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Mexico City Travel Guide

Mexico City Summary

Pros

  • Massive and cosmopolitan city -- one of the largest in the world
  • Atmospheric and vibrant historic center with shopping, nightclubs, and cafes
  • Rich culinary tradition is a blend of high-end dining and tasty street food
  • Claims to have more museums than any city in the world
  • Well-established arts scene from major international fairs to DIY spaces
  • Efficient and clean metro system makes getting around easy
  • Gorgeous parks include Bosque de Chapultepec and Parque de Mexico
  • Hyper-trendy, boutique-packed neighborhoods like Roma and Condesa
  • Cost of eating and drinking is low for North American and European travelers
  • Buzzing daily and weekly markets
  • Home to the largest cathedral in the Americas
  • Taxis and ride-hailing apps are cheap even for long distances
  • Free Wi-Fi available in many parks and public areas

Cons

  • Sprawling layout means it's less than walkable (sidewalks are also a disaster)
  • Some neighborhoods aren't safe for tourists
  • Air pollution can be an issue, as are water shortages
  • The distance between metro stations is often vast

What It's Like:

Mexico City is the stuff of legends. However, for decades, it was one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets. You see, while travelers overlooked the nation's capital and headed straight for the country’s coast instead, it became a lively cultural behemoth that rivals any world capital. Times have changed, though, and these days the city is one of Mexico's hottest destinations. It is chaotic? Yes. Are there neighborhoods you should avoid? Certainly. Pollution? A bit. But if you look past the upheaved sidewalks and eye-watering traffic, you'll find almost too much to explore in just one visit -- and plenty of surprises as well.

Maybe it's the atmospheric colonial charm, the leafy parks, or the amazing culinary traditions that make Mexico City so alluring -- or maybe Mexico City's powers go back further in time. After all, before the Spanish invaded and razed everything in sight, this was the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Even today, the ruins of Templo Mayor can be seen in the historic Centro, hearkening back to this city's mighty history. With a population that has increased 4,000 percent since in just over a century, there's an undeniable draw to this place. And its perpetually spring-like weather doesn't hurt, either.

Sprawled across nearly 600 square miles, the city is home to more than 20 million inhabitants, making it the most populous city in Mexico, the second-largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the largest cities in the world. Given its size, the city also manages to feel decidedly untouristy (though there's still more than enough to keep a traveler busy for a week or two). The Centro -- the oldest and best-preserved part of the city -- is home to the vast Zocalo, gorgeous Palacio de Bellas Artes, and the Catedral Metropolitana (the largest cathedral in the Americas). Meanwhile, super-hip colonias like Roma and Condesa lure trendy, young crowds, thanks to their cafes, cool galleries, and quirky shops. For a look at how Mexico's wealthiest live, head to Polanco, with its luxury hotels, designer boutiques, and swanky nightclubs. 

Mexico City also has more than 150 museums -- the highest number of any city in the world. Museo Soumaya, which displays masterpieces by Dali, Rodin, and Monet for free, is a must-visit, as is Museo Jumex, which holds one of the largest private contemporary art collections in Latin America. This is to say nothing of the Frida Kahlo Museum (also known as Casa Azul), which was once home to Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera. It's also worth checking out the stunning collections at the National Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Modern Art. Not enough culture? Then time a trip during Mexico City's major international art fair, Zona Maco, which runs concurrently with underground art events like Material Art Fair and Salon Acme.

In addition to its buzzing art scene and photogenic colonial architecture, the metropolis has also earned a reputation for its superb cuisine. Visitors can find everything from delectable street food like tacos, tlacoyos, and tamales to casual markets stalls slinging horchata and sopes (the market in Coyoacan is certainly worth a stop). However, some of the most famous dining institutions on the planet have cropped up here in the last two decades, including Quintonil, which made The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016. This variety is also evident in the city’s crop of hotels, which range from boutique to ultra-luxe. 

While Mexico still gets a bad rap in some of the press north of the border -- and everything from violence to indigenous rights and government corruption are major issues here -- the city remains a relatively safe and secure destination. In any case, with a little everyday street smarts, a trip here is bound to give you several years' worth of stories. Take it from us: After your first visit, you'll be figuring out a way to get back here in no time at all.

Where To Stay:

While this city is vast in the extreme, the area where most tourists will be searching for hotels is fairly compact. Travelers seeking out big, high-rise hotels with tons of amenities should look along Paseo de la Reforma, a broad and leafy avenue that's lined with skyscrapers, lots of international retailers, and big-name hotels like the opulent St. Regis Mexico City or the Sheraton Mexico City Maria Isabela. For those who don't want to stumble far to their hotel after a night out, the Zona Rosa -- the LGBT heart of the city -- and Juarez both have a number of more intimate hotels. 

Polanco is the spot for those who want to rub shoulders with Mexico City's elite. Massive high-end malls, posh designer shops, and some of the city's most exclusive restaurants, bars, and nightclubs line its streets. The ever-stylish Las Alcobas Mexico DF is a design-lover's paradise, and is right in the middle of the neighborhood. For proximity to the city's hip-and-trendy goings on, stay in Roma Norte. For an equally on-the-radar -- but quieter -- neighborhood, Condesa is a dream. Quaint cafes and bars are tucked in between bespoke shops, and the colonia is flanked by beautiful parks. We love The Red Tree House for an authentically charming stay.

Of course, if you only have a few days in town and plan on focusing mostly on historic sights, it's worth staying in the Centro. By day, its streets buzz with life, though at night certain roads feel a little deserted and you should guard your pockets. Even so, for travelers who find them reassuring, police are almost omnipresent in the city. The Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico is one of the Centro's classic gems, with Old-World style and a luxurious finish. 

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