You don’t have to fly halfway around the world to get a fresh perspective. With its myriad ancient cultures, sophisticated regional cuisines (TexMex is not the same thing!), and splendid colonial heritage, Mexico truly is the dazzling gem in your backyard.
Founded by the Aztecs in 1325, and conquered by the Spanish 200 years later, it goes without saying that Mexico City boasts incredible architecture and museums. And as the economic hub of modern Mexico it has attracted people from all corners of Mexico, making it a wonderful introduction to the incredible cultural and culinary diversity of this vast and varied nation. With 21.3 million inhabitants, however, it does take some navigating… This is where your private, local guide will really come into their own! We can even arrange private, off-hours tours (i.e. when the museum is closed to the public) of most of the major attractions in the city.
Many of the finest hotels, restaurants (iconic Pujol is currently ranked #12 in the world, but there are loads of other great restaurants), museums (Mexico City has more museums than London or New York), and art galleries are concentrated in and around the city’s historic center. A great starting point is to take a stroll along the grand Paseo de la Reforma, the tree-lined avenue modeled on the Champs-Élysées that cuts an elegant swath through the heart of town. If you’re only going to visit one museum, make it the National Museum of Anthropology which houses a staggering collection of ancient and contemporary ethnographic artifacts, including the original Aztec Sun Stone and the jade mask of the Zapotec Bat God. You could easily spend an entire week exploring the 23 exhibit halls, so it pays to take your cues from your expert guide. (Other highly recommended museums include the Soumaya Museum, an important art collection housed in an ultra-modern edifice that’s funded by Carlos Slim, and the historic Chapultapec Castle.)
We also highly recommend visiting some of the neighborhoods to the south of the city. The Blue House (aka the Frida Kahlo Museum) is an unmissable feast for the senses. The home where Kahlo was born and died (and where she and Diego Rivera lived during their tumultuous marriage as the queen and king of Mexican art) doesn’t just house some of Kahlo’s most important works – it actually immerses you in her quirky and colorful private universe. A little further south on a hill overlooking the city, the floating gardens of Lake Xochimilco offer a tantalizing and temperate respite from the hustle and heat of the city. Centuries ago, local farmers constructed reed and branch rafts atop which they grew fruit, vegetables, and flowers. The rafts, like the practice itself, soon took root and a guided visit aboard one of the traditional flat-bottomed boats is a highlight for many travelers. (The gardens do get busy at weekends and on public holidays – your Destination Expert will take this into account when curating your itinerary.)
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Teotihuacan, located some 30 miles north of Mexico City, is another big drawcard. This important Mesoamerican city is so old that historians can’t even agree who built it … But this only adds to the impact of the huge twin pyramids (known as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon) and the sheer scale of a city which was home to 200,000 subjects in its heyday. While Teotihuacan is extremely impressive from ground level, this site takes on an even more stupefying aspect when witnessed from the comfort of a hot air balloon. Speak to your Destination Expert about incorporating this unforgettable experience into your Mexico adventure.
Located around 60 miles south of Mexico City, and established by the Spanish in 1531, the old town of Puebla is as perfectly-preserved a colonial city as you’ll find anywhere in the Americas. Home to a very impressive cathedral, an incredible concentration of 16th and 17th century churches (prepare yourself for an abundance of gold leaf), and loads of other historic buildings adorned with iconic Talavera tiles (read more about this made-in-Puebla global style icon here), Puebla is a wonderful place to explore on foot.
But Puebla isn’t just about the buildings. It’s also the epicenter of Mexico’s proud culinary heritage, as epitomized by the eponymous mole poblano, a silky smooth reddish-brown sauce comprising around 25 ingredients (chili peppers, chocolate, plantains, almonds, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon sticks, anise, cloves…) and typically served with chicken or turkey. Mole poblano isn’t just utterly delicious, it’s also slightly different everywhere you try it. And it’s got a truly fascinating history that spans three continents, as this write-up explains:
“The origins of mole poblano are found in the sophisticated thousand-year-old Persian cuisine which was adopted by Moslems in Baghdad and subsequently spread to other Moslem cities, flourishing from the eighth century onward. A southern portion of the Iberian Peninsula, termed al-Andalus, also came under Moslem control in the eighth century, resulting in the spread of many non-native foods and crops to the region … As Spain gained territory in America during the 16th century, their cuisine traveled with them, including that which had originally been adopted from the Moslems. Among these was what would become mole poblano, created through the replacement of some of the usual Spanish ingredients with ones native to America.”
But mole poblano is by no means Puebla’s only contribution to the culinary world. Chiles en nogada comprises stuffed poblano chiles (the stuffing typically contains meat, fruits, and spices) smothered in a walnut-based cream sauce. Sprinklings of parsley and pomegranate seeds mean the dish resembles the Mexican flag, making it especially popular in the month of September when Mexicans celebrate their independence from Spain. Other local delicacies include chalupas, tacos Árabes, molotes, pelonas, and much, much more.
With its centuries-old churches, elegant plazas, and rich sense of regional pride, Oaxaca does bear plenty of similarities to Puebla. But there are also many differences between these two colonial treasure troves. For starters, Oaxaca has its own equally famous, equally delicious sauce: Mole Oaxaqueño. Add to this a predilection for eating grasshoppers (chapulines), and a citywide obsession with tlayudas (crunchy tortillas topped with refried beans, avocado, shredded meat, Oaxaca cheese, salsa, and more) and there really is something for every kind of gastronome.
Oaxaca is also the world’s Mezcal capital (tequila’s peatier, smokier cousin), and a visit to a traditional palenque (the primitive small-scale distilleries that still use ancient methods) is an absolute must. As is an evening spent sampling the many local varieties (nobody’s counting) in an atmospheric mezcalería. The other thing which really sets Oaxaca apart is its many artists (the galleries are top notch), artisans, and other counter cultural thinkers. It goes without saying that such a cultural and historic powerhouse should boast some of the finest boutique hotels in the region, not least the elegant Casa Oaxaca which is owned by one of Mexico’s best-known chefs and is a culinary adventure in itself.
As if this isn’t enough, there are also several very important pre-Columbian ruins dotted around the countryside surrounding Oaxaca. Located only five miles from town, the 2 500-year-old hilltop complex of Monte Alban has been described by National Geographic as the “richest archaeological find in the Americas.” Monte Alban was the most important political and economic center in the Zapotec world, while Dainzú – a slightly older and considerably smaller Zapotec village featuring wonderful bas relief carvings – is also worth a visit. Also in the area is the contemporary village of Teotitlán del Valle which has been renowned for its weaving since Aztec times. While some cooperatives have embraced modern pigments, techniques and designs, others are still doing things the (very) old-fashioned way. Good thing you’ve got a private a guide to show you around…
From 31 October to 2 November every year, Oaxaca plays host to what is arguably the most splendid Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration in all of Mexico. Watch the video below to get a taste of what to expect.
If ancient civilizations are your thing, the Yucatán Peninsula, 600 miles to the east will blow you away (it’s also got some pretty awesome beaches). Initially we’d planned to cover the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Tulum in this travel journal. But then we decided to give them the space to truly shine – check out our Yucatán and Baja California travel journal here.
Experience the best of Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca on our 10-day, privately guided cultural tour. If you’ve got more time, you may even want to consider combining it with our ever-popular 7-day Chichen Itza to Tulum tour. Or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting a bespoke itinerary that combines the best of both while ticking all of your personal travel boxes.