Live Like a Local in Mexico City

Between its vibrant art scene, dynamic nightlife, and spectacular food, Mexico City possesses a rich culture, regardless of its gargantuan population and size. When visiting or relocating to a large metropolis like Mexico’s capital city, it’s often difficult to have an authentic experience and get an accurate perception of what life is like for a local. It’s especially tricky, too, because many Google search results will send you directly to the most popular locations among tourists like the Zócalo, The National Museum of Anthropology, and Chapultepec Park. Regardless of how much you may be looking to veer off the beaten path and avoid these typical attractions, there’s a reason why they’re so popular. Most locals will agree that the Zócalo is as spectacular as it is significant, The National Museum of Anthropology is a must-see, Chapultepec Park is a beautiful oasis within the city, and they have gone or go to these places too.

 The Palacio de Bellas Artes in the Centro Historico

The Palacio de Bellas Artes in the Centro Historico

That being said, getting an authentic perception of the city is important. Oftentimes, people conduct a lot of research while planning a trip with the intention of finding the most local spots they can. However, counter-intuitively, thorough planning can often perpetuate a very “touristy” trip. A good way to get a taste of where the local people go and what the local people eat is to ask them. Sometimes, it’s a small establishment that hasn’t developed a presence on the internet or among travel blogs, but is cherished among its neighborhood. Of course, to talk to the local people, you must share a common language. Learning how to say phrases that are relevant to this is a good idea because most of Mexico City’s population speaks little English. Besides, it’s a much more immersive experience if you’re communicating in the native tongue.

Mexico City does not have a single uniform culture. Like the boroughs of New York City, Mexico City’s neighborhoods, or “colonias,” have varying attractions, styles, and personalities. Whether they’re upscale, commercial, historic, artistic, a few of these, or none of the above, a good thing to keep in mind when exploring Mexico City is where you’re more likely to find what you’re seeking. One borough might be upscale and commercialized with high traffic and international residents, whereas another might be residential, historic, and populated with locals.

Polanco, for example, is a posh neighborhood with upscale shopping and dining that’s commonly visited by tourists. A few key attractions include the Museum of Anthropology and Soumaya Museum. Another popular neighborhood among people visiting Mexico City is Centro Historico because of its fame, accessibility, and number of historical landmarks. Although they both have a flourishing art scene, vast amount of attractions, and are as beautiful as the other neighborhoods in the city, they may not be the best place to visit for someone looking to have a “local experience”. La Condesa, on the other hand, is trendy, urban, and vibrant like Polanco and Centro Historico, while still maintaining its local charm and personal neighborhood feel. Its designer shops, dynamic nightlife, beautiful landscaping, and park make it a great locale for those seeking an authentic look into life as a Mexico City local. In like manner, Roma Norte possesses the same allure. There, a plethora of markets and food vendors line numerous streets and street corners. Art is everywhere. The neighborhood’s recent renovation has attracted a hip, younger crowd of expressionists that have filled every coffee shop, night club, and blank outdoor canvas with an explosion of art and culture.

 The neighborhood of Polanco has a cosmopolitan feel with many upscale stores and restaurants

The neighborhood of Polanco has a cosmopolitan feel with many upscale stores and restaurants

Luckily, getting around these neighborhoods is easy via either the metro or taxi-service apps like Uber. Both, however, get terribly congested during rush hour, where people pack into the metro like sardines and jam into grid-like traffic. Coincidentally enough, this reflects the pace that the people of Mexico City usually maintain.

In fact, Americans often acknowledge that people in Mexico work and live at a slower pace than those in the US. The two cultures vary greatly regarding time orientation. While there’s a very strong monochronic culture in the US, Mexico maintains an polychronic culture, where people do not conduct their lives by the clock. For instance, in Mexico, the time that something starts is when everyone arrives, and it ends when everyone goes home. If an American is to live like a local in Mexico City, they may have to adopt or adjust to this cultural aspect.

One adjustment that should be less difficult is to Mexico City’s delectable culinary scene. From fine dining to street food, Mexico City has a plethora of spectacular gastronomical options. For Americans, a culinary experience there might be an eye-opening experience because much of the “Mexican food” in America is actually Tex-Mex, a fusion of American and Mexican cuisine. Americans should immerse themselves in the local food, which may not be what they’re used to at home. Street vendors in Mexico City, for example, are well known for their exceptional indulgences from elote (Mexican grilled corn) to tostadas (a fried tortilla piled with a variation of toppings) to tamales (a meat stuffed dough pocket steamed inside a corn husk).

Visitors will often find that street vendors sell a number of unfamiliar foods such as chapulines (grasshopper) or maguey worms (often fried as a crispy snack or taco filling). Since food is such a substantial part of Mexican culture, living like a local in Mexico City involves immersing oneself in the local culinary habits. However, if you’re not interested in ingesting insects, simply trying a new food is a good start.

Street markets have a prominent place in Mexico City’s food scene as a single stop for all sustenance needs. Many markets include a multitude of street food vendors, fresh produce selections, flea market products, and other goods. Don’t be afraid to haggle for prices if they seem unreasonable, as this is a common practice within the markets. Locals and tourists alike are often able to negotiate a price to one that seems reasonable for both the buyer and seller.

 A street vendor Roma

A street vendor Roma

Regardless of how vast a metropolis it is, having an authentic experience in Mexico City can begin with something as simple as a tamale from a street vendor, a stroll through a park in La Condesa, or a conversation with someone on the metro. As visitors and tourists experience its various components, they develop a more complete picture of Mexico City, as beautiful as the art that fills its streets.

Kim Hill