Updated: Jan 26
Being from the U.S. I'm all too familiar with the many misconceptions about Mexico that are thrown at us by media, movies, and politics. But it wasn't until I spent some time in Mexico City that I realized how truly far off these assumptions were. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is there poverty? Crime? Absolutely. But these things exist in every major city around the world. There is so much culture, history, and natural beauty that we are completely missing out on, and it's just next door! The Mexico City I became so enamored with during my weeks there definitely deserves recognition as a top travel destination, and I'm here to set the record straight.
First of all, get it out of your head that it is a “third-world” country. This is a geopolitical term that came about during the Cold War (yeah, it's outdated). It was used to define countries that did not align with NATO or the Soviet Union, and had nothing to do with the country's economy. Although people tend to use this to describe what they consider developing nations, that is not the denotation of the word, and it has zero relevancy in today's world. Even so, the skyscrapers, sprawling city parks, bustling cafes and restaurants, and magnificent public buildings would argue that the city is not just scraping by.
I'm not saying the whole country is a perfect picture of wealth - there is still a very large wage gap, and things can be quite different from city to city, and especially in rural areas. However, the Mexican economy in general is doing just fine. And as with any large city, there are people from all walks of life. Walking down the street in New York City you'd see businesspeople and young professionals, beggars and hustlers, students, families, people living in penthouse apartments, and people struggling to make ends meet. Mexico City is no different.
But isn't Mexico dangerous?
Americans have a very warped idea that the U.S. is the only place they can be safe. This kind of ethnocentrism is not only an ignorant view of the world, but also very, very wrong. It's not uncommon for a non-Latino American to have thoughts of drug cartels and gang violence when thinking about Mexico. When I was in South Korea (the safest country I have ever been in, by the way), I was often asked by friends and family about things they would hear on the news. The Western media constantly exaggerated anything North Korea did, while things in South Korea remained calm and normal. Actually, the U.S. was the one viewed as a scary place due to the rampant gun violence in recent years.
No matter where you are in the world, there are going to be pockets and neighborhoods you want to steer clear of. Using good judgment and the same safety precautions I would take in any large city, I never once felt uncomfortable in Mexico City. I watched peaceful protests on several days in the “Zocalo,” the main plaza outside the National Palace where government proceedings take place. I wandered the streets alone during the day without a care. In the evenings, there were families and children gathered in the plazas, watching street performers and eating street food. There was always a general air of festivity.
In heavy tourist areas, there are an abundance of auxiliary police, and there are security guards in every Metrobus station. There are even designated sections on the bus for women and children (and completely separate cars for the subway). In addition to all this, many businesses choose to hire their own security (I'm talking McDonald's guys). If you still need more convincing, check out this super handy visual of U.S. cities that are statistically more dangerous than Mexico City (and Mexico overall). And while you're at it go ahead and check Mexico versus some other popular travel destinations. You may be surprised at what you see.
But why visit?
Mexico City is just OOZING with culture and history. There is so much to see and learn that I didn't even do everything I had hoped after almost a month. There are hundreds of sights to see, including cathedrals, monuments, and even a castle! The city has the second most museums of any city in the world, being beat only by London. There's the Frida Kahlo house, Museum of Modern Art, and Natural History Museum just to name a few.
The city itself is also incredibly beautiful. I didn't know what to expect, but I was shocked that it was this amazing! Everywhere you turn there are ornate cathedrals, intricately designed buildings, parks, fountains, and statues. Even the post office is a palace! Aside from phenomenal architecture, the streets are alive with colorful everything. Businesses and houses alike are painted bright colors or plastered with enormous murals. I have never seen such amazing street art. “Papel picado” hangs from every terrace. Parks are plentiful, filled with mature trees and perfectly manicured shrubs. Countless monuments and statues are sprinkled throughout the city. I stumbled upon so many beautiful places simply by wandering the streets.
Hungry? There is amazing food everywhere you turn. And I'm not just talking about Mexican food. Whether it's sushi, street tacos, Korean BBQ, Arabic cuisine, or a fancy French bistro, you can find it in Mexico City. Head to Roma Norte for a hip cafe or grab a torta on almost any corner for roughly a dollar.
It is also super easy to get around. The public transport system is top notch, and many areas with sights to see are easily walkable (like the Centro Historico). Or if you like, pick up one of the many "ecobicis" that are placed throughout the city. If you need or want a guide, there are plenty of tour groups to choose from, and many of them do day trips to places like Puebla or Teotihuacan as well.
Now that we've conquered some of the typical preconceptions people have of Mexico City, let's hear some fun facts! There's still so much you don't know!
1. Mexico City has not always been Mexico City
We've been calling it that for years, but it's only officially been "Mexico City" or CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico) since 2016. Before that it was Distrito Federal, commonly called Mexico D.F. Residents still fondly refer to themselves as "defeños," a name derived from its previous abbreviation.
2. It's a melting pot
We know Mexico is a melting pot of multiple indigenous cultures, along with the Spanish. But in Mexico City there are a lot of subcultures that you might not think of. Tacos al pastor actually originated from Lebanese influence. In fact, one of the richest men in the world is a Lebanese-Mexican man by the name of Carlos Slim Helú (who I somehow had never heard of - have you?) There is a small but distinct China Town, or “Barrio Chino,” and I managed to accidentally stumble upon the Korean neighborhood (lucky me!). Another demographic: Americans. Of the number of foreign residents living in Mexico, US citizens make up the majority.
3. There were no such thing as "Aztecs"
The people we refer to as Aztecs called themselves the Mexica people. The name Aztec was given to them by outsiders, and refers to the mythical land of "Aztlan," where they were thought to be from. There is no evidence such a place ever existed.
4. It is sinking
Actively. Mexico City was originally built on an artificial island in the middle of a lake, then destroyed, and another city was built on top of that. You can see evidence of this in many of the buildings in the form of cracks and sometimes even a visible lean. There have also been ruins discovered under the city when excavating for new buildings.
5. It's super dog-friendly
Did you think you were gonna get through this without me mentioning dogs?? There are dogs EVERYWHERE. And I'm not talking about strays – these are well-behaved, well-taken-care-of dogs. You can't step foot into one of the many parks without seeing several dogs out for a stroll (with owner in tow of course). Dogwalkers wrangling ten pups at a time are a common sight and restaurants put out water bowls for their canine customers. I don't know about you, but a dog-lover is always a winner in my book.
If you're completely charmed by Mexico City now, then check out these posts:
The Best Things to do in Mexico City
Or follow along on YouTube:
What is the most surprising thing you've ever seen or learned while traveling? Comment below and let's help bust some stereotypes!