Bite-Sized Guide: Mexico City

This Is What You Should Know Before Going to Mexico City

Image Credit: GettyImages

On Tuesday, September 19 at around 1:15 p.m., a 7.1-magnitude earthquake originating in the Mexican state of Puebla rattled Mexico City, with devastating consequences: at least 44 buildings collapsed and nearly 300 people perished.

This earthquake was notable for its destruction, but what stands out more is the incredible resilience of the city's inhabitants. In the minutes, hours, and days after the event, the city rallied together. Government rescue teams and citizen volunteers gathered at the hardest-hit sites to dig survivors out of the rubble; long civilian chains set up to pass hard hats, tools, and water to these workers; and restaurants opened their doors to their communities, supporting the rescue efforts by cooking and serving free food around the clock. While images of the destruction linger, the photos, videos, and memories of the orderly, patient, and determined rescue initiatives shine even brighter.

The city is working overtime to return to normal, and a hugely important part of that effort is tourism. Mexico City's tourism board has declared the city open for business: most hotels, restaurants, attractions, and public transportation are operating as normal and are hungry for visitors.

If you've been entertaining the idea of a visit, the time couldn't be more opportune. Your presence — and your dollars — would be a great boost to the city's recovery.

10 Things to Know Before You Go to Mexico City

1. Volaris is the EasyJet of Mexico.

When it comes to booking your airfare to Benito Juarez, the city's modern, high-traffic international airport, the internet is your best friend. Head to your favorite flight-booking site to secure a seat and keep your eyes peeled for flights on Volaris, Mexico's budget airline. You're sure to get a good price, but don't expect any frills. (And don't forget your passport; although we share a border, the ID is needed for all air travel into Mexico.)

2. The metro is the fastest and cheapest way to get around.

On the "don't believe what you've heard" tip, you can ignore anyone who tells you not to take the metro in Mexico City — the system is fast, safe, and unbelievably extensive. With 12 lines plus connections to above-ground buses (Metrobus) and light trains (Tren Ligero), you can get anywhere you need to go using this system. At five pesos per ride — about 30 cents — it's also one of the world's cheapest fares.

The metro runs from the early morning to midnight daily; if you can, try to avoid morning and evening rush hours, when cars will be packed and your ride a little uncomfortable.

Image Credit: Lauren Rothman

3. The pink-and-white taxis that say "CDMX" are your best bet.

Car traffic in the city tends to be horrendous, and it's generally best to avoid taking taxis during the day. But for late-night travel when the metro is closed, cars are a great option. In busy areas of the city, you can hail government-licensed taxis whose prices are guaranteed to be fair. The cars are pink and white and say "CDMX."

Compared to taxis in most U.S. cities, the rates here are extremely affordable; depending on traffic, expect to pay just a few dollars for a short ride. Uber is also extremely popular and easy to use in Mexico City; fares tend to be slightly lower than those of the official cabs, and drivers usually provide bottled water.

Image Credit: Lauren Rothman

4. There are 2 Mexico City neighborhoods you should know.

Quiet, easily walkable, and located a short metro ride from the city's busting Centro Historico, the adjoining neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa are the city's most popular tourist destinations. Just a 30-minute ride from the airport, both colonias are historically residential areas with handsome older buildings, tree-lined streets, and plenty of lively cafes and restaurants .

Architecture buffs might want to look for housing in Roma Norte, punctuated by early 20th-century former mansions that now house cultural centers, bookstores, and art galleries; this is also where some of the city's best sit-down dining can be found. For a more residential, neighborhood feel, Roma Sur, south of Avenida Coahuila, is a good bet for meeting locals (and not just other tourists).

To the west of Roma lies Condesa, where you'll certainly meet many other tourists. Known as a barrio magico turistico, or magical neighborhood for tourists, it's where a majority of Mexico City visitors chooses to stay and is also home to a good number of expats who have made the permanent move. Packed with bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs, it's a no-brainer choice for visitors interested in nightlife. An important note: Roma and Condesa were among the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the recent earthquake. You'll likely notice collapsed sites that are still being cleared and rebuilt.

5. An Airbnb is the best way to see the city.

When it comes to choosing a room, I wholeheartedly endorse booking an Airbnb. Priced more moderately than the city's (already affordable) hotels and hostels, they're a great way to interact with the city's locals — through your host — and if you choose carefully, you won't have to sacrifice anything in the way of creature comforts. Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $40 per person per night for a budget room, or spring for a whole apartment for not much more ($55 to $75 per night; hosts typically raise prices during the high season of November to March).

If hotel stays are more your bag, Roma Norte's Hotel Stanza and Condesa's Hotel Roosevelt are two solid, reasonably priced options.

6. When it comes to safety, common sense reigns supreme.

Although less so than in the past, your news that you're traveling to Mexico City might very well be greeted with trepidation from family and friends. But be aware that the city's reputation for being dangerous is vastly overblown; domestic cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, and New Haven have higher levels of petty crime than Mexico City.

Touristy areas, busy avenues, public parks, and the metro system all have a police and security guard presence. Like everywhere else, common sense reigns: Don't move about with tons of valuables or large sums of cash, keep an eye on your environment, and try to stick to busy areas if you're roaming about at night.

Likewise, use caution and common sense when navigating any areas of the city still cleaning up from the September earthquake. And wherever you choose to stay, familiarize yourself with the neighborhood's "puntos de reunión": bright green rectangles and circles painted on city sidewalks and adorned with white arrows, they are the safest places to gather in the event of any seismic activity.

Related: Bloggers Share Their Smartest Solo Travel Tips

7. It's best to carry cash and use credit cards for larger purchases.

The exchange rate continues to favor American visitors to Mexico. With a dollar worth about 18 pesos, travel to the city is extraordinarily cheap; if you figure that a loaded taco usually costs around 15 pesos (less than $1), then you have an idea of how easy it is to shop and eat well in Mexico at the moment.

To make the most of your funds, always take out money from an ATM, as they give the best rate. What I typically do is visit the first airport ATM I see after getting off the plane and take out as much money as I feel comfortable carrying; once I arrive at my accommodations, I stash the cash in a safe place and take a little with me every day.

For larger purchases such as sit-down restaurant meals, using credit cards is a good idea — especially if you have one of those travel rewards cards. Be sure to give your bank notice before you travel.

8. Tips are customary, with a few exceptions.

A 10 percent tip on meals and drinks is customary in Mexico, with the exception of street food vendors. Leave the coins on the table or bar just as you do here in the U.S. The cost of the metered taxis is all-inclusive and you do not need to tip.

Image Credit: Lauren Rothman

9. You can eat the street food, but not drink the water.

Food is such an important (and delicious) part of Mexico City's culture that it merits a guide all its own. But I'll mention here that the city is packed with street food vendors and that their creations are often stunningly good; any traveler would be remiss not to try them.

Read more: 5 Mexico City Street Foods You Need to Eat (& Where to Eat Them)

Like many uninformed assertions about Mexico, rumors of food-borne illnesses are often overblown. To play it safe, make sure to frequent food stalls that are packed with people — it's an indication not only that the food tastes good, but that it's also fresh due to high turnover.

One thing travelers in Mexico City do need to take into consideration is drinking water. It's unsafe to drink the tap water, and even residents buy bottled water or invest in a water filtration system. When dining in restaurants, you can request free filtered water by asking for agua de garrafon. I'm fine with drinking iced drinks such as cocktails and fresh fruit juices, but if your stomach is extra sensitive you might want to ask for drinks sin hielo (without ice).

10. It's helpful to learn some useful Spanish phrases before you go.

Besides its absorbing history, vibrant arts scene, and incredible food, Mexico City's real draw is the people who live there. In my experience, citizens are kind, welcoming, and helpful to tourists navigating the city, especially in these post-earthquake days when the city is eager to remain an important travel destination. To truly experience the feel of the place, I recommend learning a few Spanish phrases before you head south to better communicate with the people you'll meet. It'll enrich your trip in ways you might not have anticipated.

Have you been to Mexico City? What's your best advice?