Exploring Mexico: Travel Guide for Visiting Four Different Cities & Towns
Mexico Travel Guide: How to Explore Mexico City, Querétaro, Bernal & San Miguel de Allende
To say that Mexico is experiencing a renaissance is an understatement.
Often treated as a playground for tourists, Mexico has, in the last decade or so, emerged as a cultural and culinary powerhouse. And it only makes sense: Mexico has everything it needs to create unparalleled art, music, and cuisine thanks to its varied agricultural regions, its ambitious young population, and its strong sense of cultural pride.
There’s nowhere better to explore all that Mexico offers than right in the heart of the country. Without the beaches to which spring breakers flock, central Mexico tends to draw artists, historians, and curious minds from all over the world as well as Mexican tourists eager to embrace their heritage.
Where To Eat, Drink and Activities to Explore in:
Mexico City is beautiful, safe, and far more relaxed than rattling media stories would imply. Much like any major metropolis, there are wonderful areas and not-so-wonderful areas but it’s important to remember that tourists rarely end up in not-so-wonderful areas. And like anywhere else, just be sure to use common sense and stay aware of your surroundings.
It’s impossible to visit Mexico City without going to Zócalo, the center of the city both geographically and spiritually. Once an Aztec worship center, Zócalo was invaded by Spaniards in the 1520s and eventually became the home of the Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México and official government buildings. Despite centuries of political, religious, and social upheaval, Zócalo remains one of the most important areas of Mexico City due grand architecture that has been featured in countless stories, including the stunning opening sequence of the James Bond film “Spectre.”
There’s no lack of sweeping views to explore but among the most impressive are those offered inside of and from the roof of the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico. This gorgeous hotel is a prime example of Belle Epoque decor with an intricate stained-glass ceiling that makes it a must-see. And while visitors are welcome to explore that alone, it’s worth grabbing a seat at the rooftop restaurant for a nibble or a drink and watching the world go by far down below. (16 de Septiembre 82, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro; +52 55 1083 7700)
Balcón del Zócalo is another fantastic spot for dinner, drinks, and vistas. Located at the top of the Zócalo Central Hotel, the Balcón is breathtaking inside and out. The menu is just as fabulous, with international and Mexican dishes crafted with seasonal ingredients and interesting twists. (Av. 5 de Mayo 61, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro; +52 55 5130 5134)
The museums around Zócalo can take several days to explore but two absolute musts are the Museo del Templo Mayor and Museo Nacional de Arte. The Templo is ancient ruins of Aztec temples, once believed to be the center of the universe. It’s steps away from the main Catédral, which is just close enough to encapsulate the complicated history Mexico has endured. (Seminario 8, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro; +52 55 4040 5600)
The Museo Nacional de Arte is also around Zócalo, housed in a stunning neo-classical building. There, visitors can spend hours exploring an impressive collection of classic, romantic, and modern works by Mexican artists across eras. (C. de Tacuba 8, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro; + 52 55 8647 5430)
For those who’d rather cut to the chase and see work by Mexico’s favorite muralist, Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural “Sueño de Una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” is a short walk from Zócalo. It’s impressive enough on its own but the Museo Mural Diego Rivera built around it also houses a quirky collection of other artifacts. (Balderas S/N, Colonia Centro, Centro; +52 55 1555 1900)
If and when visitors are ready to explore beyond Zócalo, the Roma and La Condesa neighborhoods are excellent choices to experience Mexico City. The award-winning film “Roma” was set in the namesake neighborhood in the early 1970s, when political and social turbulence roiled the city. Today, Roma and neighboring La Condesa are favorites for visitors because of the plentiful cafes, restaurants, shops, and Airbnbs. Both neighborhoods are leafy and green, offering a relief from heat and smog.
In the northern section of Roma, designer shops have popped up in clusters and offers shoppers a peek into the creative minds of the city. Carla Fernandez has two shops, both of which offer fashion designed around indigenous and mestizo textile traditions. (Av. Álvaro Obregón 200, Roma Nte; +52 55 4216 3389, and Calle Marsella 72, Juárez; +52 55 5511 0001).
Fabrica Social is another fantastic shop that offers handmade garments from the local communities. (C. Dinamarca 66, Juárez) The university campus nearby surely has something to do with the area’s vibrant feel, so it’s worth slowing down and soaking it all in.
For those feeling flush, grab a drink at the Ritz-Carlton. Located at the edge of Bosque de Chapultepec, the views from the top of the Ritz are unparalleled. Sip a glass of sparkling and nestle into the clouds high about the cityscape. It’s an unforgettable experience. (Av. Paseo de la Reforma 509, Cuauhtémoc; +52 55 2734 3480) And, from there, walk through Bosque Chapultepec to the Polanco neighborhood. This is undoubtedly one of the poshest sections with high end shopping and dining everywhere. The houses alone are worth admiring but duck into Rosa Negra for an exuberant meal (Av. Pdte. Masaryk 298, Polanco; +52 55 5282 2603) or GinGin for neo-goth vibe cocktails (Av Oaxaca 87, Roma Nte; +52 55 5248 0911).
And finally, the real reason everyone comes to Mexico City: Frida Kahlo. The cult of Frida has grown exponentially in recent years, making her family home-turned-museum one of the most visited places in the entire country. Located in the tranquil Colonia del Carmen neighborhood, the Uber ride there is well worth it. La Casa Azul, as the museum is known, is impossible to miss due to its gorgeous, saturated blue. Be sure to buy tickets well in advance because admission sells out day after day. (Londres 247, Del Carmen, Coyoacán; +52 55 5554 5999)
Once there, though, take time to explore the house and gardens – it’s both beautiful and heartbreaking. Be sure to also take some time to explore the neighborhood; it’s chock full of galleries, shops, and other points of interest, like the Leon Trotsky Museum. (Av. Río Churubusco 410, Del Carmen, Coyoacán; +52 55 5658 8732)
When you’re ready to explore beyond Mexico City, head northwest to Querétaro. Although it’s still a large-ish city, it’s markedly more contained that CDMX and immediately feels like it. The historic Centro is lined with cobblestone streets and gorgeous colonial architecture. And notably, there tend to be few American tourists here. In recent years, Querétaro has become an international commerce center so the city holds international shops and restaurants in its more suburban outposts while the city center has remained decidedly Mexican.
Those who want to be transported back in time absolutely must stay at – or even just visit – La Casa de la Marquesa. How it has been maintained is unfathomable, but it remains a glorious throwback to another century. Moorish details abound, from the carved wood to the intricate archways and doors. Amenities are limited and it can be booked by film crews for period pieces, but it’s all worth it. It’s elegant, peaceful, and some of the rooms even have deep soaking tubs that are much-appreciated after a long day spent exploring. (C. Francisco I. Madero 41, Centro; +52 442 227 0500)
Museo de Arte de Queretaro embodies the ethos of the city: preservation and innovation collaborate to highlight the best of the region. Housed in a stunning edifice from the 18th century, visitors can view significant works of art as well as creative new installations. The peaceful surroundings also invite visitors to relax with a book for a while and just steep in the calm. (C. Ignacio Allende Sur 14, Centro; +52 442 212 2357) For an equally creative but very different experience, walk across leafy and green Alameda Hidalgo to Centro Educativo y Cultural del Estado de Querétaro. There, kids can run amok in the educational section while adults can explore the latest art installations. Be sure to take some time to admire the stunning murals throughout the interior and exterior walls of the building. (Av. Constituyentes S/N, zona dos extendida, Centro; +52 442 251 9600)
Like most places in cosmopolitan Mexico, Querétaro has amazing places to eat with a surprising number of international twists to eateries, even in Centro. For a very Euro-vibe breakfast, head to Breton. While it claims to be French, it serves chilaquiles, shakshuka, and ‘sandwich Anglais’ in addition to quiche and croissants. It doesn’t really matter what you get here because it’s all fantastic. ( And. Libertad 82, Centro; +52 442 299 6207) For a more down-to-earth morning, hit the always popular Bisquets. The quirky interior is lined with movie stars of yore, and the food is solid and plentiful. The real MVPs, though, are the eponymous biscuits, which are to-die for, and the café con leche is amazing too. (Calle José María Pino Suárez 7, Centro; +52 442 214 1481)
For evening meals, Terraza La Grupa is a standout for the views, the wine list, and the small bites. (Av. Prol. Luis Pasteur 25-Norte, Centro Histórico; +52 442 212 4249)
Meson de Chucho El Roto is a good spot for traditional and delicious Mexican, and their terrace provides some excellent people-watching. (Av. Luis Pasteur Sur 16, Centro; +52 442 182 0853)
La Llave is another great choice for traditional dishes inside the relaxed Hotel Hidalgo, and the added bonus here is that there is often live music. (C. Francisco I. Madero 11, Centro; +52 442 214 5734)
Tacos Arabes Jair Ala is a tiny joint that serves Lebanese-Mexican mash up dishes that are both surprising and very tasty. (C. Ignacio Allende Sur 14-D, Centro; +52 442 214 0783) And for those wanting a unique cocktail bar, check out the steampunk-inspired Atanor. The décor and choice of drinks are both inventive and intriguing, and there are plenty of street food options right around it to be sure you have a solid base before cocktails. (C. 5 de Mayo 111, La Santa Cruz, La Cruz; +52 55 4944 9393)
Querétaro boasts the standard tourist shopping spots with beautiful embroidered clothing, leather goods, and jewelry. It’s impossible not to notice images of Lele everywhere, including at crosswalks, since she’s the unofficial mascot of the region. Lele gifts range from dolls to masks to t-shirts and are easily found in just about every shopping district. Consider her the cute little reminder to take home with you.
The small, dusty town of San Sebastián Bernal – or just ‘Bernal’ – is located about 40 minutes outside of Querétaro, accessible via Uber or bus. Several tours along the wine and cheese route make their way to Bernal, and the village is bursting at the seams during weekends. It’s also frenetic during the equinoxes, all due to the massive monolith looming over the town, la Peña de Bernal. This is all to say: plan your trip accordingly. Weekends are LOUD, with motorcycles, music, and fireworks blasting at all hours of the night. But by Monday mornings, Bernal empties out and reverts back to its small, rural self, which is charming in its own rite.
Peña de Bernal is star attraction here. As one of the largest monoliths in the world, it has traditionally held spiritual significance for indigenous people, which has been carried through to modern day celebrations around vernal and autumnal equinox. Parts of it are accessible for hikers but do be prepared with plenty of water and sunscreen.
Just outside of Bernal is a massive Freixenet facility, which indicates the confidence of the sparkling wine producer has in this up-and-coming wine region. Visitors can book well organized tours through the caves and finish tasting through still and sparkling wines. (Carr. San Juan del Río, Ezequiel Montes; +52 441 277 5100)
Bernal has a several small museums that are worth visiting. The Museo de la Máscara, or the Mask Museum, is located at the end of the main street and is a treasure trove of traditional Mexican masks as well as masks from around the world. It’s a really interesting way to explore commonalities across cultures. (Zona Centro, C. Independencia 19) Right in the heart of the town is the Rosalio Solano Museum of National Cinema, which is dedicated to a Bernal native who thrived as one of the most famous cinematographers in Mexican cinematic history. It’s compact but loaded with information about classic Mexican films so be sure to take note for your Netflix queue. (Iturbide, Zona Centro; +52 441 296 4148)
It’s impossible to visit Bernal and not notice how much incredible food is around. Cafés tend to open a little later than elsewhere but Veintidós Café provides a breakfast that is well worth the wait. Load up on chilaquiles, crepes, or just a delicious latte to start the day. (C. Ocampo 4, Zona Centro; +52 442 247 9144) Gorditas are very popular in Bernal and Gorditas el Negrito is probably the hottest spot in town for them. (C. Juan Aldama 6, Zona Centro) However, it’s worth venturing outside of the square and over to Guajillo’s for the best gorditas around. (C. Independencia 12, Centro; +52 427 167 3155) All of that said, there’s no reason at all to seek a sit-down meal when the street-side vendors churn out astonishingly good bowls of esquites or elote – two different versions of Mexican street corn – complete with a range of sauces and toppings.
Driving from Bernal to San Miguel offers a view of changing states; similar to the United States, traveling from state to state can be surprising over the border. Querétaro is a beautiful state on its own, but Guanajuato state is immediately greener and with smoother roads. We’re not saying it’s like going from New York to Connecticut but we kind of are.
San Miguel de Allende is one of the most popular places in Mexico for locals and ex-pats alike and for good reason: year in and year out, it’s voted one of the best places to live in the world. San Miguel holds beautiful architecture, world-class restaurants, inventive art exhibits, and dedicated cultural preservation. It’s safe, clean, accessible, and beautiful. All of that said, it is one of the more expensive places in Mexico to visit but it’s still very affordable for American tourists.
At the center of the city is Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, the looming pink Neo-Gothic Cathedral that rises from the center of the city. Built in the 17th century, it remains one of the key attractions in San Miguel and serves as a reference point from many vantages.
Parque Benito Juarez is just south of Centro and is a peaceful spot to explore and to just be. Densely leafy and green, it’s probably the opposite of what most tourists expect to find in Mexico. San Miguel typically doesn’t get too hot but if it does, Benito Juarez is the way to cool off and chill. Take a book and enjoy the people-watching.
Since San Miguel draws such an international crowd, it’s no surprise that restaurants are top-notch. Ki’Bok Coffee is a great way to start the day. Dedicated to organic beans, all of the drinks are wonderful and pastries offerings round out a solid breakfast. (Diez de Sollano y Dávalos #25, Cuadrante #1, Centro)
San Miguel has an abundance of stunning restaurants, quite frankly among the most beautiful we’ve ever experienced. The Restaurant is situated in a gorgeous colonial-era hotel with soaring ceilings and abundant greenery. The menu leans international, with a well-planned wine list. (Diez de Sollano y Dávalos 16, Zona Centro, Centro; +52 415 154 7862)
L’Unica might just be the best rooftop dining, which is saying a lot because rooftops are big here. The croquetas de camaron and aquachiles de camaron verde are both standouts, though it’s hard to go wrong with L’Unica’s creative twists on classic Mexican fare. (Diez de Sollano y Dávalos 14, Zona Centro; +52 415 688 1393)
For those wanting to change things up a bit, La Parada is a fabulous Peruvian-focused restaurant. Savor fresh ceviche, tacu tacu, and pisco cocktails amidst tranquil greenery. (Recreo 94, Zona Centro; +52 415 152 0473)
La Fondita is decidedly more laid-back than any of the above but the food is outstanding. Traditional Mexican is the order of the day, with posole and enmoladas that are life-changing. (Codo 18, Zona Centro; +52 415 152 3743)
But a true standout – among so many standouts – to experience is drinks at Lunas Tapas Bar, the rooftop restaurant at the Rosewood Hotel. Situated in a quietly tony neighborhood, the rooftop provides views of the entire city. It’s beautiful, exhilarating, and relaxed all at once, with food and drinks that match the vibe. (Nemesio Diez 11, Zona Centro; +52 415 152 9700)
For those who would rather stock up and cook at their Airbnb, City Market is located just south of Centro and has just about every ingredient you could want. From traditional Mexican to more indulgent European, it’s here. There’s also an impressive wine shop with international selections, as well as an on-site café. (Salida a Celayna 82, La Lejona; +52 415 185 8839)
Mercado de Artesenías has blocks and blocks of Mexican crafts to explore, from fabric to jewelry to pottery and more. There are some gems here but it is also the typical market that caters to tourist so be sure to shop around a bit before buying. (Lucas Balderas S/N, Zona Centro)
For a totally different artistic experience, head to Fábrica la Aurora, a former textiles factory located just north of Centro. It’s an easy 20 minute walk that is worth taking because visitors will experience the up-and-coming area around it. Fabrica La Aurora has been transformed to a rambling space filled with art galleries, shops, and cafes where guests can easily spend half a day. From stunning antiques to Warhols and Basquiats, it’s ceaselessly surprising. The cafés attract ex-pats who have formed a strong community. (Calz de La Aurora S/N, Aurora; +52 415 152 1312)
The streets between Centro and Fábrica la Aurora are lined with galleries and boutiques as well, so if Fábrica is a little out of your budget, you’re sure to find some treasures there.
The museums around San Miguel are interesting and engaging. Museo Histórico Casa de Allende is right in Centro across the street from Parroquia de San Miguel and, as the name implies, it’s the former home of independence leader Ignacio Allende. Explore the beautiful 18th century building and read through the life of Allende contextualized in social movements of Mexico. (Cuna de Allende 1, Zona Centro; +52 415 152 2499)
Museo la Esquina, also in Centro, is a museum filled with toys and games from different times in Mexican history to present. There’s an impressive luchador mask collection, as well as full sets of miniature carnivals and circuses. It’s a fun way to revisit history and to see what changes – and what doesn’t. (Núñez 40, Zona Centro; +52 415 152 2602).
And to think: we’ve only scratched the surface of central Mexico! Each place has its unique history and charm, and Mexico is infinitely explorable. It’s the perfect place to get lost for hours wandering around the historic neighborhoods, and it’s a must for couples, families, and solo travelers alike.
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