Mexico City’s Top Cultural Attractions

Dig into the heart of this city via its art and history museums and popular markets.

It can be overwhelming for the first-time visitor to Mexico City to decide what to see and do. With more museums than any other city in the world, even the most decisive and disciplined art lovers and gallery goers are likely to find the volume and range of choices here to be dizzying.

There are the perennial favorites that are already established as must-sees: the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Art Museum), Frida Kahlo’s and Diego Rivera’s Casa Azúl, and the National Museum of Anthropology—and their renown is well-deserved.

But not so far off the beaten path are sites and institutions, either obscure or simply overlooked, that are just as worthy of attention … not the least reason being that everyone else’s neglect means you’re likely to have the run of the place! Here are some of my favorites:

Museo Nacional de la Historia

Mexico’s National History Museum is housed within the Chapultepec Castle, the construction of which began in 1785. The castle has a fascinating history in its own right, having been the palatial home of ruler Maximiliano in the 1860s, and converted to a museum by presidential decree in 1939. The collection of historical artifacts and ephemera housed here today is stunning in both its scope and its quality: jewelry, furniture, religious objects and fine arts are just a few of the numerous categories that comprise the permanent collection.

Even if you’re not able to see the entire collection, the castle itself is a national historical treasure; be sure to check out its stained glass windows and murals, and don’t miss the opportunity to take a photo outside—the vantage point offered from the castle’s hilltop position is unrivaled. Because the museum is located in the nearly 1,800 acre Chapultepec Park, you can enjoy a walk through this urban green space, which contains a zoo and the perimeter of which is dotted with a handful of other museums.

Bosque de Chapultepec. Tel. +52-5061-9217. Admission: MXN$51 (about US$3.50), free for children under 13. Hours: Tue. to Sun., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Centro Historico

A visit to the Centro Histórico may seem terribly touristy, but it’s true that Mexico City’s biggest, most important plaza is an obligatory stop at some point during your visit. Don’t worry if you’re the type who likes to travel outside the guidebook—there are plenty of activities for you to enjoy here that few travelers know about and even fewer guidebooks mention. There’s the flag raising and lowering ceremony that occurs in the center of the plaza (under the enormous flag—you cannot miss it) every day, a powerful ceremony that’s impressive for the number of soldiers and special forces who participate, the size of the flag and the pomp of the entire affair.

Then there are the museums just a stone’s throw away that aren’t high-traffic tourist spots but which offer visitors plenty to see and do. There’s the Museum of Gastronomy, just across the sidewalk from the Catedral Metropolitana, where the history of Mexican food is told in interactive exhibits that are equally kid- and adult-friendly. There’s also a museum dedicated to caricature, the Museum of Mexico City and a photography museum, all of which excel in the presentation of their respective subjects.

Galeria Nuestra Cocina Duque de Herdéz: Seminario 18, Centro Histórico. located inside the Fundación Herdéz; the museum is on the upper floor. Admission: a "donation" of MXN$5 (US$.36).
Museum of Caricatures
: Donceles 99, Centro Histórico. Tel. +52-55-5704-0459. Admission: $15, $10 for children 3 and under. Hours: Mon. to Fri., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Museum of Mexico City
: Pino Suaréz 30, Centro Histórico. Tel. +52-55-5542-0083. Admission: Free. Hours: Tue. to Sun., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Museo Archivo de la Fotografía: República de Guatemala 34, Centro Histórico. Tel.+52-55-2616-7057. Admission: Free. Hours. Tue. to Sun., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Mercado de La Ciudadela

There are plenty of highbrow activities to keep visitors occupied for months or years, but no visitor should leave Mexico City without experiencing the capital’s traditional markets. Mercado de la Ciudadela is a market that’s known for its artisan vendors’ fine handcrafts. Here, you can find wooden and beaded masks; iron and tin work; shiny, coal-black ceramics from Oaxaca; and hand-woven textiles, belts and purses, all nestled amidst some kitschy items, like shot glasses.

Shopping here helps keep the artisan tradition alive—efforts have been made to shut La Ciudadela down in recent years—and it affords you the opportunity to cross the street into Ciudadela Park, where you’re likely to find couples dancing to salsa, Cuban son and traditional, romantic danzones; they’re here every afternoon and crowd the plaza by the hundreds every weekend.

Calle Balderas (also the name of the closest Metro stop) and Enrico Martinez. Hours: Mon. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Note: Some of the vendors open or close earlier than the "official" hours.

San Juan Market

San Juan is another market, but you won’t find handcrafts here. This is the traditional fruit, vegetable and food market preferred by the city’s top chefs and common working folks alike. Visit San Juan and you’ll be able to sample some unique Mexican delicacies, like chapulines (roasted crickets). You may even be able to purchase some non-perishables to take home with you, like vanilla, chocolate or dry spices.

The best time to visit the market is early in the morning—before 10 a.m., certainly—when you’ll get to observe its hustle and bustle. If you’re on Mexican time, though, be sure to stop by one of the market’s many food stalls, where you can enjoy a fresh meal cooked in front of you at a ridiculously low price.

Ernesto Pugibet 21, between Calle Buen Tono and Luis Moya. Like all markets, the hours are somewhat flexible. Because it's a food market, it gets started early (around 6 to 7 a.m.) and most of the vendors shut down around 4 p.m.

Destinations: Mexico City

Themes: Art and Museums, Shopping

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Shopping