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Mexico City: Insider’s Guide

by Zachary Rabinor | July 9, 2018
Trusted Travel Expert
Zachary Rabinor

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. The New York City native lives in Puerto Vallarta with his wife and two young sons but spends about a quarter of the year traveling all over Mexico 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.

Prices start at $300 per day for a hotel-only booking, or $800 per day for boutique 4-star accommodations and private daily excursions.

Covid safety protocols I’ve put in place

I helped design the World Travel and Tourism Council’s global protocols for trip operators. My private guides and drivers undergo temperature checks and wear masks; travelers can also request that their drivers and guides are Covid-tested. I can arrange expedited arrival service at the airport, though travelers must claim their own bags. I visited Mexico City in November 2020 and recommend staying either in a private apartment or in a room on a lower floor—so you can avoid the elevator—at the Four Seasons, which has an open-air central patio. All restaurants are operating at reduced capacity and must keep diners physically distanced. To give travelers flexibility when making their plans, I am waiving nonrefundable deposits whenever possible and allowing travelers to postpone up to 14 days before their trip.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Four Seasons Mexico City on a weekend (when prices are significantly lower). It offers top-notch service right on Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s main thoroughfare, and it’s especially great for families: Children under 18 can share their parents’ room at no extra charge and enjoy kid’s amenities such as child-sized bathrobes, complimentary children’s toiletries, and special menus in the restaurants. The terrace pool and childcare services are also family favorites.

Restaurants 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.

Located in Roma Norte, one of Mexico City’s trendiest neighborhoods, La Docena Oyster Bar offers the best seafood in the city and a relaxed atmosphere for a friendly rendezvous or casual business dining. Make sure you try the octopus, the clams, and—of course—the oysters.

Must-have dish
Pozole at Pozoleria Poctzinin, in the Algarin area. Pozole is a Mexican stew that dates to pre-Columbian times, made with whole hominy kernels, chicken, pork, chilies and seasonings topped with slices of fresh avocado and radish. Add some lime to top it off!

Mexico City is known as the taco capital of the world for a reason. Find the nearest taco stand and try pastor, carnitas, and skirt-steak tacos. (How to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge? Go to a stand that’s busy, and if they don’t have running water, make sure they’re using plate liners and disposable cutlery.)

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.

Chef Jorge Vallejo has crafted every item on the menu at Quintonil to incorporate both a contemporary twist on Mexican food and the highest standards of sustainability. Crab, duck, lamb, guajolote (Mexican turkey), and pre-Columbian dishes grace the menu.

Palacio de Bellas Artes or Palace of Fine Arts, a famous theater,museum and music venue in Mexico City

The Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of the city’s most impressive buildings. Photo: Shutterstock

What to See and Do

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, 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 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.

Head underneath the Metropolitan Cathedral in the old city center to explore the former priests’ crypts (open from Thursday to Sunday). Climb up the bell tower to see the giant bells that are still rung by hand daily; take in the beautiful rooftop view as they resonate around you.

Mexico City, Mexico - August 26, 2016: Museum Soumaya at night in the with over 66,000 works from 30 centuries of art is located in Nuevo Polanco.

Museo Soumaya is one of CDMX’s world-class art museums and architectural gems. Photo: Shutterstock

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.

 

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.

aerial view of Chapultepec Park and the Chapultepec castle in Mexico City, with green trees in foreground and city on the horizon

Mexico City has many beautiful green parks, including the giant 1,700-acre Bosque de Chapultepec right in the city center. Photo: Shutterstock

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, the zoo, and Los Pinos, the presidential palace.

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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

A wonderful trip...

Charlie Myers | July 30, 2020

Other highlights...

Kathryn Barden | March 3, 2020

We loved...

Linda Green | February 3, 2020
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