Mexico City is a metropolis that has it all. Bursting with inviting neighbourhoods, revamped green spaces and clean air, it’s no wonder The New York Times last year named it as the number one place to go to in the world. Originally built on an island of Lake Texcoco by the Aztecs in 1325, this megalopolis has so much heart. Remarkably, each neighbourhood feels like a village, despite being part of the sprawl – the Greater Mexico City is home to about 22 million people.
No longer fitting the description of a “crime-ridden urban jungle”, the Mexican capital is now considered one of the safest cities in Latin America. Of course, there are areas where tourists should not venture, but it’s not the organised crime hub that some may think. And international visitor numbers prove the point. Tourism in Mexico is booming, up nine per cent in 2016 to a record-breaking 35 million tourists.
Hoteliers, chefs, fashion designers, architects and artists have redefined Mexico City’s image. Now a world-class luxury getaway, it boasts some of the world’s most innovative cuisine and is home to 10 of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. While the city has changed in so many ways, some things remain the same. Life is still lived outside, on streets lined with taco stands, old-school cantinas and colourful markets. Throw artsy hotels, funky bars and designer shops into the mix, and the atmosphere in this city is as potent as a chilli margarita.
Mexico City map illustration by Taylor Conacher
Things to do in Mexico City
Most of the sites of interest to tourists are located in the buzzing city centre. Explore Templo Mayor, a huge Aztec temple complex that was excavated in the 1970s. Nearby, admire Diego Rivera’s murals at the National Palace. Also unmissable are: Chapultepec Castle, the former imperial castle with glorious views of the city; the National Museum of Anthropology, which is home to the Aztec calendar stone Piedra del Sol; and the splendid white-marble Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts).
A visit to artist Frida Kahlo’s house, La Casa Azul (the Blue House), a 30-minute drive south of the city centre in Coyoacan, is an absolute highlight of any trip to Mexico City. Around the corner, Leon Trotsky’s home remains much as it was on August 21, 1940, when he was assassinated.
About 20 minutes’ drive from here is Xochimilco, which is unlike anywhere else in the city. Its floating gardens are laced with canals that are best explored by gondola. When the sun goes down, catch an opera, ballet or symphony back in the city centre at Palacio de Bellas Artes. Tickets are available on the day at the venue or through Ticketmaster.
The clubs (known as “antros”) don’t start heating up until midnight and close in the early hours. Two of Mexico City’s most exclusive nightclubs can be found in the posh Polanco district, a 15-minute drive from the city centre. Area Bar and Terrace at Habita Hotel (hotelhabita.com; Av. Presidente Masaryk 210) is perhaps the sexiest bar in all of Mexico and at nearby Dinsmoor (Av. Horacio 400) everyone looks like a model.
Foot-tapping bars in the city centre include El Zinco (zincojazz.com; Calle Motolinia 20), one of the greatest underground jazz clubs in the world; Salon Los Angeles (salonlosangeles.mx; Calle de Lerdo 206), a famous old dance hall; and raucous disco Barba Azul (Calle Gutierrez Najera 291).
High-end travel company Journey Mexico (journeymexico.com) specialises in crafting unique itineraries featuring the finest bars, restaurants and accommodation in Mexico City. Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.com.au) has private journeys in Mexico from five to 14 days, with extensions available.
Where to eat in Mexico City
Breakfast is generally a light meal, as is dinner. The most important meal of the day is lunch, between 2 and 4pm. The leafy Polanco district is home to three restaurants that have been included on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list: Biko (biko.com.mx; Av. Presidente Masaryk 407), a flavoursome collision between Spain and Mexico; Quintonil (quintonil.com; Newton 55), featuring modern Mexican cooking with an emphasis on greens; and Pujol (pujol.com.mx; Tennyson 133), named by Wall Street Journal as the best in Mexico City.
At Dulce Patria (dulcepatriamexico.com; Anatole France 100), also in compact Polanco, critically acclaimed chef Martha Ortiz channels the creative spirit of Kahlo with an avant-garde interior and colourful Mexican food. Can there be a more exciting place to eat? In prime location in the city centre, traditional Mexican dishes get a modern update at Barrio Alameda (Calle Dr Mora 9), housed in a stunning art deco building (chic lodging Chaya B&B Boutique is on the top floor).
The Mercado de San Juan (San Juan Market), also in the city centre, draws gourmets with its mind-boggling maze of stalls selling everything from simple smoked ham rolls to worm quesadillas. When in Roma, one of Mexico City’s most fashionable neighbourhoods, don’t miss Fonda Fina (fondafina.com.mx; Medellin 79), serving regional Mexican dishes with modern nuances in a homey atmosphere. After dinner make a beeline for Roma’s Licoreria Limantour (limantour.tv; Av. Alvaro Obregon 106), heralded as the top cocktail bar in Latin America. Majer Tejado, the first woman to win the title of best mixologist in Mexico, recommends the bar’s classic margarita al pastor; silver tequila with bright cilantro, pineapple and smoky chilli.
Where to shop in Mexico City
Polanco boasts some seriously upscale shopping. Said to be the most expensive shopping street in Latin America, Presidente Masaryk Avenue is lined with designer brands such as Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana. Find unique items at Onora Casa (Mexican textiles and handmade objects) and Yakampot (mixes traditional with modern designs to create garments like the rebozo scarf).
Vintage treasure hunters should head to La Lagunilla Market, located about 10 blocks north of the city centre’s main plaza in La Lagunilla district. It has everything from rare books to old Mexican ceramics (from 9am Sundays).
Cups covered with chaquiras placed by hand and adhered with beeswax by Huichol artisans at Onoro Casa