The colourful barrios of this teeming, oft-maligned capital are now thriving – with culture, creativity and an exciting, modern food scene.
Mexico City was known as the Paris of the New World until half a century ago. Ample boulevards were lined with palm trees and French-style mansions. Crisp blue skies provided spectacular views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. The arts flourished. Then the urban decay that would plague many cities around the globe began to take its toll. The second half of the 20th century saw a huge increase in population and the metropolis struggled to cope. In 1985, a devastating earthquake took an enormous toll.
But the tide has turned. A progressive municipal government has made great advances in cleaning up the city. Swaths of the historic centre, once considered unsafe, have been repaved and pedestrianised, and shoppers and evening revellers now abound in the revitalised area.
Architecturally important neighbourhoods, such as eclectic Colonia Roma and Condesa, known for its art deco architecture, have been restored. Creative entrepreneurs have flocked to this energetic metropolis, opening shops, galleries, hotels and restaurants. Over the past few years, the city has become an internationally recognised culinary destination. From street food to fine dining venues, featuring traditional and “Modern Mexican” cooking, the city is like a big open kitchen.
WHAT TO SEE
Floating islands of Xochimilco
A boat ride on the canals of Xochimilco in the south of the city is a traditional weekend activity for Mexicans and tourists alike. Organic food company De la Chinampa offers tours with an ecological twist. Director Ricardo leads excursions down canals usually closed to outsiders to visit chinampas – floating islands – where organic fruits and vegetables are grown for the local market. Light lunch is included and English spoken on request.
Cookery class, Condesa
Ruth Alegria, a former restaurant owner, leads personalised market tours and cooking classes in her home. She is knowledgeable about every aspect of Mexican food and culture and readily shares her enthusiasm. Classes cost from £120pp and last seven hours, including an in-depth market tour, cooking lesson and lunch.
Cookery class, Colonia Roma
The lovely Casa Jacaranda is a converted early-20th-century home. Chefs Jorge and Beto offer classes in making traditional family recipes, combined with a market tour for groups of up to six, from £65pp for four hours.
Tour the Dolores Olmedo Museum, Xochimilco
Dolores Olmedo was a muse, collector and intimate of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and other cultural luminaries, outliving all of them. She converted her beautiful estate into a museum to house her fine pre-Hispanic sculptures, paintings and drawings by Rivera, and the world’s largest collection of Kahlo paintings. Peacocks and hairless dogs roam the extensive gardens. This is one of the world’s great museums and shouldn’t be missed.
Go to a Lucha libre fight
Lucha libre is a curious form of Mexican wrestling in which men, and occasionally women, dress in flashy Vegas-style costumes and horror movie masks and proceed to stomp, throw, bend, crush, squeeze and mangle one another around a ring, while the crowd roars its approval. A match at one of the two old arenas is a headlong leap into popular Mexican culture. Tickets (from £5) are available at the door but can sell out; buy in advance through ticketmaster.com.mx.
WHERE TO EAT
Taquería Los Parados, Colonia Roma
Tacos al carbón are meats cooked over coals on an open grill. Los Parados (which implies standing-room-only, ie no tables), has been grilling beef and pork at the same corner for over 40 years. Locals line up for the smoky costilla (rib), chuleta(pork chop) and chorizo. The winner, however, is the rib-eye; bit pricier, but pesos well spent for tender succulence. Another not-to be-missed offering is the queso fundido, a mini ceramic cazuela filled with Oaxaca cheese and melted over the grill. And the brightly coloured hand-mashed salsas are superior.
Don Toribio, Centro
This spacious 19th-century salon with a graceful, old-world atmosphere bills itself as an Argentinian/Mexican parrilla (grill), and the grilled meat such asarrachera (skirt steak) is excellent, but it also does many Mexican dishes, such as enchiladas and tortilla soup, and typical Mexican breakfasts with huevos rancheros (fried eggs with spicy tomato sauce), sweet rolls and frothy, milky coffee. Don Toribio is the best budget restaurant in the historic centre: lunch costs under £4.
Raíz Cocina de Estaciones, Polanco
Two brilliant young chefs, Israel Montero and Alfredo Chávez, have combined their talents at this underrated venue in the upmarket Polanco district. The ambience is relaxed and food is decidedly Mexican with a modern twist. The weekly changing menu is chosen according to what is in the market. Montero says: “Ours is a free, spontaneous and creative cuisine – we are an experimental, investigative laboratory whose project is to bring to light a great range of little-known edible products, inspired by our own experiences in the kitchen.” Atostada – crispy-fried, house-made corn tortilla – comes topped with smoked trout from nearby mountain streams, fresh fava beans, wild greens and edible flowers. This might be followed by a rich, spicy, toasted chipotle mole, containing pork belly and fennel. The 10-course tasting menu, including dessert, is £34.
Fonda Fina, Colonia Roma
A fonda is like a bistro or trattoria – homey, intimate, a family affair. The fashionable Fonda Fina is those things but is fina” (refined), as well. That’s because the compact kitchen is in the capable hands of chef Juan Cabrera, who reproduces his favourite classic Mexican dishes with a personal touch and reinvents other less-known ones. Peneques are small quesadillas, filled with tangy, fresh requesón cheese (Mexican ricotta), dipped in light batter and fried. They’re served with a pipian (pumpkin seed) sauce. The combination of earthy flavours – corn, pumpkin seed and chilli – hits all the marks. Thin slices of meltingly tender lengua (tongue) are served with a complex wild mushroom sauté and a fruity, dark adobo sauce. Divine. Lunch from about £20 a head.
Nexo is an unassuming locale whose kitchen crew bursts with youthful audacity. Two chefs share the helm: Diego Niño and César Vázquez. The dishes they turn out, based on Spanish, French and Mexican traditions, are creative but accessible. The Spanish classic arroz negro pays homage to both old country and new: instead of the standard squid ink and fish stock, it’s made with crab bisque andchilmole (the blackened chilli sauce of the Yucatán) and crowned with calamari stuffed with pork scratchings. It’s ingenious and delicious. Three-course menu £21, five-course £28.
La Casa de los Tacos, Coyoacán
La Casa de los Tacos is a deceptively ordinary-looking place. This neighbourhood lunch spot was taken over by two creative types with a vision: Hector Ramos, a photographer who runs an art gallery upstairs; and Alejandro Escalante, author of the renowned Tacopedia cookery book and editor of online gastronomic journalanimalgourmet.com. A menu entitled tacos prehispánicos offers a far-reaching conflagration of edible insects, such as sautéed grasshoppers, gusanos de maguey(grubs found in agave plants), and crispy fried black beetles called cocopaches. There are artfully made “normal” beef, fish and pork tacos as well, for the less adventurous.
WHERE TO DRINK
Licorería Limantour, Roma and Polanco
Limantour, a proud member of the World’s 50 Best Bars list since 2014, is a temple to modern cocktails. The concept is simple: designer drinks made with dynamic ingredients including fresh herbs, flowers, fruits, syrups, shrubs, spices and rare foreign spirits. The results are stunning in presentation and precise in flavour combination. Two locations, in Roma and Polanco, have a laid-back vibe and modernist decor. The margarita al pastor plays with ingredients found in the classic al pastor (shepherd-style) tacos. The result is a tequila-based drink with pineapple, coriander and a touch of serrano chilli.
Cantina El Tio Pepe, Centro
Like a traditional English pub, a cantina is a place for locals to hang out. This friendly one opened in 1870, conserves its original art nouveau bar and has been the scene of many political discussions over the years. It is a good alternative to the more touristy and expensive Bar Opera a few blocks away. Beer and tequila are the drinks of choice here.
Café La Habana, Centro
This spacious, lively cafe pays homage to Cuba – black and white photos of Havana line the walls – though the rest is Mexican. It is a few blocks south of the Alameda park and is known as a hangout for journalists at the city’s large daily newspapers. The Mexican food is nothing to write home about but the coffee, served with frothy hot milk, is.
WHERE TO SHOP
Vértigo Galería, Colonia Roma
Vértigo is an art gallery specialising in graphics by many of the top young contemporary artists and artisans in Mexico. Spaces are dedicated to exhibits of such genres as design, illustration, surrealism and pop; prices are affordable: an original signed print for around £85.
Carla Fernández, Roma and Centro
This renowned designer is very much in touch with her Mexican roots. Her men’s and women’s clothing, textiles and household objects are striking, avant-garde and forward-looking yet lovingly based on indigenous craft. There are two locations, in Roma and Centro. Dresses start at £130.
La Ciudadela, Centro
This artisan market houses dozens of stalls offering traditional handicrafts at decent prices – hammocks, glassware, baskets, sombreros, textiles and silver jewellery from Taxco. It’s the best of the tourist markets around town. On Saturday afternoons there is outdoor dancing at nearby Plaza de Danzón.
Lagunilla flea market, Centro
Everything from cheap clothing to food is sold at this huge, popular market area. On Sundays, the few blocks on the east side of Paseo de la Reforma and down Calle Jaime Nuno become the premier antique and flea market – Grandma’s attic is emptied and bargains can be had with a bit of haggling.
WHERE TO STAY
The Red Tree House, Condesa
This friendly B&B is in a remodelled 1920s art deco home on a quiet residential street. Book way ahead as it’s very popular.
Hotel Downtown, Centro
Trendy and fabulous, this hotel in a refurbished colonial building in the historic centre offers both high-end rooms and a separate youth hostel with dorms. The rooftop terrace bar has a small pool and stunning views.
El Patio 77, San Rafael
The city’s first eco-friendly hotel is a charmingly revamped old home in a funky, but lively neighbourhood just north of the centre.
Hotel Milán, Colonia Roma
There’s nothing trendy about the Milán except for its chic neighbourhood. This plain, but comfortable and clean four-storey hotel, in business since the 1950s, is popular with Mexicans and foreigners alike.