Markets aren’t just for shopping, eating and drinking, as much fun as all of that is in Mexico City, but as a microcosm of a society they also offer a fantastic insight into the culture and everyday life of a place, no more so than in the Mexican capital. Here’s our guide to Mexico City’s markets.

When to go to Mexico City’s markets

Mornings — head to food markets early in the morning when they’re at their busiest — most die down by lunch time when the stalls have sold their best fresh produce and most have packed up for the day. All you’ll find in the late afternoon are a few sleepy souls trying to sell off whatever they have left.

Afternoons — weekend markets like La Lagunilla’s clothes market and San Ángel’s Bazar Sábado and art market, are best in the afternoon if you’re into the people-watching as much as the shopping. Wait until noon for San Ángel, which doesn’t pick up until the well-dressed locals have finished brunch in the nearby cafés (quite a scene in itself), and 1-2pm for La Lagunilla’s clothes market, whose hipsters probably only got in from the dance clubs a few hours earlier.

What to buy at Mexico City’s markets

Folk art, handicrafts, art and souvenirs — browse the upmarket Bazar Sabado in San Angel, and Mercado Ciudadella on Balderas, near Cuauhtemoc metro, in El Centro; see this post for more detail.

Clothes, jewellery and accessories — you’ll find traditional embroidered Mexican blouses, dresses and ponchos at Mercado Ciudadella, while La Lagunilla is the place to head for hip gear from funky t-shirts, vintage jackets and coats, cool hats, caps, jewellery and other accessories, and one-off items from young independent designers.

Mexican curiosities and kitsch — La Lagunilla and Mercado Coyoacán (Calles Hidalgo y Malitzin; a 10-minute walk from Museo Frida Kahlo) are my favourite markets for quirky souvenirs from Lucha Libre masks, capes, t-shirts, and tiny action heroes to brightly coloured and bizarre-shaped papier-mache piñatas and other party toys, costumes and decorations.

Fresh produce and groceries — we love La Lagunilla, and Mercado de San Juan is good too (see this post), but for a huge range of fruit and veg, a mindboggling array of chilis, an almost astonishing variety of nopales (cactus paddles), aromatic herbs and spices, and scrumptious Oaxacan cheeses, visit the centre’s largest retail market La Merced. If you can handle that and are up for more, take a look at the city’s colossal wholesale market, and one of the largest markets in the world, Central de Abastos, or Mexico City’s answer to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, La Nueva Viga at Iztapalapa.

What to eat at Mexico City’s markets

La Lagunilla, Mercado Coyoacán, Mercado de San Juan and La Merced all have stalls selling street food like tamales, tortas and tostadas, as well as simple, affordable eateries where you can eat home-cooked food, such as birria and pozole (hearty stews) served in cazuelas (clay pots), menudo (tripe soup) and cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork).

They also sell specialty dishes prepared with the fresh produce sold at the markets, such as ceviche (marinated raw fish/seafood) and cocteles de mariscos (seafood cocktails). I love the popular seafood place on the corner at Mercado Coyoacán, pictured above.

The food is cheap not only because local shoppers eat there, but because this is where the stall vendors eat, often on a daily basis. Therefore the best way to select an eatery is by looking for the places that are packed with locals and line up to wait for a spot at the counter.

What to drink at Mexico City’s markets

You’ll see plenty of stalls selling freshly squeezed fruit juice or jugo (jugo de naranja or orange juice is popular), fruit drinks or aguas frescas (juice mixed with water and sugar; look out for agua de jamaica, made from hibiscus flower), and licuados or smoothies (juice mixed with milk).

They’re more risky for travellers than eating food that’s been cooked because you don’t know where the water has come from or how it’s been treated. But once again, only buy drinks from stalls where there are plenty of locals drinking.

Another market staple, especially at La Lagunilla, where many of the young patrons are probably nursing hangovers, is the michelada, a spicy beer served with chili/hot sauce, lime and tomato juice.

Which Mexico City markets to go to for…

The atmosphere

Mercado Sonora — adjoining La Merced, the witchcraft market is the place to head for spiritual paraphernalia, amulets, magic potions, religious trinkets, and life-size statues of the skeletal Santa Muerte (Saint Death).

El Chopo — unless you’re after a studded neck collar or something pierced, this decades-old market near Metro Buenavista is all about the people-watching: Mexico City’s darkeros (goths), skateros (rude-boys/girls), punks, skate-heads, and hippies congregate here religiously on Saturdays.

The novelty — tianguis

You’ll see these open-air, mobile, neighbourhood markets, also known as mercado sobre ruedas or ‘market on wheels’, all over the city. Traditionally held on a particular day of the week in a certain place, they’ve existed since pre-Hispanic times; tianguis is from Nahuatl, the Aztec language.

Some are pretty standard affairs, selling all kinds of mass-produced merchandise, from kitchenware to counterfeit goods, while others are more like farmer’s markets. The Tuesday market at Condesa, on calle Pachuca and Ave Agustin Melgar, is one of the best.

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