I fell in love with Mexico City when I was fifteen. It was a high school Spanish class trip. Till this day I still can’t believe my parents let me to go. I didn’t know any Spanish. It wasn’t even my high school. Someone dropped out last minute and somehow, since I had a friend that went to that school and was going, they arranged for me to go too.
We scrambled to get my birth certificate, since at that time, passports weren’t required. I’d never been out of the country and had only flown one time. To say my mom was worried about me going was an understatement. But I went.
I had no idea how that one trip would influence me. As the late Anthony Bourdain said “travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however slow. And in return, life and travel, leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks, on your body or on your heart, are beautiful. Often though, they hurt.”
As a girl raised in the South in the seventies I’d venture to say I’d never seen a Mexican. Let alone millions. Houses stacked up like Jenga blocks on mountains in an altitude higher than I’d ever been. Mexico City is notorious for smog but there must not have been much the day we flew in because I’ll never forget how far the city stretched. It was as far as you could see and I can still picture it in my mind.
For as many houses as there were, there were plenty of people who didn’t have a home. I still remember some of them. This was probably my first real encounter with homelessness. Seeing people living on the streets, women and even children, begging for help, made a lasting mark on my 15 year old heart. I wasn’t from a rich family but we were comfortable. I had never lacked anything. After seeing others struggling, I had a newfound gratefulness for the privileges that before this, I didn’t even realize I had.
That trip was also the reason I decided to learn Spanish. All it took was getting separated from half the class and the teachers, that spoke Spanish, on the city’s Metro train. The Metro is notorious for it’s fast closing doors and crowds. I’ll never forget the look on their faces, as the six of us students that got on, pulled away from the station. How we made it back to where we needed to be, I’ll never know. Sheer luck. Then and there I vowed to learn Spanish.
Other things I remember about that trip was visiting the pyramids at Teotihuacan, eating nopales for the first time, seeing an show of the folkloric ballet at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. I started to think about the indigenous people and what happened to them, what and who caused it, I immediately came home and read James Michener’s Mexico. Needless to say, I was falling in love with Mexico.
Whatever you choose to call it, Mexico City, el DF, or Chilangolandia, to this day, is one of the most exciting, complex, and somewhat overwhelming cities I’ve ever been to. There are even more people and more cars. There are new modern and hipper neighborhoods with coffee shops and trendy eateries everyone wants to go to. For as much as it’s changed, a lot has stayed the same. It still exudes old world charm and the people are just as friendly now as they were back then.
I’ve been back several times since that first trip. More recently, I had the chance to go again by myself. I knew I wanted to spend my time to revisiting the older historical Mexico City again. To walk those streets and try to rediscover the wonder I had experienced at fifteen years of age. Throw in a couple of new experiences and it was the perfect old school weekend in Mexico City.
I still don’t know if I left my mark on Mexico City but it definitely left it’s mark on me.
How to Get to Mexico City
Mexico City is an easy destination to get to. It’s a non stop flight on most carriers from larger US cities and some European cities. Travel to Mexico requires a passport but United States citizens do not need a visa. Mexico uses an online system which allows citizens of eligible countries traveling by air to obtain electronic authorization to travel to Mexico for tourism or business purposes without a visa.
Travel within the country is easy as well. Aeromexico, Interjet, Viva and Volaris all offer frequent flights within Mexico, to Mexico City from most other cities in the country.
If you are with Mexico, you might be arriving by bus. Although it takes longer, bus travel within Mexico is super convenient. There’s a large bus station near the airport but the city is so large, there are bus stations all over. It just depends where you are coming from and what bus line as to where you would arrive.
Getting Around Mexico City
Public transportation in Mexico City is plentiful and efficient. Depending on your budget you could drive, ride a train, take a bus, use a taxi or an Uber.
I’m a huge fan of Uber in Mexico. Uber is so popular there is an Instagram page that features things that have been said or that have happened on an Uber ride. The service is excellent and the cars are new. Many cities feature Uber Pool which allows you to share a ride to budget your money. Unlike in some smaller cities, Uber is available at the Mexico City airport too.
Some hotels do offer shuttle service but it’s usually an additional fee and the fee is more than an Uber ride.
Like a lot of big cities, walking is common mode of transportation and very safe. Once you are in the Historic Zone, it’s much less complicated just to walk than ride due to small congested streets. I walked around the historic center late at night but was careful to stay on main streets with others. There’s a lot of police presence in that area to keep it safe for tourists.
Unfortunately, I still have not conquered my fear of the Metro. After the getting separated incident, I have not ridden it again. I determined though. Hopefully I’ll have a post about it one of these days.
Old School Weekend in Mexico City Experiences
It would take years to discover all the things to see and all the great places to eat and drink in Mexico City but here are a few of my favorites in the historic center.
Old School Bars
The Opera Bar is a great place to take a break after walking around in “el Centro Historico”. Opened by two French brothers in 1876, it’s one of Mexico City’s oldest bars. It’s pretty ornate for a cantina but you can definitely see the French influence. The who’s who’s of Mexico City have been dining there for years. Even Pacho Villa visited and there’s a bullet hole to prove it.
I sat at the bar for a drink and una botana or appetizer. It’s very common to be served an small bite of something when ordering a drink in Mexico. Refried beans and chips, is what I was served with my Paloma- a cocktail made with either grapefruit soda or mineral water and grapefruit juice and of course, tequila, in a salted rim. A little more refreshing and light than a margarita.
Zinco Jazz Club There are so many interesting buildings in Mexico City and I love to see ones that have been re-purposed for different. Zinco is a jazz club in an old bank. A perfect experience for an old school weekend in Mexico City. You enter into an unassuming outside door, go up some steps and then down some more into what was once the vault in the bank for a total secret speakeasy experience.
Inside, it’s a darkly lit, intimate space with bar, tables, a small stage for live music. Of course cocktails are the main attraction but you can eat too. To drink, I had a Mezcalini, made with mezcal, tamarind, orange juice and cointreau. I sat and sipped my drink while listening to a jazz band. One of the highlights of my weekend.
Reservations are recommended especially on a Friday or Saturday night. There’s no cover charge unless there’s a special band playing. Their website has an event calendar.
Old School Dining
La Casa de los Azulejos or House of Tiles is so named because of beautiful exterior walls constructed of blue and white tiles that come from the Mexican state of Puebla. It was once a private house but has since been purchased by Sanborns, which is a chain of Mexican department stores.
The restoration work they have done is amazing. Even if you don’t eat there, it’s worth a look inside. There is a huge courtyard, several fountains and more tile than you can imagine. Even on the stairs and into the bathrooms.
For dining, there’s a couple of choices. The main dining room is the more grand dining room. It has tables if you want the full dining experience. If you happen to be traveling alone, there is counter service in a different part of the store that has the same menu. Order the enchiladas suizas. Served with the freshest of salsa, it’s the stuff dreams are made of. Wherever you sit, all the food is served on their signature blue and white china.
Where to Stay in Mexico City
In keeping with my old school weekend in Mexico theme, I stayed at Hotel Catedral, a historic hotel just steps from the Zocalo or central square, which by the way is the largest in Mexico. You can easily walk to the Cathedral, the National Palace and other points of interest. The hotel offers a really good breakfast buffet, concierge services and accommodating English speaking staff. Some of the rooms even have small balconies. While I didn’t have a balcony, I had a great view.
Mexico City Tips
Pesos are the form of currency in Mexico so you should always exchange your dollars into pesos. There are places that will usually accept dollars. However, if you pay with dollars, you will given change in pesos and the exchange rate will not be as good as a bank or ATM. ATM’s have the best exchange rate and are easy to find. Although you will have probably have a fee, maybe two, if it’s not an ATM at a bank. Banks have a good exchange rate too but it’s gotten increasingly difficult to exchange money there. They always require something- copies of your passport or you need to speak with someone on the bank floor before they will let you talk to a teller. For a quick exchange without your passport, change houses or caja de cambio/casa de cambio offer.
I’m always asked about safety in Mexico. Personally, I have never felt unsafe in any city in Mexico. The Historic District, and much of Mexico City has, as any big city, unsavory areas. You should use common sense and always be cautious. Don’t flash around jewelry or have your phone out. Guard your wallet, purse or backpack. I always use a cross body bag with a sturdy strap. One of my favorites is a PacSafe bag that has an extra reinforced strap. Also don’t carry all your cash on you. If you are concerned about walking around in an area you are unsure about, check with your hotel or one of the many foot policeman around and just ask if it’s safe.
Mexico City’s elevation is 7,200 feet above sea level. Some people could be affected by this. I have found the best way to avoid feeling bad is to drink plenty of water. Especially if you are flying in. Drink as much as you can on the plane. You should also avoid alcohol for a couple of days until you are better acclimated. Since altitude slows down digestion, you might want to avoid heavy meals the first couple of days as well.
Because of the high altitude, Mexico City, it can be a little cool, even in the spring and summer months. Carry a sweater or light jacket or rain jacket and shoes with a closed toe. When I was there one May I so was happy I had carried some short boots. It was very rainy and the boots came in handy on the cobblestone streets and sidewalks of the historic center where the water collected.
If you are planning a trip to Mexico City, check out my Must Do’s in Mexico City article. It’s a great list with things to do in and around the historic center. Viva Mexico and don’t forget to have fun!