What to do between landing and takeoff in the nation’s capital.
Many flights with end destinations throughout Mexico include at least a quick stopover at Mexico City International Airport, the busiest in Latin America and the main hub for the country’s Aeroméxico airline. Your layover can be an adventure: Because the airport offers storage lockers on the lower level of Terminals 1 and 2, and because it sits so close to the city center, sampling some of the country’s historic sights (and tasty bites) is as simple as uno, dos, tres. To get around the city, you can buy a pre-paid taxi ticket from the Ground Transportation booth near baggage claim, or head just to the left of the terminal for a cheaper ride on the metro. Whether you’ve got just a few hours or a full day, here’s how to make the most of your time.
If you have 3 hours…
With limited time to enjoy Mexico City’s food scene, every minute counts. Bypass long sit-downs in favor of following your nose to any number of carts and stalls peddling street food at La Merced, the city’s oldest market. Less than four miles from the airport, its seemingly endless corridors are stacked with baskets that overflow with chilies, ground spices, brightly colored candies and dried fruits. While browsing, you can sample piping hot chilaquiles (fried corn tortillas), huaraches (corn cakes served with various toppings) and conchas (sweet rolls).
Just a bit farther away lies Zócalo, the main square for both the modern-day city and its ancient counterpart, the pre-Hispanic capital of Tenochtitlán. The range of history on display here is staggering, with grand colonial buildings abutting the ruins of Templo Mayor. Unearthed by archaeologists at the turn of the 20th century, the Aztecs’ most important religious site remains an active excavation, with 6,000 or so relics—such as sculptures, masks and clay pots—exhibited at the adjacent museum.
If you have 6 hours…
Even if you don’t land in Mexico City on a Wednesday or Sunday evening, when performances by Ballet Folklórico de México light the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the magnificent domed building houses two museums, for the arts and architecture, in the city’s Centro Histórico district. Peek inside to see the main theater’s ornate stained-glass curtain—a foldable panel depicting the Popocatepetl and Iztacchihuatl volcanoes of the Valle de México—or head across the street to the top of the Torre Latino skyscraper for a bird’s-eye view.
Just southwest of Centro Histórico you can step into the bohemian neighborhoods of Roma and La Condesa. Art Deco homes, abundant flora and enchanting shops and cafés line the mostly residential streets, while an art market consumes Avenida Álvaro Obregon on weekends. Bowed bookshelves and rooftop vistas demand visitors take their time at bookstore El Péndulo. After browsing your fill, you can order mescal-spiked ice cream at the nearby Helado Obscuro or a snack from Mercado Roma, a food hall and tribute to Mexican gastronomy that’s a short drive away.
If you have 12 or more hours…
About an hour south of the city center, lavishly decorated passenger boats bob along the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Aztecs once grew staples on these man-made and raftlike islands, which are anchored throughout the canals. Today, flowers grow in the place of crops. Mariachi music serenades travelers, and vendors hawk tacos from canoes along the way.
Cosmic harmony reigns supreme at Teotihuacán, or City of the Gods, which predates the Aztecs who named it by 1,000 years and remains the largest Mesoamerican site in Mexico. Just 30 miles outside of the nation’s capital, it’s easily accessible by either public bus or guided tour. You’ll want a full day to explore the expansive architectural wonders that spider out from the two-and-a-half-mile Avenue of the Dead, including the Pyramid of the Sun (the world’s third-largest pyramid) and the Pyramid of the Moon, both of which afford epic vistas of the fallen metropolis.