With a population of over 21 million people, Mexico City is a densely packed metropolis with Indigenous origins dating back to the 1300s, when it was called Tenochtitlan.
This beautiful yet chaotic city is my hometown. After a lifetime spent here, CDMX (as it's often referred to) still surprises me with its sense of community and how locals – known as chilangos – own and enjoy public spaces such as parks and plazas. People-watching is a thing here, and just going out for the sake of walking around and having a late-night snack is a form of social entertainment.
In recent years, Mexico City has become a sought-after destination for travelers seeking to indulge in Mexico's rich culinary heritage, admire the city's stunning architecture, or stroll around the central and most picturesque neighborhoods such as Roma, Polanco, Juárez and Condesa.
Yet, throughout my years as a travel writer and fixer in Mexico, I still hear questions that reflect particular misconceptions about the city. So, here are some answers to help you plan your trip to Mexico City and feel more confident and at ease before boarding the plane.
1. What should I pack for Mexico City?
Mexico City is privileged in the weather department since it enjoys a consistent temperature averaging the low 20°Cs most of the year. Summer is considered the rainy season. It will likely rain during the evening from late June until mid-October, either a massive 20-minute downpour or just a sprinkle here and there, but rest assured: it will rain.
Pack a light, waterproof jacket, but skip the umbrella. If you get caught in the rain, street vendors sell umbrellas for 60 pesos on average. Pack comfortable shoes since you might do lots of walking as you explore the city. Bring a button-down shirt or a summery or casual dress if visiting high-end restaurants. Chilangos tend to be dressier and chic when going out.
2. Some restaurants and museums should be booked months in advance
The Mexico City dining and bar scene is lively and includes some of the best restaurants in North America, and the world. You should book lunch or dinner reservations in advance if you have Pujol or Quintonil on your list of places to eat.
If traveling to Mexico City with friends or family, it's also worth booking lunch and dinner reservations in advance because it will be harder for sought-after restaurants and bars to accommodate walk-ins of large parties.
February to early May and September to December are usually the busiest months to visit Mexico City, so plan around that if you prefer to avoid crowds.
3. How long should I stay?
Plan a four- to five-day trip to have enough time to explore the city's most popular neighborhoods and attractions. If you wish to visit Teotihuacan – an archaeological site located 39km northeast of Mexico City – or Xochimilco's Cuemanco ecological area in the southern part of the city, set aside an entire morning for each activity since it can take around 1.5 hours to reach each destination coming from the central areas of the city.
The National Museum of Archaeology and the Chapultepec Castle deserve at least four or five hours of your time. Allow a full day to walk around Centro Histórico (Mexico City's downtown area), visiting sites such as Bellas Artes, the Diego Rivera murals, Catedral Metropolitana and Templo Mayor.
Give yourself some time to experience Mexico City's pace of life. It can be hectic but quiet enough to enjoy a coffee or a cocktail and unwind.
4. How much should I tip and when?
Mexico City is a predominantly working-class city, and there is a lot of economic disparity in the service and hospitality industry. Consider a 15% tip as the standard and even 20% based on the full tab at restaurants, bars and coffee shops or the amount paid for booking experiences and services.
Service staff at restaurants and bars will ask if you wish to add a tip before swiping your card. On the other hand, if you decide to take a tour or hire a city guide, tip with cash, preferably in pesos.
Tipping an Uber driver is not common, but if you hire a personal chauffeur throughout your trip, tipping will be expected. If you visit a supermarket and someone assists you in packing your groceries, tip 10 to 15 pesos.
5. Mexico City is not cheap
Several international travelers and remote workers have been called out on social media for posting: "Mexico City is so cheap!". If you earn USD, Euros or GBP, you will find that your income or travel budget goes further in Mexico City than, for example, New York, San Francisco, or London.
However, Mexico City is not cheap for Mexicans, and the cost of living has risen considerably for locals in the last five years, especially in housing costs due to short-term rentals and Airbnb. Chilangos are generally welcoming and hospitable, but comments from tourists about the lower relative costs in the city are unlikely to be appreciated.
6. Mexican street food is delicious, but not very accommodating
Unfortunately, strict veganism or vegetarianism, gluten intolerance, severe allergies or other religious or cultural-related food restrictions will be hard to accommodate in most places, especially when visiting street food stands.
Taco stands or quesadilla vendors might cook vegetarian dishes with lard or near animal proteins; some mole and salsas could have peanuts or other nuts. Most local markets have sections where traditional butchery is on full display. If you're a meat-eater, be open to the idea and exercise a degree of flexibility. You might end up trying delicious Mexican food.
When visiting a taco stand, locals might warn you about the spiciness of the salsas, and it might be a bit more spicy than what you are used to. In Spanish, picante means spicy.
Mexican eateries – fondas – cook mostly from scratch and always have a vegetarian dish on the daily menu. Corn tortillas are everywhere in Mexico City, so you will be good to go if your restriction is gluten.
Nowadays, most restaurants are mindful of food restrictions and allergies and might make suggestions based on their current menu. But expect them to keep a dish the same, accommodating your request in the best way possible.
7. How safe is the water?
A good rule of thumb is that you can brush your teeth, but do not swallow any water. Depending on the city borough, the quality and sanitation of the tap water might change.
Consequently, Mexico City residents drink only filtered or bottled water. Since 2014, Mexico City restaurants have been required by local authorities to serve filtered water to consumers at no extra cost.
Any ice used to prepare drinks, aguas frescas (fruity beverages) and cocktails is made with filtered water. Coffee shops and juice stands prepare beverages with filtered water as well.
8. What about crime? Is Mexico City safe?
The answer to this question really depends on where you are coming from. Strolling around central neighborhoods like Roma, Polanco, Coyoacán or Condesa is way safer than walking, for example, in certain areas of cities such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, Phoenix, LA, Washington DC or Chicago. In recent years, Mexico City's government has increased security patrols in most areas, and overall, the city is safe.
As in any major city, be aware of your surroundings and always be mindful of your belongings. Watch out for petty crime and pickpocketing in tourist areas. If you end up in a crowded place like a soccer stadium, a concert or a music festival, keep your valuables close to you. Leave any flashy jewelry or watches at the hotel.
If taking public transportation like the Metro (as the subway system is called) or buses, be aware of pickpockets. Stay away from regular taxis and opt for Uber instead.
There are, for sure, neighborhoods in Mexico City where even residents advise caution, so always refer to local intel if you are planning to explore the outer areas of the city. If an area feels edgy and unsafe, staying away is best.
9. Don't drink alcohol in the streets and avoid weed
In 2009, the Mexican government adopted legislation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal and immediate use. However, it's best to avoid consuming any type of drugs in Mexico to avoid the legal gray matter.
10. Stay hydrated to help with the altitude
Mexico City sits in a valley in the high Mexican central plateau with an elevation of 2240m. You might notice you are more tired than usual after a day or two of arrival. Drink enough water and stay hydrated at all times. You might also experience that alcohol hits you faster here, and it is all because of the high elevation.
Luckily, you can find bottles of electrolytes in every OXXO or 7-11 store. Locals call them electrolitos, and once you recognize the bottles, you will catch them everywhere. Electrolitos come in different flavors: coco, lime, strawberry etc, and are great for curing a hangover.
11. There’s a chance of earthquakes
Mexico City experiences earthquakes occasionally, and the city and its residents are prepared to handle the situation. Mexico has a sophisticated seismic alarm system that gives up to a 60-second warning before an earthquake hits the city.
If you hear the alarm, stay calm, don't run, and follow the locals' lead to a safe place to see the earthquake through. Hotels, restaurants, government buildings, apartment buildings, offices and schools follow a safety protocol.
Mexico City schedules earthquake drills once a year to reinforce first responders' safety measures and allow residents to practice earthquake safety protocols. If you happen to be in Mexico City during an earthquake, staying calm is the most crucial step to staying safe.