Mexico City Travel Guide
By and large, people have the wrong idea about Mexico City. To many the name alone summons two words: crime and pollution. No doubt there are areas to be avoided, but the Distrito Federal is packed to the gills with decent people who will usually look out for one another, and for you.
Pollution summons visions of unwalkable, megahighway-filled cities jammed with cars, which this is not. The smog is real: the Aztecs built their city of Tenochtitlan in a high (7,347 feet) valley that often waits days for the air to move. But there are more than 6 million cars in the city, less than three for every 10 of 22-million-something inhabitants (reports vary). Truth is, those living in the capital do so more sustainably than most people in the industrialized world, at high—yet comfortable—densities (though not in high-rises), and move mostly by foot and public transit. (If you are tempted to drive this Gordian knot of merged villages, well, we would recommend that you not.)
Most of Mexico City is aligned on two major intersecting thoroughfares: Paseo de la Reforma and Avenida Insurgentes—at 34 km (21 mi), the longest avenue in the city. Administratively, Mexico City is divided into 16 delegaciones (districts) and about 400 colonias (neighborhoods), many with street names fitting a given theme, such as rivers, philosophers, or revolutionary heroes. The same street can change names as it goes through different colonias. So, most street addresses include their colonia (abbreviated as Col.) Unless you’re going to a landmark, it’s important to tell your taxi driver the name of the colonia and, whenever possible, the cross street.
Mexico City Sights
Mexico City’s principal sights fall into three areas. Allow a full day to cover each thoroughly, although you could race through them in four or five hours apiece. You can generally cover the first area—the Zócalo and Alameda Central—on foot. Getting around Zona Rosa, Bosque de Chapultepec, and Colonia Condesa may require a taxi ride or two (though the Chapultepec metro stop is conveniently close to the park and museums), as will Coyoacán and San Angel in southern Mexico City.
Mexico City Restaurant Reviews
Mexico City has been a culinary capital ever since the time of Moctezuma. Chronicles tell of the extravagant banquets prepared for the Aztec emperor with more than 300 different dishes served. Today’s Mexico City is a gastronomic melting pot, with some 15,000 restaurants. You’ll find everything from taco stands on the streets to simple, family-style eateries and elite restaurants. The number and range of international restaurants is growing and diversifying, particularly in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods like Polanco, San Angel, La Condesa, La Roma, Lomas de Chapultepec, and Del Valle. Argentine, Spanish, and Italian are the most dominant international cuisines; however you’ll also find a fair share of Japanese, Korean, Arabic, and French restaurants. Mexico City restaurants open 7-11 AM for breakfast (el desayuno) and 1-6 for lunch (la comida)—although it’s rare for Mexicans to eat lunch before 2 and you’re likely to feel lonely if you arrive at a popular restaurant before then. Lunch is an institution in this country, often lasting two hours, and until nightfall on Sunday. Consequently, the evening meal (la cena) may often be really light, consisting of sweet bread and coffee, traditional tamales and atole at home, or tacos and appetizers in a restaurant.
When dining, most locals start out at 9 PM for dinner; restaurants stay open until 11:30 during the week and later on weekends. Many restaurants are open only for lunch on Sunday. At deluxe restaurants dress is generally formal (jacket at least), and reservations are recommended; see reviews for details. If you’re short on time, you can always head to American-style coffee shops or recognizable fast-food chains all over the city that serve the tired but reliable fare of burgers, fried chicken, and pizza. If it’s local flavor you’re after, go with tacos or the Mexico City fast-food staple, the torta (a giant sandwich stacked with the ingredients of your choice for about $2). Eating on the street is part of the daily experience for those on the go, and surprising as it may seem, many people argue that it’s some of the best food in the city. Still, even locals can’t avoid the occasional stomach illness, so dig in at your own risk.
Also cheap and less of a bacterial hazard are the popular fondas (small restaurants). At lunchtime fondas are always packed, as they serve a reasonably priced four-course meal, known as the comida corrida, which typically includes soup of the day, rice or pasta, an entrée, and dessert. Asian cuisine is still limited here, but you’ll find some decent Japanese, Korean, and Chinese restaurants. There are few vegetarian restaurants, but you’ll have no trouble finding nonmeat dishes wherever you grab a bite. Vegetarians and vegans, however, will have a more difficult time, as many dishes are often prepared using lard.
Colonia Polanco, the upscale neighborhood on the edge of the Bosque de Chapultepec, has some of the best and most expensive dining (and lodging) in the city. Zona Rosa restaurants get filled quickly on Saturday night, especially on Saturdays coinciding with most people’s paydays: the 1st and 15th of each month. The same is true of San Angel, whereas the Condesa and Roma neighborhoods buzz with a younger crowd Thursday to Saturday.
Mexico City Hotel Reviews
Although the city is huge and spread out, most hotels are clustered in a few neighborhoods. Colonia Polanco has a generous handful of business-oriented hotels; these tend to be familiar major chains. The Zona Rosa has plenty of big, contemporary properties; it’s handy to have restaurants and other services right outside the door. The pleasant tourist areas of La Roma, Coyoacán, and San Angel are still poorly furnished with accommodations, but La Condesa is a growing hot spot for notable hotels.
Business travelers tend to fill up deluxe hotels during the week; some major hotels discount their weekend rates. Many smaller properties have taken the cue and give similarly reduced rates as well. If you reserve through the toll-free reservation numbers, you may find rates as much as 50% off during special promotions.
Mexico City Nightlife
Night is the key word. People generally take in dinner and a show at 9 or 10 PM, head to bars or nightclubs at midnight, then find a spot for a nightcap or tacos somewhere around 3 AM. (Cantinas are the exception; people start hitting them in the late afternoon and most close by 11 PM.) One way to do this if you don’t speak Spanish is on a guided tour. Gray Line (55/5583-5533. www.grayline.com) organizes nightlife tours to the mariachi plaza (Plaza Garibaldi) and the Zócalo, complete with an English-speaking guide and a complimentary drink. The outings are cheaper if you have a group of 10 or more people; you should make reservations 12 hours in advance. If you set off on your own you should have no trouble getting around if money is no object, take official hotel taxis or call a sitio (stationed) taxi (55/5514-7861).
Condesa, Roma, Centro Histórico, Coyoacán, and Polanco stand out as Mexico City’s hippest neighborhoods. If you’re looking to do some barhopping and want to foot it, you can do so in La Condesa. The Zona Rosa has lost ground to Condesa and Polanco in the past few years, but it’s still packed on Friday and Saturday nights, and everything is within walking distance. Niza, Florencia, Londres, and Hamburgo streets are teeming with bars and discos.
Where It’s At
The most popular neighborhoods for barhopping are Condesa, Roma, Centro Histórico, Coyoacán, Polanco, and Zona Rosa. Drink prices fluctuate wildly according to area and establishment.
Mexico City Shopping
The most concentrated shopping area is in the Zona Rosa, which is chock-full of boutiques, jewelry stores, leather-goods shops, antiques stores, and art galleries.
Polanco, a choice residential neighborhood along the northeast perimeter of Bosque de Chapultepec, has blossomed into a more upscale shopping area. Select shops line the huge, ultramodern Plaza Polanco (Jaime Balmes 11, Col. Polanco, 11560). You can also head to the Plaza Masarik (Av. Presidente Masarik and Anatole France, Col. Polanco, 11560). Plaza Moliere (Moliere between Calles Horacio and Homero, Col. Polanco, 06000) is another upscale shopping area. Reforma 222 (Reforma 222 at Havre, Zona Rosa, 11560) is a brand-new shopping center with an attached apartment building. At the time of this writing, it only has a few department stores that are in other parts of the city, as well as fast-food restaurants. Several stalls and storefronts are still vacant.
La Condesa, though better known for restaurants and cafés, is sprouting designer boutiques, primarily for a younger crowd. Jewelers, shoe shops, and hip housewares stores are squeezing in as well. Most cluster along avenidas Michoacán, Vicente Suárez, and Tamaulipas.
Hundreds of shops with more modest trappings and better prices are spread along the length of Avenida Insurgentes and Avenida Juárez.