Mexico City's top 5 public markets

From handicrafts, to good eats, to the occult, our expert picks highlight the best vendors and items.

by John Farley

Mexico City is a modern mega-metropolis with a vibrant contemporary arts scene and a thriving international business community. But for a window into Mexico’s diverse culinary and creative traditions, you can visit any of the city’s three-hundred-plus permanent public markets.

Exploring these markets can feel like a religious experience for the senses. As you stroll down a given aisle, you might smell the intermingling scents frying tamales and brewing espresso. You’ll likely hear a cacophony of shouting, laughter and mariachi music. Around and above you will be hundreds, if not thousands of brightly painted stalls. They might feature anything from overflowing trays of produce, a butcher preparing wild game birds or a fresh juice bar. Many even contain small hair and nail salons.

In the gargantuan Mercado La Merced, one could easily spend an afternoon without seeing everything. There are also many smaller markets specializing in a specific kind of item. At Mercado de Jamaica, for example, you’ll find extravagant arrangements of flowers, cacti and other Mexican decorative plants.

Whether a market is large or small, the crowds are often bustling. Fortunately, you will find your fellow shoppers are in good spirits. This is a highlight of their day, as well as yours.

We’ve chosen five of the city’s best markets, all located within city’s heart, El Centro Historico.

Mercado de Ciudadela
Mexico’s finest handcrafts

Located in the southwest corner of El Centro, this market was created for the 1968 Olympics in order to showcase Mexico’s finest handcraft artisans.

Today you’ll find 350 vendors from all over the country, each specializing in some unique skills. There are beautiful traditional items, like handsewn sombreros, painted wooden skulls, handmade guitars and Mayan rugs of course.

Ciudadela also features the city’s best selection of alebrijes, those psychedelically painted papier mache creatures inspired by the great Mexican sculptor, Pedro Linares.

Hours: 9 am to 7 pm

Mercado de Ciudadela
Mercado de San Juan
Exotic eats

From Ciudadela you can walk to Mercado de San Juan, a must-see for culinary travelers.

This is where one goes for the really exotic stuff, such as stingrays, eels and snails. Because many of the items on sale are unavailable anywhere else in the city, prices tend to be more expensive than at other markets, yet still cheaper than in Europe or the United States.

You’ll find a huge selection of fish, shipped from the coast by high speed trains every morning. The produce selection is first class, as are the excellent cuts of virtually every variety of red meat and sausage.

If hunger has you feeling adventurous, check out a prepared food stand called Los Coyotes, where for 50 pesos (less than $3) you can get a tostada loaded with your choice of venison, buffalo or crocodile, and topped off with ant salsa and a sauce made from the maguey worm. It is both delicious and unlike anything you’ve ever eaten.

Hours: 6:50 am to 8:30 pm

Mercado de San Juan
Mercado de Sonora
Occult items and mystical icons

After San Juan, consider a short walk to Mercado de Sonora, the witchcraft market.

Outside, hundreds of peddlers selling everything from food to flower pots disguise what lies indoors. Herbs, powders and potions can be had for everything from crafting love spells (books of which can also be purchased) to treating indigestion.

The vendors are mostly representatives from new age movements or indigenous shamanic religions, though you’ll also find thousands of beautifully decorated rosaries and Bibles.

You will also find items featuring beautiful illustrations of a female grim reaper, known as Santa Muerte. Worshipped by a mystical sect of Catholicism, this folk saint personifies the equalizing beauty of death.

Mexico has an ancient spiritual fixation with mortality. Pre-colonial traditions have pushed and pulled against Vatican doctrine in innumerable fascinating ways, at times both reverent and ironic. There are few better places to witness the complexity of these interwoven histories than Mercado de Sonora.

Hours: 7 am to 7 pm

Mercado de Sonora
Mercado La Merced
Mexico City's oldest and largest market

Now that you have a few relatively mellow markets under your belt, you might be ready to visit the year-round carnival that is La Merced.

Located in El Centro Historico, the city’s historic heart, La Merced is the city’s oldest and largest market in Mexico. It has existed in some form since the 16th century, when native Mexicans traded with Spanish conquistadors in the open air.

Today it occupies about four square blocks, both indoors and out, divided into seven zones. In one zone you’ll find aisles and aisles of vendors selling nothing but variations of huitlacoche, the delicious corn fungus, and edible cacti. In another area you’ll find nothing but used mechanical appliances.

La Merced is an amazing place, overflowing with just about every kind of life. Be aware that while the the market is safe to visit during the daytime, certain outdoor areas are known for the solicitation of prostitution, which is semi-legal and semi-regulated. Those areas are obvious and should obviously be avoided.

Hours: 6 am to 7 pm

Mercado La Merced
Mercado de Jamaica
A floral feast for the eyes

From Merced, you can take a quick ride on the number eight metro line to the gorgeous Mercado de Jamaica.

Jamaica is the Spanish word for the hibiscus flower, and this market specializes in flowers and plants for the home and garden.

There are over 1,000 stands dedicated to flowers alone. The market in total reportedly sells over 5,000 varieties of flora, most of which come from states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacan, Puebla and Veracruz.

Throughout the market you’ll find colorful clay and papier mache piñatas dangling from the rafters. Piñatas are popular in Mexican holidays and rituals around the year, but especially for during Las Posadas, a traditional celebration that occurs in December.

Hours: Open 24 hours

Mercado de Jamaica
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