This Is What You Should Know Before Going to Mexico City

This Is What You Should Know Before Going to Mexico City

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Lauren Rothman
May 3, 2016
(Image credit: Lauren Rothman)

As far as travel destinations go, Mexico City is white hot. With insanely delicious street food, a burgeoning contemporary art scene, and vibrant, walkable neighborhoods, the capital is more popular than ever with in-the-know travelers. Having more or less overcome old, outdated stereotypes about its safety, the city is expected to welcome about 30 million tourists this year — and if you count yourself among them, then this travel guide is for you. Here's the lowdown on what to expect when visiting Mexico City.

Getting There

As it is in so many other instances, the internet is your friend here: head to your favorite flight-booking site to secure a seat to Benito Juarez, the city's modern, high-traffic international airport. Keep your eyes peeled for flights on Volaris, Mexico's budget airline: you're sure to get a good price (but don't expect any frills). And don't forget your passport; although we share a border, the ID is needed for all air travel into Mexico.

(Image credit: Lauren Rothman)

Getting Around

On the "don't believe what you've heard" tip, you can ignore anyone who tells you not to take the metro in Mexico City — the system is fast, safe, and unbelievably extensive. With 12 lines plus connections to above-ground buses (Metrobus) and light trains (Tren Ligero), you can get anywhere you need to go using this system. At five pesos per ride — about 30 cents — it's also one of the world's cheapest fares.

The metro runs from the early morning to midnight daily; if you can, try to avoid morning and evening rush hours, when cars will be packed and your ride a little uncomfortable.

Car traffic in the city tends to be horrendous, and it's generally best to avoid taking taxis during the day. But for late-night travel when the metro is closed, cars are a great option. In busy areas of the city, you can hail government-licensed taxis whose prices are guaranteed to be fair. The cars are pink and white and say "CDMX."

Compared to taxis in most U.S. cities, the rates here are extremely affordable; depending on traffic, expect to pay just a few dollars for a short ride. Uber is also extremely popular and easy to use in Mexico City; fares tend to be slightly lower than those of the official cabs, and drivers usually provide bottled water.

(Image credit: Lauren Rothman)

Staying There

Quiet, easily walkable, and located a short metro ride from the city's busting Centro Historico, the adjoining neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa are the city's most popular tourist destinations. Just a 30-minute ride from the airport, both colonias are historically residential areas with handsome older buildings, tree-lined streets, and plenty of lively cafes and restaurants.

Architecture buffs might want to look for housing in Roma Norte, punctuated by early 20th-century former mansions that now house cultural centers, bookstores, and art galleries; this is also where some of the city's best sit-down dining can be found. For a more residential, neighborhood feel, Roma Sur, south of Avenida Coahuila, is a good bet for meeting locals (and not just other tourists).

To the west of Roma lies Condesa, where you'll certainly meet many other tourists. Known as a barrio magico turistico, or magical neighborhood for tourists, it's where a majority of Mexico City visitors chooses to stay and is also home to a good number of expats who have made the permanent move. Packed with bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs, it's a no-brainer choice for visitors interested in nightlife.

When it comes to choosing a room, I wholeheartedly endorse booking an Airbnb. Priced more moderately than the city's (already affordable) hotels and hostels, they're a great way to interact with the city's locals — through your host — and if you choose carefully, you won't have to sacrifice anything in the way of creature comforts. Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $40 per person per night for a budget room, or spring for a whole apartment for not much more ($55 to $75 per night; hosts typically raise prices during the high season of November to March).
If hotel stays are more your bag, Roma Norte's Hotel Marbella and Condesa's Hotel Roosevelt are two solid, reasonably priced options.

Safety and Security

Although less so than in the past, your news that you're traveling to Mexico City might very well be greeted with trepidation from family and friends. But be aware that the city's reputation for being dangerous is vastly overblown; domestic cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, and New Haven have higher levels of petty crime than Mexico City.

Touristy areas, busy avenues, public parks, and the metro system all have a police and security guard presence. Like everywhere else, common sense reigns: Don't move about with tons of valuables or large sums of cash, keep an eye on your environment, and try to stick to busy areas if you're roaming about at night.

Money and Tipping

There's another reason why so many Americans are flocking to Mexico City these days: the exchange rate. With a dollar worth about 17 pesos, travel to the city is extraordinarily cheap; if you figure that a loaded taco usually costs around 15 pesos (less than $1), then you have an idea of how easy it is to shop and eat well in Mexico at the moment.

To make the most of your funds, always take out money from an ATM, as they give the best rate. What I typically do is visit the first airport ATM I see after getting off the plane and take out as much money as I feel comfortable carrying; once I arrive at my accommodations, I stash the cash in a safe place and take a little with me every day. For larger purchases such as sit-down restaurant meals, using credit cards is a good idea — especially if you have one of those travel rewards cards. Be sure to advise your bank before you travel.

A 10 percent tip on meals and drinks is customary in Mexico, with the exception of street food vendors. Leave the coins on the table or bar just as you do here in the U.S. The cost of the metered taxis is all-inclusive and you do not need to tip.

(Image credit: Lauren Rothman)

Eating and Drinking

Food is such an important (and delicious) part of Mexico City's culture that it merits a guide all its own. But I'll mention here that the city is packed with street food vendors and that their creations are often stunningly good; any traveler would be remiss not to try them.

Like many uninformed assertions about Mexico, rumors of food-borne illnesses are often overblown. To play it safe, make sure to frequent food stalls that are packed with people — it's an indication not only that the food tastes good, but that it's also fresh due to high turnover.

One thing travelers in Mexico City do need to take into consideration is drinking water. It's unsafe to drink the tap water, and even residents buy bottled water or invest in a water filtration system. When dining in restaurants, you can request free filtered water by asking for agua de garrafon. I'm fine with drinking iced drinks such as cocktails and fresh fruit juices, but if your stomach is extra sensitive you might want to ask for drinks sin hielo (or without ice).

A Final Note

Besides its absorbing history, vibrant arts scene, and incredible food, Mexico City's real draw is the people who live there. In my experience, citizens are kind, welcoming, and eager to help tourists navigate the city. To truly experience the feel of the place, I recommend learning a few Spanish phrases before you head south to better communicate with the people you'll meet. It'll enrich your trip in ways you might not have anticipated.

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