There are so many things that no one tells you about visiting Mexico City for the first time.
It’s a destination I often recommend to friends and family, and since CDMX is home to Latin America’s largest airport, many folks find themselves in Mexico’s beautiful capital city for layovers.
After living in Mexico and visiting Mexico City a handful of times, I put together this Mexico City first timers guide to help you have the best experience possible in this incredible city.
This guide includes the essential tips you need to know before your first time in Mexico City: all the places to see, food and drinks you must try, and recommendations on where to stay.
PS: Don’t miss my Mexico City packing list!
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Visiting Mexico City for the First Time—What You Need to Know
Mexico City (Ciudad de Mexico in Spanish, CDMX for short) is one of the most underrated destinations in Mexico. While most of Mexico’s international tourists flood the country’s breathtaking beach towns (for good reason), few ever step foot in the vibrant capital city.
Mexico City is like the New York City of Latin America. The charming city is teeming with diversity, color, history, and delicious food. Even after a handful of visits to CDMX, I never run out of things to do.
Just a few of the sights you may see in this incredible city!
Essential Mexico Travel Resources
Have a Mexico trip coming up soon? There are a lot of travel companies out there, but some are better than others. After traveling to dozens of countries and living abroad on several continents, here are some of my favorite websites and resources for planning unforgettable trips.
Essential Mexico City Tips
If you remember anything from this article, make sure it’s these essential Mexico City tips! I’ll dive into each tip in detail below, but let’s start with a summary of the most important things to know before visiting Mexico City for the first time.
- Do not drink the tap water
- Hydrate and be careful with alcohol as you adjust to the altitude
- Choose street food carefully to avoid food poisoning
- Never eat fresh produce without using a veggie wash (do not try to clean produce with water!)
- Throw all toilet paper in the trash (not the toilet)
- Know where to go in case of an earthquake
- Make sure you pack for Mexico City weather (it might be colder than you think!)
- Consider staying in the Roma or Condesa neighborhood for your first time in Mexico City
- Eat, drink, and enjoy all that CDMX has to offer (jump to food and drinks to try in Mexico City and things to do in Mexico City)
Sometimes touristy photos happen!
1: Tap Water
Sadly, tap water is unsafe to drink in Mexico City and you must rely on bottled water. What’s worse, multinational companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé have a monopoly on drinkable water in Mexico (but that’s a topic for another day).
You can use tap water to wash your hands and shower, but just be sure to follow these simple rules:
- Don’t drink tap water
- Don’t rinse your toothbrush with tap water
- Don’t rinse produce with tap water
- Don’t cook with tap water
Thankfully, it is very easy to obtain bottled water in Mexico City. Most hotels and apartments have 20-liter refillable water reservoirs that are replaced every few days. Others have advanced water filters, but you’ll rarely see filters for water coming out of the tap.
Some people will tell you that you should avoid drinking water in restaurants. I’ve personally never been served tap water in a restaurant. Just ask for purified water (agua purificada) to be sure and you’ll be fine.
Mexico City is situated at 7350 feet (2240 meters) above sea level. That’s higher than Denver, which is nicknamed the mile-high city.
At 7350 feet, it’s easier to become dehydrated, and your body will absorb alcohol more quickly. Many people start off their first Mexico City trip with margaritas, cervezas, mezcal, and other alcoholic drinks, not realizing that alcohol will affect their body differently in a new altitude.
If you choose to consume alcohol in Mexico City, do so carefully. Hydrate and hydrate again. It will help with any altitude sickness symptoms you may develop.
Thankfully, I’ve never experienced altitude sickness in Mexico City, but it could happen to anyone. If you think you might be more susceptible, you can bring some mild pain medication to fight off headaches and try to eat lighter, healthier food through your travels.
Don’t miss the amazing (vegan) street food on your first time in Mexico City!
3: Street food + Food Poisoning
Is it safe to eat street food in Mexico City?
Often yes, often no. I wouldn’t avoid street food altogether since it’s a big part of the Mexico City experience but be careful.
Look for street food stands with long lines, positive reviews online, and visible purified water containers (a lot of food poisoning in Mexico is actually caused by food contaminated with dirty tap water).
I’ve also heard that a generous squeeze of lime juice on street food can kill some of the bacteria and keep you from getting food poisoning.
And if you really want to play it safe and prevent food poisoning, avoid animal products. You won’t be disappointed with Mexico City’s vegan food scene.
4: Produce + food Poisoning
Unfortunately, you can’t grab an apple at the store in Mexico and eat it as a snack without properly sanitizing it.
I made this mistake when I ate an apple at a hotel in Sayulita, Nariyat. I assumed the hotel staff properly disinfected the apple, but they did not, and I had my first Mexico food poisoning experience. I made sure not to make that mistake again.
Whether you want some fruit as a snack or plan to cook during your visit to Mexico City, learn how to disinfect produce.
You have to soak your produce in a disinfectant (available at most grocery stores) or in a mixture of water and vinegar. Then you’re good to go!
5: Toilet Paper Etiquette
You’ll need to throw toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet, in almost every bathroom in Mexico.
If you accidentally flush some TP down the toilet once or twice, it’ll be okay (it happens to all of us!) But do your best to make a conscious effort to trash it.
Two iconic places I visited during my first time in Mexico City
Mexico City has had some devastating earthquakes over the years, but the city has learned, responded, and improved.
Earthquake protocol might be slightly different in Mexico than in your home country. It’s wise to ask your hotel receptionist or Airbnb host about earthquakes during check-in. They can tell you what to do or where to go if you experience an earthquake in the building.
Over about six months in Mexico, I experienced several earthquakes. Thankfully, I was never close to the epicenter, but I was surprised by how often they happened.
7: Packing + Weather
Due to its elevation, Mexico City tends to be a bit cooler than other areas of Mexico.
Check the weather ahead of time, and if in doubt, bring plenty of layers.
I’ve visited CDMX in the spring, summer, and fall and have always been fine in a short sleeve shirt and jeans.
8: Stay in Roma or Condesa
These two neighborhoods are charming, cute, and full of things to do. And best of all, they are some of the safest neighborhoods in the city.
I definitely recommend venturing outside of Roma and Condesa during a visit to Mexico City, but they make a great home base.
If I could choose one place, I would say stay on the edge of Parque Mexico in Condesa. It’s a peaceful yet active area of the city that feels a bit like Europe and Mexico mixed.
9: Enjoy CDMX
Most importantly (after avoiding food poisoning and not drinking tap water), enjoy all that Mexico City has to offer!
Keep reading for my recommendations on things to try and do in Mexico City.
Safety in Mexico City
I recommend Mexico City to friends and family all the time. But I can’t tell you how many times someone has responded to my enthusiasm with: is Mexico City safe?
It’s difficult to answer this question because no international city of this size is 100% safe.
CDMX feels no less safe than NYC, Seattle, or San Fransisco. In fact, I’ve felt much safer in Mexico City than in downtown Seattle (my home city) and other major cities I’ve visited around the globe.
But truth be told, there are certain areas of Mexico City that I would not recommend visiting and others that I feel are safe to visit, as long as you are on guard.
The not-safe-to-visit neighborhoods in Mexico City are mostly neighborhoods you would never visit as a tourist. I haven’t visited these “unsafe” neighborhoods, so I can’t speak about them. Instead, I’ll share my experience of the neighborhoods I have visited, which include all the places worth visiting as a tourist.
Neighborhoods where I’ve felt safest in Mexico City (as a female traveler)
These are the Mexico City neighborhoods where I really feel like I can let my guard down and relax.
Of course, I recommend taking the same precautions you would in any city and always being aware of your surroundings. Some areas of the neighborhood feel safer than others.
And it’s important to note that gentrification is a really big issue in some of these neighborhoods (Condesa and Roma especially).
Condesa: Condesa is a vibrant neighborhood abundant with boutique hotels, innovative restaurants, and lively parks. It’s one of the most expensive areas of Mexico City and is full of expats, digital nomads, and wealthy Mexicans. Condesa has a unique charm reminiscent of Europe and is a great spot for people watching.
Roma: Located on the edge of Condesa, Roma is a bright and charming area with vibrant foliage, colorful buildings, and hip eateries. I’d describe it as Condesa’s earthier sister. Roma is defined by its Art Deco style and friendly locals.
Xochimilco: Xochimilco is an adorable neighborhood about an hour from the center of Mexico City (yep, CDMX is that big!) It’s a must-visit spot where you can ride a boat through the magical floating gardens of Xochimilco. But the neighborhood itself is a lovely place to explore, and it feels completely different from the other areas I’ve been in CDMX.
Bosque de Chapultepec: While not technically a neighborhood, Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park) is a park large enough to be its own neighborhood. The park is reminiscent of Central Park and is home to some of the best attractions in the city, including the Anthropology Museum and Chapultepec Castle.
Coyoacán: Home to the Frida Khalo house, Coyoacán is a charming and safe area of Mexico City. The neighborhood is bright and colorful, and full of history. Next time I’m in Mexico City, this is where I’m going to stay.
Also See: What to Wear in Mexico City
Exploring the colorful side streets of Xochimilco
Wandering through the Anthropology Museum near Chapultepec Park
Mexico City neighborhoods where I’m a little bit on guard (as a female traveler)
The only place in Mexico City where I’ve felt the need to be a bit more on guard is the areas surrounding Centro Historico. If you explore the Zócalo (main square) and nearby streets, you should be completely fine.
But I personally felt a little on edge walking through other areas around the Historic Center by myself during my first visit to Mexico City. It’s no different than the way I’ve felt walking alone in Frankfurt (Germany), Seattle (USA), and other cities around the world, but its worth mentioning.
The entrance to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco (one of the best activities when visiting Mexico City for the first time)
Unmissable Things to do in Mexico City
There are so many things to do in Mexico City, but these are my top recommendations. To be honest, I keep coming back to Mexico City and doing the exact same things. It never gets old!
Day trip to Teotihuacán: Get a glimpse of Mexico’s past by visiting one of the country’s most extensive archaeological sites. Teotihuacán is an easy day trip from Mexico City, and I recommend going on a tour like this one. Bonus: see Teotihuacán from above on a hot air balloon!
Float down ancient canals with friends: One of the most unforgettable experiences in CDMX is the floating gardens of Xochimilco. Bring a group of friends (old or new) and enjoy snacks and drinks while exploring Mexico City’s ancient canals on your own private boat. PS: Check out Xochimilco and Frida Kahlo combo tours.
Eat churros in Parque Mexico: Parque Mexico is my favorite place in Mexico City, and it is most lively with activity in the evening. Grab some (vegan-friendly) churros from the famous Churrería El Moro near the park and then sit and watch an abundance of activities unfold in the park as friends play soccer, kids practice roller skating, dogs play catch, and abuelas teach dance lessons.
Wander through Chapultepec Park: Chapultepec is another unmissable park in Mexico City. Whether you want to rent paddle boats, sit by the water, taste local street food, or visit the park’s several museums, it’s worth reserving some time for this park.
Check out the Zócalo: Mexico City’s main square (Zócalo) is a place you cannot miss on your first time in Mexico City. Explore the area by foot, or snag a table at a rooftop bar or restaurant where you can overlook the Zocalo from above.
Explore the city’s best museums: Mexico City has some fantastic museums. My favorite is the Anthropology Museum; other great museums include Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul and Museo del Templo Mayor.
Fly over Mexico City in a cable car: Few visitors know that Mexico is home to the two longest cable car systems in the world! A 40-minute ride on the longest CableBus line is a surprisingly tranquil way to see unexplored parts of the city, with stunning skyline and mountain views.
Must-Try Foods and Drinks in Mexico City
The list below barely scratches the surface of the types of mouthwatering food (and drinks) worth trying in Mexico City. But as a starting point, try to taste these amazing food and drinks in CDMX:
Tacos Al Pastor: Do not leave CDMX without trying the city’s famous Al Pastor tacos. You’ll find them everywhere, and there are plenty of meat-free versions available for vegetarians and vegans in Mexico City.
Elote: Elote, or Mexican street corn, is sold on nearly every corner in CDMX. It makes a great snack; just ensure you get it from a vendor that washes the corn with purified water.
Mole: While mole originates from other areas of Mexico (Oaxaca and Puebla), it’s so good that you must try it in Mexico City if you can.
Sopa Azteca: Sopa Azteca is the ancestor of tortilla soup, and it’s one of my favorite things to order in CDMX. The creamy tomato broth almost feels healing!
Pulque: Pulque is essentially Mexico’s ancient version of kombucha. It’s thicker than kombucha and has a higher alcoholic content, and truthfully, it is a bit of an acquired taste. Head to one of CDMX’s pulquerías and try it for yourself.
Mezcal: Like with mole, mezcal didn’t originate in CDMX. However, it’s worth trying this smoky hard alcohol if you can. You’ll either love it or hate it!
Final Thoughts: Making the Most of Your First Time in Mexico City
No matter how much time you have in CDMX—a few hours or a few weeks—I know you’ll create incredible memories. And if you’re like me, you’ll just keep coming back for more as the years go by.
If you plan to visit other areas of Mexico during your trip, be sure to check out my other Mexico travel guides:
The Ultimate Mexico City Packing List
Cozumel vs La Paz: A Comparison of Two of My Favorite Mexican Beach Destinations
Ultimate Travel Guide for Vegans and Vegetarians in Mexico
6 Reasons to Visit Santiago, Baja California
Playa Carrizalillo Oaxaca: Worth Visiting in 2023? Plus Complete Travel Guide
The Ultimate Guide to Santiago Apoala, Oaxaca Waterfalls & Hiking (2023)