Traveling to Mexico City? What to tip, how to behave, and when to avoid the Metro

In Mexico City, life is a contact sport.
(PJ Rountree / For The Times)

This is the real-talk portion of your guide to Mexico City.

First, a note about the city’s name. In 2015, city think-ocrats initiated a global rebranding for Mexico’s capital. It lost its designation as a Federal District (akin to District of Columbia), and became simply Ciudad de México, but crucially, the government began pushing a fresh text shorthand: “CDMX.”

Though “CDMX” has fully entered mainstream discourse, I remain part of the dwindling minority that avoids its use. I find the moniker so grating because it rolls off the tongue easily in English and a bit awkwardly in Spanish — a cutting clue for whom the rebrand was really targeting all along. In everyday conversation, you may still hear hard-core “chilangos” (slang term for Mexico City residents) stubbornly use “D.F.” (“deh efeh”) to refer to their city.

Now, to the tips.


1. The monster that hugs you

I must be blunt here. You see TikToks and listicles about Mexico City and it is always remarkable to me that none of its less attractive characteristics are acknowledged. And when you’re aware of even a fraction of the challenges and failures that still grip locals or cause them to flee the city altogether — in the environment, traffic, corruption, justice and accountability — it’s almost offensive.

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Once you get out of the core between Centro and Polanco, the difficulties of life in Mexico will become stark. A lot has improved in the past few decades, yet class and social bubbles can deceptively make it seem like life here is a pageant of leafy plazas and guava pastries. The capital of Mexico is still fundamentally a dog-eat-dog sort of place, beset with persistent overlapping challenges. Most of its vast sprawl is as gritty as the outskirts of Buenos Aires and Bogotá, and as frequently unforgiving. However, this is a “monster” that hugs you, dances with you and is a terrific drinking partner. Just keep your positionality in constant perspective.


2. Is the altitude hitting you?

Illustration of water jugs and bottles

The tap water won’t kill you while tooth brushing or showering, but sure, drink only filtered water when in Mexico City. It’s also a good idea to carry water with you everywhere; altitude sickness as you acclimate is common, as is fatigue from a bad day of pollution. If you are feeling a bit wheezy or dehydrated, pull up to any bar or eatery and request a “Tehuacan” or “agua mineral preparada.” That is mineral water on ice with lime and rock salt. Replenish those electrolytes.


3. When to take the Metro ... and when to avoid it

The Metro, one of the busiest in the world, is fun to try if you’re in town for a short time and looking for an almost obstacle-course-level adventure between destinations. Just avoid it during the morning commute and between 3 and 7 p.m., sometimes later. The system is heavily subsidized and still costs just five pesos to ride, which means most of the 5 million people who use it daily do so primarily out of necessity — wealthy Mexicans may even boast they’ve never used the train in their lives. The network of stations is an entire sub-society with its own customs, codes and frequently a sense of collective chaos. The first car of every train is reserved for women only.

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Keep in mind, the overall transit grid is multifaceted and always expanding. Use the Metrobus system, with dedicated bus lanes on surface streets, or the Ecobici bike-share system with any credit card. For taxis, it’s best to use “sitios” or registered stands, or any ride-share service. Hail taxis on the street only if you really know your way around and could identify any driver’s deviation from an accepted route.


4. Tipping and other social flourishes

Illustration of hands exchanging money

Be confident and speak clearly to cabbies, hotel staff and servers. Upon receiving your check at the table, review each item and make sure it’s correct. For tipping, 15% is standard, and 20% is very good. At payment, it is customary to add the tip before your card is run, not after at signing. Say, “Add 15%, please.” (Or “Con el 15” or “Agregue el 15.”) They will be quite grateful.

The culture is sprinkled with formalities and social flourishes that everyone still uses, across class lines. You must say good morning, good evening, please, thank you, you’re welcome and “hasta luego” — until next time — to everyone, strangers and friends alike, even if you are certain there will be no next time.

In dining rooms, it is customary to acknowledge the table next to you as you get up to leave. Mexico City residents say “Buen provecho” or “Provecho” to someone nearby who is still eating; it is the local “Bon appetit” or “Enjoy your meal,” and one of the delights of dining out here. The drinking age is 18 in Mexico. There is no carding culture, except maybe at beer dens in direct proximity to a major university or high school.


5. Open up, but don’t let your guard down

This is not official safety information, the kind you get from the U.S. Embassy on crime or security in any country (this is the current official travel advisory for Mexico from the State Department). But like anywhere big in the world, people here should stay on alert. In Mexico City, the saying goes, if someone spots an opening to swindle you, even for a few pesos, they’ll take it — with a smile. So open up to Mexico, but don’t let your guard down. Use your good judgment when meeting new people. Muggings and theft are unfortunately still common for locals. Visitors usually are fine. Just move with an alert and curious demeanor, find trusted locals to orient and guide you, when appropriate, and the city will respond in kind.


6. Know the national identity

For better or for worse, and in direct opposition to what we know in the United States, social divisions in Mexico are organized primarily around class rather than color or race. Mexicans are at their root an Indigenous people — dozens of distinct, stunningly diverse groups have flourished here for millenniums, though most Americans can generally only name two or three. In the 500 years since colonialism, a rigid racial caste system that existed under Spanish rule melted away, and Mexican national identity evolved into a big tent: Most are now mestizo, or Indigenous and European. Mexicans can be white or Black, Asian or Arab, or, in large part, a mix of any such combination. Colorism is still an issue, but most people here embrace a national culture that largely supersedes factional divisions, which can be refreshing in many respects for Americans exhausted with how divided we are up here. Thus, it can be puzzling for many native Mexicans to hear U.S. people fret and agonize so much over their color and race. This is not to say that class-based societal tension is somehow “better” or more tolerable. However, this clear distinction between the two general cultures can sometimes cause friction for first-time visitors.


7. Mexico City is not Cancún, so don’t act like it

Mexico City is not Cancún or Los Cabos. It wasn’t developed or urbanized for the sole purpose of pleasing you. Not everyone here speaks English! Or even cares to try! Or even finds it endearing to hear it from a stranger! At the same time, Mexico City residents are so polite and welcoming, they will willingly endure your mangled Spanish or Spanglish to help you if you need it.


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Don’t land here and start complaining about things you can’t control. In the United States, maybe we’ve become a bit too accustomed to having temperatures set to precisely our liking at all times. Homes are not by default equipped with heaters or air conditioning in the Valley of Mexico. People just add layers, or cover their windows when temperatures go extreme in either direction. The boundary between outside and inside is always fuzzy and negotiable in Mexico, even in the big city. So if you’re hot, find a way to cool down. If you’re cold, go throw on a scarf. The weather changes about four times a day anyway.

Don’t like it when a random stranger bumps into you? Hate it when someone takes a seat directly next to you even if a few over are empty? If so, maybe you won’t mesh so easily with Mexico City, where life is a contact sport.


8. Eating at home is always better

In Mexico City, lunch is church, and home cooking with a family will always be better than anything in a restaurant — a locked-in rule. When I first stayed here, with a working-class clan in a three-level cinderblock house in Iztacalco borough, there were approximately six full family meals in a day, including three distinct breakfasts adhering to three distinct points of a morning. I’m not kidding.

Illustration of piles of fruit at a market

If someone invites you to their house to eat, consider the possibility that whatever you are served might end up being the culinary highlight of your trip. You can get a small taste of this when you try comida corrida at a fonda; this is the Mexico City prix fixe custom of affordable, home-style, lunchtime-only restaurants, which appear on almost every other corner in this city, from the wealthiest to the poorest neighborhoods. The meals range from 60 to 150 pesos (about $3.50 to $9) usually. It would be impossible to say, “Go to this one or that,” as convenience — to the office, or just downstairs from your apartment — is the defining factor in one’s allegiance.

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Use the markets whenever possible. Every major colonia has one, and some are better than others. Yet each sustains a custom of exchange that goes back centuries, and I wish we had public markets with open stalls and vendors in every city here in the States. In my final few years living in Mexico City full-time, my door for a while was 10 paces away from the entrance to a market, where I could roll out of bed in the morning, walk over in my chanclas and get fresh herbs, cheeses, eggs, legumes, vegetables, dairy and avocados “for today” from independent vendors, small farmers and lifetime butchers and fishmongers. Ten paces! I remember thinking, everyone in the world should live like this.