There’s a fantastic Metropolis a few hours’ flight away on a plane, for often not much more than a domestic flight. Have you visited Mexico City or is there something holding you back?
Most U.S. and Canadian travelers—even experienced ones—know less about the largest city in our hemisphere than they know about half the capital cities in Europe or Asia. Mexico City is an amazingly unknown entity for a city packed with so many superlatives and terrific things to see. You can have a great 48 hours there or you could have a fantastic one-week vacation in Mexico City.
Judging from the comments I hear all the time from those who should know better though, it seems most people’s perceptions are still stuck in the early 90s.
Today’s Mexico City
In short, Mexico City is a far cleaner, safer, and more interesting place than it was 20 or 30 years ago. While the crime in the worst parts of the city is still high—just as it is in Washington D.C., it has dropped to lower than our capital’s in the central core where you’re likely to be as a tourist.
I’ve been to the city five times since my first visit in 2009. And every time I go back I see more improvements. Major ones. When I talk to expats who live there, especially the ones who have been there for a long time, they feel like they’re living in the most dynamic, interesting place in the world, with incredible potential to keep getting better. It’s a far different narrative than you hear in many other capital cities like Madrid, D.C., London, or Manila.
I dare any hipster from Brooklyn or Portland to stroll through the Condesa and Roma neighborhoods and not be impressed with the diversity of bars, restaurants, and cool shops. I can’t imagine even the snobbiest art snob not finding something interesting in the 175 or so museums (reportedly the most in the world) and the dozens of top-end galleries. If you’re a tourist, start with the Museum of Popular Art, where you’ll see cool things like this.
You could easily spend an entire day in the Anthropology Museum, where you’ll see things like this.
You could walk along the streets and stumble upon something like this:
And yes, those are share bikes the locals use—set up long before NYC did it. They also have those glowing electric scooters you can get around on if you’re into that.
Downtown Mexico now has a hotel called just that, run by the ultra-hip Grupo Habita, a company that had the balls to put an upscale hotel and a hostel in the same building, sharing the same pool and bar. One floor is filled with shops that are chic and fun while still being very Mexican and the richest man in the world has been buying up old buildings nearby and restoring them to their former glory. The historic center has gone from a place the moneyed crowd avoided the first time I was in the sinking city to a place with very expensive condos and retail spaces now filled with international chain stores (for better or worse).
One time when I was there a festival of lights was going on. There were installations like this one, doing a light show on the Palacio de Bellas Artes. There were tens of thousands of locals downtown checking out the installations.
And then there’s the cuisine. Ask any well-traveled foodie where the best places to eat in the Americas are and after rattling off a few cities in the USA and maybe Canada, the next ones to come rolling off the tongue will inevitably be Lima and…Mexico City. The top-50 restaurants in the world lists usually have a few entries from Mexico City, but if you’re on a $50 a day budget you’ll eat really well too. It’s great from top to bottom.
And about that pollution? Sure, it’s a city of some 20 million if you count the outlying areas, but Delhi or Shanghai it is not. The city has taken huge steps to reduce pollution and it’s a blue sky place much of the time now. The last couple times I’ve been, I could see the mountains that are some 25 miles in the distance. Now, unless there are wildfires nearby or something else out of the ordinary, the air is clearer when you fly in that in it in Los Angeles.
Travel Prices in Mexico City
One of the best reasons to come to Mexico’s capital city is that it’s one of the great urban bargains of the world. First of all, it won’t cost you much to get there if you’re coming from the USA. You frequently see round-trip flights for $300 or less. Check Skyscanner for prices from multiple airports.
The hotel rates are some of the best big-city ones in this hemisphere. You can find a double room for $20 or less fairly easily or a hostel bed for around $7 on Booking.com. Sure, it can be pricey at the Mexico City luxury hotels, like almost anywhere in the world, but once you get past the top 10 or 15 places, a very nice hotel will be less than an airport Hampton Inn somewhere in the Midwest. You can find a range of 4-star hotels for under $100 a night and 3-star ones for under $65. Click that Booking link for the whole range.
Most of the museums and attractions in Mexico City are a screaming bargain. One of the greatest wonders of the world is just outside of the city—the pyramids of Teotihuacan—and getting on an organized tour to there will cost you less than just the admission price at Angkor Wat or Petra.
When you visit a museum here, even when it’s one of the best of its kind in the world, the admission price will usually be less than $10, sometimes just a couple bucks…or nothing. We went to a major photography exhibit the other day in the historic center and it was free. In this amazing building:
Food in Mexico City is one of the best values in the world at the low end. You can stuff yourself on great street food for a few dollars or get a full multi-course meal of the day at a sit-down place for less than you pay for a fatty fast food lunch at home.
Plus if you get tired of Mexican food, this is the best place in the country to get anything else from around the world. Fresh-squeezed juice for a dollar, two-buck beers, and tequila/mezcal that’s less than half the price of home are also easy on the wallet.
If the Mexico City metro can take you where you’re going, it’ll cost you a few coins and it’s fast. We’ve been taking a lot of Uber rides on this trip though because of where we were located and trips of several miles have been $2.75 t0 $6. The taxi from the airport to a hotel in Roma Norte was $11.50.
In case you can’t tell, I really like this city. I’ve written more articles about it than probably anywhere, for Global Traveler, an airline magazine, trade publications, and hotel blogs. One of the world’s great capital cities is on your doorstep. And it’s cheaper than Paducah or Boise. Just go already!
It can be a little overwhelming though, so I recommend this book on La Roma if you’ll be in that area or this opinionated guide to the city. Both are from people who have written for me elsewhere and live there full-time.