Mexico City is a mosaic of ancient civilizations and colorful cultures, home to an electric energy and fueled by the warmth of the Mexican people. It goes without saying that Mexico City is one of my favorite cities in the world, a place that I return to nearly every year. The city feels like home, where the strumming of the mariachis fill the avenidas and the scent of tacos wafts from every street corner. There is a certain vibrance to Mexico City that I adore.
At first glance, this bustling metropolis can feel overwhelming and chaotic, but take it little by little and you’ll undoubtedly fall in love. Once you find your footing in the throes of this massive city of over 20 million people, I reckon it will become one of your favorites as well. Mexico City is among the liveliest and most dynamic cities I’ve ever traveled to. Culture, history, and cuisine intersect in every plaza and calle of Mexico’s capital. Whether your travel style is inspired sightseeing or aimless wandering, Mexico City has an endless repertoire to keep you occupied.
Here is everything you need to know before taking on Mexico’s dazzling and energetic capital city.
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Table of Contents
- Things To Know Before Going to Mexico City
- Getting to Mexico City
- Where To Stay in Mexico City
- How To Get Around Mexico City
- The Best Things To Do in Mexico City
- Nightlife in Mexico City
- More on Mexico
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Things To Know Before Visiting Mexico City
Before heading to Mexico City, here are some basics to get you off on the right foot.
Is Mexico City Safe to Visit?
While Mexico often gets a bad reputation for safety, Mexico City is overall pretty safe to visit. Millions of travelers pass through this city every year but like any big city, will have its share of safety concerns. Exercise your typical caution when visiting, and I don’t think you’ll have any problems. Try to stick to busy streets, especially later at night, and avoid venturing into unfamiliar neighborhoods alone.
Although nothing has happened to me or anyone I know, pickpocketing would be the main concern in Mexico City, especially in crowded areas and public transportation. Don’t leave your belongings unattended, keep your bags zipped up, and you should be okay.
Currency, Cash Withdrawal, and Credit Cards
The currency of Mexico is the Mexican Peso. There are plenty of banks and ATMs throughout the city, so I’d recommend withdrawing cash as the simplest method. There are some money exchanges, but the centrally-located ones typically won’t give you a great rate. Most ATMs will charge a withdrawal fee, which tend to be unavoidable. If you don’t have one yet, I highly recommend getting a debit card that reimburses you for all the ATM fees. Getting a Charles Schwab debit card has been a big money-saver for me.
With Mexico City being a large and modern city, credit cards are commonly accepted throughout. Most restaurants, bars, convenience stores, supermarkets, and attractions will readily accept credit cards without any issue. However, cash will come in handy if you plan on visiting local markets, eating at street food stalls and local joints, and getting around with taxis and public transportation.
Tipping is common in Mexico, so it’s good to have some small bills on hand for that. Usually, a tip between 10-15% is the recommended amount.
Visa Requirements for Entering Mexico
As of writing, visa-free entry to Mexico is available for the countries in green. The countries not in green will have to apply for a visa or electronic authorization before entry.
Upon entering Mexico, you’ll have to go through immigration. They’ll ask you how long you plan on staying and will grant you a visa of that length. The maximum visa-free length is six months. Back in my earlier visits to Mexico, they would just automatically give everyone six months. I don’t know why it feels so random now, but if you plan on staying in Mexico for a while, or have open-ended plans, just tell them that you plan on staying for six months. I’ve had times where I told them I didn’t know how long I was staying and they’d only give me a 30-day visa, so avoid making that mistake.
Do you need to speak Spanish when visiting Mexico? While knowing Spanish will go a long way in Mexico, it is fairly easy to get by with just speaking English. The tourism industry is huge in Mexico City, so there is no shortage of English speakers throughout. Most higher-end restaurants, especially in the Condesa, Roma Norte, and Polanco neighborhoods, will have English menus or English-speaking waiters. Anyone working in the tourism industry will likely speak English, so tour agencies, tour guides, and hotel receptionists will happily help you out with anything you need.
However, speaking Spanish can truly transform your time in Mexico and give you a much more authentic, local experience. Even knowing a little can go a long way in befriending the locals or eating at restaurants or street food stalls you wouldn’t otherwise be confident ordering in. It’s also a good show of respect of showing that you are trying to embrace and immerse yourself in the culture, and the Mexican people will genuinely appreciate the effort.
Travel Insurance for Mexico
Of course, it’s important to have travel insurance whenever you’re off adventuring across the world. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels for as low as $45 a month, and their coverage includes Mexico among the 190+ countries that they cover.
Getting to Mexico City
Mexico City’s International Airport serves both international and domestic flights, including direct flights to and from other continents. For travelers already in Mexico, budget airlines like Volaris or VivaAerobus often have affordable flights and the occasional flight deal. I once found a flash deal where I booked a flight for 1 peso, or a nickel. If you’re on a budget, use Skiplagged to find the cheapest flights possible. Skiplagged is free to use and I’ve saved thousands of dollars on flights since I started using it religiously.
If you prefer to travel overland, practically every major bus company in Mexico services Mexico City. Heck, you can even take buses from the U.S. to Mexico City. There are a few different bus terminals in Mexico City. Most likely, you’ll have to take a taxi or public transportation to get from the terminal to your accommodation, as the major bus terminals are outside of the city center. The terminals are based on direction outside the city, so depending on what region of Mexico you’re coming from, you’ll find yourself at one of the East, West, North, or South terminals.
Some bus companies I’d recommend are ADO/OCC and ETN. Intercity buses in Mexico are pretty nice and fairly comfortable, and I can speak for those two companies that I mentioned. Local buses and colectivos (shared minivans) can also be an option, albeit a little less comfortable. They are cheaper, but don’t have the luggage storage below the bus, so the minivan can get quite crowded with all sorts of things, including live farm animals.
Where To Stay in Mexico City
Mexico City can often feel like a dozen different cities in one. Some neighborhoods are polar opposites to one another. You have the lively hustle and bustle of Centro to the calmer, tree-lined avenues of Condesa. Having a good first impression of Mexico City can come down to where you end up staying.
For first-time visitors to Mexico City looking to immerse themselves into the heart of the city, I would recommend choosing accommodation close to the Zocalo, or Historic Center. This will put you in the midst of the capital’s electric energy, with countless historical and cultural monuments within walking distance.
Casa Pepe is an excellent hostel in this area, with social activities, great dorms, and all the amenities one could hope for from a backpacker hostel. The rooftop is absolutely stunning, and they have a “power hour” deal where you can drink as much as you want for 100 pesos. I’ve also stayed at Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral, which has an unbeatable location just a block away from the bustling main plaza.
Roma Norte is the lively nightlife hub of Mexico City with countless restaurants, bars, and clubs. It is a more upscale neighborhood, so while Mexico City overall might be a budget-friendly destination, Roma Norte can be quite pricy. I’d recommend it for digital nomads and remote workers looking for a good work-life balance and can afford to pay the premium. There are still plenty of affordable street food spots and local joints around the area, but overall, there isn’t too much to warrant staying here if you’re hoping to sightsee.
Wanderlust District Hostel is on the outskirts of Roma Norte, but is still within walking distance to all of the main nightlife and dining areas. It’s close to metro stations and bus stops, making it a great home base for sightseeing and nightlife.
Condesa was the first place I ever stayed in Mexico City, opting to stay for a night during my lengthy layover in Mexico City. It put to rest any negative misconceptions of Mexico City that I had before, and I ended up pushing my flight back so that I could properly explore Mexico City. That was the beginning of my love story with Mexico, and I’ve never looked back.
Anyway, Condesa is a wonderful neighborhood for living, and I’d recommend it for travelers who like to take it slow and don’t prioritize sightseeing. It is quite far from the main destinations of Mexico City, aside from the Chapultepec Forest and the attractions near there. Condesa is even more laid-back than Roma Norte, with the main thoroughfares lined with cafes, vegan restaurants, and artsy boutiques. There’s the occasional bar or speakeasy, but overall, it isn’t as nightlife-oriented as Roma Norte.
Casa Pancha would be my hostel recommendation for the Condesa neighborhood.
Colonia Cuauhtemoc and Juarez
You’ll find these two neighborhoods in between Centro and the Roma Norte/Condesa neighborhoods. They are a perfect in-between for travelers who prefer a calmer alternative to Centro but want to experience a more local side of Mexico City. Staying here will put you in walking distance to many of Mexico City’s attractions, as well as an abundance of public transportation systems to get you everywhere else. This is where most of the luxury hotels of Mexico City are located, so it’s often overlooked by backpackers, but it’s a great one-size-fits-all neighborhood for any traveler.
Other neighborhoods that I haven’t stayed in but could recommend are Polanco and Coyoacan. I’ve visited both, and both are very nice neighborhoods. The only downsides would be that Polanco is very upscale and expensive, and Coyoacan is quite far away from the rest of Mexico City.
How To Get Around Mexico City
Mexico City is huge, and while many parts of it are walkable, it’s easy to wear yourself out without the help of public transportation or taxis.
Public Transportation in Mexico City
Mexico City has an extensive public transportation system, although it can be crowded and unreliable. During rush hours, the metro and buses will be jam-packed. You will feel every bit of Mexico City’s population of 20 million people. Around 5 million people use Mexico City’s public transportation system daily, one of the highest rates of ridership in the world.
Each ride costs 5 pesos. One can purchase single-fare tickets or a metro card for 10 pesos, which can then be recharged with up to 120 pesos. The nice thing about the card is that it can be used for multiple people, so if you’re traveling with a group, you can get one card for the group and save the hassle of everyone buying a single-fare ticket each time you take the metro. The public transportation system is not too difficult to figure out, but with how crowded the metro and buses can get, you might find yourself waiting in long lines and wasting valuable chela time.
I’d recommend using public transportation in Mexico City but being selective of when you use it. Peak hours can be overwhelming and chaotic, and I’ve once spent nearly two hours in a jam-packed bus for a ride that would normally take 15 minutes. Even taxis and ride-hailing services will be hard to come by during peak hours. Traffic jams are the norm in Mexico City. Between 5-7 PM, just avoid getting around the city altogether unless absolutely necessary.
Taxis and Ride-Hailing Apps
One can hail the pink and white taxis off the street, but I typically opt for a ride-hailing service so I know the price right away and can avoid haggling or being scammed. The apps used in Mexico City are Uber, Cabify, and Didi. There isn’t a significant price difference between the three, so if you’re comfortable with using Uber, I’d say it’s not worth it to bother setting up a new account on a new app.
Cycling and Walking
Like many big cities, Mexico City has a bike-sharing program. You’ll find bike racks with city bikes that can be rented at a daily rate of 118 pesos, or at a discounted rate for multiple days. Rides over 45 minutes will have a surcharge, but there aren’t many places in Mexico City that can’t be reached within 45 minutes of cycling. The app you’ll need to download is called Ecobici, and you can check out their pricing and details on their website.
Mexico City is also great for walking. Most central neighborhoods are safe, and main attractions of the Zocalo are within walking distance of one another. Roma Norte, Condesa, and Colonia Cuauhtemoc are lively neighborhoods that are walkable and safe. Mexico City always has pop-up markets and hidden gems that you’ll stumble into, and I think walking is the best way to find many of Mexico City’s best-kept secrets.
Best Things To Do in Mexico City
The activities and attractions of Mexico City are seemingly endless, and no matter how much time I spend in the city, I never find myself bored. Whether your interests lie in culture, cuisine, history, nightlife, shopping, or the outdoors, Mexico City has got something to pique your intrigue. Here’s my full Mexico City bucket list with dozens of recommendations for things to do in the city. However, if I had to pick a handful of favorite things I did in the city, I would choose these for a first-time visitor to Mexico City.
A Boat Ride Through Xochimilco
As tacky and touristy as it gets, Xochimilco is undeniably good fun. Mexico City is built on the ruins of the city and lake of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Empire’s capital. The canals of Xochimilco are the last remnants of those Aztec waterways. These days, Xochimilco is nothing more than an uninhibited good time.
Get some friends together, rent one of these colorful gondolas for 600 pesos per hour, and take on the waterways of Xochimilco. There’ll be hundreds of boats on the canals, from your fellow tourists to alcohol vendors, Mariachi bands, and more. I’ve made the trip several times and it’s always a guaranteed blast.
Visiting Casa Azul and Roaming Through Coyoacan
I can’t usually be bothered to visit people’s historic houses but Frida’s Casa Azul was truly impressive. The Frida Kahlo Museum can be found in Coyoacan. Many of the rooms have been untouched since Frida died, down to the exact angles she left her paintbrushes. It’s a great look into the life of one of the world’s most fascinating humans, from her creative studio to the tranquil gardens. Be sure to get your tickets online beforehand, otherwise you might not be able to get them at the door. While you’re in the area, you can also check out Leon Trotsky’s house about five blocks away, where he spent some time as a Soviet exile (and Frida’s lover) before being assassinated in the same house.
After visiting Frida Kahlo’s house, venture into the neighborhood of Coyoacan. It is one of my favorite areas in Mexico City, maintaining a small-town charm within the big city. Grab a coffee at Cafe El Jarocho and explore the mercados and listen to the mariachis. Some pulpo tostadas at Mercado Coyoacan are an absolute must.
Wandering the Zocalo and its Historical Sites
The historic center of Mexico City, also known as Zocalo, is home to the majority of the city’s colonial monuments and pre-Hispanic ruins. The Zocalo is always lively, with something always going on. It is the beating heart of Mexico City, and an essential for any traveler to experience.
Taking a Day Trip to Teotihuacan Pyramids
The archaeological site of Teotihuacan is one of the best that you’ll find in Mexico. I’d reckon it should have gotten the world wonder nod over the Chichen-Itza. Only an hour from Mexico City, it is a must-do day trip.
Hike Up to the Castillo de Chapultepec and Wander through Chapultepec Forest
Mexico City is home to one of the largest city parks in the world, El Bosque De Chapultepec. This massive 686 hectare forest is an excellent place to wander and surround yourself in greenery. You’ll stumble into art museums, botanical gardens, and street vendors selling anything you can imagine. It’s a great place to spend the day and escape the city life.
While you’re at Chapultepec Park, be sure to make the trip up to Chapultepec Castle. The entry ticket costs about $4. A short hike will take you up to the castle, a beautiful building boasting displays from throughout Mexico’s history. The panoramic views are absolutely stunning, and worth the ticket alone. Be sure to check out the vitrales, a hallway lined with stained-glass windows that was my favorite part of the castle.
Visit the National Anthropology Museum
I’m not much of a museum guy, but Mexico City’s National Anthropology Museum is seriously impressive. I’ve visited multiple times, and had to drag myself away each time. It is far too easy to lose track of time and spend an entire day here. Most people are aware of the Aztecs and the Mayans, but Mexico’s human history goes far deeper than just those two civilizations. This museum is a rabbit hole for those interested in the cultural and anthropological history of Mexico. It is easily one of the most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited, and no matter how often I go, I always find something new to capture my intrigue.
Roam Through the Markets of Mexico City
I’m a big fan of aimlessly wandering through markets, and Mexico City has them in abundance. Experience sensory overload at the sprawling Mercado de la Merced, or visit the endless flea markets of La Lagunilla on a Sunday. Browse through antiques at Colonia Cuauhtemoc’s Bazar de Antiguidades or snack on some insects at Mercado de San Juan. Whether you’re actually in the market to purchase or something or just to embrace the mayhem, market-hopping in Mexico City is a must.
That’s just scratching the surface, but it should be a good starting point for a first visit to Mexico City. For my complete list of things to do in Mexico City, check out my other post here.
Nightlife in Mexico City
Nightlife in Mexico City is scattered throughout the city, but the biggest nightlife hub would be in Roma Norte.
There are countless ways to mix and match a night out in Mexico City, but here is my ideal night out in the city. I’d start the evening at Pulqueria Los Insurgentes, a lively local spot with three levels, including a rooftop terrace where I’ve spent countless hours nursing a michelada or mezcal cocktail. The drinks here are cheap, especially compared to the fancier jaunts of Roma Norte and Condesa. Once the place gets lively and the dance floors on the lower two levels fill up, one can honestly spend their entire night here.
But a bar hop is always a good time. Some other good places to pre-game would be Mercado Roma and La Roma Brewing. Mercado Roma is a big food hall with dozens of stalls serving food and drinks. It’s always reliable if you’ve got a big group so everyone can go up and order whatever they want without worrying about time-consuming bill-splitting and menu browsing. La Roma Brewing is a brewery a block away with great beer and a chill ambiance. I also liked the vibes and drinks at La Clandestina. For a more upscale atmosphere, Madre Cafe, Bar Las Brujas, and Supra Rooftop would be good spots for a few drinks before heading out.
Afterwards, you are spoiled for choice. For salsa and Latin vibes, Mama Rumba is the iconic spot of Roma Norte. The place gets packed with party-goers, and whether you’re there for a boogie or to watch a show, it’s a good time. Neighboring Casa Romma or Kane are fun for a late-night reggaeton sesh. Departamento is a Roma Norte staple with multiple dance floors catering to whatever groove you’re feeling into. A little further down in Condesa is Funk, a techno spot with quality DJs and sound system for some late-night rave vibes.
Afterwards, grab some late night tacos off the street or at Taqueria Orinoco and prepare to nurse that mezcal-infused hangover in the morning.
Oh, and once a week, there is a rave called Sunday Sunday that takes place on a rooftop in the historic city center. Follow @SundaySundayMX to see the weekly lineups and details. It was a lot of fun and usually has a good crowd boogieing away on the two dance floors or taking a breather on the terrace taking in the views.
A good time awaits in Mexico City.
My Complete Mexico Backpacking Itinerary
Also, I’ve finally published my jam-packed Mexico backpacking itinerary, spanning 77 pages and 33 of my favorite travel destinations in Mexico. This ain’t your ordinary itinerary, and it’s guaranteed to make sure you go off the beaten path and experience the best of Mexico. Shop below.
My Complete Mexico Backpacking Itinerary
By popular demand… Here is the complete itinerary for one of my favorite countries in the world, Mexico. In this 77-page guidebook, I cover 30 of my favorite Mexican destinations, including how to get to each city, where to stay, and the best things to do in each city. I also include tidbits of useful information like things to know before going to Mexico, as well as my favorite party destina…
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