Mexico City (Spanish: México, Ciudad de México, or DF (de effe)) is the capital of Mexico, and one of the world's largest and most populated cities.
Mexico City is so large that it is best to think of it in terms of several smaller regions. Many older towns like Coyoacán and Tlalpan got merged into the urban sprawl, and each of these still manages to preserve some of its original character.
Mexico City, one of the world's largest and most populated cities, forms a rough oval of about 60 by 40 kilometers, on the dry bed of lake Texcoco, surrounded on three sides by tall mountains. It's a massive urban sprawl, stretching from the state of Mexico in the north, through the federal district (Distrito Federal), and into the state of Morelos in the south. Estimates place the population of the full metropolitan area at somewhere between 25 and 30 million people.
The Distrito Federal part of the city, which is where most tourists will spend the majority of their time, is divided up into 16 delegations, similar to the boroughs of New York, which in turn are divided into "colonies" (colonias), of which there are about 250. Knowing what colony you're going to is essential to getting around, almost all locals will know where a given colony is (however, beware that there are some colonies with duplicate or very similar names). As with many very large cities, the structure is relatively decentralized, with several parts of the city having their own miniature "downtown areas". However, the real downtown areas are Centro, the old city center, and Zona Rosa, the new business and entertainment district.
Mexico City has a (partly undeserved) bad reputation, both in terms of crime statistics, air pollution, and more contrived issues, such as earthquakes. However, crime levels are drastically down over the last decade, and were never much higher than that of large cities in the United States. Today, crime rate is about that of cities in the US, but skewed away from violent crime and homicide. As in most large cities, there are areas that are better avoided, especially at night, and precautions to take, but Mexico City is not a particularly dangerous city. As for air pollution, levels vary greatly, but the average is far better than that of Los Angeles. Pollution is at its worst in the hot, dry season in spring, from February to May, when there are days when it becomes bothersome even for people without respiratory conditions, but during the rest of the year, it is hardly noticable.
Mexico City's night life is like all other aspects of the city; it's huge. There is an enormous selection of clubs, bars, restaurants, cafes, and variations and combinations thereof to choose from.
Many places travellers will enjoy the most tend to be dominated by the middle and upper classes, which might be a good or bad thing, depending entirely on your outlook. The more upper-class places have an unwritten dress code, and discriminate rather blatantly by social and economic class at the door. Looking like a foreigner (meaning, being white) will usually get you in, if you're dressed right. This is a common thing in Mexico, as a foreigner, you can get away with a lot more, and people will tend to look favorably or forgivingly on you almost no matter what you do. It's worth considering the moral implications of implicitly supporting or taking advantage of this practice, however.
Also, when going out, check the date, since this is an important indicator of how full places will generally be, and how long you might have to wait to get in. Salaries are usually paid twice per month, the 30th/31st-1st, and the 14th-15th. On or right after these dates is when most Mexicans will go out, especially if pay day coincides with a weekend (Mexican weekends, in the sense of when it's common to go out drinking, are Thursday night to Sunday morning, and sometimes throughout Sunday).
Most travellers arrive to Mexico City by air, to Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX), located in the eastern part of the city. There are frequent flights to and from most larger cities in the Americas, as well as Amsterdam, London, Paris, Madrid, and Frankfurt.
In the arrival hall, carriers will offer you to carry your luggage. This is a service supported by the airport officials and is safe. There is no fixed price for this service, but 15-25 pesos should be fine. The airport has a system of licensed and secure taxis (yellow with black airplane symbol), where you buy a ticket inside the airport, and hand it over to the cab driver outside. Be sure to get the detachable piece of the ticket back. Prices range from 5 to 25 US dollars for the taxi service, depending on the size of the car what zone of the city you are going to. Although the official airport taxi service is safe, be sure to check that you get a ticket for a proper sized car. A drawing of a car on the ticket will tell you what type of car the ticket is valid for. The ticket vendors are known to sell more expensive tickets for huge vans to single persons with moderate amounts of luggage. The airport is not located in the best area of the city, so it is not recommended for tourists to walk out of the airport area to look for cheap taxis. If you are looking for a more economical means of transportation and you're not carrying too much luggage, use the Metro which is next to the airport terminal (to the left when coming out).
The city also has four large long-distance bus stations, including one at the airport, with connections to hundreds of large and small Mexican locations, as well as Guatemala, Belize, and the southern USA. Bus fares range from 10 US dollars round trip to towns close to the city, up to around 150 dollars roundtrip for distant locations. Buses are generally airconditioned and well kept, providing reasonable comfort even for the longest trips. Several bus lines arrive at each station, and they give preference to the cities in Mexico that are relative to each station; for example, to go to the cities in the Eastern part of Mexico, use the East bus station.
If you get absolutely lost and you are far away from your hotel, hop into a pesero (mini bus) or bus that takes you to a Metro station; most of them do. Look for the sign with the stylized metro "M" in the front window. From there you can get back to a more familiar place. If you are in downtown area you are always close to a metro station, ask the locals before embarking in a pesero adventure.
The city's subway system is one of the most used in the world, transporting millions of people every day. It's relatively quick and efficient, especially as an alternative to taxis during rush hours, and extremely cheap (tickets for one trip with unlimited transfers within the system are about 20 cents). However, trains are often filled to capacity, and it can be hot and uncomfortable. There are also incidences of pickpocketing. The metro is most useful when your destination is on a metro line you're already close to, to minimize train changes. In those cases, the metro can be the absolutely quickest way to travel longer distances within the city.
All large avenues in the city have regular buses. There are two general types of buses, the "peseros", or small buses, and the normal-sized ones. Both types usually use the same bus stops. Generally, the full-sized buses are more comfortable, since the peseros have much lower ceilings, and are fuller. Peseros cost 2 pesos for shorter trips, and 3 for longer (6 km+) trips. Full-sized buses are 3.50 pesos for shorter trips, and 4.50 for longer, with the exception of the orange state-run buses, which are always 2 pesos cents (note that these don't give change, you either pay with exact change, or more than the actual price).
Buses can be packed during rush hours, and you have to pay attention to your stops (buses make very short stops if there's just someone getting off, so be ready), but they are very practical when your route aligns with a large avenue. There's usually a button above or close to the rear door to signal that you're getting off, if there isn't one, it's not working, or you can't get to it, shouting Baja! in a loud and desperate voice usually works. Don't overdo it, though.
There are several trolley bus routes. They usually do not get as crowded as regular buses, and they are quite comfortable. There is a flat fare of two pesos (20 cents), and bus drivers give no change.
The more than 250 thousand registered cabs are one of the most efficient ways to get around, especially outside of rush hours, and prices are low, a fixed fee of about 6 pesos to get into the cab, and about 0.7 pesos per half kilometer or 45 seconds thereafter, for the normal taxis (taxi libre). The night rates, supposedly between 11 at night and 6 in the morning, but this may vary with the cab driver's mood, are about 20% higher. Some taxis "adjust" their meters to run more quickly, but in general, cab fare is cheap, and it's usually easy to find a taxi. At night, and in areas where there are few taxis, cab drivers will often not use the meter, but rather quote you a price before you get in. This price will often be high, however, you can haggle. If you don't agree on the price, don't worry, another cab will come along.
Many travel guides will tell you that catching cabs in the street is dangerous, but this is generally exaggerated. Taxi robberies, so-called "express kidnappings", where the victim is robbed, and then taken on a trip to various ATMs to max out their credit cards, do occur, but there are some general precautions that will minimize the risk:
Downtown Mexico City has been an urban area since the 12th century, and the city is filled with historical buildings and landmarks from every epoch since then. It is also known as the City of Palaces, because of the large number of stately buildings, especially in the Centro. In addition, there's an exceptional number of museums in the city.
You can find almost any kind of food in Mexico City, both specialties from all regions of Mexico, to international cuisine. Vegetarian alternatives are commonly available in most larger restaurants. For those who want something familiar and safe (but probably rather bland in comparison to what else is available), most international food chains have franchises. There are also Mexican chains that can be assumed to be safe and similar no matter where you are, including Vips, Toks, and the most traditional, Sanborns. If you're on a budget, you can also try one of the myriad of "comida corrida" restaurants (set menus) or stands selling tortas (filled bread rolls) or tacos, but caution is adviced since some places may lack the necessary hygiene. If you feel like trying this, look for places with lots of people, popularity is generally proportional to quality.
For a quick snack you can always try a tamal bought on the street or specialized shops, accompanied by atole, which is the breakfast of the humble on their way to work. Shopping malls will offer a respite of international franchises mixed with local chains that may offer interesting fare.
The typical Mexican place to go to drink is the cantina, a bar where food is usually free, and you pay for drinks (exact policies and minimums vary). These serve a range of Mexican and foreign drinks, prices are usually reasonable compared to prices in the US, and you'll be continually served various Mexican food, such as tacos. If your tolerance for Mexican music (mariachi or otherwise), smoke-filled rooms, and lots of noise is low, however, this might not be your kind of place. Cantinas are open moderately late, usually past midnight at the very least.
In addition, there are bars of the kind most travellers will be used to, many of these play a combination of spanish- and english-language rock, electronic music, and some latin/caribbean music. These also close around 3-4.
There are clubs, falling into three main categories, pop, rock and electronic music. The pop places generally play what's on the music charts, latin pop, and sometimes traditional Mexican music, and are frequented by a younger (sometimes very young) audience, often more upper class. The rock places play rock in the wide sense, in English and Spanish. Most people are at least over 18 in these places. The electronica clubs, which attract everyone from Mexico City's large subculture of ravers and electronica fans, of all ages. Some of these clubs have a strong upper-class bent, check the crowd outside before you enter to see if it's people you enjoy spending time with. Most clubs close late, 3-4 at the earliest, and some are open until 7 or 8.
The other common Mexican-style thing to do when going out is to go dancing, usually to salsa, merengue, rumba, mambo, son, or other caribbean/latin music. This is considerably more fun if you're a somewhat competent dancer, but even complete beginners who don't mind making fools of themselves will likely enjoy it. If you are single, this is an excellent way to hook up with someone; Mexicans will generally take pleasure in teaching you basic dance steps. Most dance places close late, 3-4 is common.