I had written the intro to this post while were were traveling from Mexico City to Oaxaca last Sunday. Little did we know that less than 24 hours after we arrived safely home to New York City, the biggest earthquake Mexico has experienced in 100 years would rock the two cities we had just explored and come to adore. Sam and I are incredibly grateful to have made it home before this natural disaster, and our thoughts continue to be with the wonderful people of Mexico, namely those that we met along our journey. While the destruction to areas of the state of Oaxaca are some of the worst the region has ever experienced, we remain thankful that the damage wasn’t greater than it might have been.
The damage and hardships that the earthquake brought on are all the more reason to visit this beautiful country and help support it with tourist dollars. The people of Mexico work very hard to create gorgeous goods and experiences for tourists, so please take them up on it! You won’t regret it. 🙂
Okay, now on to my neon travel guide!
For as long as I can remember I have had a fascination with Mexican culture. In first grade, I had to create a presentation on a country of my choice: Mexico. I even renamed myself “Maria Rosa Morrison-o” for the sake of the project. (I was an interesting kid…) I began learning Spanish in 7th grade and quickly took to the language. Spanish ended up being my favorite class in school, so much so that I went on to take AP Spanish in high school and continued to study it in college, despite my also studying French and traveling abroad to Paris.
As my interests in global handcrafted goods such as embroidery and textiles grew, so did my desire to finally make my pilgrimage to the country whose vibrant culture has long called out to me. Thank G-d for honeymoons and openminded fiancés! I pitched the honeymoon-in-Mexico idea to Sam after a quick bit of research that yielded cheap airfare, world-class eats, lucha libre, and mezcal, a smokey agave-based liquor. Sure there would be Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City and an excursion (or five) to the markets of Oaxaca, but I knew it would be a vibrant cultural experience that we would both appreciate immensely.
While my list of Mexican cities to visit is quite long, it was easy to narrow down this first trip to the two locations we visited: Mexico City & Oaxaca. Mexico City is known for its extensive collection of art and its food scene–both of which are reason enough for the trip! But Museo Frida Kahlo and her presence in la Ciudad de México made this city a non-negotiable. The region of Oaxaca is a cultural epicenter in Mexico, producing some of the best food, liquor, and handcrafted goods the country has to offer. It seemed like every restaurant and bar we visited in Mexico City offered Oaxacan food and drink, further confirming our suspicions that it was the ideal second location to tack onto our trip.
Of the two cities, Oaxaca was the bigger surprise in that it was even more colorful, charming, delicious and handicraft-filled than I could have ever imagined. That first evening that we arrived, we walked the cobblestone streets–popping into an artisan market here, an ultra chic (yet affordable!) cocktail spot there–and I thought I could very well just be dreaming. The vibrant travel fantasies I contained in my brain were suddenly surrounding me and I was so overwhelmed with joy that the smile on my face simply could not be contained.
Suffice it to say, during our one week in Mexico we stuffed our faces with tacos, chilaquiles, and tlyaudas (comically large quesadillas); sampled some of Mexico’s best mezcals; retraced Frida’s footsteps; got a heavy dose of Mexican culture and nature; and brought back plenty of exciting handicrafts to add to The Neon Bazaar (coming soon!!).
If any or all of this sounds appealing to you, I cannot recommend this trip enough. Mexico is so close, so culturally rich, and so affordable for Americans, it would be a waste not to check it out for yourself. (And no, beach resorts don’t count!)
Read on for some handy tips and my favorite recommendations for traveling to Mexico City and Oaxaca!
FIRST THING’S FIRST…
GETTING THERE & GETTING AROUND
Flights are CHEAP. We flew Wednesday to Wednesday, with a quick flight to Oaxaca on Sunday, and our flights totaled about $370 each! Check Kayak frequently, play with the travel dates, and set up price alerts to nab yourself a great deal.
Once in Mexico City, Ubers rule. Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) is HUGE and Ubers are a cheap and easy way to get to all the attractions and neighborhoods you plan to check out. Unlike some American airports that are strict about app-based services for airport pick-up, you won’t run into any issues grabbing an Uber from Benito Juarez Airport.
Oaxaca is a bit of a different story. We didn’t have any luck using Uber there, however once we were in the city (we used the airport’s taxi service to get there) everything was in walking distance. Otherwise, we easily grabbed a street cab back to the airport for just 200 pesos and did a group day excursion in which we took a van around the state of Oaxaca (more on that later!).
WHERE WE STAYED
Sam and I are always privy to Airbnb for our international travels. We’ve only had fantastic experiences and there are a ton of super-affordable options in CDMX and Oaxaca. Here are the Airbnbs we rented, both of which start at $57 USD/night and both of which we can’t recommend enough.
In Mexico City, we stayed in La Condesa, a centrally located neighborhood, making it fairly easy to either walk or Uber to any location. La Roma is the next neighborhood over, and both were unanimously recommended to us for our stay.
After checking out many of the neighborhoods in CDMX, I’d be curious to see what Polanco (a posh neighborhood with a quaint park and plenty of eateries), Coyoacan (a charming neighborhood where you’ll find Museo Frida Kahlo, a bustling square, and lots of life), and San Angel (a gorgeous art-y neighborhood comprised of colorful old homes and cobblestone streets) have to offer in terms of Airbnbs. These neighborhoods are less centrally located however with Ubers being super easy and cheap, it could be worth situating yourself in an area as picturesque as these.
In Oaxaca, we stayed about three blocks from Zocalo Square–a centrally located tourist area–but as I mentioned, Oaxaca is a walking city so as long as you stay somewhat close to the center (and not somewhere shady), you’ll be good.
-English is not very common here. I highly recommend brushing up on your high school Spanish or travel with someone who is able to speak better than you. 🙂
-Find a partner bank to avoid transaction fees. Sam and I bank at Bank of America whose partner is Scotiabank.
-Unfortunately, it’s not advised to drink tap water in Mexico. At restaurants, you’ll be offered “agua con gas” (sparkling water) or “agua natural” (mineral water). At more divey spots, you’ll see “agua embotellada” (regular bottled water) on the menu. Drink as much water as you can whenever you can because in our experience, we were never sure where our next water was coming from.
-The outlets are the same in Mexico as they are in the states! No need to bring an adapter.
-Depending on your cell phone plan, you may have coverage in Mexico. I recommend calling your service provider before traveling there to find out.
OKAY, NOW ON TO THE FUN STUFF!
MEXICO CITY (RECOMMENDATIONS BY NEIGHBORHOOD)
When we polled for recommendations ourselves, we found that going by neighborhood was the most useful way to weed through our options. With the city being so large and full of things to do and places to eat, I recommend planning out mini days consisting of an activity or two + a meal located in one neighborhood. You can stack these mini days to create full days, or mix-and-match with larger excursions.
Pujol – If you watched Chef’s Table, this is the restaurant in Mexico City with the ever-changing molé. Everyone told us we had to eat here and we are so glad we did. Of the few fine dining experiences I’ve had, this is the one in which the flavors just blew me away. And I ordered only the vegetarian options! With the tasting menu going for under $100 USD, you’d be a fool not to do it. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance. Calle Tennyson 133, Polanco
Common People – Interesting concept store housed in an old mansion, which you enter through a restaurant downstairs. The store carries a wide array of eclectic designer goods and quirky tchotchkes on two floors, and leads to an adorable cafe, Cafe Budapest, upstairs. Sam and I sat down for a coffee on the cafe’s terrace before our lunch and enjoyed the idyllic view of the park outside. Emilio Castelar 149, Miguel Hidalgo, Polanco
Palacio Nacional – If you find yourself in the Centro Histórico (Historic Center), which I’m sure you inevitably will, don’t miss the Palacio Nacional. This government building houses two sights worth seeing: a botanical garden filled with cacti and some of the biggest agave plants I’ve ever seen, plus some of Diego Rivera’s famous murals (which were unfortunately closed the day we went due to a government meeting). Not to mention it’s free to enter–just be sure to bring your ID! Plaza de la Constitución S/N, Centro, Cuauhtémoc
Mercado de San Juan – About a 10 minute walk from the Plaza de la Constitución is Mexico City’s well-known food hall Mercado de San Juan. Come hungry for lunch or simply grab a refreshment like the fruit paletas (popsicles) or aguas frescas (fresh fruit infused-water) pictured above. You can also shop for produce, meat and other goods to bring back and cook at your Airbnb. Calle de Ernesto Pugibet No. 21, Mexico City
Museo Frida Kahlo (aka Casa Azul) – This place needs no introduction. It is totally magical, totally blue, and totally has so many of Frida’s belongings it’ll blow your mind. Also she died there, if you’re into ghost stuff like me. (I swear I felt her presence as I walked through her bedroom!) Buy your tickets online in advance to avoid lines and make sure the address in Uber is the one listed below. Uber’s map contains another fake Frida Kahlo museum in a dangerous neighborhood that Sam and I accidentally ended up in. So I beg you, please triple check! Londres 247, Del Carmen, Coyoacán
La Casa de los Tacos – After working up an appetite at Casa Azul, it was time for tacos. La Casa de los Tacos was recommended by a friend who said they were the best tacos she had on her trip to CDMX. Suffice it to say we were intrigued. The menu was extensive with plenty of vegetarian options, and you could watch fresh tortillas being pressed and most of the food being cooked in an open kitchen right in the middle of the restaurant. We ordered a huge, delicious meal for under $20 USD and were very, very happy about it. Felipe Carrillo Puerto 16, Coyoacán
Mercado de Artesanías – On your way to tacos, you’ll pass the Mercado de Artesanías, which we circled back to after fueling up. This market errs on the side of touristy, but between the hair wraps and toys are some great finds for your home. Brightly painted bowls, colorful aluminum-framed mirrors and delicately beaded necklaces were among the goodies I brought back from this market. Definitely worth popping into if you’re in the neighborhood! Felipe Carrillo Puerto 25, Col. Villa Coyoacán
SAN ANGEL (go on Saturday!)
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo – If you like Frida, Diego Rivera, architecture, and/or taking like-worthy Instgram photos, don’t miss Casa Estudio. This gorgeous set of buildings fenced in by the most photogenic row of cacti you’ve ever seen was designed by architect, painter and Mexico City native Juan O’Gorman. In addition to the photogenic exterior, you can view Diego Rivera’s studio, which is fully intact with many of his works and belongings charmingly displayed around the various rooms. The other buildings act as galleries, where we caught the architectural photography of Cristina Kahlo, Frida’s grand-niece. Av. Altavista esq. Diego Rivera, Col. San Angel Inn
El Bazaar Sábado – Following your visit to Casa Estudio, wander down the cobblestone streets of San Ángel and admire the gorgeous homes until you find yourself in the Plaza San Jacinto where vendors from all over Mexico are peddling their art and other handmade wares. You can’t miss the Bazaar Sábado building where you can shop finer handcrafted goods and grab some lunch in the building’s courtyard restaurant. This is a great place to pick up souvenirs and Mexican art to hang in your home! San Jacinto 11, San Ángel
LA CONDESA/LA ROMA
Contramar – Along with Pujol, Contramar is the other restaurant that was unanimously recommended to us, and for good reason. (I was mostly excited because it’s a seafood restaurant, and anywhere there’s an extensive fish menu, I’M THERE.) We even ran into some college friends there in town from LA! Popular? Definitely. Worth it? HELL YES. We ordered the tuna tostadas, pescado al pastor (DO IT.), and the green and red snapper (just check Instagram, you’ll know what I’m talking about). We practically had to be rolled out of there. Calle Durango 200, Roma
La Clandestina – This was another spot that kept appearing on recommendation lists. Our LA friends were also planning to check it out after dinner so, again, word gets around. It’s a funky little spot perfect for relaxing after dinner. The music is great, the cocktails are good, and the mezcal list is extensive. After a large meal at Contramar, anything else would probably be aggressive. Avenida Álvaro Obregón 298, Condesa
Maque – If you’re staying in La Condesa or Roma, you have to grab breakfast here one morning. This place is what breakfast/pastry/dining al fresco dreams are made of. Maque has a gourmet vibe without being at all pretentious–just honest to goodness delicious food and a lovely experience. If the weather is nice, DEFINITELY wait to sit outside. Be sure to snag a pastry or four from the tray the waiters walk around with, and order a freshly squeezed juice along with your coffee. Av. Ozuluama 4, Col. Condesa
Hanky Panky – Sam and I are suckers for a fun speakeasy and Hanky Panky was the perfect date night activity. The place is intimate and just upscale enough to feel a little fancy, and the drinks are GOOD. The night we went, the #1 bartender in the Netherlands was guest bartending, as he was in town for a world bartending championship. (Whattup Alberto!) We sat at the bar and made friends with Alberto and pop-trio from Australia, resulting in one of our best evening adventures in CDMX. Highly recommend checking this place out! Address is undisclosed – we sent Hanky Panky a Facebook message for a reservation and the location.
Lucha Libre at Arena México (+ DIY Masks!) – Nearly everyone we spoke with prior to our trip recommended we check out a Lucha Libre (Mexican wrestling) match, which occur every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday at Arena México. We knew it had to happen when Sam found an Airbnb experience in which you pre-game the match by DIYing your own Lucha Libre masks! Coordinators Rick & Gus taught our group all about the history of Lucha Libre before busting out the glitter, sequins and fabric masks, which Rick’s mom sews! The guys then call Ubers to take everyone to the game and provide each person with a ticket. Once there, the show is a riot and there are tons of cheap snacks and beer to make the experience complete. I cannot recommend this experience enough! DIY location provided after ticket purchase; Arena México: Arena, San Miguel Ajusco
OAXACA (RECOMMENDATIONS BY CATEGORY)
There are mainly four categories of things to do in Oaxaca: eat dope Mexican food, drink mezcal, shop the markets, and head outside the city for some incredible sights and experiences. Since everything inside the city is easy to walk to, this list is broken down by category.
Boulenc – Let’s step away from Mexican food for a sec. Sure, I could eat enchiladas and tacos every day of my life. We basically did just that for our week in Mexico. However, a small break never hurts, especially when its as delicious and set in as beautiful of a courtyard as brunch at Boulenc. Boulenc is first and foremost a bakery renowned for its breads, which they serve up as meals in various forms, such as the bean and cheese molletes and shakshuka with crusty baguette slices pictured above. It’s also important to mention that their shakshuka is the best I’ve ever had. (Those Mexicans know their spicy tomato sauces!) To top it off, the restaurant’s courtyard is surrounded by skillfully distressed walls and enough greenery to make a boho home blogger squeal with glee. (No that totally didn’t happen to me….. :)) In short, be smart. Don’t miss this place. Calle Porfirio Díaz 207, Centro
Origen – For our last night in Mexico, we wanted to #treatyoself (er, ourselves) to a delicious, refined meal. Lola of Lola’s Cocina said Origen was not to be missed, and for good reason. (Check out her guide to Oaxaca here!) 2016 Top Chef Mexico winner Rodolfo Castellanos puts a gourmet spin on traditional Oaxacan dishes, resulting in gorgeous flavors and beautiful presentation. We kept our meal small and stuck with guacamole (hold the chapulines [grasshoppers] – though totally go for them if they’re not a dietary restriction!), plantain and cream cheese dumplings, and white fish in molé sauce. I should also note the service was incredible. When we had to wait 10 minutes for our table to be ready, the host brought us each a glass of champagne. Further, when we asked for dessert to go they packed it up as beautifully as it would have appeared on the plate AND comped it on account of our honeymoon — the first freebees of our entire trip. Now I’m doing my part and telling you all to check this place out! Av. Hidalgo 820, Col. Centro
Casa Oaxaca Restaurante – One of the many reasons Mexico is so awesome is that you can go to a place like Casa Oaxaca for fancy cocktails and a gourmet meal and not feel the least bit guilty when the check comes. All our travel recommendations said to grab a table on the roof, however this was our very first stop in Oaxaca and we were hun-gry, so when we learned the roof was full, we took a table by the bar and were very, very happy. Minimalist, artsy and oh-so-chic, Casa Oaxaca serves equally well for a proper meal as it does for mezcal cocktails + appetizers (we opted for the latter per Bon Appetit’s recommendation). Whatever you do, be sure to order the cactus fruit cocktail, which was easily the best drink I had our whole week in Mexico. Calle La Constitucion 104A, Oaxaca
Mercado 20 de Noviembre – Much like Mercado de San Juan in Mexico City, Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a true food hall featuring stand after stand of traditional Mexican eats. Sam and I popped in during our survey of Oaxaca’s markets but didn’t end up getting anything to eat (our eye was on the shopping prize!), however I would definitely recommend stopping by for lunch or at very least a tasty snack. 20 de Noviembre, Centro
Tlyaudas Libres – If you’re reading up on travel to Oaxaca, you’ll inevitably learn about the ubiquitous late night tlayuda. Tlayudas are basically oversized quesadillas cooked on an open flame and filled with beans, cheese, lettuce, and asiento aka pork fat. (Don’t worry, you can ask for yours “sin asiento.”) After a late night of mezcal sampling, head down Calle de los Libres between Calles Murguía and Morelos where you’ll find a row of tlayuda stands with indoor seating. These things really are huge, so unless you’re totally starving, you may want to start by sharing one. Ask for fresh agua de jamaica (hibiscus) or tamarindo (tamarind) to wash it down. Calle de Los Libres 212, Centro
El Destilado – Around the corner from Casa Oaxaca is El Destilado, where you’ll find the house’s array of local mezcals as well as a jam-packed freezer full of Mexican craft beers. Take a seat at the bar and chat with the guys who work there – they’re super nice and will answer any questions you have about your stay in Oaxaca! If you have room, order the guacamole, which Bon Appetit calls the best in Oaxaca. It’s made with sweet potatoes, peanuts, and mint — an unusual combination that is actually delicious. 5 de Mayo 409, Centro
Mezcaloteca – If you want an expert mezcal tasting experience, make a reservation at Mezcaloteca, whose name combines the words mezcal + biblioteca, which is Spanish for library. The staff at this speak easy-like bar will customize a tasting based on your taste preferences and teach you all about the nuances of each sample based on the agave or maguey used and the process itself. And of course you can shop your favorite mezcals at the end. Liquor enthusiasts – don’t miss this spot. Reforma No. 506, Col. Centro
La Casa de las Artesanías – La Casa de la Artesanías was a happy accident that we stumbled upon during our first stroll around Oaxaca. If you love the goods you’re seeing in the markets but would prefer to shop in a calmer, more spacious environment, this place is your answer. Each of the handicrafts has its own dedicated room and the selection is very extensive. Plus, they accept American credit cards! Perfect for grabbing last minute gifts if you’re fresh out of pesos. Mariano Matamoros 105, Centro
Mercado Benito Juarez – This was easily my favorite market from the whole trip. A combination of food and handicrafts, you could easily spend an entire afternoon going up and down the aisles of this indoor marketplace. Here you’ll find everything from Otomi embroideries and handwoven baskets to dried chiles and candy of all sorts. Another great place to pick up gifts for your friends and family at home! Between Calles Las Casas and Aldama and Calles Miguel Cabrera and 20 de Noviembre
Mercado de Artesanías – Based on the name alone, this was the market that I was most excited about, but left with the fewest purchases (one dress for myself, to be exact). The Mercado de Artesanías is primarily textiles and clothing, all beautifully handmade in Mexico. If you’re looking for gorgeous embroidered tops or fabric with which to decorate your home, this is the spot. However if you’re looking for non-fabric wares, Benito Juarez and street vendors are a better bet! Gral. Ignacio Zaragoza, Centro
On our last day in Oaxaca, we went on a fabulous day-long excursion though a local travel agency called El Andador. For $270 pesos (or $250 each for two people) we were shuttled around on a comfortable van with a group of about 15 people to three natural sites + a carpet weaver and mezcal producer, with a stop for lunch in the afternoon. If you’re hesitant to rent a car and want to see what’s outside the city for a day, I highly recommend this trip! Additional fees include admission to the various sites (which are all only a few USD each), lunch and any snacks and souvenirs you pick up along the way.
Arbol El Tule – In short, this is the world’s widest tree. There isn’t much else to do here besides pick up a snack and souvenirs. Since it’s on the way to most of the other more robust natural sights, it’s definitely worth checking out. We stopped here for 20 minutes which was more than enough time.
Mitla – There are a quite a few ruins throughout Oaxaca, the most famous and impressive being Monte Alban. The ruins at Mitla consist of a few buildings that you can walk through, all of which are decorated with beautiful geometric patterns. What’s more, the entire site is surrounded by cacti and agave plants, so the visit feels like two-for-one experience of ruins + a botanical garden. The tour was quick and interesting — perfect for getting a feel for ancient Mexican architecture and history without the time commitment of a whole afternoon.
Hierve el Agua – This is the pièce de résistance of Oaxaca’s natural attractions. After winding up a hill for over thirty minutes, you’ll make it to the entrance of the park. A quick walk past some vendors and down a small hill, you’ll find fresh water springs surrounded by breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. PRO TIP: BRING A BATHING SUIT AND TOWEL! We didn’t get the memo and were totally bummed, but that didn’t stop us for getting our feet wet (see above!). The other cool site there is the calcified waterfall (see photo on right), which apparently is only one of two in the whole world (the other one is in Turkey). This is the one natural site we visited that would be worth it’s own trip. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Whew! Did you get all that? If you’re traveling to Mexico City or Oaxaca, hit me up with any questions you have! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Also be sure to take a look at some of the guides that helped us plan our trip:
peace, love & neon,
all photos taken by me on my iphone 6 and lightly edited with a color story app