In this guide:
how to get there
see & do
tips & local customs
why I love it
I’d heard that Mexico City was cool, and I’d heard it was dangerous. Without doing any research into those claims, it landed squarely into the sounds-interesting-but-not-a-top-priority slot on our travel wishlist. When we decided to plan a last minute trip with friends this summer, it quickly moved up the list. We wanted something international, but Europe flights were too expensive with just a few weeks notice. Our friends had never traveled in Latin America, and Mexico City was the closest city option (only a 3.5 hour flight from Atlanta). It was a great choice, and I’m here to say that Mexico City is cool and we never felt unsafe.
The sprawling metropolis of over 20 million residents, also known as “CDMX” (Cuidad de México) or “D.F.” (Distrito Federal), is home to some really inspiring art, history, architecture, and food. We saw pre-Aztec pyramids, explored centuries-old places of worship, ate tons of tacos (and tried ants), and strolled through tree-filled city parks. And the best part is that a luxurious trip to the Mexican capital won’t break the bank.
How to get there:
Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport (MEX) gets direct flights from most major US cities, as well as other international destinations in North America, South America, and Europe.
The airport is +/- 45 minutes to city center by car (though it can be a lot longer depending on traffic… a lot longer). I’ve honestly never seen traffic so bad in any city, so plan accordingly.
Uber is a readily available, safe, and economical option. Expect an Uber X to cost in the ballpark of $8-$25 from the airport to your CDMX hotel. Uber XL and Uber Black were both available as well.
We chose the Four Seasons Mexico City for its central location and gorgeous courtyard. It exceeded our expectations in many ways, with great food, superb service, and beautiful accommodations. We loved being just a block from Chapultepec Park, and it was proximate to most of the neighborhoods we wanted to explore. Booking their 3rd Night Free offer made it reasonably priced, especially for one of the nicest hotels in the city (our rate came out to just over $200 per night). You can read more about our stay here.
The St. Regis Mexico City is just a couple blocks down from the Four Seasons, along the Paseo de la Reforma. Rooms are available to book with Marriott (formerly SPG) points, so it’s a good points option. This gleaming glass highrise seemed more well suited for business travelers than for families and groups due to the lack of grounds and common areas. The extra height of the building makes for amazing views from the rooms, indoor pool, and top floor King Cole Bar. The spa is worth a visit regardless of whether or not you’re staying there!
For other options bookable on points, check out the Hyatt Regency Mexico City or the InterContinental Presidente. I didn’t see inside of either property, but these side-by-side hotels are well-located between the upscale Polanco neighborhood and Chapultepec Park.
There are many stylish boutique hotels in the city. While I don’t have any specific recommendations, I would personally stick to the Roma/Roma Norte, La Condesa, and Polanco neighborhoods. The hotels in the historic downtown area (Centro Historico) are probably fine, but I wouldn’t choose to stay there because it’s slammed with tourists during the day and gets a little eerie when it empties out at night.
Breakfast / Coffee
Eno – Part of Chef Enrique Olvera’s (Pujol) empire, this locally-sourced, hip cafe mini-chain is the place to be for brunch on the weekends. There are a few locations from which to choose, but you’ll most likely have to wait in line at any of them. But the wait will be worth it once you get your hands on a concha (a local pastry) or the enchiladas that were so good that we kept talking about them for the whole trip.
Panadería Rosetta – This bakery is the counterpart to the well known Italian-Mexican restaurant Rosetta (more on it in a minute…). Expect traditional pastries like croissants and cinnamon rolls, but also look for breakfast sandwiches with a local flair, like pork shoulder with avocado. (For the record, they made the best ham and cheese croissant I’ve ever had!) There’s very little seating inside, so plan to take your goods to-go unless you don’t mind waiting. There’s a lovely park with a fountain and benches right around the corner from the Roma location.
Chiquitito Café – The name means “tiny,” and this cafe takes it to heart. The space is tiny and cute. And they carefully source coffee from small producers. The cafe also offers breakfast and lunch food to pair with your caffeine.
El Cardenal – This downtown classic has been serving traditional Mexican food since 1969. There are now multiple locations which serve all day, but breakfast is the reason to go. Get their famous hot chocolate (stirred and poured tableside!), pastries, and some enchiladas to start of a day of sightseeing.
Tomàs tea – If you’re like me and favor tea over coffee, here’s a sweet little tea shop for you. A specialist will guide you through the wall of teas, then you can order a cup to drink at one of their bistro tables and/or get a bag of tea to take home for a souvenir/gift.
Taqueria Los Cocuyos – You’ll find this taco spot (really just a window) in the Historic Downtown area, and it’ll probably have a line of hungry people waiting to order. There’s a board with the various options, and you’ll see a large cauldron of meat bubbling away. Order a few, add toppings as you like, and find a spot on the sidewalk to eat your goods. This definitely isn’t a place for someone with dietary limitations, germ phobia, or a weak stomach–all of the meat is cooked together. The chorizo was our favorite, but if you’re feeling adventurous, try something like pig’s head. It’s all super cheap and cash only.
Taqueria El Turix – This tiny Polanco taqueria really just serves one thing–a Yucatan style braised pork taco. Be warned: they’re messy. But it’s totally worth the mess! You can take your plastic-wrapped plate of tacos to one of the few chairs inside or find a bench out on the sidewalk. Cash only.
Mercado Roma – If you’re with a group or you’re just indecisive, having a variety of options at a food hall can come in handy. Mercado Roma is a chic, two-story “market” in the hip Roma neighborhood. Whether you want Asian noodles or chilaquiles, craft beer or fresh pressed juice, ice cream or French macarons, they’ve got you covered.
Pujol – This stylish temple of Mexican gastronomy has received a lot of hype, and it totally lived up to it! The multi-course tasting menu is refined enough to succeed in NYC, yet draws on traditional Mexican ingredients to really give the dishes a sense of place. Every little detail has been thoughtfully executed: from the courtyard entrance to the serving vessels to the bathroom amenities. The service is what you’d expect of a Michelin-starred restaurant, and the food is something to write home about. The 6-ish course menu runs about $100 per person (a very good value in my opinion), drinks are extra. Plan ahead and get reservations at least a month out — even sooner if you want a coveted spot at the bar for the taco omakase. (Also check out their Chef’s Table episode on Netflix!)
Quintonil – For an exploration of Mexican ingredients and techniques in a fine dining setting, look no further than Quintonil. This Polanco restaurant opened in 2012 by Pujol protegee Jorge Vallejo and his wife. It ranks in 2018 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list with Pujol. The same tasting menu is served at lunch and dinner (around $100 per person); our meal was a fascinating education in Mexican flavors and the drink pairings included wine, sake, and mezcal cocktails. Secure reservations at least a few weeks in advance and plan for a long, leisurely meal. The dining room is intimate and the service is polished. (If you must know, I prefered Pujol, but this was still a great experience!)
Rosetta – Italian dishes made with seasonal Mexican ingredients shine at Rosetta, which is housed in a quaint Roma Norte townhouse. You’ll find classics like house-made pastas and risottos on the menu, alongside more inventive dishes like an appetizer salad with roasted beet sorbet. The focaccia and olive oil are stars of the show, which is unsurprising, given the success of the sister bakery (mentioned above). The dining room was one of the most unique I’ve seen–after entering the nearly hidden doorway, the space opens up into a two-story atrium full of exotic plants and unpretentious tables. This gem is definitely worth a trip, especially if you want a break from tacos and enchiladas.
El Moro Churrerìa – Spanish immigrants brought their famous churros to CDMX in 1935, and it’s no surprise that they’re still around (because hello, fried dough and sugar!). There are several locations around the city, but the original space downtown is a sight to see. Watch the staff fry giant spirals of dough, then deftly cut them and dip them in sugar to order. Order some Mexican hot chocolate to wash the churros down, and don’t miss the dipping sauces. Expect a line!
Pan Dulce – This lobby restaurant at the Four Seasons serves as a coffee shop, bakery, and cafe throughout the day. In addition to beautiful pastries, they also have breakfast and lunch items like yogurt parfaits and sandwiches. They also offer espresso drinks and tea for those in need of caffeine. The staff is super friendly and they provide counter service (great for a grab and go breakfast!) as well as table service in the lobby and stunning courtyard.
Fifty Mils – The Four Seasons’ upscale bar features both courtyard seating and interior spaces that look like someone’s gorgeous living room. The craft cocktails are interesting and delicious, and the space–complete with plush couches and a fireplace–is so pleasant to spend time in, regardless of whether or not you’re staying at the hotel.
See & Do:
Bosque de Chapultepec – Chapultepec Park is one of the largest urban parks in the world, covering nearly 1700 acres in the middle of CDMX. The lush grounds include a castle, zoo, botanical garden, lake with paddle boats, and several museums. There are lots of trails for walking, running, or biking that weave through vendors and sculptures alike.
Museo Nacional de Antropología – The National Museum of Anthropology is among the museums within Chapultepec. Archeology and history come together in a magnificent collection ranging from pre-Aztec history to artefacts like the Stone of the sun, an Aztec calendar stone. Closed Mondays.
Teotihuacan – The pyramids of the sun and moon are about an hour outside the city in Teotihuacan. The giant pyramids, along with the smaller pyramids and buildings, have been restored since their 19th and 20th century excavation. In addition to viewing the well-preserved wall paintings, you can climb the massive stone stairs of the pyramids (a killer workout!). These pyramids actually predate the Aztecs by several hundred years, to a civilization that likely began around 100 BC. You can take a bus to Teotihuacan, but I highly recommend a private tour if it’s in your budget (we arranged it through our hotel concierge).
Shrine of the Virgin of Guadeloupe – Often included in tours of Teotihuacan is the site of this shrine, which is an important part of the Catholic faith, especially in Latin America. The story of this symbol played a large role in the adoption of Catholicism in Mexico. Go to this pilgrimage site to see the 16th century Old Basilica and the 1970s New Basilica.
Centro Histórico – Mexico City’s historic downtown would take weeks to fully explore because much of the city’s richest history lies in that area. The Zócalo, or main square, was once a ceremonial site for the Aztecs, but now has the massive Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace (home of some Diego Rivera murals), and other government offices around its plaza.
You can also visit Templo Mayor, a site with the archeological remains of the Aztec empire, just across from the cathedral. A few blocks away is the Museo de los Bellas Artes (Museum of the Fine Arts). I’d also recommend popping into the ornate Palacio Postal post office and the Gran Hotel with its Tiffany stained glass ceiling. There are several other cathedrals and churches in the area that are worth wandering into. Many of the sights in the Centro Histórico are closed on Mondays.
Shopping – I recommend a stop at the Trinitate ceramics shop in Polanco. The locally made ceramics, including dishes, vases, and planters, make high quality souvenirs (if you can fit them in your carry on bag!). Of course, you can find plenty of cheap souvenirs at the multitude of street markets. There are also art galleries all throughout the Polanco and Roma Norte neighborhoods. Even if you don’t want to buy art, it’s fun to see what local artists are producing.
Desierto de Los Leones – This former monastery is technically still within the city limits, but it feels like a world away. Explore the peaceful grounds and chapel, then take a hike up one of the trails. This hilltop forest is a nice break from the bustling city.
Remède Spa at the St. Regis – Take a break from all of that hiking, eating, and sight-seeing for a luxurious spa day at the St. Regis. From the lobby to the changing rooms, the space is beautifully appointed. All treatments include access to the steam rooms and saunas, and some include access to the 15th floor pool overlooking the city (you can also pay for access). Finish your treatment with a glass of champagne and consider yourself revived.
Tips & Local Customs:
Most sit down restaurants accept credit cards and allow you to tip on your card. Food stands and smaller hole-in-the-wall type places are usually cash only.
Generally, a 5-10% tip at sit down restaurants is acceptable. Tax is usually included in the menu prices.
It’s polite to respond to greetings – “buenos días” in the morning, “buenas tardes” in the afternoon, and “buenas noches” in the evening.
“Perdón” (pardon) is helpful when squeezing through crowds.
Traffic is BAD. Like, really bad. (And this is coming from an Atlantan.) If you’re able to walk during rush hours, do it. A drive can literally take longer.
Don’t drink the water. Really.
Why I loved it:
The weather was temperate and the people were warm and friendly. There was more culture, history, and art than you could possibly explore in a week, so we had tons of great options for activities. The food was vibrant and interesting, and we got to try some interesting delicacies (ants! corn mold! pig head!). The parks were lush, the city energetic, and the vibes super cool. And the favorable exchange rate meant that we got to live like kings and queens, but on a reasonable budget.
The city is so much more dynamic than I knew. It really felt like a unique cultural experience in so many ways, and we didn’t even scratch the surface of things to see and do. We loved our time in Mexico City for a lot of reasons that I didn’t anticipate. Don’t underestimate the Mexican capital!
(We traveled as two couples in July 2018.)