The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Mexico, Zachary Rabinor of Journey Mexico.
An elite guide in Mexico for more than two decades, Zach learned everything about what sophisticated travelers really want there but can’t easily find, then founded his own travel firm to deliver exactly that. Currently based in New York City, Zach spent many years living in Mexico with his wife and two sons; he still travels there regularly to cement his insider connections and keep up-to-the-minute on the country’s wide array of coastlines, Colonial cities, wildlife reserves, beach resorts, historic haciendas, rental villas, ancient monuments, award-winning kitchens, and thrilling activities (he’s a big surfer). His deep relationships with local hoteliers, communities, and fixers of all kinds 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.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Casa Polanco. This boutique property has fewer than 20 rooms and is ideally located right in the Polanco neighborhood by Lincoln Park, a perfect little oasis in the bustling city. A renovated historic mansion, the hotel seamlessly blends luxury and a sense of place. All rooms are generous in size and the breakfast is not to be missed. Guests are welcome to take out Casa Polanco’s electric bikes to discover the city; don’t miss a cruise around Chapultepec Park or down Paseo de la Reforma on Sundays, when it closes to traffic.
Restaurants the locals love
La Coyoacana. This cantina-style eatery in the cobblestoned, southern neighborhood of Coyoacan has a lively outdoor terrace and bar, plus a daily mariachi band after 4pm. Order the barbacoa de olla, a dish of marinated spiced beef that’s slow-cooked underground in banana leaves and served with warm corn tortillas.
For something more central, Salon Rios is another local favorite with great cantina-style food. After-work happy hour is when things start to liven up, and once the tequila sets in, there’s salsa dancing upstairs!
Located in Roma Norte, one of Mexico City’s trendiest neighborhoods, El Parnita is a great spot for a long and varied taco lunch.
Dishes to try
Mexico City is known for its vibrant street-food culture. Don’t miss trying quesadillas (Mexico City irony: if you want cheese in your quesadilla, you must specify!), elote (grilled corn-on-the-cob smothered in mayo, lime, and chile), and guajalotas (a tamal sandwich with soft “torta” bread rolls). When choosing tacos, be sure to try al pastor, carnitas, or arrachera (skirt-steak). For vegetarians, opt for nopal cactus or poblano chile with a touch of lime. How to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge? Find a stand that’s busy and if they don’t have running water, make sure they’re using plate liners (see “Biggest Rookie Mistakes,” at right).
Meals worth the splurge
Rosetta is a must! Owner Elena Reygadas was honored as World’s Best Female Chef in 2023 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Her seasonal menu is rooted in a respect for and deep understanding of Mexican ingredients, along with the nature it grows within. Reservations are required but if you can’t make it in, pick something up from the bakery and head to the park to enjoy!
What to See and Do
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, which hosts 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 what everyday life was like 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.
The two faces of Xochimilco: One side is the colorful, gondola-like boats called traijneras that cruise down the canals while food vendors, artisans, mariachi and marimba bands float by. The atmosphere is lively and it’s a true Mexican fiesta. The other, lesser-known experience explores Xochimilco´s historic, agricultural side. There’s a different embarkation point, at Cuemanco, where visitors can get an authentic feel for what the chinampas were originally used for by the Aztecs (see “Prime picnic spot,” below). This perspective of Xochimilco is much less commercial, focusing on conservation efforts, eco-agriculture, and the axolotl salamander.
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.
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.
Prime picnic spot
Zach can set up a private lunch with a chef on one of Xochimilco’s chinampas. Known as “floating gardens,” these small plots of land are built on the canals and used to grow crops—a sustainable cultivation technique that dates back to Mesoamerican times. To arrive here, you’ll take a 30-minute ride on a colorful trajinera boat through Xochimilco’s ancient canals. Discover the importance of chinampas as an agricultural heritage system, learn about agroecology and, surrounded by various vegetables, flowers, and herbs, enjoy a delicious lunch with tasty favorites like fresh quesadillas with huitlacoche and pumpkin flowers, as well as pork-shawl gorditas and tlacoyos.
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
Each Sunday the main avenue in the city, Paseo de la Reforma, is closed to vehicles and fills with families and friends enjoying the car-free thoroughfare on bikes. Join the locals for a casual ride, then head into Bosque de Chapultepec, an incredible 1,700 acre park in the city center, to cycle through its tree-lined pathways past museums, a zoo, and Los Pinos, the presidential palace.
Mexico City is a year-round destination; the best time depends 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.
February and March get the worst smog; the period from late June through early September is especially rainy.
Trying to see too much in one day. This is the third largest city in the world, and traffic is very heavy from 7:00 to 10:30 a.m. and again from 6:00 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).
If you don’t have access to Uber (see “Must-have Apps,” below), don’t get in a taxi that isn’t part of an official taxi stand (look for a “sitio”). Others don’t have a meter, and you can get ripped off.
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).
Uber is the quickest and easiest way to get a ride these days in the city. You can easily see the route ahead, and communicate with the driver via chat which auto-translates into your preferred language. Trips can be paid for via credit card or cash.
Follow U.S. standards: Maids get $1 per guest per night, bell boys $1 per bag, waiters 10 percent to 15 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.
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!
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.
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.
Elegant mascadas (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.