Mexico City is many things (as you’d expect of a metropolitan area of more than 25 million inhabitants) but for many Americans, it is mostly one thing: misunderstood. Whatever the headlines and rumors might say, I’ve found Mexico City to be a feast for the senses—full of colors, tastes, smells and sounds—and above all, home to friendly, warm and generous people. To get to know the city better, a bit of expert guidance goes a long way. On my many visits to #CDMX (their marketing hashtag for Ciudad Mex) or D.F. (as the city is sometimes nicknamed—it stands for “Distrito Federal”), I’ve learned the ins and outs of how to navigate this sprawling metropolis and I'm happy to share them with you.
Mexico City’s Best Neighborhoods For Visitors
In this enormous city, it can be hard to choose where to stay. I’ve found that these five neighborhoods (colonias) are welcoming, vibrant, convenient and full of good accommodation options.
- Centro Historico: I stay in the Centro Historico for a long list of reasons. It’s safe, there are lots of tourists around, it’s easily walkable and some of my favorite places are there, including the amazing zocalo (central square), Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Alameda Central park. Staying here also gives you easy access to the Metro, and with that, you can go anywhere in the city for 5 pesos. TuriBus is located just off the zocalo and I recommend going on their tour of the city to get the lay of the land (you can get off and on and explore).
- Polanco: If you’re looking for all the creature comforts, this is where you’ll find them. The neighborhood is very upscale (and thus hotel rates are higher) but, it places you very close to Chapultepec Park, one of the largest parks in the Western hemisphere, and the superb Anthropology Museum.
- Condesa and Roma: These two neighborhoods are definitely on trendsetter radars. They are, again, slightly more expensive than the Centro Historico, but have a real cool factor that showcases the cutting edge of Mexico City’s cosmopolitan character. They are very European in feel with lots of parks, trees, cool shops and restaurants.
- Zona Rosa: Though it’s being eclipsed by Condesa and Roma, this neighborhood is still a good bet. It’s located fairly close to Polanco and Centro, making it easy to access the amenities of those areas as well.
Eating and Drinking in Mexico City
A word of advice: Always drink bottled water. I do it even when hotels tell me their water is purified—it’s not worth taking the risk of getting ill. I buy it at convenience stores (such as XOXO) for 7 or 8 pesos and carry it with me all the time.
- Restaurants: These are some my favorites:
- Cafe Tacuba (Centro): This atmospheric restaurant was founded in 1912 and the decor is as beautiful as the food is delicious.
- Girasoles (Centro): Another classic restaurant, serving a menu full of traditional Mexican dishes, many of them based on pre-Columbian foods.
- El Moro: An ideal stop if you like churros and chocolate—and who doesn’t?
- I go to Los Bisquets de Obregon (on Madero—map here) for the best Veracruz-style cafe con leche and great biscuits with strawberry.
- Food Tour: Eat Mexico offers food tours that highlight street food, particular neighborhoods, markets and more. Customized tours are available as well. I highly recommend going on a walking food tour--the best and safest way to try street food.
Top Folk Art Related Museums in Mexico City
The city has a wealth of museums featuring everything from folk to ancient to modern art—be sure to include some of my favorites on your itinerary:
- Museo de Arte Popular: A true “must” for Zinnia fans, this museum provides an overview of the incredible diversity of Mexican folk art.
- Anthropology Museum: This internationally respected museum displays and demystifies artifacts from Mesoamerican cultures, including Toltec, Olmec, Zapotec, Maya and others.
- Fomento Cultural Banamex: From traditional crafts to contemporary art, this museum is devoted to promoting and preserving Mexican culture.
- La Casa Azul or the Frida Kahlo Museum: Located in the charming colonia of Coyoacan, Frida's blue house is now a museum and a don't miss for any Frida-philes in the group.
- Money: Use ATMs, but notify your bank (and any credit card issuers) about your trip a few weeks before you leave. When you notify your bank about your trip, ask them about fees--there will be Foreign Transaction fees for charges and for debit card usage. I also find that it can be helpful to exchange $50-$100 USD for pesos at the Mexico City airport, just inside the luggage carousel area. The exchange rate is not as good as it is at an ATM, but it gives me some cash right away for tips and for buying bottled water. Do not buy things in USD unless you want to pay a lot more than you need to.
- Language: Most people do not speak English, except in the high-end hotels. It definitely helps to speak or understand some Spanish.
Getting Around Mexico City
- Mexico City Airport: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed on arrival in a new place, so follow these steps to get through the process—and out into the city—with as little confusion as possible:
- Exit the plane and go to Immigration. Fill out the immigration form and sign it, then wait in line. When it’s your turn, give your passport and immigration form to the official—they generally do not speak English, but you don't have to do much other than give them your documents.
- Next, go to pick up your luggage. Hang on to your luggage tag—you will need to show it to pick up your luggage at the carousel. Then, take your luggage and go to Customs. They are no longer using the green/red button system of the past so you will simply answer any questions the customs agent asks (do you have food? over $10,000 USD? etc) and they determine whether to look in your bags.
- Once through the doors, look for or ask someone where are the authorized taxis. I like to use Nuevo Imagen taxis. Buy your taxi ticket at the booth and proceed to the taxi line. Once you’re up, give the ticket to driver and tell him where to go. Remember that tipping taxi drivers is not expected and is included in the ticket price.
- Taxis: Mexico City taxi safety has improved enormously over the last 20 years. “Sitios” or an authorized taxi location are located on many corners of Mexico City (ask someone where the closest sitio is located) and are among the safest options for getting around town—choose these, which can be reserved by phone or by going to the sitio and giving your destination, instead of hailing a cab off the street. Some have meters and others have fixed rates. If there is no meter, ask the price to your destination. Uber (and other similar apps like Cabify) are popular options for hailing a safe ride as well. Many hotels have taxis waiting outside, easily hailed by you or the bellhop of the hotel but you’ll find they are more expensive than any of these other options.
Metro: Mexico City’s Metro is one of the least expensive in the world, but still gets you where you need to go efficiently—there are 12 lines that span the city. During rush hour, some specially marked cars are reserved for women and children only. These are at the front of the train and they are marked.
- Walking: Walking during the day, in areas popular among travelers, is a good way to get a feel for the city and see the details of everyday life that make it so interesting.
- Buses and Collectivos: Riding the bus is very inexpensive, and one major line runs between the Zocalo and Chapultepec Park. Collectivos are sedans or small vans that carry passengers along a route for a fixed fee—the route is typically written on a placard in the vehicle’s window. It’s a less expensive option than a taxi and the smaller collectivo vehicles can move faster than a bus. These options are more comfortable for people who speak some Spanish so you can ask where to get off.
Visitor Safety in Mexico City
A little common sense goes a long way in Mexico City. Keep your wits about you, use your head and remember that most Mexicans are very warm, generous and helpful and want you to enjoy and appreciate their country. A few sensible do's and don’ts:
- Don’t wear expensive jewelry or flashy clothing
Don’t carry expensive cameras around your neck
- Don’t get drunk, buy or use drugs
- Don't show everyone how much cash you have in your wallet.
- Don’t walk alone late at night
- Do use authorized taxis.
If we’ve piqued your interest in going to Mexico City, keep an eye on the Zinnia blog—coming up next, I’ll share my picks and tips for the city’s best shopping experiences. ¡Hasta pronto! See you soon!