The sprawling metropolis of Mexico City is a fascinating destination. Excellent food is just a start – both on the street and repackaged in modern guise by a new star-chef generation. Then there’s everything from museums to markets to upscale mezcalerias (mezcal bars) and these quintessential experiences…
Meet Frida and Diego
Of all the guide-book-listed attractions, this feels particularly special. The famous Blue House (Casa Azul) in the sleepy residential village of Coyoacan is an intimate memorial to Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s most famous female artist. Kahlo spent many years living in this house, both as child and adult. See also Museo Anahuacalli nearby, with Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera’s collection of pre-Hispanic objects, and a pyramid design by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Do the galleries
Mexico City’s contemporary art scene is making waves. Among a host of fascinating spaces, stand-outs include fruit-juice tycoon Eugenio Lopez’s David Chipperfield-designed Museo Jumex (“amazing new building, fantastic contemporary art” says Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art director, Elizabeth Ann MacGregor). Check out cutting-edge exhibits at Kurimanzutto, Curro y Poncho, House of Gaga, Proyecto Paralelo and Galeria OMR, among many others.
Do the markets
Food markets, some with street food on weekends (such as San Juan market), offer an intriguing display of local produce. Then go for total visual overload at Mercado Jamaica – the flower market. Check out Mexican goths at the Saturday flea market, El Chopo – fun for everything from music memorabilia to Mexican wrestling masks. La Ciudadela has plenty of touristy souvenirs plus craftware and silver.
San Juan market, Ernesto Pugibet 21,Centro
Mercado Jamaica, Guillermo Prieto 45, Jamaica
Buy peltre and piñatas
Peltre is coloured enamelware – used for picnics and home kitchens. It comes in several delightfully speckled and matte colours, as jugs, spoons, pans, pots and plates. Cinsa brand is one popular brand. Buy it at giant daily markets such as La Merced or Medellin. You’ll also spy countless party piñatas (ultra-kitsch) as well as cool kitchen gadgets – tortilla presses, griddles (comales), chocolate frothers and lime squeezers.
Mercado de La Merced, Calle Rosario, Venustiano Carranza
Medellín, Cuauhtémoc, Benito Juárez
Live la vida dulce
Mexican chocolate is excellent (try Dolcenero, or Tout Chocolat) and there are plenty of contemporary cake shops. But Dulceria de Celaya downtown is a little (sugary) slice of history, selling traditional sweets since the late 1800s. Pointing is a good way to start here but ask for anything with dulce de leche (caramel). Most are a riff on nuts, fruit, corn and marzipan. And delicious.
Get down with mariachis
Know that many chilangos (Mexico City residents) love a night of mariachis and mezcal. And tequila. And beer. And yes, it’s fabulous to see these snappy men in matching star-studded white suits perform old-style hits to order. They are all over Plaza Garibaldi and Salon Tenampa – the original mariachi haunt. Warning: you pay the musicians by the song. Rack up a few Gypsy Kings numbers or the likes of Guantanamera and the bill may get hefty.
Don’t think Mexico is all about tequila. Also made from agave (the aloe or maguey plant), mezcal is much smokier and intriguing to try. But the cool kids are drinking pulque – a cloudy, low-alcohol agave sap fermentation that is mostly served “curado” – flavoured with fruit, nuts or vegetables. Order it by the glass, mug or jug. The old-school Las Duelistas has been frothing up pulque for decades and is a good initiation.
For other old-school drinking spots, there’s the classic La Opera Bar in downtown. Or go hip and bar hop along Alvaro Obregon street in the Roma area, starting with La Clandestina (a great mescal selection) and Licorera Limantour, excellent for cocktails.
See Chapultepec Castle
Chapultepec Park is big and beautiful, its extensive grounds dotted with public museums. Aside from the mandatories, such as Museo Nacional de Antropologia, climb up to the fascinating Castillo de Chapultepec – a grand colonial castle with superb views, housing the Museo Nacional de Historic and interesting one-offs. Museo Tamayo holds an excellent modern art collection and a great shop for quality crafts and design.
Go for Sunday brunch
Breakfast is a seriously hearty affair in Mexico but it’s taken most seriously on weekends. Families flock to the old-style El Cardenal – an institution around here – for big brekkies of barbacoa (slow-braised meat served with a dark chilli sauce), escamoles (ant “caviar”) in tortillas and glorious pastries with hot chocolate.
Rome through Roma, cruise Condesa
On either side of Avenida Insurgentes, lie Roma – an upscale inner-city area with beautifully restored colonial and Art Deco houses – and Condesa, home to pleasant cafes and art galleries (around Avenida Amsterdam). Other interesting neighbourhoods include the village-y San Angel/Coyoacan area around the Casa Azul, the busy Plaza Hidalgo and Centenario gardens and the famous San Angel Inn for margaritas.
Take the subway, rent a bike
Taxis (unless from your hotel) are viewed with suspicion. Uber is a cheaper and safe alternative. But to beat choked-to-a-standstill road traffic, plunge into the metro rail system. It’s busy at peak hour but cheap, with all the grunge of any big-city subway. And it will get you fast with easy-to-navigate colour-coded routes. You can also grab a bike from a public stand.