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How to Spend 24 Hours in Charming Mexico City According to a Local

We hadn’t planned on missing our connection in Mexico City, but it happened.

Normally, I have a soft spot in my heart for gate agents, who have a hard job and have to deal with all types of people. Our Aeromexico agent, however, quickly fell from my graces when she told me we were too late as we walked up.

With 20 minutes left before departure, she was still scanning the four adult's boarding passes in front of us. Our kids' cute faces didn't even save us. Bill summed the situation up briefly, it just seemed "mean."

So while we were all fuming, we walked what felt like a mile to the customer service counter. I mustered up as much kindness as I could to the rebooking agent, who one can surmise has one of the worst jobs on the planet. She couldn’t get us on the later flight that day, but we got the same original morning flight for the next day.

With that, we sat down in the terminal, pulled out our computers, and searched for accommodations in Mexico City. After quickly scanning the usual chain suspects, Bill found Gran Hotel. It looked really nice and was right in El Centro, the historic City Center, so I booked it.

We navigated through the unnecessarily frustrating zig-zag of terminal space and ultimately found the taxi stand outside the door on the first level.

Our friendly taxi driver drove us to Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City, pointing out the buildings as we quickly drove by. He stopped at the 3rd corner around the square and pointed to our hotel, just down a pedestrian path. We grabbed our bags, tipped him, and were on our way.

The ornate gold altar in Mexico City's Cathedral.
The Cathedral

Gran Hotel

We were immediately greeted by Orlando, the Gran Hotel bellhop who would become a fast friend. He stood below the largest chandelier that I have ever seen. If I had to guess, I would say that this magnificent monstrosity had a circumference of 10 feet. You had no choice but to take it in, and it was stunning.

We ascended the stairs and came to the lobby. It was still really early and there was no one in the lobby beyond the front desk staff.

I did not know that we were in for such a treat. The ceiling reminded me of the ceiling at Galleries Lafayette department store in Paris. I said so to Orlando and he confirmed that it was, in fact, the inspiration for this magnificent stained glass atrium.

The front desk agent was wonderful. He said that he knew we must be tired and he could make a room available for us in 15 minutes. We were hours away from the official check in time, and profusely appreciative of his kindness.

While we waited, he gave us a map and I asked him where to find good al pastor tacos. The best ones are served on a trompo: a spit where layers of pork are stacked with pineapple on top to let the juices flow down into the meat.

He didn’t hesitate with his recommendation: Taqueria Arandas. He suggested trying other things on their menu, including birria, a spicy beef soup. It all sounded good and we vowed to try as much as we could. While we talked, Orlando kindly made me coffee. Seriously, what a sweetheart!

When our room was ready, Orlando walked us to a stained glass elevator that is operator-attended. This is a special treat for guests when they check in. There is a modern, more practical one within the hotel, but the original one makes for a grand entrance.

Turns out, this lobby is so famous that it's been in. not one, but two James Bond movies! [Sidebar: I've never seen a James Bond movie. Criminal, I know!]

Two pictures of James Bond. On the top, is Timothy Dalton as James Bond in a tuxedo. On the bottom is Daniel Craig, wearing a skeleton outfit with a top hat entering the elevator.
James Bond at Gran Hotel

The room was clean and nice. There were electric blinds, a desk, two double beds. We had a view to an outside garden below. Across the garden was the cement wall to the neighboring building, but the hotel had grown plants through a vine system. I initially assumed they were fake, but on closer inspection realized they were real.

I took a chance asking Orlando for an itinerary for the day and was not disappointed. Without hesitation, he grabbed my map and made a walking route for us that would maximize our time there and incorporate good food along the way. After the "History of Mexico City," the itinerary below is his suggestion.

History of Mexico City

Mexico City was built over a lake during the time of the Aztecs. This was done because they believed that their god would provide a sign - an eagle eating a snake upon a cactus - to indicate where they should make their home. When that vision was realized on a smaller island within the lake, they took dirt and built the island up. Over time, they built their fortress, Tenochtitlan.

By 1519, the Spaniards had arrived led by Hernan Cortes. The Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, believed that Cortes had been prophesied and showered him and his men with kindness and gifts. Ultimately, the Spaniards took him, imprisoned him, and were able to take over the city after he lost the respect of his men and many defected to the Spanish side.

For nearly 300 years, the area was under colonial rule. On September 16, 1810, Father Hidalgo called for independence and an 11-year battle for independence began. (Note that this is the Mexican holiday that is widely celebrated, not Cinco de Mayo).

Today, the square annually celebrates Mexican independence with a shout from the President to the people in the square and regular celebrations, exhibitions and protests making it an important cultural center.

Mexico City in 24 Hours

Start at Zócalo

The main square is officially known as Plaza de la Constitución. It is, however, more commonly referred to as "zócalo," which translates to “base”. It was originally supposed to be the site of a monument to celebrate Mexico's Independence from Spain. This never happened, but the name stuck because of the base to the monument that was put into place.

Interestingly, many towns across Mexico have adopted the name "Zócalo" to reference their public squares.

This massive square sits in front the Presidential Palace on one side, the cathedral on another and a 510-pound Mexican flag that is raised and lowered every day by 15 Mexican soldiers in the middle of the square. In time, the original base for the aforementioned monument that never came to be became the housing for the large Mexican flag in the square.

Remember the prophecy that I mentioned in the history section above? The center of the Mexican flag has an eagle with a snake on its mouth atop a cactus.

Mexico City's Zocalo including the cathedral and the over 500 lb Mexican flag
Mexico City's Zocalo

Given its enormous size, the plaza lends itself to more displays. We were there shortly after an enormous protest over women’s rights and femicide on March 8th, International Women’s Day. The protest had been so large that they were just starting to remove the protection from the windows surrounding the square. The protest had moved down the way to the street in front of Bellas Artes while we were there.

Plaza de la Constitución, S/N, Centro Histórico, Centro, 06010 Ciudad de México

Palacio Nacional

This is one of the world's largest government buildings. Historically, it's on the site of Aztec ruler Moctezuma's residence and later the Palace of Viceroys under colonial rule. Today, it houses over a dozen murals by Diego Riviera. It is still also where the President of Mexico comes out every independence day (September 16th) to ring a bell to commemorate the event and prepare for the next day's military parade.

Templo Mayor

Although the "Main Temple" (Templo Mayor) was closed on the day that we visited, it left an indelible impression. From the barricade around it, you could peek in and see some of the building remains. This was the site of the Aztecs' sacred offerings and worship and it was mercilessly torn down and its rocks were used to build the Catedral just a stone's throw away.

Seminario 8, Centro Histórico, Cuahtémoc, 06060 Ciudad de México

At the edge of the square, find Francisco L. Madero Street and continue on..

This pedestrian street will connect you from the historic center to Bellas Artes and Alameda Central. There are lots of shops and restaurants and it's great people watching.

Dido over to Taqueria Arendas for Lunch

The front was unassuming and I remembered the front desk clerk saying that we could eat there in the spacious restaurant. What I saw though was barely even a walk up. I was excited by the trompo though and committed to figuring it out.

I saw some stairs, gestured up to one of the staff and was met with a head nod. Up we went into what opened up into two additional floors of seating.

The al pastor tacos were delicious, but it was the birria that I really loved. It had just the right amount of spice and huge chunks of beef. Mmmm.

...Until you reach Palacio de Bellas Artes

Neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture all delightfully in tandem. The bright white building shined magnificently while the gorgeous bright orange dome was framed between the delicate purple jacaranda trees.

Bellas Artes as seen from a nearby skyscraper
Bellas Artes

See the Bellas Artes Metro Sign

This metro sign was given to Mexico City by former French President Jacques Chirac in 1997 in appreciation for the return of a famous mural by a French artist that now hangs at the metro station for the Louvre in Paris.

Take a Rest in Alameda Central (the central park)

We hadn't walked that far, but by the time we got to Alameda Central, it seemed like a lot. Our kids were tired, and we were too tired to argue with them. We got to the park and instead of giving it its proper due and walking around it, admittedly, we took a seat and enjoyed it from one vantage point.

See the City from Above at Rialto

If you want a gorgeous and free aerial view of Mexico City and Bellas Artes, you have a couple of choices: there's a Sears department store (yep, that same department store that dressed you as a kid) that has a cafe on one of the higher floors. We attempted that first, but it was pretty busy.

Another option is to go to the top of the Torres Latinoamericana, a tall skyscraper across the street. Instead of paying to go to the viewing platform, you can go to the bar or to their restaurant, Rialto. We took that option and were ushered to the front of the elevator line.

Oliver ordered a lava cake (a great choice, in my opinion ) and Harper ordered the ambiguous Lego desert (none of us knew what that meant, but how could she resist?). Both were awesome choices. Bill and I feeling the tire of walking all day, had our first margarita while we stole some bites from the kids.

It was close to sunset and the view was spectacular. What an end to a fantastic day!

Ice cream and various pieces of colored cake in different colors that are the shape of LEGO pieces
The LEGO desert at Rialto

Rather than wait in line for the viewing platform, we went up to the Rialto restaurant and enjoyed the aerial view of Mexico City while also enjoying desert and margaritas
A view of Mexico City from Rialot

An aerial view of Bellas Artes from Torres de Latinoamericana
Aerial view of Bellas Artes

If you have 2 or 3 days, what to add:

Museo Frido Kahlo

This museum, the Blue House ,is the home where she lived many years with Diego Rivera. After her death, he set it up as a museum as she had requested.


It was one of the first great cities of the Western Hemisphere, identified by the Aztecs.

Where to Stay: Gran Hotel, Ciudad de México

A quick search showed there are lots of fun, modern places to stay, but if given the chance, I would highly recommend Gran Hotel for both the lobby and the service. They are fantastic.

The building was built in 1899 to house one of the first department stores in Mexico City, Mercantile Center. Jacques Grüber, a French artist, designed the decadent stained-glass ceiling.

Avenue 16 de Septiembre 82, Centro, 06000


Weather / Best Time to Go

March through May are the best times to go for great weather with moderate temperatures and little rain. Also, the purple jacaranda trees are in bloom, and they are beautiful.

Throughout the year, the weather only ranges from the low 40s to the high 70s. In the summertime, it is very rainy especially in September.

Key events throughout the year

  • Día de la Independencia (Sept. 16)

  • Día de la Raza (Oct.)

  • Día de los Muertos (Nov. 1)

  • Día de la Revolución (Nov. 20)

  • Fiesta de Santa Cecilia (Nov.)

Happy travels,


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