Aztec ruins embedded in a modern city’s fabric
Mexico City, familiar to all as the most populous city in the western hemisphere, is a lot more than that. The crossroads of ancient cultures, it has a storied past, with Aztec ruins embedded in the modern city’s fabric. The key northern seat of the Spanish conquest, it has a cultural and historical heft rarely encountered in Latin America: its mighty cathedral, many churches, civic palaces and grand plazas have survived earthquakes and waves of urban reinvention. It’s home to some of the most impressive art galleries in the Americas, a world-class archaeological museum, stunning modern and contemporary architecture and a thriving nightlife. Mexico is famed for its rich culinary traditions, and the capital offers visitors the very best street food, cantinas and fine dining.
Mexico City surprises first-time visitors, who often know only of its reputation for crime and heavy traffic; as the capital of one of the world’s major economies, it’s an industrial superpower, but also a media powerhouse, a fashion heavyweight, a mix of exiles and poets, and a beguilingly unknowable true megalopolis – as alluring as the likes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires to the south and, for that matter, Los Angeles and New York to the north.
Hot right now . . .
Chris Moss, our destination expert, offers his top tips on the hottest things to see and do, and exciting places to eat this season.
Máximo Bistrot (Tonalá 133; 00 52 55 5264 4291)challenges preconceptions. Firstly, because chef Eduardo García (who previously worked at much-lauded Pujol) and his wife Gabriela set up Máximo Bistrot to showcase fresh local produce. In Mexico City? Believe it or not, as much as two thirds of the ingredients come from local farms dotted around the mega-sprawl, including the floating gardens of Xochimilco. What is also original is the subtlety of the flavours. Don’t come here for ear-steaming heat, but rather for the delicate flavours of artichokes in mussel sauce and red snapper with green mole – plus fresh bread and butters laced with eggplant ash, goat’s cheese or truffle oil. Mexicanisms pop up here and there in the corn and moles and the chilli vinaigrette, but this is cosmopolitan food full of flair and finesse.
Casa Luis Barragán (General Francisco Ramírez 12-14; 00 52 55 5515 4908), which became a World Heritage Site in 2004, is the modernist home of one of Mexico’s foremost designers and architects. Completed in 1948, it is a beautiful example of pared down elegant exteriors and lustrous interiors. Until December 15 it is showcasing paintings and sculptures collected by Barragán: skeletons, horses and religious art figure prominently in the works displayed over a geometric stepped shelf unit. Entry to the house is $400 pesos (£16) – reservations are essential.
Ever since the Templo Mayor was fully unearthed in 1978, excavations have been ongoing around the city’s main cathedral and Zocalo (central plaza). Renovation work four years ago led to the uncovering of a rack more than a hundred foot long that once had wooden posts where the Mexica – the original inhabitants of the central valleys – displayed the skulls of their sacrificial victims. To date, nearly 700 skulls have been found in the structure, which is known as the “gran tzompantli”. Every Monday, Tuesday and Friday at 2pm, visitors can descend beneath the cathedral to see the site. The tour, run by the cathedral’s guides, costs a few pesos and funds helps to restore the church. Tickets can be obtained from the information desk on the right side of the entrance.
48 hours in . . . Mexico City
Get to know the historic side of the city first. Mexico City was raised from the ruins of Aztec Tenochitlan, the most beautiful city in the Americas – till Córtez razed it. In the centre you’ll see buildings from all eras, including the pre-Hispanic period. The starting place has to be the Zócalo, the huge plaza, flanked by the cathedral, Palacio Nacional, city government buildings and the grand Old Portal de Mercaderes building – home to two once grandish hotels. A huge Mexican flag flies high above the square. In the northeastern corner, across the street from the cathedral, is the Aztec Templo Mayor (00 52 55 4166 0780) – now an open-air museum. Pedestrianised Madero heads off the plaza (ideal if you’re in a wheelchair or hate traffic) but Calle de Tacuba is a more interesting street.
As you head west, look out for the Palacio y Museo de la Inquisición (at number 76), the Café Tacuba (at number 28) – a famous, rather conservative restaurant, Museum of Torture (at number 15) and, next door, Economics, and the statue of Charles IV, last ruler of New Spain – which became, in 1821, Mexico. About 15-20 minutes later you’ll arrive at the opulent art nouveau-influenced Palacio de Bellas Artes (Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, corner of Avenida Juárez), which functions as a museum of Mexican art (including murals by Rivera and Siqueiros) as well as a theatre and performance space.
In front of the Palacio is the Alameda Central, a city park. For a superb view of the city, ride in the express lift to the top of the 44-storey Torre Latinoamericana (Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas 2; 00 52 5518 7423). Afterwards, have a hearty Mexican lunch at the atmospheric La Opera, a classic cantina that opened in 1876 (Calle 5 de Mayo 10; 00 52 55 5512 8959).
It's a 3.5 hike along the wide Reforma boulevard to the Castillo de Chapultepec (Bosque de Chapultepec), 15 minutes by taxi or Metro – line 1 then 8. The only royal castle in the Americas, it was the official residence of Emperor Maximilian I and his consort Empress Carlota during the Second Mexican Empire and later used as the presidential mansion.
Housing the city’s main history museum, its ceilings and walls showcase some of the biggest, boldest murals. The park around the castle is pleasantly shady and a half hour walk will take you to Mexico’s finest museum, the Museo Nacional de Antropología(Av. Paseo de la Reforma; 00 52 55 5553 6266).
The neighbourhood just north of the park, Polanco, is one of the city’s smartest. If you arrive before dusk, check out the shops on Avenida Presidente Masaryk, one of the priciest retail strips in Latin America. Quintonil(Av. Isaac Newton 55; 00 52 55 5280 2680) is an excellent place for dinner if you can get a table. There are many options, though, both here and in neighbouring La Condesa.
Today is a mix of art, history, cool dining and retail. After breakfast, catch a cab to Coyoacán – specifically, the Trotsky House Museum (00 52 55 5658 8732) at Av. Río Churubusco 410. The exiled Russian revolutionary lived here 1939-40, surviving an assassination attempt in May 1940 before being murdered by a Spanish Communist on 20 August 1940. The house contains his library and the original bedrooms; his ashes are buried beside those of his wife in the pretty garden.
Much of Mexico City can seem like an overwhelming sprawl, but Coyoacán retains a calm, villagey feel. At weekends, crafts markets and artists take over the streets but its colonial-era streets are perfect for a stroll and a coffee any day of the week. Grab a late Mexican breakfast or early lunch at the classic neighbourhood mercado (market) at the corner of I. Allende and Xicoténcatl.
Catch the Metro (12 then 2) to Polanco, and hop in a cab to the Museo Jumex (Blvd. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303; 00 52 55 5395 2615), probably the best contemporary art space in the city. Next door is the striking anvil-shaped, aluminium-plated Museo Soumaya (00 52 55 1103 9800), built by Carlos Slim to house his vast private collection of artworks, decorative arts, coins and medals, with almost an entire floor dedicated to Rodin and his pupils.
Spend the late afternoon and early evening in Roma Norte, one of the hippest districts right now. It has some of the best indy shopping in the city, with small independent stores for everything from ceramics to skating fashions to bespoke jewellery. Highlights include Larva(Mérida 122, 1st floor; 00 52 55 6101 1541) for funky t-shirts and hoodies; Carla Fernández (Alvaro Obregón 200; 00 52 55 4216 3389) for high-end designer clothes that mix Mexican techniques and textiles with pared-down Japanese lines; and Goodbye Folk (Córdoba 55; 00 52 55 5525 4109) for lovely print dresses and a good range of handmade shoes.
Stay in Roma. The main drag, Avenida Álvaro Obregón, is choc-a-block with funky bars and restaurants. Licorería Limantour (00 52 55 4098 4653) is one of the best places for a tipple in the city; it's famous for its tequila-based cocktails and spicing up some mixes with chilli peppers. The food scene changes fast and places open, and close, all the time, but Elena Reygadas's Rosetta (Colima 166; 00 52 55 5533 7804), occupying a gorgeous townhouse, is a solid choice; the pasta dishes are superb.
There are also several lively taquerías (as in filled tacos) if you want to keep things cheap and cheerful; opt for Tacos Alvaro O. (Alvaro Obregón 90; 00 52 55 1054 1540) or Chetito (Guanajuato 239; 00 52 55 6798 1360). Mamba Rumba (Queretaro 203; 00 52 55 5564 6920) has live salsa till late.
Where to stay . . .
The discreetly luxurious Las Alcobas belongs to Starwood’s Luxury Collection, but it just doesn't feel like a chain. Superb service and high design values, plus two exceptional restaurants, set it apart from other hotels in leafy Polanco – one one of Mexico City’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.
Double rooms from $481 (£395). 390 Avenida Presidente Masaryk; 00 52 55 3300 3900
La Valise is a beautiful, ultra-private, three-room mansion hotel in the heart of Roma Norte, one of Mexico City's most happening neighbourhoods. Staying in this early 20th-century French-style terrace is more like staying in a very luxurious private house. Inside, the hotel is decorated with beautiful Mexican furniture and art.
Double rooms from US $405 (£334). Tonalá 53, Colonia Roma Norte; 00 52 55 5286 9560
This effortlessly stylish and friendly b&b in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico is decorated with countless potted plants and cacti, and serves fantastic Mexican breakfasts. The centrepiece is its pretty rooftop terrace lined with hammocks and overlooked by the faded yellow tower of a former convent.
Double rooms from US$ 145 (£109). Calle Dr Mora 9, Colonia Centro; 00 52 55 5512 9074
What to bring home . . .
The high-end chocolate is excellent – pick up a box of chilli-laced bonbons at one of the city’s five branches of L’atelier du Chocolat.
Chiapas coffee – beans or ground – is widely available and is excellent.
When to go . . .
Mexico City is in the northern hemisphere and so shares our seasons. But it’s in a subtropical zone and located at 7,350 feet above sea level, which skews things. The rainy season is May to mid-October, in tandem with the cyclone/hurricane season in the Caribbean; occasionally the tails of storm systems mean it lashes it down for days. November is an excellent time to visit, with the Day of the Dead taking place. 'Winter' is also pleasant with March-May usually very fine. Sep 16 is Independence Day – the festivities are great fun. Hotel rates go up around Christmas, New Year and Easter.
Know before you go . . .
Local laws and etiquette
• Police may ask to see ID; carry a photocopy of your passport and of the stamped entry form you were given at the airport.
• The Roman Catholic church is important to Mexicans; don’t wander around taking photographs during masses or when people are praying.
• Shorts and skimpy skirts are frowned upon in churches or civic/official spaces.
• LGBTQ+ rights are enshrined in law in Mexico City but there’s tolerance rather than genuine acceptance among large sections of the public.
• Take Mexican pesos, dollars or euros. Sterling is an exotic currency. If you use ATMs you may face surcharges.
• Bills are delivered on request after meals; just say “la cuenta por favor”.
• Get a rechargeable pre-paid STC Metro card (tarjeta in Spanish) if planning to use the Metro underground rail network and/or Metrobus. Similar to London's Oyster card but vastly cheaper, the pass costs $10 (40p) and can be charged with credit at Metro stations; each journey costs $3 (12p). A single ticket (“boleto”) costs $5 (20p).
• Tipping of around 15 per cent is common. Service in bars and cafés is usually prompt and friendly. Waiting on is an occupation, not a gap-year job here.
• If you don't have a pick-up at the airport, you can catch line 5 (southbound) at the Terminal Aérea Metro stop outside the terminal; at Pantitlán, change to line 1 for the Centro.
• A certain degree of formality is the norm in social and business relations. A handshake is typical; males don’t generally kiss or hug other males as they do in South America.
Currency:Mexican peso, Mex$ or $
Telephone code: + 52 (55)
Time difference: GMT –6/-5 during summer (1st Sunday April-last Sunday of October)
Flight time: 11.5 hours
British Embassy. Calle Río Lerma 71, Cuauhtémoc; 00 52 55 1670 3200
Police: Dial 911 for emergency services or 078 for Angeles Verdes Green Angels for breakdown or general tourism advice – twitter.com/angelesverdesmx
Ambulance: Dial 911 or 066
Tourist information: The Mexico City Tourism Secretariat has placed tourist information kiosks in central areas, including the airport, bus stations, Catedral Metropolitana and Chapultepec.
Safety and security
Mexico City is a large city and a gaping chasm of social inequality exists between the haves and have-nots. Petty theft and burglary are not uncommon. Leave valuables in your room safe and avoid poorly lit areas after dark – the Centro (aka centro histórico) is particularly empty and tenebrous-looking on Sunday and weekday nights, so use taxis even to travel short distances. Don’t accept alcoholic drinks or packages from strangers. Recent shootings in Cancún are a cause for caution rather than alarm. Crime in Mexico, while not restricted to marginal neighbourhoods or frontier regions, remains largely internecine; many killings relate to drug wars between rival gangs.
Chris Moss used to live in Argentina and spends up to four months every year in Latin America. He has visited all its wonderful capital cities many times but ensures he returns to Mexico’s – “the biggest, most beguiling, most unknowable” – as often as possible. His downtime, writing up his thoughts, is spent in rural Devon.