Mexico City Travel Guide for First-Time Visitors
After two years of staying put, I packed my bags for Mexico City, the first stop on my month-long sojourn in Central America. This was my first time in Mexico, and although I'd only heard good things about its capital, I'd been to a lot of cities and thought I'd be a bit jaded visiting another one. But CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico) surprised me with its own unique charm and cheerful vibe. I'd totally go back to live for an extended period of time.
Mexico City has the culture, cuisine, and amenities to rival other world-class cities but at less than half the cost, compared to Toronto anyway. It is a huge sprawling metropolis with distinct neighborhoods that you can spend years getting to know. I received plenty of recommendations from various friends or people I met on the trip, and in turn, I'm sharing the best ones with you.
In this travel guide for Mexico City, I cover:
Traveling to Mexico City During Covid-19
I arrived in Mexico City in mid-November (2021), a week before the Omicron variant started making headlines. Mexico was open to travelers despite their vaccination status. While I'd been double vaxxed since summer, I didn't need to show my vaccine status, provide any negative Covid tests, or quarantine after arrival. I just had to fill out a health declaration form, but I think they even dropped that recently.
Mexico has loose border restrictions, but I highly recommend checking with your airline and other up-to-date sources on the latest travel restrictions. If you're flying into a resort destination in Mexico first, check if you have to provide a negative Covid test before entering because the rules might be different for touristy locales. Another thing to keep in mind is that customs is now asking to see proof of your departing flight upon arrival. (Also, FYI, after you fill out the customs form at the airport upon arrival, keep your part of the form, because you'll have to present it when you depart.)
When I went, the Covid cases were pretty low in Mexico. Locals still took it seriously wearing masks both indoors and outdoors. I was visiting to take part in a retreat for healers, and I was required to take a rapid antigen test. I did it at one of the pharmacy chains, Farmacias del Ahorro, for $346 pesos (around $17 USD). Not every location will do the tests, but I just popped into the closest location to ask where to go.
If you're staying at a hotel, especially one of the swanky ones in Polanco, they'll likely have options to do either a rapid or PCR test in the hotel, although it'll cost more.
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Mexico City Essential Travel Tips
After landing in MEX, I exchanged my money for Pesos at the airport because I'm told they offer some of the best exchange rates. While most businesses in CDMX take credit and debit cards, it's handy to keep some cash on hand for things like cab fare and street food.
I recommend Ubers to get around as they're reliable and surprisingly inexpensive. If you want to take one from the airport, just know that Ubers are not allowed in the airport terminals, but you can get one if you exit the airport by crossing the street. I had trouble accessing Internet data on my phone when I first landed, so I got one of the pre-paid taxis at the airport. You pay a set fee according to the zone you're going to in the city.
I usually like to take subways to get around in cities and CDMX has Mexico City Metro, but I was advised against it by Mexicans, as they warned petty crime and sexual assault can occur there. I still think it's probably fine during the day, but since it was Covid time anyway, I just stuck to Ubers.
Mexico City also has a bike-sharing system, ECOBICI, if you're comfortable biking around a foreign city. If you want to bike but not in city traffic, bike in Chapultepec Park.
If you prefer to walk, there are plenty of walkable neighborhoods, but this is a huge city so it's inevitable to take some form of transportation to get around unless you can walk for hours at a time.
What to Wear
If you're there in the fall or winter, it does get chilly, especially early mornings or evenings. Bring layers. I brought my Nano Puff Jacket from Patagonia, which was fortunate because thin puffer jackets are what the locals wear.
People might dress a little preppier in posh Polanco or more hipster in Roma, but in general, locals dress pretty casual in jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. I only packed a carry-on so that was all I could wear anyway.
How Much Spanish Do You Need to Know in Mexico City?
Mexico City doesn't cater to tourists the way resort towns do, so locals don't always speak English or feel comfortable doing so even if they do. If you're staying in a hotel, shopping at upscale boutiques, or doing some fine dining, you're bound to find staff who speak English. Otherwise, just assume locals won't speak it. Having some basic Spanish under your belt, even some numbers, will make getting around so much easier.
I took beginner Spanish lessons in university, and I was pretty rusty when I arrived, but that and a combination of Google Translate helped me talk to taxi drivers, do the Covid test, order street food, etc. I liked that I was forced to learn situational Spanish because it can be sink or swim. By the end of my time here, I was pretty confident ordering food and such.
My parents visited Mexico City pre-Covid, and they didn't speak any Spanish at all, but they got by with their phones, showing taxi drivers where they want to go on the map, so not to worry if you don't have time to learn. People are friendly and helpful.
Is Mexico City Safe?
Like in any major city, there are safe neighborhoods and ones to avoid in Mexico City. If you're in one of the neighborhoods I recommend below, you'll be fine.
See this list of neighborhoods to avoid. This list also includes some safety tips. My puffer jacket has a hidden interior pocket where I kept cash and cards, so pickpocketing was not something I was concerned about. I looked like an obvious foreigner but never felt unsafe in the areas I visited. In Condesa and Roma especially, there are usually tourists or expats around, so I didn't feel that I stuck out too much.
That said, it's always good to be street smart, so read up on the latest scams. I heard of one involving fake police officers fining tourists for not wearing masks during a time when there were no outdoor mask mandates and another where people received fake bills as change from taxi drivers (this is why Ubers are recommended).
Neighborhoods to Stay in Mexico City
Stay in Polanco if you're posh, Roma if you're a hipster, and Condesa if you're someone in between. Condesa was for me. There's also the up-and-coming hipster neighborhood Juarez to consider, which is north of Condesa and Roma.
I couldn't find truly eco-friendly hotels in the city, so hotels, Airbnbs, and hostels are your options.
The affluent neighborhood of Polanco is full of fancy restaurants, ritzy hotels, beautiful villas, and high-end apartment complexes. Avenida Presidente Masaryk is where to go for luxury boutiques and fine dining. Streets are lined with leafy trees and well-manicured topiary. Art lovers will find plenty of galleries and museums.
Since I arrived in CDMX a day before the healers' retreat started to find my bearings, I stayed for a night in the gorgeous Orchid House Hotel.
After the healers' retreat, I moved to an Airbnb in Condesa to try out the digital nomad lifestyle.
Condesa is still the neighborhood I'd want to stay in when I return. Not only is it in between Polanco and Roma, but it is also within walking distance to Bosque de Chapultepec, one of the largest parks in the Western Hemisphere. Condesa has its own neighborhood parks, Park Espana and Park Mexico, where locals and tourists alike hang out and chill, especially on warm evenings. It's a mix of families and young people, and it's a diverse neighborhood.
The restaurants and bars are trendy and contemporary, with a variety of food to suit every palate. I stumbled upon a zero-waste store called Botánica Granel. I didn't go out of my way to shop for clothes in Mexico City, but I'm sure there are cool boutiques here and in Roma. If you like working out, there are a bunch of gyms here, although I stuck to running in the parks.
Once I start walking over to Roma, I spotted more ripped denim and vintage rock tees. Roma is hipster central in CDMX. It's like Brooklyn, but cleaner and more affordable. Designated as a "Barrio Mágico" by the city in 2011, it has an interesting mix of modern and historic architecture.
I didn't know that Alfonso Cuarón's film Roma was based here until I heard someone mention it. For some reason, I did not put two and two together.
Where to Eat in Mexico City
If you're trying to eat healthy or diet, just resign to the fact that you'll be consuming a lot of carbs and cheese in Mexico City. Street food is everywhere (try quesadillas and tamales) and so are taquerias. I ate tacos all the time, from 50-cent street tacos to Azul's gourmet shrimp tacos. I kept seeing the word "al pastor" on menus, and it turned out to be a cooking style where boneless pork shoulder is slow-cooked on a vertical spit-roast.
In terms of local specialties to try, my friend recommends Pulque, a fermented alcoholic drink, and Champurrado, a corn chocolate drink.
I found the coffee in Mexico City (and Central America, in general) to be too bitter for my taste, but that's my only complaint.
Below are some cafes, restaurants, and bars to try by neighborhood. Some I visited and some came highly recommended by others. I'm sure there are many more cool places so if I missed anything, drop me a note in the comments.
Pujol — One of the most highly rated restaurants in the world by star chef Enrique Olvera. They're a B Corp.
Porfirio's — Contemporary urban cuisine, inspired by homemade recipes from all corners of Mexico.
Bakers — Tea and baked goods with outdoor seating. Multiple locations in the city.
Gyaros Estiatorio — Authentic Greek food with take-out available.
El Rey del Suadero — Quick and cheap delicious tacos.
Ojo de Agua — Fresh and natural healthy juices and food. Multiple locations.
Azul Condesa — Fine dining experience inspired by traditional Mexican food.
Lardo — Hip Mexican-European fusion joint.
Milo's — Contemporary Mediterranean food.
Boicot Café — Cafe with all-day breakfast.
Blend Station — Cafe with healthy meals. Great co-working space. Multiple locations.
El Pescadito — Fish tacos. Try the spicy shrimp.
Peltre — Cafe and bakery with multiple locations. Great brunch place.
El Moro - The best spot for churros. Multiple locations.
Cafebreria El Péndulo Condesa — Cafe, restaurant, and book store. Another location in Roma.
Goy's Burgers - Vegan fast food.
La Clandestina — Bar for mezcal tasting.
Licorería Limantour — Legendary cocktail bar.
Rosetta / Panadería Rosetta — Acclaimed Italian restaurant and sister bakery.
Jenni's quesadillas — Popular street quesadillas.
Chiquitito Cafe — Cute cafe with multiple locations.
Cicatriz — Cozy hangout with coffee, cocktails, and wine.
La Rifa Chocolateria — Chocolates and hot cacao.
Café NiN — Chic cafe with fresh pastries and bread.
Things To Do in Mexico City
Mexico City is full of museums—over 150 of them. Here's a list of the top 20 museums. I only visited one on this trip. Next time, I want to visit the Frida Khalo Museum.
The one I went to is the Museo Nacional de Antropología, which holds the world's largest collection of Mexican artifacts. If you only have time to visit one museum in CDMX, this is the one people will recommend. It's right inside Chapultepec Park. The building is massive, so while it's a popular tourist spot, it won't feel crowded. I went on a weekday and didn't have to wait long to buy a ticket.
Chapultepec Park, at 1,695 acres, is almost twice as big as Central Park. Here, you'll find Chapultepec Castle, Chapultepec Zoo, botanical gardens, and several museums, including the Anthropology Museum mentioned above. People come here to run and exercise, as I did. I loved the vibe of this park and came here whenever I could.
There are always activities to do here, such as paddle boating, experiencing the Audiorama sound bath, and biking on your own or with a bike tour. On weekends, the vendors come, selling street food, snacks, and souvenirs.
Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City, is a popular tourist location in Centro Historico. I went inside the beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral and walked by Templo Mayor. I heard Palacio de Bellas Artes is worth visiting, but I didn't spend too much time in this neighborhood because I found it too touristy and crowded.
Day Trips from Mexico City
Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city, is 30 miles outside of Mexico City. Its origins are still a mystery; tour guides can theorize, but no one really knows who built the pyramids. You can get there by Uber/taxi, bus, or with a tour group (Airbnb Experiences and Trip Advisor have options).
Taking day trips to small towns outside of Mexico City is easy to do via the country's extensive bus lines. These buses are much nicer and cleaner than what we have in North America. The first-class buses are a comfortable experience, and you can book tickets ahead of time online, or you can buy them at one of the bus stations.
Tepotzlan, Taxco, and other "pueblos magicos" (Magic Towns as deemed by the Mexican government for their "magical" qualities), would make great day trips, but you might want to stay in those towns overnight.
While I did not have time to visit the markets, I heard Medellín Market and Sonora Market are interesting. Just watch out for pickpockets.
If you're ever searching for more things to do in CDMX, Airbnb Experiences always has plenty of ideas for group activities. They're usually hosted by knowledgeable and passionate locals. Trip Advisor also has countless options.
Continue reading about my trip to Central America with my travel guide to Taxco, Mexico and my travel memoir on Costa Rica.
Do you have any other recommendations for Mexico City? Let us know in the comments below.