When I told people where I planned to go on vacation last month, the general reaction was confused and curious: “But why Mexico City?” As a Baltimore native, I know a thing or two about how a city's reputation can overtake the on-the-ground reality, so here's my extensive pitch for a truly wonderful place...
Let's start with the global common denominator: food. Mexico City (AKA Ciudad de Mexico, or CDMX) is home to an epic culinary scene. At every price point: the food is really good, and I have only scratched the surface. The best and worst thing about this city is that no matter the length of your trip, you’ll never hit every good spot. Just throw some darts at the map and go for it...
Reserve Weeks Ahead:
Lunch or dinner, there is nothing like this approach to "Mexican" cuisine. And in the meantime, catch Enrique Olvera on Netflix's Chef's Table Season 2.
Polanco • $$$$
The entirely locally-sourced menu changes daily to showcase the creativity of Chef Eduardo Lalo García (who worked at Le Bernardin) and wife Gabriela. As with every 5-star restaurant, the tasting menu seems to be the play here...
Roma Norte • $$$
A Mexican coworker calls this lovely seafood spot her favorite eatery in the entire city, and was upset I couldn't make it there. (My travel buddy refuses to eat seafood.) It's on the top of my list for next time!
Roma Norte • $$$
Easier to find a seat:
Also an Eduardo Lalo García brainchild, cafe-style Lalo is best for breakfast or lunch. You'll sit at one long table with fellow eaters, and the menu is full of light fare like pizzas and ceviches.
Roma Norte • $$
Easily one of the best meals we had in CDMX, the food is light and fresh and feels like something new. We indulged in salads, which can be hit or miss in other spots. A few mishaps on the menu: the "kabob" isn't a kabob, but you know what? It was really damn delicious anyway.
La Condesa • $$$
For tacos. All of the tacos.
Hipódromo • $
A perfect spot to recover from the crowds down the street at Frida Kahlo's house, the tacos are delightful, as is the seared tuna for a light lunch. There's usually a wait, but the place is large and the line moves fast. Great for kids, too.
Coyoacán • $$$
Touristy? Yes. But sometimes you gotta just do it for the tableside aerial view of the Aztec Templo Mayor. Luckily the food is just as good—I had killer enmoladas (enchiladas topped with mole.) Enter the elevator via the ground floor bookstore to head up to a rooftop café and restaurant. (Lunch starts at 1pm in most places, by the way.) We were early and ravenous, so enjoyed beers and guacamole on the café side before heading to lunch.
Centro Histórico • $$
Since 1935, this churrería has served up fried delights and hot chocolate to boot. Now with multiple locations throughout CDMX, it's hard to miss thanks to their slick blue and white branding, which Instagram just loves.
Bakeries in CDMX are something truly special. There is no wrong choice here, and it's a great go-to for an early morning coffee and carb loading.
When it comes to menu browsing in CDMX, generally I Googled words I didn't recognize. (My Spanish minor hasn't held up as well as I'd have liked, but I wanted the practice!) The other option is to ask for an English menu, which a few restaurants may have on hand, especially the more upscale spots used to catering to foreign visitors. Stating the obvious here: don't let a little thing like a language barrier get in the way of a good meal...
You can imagine the cultural layer cake we’re dealing with here: an entire Spanish colonial city on top of temples, homes, and caches of artifacts. There’s a round temple in the middle of a subway station. There’s a cathedral next to the excavated remains of the Templo Mayor. And there’s everything (architecturally, culturally, culinarily) that came after it, including renowned artists and architects like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Luis Barragán, whose work is influenced by this magnificent ancient heritage. It’s Rome in our hemisphere.
In the City:
Until 1978, when a utility company discovered a monolith carving while laying cables, this one city block was simply known as the "Island of Dogs," since it sat higher than the rest of the city and strays would hole up there to escape flooding streets during storms. After the government gave permission for demolition of the buildings, they uncovered 6 phases of Aztec temple construction and caches of artifacts, now fully explorable by the likes of you and me. There's a wonderful museum attached to the precinct (included in admission.)
Centro Histórico • 70 pesos ($3.50) admission
Oh, you thought this was over. Nope, there's more. Can't forget about the museums, of which there are hundreds. No pressure to narrow it down whatsoever...
Ask about fees to take photos. It's usual double the modest ticket price.
The shared home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Make online reservations for an early time slot. You’ll still wait in line, but be much better off.
Coyoacán • 200 pesos ($10) admission
Too much or just enough? I figured I'd go whole hog on this guide if only to remember it for myself for a future trip. Finally, some last notes...
(Clearly) this city is huge, which makes visiting every hot spot a logistical challenge. Plan your day by neighborhood, because like New York, each is distinct in character, culture and architecture. If you have time, I’d recommend getting to know each target area instead of rushing from landmark to landmark. Then again, that’s my strategy in any city... (You'll see the neighborhood name noted at the bottom right of my recommendations.) Best for first day post-travel close-proximity tourist things: Centro Histórico. Favorite to walk around: Coyoacán. Favorite for food: Roma Norte.
I didn't give this much thought since I'm usually a realist when it comes to adventure—if you're there to see a city, you don't end up spending much time at the hotel... We stayed at the Hampton Inn, which is in a former monastery in a great location in Centro Histórico. The rates were too good to pass up, and aesthetically it was a step up from your usual airport hotel with tiled walls, a beautiful façade and a rooftop terrace (with bell tower) to boot. My friend Kelley stayed down the street at Downtown Hotel when she was there, and she loved it (Azul Histórico is also there, which I found underwhelming food-wise, though it's beautiful.)
After stalking Instagram a bit, some other suggestions: Alex and her husband stayed at Casa Nuevo Leon, and Ana stayed at Hotel Condesa DF. And of course, there's always AirBNB for that independent feeling. I think next time, I'd like to stay in Condesa, which is quieter than "midtown" Centro Histórico.
Cons to consider:
CDMX sits in a dip in the middle of a ring of volcanoes so there are a couple of potential issues that come with that...
- Variable air quality. On windless and rainless days, air gets trapped and it’s incredibly muggy and the air pollution is extreme. If you have serious asthma issues, this is something to consider before visiting.
- Altitude. At 7,320 feet above sea level, it’s possible (although not very common) to feel ill. It all depends on your susceptibility. I felt nothing until we went to Teotihuacan, where it took me longer than usual to catch my breath while climbing the pyramids. That’s about it. For those affected, it takes 2-3 days to get acclimated, and the general advice here is to proceed slowly and drink lots of water. Many guides recommend spending the first day in Centro Histórico, where landmarks and restaurants are close together and easily walkable.
- Earthquakes. Let’s be honest, San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Hawaii, etc. face the same relative risk. But as you know there were bad earthquakes last year, and the damage is still visible throughout the city, especially in Coyoacán and Roma Norte. Just watch your step. And for the truly paranoid, there’s an app you can download to stay updated. Otherwise, live your life.
And finally, entitled American tourist comment here: very few signs in museums and landmarks are available in both Spanish and English. They’re working on it, but bring your translation apps or (and you should do this anyway) brush up on your español before going nuts.
On questions of safety:
The number one question I get about this city is: “do you feel safe?” Yes, absolutely. (Do I regularly wander the streets at 1am? No. But I wouldn’t do that in New York either.) We used Ubers to get around (which are super, SUPER cheap, by the way.) But we also rode the subway and light rail to the end of the line in Xochimilco and had zero issues. Frankly, the New York subway is more hostile and certainly far less clean. There are buskers and people trying to sell you things, but the rides were peaceful (albeit crowded.)
Throughout my 5 days there, I found everyone I encountered to be exceptionally kind and accommodating—patient with my broken Spanish and beyond hospitable. Everyone just seemed happy...all the time. I never saw anyone crying or yelling on the street at their family members or friends, which is a bizarre change of pace from New York City.
I came away from my trip feeling both happily tired (and very full), but also rather frustrated… The ancient civilizations of Mexico rival the Persians, Greeks, Chinese and Romans in technological development, architectural sophistication, and scientific contributions, and yet this wonderful country and its people have become the continuous butt of jokes of our country (and the President.) Stating the obvious here: they deserve so much better, and they certainly deserve our respect for their beautiful country and its impactful history.
Long, long story short: I really I cannot recommend introducing yourself to this city more. Will it put you outside your comfort zone? Maybe. But your Mexican hosts will do everything possible to bring ease and kindness to your journey there. If you do please tag me so I can live vicariously!