I have hazy memories of being sixteen and having an overnight stopover at the Mexico City airport with a friend and his parents, and we were all scared to be there. It was dark and we had to go outside and get in the shuttle van for a two minute trip to our airport hotel, and all of us were nervous and rushing like we’d be mugged or kidnapped at any moment. That memory seems pretty silly now that I’ve been back a few times and commuted between the airport and the center of town via the efficient subway system; Mexico City rates high up on my list of favorite cities and is pretty safe to walk around in most places a visitor would go.
El DF (what most Mexicans call the city, pronounced “day eff-ay” for Federal District, like the US’s Washington DC) is huge, with almost 20 million people factoring in all the adjacent sprawl, and has a hard-earned reputation for crime and smog. It’s also an important center of finance and business on a global level, with sections of town that rival New York for cosmopolitan-ness (so I’m told, I’ve only visited the historic center). It has an great subway system that costs less than a quarter per ride and is packed with historical sights and architecture, quality museums and art, and tons of things to do and see.
On this visit we stayed a couple nights at the fantastic Hotel Isabel, just down the street from the Zocalo (central plaza). It was only about $25 USD for a faded but roomy shared-bath room in this historic hotel in a perfect location. For an important capital city Mexico City is a pretty cheap place.
Emerging from the Zocalo subway station for the first time is always a fun experience, walking up the stairs and seeing the giant plaza stretching out in front of you. It’s a huge empty space with a giant Mexican flag in the middle, and we happened to arrive just before the flag lowering ceremony our first evening. A bunch of soldiers march around and eventually take the lowered flag into the Municipal palace, which is itself a must-see. There are some interesting museum exhibits and the architecture alone is worthwhile, but the highlights are the dozens of Diego Rivera murals painted throughout the building. Entrance is free, too.
The Zocalo is actually built right over the center of the Aztec’s former capital city, and many of the old buildings re-used stone from the conquered city. Now there is an Aztec ruins exhibit literally right next door to the cathedral. We didn’t go in because we didn’t feel like paying the admission fee, but it is still interesting to look in from outside . Hundreds of years ago this place was an island with lots of swamps and waterways all around, but over the centuries all the water was drained and the land reclaimed. It’s left the soil unstable, and many of the old buildings look off kilter; they’re literally sinking slowly into the ground, with some sides going down faster than others.
A lot of the streets in the Historic Centro area are markets, and it’s fun to just pick a random direction and walk; you never know what you’re going to find and just about everything is for sale somewhere. Cheap taco restaurants are everywhere and delicious, and exploring is a lot of fun. Keep your eyes open though and don’t wander into any areas that look too sketchy. There were lots of cops patrolling all through the day and night and we felt fairly safe walking around, but I’m sure muggings aren’t exactly rare around some of those streets.
Speaking of sketchy areas we walked over to Plaza Garibaldi one night, an area famous for the Mariachi musicians that gather there each evening waiting for customers. It was a lot of fun to people watch and listen to the music and we each bought a giant michelada beers to drink outside, but there were quite a drunks that were aggressively begging for money and the area had a little bit of an edge.
One of the highlights of our stay was going to the upscale Holiday Inn bordering the Zocalo after breakfast one morning and buying coffee to drink on their terrace overlooking the plaza. The views were unreal, and the excellent coffee only ended up costing $1.75 USD each; a small price to pay to live like the other half for a little while.
With only a couple days in the city our time was up all too soon and we were on the subway to the airport (I love subways that reach airports!). Mexico City is always on our short list of places to return to. It’s very accessible to the US with plenty of cheap flights, and there are lots of cool cities within a few hours by bus to visit as well. Viva Mexico!