Mexico City’s Historic Centre: Where to Eat, What to Do + Where to Stay in Downtown Mexico City
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It may have escaped your attention, but I’ve mentioned before now that downtown Mexico City isn’t my favourite place in the capital, and while I stand by that, on a recent visit I realised that while it might not be my favourite Mexico City neighbourhood, it certainly houses plenty of my favourite Mexico City highlights. Take the Parque Alameda, for example, one of the best people watching spots in the capital, hands down. (And one of the most undeniably pretty places, especially in the spring when the jacarandas come out in force.)
Mexico City’s historic centre (also known as the centro histórico in Spanish, or just the centro) is also the place where you can get drinks in the sky and coffee overlooking what also happens to be my favourite building in, perhaps, all of Mexico. Bold claim, I know.
And, anyway, even if the centro isn’t my favourite place, that doesn’t mean you should strike it from your Mexico City itinerary. Quite the opposite, as this historic zone has plenty to offer, whether you’re just passing through for the first time and wondering what to do in Mexico City or even if you’ve lived in Mexico all your life.
So, with that in mind, and inspired by my recent stay in and around downtown Mexico City, here’s my guide to things to do in Mexico City’s historic centre, including where to eat, drink, sleep and explore.
A GUIDE TO DOWNTOWN MEXICO CITY
The historic centre, Mexico City is generally considered to fan out from and be centralised around the zócalo, the city’s central plaza. (Fun fact: it may be the largest in Latin America, but there’s so much more to the centro histórico, Mexico City than just the zócalo so keep that in mind when planning your visit.)
For the purposes of this piece though, I’m gunna stick pretty loosely to what Google Maps defines as Mexico City’s historic centre (as you can see from the below screenshot), although I’ve definitely thrown in a few options that fall a touch beyond those boundaries. Check my interactive map of tourist attractions in Mexico City at the end of this post to see just where everything is.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to places to eat in Mexico City’s historic centre, but this section does include some classics, as well as some of my personal faves.
SANBORNS | Juárez 14, Centro
People kind of look at me funny when they figure out I’m recommending they eat in a department store, but Sanborns is kind of the stuff of Mexican myth and legend and a super traditional place to eat. In the centre, there are two locations that you should consider eating at: the first is opposite Bellas Artes and is my preferred spot (and the one I’ve put the address for above), while the second is in the famed Tile House (Casa de los Azulejos, one of the top places to see in Mexico City) a bit further into the heart of the centre. Either way, there’s only one thing you ought to be ordering—enchiladas suizas. After all, they were actually invented at Sanborns!
CAFÉ EL POPULAR | Cinco de Mayo 50-52, Centro
I never managed to visit Café El Popular, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Seriously, this place is always fucking full. However, I’m taking that (along with the many people who rave about this place) as a good sign and I’m recommending it anyway. Known for decent prices and even better portions, I believe it’s open 24-hours, but honestly, you should try and head there for breakfast.
Related Post: Why You Have to Eat Fast Food in Mexico
MERCADO DE SAN JUAN | Ernesto Pugibet 21, Centro
I’ve been told that Spanish tapas and wine can be found here, although the Mercado de San Juan typically grabs the limelight for the wide range of edible bugs, creepy crawlies and otherwise exotic foodstuffs on sale there too.
LA RAMBLA | Motolinia 38, Centro
Mexico is known for tucking into tortas de bacalao (cod sandwiches) around Christmastime, but at La Rambla, a centro histórico sandwich shop, you can get them year-round. They’re a touch on the small side though, so maybe order two.
EL CARDENAL | Calle de la Palma 23, Centro Histórico
I’ve never been to El Cardenal but after publishing this post SO MANY readers told me that the breakfast at this particular spot was unmissable. They even noted that it definitely wasn’t a tourist trap. So, I bowed to peer pressure, and I’m adding this recommendation into the mix. Let me know how it is?
EL HUEQUITO | Ayuntamiento 21, Centro
How could I leave off an iconic taco joint considered amongst the best in the historic centre by the excellent Mexico-based food writer Nicholas Gilman? Short answer: I couldn’t.
FARMACIA INTERNACIONAL | Bucareli 128, Juárez
This spot, recommended to me by my friend Asia, is very much pushing the limits of what even I can loosely define as the historic centre of Mexico City (strictly speaking it’s in Juárez), but I have it on good authority that Farmacia Internacional is well worth going marginally out of your way for, especially if you’re looking for breakfast in the centre of Mexico City.
CHURRERÍA EL MORO | Lázaro Cárdenas 42, Centro
Churrería El Moro is one of Mexico City’s most famous churro shops and now has a ton of different branches across the city (including at the Cineteca), but the centro histórico branch is the OG location. As such, it’s generally super crowded and tricky to get a table, so I do recommend just getting in the to-go queue (which is usually out of the door). I usually order one portion of churros with a thick Spanish hot chocolate dipping sauce, but you could also go for a Mexican hot chocolate if you’d rather it more closely resemble a drink.
PASTELERÍA IDEAL | 16 de Septiembre 18, Centro
I have a sweet tooth, OK?! Pastelería Ideal is another one of those spots that you have to go to, just once, when in Mexico City’s historic centre. You should know that you’ll have to pay for your cake at the cash desk window before the staff members who wrap up whatever you’ve chosen to buy will even think of handing it over. Confusing if you’re not used to that system, for sure.
Some other restaurant recommendations that are always thrown around when discussions of the historic centre crop up include Azul Histórico and Café Tacuba. The former is…OK, while the second is historic but very much a tourist trap and, in my opinion, overpriced. Then there’s Limosneros, which again, I haven’t visited, but is highly rated.
While I love beer, I’m not big on going to clubs and even bars are pushing it. Basically, I like to be tucked in bed watching Netflix by 9pm. Even so, I do have a handful of recommendations for where to get drinks in Mexico City’s historic centre, including cool cafes, 420 friendly bars and places to dance.
PATA NEGRA | Cinco de Mayo 49, Centro
I went to La Pata Negra on my first ever night in Mexico City, which also happened to be my first night in Mexico and my 20th birthday. You might say I don’t remember much, but I do remember enough to recommend this spot for those of you who like live music, a good atmosphere and dancing.
I love taking people who are visiting Mexico City to Miralto, a.k.a. the bar on the 41st floor of the Torre Latinoamericana. Why? 1) the views are fab (make sure you arrive pre-sunset and plan to stay as the sun goes down, so you can fully appreciate the contrast between day and night), and 2) the drinks are, all things considered, reasonably priced. When I first went, you could pay 35 pesos for a beer. That’s now more like 70 pesos, but even so, I still think it’s one of the best places to visit in Mexico City.
DON PORFIRIO CAFÉ | Juárez 14, Centro
Situated on the terrace part of the Sears building, you have to enter through the department store and take the lift to the eighth floor. Again, Don Porfirio Café is one place you go to for the view alone, as you’ll get a bird’s eye of the glittering orange roof of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Having said that, some of their coffee options are kind of innovative—last time I went I think I had some kind of pistachio flavoured concoction.
CULTURAL ROOTS REGGAE BAR | Tacuba 64, Centro
Finally, if I were to go out regularly in the centre, this would probably be the place I’d head to most often. Cultural Roots Reggae Bar might not be the scene everyone’s looking for, but the three floors of the old building give you plenty of space to escape the gentle, stoned swaying taking place on the ground floor and avoid the smoking on the terrace (if you’re not into that kinda thing). Also, they sell beer by the caguama (a 1L+ bottle) for about 70 pesos, which gets it a thumbs up from me (even if the choices are Carta Blanca or Indio).
PULQUERÍA LAS DUELISTAS | Aranda 28, Centro
Other recommendations for (very touristy) bars and cantinas in Mexico City that I haven’t personally had the chance to visit (but have seen recommended plenty) include, Bósforo and Bar La Ópera (the place famous for allegedly having Pancho Villa’s bullet holes in the ceiling). If you want somewhere that one of my readers called ‘the closest to a pub’ you can get in Mexico City, then Cantina El Tío Pepe should make it onto your list. (Fun fact: the bar is made out of an upcycled urinal!) You can also head to Calle Regina for some cheap drinking options, try your luck on the terrace of Barrio Alameda or the Downtown Mexico building, or just read the blog of someone who has more of an inclination for nightlife than I do.
Sightseeing in Mexico City is certainly not limited to the historic centre and I strongly encourage that visitors, even those stopping by for the first time, branch out a bit to some other neighbourhoods and wider Mexico City attractions. However, there are plenty of iconic (and even a few underrated) things to do in Mexico City’s downtown, which you should add to your Mexico City itinerary. Here is a just selection of the best things to do in the historic centre of Mexico City.
MONUMENTO A LA REVOLUCIÓN | Plaza de la República, Tabacalera
Ok, this one is technically in Tabacalera, not the historic centre, but technicalities, schmecnicalities. It’s close enough. You probably already recognise the iconic Monumento a la Revolución structure too, given that, alongside Bellas Artes, it often features in promotional material about the capital. Constructed during the terms of three separate Mexican presidents, Díaz, Madero and Lázaro Cárdenas, nowadays this is more a spot to hang out, perhaps even take the lift to the top for a panoramic view, and just enjoy the atmosphere.
Alternatively, you’ll get there and there’ll be an enormous political rally taking place, ruining your day out. I may or may not be talking from experience.
SCALE THE TORRE LATINOAMERICANA | Lázaro Cárdenas 2, Centro
I mentioned in the above section that you should visit the bar on the 41st floor of the Torre Latinoamericana, but you can also go a little higher if you take part in a paid visit to the viewing platform. Honestly? Don’t do that. Just go to the bar. One more floor doesn’t make that much of a difference.
PEOPLE WATCH IN LA ALAMEDA | Avenida Hidalgo, Centro
Sure, you could slap on a pair of rollerskates and take advantage of the rare and blissfully flat pavements, or you could stroll at your leisure, take a book and plonk yourself on a bench (perhaps near one of the fountains?) and just soak it all in. (The second one, obviously do the second one.)
GRAN HOTEL DE LA CIUDAD DE MÉXICO | 16 de Septiembre 82, Centro
You can stay at the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de México if you like, but I can’t speak to that experience. However, you should definitely go to check out the spectacular Tiffany glass ceiling. It’s spectacular.
BROWSE THE STORES IN BARRIO ALAMEDA | Dr. Mora 9, Centro
If you’re into slightly overpriced, but still pretty cool, hipster shops then, oh boy, do I have the place for you to go shopping in Mexico City! As well as housing a boutique B&B (more on that later), as well as a selection of restaurants, there are also lots of shops in Barrio Alameda. Whether you want lucha libre souvenirs or just sequined t-shirts, you’ll find it here. Alternatively, pop in during one of Mexico City’s frequent rainstorms and sit out the storm by doing a bit of window shopping.
There are three main spots I recommend for buying more traditional souvenirs in Mexico City: the first is the Ciudadela Market, which is certainly touristy and definitely pricier than buying from other, smaller markets outside of the capital, but it also offers everything under one roof. Convenience is king. The second spot is Fábrica Social, a socially conscious store which works with indigenous communities and sell tons of unique and fairtrade products. The third is a reader recommendation: the Mumedi gift shop. Swallow your scepticism and check it out!
EXPLORE BARRIO CHINO
I’ve never been to Mexico City’s barrio chino and while many people have described the food as ‘meh’, it’s an area you can cover in waaaay less than half an hour and makes for an interesting, quite unexpected (if token) sight in Mexico City’s downtown.
FIND THE MURALS
Mexican Muralism is a pretty well-known art movement and there are actually a number of places in downtown Mexico City where you can find some pretty breathtaking examples. Take the famed Rivera murals inside the Palacio Nacional, or those ensconced in the aforementioned Palacio de Bellas Artes, as well as the not-as-famous ones in the SEP building.
GENERALLY JUST SOAK UP THE ART SCENE
Roma and Condesa generally take credit for being the artsy parts of Mexico City, but there’s also plenty of other art to see beyond just the murals in the historic centre too. You should make time to head to MUNAL (Museo Nacional de Arte) and possibly try and squeeze in a side trip to the Galería Sergio Bustamante while you’re at it.
Related Post: A Literary Tour of Roma + Condesa
MUSEO DE LA MEMORIA Y TOLERANCIA | Juárez 8, Centro
There are hundreds of Mexico City museums. Literally. So, it’s impossible to have visited and be able to recommend all the best museums in Mexico City; however, if there’s one museum I absolutely always recommend as one of the top places to go in Mexico City, it’s the Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia. Fascinating and always well-curated, I particularly love their rotating temporary exhibitions. Past examples have included those on femicide and LGBTQI+ rights and history.
If you really do need more museum fodder though, check the link below, where I list all Mexico City’s free museums and when you can get in without paying a penny!
TAKE A LITERARY TOUR
Generally speaking, Mexico City is a treasure trove for literature fans. Especially in neighbourhoods like Coyoacán, Roma and, of course, the centro, there are bookstores and libraries everywhere you turn. However, if the historic centre is known for one thing in particular, it’s definitely used bookstores. Wander down Calle Donceles and pop into any and all tiny little bookstores you see. Insider info tells me that, while some of them are pretty meh, the real treasure troves can be found between Calles Peralvillo and Allende.
You can read more about taking a literary tour of the historic centre in this post.
HUNT DOWN THE STREET ART
I’ve written a post about Mexico City’s street art scene before, so my first piece of advice is: read that. While there are no real specifics RE where exactly to find the street art in downtown Mexico City, it will give you an idea of what to look for. The real fun is in stumbling across pieces yourself anyway. However, if you really can’t be bothered to find the street art alone, a good starting point is Calle Regina. You’re welcome.
TAKE IN THE ZÓCALO | Plaza de la Constitución, Centro
I mentioned further up this article that while the zocalo is the place people immediately think of when wondering what to see in Mexico City, there’s also so much more to explore. Even so, a visit to the zocalo is kind of essential, especially given that it’s ringed with a ton of important Mexico City buildings, like the National Palace and the cathedral (I’ll get to that in a sec). Ostensibly, there’s not much to do there, except admire the enormous flag, maybe pick up a snack or two and look around. Oh, and you should try and get a photo with the CDMX sign, of course.
The best time to visit the zocalo, in my opinion, is when there’s an event taking place, like a book or food festival, or at Christmastime when they set up an ice rink and giant Christmas tree.
VISIT THE TEMPLO MAYOR | Seminario 8, Centro
Mexico is known for ruins, but some people perhaps don’t realise that there are actually ruins right in the literal heart of the city. (Of course, that should come as no surprise if you already knew that the Mexico City cathedral was built using stolen stones from pre-Hispanic temples, but anyway.) Right next door to the pilfering cathedral, you can stop by the Templo Mayor and take a look at what remains of those temples for yourself. There’s also a pretty cool museum. If you’re feeling cheap, you can get a more or less OK view of the Mexico City ruins from outside the perimeter of the property too. (Enough to snap a photo and pretend you visited, at least.)
For more great views over the Templo Mayor, you could even get lunch at the restaurant El Mayor. I haven’t been there myself, but others have said the food is as good as the views.
PALACIO DE BELLAS ARTES | Juárez, Centro
My favourite building in all of Mexico City, and one of the Mexico City landmarks, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is actually a Frankenstein’s monster of architectural styles. Construction began in 1904, under the watchful eye of architect Adam Boari, before being halted in 1913. It wasn’t until 1932 that things got underway with a new architect, hence the Neoclassical/ Art Nouveau exterior and Art Deco interior. Despite this mish-mash of styles though, it’s still a compelling edifice and I love its trademark glittering orange roof tiles.
It also helps that it houses a couple of museums, a concert hall (where ballets, concerts and shows are regularly performed) and a ton of murals by top Mexican muralists. If I had to give you just one Mexico City must-see in downtown, it would be this one.
CORREOS DE MEXICO | Tacuba 1, Centro
Don’t send any post here (it won’t arrive, I promise you) but do take two seconds to look inside this magnificent building. Opulence is an understatement, especially considering that, at its core, it’s just a post office.
OGLE THE SINKING CATHEDRAL | Plaza de la Constitución, Centro
The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral has come up a couple of times in this post already. I’ve mentioned how some of the stone was pilfered from the neighbouring pre-Hispanic temples, but did I tell you that it was legit sinking? Yes, it’s wonky as hell, but makes for a great photo. Do pop inside and admire the trademark Catholic penchant for understated décor too.
LISTEN TO MARIACHI IN PLAZA GARIBALDI | Lázaro Cárdenas 43, Centro
Finally, for some live music and a great atmosphere in the historic centre, detour over to Plaza Garibaldi, which is famous for mariachi musicians and for being the location of the Museo del Tequila y Mezcal.
CHAYA B&B BOUTIQUE | Dr. Mora 9, Piso 3, Centro
I’d known of Chaya B&B for a while, but cos I was always living in Mexico City, I’d not had a reason to ever stay there. However, when I came back for a flying visit this past March, I was lucky enough to be gifted a complimentary two-night stay with them and I have no doubt that it’s one of the best hotels in Mexico City.
First of all, my bed was enormous (but that’s a given, I suppose) and second of all, the property itself—right atop the recently renovated Barrio Alameda building—is super cool. Think leafy plants everywhere, a beautiful terrace with hammocks, string lights and picture-perfect views over the Alameda (which I’ve already mentioned is one of my favourite places in the capital).
However, I honestly think the devil was in the detail. They provide you with a mini bag of Mexican sweets (which I saved to give my boyfriend), the coolest slippers ever that say ‘Buenos’ and ‘Días’ on the toes (maybe I’m easily impressed), and an amazing included breakfast. Truly, I’ve never had better and the options rotate daily so you won’t get bored. I even powered through stomach cramps on my first morning there just so I could enjoy the baked, cheesy-eggy breakfast option. I also really enjoyed that they had a daily happy hour, including some cool craft beers.
Literally my only ‘complaint’ was that my room was missing a full-length mirror (I’d just bought some new trousers and was still figuring out how to style them, so mirror access was definitely necessary). I also think that the laundry service was a touch pricey, but then again, I’m used to finding and arranging to have my clothes cleaned in Mexico myself, so take that assessment with a pinch of salt.
MEXICO CITY HOSTEL | República de Brasil 8, Centro
Inventive name, I know. But, for the traveller on a budget, who doesn’t mind bunking with a few strangers, this is one of the best (and best located) hostels in the centre. Just off from the zocalo, and right behind the cathedral, I like Mexico City Hostel for three main reasons: 1) it’s affordable, 2) it’s centric and 3) they sell beer at reception. Plus, the building is very not-hostel-like (think high ceilings and generally quite a spacious vibe).
The majority of the things to see in Mexico City’s downtown can be found on foot. However, it can be very busy and the pavements can be quite narrow (or just entirely fucked up and full of uneven paving slabs), so if you use a wheelchair or are travelling with children who either love to run off or are still in pushchairs, please factor that into your plans. Otherwise, wandering around the main sights of the centre is absolutely doable, although you’ll likely be worn out and a bit grubby by the end of the day!
Alternatively, and given that so many lines crisscross beneath the streets of downtown Mexico City, it might be worth getting used to using the delight of public transport in Mexico City that is the metro.
Just read this guide first so you don’t inadvertently piss anyone off.
Related Post: A Beginner’s Guide to Using the Mexico City Metro
The number one, and pretty much only, frequently asked question I get about not just the historic centre, but wider Mexico City is, ‘but is it safe though?!’ Shocker, I know.
My answer to that is, when in downtown Mexico City (and as with basically any other historic centre of any other city, not only in Latin America, but beyond), your biggest risk is pickpocketing. So, be aware, try to keep flashing of valuables to a minimum (maybe throw that DSLR in a tote bag rather than nonchalantly flounce around with it dangling from your neck) and don’t carry with you anything that you absolutely cannot lose. I.e., visas, passports, all the money you brought with you, plus all your bank cards, etc. Common sense will be your friend if you plan on visiting the historic centre of Mexico City, basically. Beyond that, the historic centre by day is a relatively risk-free spot to visit (as long as you don’t accidentally stumble into Tepito, that is*).
*For any ‘authenticity warriors’ reading this who want to launch in with their battlecry of ‘but Tepito is saaafe’, please refrain from giving questionable advice, especially to potentially first-time visitors.
By night though, I would advise taking a lot more caution. Sure, in and around the Zocalo, or Parque Alameda, you’re going to encounter plenty of people. However, be far warier when taking streets that aren’t pedestrianised, or not as well lit. Uber is also your friend (broadly speaking).
Have you visited the historic centre of Mexico City? What do you think to this Mexico City guide? Let me know in the comments!