A FIRST-TIMER’S GUIDE TO VISITING MEXICO CITY
I’ve had an itch to do a long trip around Mexico for years. Back in 2011, I heard about a few Spanish language schools in Oaxaca and became convinced that that was where I wanted to go. And then I learned about Hierve el Agua, the surfing and mountains along the Pacific coast, the ruins in the Yucatan and, of course, the food– and next thing I knew, I was harboring a full-on fantasy. Backpacking around Mexico for a couple months cemented itself pretty high up on my dream trip list.
So, by the time I landed in Mexico City, I had been thinking about this trip for years. The problem was, I’d fantasized about this trip so much that I was intimidated to actually take it– I didn’t want to go until I had every stop planned out perfectly. But thanks to a last-minute change of plans in Lima, I found myself with two months to spare and just one obligation: get to Cozumel, Mexico by early October. That pretty much settled it– between the cold, grey weather in Lima and my general hankering for sunshine and tacos, I decided to finally take The Trip; I was finally going to solo travel Mexico.
But wait– didn’t I just say I’d wanted to research the sh*t out of this trip first? Yeah, about that….
When I got to Mexico City, it was with exactly zero ideas of what I was going to do, where I was going to go, and how long I was going to stay for. I basically cobbled together an itinerary as I went. Part of the problem: there’s so much to do there! I knew from the start that I’d never get it all in on my first visit, and after spending nearly two weeks there, my list of things to see and do in the capital is longer than it was when I arrived.
So, let’s dive right in. I’ve put together everything I wish I’d known before arriving in Mexico City, from which neighborhoods and museums to visit to what foods to try, where to stay, and how to get around. Scroll on, dear reader! (And you might want to grab something to drink– it’s a long one.)
Backpacking Mexico City: A (Brief) Neighborhood Guide
Look: Mexico City is massive. It’s made up of…well, let’s just say countless neighborhoods, or colonias. (They’re not literally “countless”, but take one look at this Wikipedia page and you’ll catch my meaning.) Those neighborhoods are divvied up between 16 boroughs (delegaciones)– most of which aren’t exactly on the typical tourist’s radar. In fact, of the seven neighborhoods I’ll talk about in this post, three of them fall into one borough– Cuauhtémoc.
Full disclosure: this run-down of Mexico City’s neighborhoods is far from a Lonely Planet guide– I won’t cover all 16 boroughs, let alone all who-knows-how-many neighborhoods. But I will go over where to stay, what to do, and what to skip for those backpacking Mexico City for the first time, from museums and parks to churro shops and taquerías.
Mexico City’s Historic Center (Cuauhtémoc)
Though technically my visit started at a hostel in Roma Norte, I ended up spending one night in the historic center to celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day.
On Independence Day (September 16), the historic center is absolutely nuts. Military parades march through the streets at literally all hours of the night, most of the roads in the area are closed to traffic, and the Zócalo (main square) is filled with touts, families, and yet more military parades. But even on a regular day, there’s quite a lot to see here.
The Zócalo, in the middle of the historic center, is bordered by the National Palace and the Cathedral, to start. From there, it’s just a short walk down Avenida 5 de Mayo to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Alameda Central, the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, and Mexico City’s tiny Chinatown.
Truth be told, I wouldn’t recommend staying in the historic center– although it’s definitely worth a visit. Other neighborhoods offer better entertainment and dining options, not to mention cheaper and nicer hostels– but more on that below.
What to do in Mexico City’s historic center
- See the sights: If you’re comfortable being on your feet for a couple hours, then visiting the Zócalo (main square), Chinatown, and Alameda Central is all doable in one long walk.
- Tour the museums: On either side of Alameda Central, you’ll find the Deigo Rivera Mural Museum and the famous Palacio de Bellas Artes. I wouldn’t consider either “must-sees” for your first visit– but at the very least, it’s worth wandering this area to see the beautiful Palacio from the outside. Palacio: Open Tue-Sun 10-7, Mon 11-7, $60 pesos admission but free on Sundays; Mural Museum: Open Tue-Sun 10-6, $35 pesos.
Roma & Roma Norte (Cuauhtémoc)
Southwest of the city’s Historic Center, Roma Norte and neighboring Roma are known as one of Mexico City’s most touristy areas. But that’s not because their streets are lined with touts and travel offices– it’s thanks to their wealth of international (and veg-friendly) restaurants, not to mention their art galleries, independent stores, coffee shops, and quiet streets. Here, you can find vegan ramen shops and bubble tea just as easily as you can find authentic tacos al pastor.
With the exception of my one night in the historic center, I stayed in Roma Norte during my ten days in Mexico City, and I can’t recommend it more highly. While it’s certainly not the only worthwhile place to stay in this sprawling capital, it is a convenient and comfortable one; I made regular walks from my hostel to nearby Condesa, Hipódromo, Zona Rosa, Chapultepec Park, and even Polanco. It’s quiet, there’s a ton of green space, and the food options are dizzying.
What to do in Roma and Roma Norte
- Go out to eat: There are so many good options! Mercado Roma is famous for its collection of local food stalls, and Lalo! quickly became my go-to for delicious salads, pizzas, and margaritas. For veg-friendly options, try Vegan Pa Ca and Pan Comido.
- Go shopping: The shopping along Avenida Paseo de la Reforma offers something for just about every budget. Looking for boutique shops? Head to quiet Colima Street– it’s lined with them. Even if the shopping isn’t in your budget (or on your bucket list), the stroll is worth it for the tree-lined streets and beautiful architecture.
- Hit the town: Go salsa dancing at Mama Rumba, the hands-down best spot in the area for it. They have live bands on the weekends, and newbies can enjoy a laidback salsa lesson from 9-10 p.m.
Condesa and Hipódromo (Cuauhtémoc)
Condesa, just west of Roma, is unfailingly described as “hip,” “bohemian,” or “trendy”– but let’s just call it popular. This area is about as green as it gets, with tree-lined streets, Parque España, Parque Mexico, and nearby Chapultepec Park all pulling their weight to keep the city air fresh here. A walk through Condesa and Hipódromo is sure to take you past gorgeous architecture, boutique shops, coffee shops, bars, high-end restaurants, and a few galleries.
This isn’t the neighborhood to go to for the best street food or underground art scene, but it’s perfect for a relaxing day spent in the shade. Obviously, you can expect to pay a bit more for food and drinks here– but it’s still accessible on a backpacker’s budget.
What to do in Condesa and Hipódromo
- See the sights: Take a good long lap around Parque España and Parque Mexico before sitting down for fresh churros and coffee (or hot chocolate) at El Moro. (Does a churro shop count as an attraction? Just kidding, of course it does.)
- Grab coffee: Head to Blend Station for its delicious brunch, coffee, and fresh juices, or to El Pendulo cafebreria (cafe/bookstore) for something a bit more indulgent.
- Go out to eat: Consider U.to.pi.a and Ojo de Agua for veg-friendly options, or Pizza del Perro Negro for some truly creative pizzas. Looking to branch out a bit more? Go for a walk around the beautiful Amsterdam Avenue– you’ll come across restaurants serving Mexican, Italian, Israeli, Pakistani, and French food, to name a few options.
- Have a night out: You’ll find a huge selection of bars on Avenida Tamaulipas south of Parque España, from tequila bars to Irish pubs. Want to go dancing? There are a ton of nightclubs in Hipódromo– I’d recommend giving Pata Negra a visit.
Not to be confused with San Miguel Chapultepec, the tiny neighborhood to its south, Chapultepec Park is pretty much Mexico City’s crown jewel. It’s one of the largest urban parks in the world, covering 1,655 acres– compare that to Central Park’s 843 acres! This park is so expansive, it’s actually split in half by the Paseo de la Reforma.
Chapultepec Park houses more than enough attractions to fill two visits. Here are the highlights:
- National Anthropology Museum: This internationally lauded museum is both intimidatingly large (it offers 11 “houses” of permanent exhibits) and well worth a visit. Give yourself more than just a couple hours here. Free admission, open Tues-Sun 9-7.
- Botanical Gardens: Walkable outdoor exhibits of all kinds of fauna (cacti, succulents, reeds, palms) and– my favorite– a bee garden. Bring your sunglasses.
- Museo Rufino Tamayo: Modern and contemporary art from all over the world; $70 pesos admissions, open Tue-Sun 10-6; Free on Sundays and always free for students
- Museo de Arte Moderno: A collection of 20th-century art by artists like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Rufino Tamayo; Open Tue-Sun 10:15-5:30
- La Feria Amusement Park
- Chapultepec Castle
That’s far from an exhaustive list! The park also houses a zoo, Los Pinos (formerly the President’s residence; now a cultural center), several monuments, and a manmade lake, complete with rentable rowboats. I don’t like to say anything is “not to be missed,” but honestly– why would you?
Polanco (Miguel Hidalgo)
Bordering Chapultepec Park to the northwest, Polanco is known for its fancy pants shopping (meaning, obviously, designer label shopping). It’s not super accessible by metro from Condesa and Roma, but it is close to Chapultepec Park.
If ritzy shopping sprees aren’t your thing, you can always stop by Parque Lincoln, El Pendulo Cafebreria, or reserve yourself a table at Pujol, the best (or at least most famous) restaurant in Mexico City. It might not fit into the typical backpacker’s budget, but I met more than a few fellow hostel-goers willing to splash out for Pujol’s memorable $110 tasting menu.
What to do in Polanco
- See the sights: Easily the most famous attraction in Polanco is the Soumaya Museum, thanks to its unique facade and international art collection. For balance, the neighborhood’s Museo Jumex offers a contemporary art collection, displaying work by artists like Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly. Soumaya Museum: Free entrance, Sun-Fri 10:30-6:30, Sat 10:30-8; Jumex Museum: $50 pesos, Tue-Sun 10-7.
- Take a break: While the much larger Chapultepec Park is right next door, Lincoln Park’s pond and sculpture collection make it a nice spot to rest your legs (or, you know, go for a walk).
Zona Rosa (Colonia Juarez)
On the east side of Chapultepec Park, Zona Rosa is known less for its posh real estate and more for its nightlife and shopping. I loved Zona Rosa– its shopping let me round out my woefully lacking packing list, and walking past The Angel of Independence monument became my go-to route for trips to Chapultepec Park.
Another fun fact: Zona Rosa is also known for being Mexico City’s most gay-friendly neighborhood, hosting the city’s annual pride parade every June.
What to do in Zona Rosa
- Go shopping: If you need to go shopping (because Mexico is supposed to be hot and you didn’t anticipate needing a sweater and mom jeans), Zona Rosa is where to go. Between the mall at Plaza Reforma 222 and the many shops along Paseo de la Reforma, you’ll be covered.
- See the monuments: Paseo de la Reforma is peppered with monuments every few blocks in this area, and sitting on their steps with a cup of coffee is a great way to break up a long day of walking. The most notable stops: the Angel of Independence (or Angél de la Independencia) and, just a few blocks west, the Diana the Huntress fountain (Fuente de La Diana Cazadora).
To the south, the neighborhood of San Angel is known for one thing: Bazaar del Sábado, or the Saturday Market. Each Saturday, San Angel’s Plaza San Jacinto and its surrounding streets fill up with vendors and artists from around the city (and country!), selling handicrafts and artwork ranging from ceramics and weavings to antiques, jewelry, paintings, and prints. If you’re looking to go souvenir shopping– and don’t mind paying a bit more for your handicrafts– San Angel’s Saturday Market is the place for you.
A quick heads-up: although you’ll still find great deals, the shopping here is relatively expensive for Mexico. If your itinerary calls for leaving Mexico City at all, you’ll likely find similar goods for much lower prices in other cities’ markets. (Not that that stopped me from impulse buying ceramic tequila glasses and a very practical leather purse. Worth it.)
Outside of the market, San Angel stands out for its high-end eateries, real estate, and architecture. I spent half a day here just wandering around the cobblestone streets and admiring the neighborhood’s old churches (not to mention its brunch/lunch offerings).
What to do in San Angel
- Have I mentioned the Saturday Market? If you’re coming from the historic center or the Roma area, I’d recommend heading to Plaza San Jacinto at around 9:30 a.m. That’ll give you plenty of time to wander the stalls and streets before settling in for lunch.
- Visit the churches: The Templo y Ex-Convento del Carmen and Parroquia San Jacinto both house beautiful gardens and date back to the 17th and 16th centuries, respectively.
- Grab lunch: Plaza San Jacinto is lined with some very nice-looking restaurants that were all well out of my price range. If you’re looking to really make a day of it, I imagine having lunch at one of those spots with a view of the park would be lovely. Otherwise, there are plenty of good options on the side streets around the park– I’d recommend going down Madero Street.
This is one neighborhood that I seriously regret not spending more time in, and it’s one that’s frequently overlooked by tourists who are backpacking Mexico City for just a few days. But skipping this neighborhood– or just passing through– is a mistake! This place once housed Hernan Cortes, Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky and Octavio Paz, just to name a few of its illustrious previous residents. Today, it’s chock full of parks and museums celebrating Mexico’s history.
Coyoacán’s most popular attraction? That would be Casa Azul, also known as the Frida Kahlo Museum. Frida Kahlo lived in this bright blue house her entire life, and following her death, it was made into a museum in her honor. Now, you can see many of Kahlo’s possessions on display in the house/studio, including her own art and art collection. (Pro tip: try to buy tickets online in advance– the lines at this museum are notoriously long.)
Beyond the Frida Kahlo Museum, an afternoon’s walk through Coyoacán will take you past the Parroquia San Juan Bautista, a baroque 16th-century convent-turned-national-monument, the Fonoteca Nacional (National Sound Museum), a myriad of markets, and the scenic Viveros de Coyoacán park.
What to do in Coyoacán
- Go for a (long) walk in the park: Between Viveros de Coyoacán park, Jardín Centenario, and Jardín Hidalgo (both are plazas), Coyoacán is a lovely place to spend an afternoon walking in the shade. Head to Jardín Centenario for the neighborhood’s iconic coyote fountain, and up the street toward Allende Park for the Coyoacán Market.
- Shop in the markets: Just blocks from Casa Azul, the Coyoacán Market is a typical Mexican market; expect prepared foods, groceries, all kinds of souvenirs, and just about everything in between. Even if you’re not looking to shop, the Mercado Artesanal Mexicano and Los Mercaderes are both worth a quick visit– and they’re super conveniently located. Finally, the Mercado de Antojitos Mexicanos, just east of Jardin Hidalgo, is the place to go for affordable and authentic street food. (Psst– I can’t personally vouch for it, but stall #14 is the local favorite!)
- Stop by the museums: Casa Azul is one of the most popular museums in Mexico City (which is saying something, with 149 others competing for favor), and is well worth a visit if you’re at all interested. Opening hours may vary month to month, so check their website before planning your visit. Casa Azul: $246 pesos, Open Tue-Sun until 5:45, Wed 11-5:45.
Mexico City Travel Tips
Where to Stay in Mexico City
You already know I’m biased here– I loved staying in Roma Norte so much, I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend staying anywhere else. It’s a great base for walking around nearby Condesa, Polanco, Zona Rosa, and Chapultepec Park, and you can easily take the metro (or an Uber) down to San Angel and Coyoacán. That said, I was also impressed by my hostel in the city’s historic center–even if I’d only recommend staying there for a couple nights. Here’s the run-down:
- Where to stay in Roma Norte: Hostel Home. It was the most comfortable, welcoming hostel I’ve ever stayed at, and it seems to consistently attract awesome people. When I come back to Mexico City, I’ll be staying here. Cost of a dorm bed: $14-16/night.
- Where to stay in the historic center: Casa Pepe. It’s very new– like, parts of it were still under construction in September– and pricier, but super plush and just a block from the Zócalo. Cost of a dorm bed: $22/night.
Street Food (and Drinks) to Try in Mexico City
You don’t need me to tell you that Mexican street food is incredible, right? This is far from a comprehensive list of Mexican drinks, dishes, and sides worth trying– if you find such a list, please send it my way! Instead, this list is about drooling over some of the more common (and popular) offerings.
- Churros: Although they’re not originally from Mexico– apparently they’re…Chinese?– you’re obviously going to try some churros while you’re there, right? Here’s a potentially controversial take for when you do: skip the churros on the street. They’re not likely to make you sick– they’re just not the freshest. Want warm, delicious, fresh churros? Get thee to the nearest El Moro. It’s incredible. I’m salivating over it as I type. They have locations all over the city, so you’re sure to find one nearby.
- Fresh fruit: Markets in Mexico sell all kinds of cool fruit that just don’t make it to grocery stores to the north. Walk through any produce market in Mexico City and you’ll surely find some friendly vendors willing to offer you samples. (A side note: If you’re buying pre-cut fruit on the street, make sure it’s fresh! And also…I guess the ubiquitous salt/chili/lime topping is worth trying at least once, right?)
- Tacos: I just have one note here: don’t be afraid to eat street tacos! They’re delicious (if tiny) and cheap cheap cheap. Just– as ever– be discerning about which vendors you choose. When all else fails, ask a local or go to a stand that locals are buying from. (By the way, I’d highly recommend Taqueria Orinoco in Roma Norte for a more filling taco-centric meal. They’ve got delicious tacos al pastor— or tacos sueltos, as they’re a northern chain– and they’re open until 4 a.m. Basically, they’re a dream.)
- Pulque: Pulque is a weirdly thick, kombucha-like fermented beverage that’s big in Mexico City. It’s very low in alcohol content (comparable to light beer) and it comes in a variety of flavors, typically fruity. I found both the texture and taste offputting, but I’d still recommend trying it– especially via sample at a bar or restaurant. (Pulqueria Insurgentes is a popular option in Roma Norte, thanks to its rooftop bar.)
- Salsa: I love a good homemade salsa so much, I’d specifically recommend upping your spice tolerance before coming to Mexico. But if you can’t, be warned: that thick green salsa isn’t guacamole– it’s probably super spicy.
- Elotes and Esquites: You may already be familiar with esquites, the “Mexican corn salad” consisting of grilled corn (off the cob) mixed with some combination of mayonnaise, chili powder, cotija cheese, salt, lime juice, and/or sour cream. What are elotes? Imagine the same thing but served on the cob. They’re delicious– although I haven’t yet had any luck requesting less mayo, please.
- Nieve: Short for nieve de garrafa, this Mexican style of ice cream is decidedly more watered down– but somehow just as delicious– than its milk-based counterparts. Nieve is made from mashed up fruits, salt, sugar, and ice, and comes in all kinds of varieties (think hibiscus, lime, chocolate, mamey and– my personal favorite– mezcal). If you see brightly painted wooden barrels at a market, they’re probably selling this stuff– hurry over and try it!
How to Get Around
Basically, you’ve got four options for transportation in Mexico City: walk, take the metro, or take a taxi. Technically, you can also rent bikes, but with such a thorough public transportation system, walkable neighborhoods, and cheap Ubers, I didn’t find a use for them.
Want to take the Mexico City metro? Don’t be intimidated– it is, in my opinion, an experience worth having at least once! Plus, it’s bonkers affordable: each ride within the city costs just 5 pesos (about $0.25), and you can either use paper tickets or buy a reusable fare card for 10 pesos (…$0.50). If you’re familiar with pretty much any major city’s subway system, this system will be pretty straightforward.
Need directions? You can wander in virtual circles around Mexico City’s official Metro site, or you can just pull up Google Maps for metro directions. Your call!
So, is Solo Travel in Mexico City Safe?
The short answer: Absolutely– as long as you know your bounds and have good common sense. I visited every neighborhood on this list and never once felt uncomfortable or unsafe. In fact, some of my favorite days were ones spent wandering around on my own.
I know that traveling solo in Mexico– and especially in its capital– can be really intimidating. (At least, that’s the impression I got from my relatives, who were all very worried when I told them I’d be backpacking Mexico City solo.) We don’t hear a lot of positive news coming out of Mexico, and many people associate the country with cartels and gang violence and not much else.
Of course, that’s far from the whole story– there’s so much innovation and creativity in Mexico’s capital, as evidenced by the creation of Los Pinos Cultural Center, the city’s ever-evolving food and bar scene, and its renowned art and architecture.
For me, this was a dream trip, and again, I never once felt unsafe or uncomfortable. In fact, I had exactly this conversation with two other backpackers there– why do people think Mexico City is so unsafe for tourists? Sure, it suffers from a real lack of positive press, and it undeniably has issues with violent crime and corruption. But we all agreed that compared to other cities we had lived in– Chicago, New York, London, Dublin, and Paris, between the three of us– we actually felt safer walking around Roma and Condesa (as tourists) at night.
I don’t want to sugarcoat the issue– solo travel anywhere comes with certain safety concerns, and Mexico City isn’t an exception. Beyond that, you’ll certainly stand out more in some neighborhoods than others and frankly, you’ll want to avoid getting too off the beaten track with your DSLR slung around your neck.
But for the most part, the standard rules apply: don’t walk around with headphones on or your face in your phone; use purses and bags that zip shut; hold onto your bag/valuables while you’re on public transportation; avoid poorly lit streets. That said, I would hate for safety concerns to hold anyone back from visiting this amazing city.
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