan, Chapultapec or Xochimilco
For day two you’ll have a decision to make. This decision will be based primarily on your interests. If you prefer to take it easy, walk around a wooded area, maybe visit a couple historical sites and museums, then you can spend the day at Chapultepec, an enormous park area that some might call Mexico City’s answer to Central Park, though, given that Chapultepec predates Central Park and is twice its size, its more accurate to say that Central Park is Manhattan’s answer to Chapultepec.
The park is truly massive and includes Chapultepec Lake as well as Chapultepec Castle, former home of Emperor Maximilian I and his wife (who, fun fact, later went completely insane), a zoo, as well as multiple museums, including the excellent Museum of Anthropology and a new museum dedicated to those funny salamander things, the axolotl. There’re also plenty of snack and gift stands, though these tend to be on the chintzy side.
If, instead, you’d like to explore pre-Colombian civilization, a day trip out of the city is in order. You’ll take a bus and be accompanied by a guide to Teotihuacan, the spectacular site of pyramids predating the Aztecs by nearly a 1000 years. The site is situated about an hour outside the city and tours typically last three to four hours. By the time you’ll get back you will be absolutely exhausted but, if you’re into this stuff, you’ll also be quite satisfied. Bring water, a hat and sunscreen; there is zero shade. Be sure to book ahead.
Not into parks or pyramids? Prefer to check out art and locally made crafts? Want to try a ton of good street food throughout the day? Then you’ll be better off spending your second day in Coyoacan. This wealthy area of the city is home to two quaint squares, plenty of narrow streets and alleys lined with colourful buildings, an excellent market, and the Frida Kahlo Museum. Local artisans sell their wares in the squares and the market, Mercado Coyoacan, is an excellent spot to pick up some souvenirs. The market also includes one of my favourite spots for quesadillas, Quesadillas Luchas, but the entire neighbourhood is stuffed with excellent street food. Be sure to try elote and/or esquites, as well as the aforementioned quesadillas. You’ll also find plenty of nice cafes in Coyoacan, as well as laid back bars where you can sample mezcal.
Finally, if you’re travelling in a group, you might want to spend the day together on the water while mariachis sing and play for you. Xochimilco is a network of canals (in fact, the entire city used to be covered in these waterways) that are plied by gondola-like boats called trajineras. The boats can comfortably hold about a dozen people as it drifts along serenely. Merchants float by in their own small crafts, selling beer, water, esquites and other snacks, while boat-bound mariachis can be hired to serenade you and your party. If you’re lucky enough to experience this with a Mexican family or group of friends, be warned, it can get pretty boisterous but also a lot of fun. No need to book ahead, simply show up and tell them how many are in your group.
Day Three – La Roma and Condesa
These areas have become especially popular spots to find accommodation in Mexico City, especially among remote workers, but I wouldn’t recommend staying there for exactly that reason (more on this below). Instead, spend your third day walking around these pretty, leafy neighbourhoods, stopping in at any or several of the countless cafes and bistros that line their streets. There’re also plenty of street food options. This is also a good spot to see some street art and simply people watch.
In the evening, you might want to go to Petanca Roma, a popular place among European immigrants and locals alike. Play a few rounds of petanca (petanque) then have some of the surprisingly good food and don’t skip trying their homemade mezcal, which is excellent.
To be honest, you’ll likely find that La Roma and Condessa aren’t really enough to fill an entire day, and this is by design. Planning something a little quieter with few must-dos will give you time to relax but also to return to any sites you especially enjoyed, hit up an extra museum or do some shopping. I always try to include a day for catching up or slowing down and this is it.
Where to stay
In a city as big as CDMX where to stay is a critical decision. I’m not so much talking about which hotel or hostel or guesthouse to choose but which area or neighbourhood to use as your base. You have a few choices. The more obvious options are Centro and La Roma, particularly Roma Norte, with Condesa a close third. Personally, though I highly recommend visiting these areas, as noted above, I wouldn’t recommend them as places to stay. Not because they are unsafe or inconvenient but because they are a tad too convenient and obvious. Roma Norte, in particular, is on its way to becoming a genuine Gringoland, with hundreds of tourists and remote workers flooding in on a monthly basis, driving up prices for and tensions with locals. The same is happening to Condesa.
My suggestion is to find Roma Norte on a map of Mexico City and then look just a little to the north. Here you should find an area called Juarez (not to be fearfully confused with the city on the American border). Now find Condesa and look immediately to the right (or east) and you should find Insurgentes. Both these areas will be quieter and less expensive than either La Roma or Condesa, but they’re within easy walking distance of these popular areas, not too terribly far from Reforma, and offer metro access to Centro and other parts of the city. Remember that Uber is also very popular and convenient in Mexico City. The one caveat is that fewer people in these areas will speak English—but that’s something you should be prepared for regardless of where you stay.
I myself stayed in Juarez during one of my trips to Mexico City and quite liked it. You can read a review of the hotel I called home here.
Mexico City can feel overwhelming, not just because of its size and how busy it can get, but because it simply offers so much. This is why even I couldn’t settle on single recommendations for each day and that some decisions will necessarily be left up to you. But it’s also why you’re sure to want to come back for another three days—or maybe five, or even a whole week…