• Travel and Fanfare

Where to Stay in Mexico City

By LYDIA CAREY

Flickr / @ Tristan Higbee


If you're a first-time visitor to the city, you'll likely end up in any of the trendy neighborhoods and rightfully so: These lush neighborhoods of meandering streets, upscale shops, and hopping nightlife define the city.


Centro

As Mexico City’s oldest neighborhood, the Centro Histórico has lots to offer photographers and history buffs. There is, of course, the impressive main plaza, the Zocalo, as well as the Templo Mayor, the National Cathedral, the National Palace, the Letter Writer’s plaza and other historical spots. My favorite section is the Merced, the oldest of the old, which is basically a sprawling street market (with a real brick and mortar market at its heart) that most locals will tell you is dangerous and crazy, but I disagree. There are a couple streets with nightlife (like Regina) but in the evenings the Centro is mostly dead. Shops close up around 6 or 7 and most people head home. There are more apartments that have converted into storage than I think people living in the Centro! Still the architecture is breathtaking and the Alameda, the main park is also lovely. There’s a decent variety of really nice hotels in the Centro including the Downtown Hotel, Chaya B&B and the Historico Central, as well as most of the city’s party hostels — you’ll find much fewer Airbnbs on offer here. The sheer quantity of people during the day can be overwhelming for folks that don’t like crowds and there are of course a million tourists because of all the sites, but among so many people in the street they are less noticeable than say, Condesa. See my eat list for the Centro here, there are some great spots for traditional and new Modern Mexican there. Carlos Slim has poured a lot of money into the Centro since 2000 in order to convert it into the next SoHo in Mexico City, but it’s pretty far yet. Best thing about the Centro might be the plethora of Metro stops, worse thing might be the traffic.


Roma

Roma is probably my favorite neighborhood in the city but I am biased because it’s where I live and I wrote a book about it, so I am in deep and very attached. This is the neighborhood of the moment right now, in the midst of gentrification, but still with a bit of grit and pop and mom places still around. You will find a mix of old time residents, young people that want to be in the center of the action and foreigners that love it for its walkability and all the services and nightlife it affords. There’s a good mix of restaurants and coffeeshops as well as shopping and even a couple of cultural sites like the MODO museum. This is a good place for folks who want a little of everything and would like to stay in an Airbnb or small boutique hotel and really get to know the streets around them. It’s centrally located enough that you can make your way to other attractions and areas of the city without too much hassle. There are three metro stops on the edges of the neighborhood and within the neighborhood it’s great for biking and walking.


Polanco

An upscale neighborhood, if you want to see how the upper middle class set live while still being close enough to visit museums and downtown this your spot. Here you start to see more gated-off houses, private security and high-end shopping, but the doesn’t mean the neighborhood has lost its charm. Several of the city’s best restaurants are here including the oh-so-famous Pojul and this neighborhood is also home to many of the city’s embassies and big name hotels like the W Mexico City and InterContinental Presidente. From here you are a close walk to the many of the city’s most well-known museums like the Jumex, Soumaya, the Anthropology museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Tamayo Contemporary art museum. Polanco is a short walk to the Bosque Chapultepec (our Central Park) and near the Auditiorio Nacional if you’re in town to see a show. The traffic here is notoriously terrible on weeknights and during rush hour, especially Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Public Transportation is a drag unless you are near the Polanco Metro or near Reforma Avenue where you can hop on a bus or the metro. Here are some of my favorite things in the neighborhood to do.


Condesa

Slightly more upper class neighborhood than Roma, but still with a lot of heart, the Condesa is a nice place to have your first experience in Mexico City. It’s probably the most touristy hood so expect lots of other tourists and languages being spoken around you. The Parque Mexico, a focal point of the neighborhood, is a beautiful oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle surrounded by stunning Art Deco architecture, boutique shops, and cafes. Hotels and Airbnbs are slightly pricier here but probably nothing in comparison to the country where you traveling from. Again, lots of the city’s best restaurants are here in Condesa and it’s another great walking neighborhood. I don’t love the lack of street vendors and street food here, it seems a shame when that is so much of what makes the city great, but a handful of trash cans and some extra investment in the streets and parks almost make up for it.


San Rafael

If you want a quiet residential experience here in the city, San Rafeal is close to the Centro but doesn’t feel touristy in the least… at least not yet. The neighborhood is growing and changing. Its gorgeous architecture and a number of old theaters are a draw for photographers and there are starting to be a little gourmet coffeeshops and other small restaurants outside the usually mom and pop places sprouting up here. There is very little nightlife (yet lots of street food) here so don’t go expecting to walk around at night and pop yourself down in a little bistro to have a drink and people watch. Its residential vibe means things get pretty quiet past 7 or 8. The nice thing is that there is a great little B&B here, gorgeously decorated in an old Porfirian mansion, my top option for staying in San Rafael. There are a couple of good art galleries and showrooms as well including the Eco museum which is a small, contemporary art museum with a lot of spunk. Here’s a guide I put together.


Narvarte/Del Valle

Two other hoods with a decidedly residential vibe, Narvarte and Del Valle, south of Roma and Condesa, are bustling during the day with lots of office workers who come here each day to work along Insurgentes and some of the other major arteries. There are lots of companies with headquarters here and government departments. But inside the neighborhoods, away from the traffic, there are lots of enticing side streets and California Colonial and Functionalist architecture to appreciate. There are two large parks, Las Americas and XXXX, (nice as an area to stay if you can find an Airbnb) and tons and tons of street food everywhere you look. Some of the best taco stands, in my opinion, are in these neighborhoods. Staying here you are a hop, skip and jump away from Roma and Condesa, and headed southward if you want to visit Coyoacan and Xochimilco. There are some great coffeeshops and bakeries here and a cross-section of young chilangos that have fled the expensive rents of Roma and Condesa for something a little easier on the pocketbook. That said, these neighborhoods are solidly middle class and they give a sense of what regular life is like here for that class of folks. Both neighborhoods have great local markets for shopping and eating.


Coyoacan

While Coyoacán actually covers a huge area that includes the University City of the UNAM to the south, most people when they think of Coyoacán picture the central part of what was once the town. The former home of Frida and Diego, Coyoacán was a suburb of Mexico City for a long time before the city swallowed it up. You can feel that in the cobblestone streets, central plaza, and ancient churches. It feels like visiting a provincial town in Mexico like San Miguel de Allende or Puebla. The neighborhood is upscale, not super cheap, but still accessible, and there are great restaurants and eateries including the local Coyoacán market. Frida’s Blue House is here, as well Trotsky’s place and some small galleries, gourmet food shops, the Italy Cultural Center and some nice local theaters. The most enjoyable part of Coyoacán is the relative tranquility and quiet here, even though the big avenues surrounding the neighborhood are traditionally a crush of traffic. Weekends get a little circus like in the plaza, as people come from all over the city for a “day out” in Coyoacan. You’re a little far from the center of town here, but you can be in the Roma in 40 minutes on the metro, that is if you are close to it, there are a couple metro stops but they all sit on the edges of the most visited areas.


Xochimilco

Far south in the city, Xochimilco is a hodge podge of squat little houses, tiny alleyways and bautiful little churches. It’s a good place to get a better sense of working class in the city, while still being a safe neighborhood. The canals are right there so you have immediate access, but it’s so far south of the city center that people generally don’t choose to stay here. That has created a lack of options for hotels and Airbnb. Still, beautiful parks, lots of commerce, a bustling local market, and the canals all make Xochimilco attractive for someone wanting to get out and explore more of CDMX. Here, like Coyoacán, also feels like you have traveled outside of the city and are staying in a small town instead of the hyper-urban Mexico City.


Juarez

The most up-and-coming neighborhood on this list, Juarez has a stellar location close to the Centro Historico, Polanco, Roma and Condesa. It’s a small triangular sliver inbetween all those hoods and every day there are more delicious options for eating, drinking, shopping, and wellness. The neighborhood is a deep urban dig, so be prepared, at least in the daytime, for it not to be some mellow cobblestone plaza and folks ambling along taking photos. There is hustle and bustle everywhere with some nice small and big name hotels and the city’s Zona Rosa on the western side, still a party hotspot with lots of clubs, gay bars, and karaoke bars. In the evenings certain sections get pretty quiet (except for the Zona Rosa) but you can find small patches where restaurants and bars stay open late yet are mellower than the club scene. Some of the city’s loveliest neoclassical and colonial architecture is here, with massive mansions sometimes split up into apartments, sometimes turned into giant shops.


See my guide to Juarez here.

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