Mexico City is one of the most culturally dynamic and exciting cities in Latin America. Long established as a magnet for revolutionaries and exiles, writers and artists, it’s also the political and mercantile powerhouse of the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country and the world’s 10th-richest country.
Know locally as Distrito Federal, or DF, around 21.2 million people live in its 3,017sq mile metropolitan district, mainly in neighbourhoods called barrios. I first visited five years ago; returning two years later to report on how the city was becoming safer, enforced through successive local administrations as the country has prospered. On a trip in late 2013, I saw further layers of gentrification around the historic centre.
Every visitor should stand within the Zócalo, the main square (Plaza de la Constitución). This is where locals protest, march, celebrate and stroll. The Templo Mayor in the northeast corner, just beyond the vast Metropolitan Cathedral, was believed to be the centre of the earth by its Aztec builders. Stroll around the old town, have a coffee at Café El Popular and look out for pre-Columbian reliefs in the corner of colonial-era buildings.
The barrios are very walkable, too: leafy Condesa has great bars and restaurants; Polanco has pedestrian/cycling strips down the centre of its genteel, mansion-lined streets; bohemian Roma has a weekend antiques market; and scruffy, gay-friendly Zona Rosa an easy-going charm. Taxi rides south to Coyoacán and San Ángel reveal two lively villages that have been absorbed by the megacity — Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky and artist Frida Kahlo lived here and each has a dedicated museum. To sign off, take a lift up the Torre Latinoamericana to the 44th-floor observation deck. Having toured the backstreets and neighbourhoods, it’s time to take in the view.
Food glorious food
Street food is a big part of Mexican life. People from all walks of life congregate on corners to feast on quesadillas, prickly pear, menudo (tripe) soups, tacos, camotes (sweet potatoes) and tamales (cooked dough filled with meat or cheese).
Regions like Yucatán, Michoacán and Veracruz have their own food traditions, and their produce and best chefs end up in Mexico City’s restaurants. From Puebla and Oaxaca come the chilli-based mole sauces — some chocolatey, others herby. From the cornfields comes highly-prized huitlacoche fungus, which grows on the cobs and tastes of truffles.
High-end Mexico City restaurant cuisine is far removed from the cheesy, fiery, carb-packing Tex-Mex cliché. Biko takes its cue from Spain’s Basque region; Merotoro’s from Baja Californian grilled fish and meat; Sud 777 fuses Asian and Latin American but sources ingredients locally; meanwhile, Enrique Olvera, the chef at Pujol, dabbles in molecular gastronomy and uses exotic ingredients like ant larvae and grasshoppers. All these restaurants featured on last year’s Latin America’s 50 Best list.
For cheap and cheerful, popular chain La Chilanguita does staples like barbecued meats, fish, rice, beans and guacamole, with tortillas to wrap your own fajitas with. At cantinas the fare is hearty and reasonably priced. Covadonga does Spanish classics such as tortilla (Spanish omelette), Galician-style squid and thinly sliced jamón serrano. At the vintage El Penacho de Moctezuma, choose between stews, fried snacks, steaks and sushi.
And don’t forget the tianguis (markets) for tortilla wraps, soups and fruit; or hole-in-the-wall comida corrida (set lunch) places for simple, tasty chicken, fish or beef fillets with rice and salad, soups and stews, and spicy enchiladas. Whatever your budget, you can eat well in Mexico City.
Biko: Presidente Masaryk 407 Polanco. biko.com.mx
Pujol: Francisco Petrarca 254, Polanco. pujol.com.mx
Merotoro: Amsterdam 204, Condesa. T: 00 52 55 5564 7799.
Sud 777: Boulevard de la Luz 777, Jardines del Pedregal. sud777.com.mx
La Chilanguita: Branches across the city. lachilanguita.com/masaryk.html
Covadonga: Puebla 121, Roma. banquetescovadonga.com.mx
El Penacho de Moctezuma: Guerrero 142, Guerrero. elpenachodemoctezuma.com.mx
Art & design
Artistic creation is everywhere. One of the best ways to plot a trip around the central neighbourhoods is to see as many murals as you can. The must-sees include Diego Rivera’s pieces in the dedicated Museo Mural Diego Rivera and in the Palacio Nacional, plus works by José Clemente Orozco and others at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. Don’t miss the huge The Revolution Against the Porfirian Dictatorship mural by David Siquieros in the Museo Nacional de la Historia, while Rivera’s worker-focused mural project at the Mercado Aberlardo Rodíguez is inspirational. The city’s established art galleries — the Museo de Arte Moderno, Museo Rufino Tamayo and La Casa Azul: Museo Frida Kahlo — are also worth an afternoon each.
Two large private collections have recently been given new homes. Museo Jumex, which opened in November 2013 on the edge of posh Polanco, has everything from US minimalists to Mexican artists such as Gabriel Orozco and Damián Ortega, whose Cosmogonía Doméstica installation stands outside the museum.
Opposite is the Museo Soumaya museum, which belongs to the world’s second-richest man, telecoms magnate Carlos Slim. The futuristic aluminium-clad building houses an eclectic collection, with lots of Rodin casts and European modern artists, plus works by modern Mexican masters.
Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso: Justo Sierra 16, Centro Histórico. sanildefonso.org.mx
Castillo de Chapultepec: Bosque de Chapultepec. castillodechapultepec.inah.gob.mx
La Casa Azul/Museo Frida Kahlo: Londres 247, Del Carmen, Coyoacán. museofridakahlo.org.mx
Museo de Arte Moderno: Paseo de la Reforma y Gandhi, Bosque de Chapultepec. mam.org.mx
Museo Jumex: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303, Nuevo Polanco. museojumex.org
Museo Mural Diego Rivera: Corner of Balderas and Colón. www.museomuraldiegorivera.bellasartes.gob.mx
Palacio Nacional: Zocálo, Centro Histórico. mexicocity.gob.mx
Museo Rufino Tamayo: Paseo de la Reforma No. 51, Bosque de Chapultepec. museotamayo.org
Museo Soumaya: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303, Nuevo Polanco. soumaya.com.mx
The capital is a 24-hour city, especially at weekends. For fun areas, head to the area around Avenidas Tamaulipas and Nuevo León in the Condesa district, or to Londres and Florencia in the Zona Rosa — the latter roads can be a bit touristy, but they have a good range of bars, clubs and cafes. Polanquito — Polanco’s entertainment area — is also home to cool bars like Jules Basement.
If tequila (made from the blue agave plant) is Mexico’s best-known tipple, it’s mezcal, made from maguey agave, that’s most popular with DF’s hipsters. This smoky spirit is supposed to be drunk straight, but it’s very potent, so order a few antojitos (nibbles) while exploring the drinks menu at places like La Botica, in Condesa (part of a chain of chic mezcal bars), and at the Hotel Condesa DF bar.
Pulque is another agave-based beverage, (made from fermented sap, it’s milky in colour with a yeasty taste). Having fallen out of favour in recent times, pulquería (the bars that serve it) are now back in vogue. La Risa, a cosy one in the Centro Histórico, was established in 1900 and is popular with students. Pulquería El Templo de Diana, in Xochimilco, is another classic — the pulque blended with coffee, prickly pear and other flavourings is delicious.
To get a fix of Mexican country, head for El Bandazo — a beer bar in the Zona Rosa — to hear brass-led cowboy bands from places like Durango and Sinaloa in the north west. Elsewhere, Zinco Jazz Club, in the centre, hosts local and international acts.
Jules Basement: Julio Verne 93, Polanquito, Polanco. julesbasement.com
La Botica: Campeche 386, Condesa. labotica.com.mx
La Risa: Mesones 71, Centro Histórico. facebook.com/PulqueriaLaRisaOficial
Pulquería El Templo de Diana: Madero 17, Xochimilco.
El Bandazo: Londres 148, Zona Rosa.
Zinco Jazz Club: Motolinía 20, Centro Histórico. zincojazz.com
Top 10 local tips
01 Call the city DF (‘day-eff-ay’) or Distrito Federal. Anything else is gringo!
02 Have a nieve (ice lolly) at Neveria Roxy. Flavours include tamarind and guava. neveriaroxy.com.mx
03 Enjoy a tipple at a traditional cantina — it’ll make your Spanish flow.
04 Don’t try to do the amazing Museo Nacional de Antropología — Mexico’s only world-class museum — in one go. It deserves repeated, lingered visits. mna.inah.gob.mx
05 Need some green space? Take the 43 bus from the Viveros Metro station to the pine forests of the Desierto de los Leones National Park, 15 miles away.
06 Fonart is a state-sponsored store that sources pottery, glassware and textiles from across Mexico and sells at fixed prices. fonart.gob.mx
07 Visit the altar to Santa Muerte — a female folk saint — three blocks north of the Tepito Metro station.
08 While sipping a Sol in a cantina, don’t be afraid if you’re invited to experience small electric shocks using a primitive machine called a caja de toques — it’s a fun, harmless game to test your machismo.
09 Try exotic ‘food’ such as giant winged ants, ant eggs, maguey worms and grasshoppers at restaurant Corazón de Maguey or at the San Juan market. corazondemaguey.com
10 Avoid the outer suburbs, especially after dark.
Books: Footprint Mexico Handbook. Includes mini-essays on murals and Aztec practices. RRP: £9.99.
Where the Air is Clear, by Carlos Fuentes. A biography of Mexico City as much as a story about a resident who gives up his revolutionary ideals to become a financier. RRP: £10.99. (Dalkey Archive Press)
Two books by British women, both expat-cum-travellers: Oh Mexico! Love and Adventure in Mexico City, by Lucy Neville. RRP: £9.99. (Nicholas Brealey Publishing); and Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico, by Isabella Tree. RRP: £11.99. (Tauris Parke Paperbacks)
On screen: Violet Perfume: No One is Listening (2001). Gritty, true story about the friendship between two schoolgirls.
Man on Fire (2004). Fast-paced thriller that exposes US phobias about Mexico City.
Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)