Local, Loco, (Not) Low-Cal Mexico City Guide, Part 1
Get Ready for an Extraordinary Mexico City Trip
Hopefully our Mexico City travel blog will convince you it’s worth ditching the beach and visiting.
…At least for a few days.
It’s one of our favorite cities to visit again and again, not just in Mexico, but in the world. And just about every friend who’s been agrees. No exaggeration.
It is an intimidatingly huge and hectic city, but it doesn’t have to feel that way.
By answering the 12 questions everyone asks before visiting, this Mexico City travel blog will help you simplify your understanding of it and relax your worries so you can have an extraordinary trip…
…maybe even a better one than you’d have sitting on the beach.
Mexico City Travel Blog Contents
Click any question to jump right to our answer:
What’s So Great About Mexico City?
Before we get into the detail of this Mexico City travel blog, here’s why you should really want to go to CDMX:
- The food. The best way to experience Mexico City trip is by hopping from one eatery to the next until you can eat no more, sleeping, then doing it again. Our last week there, we ate or drank at 39 different spots. Beat that.
- The streets are alive. Everywhere you go you’ll see interesting architecture, smell delicious street food, hear a cacophony of unusual sounds, and feel the buzz of the city. And with its endless boutiques, restaurants, bars, cafes, and markets, even the most ADHD person won’t get bored of walking around Mexico City.
- It’s easy. Mexico City is easy to get to, easy to get around, easy to afford, and there’s really no bad time to go.
- You’re safe. Mexico City is no more or less safe than any big American city, and some European ones too.
- The endless adventures. You don’t have to—in fact, you shouldn’t—spend all your time at the touristy places. That’d be a waste. You’d be missing out on the all the opportunity the city provides for unique, unforgettable, and unconventional experiences.
- It’s still underrated. Even though we regularly see articles promoting how Mexico City is now a “can’t-miss” tourism destination, for whatever reason, the tourism masses aren’t listening. It’s way less touristy than equivalent cities in Europe or Asia.
What’s Wrong with Mexico City?
Mexico City’s Dark Side
Mexico City is amazing, but it’s far from heaven. Here are some of the not-so-nice aspects of Mexico City.
- It’s grey. Aside from Chapultapec, there are few big green parks, so the city can feel suffocating… Or maybe that’s just all the pollution.
- Haze. Since it’s a huge city located in the middle of a valley, sometimes the haze produced by factories and vehicles can sit around the city for days.
- It’s insanely busy. At times. Traffic and crowds of people everywhere you go can be quite intimidating. One word of advice: don’t use the metro during rush hour.
- Altitude. Mexico City is 2,250m (7,200 feet) above sea level making the air thinner and a little more difficult to breathe.
- More and more scam artists. Just like in Barcelona, as more tourists have arrived so too have the sharks to prey on them. We were approached twice by would-be scammers during our last week there. Maybe you don’t look as obviously gringo and gullible as Chris, but watch out anyway.
How Safe Is Mexico City?
One of the first things we asked our chilango roommate when we moved in was, “Where’s it unsafe to go during the day?”
His answer: Nowhere.
That doesn’t mean it’s as safe as Switzerland, but it’s a lot closer to that than the Mexico you see in movies like Sicario or Man on Fire.
And, as long as you dress Mexican (see Tips below), you won’t stand out. In areas like Roma and Condesa especially, most locals will be better dressed and have nicer phones than you.
Just don’t be an idiot, especially at night. But you’d be an even bigger idiot if you didn’t go to Mexico City or limited your time there due to safety concerns.
What’s Where in Mexico City?
If you understand where these parts of town are relative to each other, you’ll know enough to never feel lost while exploring Mexico City:
- Insurgentes is the main north-south road that cuts through essentially all the neighborhoods mentioned below. The Metrobus (see below) is a quick and easy way to go up and down it.
- Reforma goes diagonally, southwest to northeast, from Chapultapec park, through Zona Rosa, and El Centro. From 8 a.m to 2 p.m. on Sundays, it’s closed to automobiles for what’s called Ciclovía. Cyclists, rollerbladers, and pedestrians come in masses.
Starting from the north and working our way south:
- Centro: Mexico City’s downtown. The southern half is full of people, monuments, government buildings, markets, and big squares (like the Zocalo). In the north of Centro is Guerrero, a working-class neighborhood that we recommend avoiding at night, but it’s worth taking an Uber to Machetes Amparito (see Food) and walking back down to El Centro.
- Santa Maria la Ribera: It’s called “the next Roma” because it’s gentrifying and becoming hip, but it’s still a ways from getting there. You’ll appreciate its more laid-back feel if you visit later in your stay in Mexico City. It’s not marked the above map, but it’s in the area north of Zona Rosa, west of the Centro, between Insurgentes and the Circuito Interior avenues.
- Polanco: The wealthiest, most expensive, most developed, most modern part of the city. And the least culturally-interesting, unless you’re interested in the Soumaya and Jumex museums.
- Zona Rosa: The “Pink Zone” has tons of restaurants and entertainment venues, but is more modern and less hip, historical, and interesting than Condesa / Roma to its south. Zona Rosa is also the center of Mexico City’s gay community.
- Condesa & Roma: Centrally-located, bohemian, and full of bars, restaurants, cafes, and boutique shops. It’s the best part of town to stay in.
- Coyoacan & San Angel: About 10 km / 6 mi south of Condesa and Roma, these areas have a less-urban and more traditional pueblo vibe and architecture from the rest of the city. They are best-suited to be visited as day trips.
- Everywhere Else: We challenge you to explore other areas and make your own discoveries.
Where’s the Best Area to Stay in Mexico City?
The Best Area
As mentioned in the previous section on what’s were, Condesa / Roma is the best area to base yourself out of. It’s central, affordable, full of things to do, and there are accommodation options to suit every budget and desire.
Use this handy tool to find the best hotel or Airbnb for the best price in this, the best neighborhood:
The Best Airbnb Hosts
More specifically, if you’re like us and don’t mind (or even prefer) sharing an apartment with a local, our friend Ricardo’s apartment on Airbnb is ideal. It’s spacious, clean, comfortable, affordable, and in the perfect location for exploring all of Mexico City, right on Plaza Cibeles.
If you’ve never tried Airbnb before, Ricardo is perfect host for your first time. (Oh, and earn yourself and your favorite unconventional bloggers some free credit by signing up through this link).
If you’re an Airbnb regular, he’s the type of host you scan through all the listings looking for.
Cross your fingers and click here to see if his place is available.
If Ricardo’s place is busy, another super-duper host to stay with is Marco. Our friend Jen only planned to stay with him for a couple days but ended up liking it so much she stayed for a month. See if his place is available here.
Where to Eat in Mexico City?
We won’t pretend to come close to knowing everything there is to know about eating in Mexico City because there’s just way, way, way too much out there.
But, to give you an idea of what’s out there and get you salivating, here are some of our favorite eating experiences:
- 2-Foot-Long Edible Swords: Quesadillas from Los Machetes de Amparito is like a way better (and way longer) Mexican, version of Subway.
- The Local Hangover Cure: La Casa de Toño is a family-friendly Mexican chain restaurant that most of our friends from CDMX listed among the places they never miss when they go home. Go to the original location in Santa Maria la Ribera and get a veggie and meat mixed pozole.
- The Godfather of Tacos: Speaking of places not to be missed, we go to Condesa’s Tacos Don Juan every time we return to Mexico City. There is always a line, it’s always smokey, you’ll always get sweaty waiting to order in the boiling hot shack, and it’s always worth it. Whatever meat you pick, get it with cheese because everything’s better with cheese.
- Pastries That Are too Good for Just a Fancy Restaurant: Rosetta opened as a fancy restaurant, but when everyone started coming for their pastries, the owners saw where their bread was buttered and opened up a separate pastry shop instead, Panaderia Rosetta. It’s super busy with tourists and locals alike, but that’s because the pastries are legitimately good.
For more on these and ten more of our favorites, check out our post on how to eat like a local in Mexico City.
In fancier establishments, you’re expected to tip 10-15%, while in more low-key spots 10% is the norm.
You don’t need to tip on street food or takeaway.
More Tasty Recommendations
Aside from our own post of our favorite places, we recommend you check out Eater’s guide too. Eater’s restaurant guides to other cities are hit and miss, but whoever made this list of 38 essential Mexico City restaurants is our kindred spirit.
Where to Drink in Mexico City?
A well-earned drink can make you feel on top of the world and that feeling is accentuated when you’re literally on top of a building:
- Terraza Catedral, has 35 peso ($1.90 US) draft beers and views of the Zocalo. It’s better than El Mayor’s rooftop bar and restaurant three blocks down the way. On weekdays it “opens at 1 p.m.” (Not really; see tip below.) On weekends it opens at 6 p.m. and there’s a cover fee.
- Pulqueria Insurgentes, as mentioned in the Pulque section above.
- Balmori Roofbar: A swanky, packed-every-night-of-the-week, bar and restaurant in Roma with a retractable roof.
- Miralto Restaurant & Bar: It’s on the 41st floor of Mexico City’s famous skyscraper, la Torre Latinoamericana (see Touristy Stuff below). The upside is you skip the lines and avoid paying for a ticket to the viewpoint. The downside is the drinks aren’t great and are way overpriced.
- El Balcon del Zocalo: The name is self-explanatory. While you could just go for a drink, it’s ideal for a fancier welcome or goodbye dinner.
Pulque is “kombucha on steroids,” a 3-to-8 percent drink made by fermenting maguey sap. It’s an acquired taste, but even if you can’t stomach the sourness or stringy-yogurt-like texture, it’s worth visiting a couple of pulque bars for the cultural experience:
- Pulqueria Insurgentes between Roma Norte and Condesa is a multi-story pulque palace with a nice rooftop area and two-for-one Sunday and Mondays.
- Pulqueria la Pirata is pure old school. Enter through the saloon-style swinging doors and you’ll see Playboy-esque photos of a naked lady taken on location sixty years ago, a group of pulque-infused regulars in the back room, kegs of pulque that’re used as tables, and the stoic mustachioed pulque professional manning the bar.
We recommend a handful of other pulquerias (plus one we didn’t like), share the surprising nutritional benefits of pulque, and its entertaining up-and-down-and-up-again history in our guide to pulque in Mexico City. Check it out here.
At a traditional cantina, the more you drink the better the free food, called botanas, they serve you. The snacks aren’t exactly free because the drinks are more expensive than at a normal bar, but overall cantinas are a great deal.
The only problem is you might find yourself spending an entire day drinking and eating in the same place. Not the worst problem in the world.
What’re Mexico City’s Top Attractions?
No Mexico City travel blog would be complete without mentioning these top tourist attractions.
That doesn’t mean your trip won’t be complete if you miss them, though.
To help you decide which top attractions are worth visiting, here’s our quick take on each.
- Chapultapec Park: It’s a park. Go there as often as you’d go to the big park in your hometown.
- Frida Kahlo Museum: The lineups for “The Blue House” are ridiculous. If you’re not are a huge Frida fan who grows a unibrow out of admiration for her, it might not be worth the wait.
- Anthropology Museum: Overwhelmingly huge with lots of… everything. A good rainy day activity.
- Teotihuacan: Busy ruins about an hour from the city. Go if you have a big imagination and passion for history. Don’t go just to check if off the list.
- Xochimilco: Sit on a boat, float in the canals, and have people sell you stuff.
- Coyoacan: Super busy, especially on weekends, but it’s still busy with locals as well as tourists, so it’s a fun atmosphere. And you only need to walk a couple blocks away from the main square to escape the crowds and explore the impressive old mansions on your own.
- Torre Latinoamerica: It’s the skyscraper you can’t help but notice. If the pollution’s not too bad you can get a nice view. Try to avoid the sometimes crazy lines.
- Zocalo, Monumento a la Revolución, Bellas Artes, etc: All the stuff you’ll walk by when exploring the Centro.
- Lucha Libre Wrestling Match: Of all the things we haven’t done in Mexico City, this is the first one we’ll do next time. Everyone says it’s a good time. Rachel in the comments seconds this. She wrote, “We had the best time at the Lucho Libre show- do NOT skip it- the entertainment value is super high. Make sure you get all the snacks (doritos with hot sauce are magical) and massive cups of cheap beer!” Here’s a good guide on how to go to a lucha libre event without a tour by Two Wandering Soles.
What’s the Best Way to Get In and Out of Mexico City?
To and From Benito Juarez International Airport
First, get a SIM card at the 7-11 (see our travel tips post for instructions). Then, take an Uber. We paid less then 140 pesos ($7 US) each way to and from our Airbnb in Roma Norte.
If you’re super budget, you can take the metro. Uber’s cheap, but the metro’s 28 times cheaper. For you non-math whizzes out there, that means it’s only 5 pesos ($0.25 US). Go to Terminal Aerea Station in Terminal 1 (see on Google Maps) or Pantitlan from Terminal 2 (see on Google Maps). For step-by-step instructions, see this section of Wikitravel.
To and from the Bus Terminals
Mexico City has a different bus terminal for each cardinal direction of routes (north, east, south, west). Tripsavvy has a good guide to the stations, which has buses to where, and how to get to and from each.
Currency Exchange Tip
Cash is still king in Mexico City, so withdraw a bunch of cash from the airport ATM before you head into the city.
As long as you’re flying out, don’t worry about withdrawing too many pesos. Actually, withdraw more than you need. That’s because the currency exchange offices at the airport will pay you to take US dollars off their hands. Seriously. They offer better than market rates.
If you’re really entrepreneurial and have a decent cash balance in your bank account, you can take advantage of this exchange rate loophole to make a quick few hundred dollars. Here’s how.
What’s the Best Way to Move Around Mexico City?
Biking is the best way to get around Mexico City. Drivers are respectful, there are quite a few bike paths, and you can explore way more in way less time than you could using Uber or public transit.
We were just as doubtful as you probably are reading this when we signed up for a week of Mexico City’s EcoBici shared bike program (329 pesos / $17 US). But, by the end, we’d done forty rides covering over 160 km / 100 mi.
To get you rolling on EcoBici, check out what is without a doubt the best guide to EcoBici there is on the internet.
You can also rent a bike for free with BiciGratis. It’s not as convenient as EcoBici because you have to drop the bike off at the same place as you picked it up but, with a 3-hour limit, it’s a great way to join in the bike-a-palooza that is Sunday’s Ciclovia. (Thanks Rebecca for sharing this tip in the comments!)
Since you are savvy enough to have found this site, you already know what Uber is and how to use it. Uber’s legal in Mexico City, it’s everywhere, and it’s inexpensive.
Mexico City does not yet have Lyft.
Hahahaha! Or as they write in Spanish, jajajajaja!
Mexico City taxi drivers are notorious for ripping off everyone right and left. Well, they can’t rip us off now because we don’t use them anymore.
The most important things to know about the Mexico City metro are:
- It’s safe, fast, and convenient
- It’s dirt cheap. Tickets are 5 pesos, which is $0.25 US. Most of us won’t stop to pick up a quarter in the dirt, so it’s almost literally dirt cheap.
- Get a prepaid card. It costs 10 pesos (50 cents), but then you don’t need to fuss with tickets and can use it on the Metrobus too.
- Avoid it during rush hour (7-10 a.m. and 6-9 p.m.)
For more tips on etiquette, safety, and a lot more, read through Northern Lauren’s fantastic beginner’s guide to the Mexico City metro.
The Metrobuses are buses that have their own lanes on Mexico City thoroughfares. The one you’re most likely to use goes up and down Insurgentes between Roma / Condesa and San Angel.
The Metrobus is 20% more expensive than the metro (6 pesos)… so still basically nothing. You need a 10 peso prepaid metro card to ride it. If you really don’t want to get a card, some people will swipe you through with theirs if you pay them in change.
Mexico City is rarely too hot or too cold and, as we’ve repeated many times here, it’s safe, so it’s great for walking.
The least safe part of walking is all the cracked pavement that’ll have you stumbling so much you’ll be lifting your feet up to walk like a Buckingham Soldier by the end of your trip.
What to Do in 2-Days in Mexico City?
The World’s Easiest Two-Day Mexico City Itinerary
The best way to experience Mexico City is to simply wander around (It’s safe!) and follow your senses, so our recommended two-day itinerary is equally open-ended:
- Go to El Centro.
- Wander around from one eatery to the other.
- Venture into a couple of pulque places or a cantina.
- Go up to a rooftop bar or restaurant (see the Drink section above).
- Maybe venture over to Santa Maria la Ribera for a pozole at La Casa de Toño.
Day 2 (Ideally on a Saturday):
- Go down to Coyoacan and San Angel.
- Wander around through Coyoacan’s market and then from one eatery and bar to the other.
- On Saturday, check out the Bazaar Sabado in San Angel.
Evenings and Early Mornings of Both Days
- Wander around in Condesa and Roma from one eatery and bar to the other.
- Consider getting some exercise so you can eat even more food. We recommend some classes and workout areas in our Mexico City travel tips post.
What Other Mexico City Travel Tips Can You Tell Me?
Some Random Travel Tips
Every time we go to Mexico City we learn a travel tip that makes our next trip incrementally better.
Here are a few:
- Ask for samples at restaurants. If you’re unsure which mole, flavor of pulque, or meat to get at a restaurant, ask if you can have a small taste of them all. Many restaurants will do so. That way, you not only pick the best item, but you get to taste more flavors.
- Don’t pay for water at restaurants. Ask for “agua del filtro.” The waiter will try to upsell you, but restaurants in Mexico City are obligated to provide free, clean, and bottle-free water to their patrons.
- Don’t wait in super long in lines. Anything you need to wait around in line with other tourists for is not worth wasting your time on.
- Don’t go anywhere when it’s close to their opening or closing hours. Shops and restaurants open later and close earlier than advertised. We learned this the hard way on our last trip. Three times. (…We’re slow learners.)
- Get your souvenir mezcal or tequila in town. Don’t wait to get it in the airport, where they don’t sell anything you can’t find back home and the prices are inflated.
- Dress Mexican. You’ll only be hassled if you dress like a complete tourist. “Dress Mexican” doesn’t mean a pancho and a sombrero, by the way. For guys it means no shorts unless it’s blisteringly hot out and no sandals ever. Girls can wear nice sandals, but should also refrain from wearing shorts or short skirts.
- Most important: Don’t be a wuss. Eat whatever, drink whatever, and go wherever.
For a bunch more tips you won’t find anywhere else, take a look at our complete post of Mexico City Travel Tips.
Next on the Local, Loco, and (Not) Low-Cal Mexico City Guide
This Mexico City guide was just Part 1 of our 5-Part Local, Loco, and (Not) Low-Cal Mexico City blog series.
Get all our juiciest, tastiest, and most terrific tips by completing the series:
- Travel Tips: 20 Dos and Don’ts to Know Before You Go
- Our Favorite Places to Eat in Mexico City
- How to Mexico City by Bike (and Why It’s Not Crazy)
- A Guide to Mexico’s Kombucha on Steroids: Pulque