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4 Days In Mexico City (Part 1 of 3): Arrival, Coyoacán/San Angel, & Plaza Garibaldi

When I was planning this trip, I had a hard time figuring out what to see and do in Mexico City over a long weekend.  I also had to consider what was feasible on this trip given that our baby was coming as well.  My hope is that by sharing what we did each day, others who are looking for a short visit to Mexico City will find the information useful.  Here are the posts:

4 Days In Mexico City (Part 1 of 3): Arrival, Coyoacán/San Angel, & Plaza Garibaldi

4 Days In Mexico City (Part 2 of 3): Bosque De Chapultepec & El Zócalo

4 Days In Mexico City (Part 3 of 3): Teotihuacan & Polanco

*     *     *

Mexico City has been making the rounds on the “must see” lists lately having overcome its menacing reputation from the 90s.  Today, it’s fast emerging as a destination where culinary pizazz meets traditional arts meets ancient history.  Add to that over 150 museums and a mix of eclectic architecture, and it’s only a matter of time before tourism booms in the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.

Since Mexico City is a short flight from California, we decided to head down for a short trip just to see first hand if the city was worth the fuss; within a few short days, it was pretty clear that the answer was a resounding “yes”!

Friday

We arrived in Mexico City in the mid-afternoon, and our transfer service was already waiting for us after we picked up our luggage.  Although the airport is less than 10 miles to the city center, it took us 45 min to an hour to get to the hotel.  Traffic congestion is an everyday reality in the city.  I just hoped that we caught it at an even worse time since we arrived during rush hour.

We checked into our hotel in Reforma, a neighborhood with lots of shops, restaurants, and businesses, and walked to dinner at La Casa de Toño (thank goodness there’s Yelp in Mexico!) which is known for their authentic pizoles.  I’ll just lay it out there – I’m not a huge fan of Mexican food, but dinner was good!  We tried their chicken pizole, beef sopa, quesadilla, flan, tamarind agua fresca, and horchata.  I was immediately impressed with the quality of the food and the value – all that for around $20USD!

Saturday

On Saturday, we arranged for a private driver to take us to Coyoacán and San Angel neighborhoods so that we could visit the Frida Kahlo museum and the markets around there.  We started our day getting a quick drink and pastry at El Jarocho, a cafe known for having great Mexican coffee and hot chocolate.

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Even though the cafe looks like a hole in the wall (almost literally), the drinks were delicious!  There’s something about Mexican hot chocolate that’s just better than ours — it’s sweet but also bitter and spicy — and El Jarocho’s was perfect for a morning fix.

Then we headed around the corner to the Frida Kahlo Museum, also known as La Casa Azul (“the blue house”) for its bright blue exterior.  

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The museum is actually the house where she and her husband, Diego Rivera, lived from 1929 to 1954 and is filled with their paintings and artwork as well as other artifacts they’ve collected throughout their lives. 
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The house is actually a lot bigger than I would have expected, but walking through it and the courtyard, there’s no doubt it offered a peaceful retreat for the artists.

Next up, we headed to Jardin Hidalgo, a giant sprawling plaza that serves as the heart of the neighborhood. Here, we saw traditional dancers, vendors with gigantic bunches of balloons, families hanging out, and buzzing market activity surrounding the plaza.

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Jardin Hidalgo is the place to lounge around on Saturdays, a big public square shared by all the Coyoacán residents.

We checked out the colorful snacks in the street vendor carts, and Mr. T helped himself to a strawberry creme filled churro from one of the many churrerias by the plaza.  I didn’t know that churros came like that and after trying it, I don’t know why filled churros have yet to make their way to the U.S.!

Then we hopped back in the car for a 15-minute drive to the San Angel neighborhood which is one of the richest neighborhoods in Mexico City.  While wealthy, the neighborhood retains some old charm but you can tell it’s also in the middle of a facelift since a lot of the traditional houses have been converted to restaurants and shops.

On Saturdays, El Bazaar Sabado – a big artsy crafty fair with traditional handicrafts – is open so we made another pit stop to check out the scene.  We aren’t big shoppers when we travel so we stopped mostly to get a sense for the vibe, which reminded me a lot of the ferrerias in Buenos Aires: big, open streets lined with vendors selling everything from t-shirts to jewelry to artwork to masks to random things I’m not even sure what you’d do with…. like, this thing for instance:

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What is this, why would someone buy it, and if so, what do they do with it?

Having had our fill of market activity, we decided to get lunch at San Angel Inn, a beautiful hacienda turned into a hotel and restaurant and across the street from Diego Rivera’s studio.  Our driver said it was one of the best restaurants in this part of town, and once again, the food did not disappoint.

Sitting by the courtyard of the hacienda, sipping on two margaritas, and chowing down on shrimp tacos, Mr. T and I reflected on how Mexico City is truly a hidden gem.  Mexicans are a friendly bunch (maybe one of the friendliest of any country I’ve been to) with a family-oriented culture (in fact, often men and women would stop us in our tracks to dote on Traveler #3!).  The city felt completely safe and the neighborhoods we saw were lively.  Yet, there were barely any tourists.

After the late lunch, we wrapped up our day with a stop at Plaza Garibaldi, known for all the mariachi bands for hire there, in Mexico City’s historic downtown area.

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When we saw it, there were at least a dozen or more groups of mariachi bands looking for gigs.  Apparently, it’s like this at any hour of the day.  While it was a fun little stop to see the mariachis in action, ten minutes was all we needed here to feel like we got our fill.

If you’re planning to go:

  • There are hotels all over the city and finding one in the Reforma neighborhood is a good choice. It’s a short taxi ride to sites around the city and there are plenty of restaurants within walking distance for night time.  Another good neighborhood for a hotel is Polanco for the plethora of shops and dining options.  It’s also the wealthier neighborhood and everything there feels extra clean and safe.
  • While a lot of the crime has been cleaned up, locals still say the safest taxi rides are sitios or radio taxis.  You can ask the hotel to call for those taxis instead of using the private taxis provided by hotels (private ones tend to cost 3 times as much!).
  • Bring small change if you are using taxis.
  • To avoid dealing with the hassle of potentially riding in an unsafe taxi, we reserved a private airport transfer to our hotel.  It cost $40USD, which was well worth it for the convenience of having someone waiting for us and helping us with our luggage.  That said, our taxi ride back to the airport only cost 400pesos (about $27USD) and that was a hotel taxi.  A radio taxi would definitely be less so the prices we paid “just to be safe” were on the high side.
  • The Frida Kahlo Museum charges for the privilege of taking photos inside.  It wasn’t very much (maybe $5USD) extra but if you do pay it, you are allowed to take photos without the flash only.
  • If you want to visit the San Angel Inn for lunch or dinner, call ahead to make reservations just in case. We walked in and they were fully booked so we ended up eating off their bar menu.
  • If you’re going to do a day trip to Coyoacán and San Angel, consider hiring a driver.  We paid 300 pesos/hour (about $20USD) for an English speaking driver, and it was well worth it for the convenience of getting to move and do things at our own pace.  It also made it a lot easier for us to stop and feed the baby or change her diaper throughout the day.  Hotels should be able to find drivers for you. Incidentally, we were quoted 250pesos/hour for a Spanish speaking driver.
  • Most people in Mexico City speak Spanish only.  Brush up on Spanish beforehand to make sure you can get around.
  • While traffic is bad on the weekdays, it is significantly better on the weekends.
  • Mexico uses the same electric plugs/outlets as we do in the U.S.

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Karisa @ Flirting with the Globe - February 24, 2015 - 8:15 am

I’ve always been curious about Mexico city, since I’ve only experienced Mexico’s resort cities. Sounds like a fantastic trip!

Trishia Jacobs - February 25, 2015 - 7:03 am

I so strongly associate Mexico with the coastline and beaches, but there are inland places I want to visit also: San Miguel, Guadalajara and Mexico City. In the US I swear there must be a media machine dedicated solely to bashing Mexico and making it this evil empire. So it’s great to go there in person and see, as you say, such warm, kind people.
As for the Day of the Dead shadow boxes, I agree I wouldn’t want to buy one but I do love their take on honoring the dead instead of our Halloween.

JustWanderlust - February 25, 2015 - 8:06 pm

Karisa – it was an unexpectedly great trip! 🙂

JustWanderlust - February 25, 2015 - 8:09 pm

Trishia – I agree – there is definitely more to Mexico than the coastline and beaches. After Mexico City, I feel like I’m just at the tip of the iceberg with this underrated country.

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