I can’t claim to know Mexico City well—a single 8-day visit does not fully reveal the intricacies of a large city—but I can suggest some starting points for your own first time in this city. For reference, Gail and I were in Mexico City from October 31 to November 8, 2018.
The Elephant in the Room
To start, let’s address the first thought that usually comes to mind when discussing Mexico City: isn’t it dangerous?
In a word, no. Gail and I never felt unsafe. We used the Metro. We walked the streets extensively, both day and night. As always in a big city, we were cautious but not afraid to venture off the tourist path.
As of February, 2019, the Government of Canada’s Travel Advice and Advisories suggests that, in Mexico (a very big country, by the way), travellers should “exercise a high degree of caution”. That sounds scary, but it is risk level two in a four level scale. And Mexico is in good company. United Kingdom and France also fall into the “exercise a high degree of caution” category. If you feel comfortable going to London or Paris, then Mexico City should not be considered any less safe.
Of course, Mexico City is no different from any other large cosmopolitan city. Travel smart. Do not display expensive jewelry or exotic fashion. Be aware of your surroundings. And secure your valuables—money and credit cards, for example. We used money belts and PacSafe backpacks (reviewed here).
Frankly, our biggest safety concerns were not crime-related.
Vehicles would regularly run red lights and stop signs, often with police officers standing right there, with no intention of flagging down the driver. As a pedestrian, you learn to be both aggressive and cautious when crossing streets. Caution was also needed while walking the sidewalks; we would often run into paving heaved by tree routes and drainage grates that have sunk well into the sidewalks.
The Metro is a safe, quick and inexpensive way to get around the city. A ticket costs 5 pesos, about 34 cents Canadian. Just be aware that it can get very busy and you might find yourself crammed into a packed subway car.
We also used taxis. Sitio and Uber taxis are typically recommended for safety reasons. We generally used Uber. Their app allowed us to plug in our destination, track our route and prepay our fare, avoiding any language issues or misunderstandings. And it’s cheap! $3-5 Canadian.
Gail and I took a Sitio taxi from Mexico City International Airport (AICM) to our hotel and an Uber taxi back to the airport at the end of our stay (about $10 Canadian with tip). It is possible to take the Metro from the airport to town but it could be difficult maneuvering even the most compact carry-on luggage on a potentially crowded Metro car.
The problem with taxis is that Mexico City traffic can be horrendous. Allow plenty of time to get to your destination.
Where to Stay
Gail and I stayed at the City Express Ciudad de México Alameda. You won’t find any traditional charm here. It’s a basic, modern hotel with nicely fitted rooms, comfortable beds and a reasonable buffet breakfast included in the price, which worked out to be $100 Canadian per night including all taxes.
More importantly, it is well situated in the Centro area. The Palacio de Bellas Artes is a 10-minute walk away and the Zócalo is a further 10-minutes down the pedestrianized Av. Fransisco Madero. Within a few blocks of the hotel are many restaurants including Churreria El Moro, famous for its churros and chocolate, and Tacos El Huequito, the place for tacos al pastor. Just across the street from the hotel is the Museo de Arte Popular with an excellent gift shop offering quality Mexican crafts. For fans of Alfonso Cuarón’s movie Roma, the atmospheric Metropolitan Theatre is just around the corner. It is here that Cleo told her not-so-wonderful boyfriend, Fermín, she was pregnant. And just past that is the Juarez Metro station, which we used on a daily basis.
It is often recommended that first-timers stay in the Centro area and that return visitors consider the quieter, upscale Condessa neighbourhood. Condessa is, indeed, a pleasant area with its own wide assortment of restaurants. But it is less central and trips to the Historic Centre and Zócalo will require a Metro or taxi ride or a very long walk. I would likely consider returning to the City Express for our next visit. I guess that’s an endorsement!
Mobil Phones and Data Plans
I would strongly recommend picking up a SIM card at the Mexico City International Airport. Telcel has a store on the departure level (ask for directions at an information booth). I purchased an Amigo Sin Límite plan with 3 GB data and unlimited phone/text for a mere $27 Canadian. Just make sure your phone is unlocked. In Canada, new phones purchased as part of a telecom package are, by law, automatically unlocked as of December 2017. Phones purchased prior to that can be unlocked through your service provider at no charge.
Things To Do
Here are some additional thoughts:
Consider a visit during Day of the Dead festivities. My enthusiasm for the event should be obvious from my blog posts.
Consider taking a street food tour. This is a great way to experience foods that you may be hesitant to try on your own. I can recommend Eat Mexico—we took their Mercado Jamaica/Day of the Dead tour—and México Underground. The latter held a special evening tour to Xoximilco with dinner on a boat and a Day of the Dead cemetery tour.
Lucha Libre. As much spectacle as sport, this is a must-see and Arena Mexico is the place for this surreal experience. Tickets range from 60-250 pesos. We were in the cheap nose bleed upper level, but still had a good view of the wild goings-on below. There are plenty of tour companies that will escort you for the evening but, for us, it was a quick 20-minute walk from City Express hotel. For a detailed guide to experiencing Lucha Libre, check out luchablog.
La Casa Azul. If you plan to visit Frida Kahlo’s house—and you should—purchase your tickets online, about a week or so in advance. Otherwise, you will likely be stuck in a long line twisting around the block.
Casa Luis Barragán. This is a must for architecture buffs, although almost anyone would enjoy the serenity of Luis Barragán’s early modern residence. But you need to order tickets online, well in advance. Two months prior is none to soon
Eating and Drinking
Street food is an essential activity. It is hard to pass by the many sidewalk food stalls, each offering something too tempting to ignore. Use common sense and head for stands that have a good customer turnover and avoid water-based and water-washed foods.
Of course, there are many fine restaurants. Here are a few that offer good, well-prepared Mexican dishes in an atmospheric setting: Cafe de Tacuba, Restaurante El Cardinal and Azul Histórico. All can be found between the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Zócalo.
For the foodie with a healthy food budget, Pujol is the place to go for a world-class dining experience. Their take on Mexican street food and mole are two of the plates that made our dinner there memorable. The six-course tasting menu will set you back about 2000 pesos, or $140 Canadian. We reserved a table online, two months in advance, and there was only one day during our stay that was still available. Reserve early if you plan to partake.