Mexico City is a city of contrasts, and a place that you must experience to understand. Dive headfirst into its history, culture, and its beguilingly low-key friendliness with this five-day best of Mexico City itinerary.

Day 1: The Centro Histórico

Mexico City’s Zócalo, one of the largest public squares in the world, is located in the same open square that once stood at the center of the Mexica city of Tenochtitlán. Take a moment to feel the power and history of this grand plaza, then stop in to the northern wing of the Palacio Nacional, where Diego Rivera’s breathtaking murals chronicle life in the pre-Columbian city, during the Spanish conquest, and through the ensuing centuries of industrialization.

To the north of the plaza, you can visit the remains of Tenochtitlán’s holiest site, a twin temple-pyramid that adjoined the city’s central plaza, at the fascinating Templo Mayor (55/4040-5600, ext. 412930, Tues.-Sun. 9am-5pm; US$5, free on Sun.; Metro: Zócalo). Though much of the temple was destroyed by the Spanish and then buried for centuries beneath the colonial city, its base was uncovered in the 1970s, along with hundreds of artifacts, now held in the on-site museum. It’s one of the Centro’s most moving sights.

ruins in Mexico City

The ruins of Templo Mayor. Photo © Julie Meade.

Have lunch at El Cardenal, just a block from the Zócalo, widely considered one of the best traditional Mexican restaurants in the city. After lunch, head east along Madero, stopping to see the current show in the Palacio de Cultura Banamex and making note of two iconic buildings just before the Eje Central, the Casa de los Azulejos and the Palacio Postal. Take a turn around the Palacio de Bellas Artes (55/5512-2593; Tues.-Sun. 10am-9pm; free to enter the lobby, US$4 admission to museum and mezzanine level; Metro: Bellas Artes), one of the city’s flagship cultural institutions, where the gorgeous art deco interiors are as opulent as its elaborate marble facade. It’s worth the admission fee to ascend to the top floors of the building, where there are interesting murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo, as well as contemporary art galleries.

Dusk is the perfect time to start a tour of the Centro’s many cantinas. Begin by sipping a tequila at the grandest old joint, Bar La Ópera, on Cinco de Mayo. Next, head to Salón Corona for tasty tacos and mugs of beer. If you’re up to it, make one last stop to old-time cantina Tío Pepe, another historic watering hole with an excellent atmosphere.

view of Palacio Postal from below

Palacio Postal is an architectural jewel. Photo © Julie Meade.

Day 2: Chapultepec and the Condesa

Set aside the morning to tour the Museo Nacional de Antropología (55/4040-5300; Tues.-Sun. 9am-7pm; US$5; Metro: Auditorio), a vast and fascinating museum dedicated to pre-Columbian and modern-day cultures in Mexico. You won’t have time to see the whole museum. Streamline your visit by focusing on the spectacular rooms dedicated to the Mexica people, as well as the Teotihuacán galleries.

Back outside, take an hour or two to explore a bit of the surrounding Bosque de Chapultepec on foot, strolling past the multidisciplinary cultural center Casa del Lago Juan José Arreola, the pretty manmade lake beside it, and the industrial facade of the Museo de Arte Moderno as you make your way to the Castillo de Chapultepec, set atop a rocky outcropping overlooking the park and the Paseo de la Reforma. It’s worth visiting for the views alone, though the legendary building and the history museum it houses offer an interesting glimpse into Mexico’s past.

aerial view of mexico city skyline

The view from the Castillo de Chapultepec. Photo © ozeri/123rf.

Just below the Castillo de Chapultepec are the main gates to the park. From here, take the Metro one stop from Chapultepec to Sevilla, then walk into the Roma Norte for a late lunch at Contramar, an ultra-popular, always-bustling seafood restaurant near the Glorieta de las Cibeles. There’s often a wait around lunchtime, but the food and atmosphere are ace.

After lunch, spend a few leisurely hours watching dogs romp and children play in Parque México. Stroll along Avenida Amsterdam, snapping photos of the Condesa’s distinctive art deco architecture and enjoying the people-watching in the many neighborhood cafes. Wrap up the day with a drink at one of the neighborhood’s trendy bars, like the hip pool hall Salón Malafama or good-time standby Pata Negra.

park full of lush, green trees

The lush foliage of Parque Mexico. Photo © Julie Meade.

Day 3: Coyoacán

If you arrive in Coyoacán via the Metro stop Viveros, you can admire old country mansions and towering trees while walking into the heart of neighborhood via avenue Francisco Sosa. Peek into the rust-colored Moorish-inspired hacienda that is home to the Fonoteca Nacional, an interesting sound archive and gallery space. Down the road, take a breather in charming Plaza Santa Catarina, a quiet, cobbled square popular with locals and their dogs. Once you arrive in the center of town, spend some time people-watching in Jardín Hidalgo and Jardín Centenario, the two old-fashioned public plazas at the center of the neighborhood.

Grab a mocha at long-running coffee shop Café El Jarocho, then wander through the Mercado Coyoacán, where you can snack on a tostada or two (the market is famous for them) to tide you over till lunch. From there, it’s a few blocks to the Museo Frida Kahlo (55/5554-5999; Tues., Thurs.-Sun. 10am-5:45pm, Wed. 11am-5:45pm; US$4.50 adults, US$2 students; Metro: Coyoacán), a moving museum dedicated to the life and legacy of its namesake artist. Walk back to the Jardín Centenario for a late lunch on the patio at Los Danzantes, and accompany your meal with a shot of their house brand of Oaxacan mezcal. If you want to extend the evening, drop in for a drink at nouveau cantina La Bipo, just a few blocks away.

Blue wall in Frida Kahlo Museum

Museo de Frida Kahlo. Photo © Dreamstime.

Day 4: San Ángel and UNAM

Saturdays are a popular time to visit the colonial-era neighborhood of San Ángel, where the weekly Bazaar Sábado attracts some excellent artisan vendors, including some modern designers. From there, stroll through the neighborhood, stopping for a bite in one of the pretty restaurants around the Plaza San Jacinto or touring the wonderful Museo de El Carmen, housed in a colonial-era Carmelite monastery. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera fans will prefer a short walk out to the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera, the former adjoined homes the couple shared in San Ángel.

From San Ángel, take the Metrobús along Insurgentes to the CCU stop, then spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the cultural center on the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) campus. Have a very late lunch at contemporary Mexican restaurant Azul y Oro, then spend a few hours in the light-filled Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (Insurgentes Sur 3000, 55/5622-6972; Wed., Fri., and Sun. 10am-6pm, Thurs. and Sat. 10am-8pm; Wed. and Sun. US$1.50, Thurs.-Sat. US$3.50, children under 12 free; Metro: Universidad, Metrobús: CCU), one of the finest contemporary-art museums in Mexico City, opened in 2008. From there, wander into the northern section of the Espacio Escultórico de la UNAM, a massive outdoor sculpture garden built atop an expanse of volcanic rock in the 1960s.

aerial view of ruins of teotihuacan

Teotihucán is one of the largest archaeological sites in the Americas. Photo © Shen Tao/123rf.

Day 5: Teotihuacán

Have a hearty breakfast in or near your hotel, slather on some sunscreen, and pack a big bottle of water before making your way to the Terminal Autobuses del Norte, the first stop in your journey to the ruins at Teotihuacán archaeological zone (Ecatepec Pirámides km 22 + 600, Municipio de Teotihuacán, Estado de México, 594/956-0276; daily 9am-5pm, US$5, children under 13, students, teachers, seniors, and people with disabilities free). Mexico’s most famous and most visited archaeological site is just 30 kilometers outside the city, and buses depart the city for the pyramids every 15 minutes.

Though little is known about its people, Teotihuacán was once the most powerful city-state in Mesoamerica, evidenced by its massive installations and visionary city planning: Today, you can get a small glimpse into the past by walking along Teotihuacán’s grand central avenue and climbing to the top of its massive pyramids. After touring the ruins, cool off with a bite in quirky restaurant La Gruta, though you may prefer to relax after getting back to town. After all the stairs and sun, make it an easy but classic pick for dinner: tacos al pastor, the city’s signature dish. You can try some of the best at El Huequito in the San Juan, or at El Califa in the Condesa. Crash to sleep with plans to return.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Mexico City.