WHAT TO DO
Mexico City is a megalopolis full of colors, traditions and flavors. It was once Tenochtitlan, the legendary capital of the Aztec Empire that fell to the Spaniards in 1521. It is now the capital of Mexico, with a population of over 21 million people (elevation 7,600 ft) - making it the second largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. Amid the urban sprawl, there are lovely parks, museums, churches, markets and cultural landmarks. For those who love to eat, the city's famous food scene offers everything from relaxed street side taco stands to elegant fine dining. There are many interesting neighborhoods (colonias) to explore - from the Centro Historico and Alameda Central to the Paseo de la Reforma, Roma and Condesa, to Polanco and Chapultepec in the west and Coyoacan and San Angel in the south of the city. While there are a variety of ways to get around the city (keep in mind traffic is usually bad), I strongly encourage using Uber - it's more affordable than taxis and drivers (most speak English) are all equipped with cell phones, so they can find places that taxi drivers may not be able to locate. Mexico City is a place you must experience to understand, so pick up some bottled water and enjoy.
Begin your journey in the heart of Mexico City at the Plaza de la Constitucion, commonly know as the Zocalo - one of the largest public squares in the world that once stood at the center of Tenochtitlan. Always bustling, the Zocalo serves as a forum for the colorful Conchero dancers and Huehuetl drummers. The huge Mexican flag flying in the middle of the square is ceremonially raised each morning by soldiers of the Mexican army. The Zocalo is flanked by the Palacio Nacional (presidential palace), the Catedral Metropolitana and the ruins of the Templo Mayor. After you take in the aura and history of the plaza, head up to the northern wing of the Palacio Nacional where you'll see Diego Rivera's breathtaking murals (painted between 1929 and 1951), depicting Mexican civilization over time. Next, enjoy one of Mexico City's most iconic structures, the Catedral Metropolitana. The monumental cathedral is the largest in the Americas and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Started in 1573, its design is a mixture of three architectural styles - Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical. Inside, be sure to notice the Altar de Perdon (Altar of Forgiveness) and Altar de los Reyes (Altar of the Kings). The cathedral's 16 chapels are each dedicated to a saint. Finally, visit the excavated ruins of the Templo Mayor - what was the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan. The temple is thought to be on the exact spot where the Aztecs saw their symbolic eagle perching on a cactus with a snake in its beak - the symbol of Mexico today. The Museo del Templo Mayor (included in the site's admission price) houses a model of Tenochtitlan along with artifacts from the site and provides a good overview of Aztec civilization.
A few blocks away is the gorgeous Palacio de Bellas Artes. It is one of the city's flagship cultural institutions (performance hall and arts center), where the impressive art deco interiors are as opulent as its elaborate white marble facade. Take the grand staircase to the upper floors and view the murals by Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The beautiful theater hosts seasonal opera and symphony performances and the wonderful Ballet Folklorico de Mexico (shows are Wednesday and Sunday). Outside is Alameda Central, a public park with statues, fountains and gardens - the perfect spot to take a break before exploring the Museo Mural Diego Rivera (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central), just next door. The grandest park in Mexico City is also the largest city park in Latin America - Chapultepec, more commonly called Bosque de Chapultepec is over 1,600 acres. The park is divided into three sections, with the first section being the oldest and most visited. This section contains most of the park's attractions including Chapultepec Zoo, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Castillo de Chapultepec - Museo Nacional de Historia, Museo Tamayo and Museo de Arte Moderno (home of Frida Kahlo's painting, The Two Fridas). The Museo Nacional de Antropologia is the largest and most visited museum in Mexico. The building contains exhibition halls that surround the rectangular courtyard that has a large pond and the super cool waterfall "umbrella". The museum contains significant archaeological and anthropological artifacts from Mexico's pre Columbian heritage, such as the Stone of the Sun (the Aztec calendar stone) and the Aztec Xochipilli statue. From there, stroll through the park and pass the pretty manmade lake as you make your way up Chapultepec Hill to the Castillo and Museo Nacional de Historia. The Castillo de Chapultepec (houses the history museum) is set atop a rocky outcropping overlooking the massive park and the city's famous boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma. It's worth visiting for the views alone, though the legendary building (dating from 1785) and history museum offer an interesting glimpse into Mexico's past.
After you've had your fill of the excellent museums in Chapultepec Park, walk the grand Paseo de la Reforma and marvel at the several impressive monuments scattered along the thoroughfare. My 2 favorites are the Monumento a Cuauhtemoc (memorializing the last Aztec emperor) and Monumento a la Independencia, the symbol of Mexico City. Known as El Angel, this gilded victory column on a roundabout was built in 1910 (148 ft high) to commemorate the centennial of Mexico's War of Independence. Inside the monument are the remains of the most important heroes of that war, including Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos. It is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Mexico City and the gathering place for victory celebrations following important Mexican soccer matches. There are a number of great mercados (markets) in town and every neighborhood has its own. Start at the Mercado de San Juan, located in the downtown historic center. It is over 150 years old and one of the most popular markets in the city. It is visited by those who are looking for imported products or exotic foods, everything from cheese and coffee to duck and crocodile. The delicious fruits and vegetables come from everywhere in the world. Next, visit the nearby Mercado de la Merced and the adjoining Mercado Sonora. La Merced is the largest retail traditional food market in the city and it draws a nice crowd. Try the corn fungus, I double dog dare you. The Sonora sells products for spells and witchcraft. Before moving on to my final 2 favorite markets, I'd like to add that you must stop by one of the most impressive bakeries I've ever been to. Pasteleria Ideal, located at 16 de Septiembre 18 is magical - founded in 1927, it produces large quantities of breads, pastries, desserts and cakes. They're all made fresh daily and displayed everywhere you look. Pick up a box of assorted cookies to go and make your way to the rad Mercado Roma, located at Queretaro 222 in the Roma neighborhood. It's a gourmet food hall that sells organic food products and has counters where visitors can enjoy a beer with some tasty tacos or a hamburger. For the best tostadas in town, head south to the Mercado Coyoacan in the Coyoacan neighborhood.
No visit to Mexico City would be complete without a few day excursions to some of the sights and neighborhoods just outside the city center. I would suggest reserving one day to tour the southern neighborhoods (and sites) of Coyoacan, San Angel and Xochimilco - reserve another day to explore the pyramids at Teotihuacan, northeast of the city. Your best bet to see everything would be to book a private driver (also your tour guide) through your hotel concierge - it is well worth it. The neighborhoods of Coyoacan and San Angel started as provincial towns that were gradually absorbed by the city. Hernan Cortes used Coyoacan as his headquarters during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and made it the first capital of New Spain from 1521 to 1523. Today, Coyoacan and San Angel retain the charm of the colonial era - both are full of churches, cobbled streets and are home to elaborately decorated stone mansions. The artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera spent a great deal of their lives here and that is where you should head to first, Museo Frida Kahlo. Located at Londres 247 in Coyoacan, Casa Azul (Blue House) is where Frida Kahlo was born, lived and died. Now a museum, the house is littered with mementos, works and personal belongings from the artist's everyday life with her husband, Diego Rivera. Almost every visitor to Mexico City makes a pilgrimage here, so arrive plenty early to avoid the crowds (tickets can be purchased online before arriving). Another fascinating stop a few blocks away is Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky. What was once the home of the expelled Marxist revolutionary, is now a museum and remains much as it was on August 20, 1940 when a Stalin agent smashed an ice axe into his skull (Trotsky died the next day). Historical Note: When Trotsky arrived in Mexico City in 1937, he and his wife lived at Casa Azul for two years with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Memorabilia, photographs and biographical notes are on display in the museum and outside in the courtyard is a tomb engraved with a hammer and sickle that contains Trotsky's ashes. Be sure to check it out comrades. From there, head to Plaza Hidalgo & Jardin Centenario. The focus of Coyoacan life is its central plaza, actually two adjacent plazas - the Jardin Centenario, with the village's iconic coyotes frolicking about and the larger, cobblestoned Plaza Hidalgo. Stop in at the aforementioned Mercado Coyoacan for some tasty tostadas or grab a delicious churro and famous hot chocolate from Cafe El Jarocho. Saturdays are a popular time to visit the neighborhood of San Angel, where the weekly Bazaar Sabado in Plaza San Jacinto attracts some excellent artisan vendors and crowds of people. Wander around the area and appreciate the elaborate fountain in the courtyard of the Museo Casa del Risco or enjoy the peaceful gardens of the 16th century Iglesia de San Jacinto. For more Frida and Diego, the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo is not far away. Designed by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's friend, architect and painter Juan O'Gorman - this museum was the couple's home and studio for several years. Each had their own separate house (Frida's was blue) connected by an exterior walkway. Across the street is the San Angel Inn, a prestigious restaurant with killer margaritas (and a dynamite lobster bisque). It is historically significant as the place where Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata agreed to divide control of the country in 1914. On your way further south towards Xochimilco, ask your driver to pass by the enormous Estadio Azteca. The stadium is the home of the professional Mexican football (soccer) team Club America and the Mexican national team. It is the largest stadium in Mexico (a soccer crazed nation) and regarded as one of the most iconic soccer stadiums in the world.
Xochimilco (the place of the flowers) is where you can find the famed floating gardens. Colorful gondola like boats called trajineras are propelled along canals, while passenger boats pass others carrying mariachi musicians and beer, food and souvenir vendors. The journey lasts for about an hour or all day for some. Before leaving Xochimilco, visit the magnificent Museo Dolores Olmedo. Possibly the most important Diego Rivera collection of all belongs to this museum, housed in a 17th century hacienda. Dolores Olmedo, a patron of Rivera resided here until her death in 2002 - the museum has over 140 of his works and a separate room is reserved for Frida Kahlo's paintings. Outside in the estate's gardens you'll see peacocks and xoloitzcuintles (Mexican hairless dogs). Take another day (driver/guide included) and explore the city of the gods, located 25 miles northeast from the capital. Teotihuacan (the place of the gods) is Mexico's most famous and most visited archaeological site. It is particularly popular on the spring equinox, when thousands of people gather at the ruins to take in the special energy of the sun. Running down the middle of the site, which was once a flourishing pre Columbian city is the Avenue of the Dead. It links the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (Temple of the Feathered Serpent), the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon - the latter two provide panoramic views from their summits (not a bad climb). Just next to the Pyramid of the Sun is the Museo del Sitio de la Cultura Teotihuacana. It contains a collection of artifacts excavated from the site - the best collection of artifacts from Teotihuacan is in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia back in Mexico City.
WHERE TO EAT
Mexico City is a wonderful place to eat and drink. With its abundance of taco stands, fine dining restaurants and marvelous mezcalerias - you will find great places in every neighborhood, at every price range. Quick bites at street stands and in neighborhood markets are always tempting (and usually delicious), but I must point out that they can easily summon a visit from senor Montezuma. With that in mind, use discretion and enjoy all the wonderful flavors the city has to offer. There are 2 beloved restaurants in the Centro Historico, the first is El Cardenal and the second is Cafe de Tacuba. Located at Palma 23 (around the corner from the Zocalo), El Cardenal is possibly the finest place in town for a traditional meal. It occupies three floors of a Parisian style mansion and breakfast is a must here - with baskets of freshly baked sweet rolls and pitchers of hot chocolate. Cafe de Tacuba is located at Tacuba 28 and is one of the oldest restaurants in the city. It has been serving traditional Mexican food (try the tamales) since 1912 and has an enjoyable atmosphere. The dining room has tall wood beamed ceilings, colored tiles and old oil paintings.
A short drive outside the city center is Nicos, located at Av Cuitlahuac 3102 in the neighborhood of Azcapotzalco. This longtime local favorite for traditional Mexican food done right is a must visit. The setting is formal, but not fancy and the service is impeccable. Chef Gerardo Vasquez Lugo does an excellent chicken in almond mole sauce and if you happen to be in the mood for insects, the menu offers seasonal escamoles (ant larva). Back in town, a popular spot for lunch in the charming Roma neighborhood is Contramar. Located at Durango 200, it is widely regarded as the city's top spot for seafood. My two favorites on the menu are the tuna tostadas and the grilled tuna fillet rubbed with red chili and parsley sauces. This place is always busy and reservations are recommended. Another Roma hot spot is chef Elena Reygadas' Rosetta, located at Colima 166. She serves authentic Italian cuisine in an elegantly restored French style mansion. Try the burrata as a starter, followed by the house made pappardelle with pork ragu and save room for dessert. Reygadas has a small bakery nearby at Colima 179 called Panaderia Rosetta. She also has a second restaurant in the Condesa neighborhood that serves more of her top notch Mediterranean cuisine. Lardo has fresh pastas, charcuterie and delicious breads from a wood oven. The attractive bar offers several nice wines and reservations are a must.
Staying in Roma at Medellin 79 is Fonda Fina. It's a cozy space that has the most delicious rotisserie chicken with mole and a chocolate cake that is heavenly. An additional neighborhood favorite is Maximo Bistrot, where chef Eduardo Garcia features fresh and local products on the constantly changing menu. If it's in season, he has it and if you can't get a reservation, try his more casual lunch spot Lalo, just across the street at Zacatecas 173. Take time to stroll the eclectic bohemian neighborhood that is Roma. Walk along historic Calle Amsterdam or enjoy the lovely Parque Mexico. Next, head to the Polanco neighborhood for some serious eating. A quick elevator ride will take you up a few floors to La Buena Barra, a contemporary take on Mexican cuisine. Born in Monterrey and now located in this upscale enclave of Mexico City, it provides wonderful tastes of the northern region. Be sure to get the hand made tortillas, the perfect compliment to the meat and guacamole dish (and several tequilas). For a nice view, try to reserve a table on the outside terrace. The place has a happening vibe and a DJ entertains the beautiful people. My last 2 recommendations are at the top of every best of list for restaurants not only in Mexico City, but all of Mexico. If you truly enjoy a memorable and professional dining experience, you'll need to book a reservation as soon as you lock in your flight. Located at Newton 55 in Polanco is Quintonil. Chef Jorge Vallejo puts a modern twist of creativity on traditional Mexican dishes. There is a daily tasting menu, but you can also order dishes a la carte, like yellow squash in mole sauce or a ceviche of cactus and scallops with avocado and prickly pear fruit. The cocktails are innovative and the service is impeccable. Mexico City's top foodie mecca and arguably Mexico's best gourmet restaurant, Pujol is the creme de la creme - it recently relocated to a larger space in Polanco at Tennyson 133. Famed chef Enrique Olvera regularly reinvents the menu, which is presented (on parchment paper) as a six course tasting extravaganza. Highlights include the street snacks, tuna crudo, smoked baby corn huitlacoche and the famous mole madre that is aged for more than three years. The service is immaculate at Pujol and the experience is memorable.
Mexico City has many great spots to enjoy a drink or two. Whether it's a cold beer or a well crafted cocktail, or maybe one of the Mexican delights (tequila, mezcal, pulque) - chances are you'll have a good time. A quick description of the Mexican delights: While tequila is made from blue agave, mezcal (smoky sibling of tequila) is obtained from the distillation of different varieties of agave and its production is usually artisanal. Pulque (looks like milk) is derived from the fermentation of the agave plant. Bottom line is they all taste good and they all will knock you over. With that, let's go hit some mezcalerias. Start at the coolest dive in town, La Clandestina is located at Alvaro Obregon 298 in the Condesa - it's a bit difficult to locate as there is no sign outside. Once you do find it, take a seat and sample the many varieties of mezcal (dispensed from jugs on high shelves) from around the country. Next, head downtown to Bosforo for more top notch mezcals, decent grub and an eclectic mix of music. From there, make your way to Al Andar at Regina 27 for (you guessed it) more than 25 varieties of quality mezcal, accompanied by orange slices and grasshoppers. Take a mezcal break and journey to the rooftop lounge at the Hotel Condesa DF for some tasty margaritas and a nice view of Parque Espana across the way. If you're in the mood for a cocktail, head to Hanky Panky. It follows the speakeasy model with an unlisted address and reservation only entry (contact them on Facebook for info). After arrival, enjoy a classic or inventive cocktail mixed by a well dressed barkeep. Another cool place is Licoreria Limantour in Roma. Located at Alvaro Obregon 106, it has an interior patio and some ambitious cocktails like Old Pepe or Machete. A good spot to end the night is at Gin Gin in Polanco. Truly a gin palace, you can take pleasure in a traditional Hendricks & Tonic (my favorite) or maybe with sake or cognac. Not a bad way to end the day.
WHERE TO STAY
Mexico City offers a lot of variety when it comes to hotels, from charming bed and breakfasts in residential neighborhoods to luxury properties in the hippest part of town. The area you choose will be just as important in determining your experience as the place you stay. Since you'll be exploring several different neighborhoods during your visit, I would recommend staying in Polanco or Paseo de la Reforma. In my opinion, 2 hotels that both have excellent locations are Las Alcobas and the St Regis.
Las Alcobas is located in the heart of Polanco at Presidente Masaryk 390. Rooms at this modern boutique hotel are decorated in subdued colors, with rosewood furnishings and Italian linens. They all have flat screen TVs with home theater sound systems and marble bathrooms with rainfall showerheads and handmade soaps. Breakfast and WiFi are complimentary and other amenities include soundproof windows, 2 high end restaurants, a bar and a spa. The service is attentive and efficient, but never intrusive. Just outside the front door are many great restaurants and bars, along with the pleasant Parque Lincoln.
The St Regis is conveniently located on the city's illustrious Paseo de la Reforma, just steps from Bosque de Chapultepec. Set in a sleek high rise, it provides exceptional views of Castillo de Chapultepec and Monumento a la Independencia (El Angel). Rooms are spacious and elegant, with luxury bed linens and marble bathrooms. There is a spa, several restaurants, a cafe and WiFi is free of charge. Be sure to enjoy the traditional tea service or one of the famous Bloody Marys on the terrace of the King Cole Bar.
Mexico City is vibrant, delightful and a must visit. Viva Mexico.