Mexico City is the only city in North America that has a strong sense of tradition and a cutting edge,” says American expat Jason Fritz, who moved here last year after a decade in Tijuana and runs a roving supper club. “In the center, it’s very old-school, with people living as they did 60 years ago, but in other neighborhoods it’s totally contemporary.”
His business is booming. “Mexico City is the ‘next Berlin,’” he says, half-joking, a stop on the cool-seeking circuit. The DF—Distrito Federal, like the DC in Washington DC— is far safer, cleaner and more livable than it used to be, thanks to efforts to curb pollution and crack down on unscrupulous taxi drivers, among other initiatives.
DF native Samuel Leizorek, managing director of the chic Las Alcobashotel, sees the city becoming more appealing to leisure travelers: “The gastronomy, archaeology and culture are great here. Mexico City is as good as many European capitals and easier for a long weekend from the U.S.” (Aeromexico has frequent service; New York is only about five hours away.)
Here’s why the DF is worth a trip. (Disclosure: Mine was hosted by the tourism board.)
The Street Food Is Insane.
It’s as good as everyone says. One frequently cited statistic has it that 20 million people a day eat something on the street here (especially impressive for a metro area of about 21 million). That may be apocryphal, but the stands are bustling from early morning until late night, as Chilangos—as residents are known—stop for tacos and quesadillas. Fritz’s company, Club Tengo Hambre, organizes the small-group and private street-food tours with an emphasis on out-there foods you can’t get at home: huitlacoche quesadillas, green chorizo flavored with spinach and almonds, the city’s best tacos al pastor. (Yes, it’s safe: Most of it comes straight off a grill, and even aguas frescas are fine from the right vendors.)
Mexican Food, Period
Mexican gastronomy was named by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. Celebrity chef Margarita Carrillo Arronte, considered the Julia Child of Mexico and the author of the recent 700-page Mexico: The Cookbook, was instrumental in leading that charge. “All of Mexico has great food, and each region has a specific palate,” she says, noting the country’s vast differences in climate and topography. “There is a mosaic of cuisine in Mexico City,” drawing on national influences plus regional ingredients like mushrooms (it rains a lot) and edible flowers. The food bears no resemblance to the heavy fried stuff that passes for Mexican in the States.
Seriously, the Food
Mosaic? The current dining scene is a dizzying array. There are the deservedly admired pilgrimage restaurants like Pujol and Quintonil, which just took number 16 and number 35 on the new World’s 50 Best list. More highlights (by no means a definitive list): Chef Eduardo García at Máximo Bistrot mastered fish at New York’s Le Bernadin but is known for his succulent pork belly, served in a homey, dressed-down dining room. Sud 777 chef Edgar Nuñez says his native-ingredient-driven menus are “fun dining,” rather than “fine dining,” even as you can see the tweezing that goes into presentation and taste the precision in the flavors. The new Candela Romero is Michelin-starred Spanish chef Alejandro Sánchez’s brave foray into a city devoid of contemporary Spanish cooking—he’s imported everything from smoked sardines to concept of the gin-and-tonic cart. Then there are institutions like Restaurante Nicos, a traditional comedor since the 1950s whose chef was chosen by fellow chefs as the city’s best.
There’s One of the Coolest Tiny Hotels Anywhere.
Belgian-born entrepreneur Yves Naman opened the three-suite La Valise in a 1920s building in the hip Roma neighborhood several years ago. Why here? “To me, Mexico City is the most misunderstood and understated megalopolis in the world. After living in many cities, I believe that the DF is one of the most captivating and creative cities on the planet, with surprising museums, architectural chefs-d’oeuvre, a vast cultural proposal and a world-class hotel and restaurant scene.” His contribution includes the atmospheric rooms at La Valise, the best of which has a king-size bed that can be rolled onto a terrace.
Frida and Diego Lived, Loved and Left Their Mark.
Frida Kahlo is the height of cool in New York at the moment, but she’s been a part of Mexico’s soul for decades. Worth a trip to Coyaocán, her home, garden and studio, Casa Azul is suffused with her troubled, defiant and passionate personality, from her early bus accident to her tempestuous love affair with Diego Rivera. On the way back, stop atMuseo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco, the former home and private collection of Rivera’s primary benefactor. It’s now an intimate, residential museum, where some 70 peacocks on the beautiful grounds threaten to distract visitors from Rivera and Kahlo’s artworks inside.
The Murals Are Astounding.
“We are very lucky to have lots of murals in public places,” says art-historian guide Roberto Escartin. In pre-Columbian times communication was pictorial, Catholicism emphasizes images, and the Spaniards brought high-quality paintings. That was the context when José Clemente Orzsco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and especially Diego Rivera—political painters who lived through the Mexican Revolution—began adorning buildings in the city center. A whistle-stop tour includes San Ildefonso College, where Rivera painted his first mural in 1922; the Secretariat of Public Education, whose courtyard walls are decorated with hundreds of frescos he painted in second half of the ’20s; and especially Palacio Nacional, where he spent 13 years depicting the history of Mexico in one massive mural.
Mescal Is Having a Moment.
The smoky cousin of tequila is rising, thanks to mescal bars like El Bosfóro, where the knowledgeable bartenders pour a diverse collection of ultra-artisanal mescals. Even better is an evening with La Fiera Mezcal, an underground mescal curator who welcomes visitors into her home to sample super-small-batch mescals from her home state of Guererro, poured from beautiful bottles painted by local artisans. Club Tengo Hambre can arrange.
Craft Cocktails Are Thriving Too.
Licorería Limantour started it by mixing unusual concoctions in a relaxed indoor-outdoor space in Roma four years ago. A standout is the Mescal Stalk, made with Cointreau, pineapple and lemon juice and finished with a rim of surprisingly tasty worm salt. The owners’ latest venture, the informal, waiter-free Baltra, amps up the flavors in new renditions of classic cocktails and excellent bar snacks.
The Museums Are Endless.
After food, Mexico City is famous for its many outstanding museums. Beyond the national institutions (art, history, archaeology), private museums include Museo Soumaya, billionaire Carlos Slim Helú’s collection of 66,000 artworks, and Museo Jumex, home to a stellar contemporary collection housed in a striking five-story building by architect David Chipperfield.
There’s a Vibrant Creative Scene.
“Luxury” no longer means “imported,” as designers are celebrating Mexican heritage. Couturier Carmen Rion has been working with indigenous artisans for 25 years to create one-of-a-kind fashion from traditional rebosos (woven cloths used to carry babies or worn as shawls). Daniel Espinosa uses centuries-old techniques to create bold contemporary jewelry for men and women.