All About My Unexpected – Yet Exhilarating – Mexico City Layover as a Solo Female Traveler
This is the story of how I had a very last-minute, 9-hour Mexico City layover as a solo female traveler. And how I loved every second of it! The sights, sounds, colours and chaos of Mexico’s capital made me instantly fall in love. In this post, I’ll be sharing my top tips for a Mexico City layover and answering some FAQs in case you end up in the same situation.
Due to flight cancellations, what started as a 16-hour journey from Berlin to Panama City turned into a 37-hour trek halfway around the world. I was able to have dinner alongside Amsterdam’s canals and breakfast in Mexico City’s historic core the next day. And as travel-starved as I was between lockdowns, this felt like an early Christmas present!
So let’s get into the details of how you can experience a wonderful Mexico City layover even when flying solo.
Can you leave Mexico City Airport during a layover?
Yes, absolutely! You can leave Mexico City Airport without needing a special visa – at least if you are a citizen of a country that has an agreement with Mexico. I went through immigration on arrival and, as an EU citizen, received a small paper stating that I was allowed to stay in the country for up to 180 days, visa free.
It is very important to keep this slip of paper, as, when you leave Mexico, you will hand it back to the authorities. If you lose it, I believe there is a fine to pay. I landed at Benito Juárez International Airport at 3 AM, hung out at the terminal until sunrise, and grabbed the public bus to the historic city center as the sun was rising.
Why are so many people afraid of travelling to Mexico City?
Before going any further, let’s address the elephant in the room – many people are afraid of travelling to Mexico City because they’ve heard bad things, or maybe just watched one Narcos show too many.
Mexico City has a bad – and let’s call it outdated – reputation. While there’s no denying some crazy stuff still happens there, like it does everywhere, you as a tourist are very unlikely to stumble upon a drug deal, or be of any interest to the cartel.
And what about a Mexico City layover for solo female travellers?
I rode the public bus to and from the airport, wandered around the Centro Historico and ate at a cafe filled with locals. No one approached me unsolicited or called after me. I’ve felt less safe in some European cities as a solo female traveler, actually. (Paris, I’m looking at you!)
Of course, I did all I could to fit in with the locals. I wore dark pants and a black jacket and left all of my valuables in storage at the airport (except for my passport, a credit card and some pesos). So I didn’t look like a tourist at all, heaving a big backpack and a DSLR around.
For the last year or so, I’ve been following fellow solo female travel blogger Where Goes Rose, who wrote extensively about her time in Mexico City. Her adventures definitely emboldened me to take a leap of faith!
What can you realistically visit on a Mexico City layover?
Unfortunately, a Mexico City layover doesn’t leave you with very much time to wander aimlessly or tick off a hundred highlights. However, you can pinpoint a specific neighbourhood and get a good idea of its vibe in a couple of hours.
In my case, I wasn’t even able to properly Google “what to do in Mexico City” as KLM woke me up the morning of my trip with a 3 AM “Sorry, we’re changed your flights” text. And then it was time to go to the airport. So most of my Mexico City tourist info came from the in-flight magazine and entertainment service.
This is how I came to discover Centro Historico. As a lover of history, architecture and Insta opportunities, I knew that Mexico City’s historic core was my best bet for a layover look-around.
How to get from Mexico City Airport to Centro Historico?
There are 3 main ways to get from the airport to the Centro Historico on your Mexico City layover. You can order an Uber, take the subway, or catch the bus. The subway is the cheapest and slowest, setting you back about an hour. An Uber will get you there in 20 minutes but is more costly.
Public Bus Adventures
Since I didn’t have the Uber app and wasn’t sure about the data situation on Mexico City layover, I opted for option 3, the airport bus. It was supposed to come every 20 minutes and supposed to drop me off right next to the iconic Bellas Artes building 30 minutes later.
It did neither. I waited for the bus (Line #4), which, confusingly enough, is called “Metro”, for about 35 minutes. When the “Metro” arrived, I hoped aboard with a couple other tourists and airport workers. Our very nonchalant driver then meandered his way through the chaos of traffic, pothole after pothole, jolting me out of my jet-lagged wariness in a heartbeat.
And then all of a sudden, we stopped at a busy station called San Lázaro. The driver said something in Spanish, and everyone got off. I tried to use my A1 level Spanish to understand what was going on, did not succeed, and followed a couple who had been on the first bus as they climbed aboard a replacement one, hoping this was the right thing to do.
It worked out. The local bus, this time full of rush-hour passengers, led me to the historic city centre. On the way back, I had the exact same thing happen, but this time, I was ready.
Although I did not see this indicated anywhere, it turns out that the airport bus only runs between the terminals and San Lázaro. The route is then picked up by a local bus with the same number.
Centro Historico must-sees on your Mexico City layover
Now that I’d safely made it to CDMX’s historic hub, the best part of my Mexico City layover could start! I had about 2 hours to amble the streets. These were my finds:
Palacio de Bellas Artes
The Palacia de Bellas Artes is perhaps one of the most iconic buildings in Mexico City, and widely considered the most beautiful. This “palace of fine arts” was commissioned in 1910 to celebrate a century of Mexican independence. Construction was only completed 25 years later. Since then, it has been a symbol of Mexican art and culture, at home and abroad.
I’m not sure why, but when I was there, tall green fences – and many guards – surrounded the property, so I couldn’t wander into the courtyard. Maybe it was too early in the morning. A quick Instagram search back at the airport showed me that quite a few people had posted recent pictures on the Bellas Artes grounds. That is the downside of spontaneous travel – you take what you get. Fortunately, I did get some great pictures of the dome from across the street!
Casa de los Azulejos
I first heard about the Casa de los Azulejos thanks to KLM’s in-flight guide on the top things to see in CDMX. But I stumbled upon it completely unplanned. Casa de los Azulejos translates to “House of tiles”. It definitely is an Instagrammer’s dream: an 18th century baroque palace entirely covered in blue tiles, belonging to a string of wealthy owners before becoming a restaurant and museum.
There are several urban myths as to how this home – the only one on the street to sport such a facade – got its tiles. Perhaps the most interesting of these stories is that of a father who told his son that he would never amount to anything (the Spanish expression being something like, “you will never build your house of tiles”). So when the son ended up inheriting the house, the first thing he did was cover it in tiles as a statement.
Banco de Mexico, Calle de Bolivar
The Banco de Mexico (Bank of Mexico) building was another architectural highlight for me. This is the Mexican Mint, where all the country’s financial decisions are made. If you’re strolling along Calle de 5 Mayo, you can’t miss it.
Templo de San Felipe Neri La Profesa
La Profesa was built in 1597 as the first Jesuit (Roman Catholic) church in Mexico City. On top of being an architectural wonder, it has been the site of several major conspiracies over the years. One of these is Augustin de Iturbide’s military coup, in which the army general took power in 1827, thus successfully taking Mexico from the Spanish.
Calle de Donceles
If you like street photography, or simply people watching as you amble down stately avenues, Calle de Donceles is worth a stop.
Now (in part) a pedestrian zone, Calle de Donceles is one of the oldest streets in Mexico City. It was first paved and named by the Spanish conquistadors in 1524. Along its entire length, one can see numerous buildings, both civil and religious, which were erected during the colonial period of the 18th and 19th centuries.
One of things that made a major impression on me during my Mexico City layover is that the Centro Historico is a wonderful jumble of all kinds of architectural styles. Baroque homes, Art Nouveau office buildings and a 50s skyscraper meet pretty much at the same street corner.
The Torre Latinoamericana, watching over the Centro Historico, has more than one claim to fame. It is one of Mexico’s tallest buildings, and the first one successfully built to withstand major earthquakes.
For 360 degree views over Mexico City, you can head to the 44th floor lookout.
Don’t forget to eat on your Mexico City Layover!
While in Mexico City, you will want to eat all the local food that you can! After about an hour of walking, the delicious smell of breakfast and coffee lured me into the happening Cafe El Popular along Avenida 5 de Mayo.
Surrounded by city workers about to start their day, I enjoyed amazing quesadillas, guacamole and black coffee. There truly is nothing like having local specialities in their country of origin. I only wish that I had more time to explore the culinary side of Mexico City!
Final thoughts on my Mexico City layover as a solo female traveler
Those few hours that I had in Mexico City so unexpectedly left me with a craving for more. It was almost painful to leave this city of 22 million people that I had only scratched the surface of.
As a solo female traveler, I felt very safe, although I did all I could to “fit in”. For my next Mexican adventure, I plan to brush up on my Spanish though – as a few more words could come in handy.
So if you like art, history and a colourful chaos, please do yourself a favour and put a Mexico City layover – or an entire vacation – at the top of your bucket list!
Do you have a Mexico City layover coming up? Save this post for later!