Mexico City is quite possibly the most overlooked tourist destination in the world. But it shouldn’t be. Find out why.
Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, is the largest city in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest metropolis in the world. Though it offers endless diversions for travelers with any range of interests, Mexico City is frequently overlooked by visitors to this vast country, who seem to prefer the sun, surf and exceptional service of coastal resorts.
That’s a shame, because while every region of Mexico is interesting and worth a visit, there’s no city in Mexico more dynamic and interesting than my adopted hometown of Mexico City. It’s a city where the cutting-edge contemporary and the tried and true traditional coexist with relative ease, and that description is equally applicable whether one’s talking about food, architecture, the arts, fashion or shopping.
It’s a city where almost anything goes, yet its identity is by no means ambiguous or diffuse. It’s hard to visit without becoming fascinated by the complexity of this engaging city, which author David Lida has called “the capital of the 21st century.”
True, planning a visit to Mexico City can seem a bit daunting. First, there’s the sheer size of the city, which sprawls for miles in every direction, spread across a valley ringed by mountains. Second, there’s its reputation: gritty, grimy, polluted and dangerous. Mexico City’s hardly gotten a fair shake by the international press, and still hasn’t really garnered the interest or attention of many travel publications, which are often focused on the country’s more “exotic” destinations.
But that’s precisely why Mexico City deserves a second look for the traveler who has diverse interests or who would like to avoid the well-worn path already beaten by the tourist hordes. There’s a reason the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (WTO) named Mexico City one of the world’s best tourist destinations in 2008. The WTO cited the city’s reliable infrastructure, ample and attractive public spaces, and its historical significance as just three aspects of the Mexican capital that should move the city to the top of travelers’ must-visit lists.
If the WTO’s endorsement isn’t enough to pique your interest, though, I’m happy to offer some reassurance and advice. Having adopted Mexico City as my hometown, I’ve become its travel evangelist, eager to combat stereotypes about the capital and to stimulate travelers’ interest in visiting.
True, the city encompasses almost 600 square miles, but it’s thoroughly navigable. Mexico City’s public transportation system is one of the best in Latin America, comprised of the Metro, microbuses (also called micros or peseros), Metrobus and a light rail (or tren ligero). With more than 175 stations, the Metro is remarkably comprehensive, taking a tourist almost anywhere in the city he or she could possibly be interested in visiting.
Public transportation is also incredibly affordable; a trip on the Metro is just 2 pesos (at this writing, the equivalent of approximately 20 cents). Though the Metro’s not for the claustrophobic—during rush hour, chilangos (as Mexico City residents are called) pack into the cars more tightly than sardines in a can—it’s a safe and unique experience for the traveler who wants to get around the city quickly and easily.
For those who are averse to public transportation, taxis of all sorts are readily available and will also represent a minor expense in your travel budget. You can always flag a green and white taxi on the street, but follow the lead of the locals and take a radio taxi (cab companies you can call to have a car dispatched) instead; they’re the safest transportation option.
For the truly intrepid, there’s nothing like joining the fray and navigating the streets of Mexico City yourself. Local and internationally recognized car rental agencies have reservation desks at the airport and throughout the city; just be sure to get insurance and a map! Even seasoned taxi drivers here don’t leave home without their Guia Roji atlas, which is the thickness of most cities’ telephone books.
I’ve addressed size—manageable—but what about your lingering doubts regarding the supposedly grimy and gritty Mexican capital? Like any big city, Mexico City’s unlikely to win any awards for being the cleanest tourist destination; however, its late 20th-century reputation as one of the world’s dirtiest, most polluted cities is now undeserved and must be revised.
It’s largely to the credit of current Mexico City mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, that the expansion, accessibility and affordability of the public transportation system have seemingly not only arrested the pollution problem here, but have also begun to reverse some of the damage that was done. It helps, too, that the city has a powerful set of lungs: Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Forest) is an enormous urban park of almost 1,800 acres.
While it’s inevitable that a city as big and as densely populated as this one will be pristine, the capital does a more than decent job of keeping Mexico City clean; visitors are likely to be surprised by the attention to detail and cleanliness that’s paid in this massive metropolis.
And the danger? Those reports are overblown, too. Like any big city and world capital, visiting requires a healthy dose of common sense to protect oneself from the petty crimes that plague any densely populated place. But anecdotes about rampant crime have overshadowed the facts, discouraging visitors from testing their street smarts.
In the thoughtful chapter on crime in his excellent book, First Stop in the New World, author David Lida—an American journalist who has lived in Mexico City for almost 20 years—explained that when crime rate statistics are examined in perspective and proportionality, Mexico City is safer than most U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; New York City; New Orleans and Dallas, to name just a few. The observation is applicable to both “minor” and violent crimes.
Now that we’ve gotten those details out of the way, why should you come and visit? There are a thousand answers, at least, but here are just a few. Foodies will find some of the world’s best meals in Mexico City. Not only has the city attracted so much homegrown and international talent that Bon Appetit named Mexico City the destination of the year for 2008, but because Mexico grows so much of its own food and it’s readily available in traditional neighborhood markets around the city, you can be assured that what you’re eating is as fresh as fresh gets … and that it didn’t create a massive carbon footprint on the way to your plate. [Read more about Mexico City’s food scene.]
Art aficionados—drawn, perhaps, to Mexico by such big league names as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo—are likely to find dozens more reasons to follow the Mexican art scene. And they’re likely to be completely overwhelmed by the number of museums and galleries competing for their attention.
The city has the greatest number of museums in the world, and is increasingly attracting attention on the international art fair circuit after the launch of the FEMACO art fair five years ago. One of the most ambitious museum projects of 2008 just opened to the public—the Museum of Contemporary Art at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma México (which itself is a destination for art lovers, boasting an extensive collection of works by famous Mexican muralists), ranked as Latin America’s best university. [Read about Art and Culture in Mexico City.]
Culture vultures won’t be disappointed either; Mexico City hosts dozens of film festivals each year—such as the Mexico City Cinema Festival—with productions from world-renowned performers in all genres, and attracts literary and academic superstars all year long. While some activities will be restricted to those with generously lined pockets, a considerable number of events are budget friendly, too.
Shoppers, beware. Mexico City can seriously deplete your savings. Whether you’re browsing and buying in the city’s traditional artisan and craft markets or strolling along the tony Avenida Presidente Masaryk in the upscale neighborhood of Polanco, you’ll find it’s easy to spend money here and go home with some impressive mementos of your visit.
And finally, for families, Mexico City could hardly be a more appealing destination. Every attraction and moment here is both fun and teachable, and as a family-friendly culture, Mexicans are always looking out for little people. Parents are likely to consider the Papalote Museo del Niño, a children’s museum, a can’t-miss item on their travel itinerary, but there are so many other attractions, too—from the flag raising and lowering ceremony that takes place in the Zocalo (Mexico City’s historic square) every day, to the pyramids just 30 minutes away in Teotihuacan.
Convinced yet? If not, keep reading. TravelMuse offers detailed guides to Mexico City’s arts and culture, food and nightlife. Pretty soon, you won’t have an excuse to avoid moving Mexico City to the top of your travel list!
Destinations: Mexico City