If you are like we were, you may be reluctant to select Mexico City as a travel destination because of it’s reputation of being a big, dirty, crowded and dangerous place that is best avoided. Not true!!
Ok, it is true that it’s a large metropolis with a massive population and sadly there are pockets of extreme poverty and crime but that is far from the whole picture. After all the same can be said of many popular cities in the world. It is their nature to have a dark and seedy side but with research, common sense, normal precautions and of course our guide to Mexico City you are no more likely to get into trouble here than in any other large urban area. In fact in our opinion Mexico City has so much to offer it should make any must see list.
We had traveled around the diverse country of Mexico for seven months prior visiting the capitol city. From the west coast’s Puerto Vallarta to the Spanish influenced Merida, the architectural mecca of Gaudelajara and on to the Caribbean jewel Playa del Carmen we felt safe and welcome everywhere we went. Mexico City was no different. We can honestly say that during our seven days in Mexico DF (or simply Mexico as the locals call it) there was not one moment that we didn’t enjoy or where we felt unsafe.
Rather than be overwhelmed by the noise, pollution and crime as we had been warned, we instead fell in love. This historic capitol city of over twenty million people is filled with elaborate architecture, abundant cultural activities, beautiful parks and boulevards and cuisine to satisfy any foodie.
There really is so much to see and do that even though we were there for seven days we could have easily filled seven more. If you don’t have that luxury you could see the most important sights in 4 days but honestly anything less than that would barely be a tease. As there is so much to see it really is necessary to do some research ahead of time. The following guide to Mexico City is based on our own experience and will give you a good start.
When To Go
Mexico City is a great tourist destination any time of year. They have pleasant temperatures year round and it rarely gets too hot or too cold although the winter nights can get a bit chilly and require a jacket. Rainy season is June-October which also brings the warmer temperatures. It’s good to have light raincoat and/or umbrella but it usually rains in the late afternoon leaving the mornings dry and sunny. Nov-May brings the dry season and of course more sun which is nice but the downside is that the lack of rain can increase pollution. October-December can be especially nice as the rainy season has just come to an end and left everything green and the pollution issues haven’t really kicked in. We went in May and it was mild but unseasonably wet and a little cool at night. It didn’t bother us though as there is enough to do both indoors and out so it’s easy to work around the weather.
Where To Stay
There are good options all over the city with everything from budget hostels to luxury hotels and they have a great transit system which makes it easy to get around. However our first choice, and that of many people we asked, would be the areas of Zona Rosa, Roma and Condesa as they are very safe and clean and have an amazing selection of trendy restaurants, bars and shops. Zona Rosa offers the most hotels whereas Roma and Condesa are more residential so you’ll more likely be staying in a private residence such as an Airbnb. They are all within walking distance or a short taxi ride from each other and from the Metro.
We found a room with a private bath through Airbnb in a great building in the heart of Roma Norte for about $40. per night. If you’ve never used Airbnb before you should check it out and if you use this link you will get a $20 credit for you first stay. It’s a fabulous resource for booking accommodations in private homes. You will find everything here from a simple bedroom in the owner’s home to a private house or apartment. Either way you will usually have the use of a kitchen and many other conveniences that you won’t get with a hotel including advice from a local. We used it all over Mexico and Europe, it’s our favorite way to stay.
Most of the hostels are clustered around Colonio Centro. We didn’t get a chance to check out many hostels but the one’s below looked good from a quick inspection. Our go to sites for booking hostels are Hostelworld and Hotels Combined.
You can find every style and budget in Mexico City so it can take a bit of research. We stayed at an Airbnb so can’t recommend on personal experience but we’ve listed options in three price categories below based on places we looked walked through while there. If you want to search further we recommend using Hotels Combined because they will search several booking sites and give you the best pricing.
Hotel Plaza Revolucion is a newer hotel on a quiet street but very centrally located. It’s just four blocks from Plaza de la Republica and close to Paseo de la Reforma and Revolucion metro station. The rooms are modern and comfortable with lovely wood floors and the big selling features for us would be the gym and free wifi.
In the heart of the trendy Roma-Condesa district the Stanza Hotel would be a top choice for us. The area is a mix of residential buildings, restaurants, bars and boutique shopping but it is still quick and easy to get to the historic center and other tourist sites. This is the neighborhood we stayed in and we would definitely go back.
If you’ve only got a few days and want to spend your time at the sites of historic downtown Mexico City the Historico Central Hotel is a great choice. It’s walking distance to Zocalo, Plaza de la Constitucion, Palacio Nacional, Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico and Banamex Cultural Palace Museum and the reasonable price includes breakfast, wifi and gym.
There is an abundance of taxis in the city but be careful when using them as there are cases of overcharging and even robbery by taxi drivers. Always try to use the taxi ranks (sitios) and at the airport or bus depot always use the pre-paid taxis. If you don’t use a taxi rank or pre-paid taxi it’s best not to travel alone and always make sure there’s a meter running or set a price ahead of time. Turismo taxis will generally be waiting in front of hotels and almost always charge much more than they should.
Public transit is very efficient and ranges from city buses and collectivos (smaller and faster than the bus but a bit more in cost) to the fabulous modern Metro and Tren Ligero. You can purchase individual tickets or transit cards that you can top up at the handy ticket machines. The Metro is very convenient but can be really busy especially at peak times. Many stations do offer a special boarding area for women and children.
Yes I said bicycle in Mexico City. Not for the faint of heart but we rode in the quieter areas of Zona Roma and Condesa and had no problem. They have a wonderful system for renting bikes in the city and you can find them all over the place. You can go to one of the manned booths or you can purchase a card and pick up and drop off bikes from the stands that are scattered around. It’s amazingly convenient. We used Ecobici but I believe there may be more than one company.
Turisbus is a hop on and off bus tour with several routes and many stops all over the city. We like to do these tours on our first day to get our bearings or if we only have a couple of days and want a speedy tour of everything that we don’t have time to see in detail. Just make sure you study the different routes and times because a day pass allows you to do more than one route.
What To Do
It’s unlikely that you will be able to see and do everything unless you’re staying for several weeks so we have listed our favorite must see sights. We have by no means covered even half of what this amazing city has to offer and have barely touched on the more than 150 museums but if you just have a few days this list will give you a good taste.
The Zocalo (Plaza de la Constitucion)
*Allow at least one full day, more if you wish to visit all of the interiors.
The Zocalo is one of the largest city squares in the world and is surrounded by many of the main sights to see in Mexico City;
Cathedral Metroplolitano which is the largest church in Latin America. Open daily 7:30am-7:30pm free admission
- Segrario Metropolitano is a beautiful Baroque church. Open daily 7:30am-7:30pm free
Palacio Nacional houses famous Diego Rivera murals. Open daily 9am-4:30pm free
The Ayuntamiento houses government administration offices inside but the exterior is definitely worthy of photos.
Nacional Monte de Piedad is the National Pawn Shop with a multitude of amazing artwork and jewelry Open Mon-Fri 8:30-6:00.
Templo Mayor and the excavation site of several ancient Aztec temples built one on top of the other. Also a very good museum on site. Included in the admission price. Open Tues-Sat 9am-5pm
- Gran Hotel lobby with its stunning Tiffany stained glass dome, cage elevators and intricate ironwork.
*If you venture further out from the square and wander the streets you will come across smaller squares such as Santo Domingo and Plaza de Loreto and other museums and churches as well as fabulous architecture, shopping and restaurants. For details on all of the surrounding sites you can pick up a map at the turismo office.
Transit: Metro Zocalo or Turibus
Best days to go: You can view most of the sites around Zocalo any day of the week but many of the museums are closed on Monday. Try to be in the square at about 6pm for the lowering of the flag.
*Allow a bare minimum of half a day just to wander through the park and enjoy the green areas, gardens, monuments and stands. Add on more time if visiting the museums.
About 1000 acres of park land with numerous paved pathways winding through green lawns, trees, lakes, statues, and museums.
Museo Anthropologia is known as one of the world’s greatest museums. Open Tues-Sun 9am-7pm $60 pesos but free on Sun.
*Update December, 2015: price increase to 64 pesos
- Museo Nacional de Historia is house in a castle built in 1785. Open Tues-Sun 9am-5pm $60 pesos but free on Sun.
The Zoo was a really pleasant surprise for us as it was quite big and nicely maintained and was absolutely free!
There are four small lakes in the park where you can rent paddle boats for a small fee.
Plenty of stands all through out the park selling everything you can imagine…food, drinks, sweets, toys, souvenirs…you could spend half a day just browsing the stands.
Transit: Chapultepec Metro. We also used the bikes mentioned above to take a ride through the park. Take note that there are bike stands at the entrances but not inside the park itself so you will not be able to go into the zoo or museums etc until you return the bikes.
Best days to go: Sunday is the day that all the locals go to the park. This means it is very busy but also very fun and vibrant so it depends what you like.
Zona Rosa, Roma and Condesa
TIP: You can enjoy these areas in the evenings if your days are already full with museums and churches.
Zona Rosa is just south of Reforma and east of Chapultepec Park. It doesn’t have much in the way of sightseeing but it is chock full of restaurants, bars, shops and hotels so it’s a great place to go in the evening for dinner and drinks or just a stroll to people watch.
Roma and Condesa are south of Zona Rosa and are more residential with lovely leafy streets and boulevards lined with Art Deco buildings housing homes, offices and art galleries and dotted with peaceful parks. The parks and art galleries make it a nice place to stroll during the day but in the evening Condesa comes alive with some of the best restaurants and trendy bars in the city. The safe, walkable streets filled with lively people, delicious food and a variety of entertainment make it our first choice for staying while in Mexico City.
Transit: Metro Insurgentes, Sevilla or Chapultepec
San Angel & Coyoacan
San Angel is an upmarket colonial suburb just outside the city with beautiful homes, restaurants and little cafes to sit and people watch. Definitely try to go on a Saturday for Bazaar Sabado, the market at Plaza San Jacinto.
Coyoacan is another colonial township that can be reached on foot from San Angel by way of a really pretty hour long walk. Here you will find wide, tree lined cobblestone streets with a much less touristy feel than San Angel. The weekends are especially good when the plazas are alive with music, artists and students.
*There are also many museums in these areas including the Museo Frida Kahlo.
Transit: Tren Legaro
Best days to go: Definitely on the weekend and especially Saturday fro San Angel.
Xochimilco (UNESCO site)
Although Xochimilco is known as the floating gardens it’s not the gardens that float but colorful boats (lanchas) which take you through miles of canals bordered by homes, flowers shops and green space while smaller boats navigate around the lanchas selling food, drink and flowers. It is a long standing tradition for Mexican families and groups of friends to get together on a Sunday and spend the day on these vibrant boats eating, drinking and singing along with floating Mariachi. The boats are there every day and if you want a peaceful boat ride then go during the week. However if you want to experience a true noisy and colorful Mexican tradition definitely go on the weekend as we did. It’s absolute chaos on Sundays but it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
*The cost of the boats is the same regardless of the amount of people so if you’re just a couple or solo do as we did and try to partner up with another couple or group.
Transit: Tren legaro
Best days to go: Weekends for a true traditional experience or weekdays for a quiet boat ride
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Built in 1901 in the style of Art Nouveau the white marble clad Palacio de Bellas Artes has a magnificent Art Deco interior which you can view for free in the foyer at any time. To see more of the stunning interior you can visit the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Transit: Metro Bellas Artes
Best days to go: You can view the foyer any day. The museum is open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm and admittance is $40 pesos but is free on Sunday
We really hope we’ve convinced you to add Mexico City to your must visit list. It is a spectacular city that in our opinion rivals many top name cities in the world for its abundance of exciting sights and sounds. Oh and the food! It’s a foodie’s dream!
If you have been, or plan to go, to this amazing capitol city we’d love to hear your stories and if you know of anyone going please share our Guide to Mexico City!