By Carole Reedy
Mexico City is considered by many to rival Paris, London, Tokyo, and New York as a cultural destination. The energy, color, and joie de vivre of this grand city of more than 20 million exceeds most others because of the warmth you’ll find here, and not just from the temperatures, but also emanating from the people who live, work, and play here. The city sizzles. Variety dominates. Smiles are abundant. This city’s aura will haunt you.
It’s well known that traveling in Mexico is less expensive relative to other major countries, and Mexico City is no exception. You’ll find the prices of hotels, museums, transportation, and food to be quite reasonable whether you’re traveling on a shoestring or splurging. Because the Mexican peso fluctuates constantly, all costs listed here are approximate and subject to change.
In this article, I hope to give you a good idea of how much to budget for basic costs.
CASH VS. CREDIT CARDS
In many parts of the world you can leave your hotel with just a credit card in hand. This would not be true in Mexico City. You need cash in pesos to perform many transactions, from getting on the Metro or Metrobus to riding in a taxi, from shopping at a market to stopping for a street taco or tamale. Thus, when you arrive at the airport, purchase some Mexican pesos. Most hotels and restaurants accept credit cards, but there are exceptions. Museums are so inexpensive that most people pay in cash, and some only accept cash. US or Canadian dollars and Euros are not accepted currency—only moneda nacional , the Mexican peso.
So, you’re here with pesos in your pocket and ready for adventures. Let’s go!
PLACES TO SLEEP
The most sought-after information, second only to “where should I eat?,” concerns where you’ll stay during your visit and the cost of a room or apartment. A majority of visitors want easy access to activities, museums, and shops, as well as a pleasant and safe area.
My recommendation is always Centro Histórico, Roma, Condesa, or Cuauhtémoc. Polanco and Coyoacán are beautiful and up-scale, but not as centrally located for touring as the previous four locales, though each area has its particular charms and practical advantages. Because we are a big city, just getting around is a major daily task. You’ll want to save your energy for sight-seeing, not getting to and from your destinations.
Airbnb has become a good choice for visitors to Mexico City. In the neighborhoods listed above there are multiple options, many in the $50 to $100 US price range per night. There are also many rooms listed on Airbnb, which may be of interest to solo travelers.
Hotels I personally recommend in the Roma/Condesa area (the two are adjacent) are:
The Milan Hotel
This hotel has a marvelous location at Álvaro Obregón 94 in Roma Norte. You can stroll the tree-lined streets of Roma and stop for a drink or a meal in one of the numerous cafes and restaurants in the area. The rooms are plain, but have all the basic amenities for a reasonable cost of about $50 to $60 US per night (for a room with two double beds). The hotel also offers a couple of suites.
The Red Tree House in Condesa is located at Culiacan 6 in a lovely residential area and has more of a bed and breakfast feel (free breakfast included) than a hotel. Each room is different. Here you’re close to restaurants and transport (always my first consideration). The rooms range from $85 to $150 US a night, depending, as always, on the number of people and season of the year.
Fiesta Inn (the one at Insurgentes 553 at the intersection with Viaducto in Roma Sur, there are others in CDMX) is a modern, bustling hotel on a busy street. It is perfectly situated in front of the Metrobus and offers deluxe rooms, nice views, and all the amenities that business people expect. Prices range from $100 to $175 US a night.
In the Cuauhtémoc area:
The Maria Cristina Hotel
Located at Rio Lerma 31, just two blocks from Reforma, in a residential/business area, this lovely old hotel has a variety of rooms and a garden. There are several types of rooms, starting from under $100 US per night.
The crème de la crème! This exquisitely decorated 100-year-old European gem is located in the Zona Rosa at Londres 130, just a few blocks from busy, beautiful Reforma Avenue. At Christmas, it is magical. Famous people who have rested their heads on the Geneve’s comfy pillows include Gabriel García Márquez, Marlon Brando, and Sir Winston Churchill. Large rooms and modern baths with all the amenities range from just $100 US . . . to all the way up. As savvy travelers know, there are a variety of prices for hotels based on where and when you book them.
In the Centro Histórico area:
The Cuidad de México Hotel (right on the Zócalo)
Probably the most striking hotel in the Centro Histórico area, this stunning old, yet modern, giant has rooms that overlook the Zocalo, especially festive at Christmas when the ice skating rink and decorations fill the area below you. Deluxe in every way, including champagne in the reception area. The prices match the elegance. Expect to pay upward of $150 US.
The Gillow Hotel (Isabel la Católica 63 at Cinco de Mayo)
For many years before I moved to Mexico City, I stayed at this charming hotel right in the heart of Centro, two blocks from the Zócalo and four blocks from the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The rooms on the sixth floor have patios (which you need to request when you reserve). Prices range from $80 US for a single to $150 US for larger rooms and suites.
The underground subway is the fastest and cheapest mode of transport in the city. You’ll zoom from one station to the next. Changing stations is relatively easy, and the instructions are quite clear. The Metro is dirt cheap. One ride is 5 pesos (about $.25 US). You can change trains on the same 5 pesos if you need to in order to reach your destination. The tickets are available at all metro stations (below ground, look for the sign that says “taquilla”). You can buy individual tickets or several at a time or you can purchase a Metro card, which is a plastic card to which you can add money for rides when needed. My advice is to buy several individual tickets or a card to avoid any lines that may form at the taquillas during busy hours. I also advise against traveling during rush hour by public transport or car (6 to 10 am and 6 to 9 pm Monday through Friday). The Metro travels throughout this grand city. You can also download the app Mexico City Metro.
Also a fast and cheap way to go. The Metrobus is the big red bus on major streets that has its own lane, but don’t mistake it for the double decker Turibus (a fun way of sightseeing I recommend to all my visitors). The Metrobus costs 6 pesos (about $.30 US) a ride. You buy a card in a machine at one of the stations. Instructions are in Spanish, but someone will always help you (this you’ll experience everywhere). You can put up to 100 pesos on a card before renewing it.
Some visitors express unease at taking a taxi, but I have had perfectly marvelous experiences with this mode of transport. The drivers are courteous and kind and know the city. Uber and other private companies are also available here, but I prefer giving my support to the tried and true taxi service. If you are uncomfortable hailing a taxi on the street, as I often do, look for sitios (taxi stands) wherever there are major streets.
My preferred way to see the city is by walking. Whenever possible I choose to leave sufficient time to flaneur down quiet, as well as busy, avenues to observe the local people and their activities. You’ll also find all types of eating stops, markets, and shops this way, aside from the delight of people watching.
Mexico City is blessed with 150 museums, the most of any city in the world. Many are free and most are free on Sundays. Free museums include Carlos Slim’s fabulous building Museo Soumaya, which is open 365 days a year and free to all, located in the Polanco área. It’s not to be missed with its five stories filled with the masters of the world.
One of my favorite places to stop during a busy day touring Centro Histórico is the Palacio de Cultura Banamex, located on the walking street Madero. The exhibits in this baroque-inspired building change often. Sometimes at Christmas there is a huge display of nacimientos (manger scenes) with representations from all over the world. Lovely, even for non-Christians and atheists. No charge for admission.
Free on Tuesdays is the little-known Museo de Dolores Olmedo, friend of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, whose works appear in this museum. It is located in the far southern part of the city, so you may want to include it on a day that you ride the floating boats of Xochimilco. At the museum, you will also see many of the ancient xoloitzcuintle hairless Mexican dogs on the grounds. This museum is a welcome oasis from the busy city.
One of the highlights of any trip is the food of the region and the places it’s served. Mexico City is gradually becoming known as a culinary capital of the world, thanks to creative chefs as well as traditional dishes and methods of cooking the vast variety of fruits and vegetables grown throughout the country. Mexico is rich in gustatory resources: plants, legumes, fruits, and vineyards, etc.
Mexican wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in the Baja region are becoming recognized worldwide, and I highly suggest you try Mexican wines when you see them on the menu. Casa Madero is an especially fine brand of both white and red wine. My favorite white is the Chardonnay; and for red, I like the mixture of Cabernet, Merlot, and Tempranillo called 3V. You may think because they come from Mexico the price would be lower than wines from outside the country, but it’s not the case. Well worth it, though, and most of my visitors from the US think the wines are most reasonably priced, even at restaurants where the value is inflated.
Apart from the Mexico City restaurants that are listed among the best restaurants in the world, there is a cornucopia of excellent eateries, both casual and fancy to satisfy anyone’s palate.
As readers of The Eye know, I do not recommend eating street food, although many people do . . . and survive! The sanitary conditions of the puestos on the street are questionable. They are not equipped with running water, and the handling of money and food by the same person is troubling. If you are craving simple homemade Mexican dishes, I suggest stopping into one of Mexico’s many markets as an alternative to street food, where for a few dollars you can savor the traditional dishes of Mexico, prepared in your presence: chiles rellenos, tacos, grilled meats, fish, nopales, quesadillas, cemitas (sandwiches from Puebla), and the Yucatán favorite, cochinita pibil.
Favorite markets with places to sit and eat include Mercado Medellin, Mercado Coyoacán, Mercado San Juan (with fish as a specialty as well as wild animal meats, such as alligator, iguana, wild pig, and scorpion), Mercado Sonora, and Sullivan Tianguis (Tuesdays and Fridays). You can feast for roughly $5 to $7 US.
One street food item I do recommend is the tamale. When you spot a large metal steaming pot on the street, stop and ask for tamale verde, de rajas, or mole. There are even sweet tamales. The whiter the masa (corn mash), the better the tamale. For 12 pesos ($.60 US) per tamale you can satisfy your hunger until your next meal.
Although visitors always want to know the tipping custom when they travel, it’s often difficult to break the habit acquired in their home country. Europeans and Australians find it difficult to leave generous tips as workers in their countries receive good wages as waiters, taxi drivers, helpers, etc. This is not true in Mexico. A good guideline is to tip 15 percent in a restaurant, 20 percent if the service is exceptional.
It’s easy to forget to tip the maids who clean your hotel room. They deeply appreciate your recognition, so leave something at the end of your stay (20 to 50 pesos a day). And small tips (10 or 20 pesos) are appreciated for anyone who helps you to your car. And, yes, please tip the guy who delivers a pizza to your Airbnb, 10 or 15 percent.
Of all the grand cities in the world, a visit to Mexico City surely ranks at the top as the most culturally enchanting, while stretching the value of your home currency!