Travel Like a Local: Mexico City

Picture of a building.

Andrés Vargas’ childhood was immersed in his family’s Mexican heritage. He often traveled from Sacramento, Calif., to visit family in Mexico, indulging in the cuisine and exploring cities from the Gulf to the Pacific Ocean.

A group of people smiling outdoors.
Andrés Vargas, pictured far right, and his family strolling through the city center. Courtesy photo.

Vargas, BA’23, an accounts and administration officer at the Embassy of Ireland in Mexico, settled in Mexico City after graduating with a degree in international affairs from IU Bloomington’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

“I decided to come back to [Mexico] to hone my cross-cultural skills and share my experience as a Hoosier, with the goal of getting more Mexicans to embark on their educational journey in Indiana,” he says. “IU broadened my horizons in that I could leverage my education and skills anywhere.”

Mexico City is an energetic and historical city known for its street food and art—both of which Vargas is rediscovering as an adult.

“Mexico City has a myriad of things to do, great cuisine, and amazing weather all year round,” Vargas says. “What else could I ask for?”

In the following Q&A, Vargas reveals his favorite brunch spot as well as the best place in Mexico City to enjoy mariachi.


Food and Drinks

Can you name a few of your favorite restaurants in Mexico City?

Andrés Vargas: Some of my personal favorites in the city are La Casa de Toño —their flautas (golden tacos) are their best dish on the menu by far; Café de Tacuba —I usually go for a coffee and a freshly baked pastry but their pozoles are fantastic too; and La Casa de las Sirenas —my favorite dish is the mole de mango.

Where would you recommend going for brunch?

AV: Sanborns is my go-to. My favorite dish—which is also their specialty—is the enchiladas suizas, taco rolls filled with meats and bathed in a savory sauce with cheese.

A restaurant terrace.
A terrace view from the restaurant La Calle de las Sirenas, overlooking the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral in the central plaza of the Zócalo. Courtesy photo.

Is there a dish that is specific to Mexico City? Where is the best place to get it?

AV: There are so many dishes native to la Ciudad de México—CDMX for short. A few of my local favorites are chilaquiles (lightly fried tortilla chips bathed in salsa) and enchiladas (corn tortillas filled with a meat or other ingredients and drenched in a savory sauce). The best time to eat them would be at brunch along with coffee or agua fresca (fruit juice).

Is there street food you recommend trying?

AV: Mexican street food is among the best in the world and even that’s an understatement. From my experience, neighborhoods Roma and Centro Histórico are good spots for street food. Tacos will be the highlight of your trip. The soft corn tortilla mixed with the fresh ingredients and perfectly seasoned meats make tacos an exquisite meal. As for places to avoid, perhaps any vendor that isn’t busy with people waiting or eating.

Where do you recommend grabbing a drink?

AV: There are many bars around the city center and trendy areas such as Polanco, Roma, and La Condesa.

If you want a unique experience in a cantina, I recommend going to Plaza Garibaldi for cocktails, especially those made with mezcal or tequila. Micheladas are my favorite cocktail. It is made with beer, tomato juice, and spices and served in a salt-rimmed glasses.

Plaza Garibaldi is also the mariachi hotspot of the city and people come here to sing and dance all night long. The party often starts late—usually past midnight—so come prepared!


Accommodations

Which neighborhood do you recommend visitors stay in?

AV: Polanco, Roma, and La Condesa are all great spots to stay in. They have a myriad of restaurants, cafes, bars, and are well-connected via public transport. The city center (by Zócalo) is also a great spot to stay in as everything is in proximity and walkable.

Do you recommend using Airbnb or booking a hotel?

AV: I would opt for a hotel, especially if you are new to the city. The current high cost of living won’t save you much in an Airbnb, and hotels have far more amenities.

There’s no better place than staying in the heart of the city, Centro Histórico. I’d recommend Hotel Catedral, which has a great view of the Metropolitan Cathedral and offers a paid shuttle bus to the airport. Hotel Castropol, also located in the city center, has a bar and is easy on the budget.

Outside of the city center, I recommend staying in Roma at the Stanza Hotel, which is near a city park and surrounded by trendy restaurants and bars.

For luxury accommodation, Paseo de la Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main avenues, is the way to go. On that street, you’ll find the Four Seasons Hotel Mexico City, The St. Regis Mexico City, The Ritz-Carlton, Mexico City.


Sightseeing and Entertainment

A watercraft.
A gondola-like boat called a trajinera, navigates down a waterway in Xochimilco. Trajineras typically have vivid designs and can hold up to 25 people. Courtesy photo.

Where do you recommend someone go to visit the Aztec ruins?

AV: There are two sites you can visit while in Mexico City: Templo Mayor and Teotihuacan. Templo Mayor is in the very heart of the city, and it is thought to be the site of the largest structure from the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. Teotihuacan is only an hour away from the city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with three monumental pyramids: Pyramid of the Sun, Moon, and Feathered Serpent. If you are up for it, you can even climb up to the summits.

What are some must-see attractions in Mexico City?

AV: Museums, museums, and museums. Mexico City has more than 150 museums ranging from archaeology and art to science and chocolate. I recommend visiting the Castle of Chapultepec.

I also recommend taking a cruise through the canals of Xochimilco, watching an exhilarating lucha libre match on a Friday in Arena Mexico, and witnessing the roaring crowd at the Estadio Azteca on game day.


Navigating the City

What’s the easiest way to get around?

AV: Mexico City boasts a subway and bus system that can take you to most places. Like many big cities, there is perpetual traffic which makes it practical to take the subway or bus to your destinations. It costs only MXN$5 (29 cents in American dollars) for a single subway trip and MXN$6 for a Metrobús ride. The city has also made strides to be more bike-friendly with many public bikes you can rent, like Ecobici.

Is English spoken throughout Mexico City? If not, is there a translation app that you suggest?

AV: The influx of tourists and digital nomads have made English a widely spoken language around the city; however, if you do stumble upon a language barrier situation, I recommend using iTranslate for any spoken communication.

What are your opinions on safety in Mexico City?

AV: There are areas where it’s perfectly safe and there are others where it’s best to avoid. Most of the tourist destinations are in safe areas, so take general precautions and you’ll be fine.

Man standing outside.
Vargas standing in front of Paseo de la Reforma, an avenue that runs diagonally across the Mexico City. Paseo de la Reforma hosts parades, protests, and the Angel of Independence. Courtesy photo.

Any tips for being respectful of the culture?

AV: Although Mexico City is becoming more cosmopolitan by the day, it still holds some conservative social norms that may be useful to know before coming. Greetings and farewells are very important—especially when meeting people—to show respect. Tipping culture is also as crucial as in the U.S. and goes beyond waiters in restaurants. It is common to tip hospitality staff such as porters who carry your bags or gas station attendants.

Mexicans will rarely wear shorts and sandals in the city. Even in the summer, people are typically well-dressed. Overall, come with an open mind and perhaps leave the shorts and sandals at home.


This story is part of our travel series, Travel Like a Local, which features IU alumni living in major cities all around the world.

Written By
Autumn Simone Monaghan
Autumn Monaghan, MA'14, is a graduate of IUPUI’s Sports Capital Journalism Program and a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.