When searching for flights to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, it became apparent that my cheapest option was to spend an almost full day layover in Mexico City. Considering I’ve never been there, I wasn’t upset by this idea. It was possible to have this layover either on the way to Cabo or back to New York City. The return trip layover was on a weekend, and that lead me to choose this option. Without even knowing, I avoided gridlock traffic and almost 1 million additional tourists who were there to see the Pope. My flight arrived at 10:30 a.m., and I did not need to be back in the airport until 5:30 a.m. the following morning. This allowed me a great deal of time to explore a number of cultural and historic locations in Mexico City including a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This article will serve as your guide on a single day layover in Mexico City by providing essential travel tips, suggested points of interest and walking tours. Vamos Amigos!
How Much Time Do You Have?
If you have a layover of 8 or more hours, then you should have enough time to get some sightseeing accomplished before retiring to the airport and making your connecting flight. If you have 6 hours or less, you may consider visiting something closer to the airport not in this article, but I would recommend against it. Stay in the airport and don’t get stuck missing your flight. Ideally, try to get an overnight layover so you have the opportunity to explore during the day and night. It is possible to get a long layover between 12 – 22 hours if you time it correctly. If I can do it, then you can do it too. Search for those flights creatively!
Checking Your Bags/Luggage at Storage Lockers
After you clear customs, you will walk into a large lobby area with many business fronts. Locate the storage locker facility if you are traveling with luggage. You don’t want to carry them with you in town. Prices are based on size, as well as the total storage time. The lockers are behind a security attendant who will open your locker for you, but they will not let you in the facility. In terms of security, I had no qualms with leaving my luggage there. Travel light! Only carry what you need!
Catching a Taxi
Safety first! Make sure to take an authorized taxi while traveling throughout Mexico City. Whether you’re leaving the airport or exploring the city make sure you get in a cab that won’t lead you into an unsafe situation. Your best option at the airport is to use taxi cab companies inside the airport. Prices are determined by the distance to specific zones. They will give you a voucher that you will give to an attendant outside. If you are in town, ask your hotel (or any hotel concierge) to call you a reliable taxi. Make sure to avoid the VW Beetle cabs, or you may just get kidnapped or robbed!
https://www.instagram.com/p/BCLG-VOIyvz/ – Taxi
Top 10 Suggestions for How to Spend a Layover in Mexico City
To make the best use of your limited time I have broken down my Top 10 Suggestions for How to Spend a Layover in Mexico City into 2 categories of 5. Each category is organized geographically, allowing you to conduct two walking tours that could be combined into a full day excursion. The first will take you to the Centro Histórico district and the attractions surrounding Zócalo Square, where you will be able to visit religious sites, museums, historic Aztec ruins and government buildings. It should take you around 2 – 4 hours depending on the length of time you spend inside the locations. The second will take you outside of the historic city center heading west towards the Colonia Cuauhtémoc neighborhood. It should take you around 3 – 4 hours depending on the method of transportation used to complete this portion of the trip.
Walking Centro Histórico’s Zócalo
The heart of Mexico City can be found in the Zócalo and is a smart centrally located starting point for any first time visitor to Mexico City on a single day layover. The Zócalo’s importance can be dated back to Aztec times, then the Spanish and later Mexican Independence. The site has been the center of political, military, social and economic importance for both celebration & protest. Finally, its importance has impacted the urban planning and geography of the area for almost 700 years. The nearby Templo Mayor was considered the center of the universe according to Aztec traditions and Catedral Metropolitana served as the base for Christianity in New Spain.
It was once referred to as the “Main Square” or “Arms Square,” but is officially named the Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square) after the Cádiz Constitution which was signed in Spain in the year 1812. Following independence, construction plans were put in place to build a large monument, but only the base, or zócalo (“plinth”) was built. It was destroyed many years ago, but the name has lived on in Mexico City, as well as many other cities & towns who use the name to refer to the primary plaza. In 1987 the entire Historic Center was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, locals simply referred to it as the Zócalo.
# 1 – Catedral Metropolitana de la Cuidad de México (Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral)
Occupying the north end of the Zocalo is the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos or the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. The Catedral Metropolitana was constructed atop a former Aztec site near the Templo Mayor. The original church that was built shortly after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan is no longer standing.
The current structure was built in sections between 1573 and 1813. It’s creator, the Spanish architect Claudio de Arciniega, was inspired by Gothic cathedrals in Spain. Today it is the largest cathedral in the Americas & the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico.
Its interior is lined with paintings, golden detailing, statues and ornately decorated chapels with more religious iconography and symbolism than anyone could digest in a single viewing. Next door is the Metropolitan Tabernacle also worth a visit.
There is also an old access door outside that for a nominal fee that leads to a short Spanish only tour with a view of the city from atop the bell tower. This stop could take you anywhere from 15 minutes to a full day depending on your interest in Roman Catholic churches, so plan accordingly.
# 2 – Museo del Templo Mayor (Templo Mayor Museum)
Next to the Catedral Metropolitana is the Templo Mayor Museum first opened in 1987. “This building was designed to exhibit the archaeological findings of the zone that used to be the Main Temple of Mexica peoples. The collection shows the political, military and aesthetic relevance of the city that dominated Mesoamerica before the Spaniards arrived. The Coyolxauhqui monolith discovery in 1978 enabled the archaeologists to find the exact place where the pyramid stood” so that they could begin excavation of the site.
Today, visitors will first view portions of the ruins as they follow a marked path that leads them into the museum where you will find magnificent examples of Aztec culture and history. Depending on your interest, this stop could take up to 4 hours.
# 3 – Palacio Nacional (National Palace)
Occupying the eastern end of the Zocalo is the 200 meter long Palacio Nacional. The site has served as the home of the executive branch of the Mexican government since the decline of the Aztec Empire. It’s famous “Freedom Bell, rung on September 15th, 1810, at the start of the War of Independence” is “rung on the anniversary of this event each year” (Planetware). Much of the building is off limits, but a tour of its interior “will reveal a seemingly endless number of courtyards, elaborate stairways, and carved-brass balconies.
By touring various sections of the palace, it is interesting to note the changes that have occurred throughout the building in the last 300 years” (Destination 360). One of the highlights of the palace is murals by Diego Rivera. It is open every day of the week except on Sundays, and admission is free. Depending on your interest, this stop could be a full day visit.
# 4 – Museo Nacional de las Culturas (National Museum of Cultures)
The Museo Nacional de las Culturas is “dedicated to education about the world’s cultures, both past and present. It is housed in a colonial-era building that used to be the mint for making coins. Prior to this, the site was the home of the location of Moctezuma’s “Black House.” At the time of my visit, the Mexico exhibit was closed. I made a short walk through the museum and was most impressed by the courtyard. The good news is that the museum is free and located among the other sites in this portion of the tour.
You may want to consider altering your route some and instead head over to the Mexico City Museum or National Art Museum both of which are in walking distance. However, if you are a museum aficionado, then you may want to skip much of this list and head over to the National Museum of Anthropology. Keep in mind, this is a 30 minute car ride from Centro Histórico.
# 5 – Gran Hotel Ciudad de México – Tiffany Glass
The “Gran Hotel Ciudad de México pays homage to an era when travel was glamourous and service was impeccable, while still providing all the modern amenities for today’s traveler. Originally constructed in 1899, it was home to one of the first department stores in Mexico City, designed in the lavish Art Nouveau style then popular in fashionable Paris. This historic landmark features an Art Nouveau lobby and a 1908 spectacular Tiffany stained-glass ceiling. The building will transport you back in time to the Belle Epoque era.” There is an enormous Louis XV chandelier over the entrance, and it contains the first working elevator in Mexico City. The rooftop restaurant provides amazing views during both the day and night of the religious and government buildings surrounding the Plaza de la Constitución. Even if you are not staying in this 5 star accommodation, it is worth visiting to witness its architectural history.
Other Attractions Around the Zócalo
On the blocks surrounding the Zócalo there are many more places to go depending on your interests and available time. Religious iconography can be seen in the streets and in number of smaller churches in the area. There are various places to shop including souvenir stands, specialty shops and street vendors of all kinds. Depending on your budget ,you can dine at high end restaurants or feast like a king (or queen) at countless street food vendors. Consider stopping at the Anthony Bourdain recommended Cantina La Mascota where the food is free & the drinks are plentiful! There is so much to see and do that you could easily spend an entire day wandering around the neighborhood, but you may want to head west and visit even more attractions.
Walking West from Centro Histórico
Some of the suggestions below are further than some people may want to walk, particularly in the matter of a few hours or single day. As a result, you may want to consider alternative methods of transportation. Although I didn’t utilize the train system, it will often be much faster than hopping in a taxi, particularly during peak traffic hours. It should take you around 3 – 4 hours depending on the method of transportation used to complete this portion of the trip.
# 6 – Plaza Garibaldi
Located on on Eje Central (Lázaro Cárdenas) between historic Calle República de Honduras and Calle República de Peru is the Plaza Garibaldi, also known as the “Plaza del Mariachi.” If you are looking to be serenaded by large groups of mariachi bands, for a fee of course, then this is the place for you. Make sure to visit during the daytime or early evening. Although you may find information that says they will be working on Friday and Saturday nights until 11 p.m. I would recommend against it. The neighborhood is filled with homeless tent camps, beggars and even a prison. I’ve walked down some sketchy blocks in my day, but this got shady rather quickly.
# 7 – Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts)
Located south of Plaza Garibaldi on the eastern edge of Alameda Central is the Palacio de Bellas Artes. “Mexico’s principal opera house is an architectural masterpiece inside and out. The interiors are a beautiful blend of Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles.” It also houses large murals, Tiffany stained glass and two museums, 1 for art and 1 for architectural design. Exploring the interior will increase the length of this walking tour. Check their website for showtimes and tickets.
# 8 – Parque Alameda (Alameda Central)
Alameda Central is the oldest public park in Mexico City. “For years [it was] the exclusive realm of the elite and fenced off to the masses. Today it throbs with pedestrian traffic around fountains and statues,” like the Venus Led By Zephyrs. On the Avenue de Juarez you can locate the Hemiciclo A. Juarez (Benito Juarez Monument). Although not nearly as large in size it in many ways as significant as New York City’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park. It is a favorite with many of the city’s locals and worth walking through on the way to your next destination.
# 9 – Monumento a la Revolución (The Monument to the Revolution)
Located in the Plaza de la Republic is the Monumento a la Revolución, a landmark commemorating the Mexican Revolution. “This monument stands out by its massiveness and geometric shape that take us back to prehispanic architecture; nevertheless it’s also a faithful representative of one of the architectural styles of the time: Art Deco, which becomes present in the sculptural groups perched on the copper cupola of the monument, which were created by the artist Oliverio Martínez and represent: the Independence, the Reformation Laws, the Agrarian Laws and the Worker Laws.” There is a mausoleum that contains the remains of the Movement’s leaders. You can take a glass elevator up to a viewing area, but I was unimpressed with the nighttime view. There is also a museum in the basement of the same name. It is surrounded by a large plaza frequented by locals playing sports and rehearsing dance. There is an interesting LED light water fountain and the location also holds many cultural events. You can find it at the intersection between Paseo de la Reforma and Avenida de los Insurgentes in downtown Mexico City. Check out the Monumento a la Revolución website for more information.
If you walk down the block towards the Plaza Renato Leduc you will find an interesting full wall mural and a number of very tasty street food vendors. Try to locate the stand in my photo!
# 10 – El Angel de Independencia (The Angel of Independence)
This will take you up to 20+ minutes from the last location. Consider hopping in a taxi, because the subway system provides no easy route. The Angel of Independence nicknamed El Ángel is officially known as the Monumento a la Independencia (Monument to Independence). It a large “victory column on a roundabout on the major thoroughfare of Paseo de la Reforma in downtown Mexico City. El Ángel was built in 1910 during the presidency of Porfirio Díaz by architect Antonio Rivas Mercado to commemorate the centennial of the beginning of Mexico’s War of Independence. In later years, it was made into a mausoleum for the most important heroes of that war. It is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Mexico City, and it has become a focal point for both celebration or protest. It resembles the July Column in Paris and the Berlin Victory Column in Berlin.”
Still Want More?
If you have covered all of the above mentioned sites and have any remaining time, consider hopping in a taxi to the National Museum of Anthropology, one of the top tourist attraction in Mexico City or the Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) UNESCO Site.
Turning the Top 10 List into a Walking Tour
You have a few options depending on the amount of time you have in Mexico City. If you only have a matter of hours, head to the city center first and work your way back towards the airport. If you are short on time, skip something and don’t miss your flight. You may want to only do #1 – 5. If you are staying overnight, start at the city center. Check in to your hotel and drop of your overnight bag. Start with #1 – 5 then take a taxi to #10 working your way back towards Centro Histórico and #6 before retiring to your room or heading over to Cantina La Moscato, a true local experiece. If you want some route planning advice check out my article 5 Simple Steps to Design a Walking Tour.
Consider a long layover if you are flying to a destination that requires you to connect through Mexico City. Based on my experience at the airport, and my knowledge of the traffic patterns anything less than 8 hours could greatly reduce the amount of sightseeing time available to you and maybe you should consider staying at the airport. If you have a layover of more than 8 hours, you will have the time to visit a number of attractions and grab an authentic bite to eat. Unless you have a specific destination in mind, then it is in your best interest to head straight to the Zócalo in Centro Histórico to see a number of culturally and historically important sites. From there you can expand your exploration zone and cover even more attractions before heading back to the airport to catch your connecting flight. FELIZ VIAJE!