Mexico City on a budget: What you need to know
Unlike other countries like the UK and Paris, where the large cities are the main drawcards for tourists, many people visit Mexico without stepping foot in its capital.
This is a great shame for me, because after spending seven days in Mexico City in December I’ve come to realise that it was one of my favourite cities I’ve ever visited, and that to miss it out on your travels is a great shame.
If you do decide to put Mexico City on your itinerary next time (well done!) then hopefully this travel guide will help you make the most of your time there.
Below you’ll find:
- Cheap and great things to do
- Best places to eat on a budget
- Where to stay in Mexico City in safe neighborhoods
- Dangers and annoyances
- Taxi tips for Mexico City
- Metro tips for Mexico City
Things to see and do in Mexico City
Mexico City has the largest number of museums of any city in the world. A surprising statistic but it’s true. And the best part about it? They are super cheap to visit.
You will be absolutely spoilt for choice in Mexico City, but if there’s a list of museums that you have to go to, make sure these are on it:
Frida Kahlo Museum – Coming to Mexico City and missing out on this one would be like going to London and not taking the time to see Big Ben.
You might not be a big fan of Kahlo’s art, but the museum, which is housed in her former home, is less about her art and more about Kahlo as a person – and what a fascinating person she was.
Strolling through the place where Kahlo spent most of her time, you can see where Kahlo slept, her art studio where she worked, and her lounge room where she entertained her friends. There’s also a beautiful garden to stroll around in.
- Cost: US$5.35 during the week and US$6.70 at weekends
National Anthropology Museum – With a culture as rich as Mexico’s, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the biggest anthropology museum in the world is in Mexico City.
We spent two hours walking around this museum and it wasn’t enough. Some of the best works include replicas of the Mayan temples, giant stone heads and a huge sun stone / Aztec calendar carving.
The building itself is also a masterpiece, with a giant circular cascading waterfall coming out of the foyer ceiling.
- Cost: US$4.30
Popular Art Museum – This new museum has the largest collection of Mexican folk art in the world, and after exploring the largest private collection of its kind, I was bursting to get here.
It didn’t disappoint. My favourite room was probably that which housed the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) collection, which featured numerous papier mache artworks of skeletons.
There’s also a room full of the painting of alebrijes – mythical creatures that are half animal and half fantasy. They’re painted so intricately it’s a marvel how they do it.
- Cost: US$2.70
Palacio de Bellas Artes – If you love art deco architecture then this is the place for you. Housed inside a palace, this museum is worth a visit for the building alone.
Plus it happens to exhibit modern art from the likes of Picasso, and giant murals from artists such as Diego Rivera.
If you happen to visit this museum, spend some time strolling around the surrounding area of Zocalo as it’s a picturesque part of the city.
- Cost: US$2.88
Other things to see and do in Mexico City
What if museums aren’t your thing? Don’t despair, there’s a lot to do in the big city and you won’t run out of ideas.
Chapultepec Park – Known as the biggest park in the Western hemisphere, a day here will not disappoint. Dave and I strolled by the market stalls, had lunch in an outdoor café, and then climbed up the hill to Chapultepec castle to watch the sun set over the city.
Under the Volcano Books – Call me a nerd, but we loved visiting this place. Housed above the American Veteran bar, these dusty crowded rooms are the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city.
Templo Mayor (Great Temple) – This Aztec temple was recently discovered and excavated for the public to enjoy… right in the centre of modern Mexico City. Built in the 14th century, it’s the perfect place to go if you don’t have time to visit any of the temples outside of the town. It costs US$3.80 to visit.
Teotihuacan – 50km outside of Mexico City lies the ruins of Teotihuacan, one of the most remarkable Aztec ruins in the world. Being so far out of the city, it’s a day trip but one that’s worth your time. It costs about US$4 to visit.
The best places to eat in Mexico City
Thankfully for those travelling on a budget, some of the best food to eat in Mexico City is the street and market food.
And don’t worry too much about hygiene – one of my friends actually got food poisoning from eating in a restaurant in Mexico City, after spending a week eating from the street food vendors without any problems.
The key is to pick stalls that have a lot of people crowded around them – this usually means they’re tasty and have a high enough turnover that the produce stays fresh. Watch how they prepare the food for a few customers ahead of you and then make the call as to whether it’s hygienic enough for you.
But make sure you try the corn on a cob (elote) from a street vendor – it’s smothered in mayonnaise and cheese and then dipped in chilli powder – delightful.
When eating in the markets, prepare to have people pestering you to eat from their stalls. Ignore this and walk casually around until you find a place you want to dine at.
One of the best markets to have a truly gastronomical experience is San Juan. It sounds crazy, but we lunched on French cheeses and wine here and after a year travelling Latin America it was the first time we’d sunk our teeth into a camembert. Delightful.
If it’s more traditional food you’re after, Xochimilco, a town around 25km outside of Mexico City is a great place to go for a day out. A world heritage site, Xochimilco is known for its lake and canal system which you can explore via gondolas.
In the centre of Xochimilco town is a food market selling traditional Mexican food and it’s the perfect place to go for lunch.
And in case you don’t know where to begin as you chow down on some delicious Mexican food, here’s a list of food you have to try from the markets around Mexico City:
Fresh tortillas – As good and delicious as they sound. I’m doubtful you can find true replicas outside of Mexico.
Tostadas – Essentially a toasted sandwich but it’ll be by far the greatest sandwich you’ll ever eat (if you find a good one). Try Tortas Been in the Zocalo area.
Tamales – Pockets of corn dough stuffed with everything from chillies to chicken. Delish!
Freshly squeezed juice – Seeing as in my home city a fresh juice is around US$7, I indulged when in Mexico City, paying around US$2 for a freshly squeezed pineapple or melon juice.
Insects – Yes, I know you’ll probably want to pass on this one, but hear me out. The grasshoppers are actually quite delicious when covered in chilli powder and dry spices!
But if you’re looking for somewhere that serves up something a little more gourmet than insects, we’ve heard that Pujol is top notch.
Where to stay in Mexico City
There’s something for every budget in Mexico City. Because we didn’t want to spend a fortune, we ended up renting an Airbnb apartment to ourselves, which cost us around US$30 a night.
But if you’d rather stay in a hotel, there’s everything ranging from five star chains to backpackers throughout the city.
For backpacker accommodation, you can expect to pay about US$10 a night for a dorm room, and around US$30 – US$40 a night for a double room at the cheaper end of the scale.
If you don’t know where to start looking, here’s a great article from The Guardian on some of the best budget places to stay throughout the city.
Safe places to stay in Mexico City
If you believe everything that’s in the media then Mexico is a no-go area. The problem with the press (and I should know, having worked in news for years) is that media outlets only report the bad stuff. Truth be told, Mexico City has the same murder rate as Philadelphia, and it actually has a lower murder rate than many cities throughout the US.
Not that the media would let you think that.
You might have heard about the student kidnappings in Mexico last year, but you probably haven’t heard about how every Sunday in towns throughout Mexico, local families gather in the town square simply to catch up with one another and celebrate life.
And that’s what I love about travelling – it turns all your pre-misconceptions on their head and makes you realise that the world isn’t as scary as you might think.
Like any big city though, Mexico City does have its dodgy areas.
Speaking to people before we arrived in Mexico’s capital, we were told repeatedly that there were many wonderful neighbourhoods that are good places to stay. These included Roma, La Condesa, Zocalo and Polanco.
We ended up staying in La Condesa and loved its hip bars and offbeat shops. It certainly was a lively and trendy place to stay and we enjoyed our time there.
Dangers and annoyances
Oh dear. We were robbed. In Mexico City. So after saying previously that it’s a safer place than you think, I now have to eat my words.
The ridiculous thing is that it was completely our own silly fault. Dave was wearing pants with lose pockets and had his wallet half hanging out. We were on the metro during rush hour and people crushed up against him within the packed train. Someone reached in and took his wallet, and before we realised, it was too late.
It’s the classic pickpocketing scenario and after travelling for so long, we certainly should’ve known better. So keep your wits about you on the metro to ensure no strangers get a share of your travel funds.
But to be honest, pickpocketing happens in any big city, and it could’ve happened in my own hometown – in fact it did to my dad back in Australia just the week prior.
Another annoyance is being careful not to get ripped off by taxi drivers. We made this mistake when getting a lift from the bus station to our accommodation. We negotiated the price beforehand, which we’d done throughout Mexico, but when we arrived at our final destination the driver upped the price by an extra US$10.
To avoid this, make sure the taxi driver uses the meter. You can ask them to by simply saying, “Ponga el taximetro por favor.”
Taxi tips in Mexico City
To get a taxi safely, it’s better to either walk to the closest taxi rank, where only registered cabs are allowed to enter, or ask your hotel/hostel/restaurant to call you one. Certainly do this if you have limited Spanish. If you do have to hail a taxi on the street, make sure it’s licensed with a distinctive white coloured licence plate beginning with a capital letter and five numbers.
However, try not to get too panicked about the safety of the city’s taxis – since the government re-licensing of all of the Mexico City’s cabs back in 2008, taxi crime has gone down significantly.
The cabs in Mexico City are cheap (if you get them to use the meter, see my above note!), although the cost of a taxi depends on where you get it – the most expensive option is to get your hotel or restaurant to call you a cab, and the cheapest is when you hail one off the street. Regardless, it’s very reasonable to get a taxi in Mexico City, at about US$0.65 a kilometre.
You will find the most expensive taxis at the airport, with all the fares being the same but a lot more than a typical taxi fare in Mexico City. Charges will be worked out depending on which zone of the city you are going to, and you can’t call a local taxi firm and have them pick you up as if these taxis are not affiliated with the airport it’s forbidden to do so.
You can also catch buses or the Mexico City Metro to and from the airport, but with a lot of luggage this might not be very comfortable.
Mexico City Metro tips
The Mexico City Metro is dirt cheap for tourists, especially if you’ve travelled in places like London where you practically have to sell your first born child to go anywhere on the tube.
You pay around US$0.33 for one ride on the Mexico City Metro, and it doesn’t matter what distance you go, it’s a flat fare.
Although that’s probably regarded as cheap for many of us, the average wage in Mexico City is about US$6 a day, so when you put that in to perspective, it’s quite a lot to pay if you’re a local.
But another option is to ride the metro for free – if you’re willing to do a few squats, that is.
With or without squats, try and avoid peak times, as like with any major city, the metro does get busy.
Enjoy Mexico City!
And there you have it – my rough guide to Mexico City! Do you have any tips to add? Or any questions? Write your thoughts in the comments below!
By Carmen Allan-Petale
Carmen is one half of the couple behind Double-Barrelled Travel, a travel blog focused on vlogging. Carmen married Dave two years ago and they quit their journalism careers in mid-2013 for a life on the road.