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Mexico City: Pro Tips and Insider Tricks

What to know before you go

Mexico's capital city is a vast, sprawling place. It's a metropolis that's modernizing in spurts and starts while its citizens live proudly in the shadows of their ancestors' past. Gorgeous and full of sounds, sights, smells, and flavors, it's one of the most sensational places in the world.


But as a place to visit, it has its quirks. Whether you're a seasoned traveler or green as a leaf of hoja santa, allow us to provide some practical advice.

The basics:

  • Aficionados often refer to Mexico City as "DF" (short for "Distrito Federal") or CDMX ("Ciudad de Mexico"), and to the locals as chilangos.

  • Most employees at sit-down restaurants will speak a little English, but still — especially if you're planning to avail yourself of street food, or head to off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods — you should memorize a few key phrases, especially ones related to ordering food.

  • Mexico City is over 7,000 feet above sea level, so you might feel out of breath after long walks or climbing stairs. The high altitude also affects alcohol tolerance — be careful!

  • No, you shouldn't drink the tap water, but know that legally every restaurant (and hotel) must serve filtered water. Most street stands do as well.

Dining:

  • 15 percent tips are customary at restaurants. Before a server runs your card, tell him or her "con quince" ("with fifteen"), because there won't be an opportunity to add a tip later on, unless you have cash.

  • Here, "la comida" (the meal) means lunch. DF is a big lunch town, so plan your days accordingly. You'll find the most vibrant scenes, the best food, and the most open restaurants during the long afternoon hours.

  • Compared to lunch, dinner is usually a lighter meal. For locals, it often takes place as late as 10 p.m.


Candies at a small street stand. [Photo: Daniela Galarza]

Transportation:

  • Though locals often hail taxis off the street, a tourist who does it is asking to get ripped off or worse. Use taxi stands (make sure you negotiate a rate ahead of time, or that they use the meter) or for even more reliable service (and generally a lower cost), use Uber.

  • The metro, also called Sistema de Transporte Colectivo or STC, costs 5 pesos each way. Paper tickets or long-term passes must be purchased, with cash, from cashiers underground; there are no automatic ticket machines.

  • It's illegal to take pictures while in the subway system, no matter how delicious that churro looks.

  • Public transportation also includes a vast bus system, as well as local (unregulated) bus systems and smaller vans called Micros.

  • Eater used Google maps throughout this guide. Here's how to download maps for offline use.

Mexico City's eating establishments, defined:

  • Puesta: Stall, stand, or booth and the most common dining establishment by far.
  • Fonda: A small, usually family-run restaurant. They usually serve a set 3-course menu for a very reasonable price. Found in every neighborhood, fondas are open mostly for breakfast and lunch.
  • Cantina: A bar that also serves food. It used to be that cantinas served free food with every drink order, but only a few places still offer free bites. Most cantinas are drinking holes that have a menu of simple bites, mariscos, tacos, tostadas, guisados, or crunchy snacks.
  • -rías: The suffix for restaurants and drinking establishments that specialize in one type of food or drink. A panadería is a bakery; a pulquería, a place that serves pulque. A tortaría sells tortas, but a tortillaría makes tortillas.
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