Often written off as an afterthought, Mexico City tends to take a backseat to the myriad white-sand beach resorts and postcard perfect colonial towns. But the truth is there is no better place to tap into the pulse of the nation than Mexico’s soulful capital.

Life in this megacity moves fast and chaotically (think New York City sans traffic rules), and it is chock full of surprises. The temptation of street eats and friendly neighbourhood cantinas lure from every corner. And no other Mexican town comes close to Mexico City in entertainment or cultural offerings. Two days is all it takes to get a taste of the city's mixed bag of pre-Hispanic, colonial and contemporary flavours.

Crash course in history
Kick things off by wandering the streets of the 34-block Centro Histórico. More than 1,500 historic buildings dot the downtown area, and because the city was built atop a drained lake bed, some edifices , like the gravity-defying Ex-Teresa museum, a former 17th-century convent, are teetering like there is no tomorrow. One block north lie the pre-Hispanic ruins of Templo Mayor, believed by the Aztecs to be the centre of the universe, and just a stone's throw from the site is Palacio Nacional, which houses dramatic Diego Rivera murals.

For a real culinary treat, hit the Hostería Santo Domingo for its famous chiles en nogada (chilies stuffed with ground meat, fruit and topped with walnut sauce). Founded in 1860, it is the city's oldest restaurant and legend has it that it is haunted to boot. Later, mosey on over to Bósforo (Luis Moya 31), a downtown bar with one of the best mescal menus in town. They do not actually have a menu but you can go to the bar and ask the friendly owner Arturo for a tobaciche (mescal made from a wild agave). You can sample the other varieties, but keep in mind that mescal packs a meaner punch than its kinder cousin tequila.

Venturing beyond downtown
Greet day two with breakfast and shopping in the see-and-be-seen Condesa, a neighbourhood known for its sidewalk restaurants, bars and boutiques. British-style pub Black Horse slings home-style bangers and mash, and El Hijo del Santo is the hot spot to score lucha libre (wrestling) masks and kitschy ring-related paraphernalia.

Next, grab a cab and head south to central Xochimilco. In the bustling Mercado de Xochimilco pick up a bag of chapulines (fried grasshoppers) to go, then wash them down with some pulque (a fermented alcoholic agave beverage) at Templo de Diana, an old-school pulquería with sawdust on the floor. Flavoured pulques such as mango and pine nut go down great while listening to the live accordion-driven folk tunes. With a belly full of pulque, head over to the trajinera (gondola) docks for a boat ride that glides through canals flanked with colourful nurseries and fertile gardens called chinampas. Xochimilco is what remains of a vast network of pre-Hispanic canals that extended across the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City).

If time permits
Make Bosque de Chapultepec the last stop on the whirlwind tour. The capital's largest park is home to the world-class National Anthropology Museum and the Modern Art Museum, which features canvasses by renowned 20th-century Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo.

Kids will get a kick out of the Chapultepec Zoo and the interactive exhibits at the Papalote Museo del Niño. Papalote has just one drawback: the little ones will never want to leave.

Now good luck finding all that action at the beach.

The article 'Mexico City: More than a stopover' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.