Though it has received worldwide hype for its food scene, Mexico City still might be one of the best-kept secrets in the Western Hemisphere. Despite over 20 million trips to Mexico in 2014, Cancun, Cabo and other coastal destinations remained the largest draw. That’s good news for any American looking for a dose of modern Mexican culture; Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world with more than 20 million people in its greater metropolitan area, rivaling any other capital with its cultural and historical significance, which dates back to Mesoamerica. The distinct, developing neighborhoods and blossoming food scene serve as the backdrop for a look inside Metropolitan Mexico, a stark contrast to the beach lifestyles experienced by most travelers along the coast.
It’s also unexpectedly accessible via direct flights from most major US hubs, with a shorter or equal flight time than going between major cities across our own country. From New York City, for example, you can be there in less than five hours. From al pastor tacos to romantic castle vistas, here’s what to experience once you’re there.
|Where to Stay
A city the size of Mexico City has something for everyone. You can expect all the regulars when it comes to large, luxurious hotels, including the St. Regis, Four Seasons, JW Marriott and the Intercontinental. The most famous and historic of the luxury options is the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México, located on the Zócalo Square adjacent to the government buildings. The building, originally constructed in 1899, was designed in the Parisian Art Nouveau style, and the interior is reminiscent of the golden age of travel with its caged elevators, stained-glass ceiling, and grand staircase. Request a room overlooking the Square. Mid-range modern boutiques are all over the city, such as Hotel Carlota adjacent to the Paseo de la Reform Avenue, La Valise in Roma, Chaya B&B in Al Centro, the Hotel Geneve in Zona Rosa, and the Hotel Catedral overlooking the city’s most prominent church. To save money and feel good about it, consider the Casa de Los Amigos, a nonprofit guest house that funnels its money back into justice- and peace-related projects, like housing refugees and migrants. The budget-friendly Hotel Isabel has a beautiful interior Colonial courtyard, affordable rates ($20/night), and a great location in the Historic Center. AirBnBs are a great option in a city of this size, not only in terms of options and affordability but in the ability to fully integrate into a neighborhood.
|Where to Eat
Mexico City is consistently amongst the conversation of best food cities in the world. Much of that regard comes from its reputation for high-end restaurants from high-profile chefs, such as Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, a regular on lists of the world’s best restaurants for its upscale Mexican. Everywhere you turn, there’s a new restaurant generating a lot of hype, so be sure to seek local advice about what’s happening in your favorite neighborhoods (see a list of those below). Check out the Mercado Roma for its upscale take on the everyday market; Felina in Hipódromo/Condesa for its cocktails and gourmet sandwiches; If you’re keen on exploring Mexico City’s culinary bug scene, order the ant larva with eggs at Eduardo García’s Lalo!; stop in to the local-favorite chain, La Casa de Toño, any time of day for quick and delicious pazole, sope, tostada, or arroz con leche; grab a beer at Catina Tio Pepe and take in its traditional, historic feel; try Mama Rumba for beer and salsa dancing; and Jetson’s for papas rellenas; and El Palenquito in Roma Norte for a typical neighborhood mezcal bar. In fact, mezcal is worth pursuing further: Besides trying it at mezcal bars and in cocktails, we recommend doing a tasting to learn about its production, how it differs from tequila, and how the different agave plants and aging process affect its taste. While much of Mexico’s regarded mezcal comes from Oaxaca, La Fiera Mezcal offers a special tasting of mezcals from the lesser-known state of Guerrero, all sourced from small-batch producers.
And now… tacos. They can be found on every corner, from family-run carts to cafeteria-style cafes, like El Tizoncito. Like cheesesteaks in Philly or pizza in New York City, everyone will have a different favorite, especially when it comes to the popular “al pastor” style, the spindle-cut marinated pork tacos originally developed in Central Mexico. For what it’s worth, our personal favorite for al pastor was El Huequito. Have fun window-shopping food carts, but if you only have a few days, there is a shortcut for those with limited time. Club Tengo Hambre leads a great walking taco tour, called Street Food Essentials, that allows you to try a range of taco styles from Al Centro’s “best” establishments. The tour proves that a taco isn’t just a taco, giving you the chance to try and learn the history of different variations, including soggy “basket tacos,” stewed guisado style, Lebanese pastor, Tolucan chorizo, and vegetarian-friendly fava-bean and white-cheese quesadillas.
|What to Do
Like in New York, expecting to discover all of Mexico City in a single trip is a fool’s errand. With a total size of 573 square miles (NY is 304 square miles and L.A. is 503 square miles), its sprawling nature, heavy traffic, and crowded metros mean that focusing on neighborhoods is a must. Look into Condesa for its beautiful tree-lined, mid-street walkways and emerging, youthful vibe; Roma for its trendy bars and restaurants; Al Centro for its hustle, bustle, street food and historic roots, such as La Alameda Park and the Zócalo; San Angel Art District for its galleries and bold colors; Coyoacán for its cobblestone streets, old mansions, and Colonial feel; Zona Rosa for its pedestrian streets and cafes; and Chapultepec for its beautiful park (Chapultepec Park). For those that grew up watching WWF or WCW wrestling, catch a Lucha Libre event at the Arena Mexico. Mexico City is regarded worldwide for the quality and sheer number of museums, more than 150 in total. The big ones are the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Anthropology Museum), the Museo Nacional de Arte: MUNAL (National Art Museum), Museo Franz Mayer (decorative arts); and the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (contemporary art). In the shadow of the big museums lives a quirky collection of lesser-known niche museums, like the Museo del Objeto del Objeto (The Museum of the Purpose of the Object), which features nostalgic and current memorabilia in themed exhibits, and the Museo del Juguete Antiguo México (Museum of Antique Toys), which holds a private collection of toys dating back to the early 1900s. There is no end to the fun museum lovers can have, so be sure to look through the complete list; take a walk up the hill to the pristinely romantic Chapultepec Castle, which dates back to the Second Mexican Empire in 1864. At that time, the castle was located on the outskirts of the city, thus giving today some perspective on the city’s grand expansion. More mind-boggling history is found at Zócalo Square, which was formerly the center of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and is today the main square of the city, surrounded by the National Palace and the Mexico City Cathedral. (You might remember it from the opening scene of the new James Bond movie, Spectre.) And how could we forget Mexico City’s most celebrated former resident, the painter Frida Kahlo. Check out the museum in her family’s house in Coyoacán as well as her dual living quarters with Diego Rivera in San Angel.
Because of its size and traffic, venturing outside the city is a nice change of pace. Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, and is today one of the most significant Mesoamerican ruins in Mexico. Local buses make the one-hour trip from the Terminal Autobuses del Norte every hour for about $5 round-trip; the lakeside community of Valle de Bravo is a nice overnight respite from the city, located on the shores of Lake Avándaro about three hours’ drive; check out the mountains, hot springs, and archeological sites of the Mexican State of Hidalgo, just an hour and half by car from Mexico City.