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Mexico City: Insider’s Guide

Zachary Rabinor | November 3, 2014

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Mexico: Zachary Rabinor of Journey Mexico.

Trusted Travel Expert
Zachary Rabinor

A guide in Latin America for more than two decades, Zach founded Journey Mexico in 2003. The New York City native lives in Puerto Vallarta and spends about a quarter of the year traveling around Mexico—from its well-known resort locales to its hidden corners—testing out the country’s wide array of hotels, activities, restaurants, and sites. His deep relationships with local guides, communities, and hoteliers often translate into room upgrades, special-access visits, and off-the-beaten-path experiences that travelers wouldn’t know about otherwise. He prides himself on finding new and exciting ways to visit even the most touristy and crowded locales. Zach was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.

Travel arrangements start at $600 per day for two travelers. This is the minimum you should expect to pay.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
St. Regis Mexico City on a weekend (when prices are significantly lower). It has top-notch service right on Reforma, the city’s main thoroughfare, and it’s especially great for families, thanks to the kids program (in-room glamping!), indoor pool, and childcare services.

Restaurant the locals love
La Coyoacana. This cantina-style eatery in the cobblestoned bohemian neighborhood of Coyoacan has a lively outdoor terrace and bar and, on weekends, live music. Order the barbacoa de olla, a dish of marinated spiced beef that is slow-cooked underground in banana leaves and served with warm corn tortillas.

Must-have dish
Pozole at Poctzin. Pozole is a Mexican stew that dates to pre-Columbian times, made with whole hominy kernels, chicken, pork, chilies, and seasonings, and topped with slices of fresh avocado and radish.

Meal worth the splurge
The eight-course tasting menu at Pujol takes you on a culinary voyage through Mexico with famed chef Enrique Olvera’s contemporary recreations of classic dishes. More than mere sustenance, it is art.

What to See and Do

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City

The Palacio de Bellas Artes as seen from the terrace café at the Sears Building. Photo courtesy Journey Mexico.

Don’t miss
Desierto de los Leones, a former convent in Mexico’s first national park and a complete breath of fresh air inside the world’s third biggest city. The complex is remarkable for its pristine flower-filled courtyards and gardens, and it is eerily tranquil inside the monastery. Nearby is the Zapata Museum, a collection of memorabilia from the Mexican Revolution. Outside the convent are food stands and restaurants offering tasty traditional food at very reasonable prices. Try the handmade blue-corn tortillas filled with huitlacoche (corn mushrooms) or flor de calabaza (squash blossoms).

A jewel of a museum right in the historic center, Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico was once the palace of a conquistador’s descendants and now reveals everyday life in a noble family’s home during the colonization of New Spain. Other exhibits in the permanent collection focus on the different cultures that contributed to the building of Mexico City, from the Aztecs to the Spaniards to twentieth-century artists and architects; the ever-changing temporary exhibits tend to skew more contemporary.

Don’t bother
The Shrine of Guadalupe. While this basilica to Mexico’s most beloved saint is notable for its devoted followers, if you’re looking for impressive architecture and ornate decoration there are better options, such as the Templo de la Profesa or the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Cheap thrill
Mercado de San Juan: The San Juan market is full of colors, flavors, and aromas, and you’ll find vendors selling everything from exotic fruit to flowers to rabbits—all perfectly organized. Pick up an inexpensive snack of delicious cheeses from the states of Queretaro and Oaxaca, accompanied by hams, chorizo sausage, and more.

hot air balloon over Teotihuacan CR Journey Mexico

A balloon ride over Teotihuacan, home to some of the region’s most impressive pyramids.

Bragging rights
Take a hot-air balloon ride over Teotihuacan, a pre-Columbian city and UNESCO World Heritage Site with some of the region’s most impressive pyramids, and then visit the ruins with the lead archeologist, who can get you into areas that are normally off-limits to visitors.

How to spend a Sunday
Stroll the neighborhood of Coyoacan, with its colorful colonial homes, cafés, shops, markets, and cobblestone streets. On Sundays, families and couples meet in the main square, and later head off to enjoy lengthy lunches from 2 to 5 p.m. This is a great opportunity to try La Coyoacana (see “Restaurant the locals love”), or get some of the city’s most famous street tacos at El Chupacabras, under the highway near Metro Coyoacan.

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Best Times to Go

Mexico City is a year-round destination. That said, it behooves leisure travelers to visit over a weekend. Most hotels are full of business travelers during the week and typically offer lower rates from Thursday through Sunday.

Other good times to visit depend on your interests and goals. During Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter, and from July to mid-August, locals head to the beach, diminishing the local color; on the plus side, you’ll encounter fewer crowds at main attractions and much less traffic in this famously congested city. The period from late October through early May has the most sun and the least rain—and thus a minimum of cloud-trapped smog.

Worst Times to Go

February and March get the worst smog; the period from June through September is rainy.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

Trying to see too much in one day. This is the third largest city in the world, and traffic is very heavy from 7 to 10:30 a.m. and again from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Take the metro, or plan your driving for well outside of those peak hours.

Not discriminating when it comes to street food. Don’t avoid it all together, but make sure to eat from a place that’s busy with locals, and check that the servers are using plate liners (a plastic bag that covers each reusable plate) and plastic gloves.

Scam Alert

Don’t get in a taxi that isn’t part of an official taxi stand (sitio).  Others don’t have a meter, and you can get ripped off.

Must-Have Apps

Waze monitors traffic and offers alternative routes when it’s heavy (even if you’re not driving yourself, this can help you direct your cabbie).

Yaxi, the Uber of Mexico, sends a (safe) taxi to pick you up via your mobile device’s GPS. Trips can be prepaid via credit card.

Tipping Tip

Follow U.S. standards: Maids get $1 per guest per night, bell boys $1 per bag, waiters 10 percent to 20 precent, depending on service. Don’t tip taxi drivers unless they are handling baggage.

Many luxury hotels add a 10 percent to 15 percent service charge to food and beverage purchases. Look closely at the bill before deciding whether to add anything else.

Airport Intel

Make sure to pay attention to the posted departure times and gates, and go to your gate as soon as it is posted. Even there, don’t get lost in your book or smartphone, as gate changes are common—often occurring unannounced and close to departure time (this is true throughout Mexico). Flights will not wait for you!

Don’t Forget to Pack

Layers. The temperature can change drastically in one day in central Mexico. A morning can start off in the mid-40s, reach the 80s in the afternoon, and then go down into the 50s in the evening.

Instagram Moment

From the terrace of the café at the Sears Building, you get a spectacular view of the Palacio de Bellas Artes—one of the city’s most impressive buildings—along with the Alameda Central park. At night, the Palacio is gorgeously lit.

Perfect Souvenir

Elegant rebozos (traditional Mexican scarves) from renowned designer Piñeda Covalin. Buy one early in the trip so you’re prepared for the city’s chilly mornings and evenings. Or, for something much less expensive, pick up a Lucha Libre mask, worn by many of Mexico’s favorite professional wrestlers, and sold at the Mercado Juarez. The masks have become iconic symbols of Mexican culture.

 

Reviews

Extremely responsive

Leanna Smith | June 7, 2017

I should have realized it

Ginny Simmons | May 4, 2017

The more specific you can be

Katherine Barden | April 21, 2017
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