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Wide view of Polanco with Sierra de Guadalupe in the distance from the InterContinental Presidente Mexico City.

Mexico City for an Impressive Día de los Muertos

Head to Mexico City between October 31 through November 2 for an impressive Día de los Muertos experience.

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Bright orange marigolds, small artfully painted ceramic skulls, and thick orange candles adorn an ofrenda in the lobby at the InterContinental Presidente. Elaborately decorated giant calaveras line Masaryk Avenue in Polanco. On Paseo de la Reforma, intricately sculpted alebrijes await a picture-perfect selfie with passersby. Meanwhile, dapper Catrinas roam about in droves, honoring the dead in a Desfile de los Muertos. If it’s anywhere between October 31 through November 2, you’re in Mexico City for the annual Día de los Muertos celebration.

Unlike the US, where chaos of street parties populated by people in gruesome costumes during Gay Christmas (Halloween), Día de los Muertos—or Day of the Dead—is a joyful remembrance of those who have died. The tradition is a combination of Aztec culture and European religion. Mostly recognized in Mexico, the festivities themselves have been declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. In Mexico City, celebrants party from Paseo de la Reforma to Zócalo, leaving behind a memorable experience that lives on in the hearts of residents and visitors alike.

Mexico City in a nutshell

Mexico City (CDMX) is the largest Spanish speaking city in the world and the oldest capital city in the Americas. With more than 21 million people living here, this world-class metropolis boasts a robust transportation system that includes a subway system, suburban rail, light rail, a regular bus and minibus system, a rapid bus transit system, as well as trolleybuses and cableways. Rideshares and taxis are also good ways to traverse the city. Additionally, CDMX has the second-largest bike share system in North America.

Part of the appeal of this bustling destination is the many ancient ruins, monuments, spacious parks, museums, lush greenery, and colonial buildings. Most Spanish colonized cities in Latin America and the Caribbean are more Spanish in style. But, fascinatingly,Mexico City’s architectural style seems to have been most influenced by the French. This is largely due to the French occupation during Mexico’s post-independence era, after 1821. Paseo de la Reforma, for example, was modeled after the Champs Élisee in Paris. In fact, México City’s metropolitan grand plan emulated that of Paris.

Preparations underway for Día de los Muertos along Paseo de la Reforma
Preparations underway for Día de los Muertos along Paseo de la Reforma in CDMX’s Polanco neighborhood.

Iconic Día de los Muertos traditions

Ofrendas

If you’ve seen the Disney animated movie Coco, then you’re familiar with el Día de los Muertos. Traditionally, the celebration begins with an ofrenda. Around the end of October, hotels, local businesses, public plazas, and even hospitals all over Mexico City display ofrendas and other Day of the Dead decorations. An ofrenda is an offering and is set up on an altar that contains anything that might serve as a bridge between the dead and the world of the living. 

Public offerings usually contain painted ceramic skulls, colorful papel picado (cut up paper decorations), fruit, and marigolds, the quintessential flower of Día de los Muertos. In private homes, these altars contain portraits of and other personal items belonging to departed loved ones, along with their favorite flowers, candles, and food. These ofrendas are said to be used to lure the spirit of the dead for a soulful visit. I, however, think it’s the best way for the living to remember someone who has passed away.

Typical ofrenda displayed in the lobby of Hotel Marquis Reforma.
Typical ofrenda displayed in the lobby of Hotel Marquis Reforma to celebrate Día de los Muertos.

Calaveras

During these Día de los Muertos celebrations, the arterial roads of CDMX come alive with brightly colored works of art. Since 2017, Mexicráneos has been exhibiting artfully bedecked giant calaveras, or skull sculptures, along Paseo de la Reforma. Although I’ve seen them along Avenida Presidente Masaryk in the Polanco neighborhood, these giant cranio-statues also take over busy avenidas throughout the city. 

Mexicráneos, an organization that supports Mexican arts and culture, displays the calaveras throughout the city.
Mexicráneos, an organization that supports Mexican arts and culture, displays the calaveras throughout the Mexico City during the festive days of Día de los Muertos.

Catrinas

On November 1, car traffic is routed away from Reforma to make room for El Desfile de los Muertos (Catwalk of the Walking Dead). The boulevard remains closed for a few days to let pedestrians stroll the promenade, enjoying the various exhibits. 

It’s a treat to see both locals and visitors sporting painted faces and dressed up like Catrina La Calavera Garbancera. These elegantly dressed skeletons are iconic on Día de los Muertos. Originally illustrated by José Guadalupe Posada, Catrina doppelgangers descend on Paseo de la Reforma in a jubilant show of Mexican culture and heritage. It’s an exuberant sight.

Cooky Catrinas dressed to the nines in Polanco
Cooky Catrinas dressed to the nines in Mexico City’s Polanco neighborhood during Día de los Muertos

Alebrijes

The city extends its artful exhibits from late October through early November, turning a leisurely stroll along wide avenidas into a fun pastime. Along with public displays of ofrendas and calavera exhibits, residents can also partake in the celebrations by presenting their own folk art in the form of alebrijes. Reminiscent of the flying companions in Avatar, these paper-mâché and cardboard sculptures of magical and mythical creatures brighten up the sidewalks. The term alebrijes was coined by Pedro Linares, a Mexican artisan. During a bout of hallucinations while  bedridden with an illness, he screamed out the gibberish word ‘alebrije.’ Today, alebrijes are an iconic addition during the celebrations.

An alebrije generously posing for a photo on Paseo de la Reforma.
An alebrije generously posing for a photo on Paseo de la Reforma on Día de los Muertos.

Quick guide to Mexico City

Mexico City has everything: ancient ruins, grandiose architecture, European-style wide avenues, lots of green space, even an environmental plan of action. The Aztec ceremonial center, which includes the Templo Mayor ruins—in the historic city center—has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Most of the Día de los Muertos celebrations, parades, displays, and processions run throughout the city, culminating in Zócalo, the city center’s main plaza. 

CDMX is vast and densely populated. There’s quite a bit of traffic on expressways and other roads leading into the city center, especially on festival days like Día de los Muertos. If you’re making your way into the city center from the main airport, expect to be stuck in a car for two hours. But this city has so much to offer, it’s worth that bit of hassle. 

Mexico City is the most hospitable place I’ve ever visited, with excellent—if not the best—customer service. The people are so welcoming here, you’re sure to return for another visit just to be treated with kindness. Mexicans take white glove service seriously here.

Whether you visit the city to celebrate Day of the Dead, or you’re in CDMX any other day of the year, here are a few ideas to make your stay memorable.

Things to do in Mexico City

Mexico City has quite a few trendy neighborhoods you’ll want to visit during your stay: Polanco, Centro, Roma Norte, Hipódromo, and La Condesa to name a few. The city is also home to some of the largest urban parks. Green space thrives here.

Polanco

We stay at the InterContinental Presidente Mexico City in Polanco. This hotel—with incredible art installations throughout the lobby—has spectacular city (north side) and park views (south side). The lobby decorations for Día de los Muertos are hilarious. Here, you’re likely to see more dead superstars decked out as Catrinas than anywhere else. 

The hotel has six restaurants to choose from for any of your meals. This is especially convenient for business travelers who need to stay in their hotel. The hotel has a decent-size gym, too, making rainy runs completely optional. 

If you think that Polanco is the heart of Mexico City, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. Its proximity to the monuments, city center, Aztec Ruins, and other attractions makes these landmarks a cinch to get to on foot. 

Fashionable Polanco 

Located on the north side of Paseo de la Reforma, Polanco is a stylish residential area. Covered in beautiful greenery, this neighborhood has a writer-in-the-1920s-Paris vibe. In fact, the streets in this posh part of town are named for famous authors.

A stroll and a run on Polanco’s trendy streets
A stroll CDMX’s Polanco’s trendy streets named after popular authors.

With no shortage of restaurants, there’s cuisine to satisfy even the finickiest of eaters. Named the best restaurant in Mexico City by the Wall Street Journal, Pujol is just north of Avenida Presidente Masaryk. It’s a five-star restaurant, popular with everyone from foodies to professional athletes. But you’ll have to make reservations for this bougie eatery months in advance of your stay or else watch patrons enjoy their meals through the large picture windows.

Don’t fret if you forget. Masaryk—considered the Fifth Avenue of CDMX—is the place to be for a sublime dining escapade. You won’t need reservations for some restaurants here. The avenue also has great upscale boutiques for your shopping pleasure.

For an out-of-the-ordinary experience, but with less wait time, check out the Gaudi-esque building at Anatole France 74. During Día de los Muertos, the façade is bedazzled in bright fall colors. Restaurants Sylvestre Polanco and Nobu Polanco share this elaborately adorned building. Inside the Sylvestre, the foyer, if you will, divides the front section in two.

The right side sports an impressive 12-foot bar that uses a petrified tree trunk laying on its side as its base. This eclectic bar area is boldly designed with a sprinkle of whimsy. The libations are lit in this cozy space, too. If bourbon is your spirit, try a rusty nail or a smoked old fashioned, and let your writer within marinate in the creative juices. 

A retro dining area with library vibes and a spectacular garden view awaits on the left side of the foyer. A massive bookshelf serves as an accent wall littered with interesting vases and coffee table art books.

That’s just the front of the house, however, if you keep walking toward the back, you’ll be extra dazzled by a wide-open dining room and bar, with a wide mirror at the end of the room that seems to double the room’s size. You’ll want to order everything on the menu just to stay longer. 

Green Polanco

Polanco’s charm extends far beyond its trendy shops, fine dining eateries, and smooth running paths. This neighborhood is green, with small urban parks and wide promenades scattered throughout. The largest of the green spaces is Lincoln Park. Calle Julio Verne (10,000 Leagues Under the Sea) straddles the park, splitting it in two. On either side of the street, a swath of land holds facing statues honoring American social justice heroes.

West of Calle Julio Verne is a wading pool that surrounds a statue of Abraham Lincoln. This side of the park is also home to a dog park and an artsy clock tower farther on the west end. East of Verne, an identical wading pool surrounds a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. This side of Lincoln Park includes an aviary, a colorful children’s obstacle course, and an amphitheater on the far east side.

Chapultepec

Butting up against Polanco, on the south side you’ll find a runner’s dream of green space. Nearly double the size of New York City’s Central Park, Bosque de Chapultepec is my favorite running destination in the city. It’s also a fantastic place to get your Día de los Muertos festivities going.

With Paseo de la Reforma’s wide sidewalks and crosswalks, the park’s location on its south flank makes it safe for runners and other pedestrians to get to on foot. Inside, dozens of paved walkways lead around the park’s many monuments and attractions just begging for a selfie. Getting a heaping dose of a daily run is certainly doable with some sightseeing on the side. Before your run, however, I recommend checking the day’s pollution levels. Because Mexico City is so densely populated, air pollution can be an issue. The city’s high altitude can also be a problem for runners not used to the elevation. I live in Miami—it’s practically sinking—but I had no problem with either.

The park is also fantastic for combining outdoor activities with Día de los Muertos zombie-watching. Festivities in the park range from several outdoor concerts to Día-de-los-Muertos-themed yoga classes. Get there early because, while it is a big park, it fills up quickly. Check with your hotel for updated park events.

Chapultepec Castle on Chapultepec Hill was once the home of Mexico’s head of state. Now, it houses a history museum with the best views, barnone. On a clear day, the vista stretches far along Paseo de la Reforma toward El Ángel de la Independencia monument, who watches over the city.

The nearby botanic garden houses a greenhouse only for orchids. Paddle your way across Lago de Chapultepec for more incredible city and park views. At the base of the lake, take a selfie using the giant CDMX letters as your backdrop. You can easily spend the entire day in this park, so bring comfortable footwear.

Pequeño Panda

Chapultepec also boasts its own zoo, which was the first facility—outside China—to successfully breed giant pandas in captivity. One such panda, Tohui, became the symbol of Mexican national pride, when then First Lady, Carmen Romano commissioned a song in the panda’s honor. You might remember the song performed by 80s Mexican singer and drag queen icon, Yuri in 1982. El Pequeño Panda de Chapultepec was a sensational hit. The song sold nearly one million copies world-wide. Tohui captivated the world so much that it skyrocketed the zoo’s popularity and led to an outpouring of financial support. 

Mexico City’s Neighborhoods: Centro, La Condesa, Hipódromo, Roma Norte

Centro

Less green by comparison to Polanco, Centro (downtown) is the historic city center. It’s where most of the city’s Ancient Aztec ruins, monuments, national museums, and its main square are located. This is also where government business takes place.

Offerings at Centro’s Zócalo attract plenty of onlookers.
Offerings at Centro’s Zócalo attract plenty of onlookers on Día de los Muertos in the heart of Mexico City.

With many hotels to choose from in this area, you’ll get a front row seat to the Day of the Dead’s goings on because most of the action takes place at Zócalo. Festival organizers set up a few multi-sided, giant ofrendas in the middle of this huge plaza. It’s definitely something to behold.

While you’re in the area, you might want to try your luck at getting up to the rooftop terraza of the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México for a quick looksee. With gorgeous views of Zócalo and surrounding buildings, it’s the best place to watch Día de los Muertos processions as they make their way into downtown. However, if you can’t nab a table up there, do roam about the lobby and admire the architecture. The multi-level ofrenda on display is one for the books.

Catrina waiting in the wings at Gran Hotel for Día de los Muertos celebrations.
Catrina waiting in the wings at Gran Hotel in CDMX for Día de los Muertos celebrations.
La Condesa

Located between Polanco and Centro, this cluster of walkable neighborhoods is charming and worth a quick taxi ride. If you’re staying in any of these neighborhoods, getting to Day of the Dead events in Centro is no sweat. Located just south east Bosque de Chapultepec, La Condesa is a hip area with relaxed-atmosphere restaurants and wide ramblas, perfect for leisurely strolls. 

Avenida Mazatlan stretches the length of this neighborhood. When you want a break from the bustle that sightseeing on Día de los Muertos can cause, this place’s serene ambience will soothe your overwhelmed senses. Parque España, with its lush tree canopies and meandering footpaths, awaits at the north east edge of La Condesa. A walk around this park is the perfect way to end a busy itinerary.

Hipódromo

Adjacent to La Condesa, Hipódromo is another chic area with tree-lined avenues where young couples live. Its name derives from the oval streets that encircle Parque México. Complete with rideshare bikes and free wifi zones, Hipódromo is surrounded by stylish apartment buildings, vegan-friendly restaurants, and fashionable sidewalk cafes. You can also get your groove on with the handful of nightclubs in the area.

Roma Norte

Sitting on top of La Condesa and Hipódromo, Roma Norte is a bit more kitschy, with its own David statue and Cibeles Fountain—but the locals love them. The larger footprint of this neighborhood means there’s room for an upscale shopping mall and plenty of space for pedestrians to roam. This area, with its refurbished Art Deco mansions and off-the-cuff dining locals is the place to go for good food, window shopping, and maybe even an easy run.

Día de los Muertos is a special tradition that everyone can enjoy. It’s an interesting way to cope after the loss of a loved one. And what better way than with a celebration? Whether for Dia de los Muertos, architecture, food, or beautiful sites (and sights!), Mexico City is sure to impress. It’s a destination that goes all out for its visitors every day of the year. 

Visit my travel page for more of my favorite places.

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