Move over greasy tacos and tacky trinkets: Mexico City is home to a vast network of chic museums, top-notch restaurants and trendy nightclubs. There’s even an ice bar.
What’s more, the city remains one of the globe’s best budget stops.
With just a few pesos — preferably hidden deep inside one’s clothing in case of mugging — visitors can view world-renowned art inside centuries-old buildings, wander through Aztec ruins in the heart of the city, and sip tequila at rooftop bars where DJs spin the latest international beats.
And amid the chaos of its more than 20 million people, the Western Hemisphere’s largest city also has plenty of breathing space.
Ride a bike every Sunday to the city’s sprawling main plaza, the Zocalo, when Reforma Avenue is shut to traffic.
No bike? No worries — the city will lend you one for free if you leave an ID.
Despite Mexico City’s reputation for crime, your personal safety can be greatly improved by taking a few precautions.
Hop aboard the Turibus, a double-decker bus that takes you to all the top attractions for between 100 and 115 pesos (about $12). For two pesos, the subway can’t be beat and is relatively safe. During rush hour, women can head to the front for the all-female cars. If you want a taxi, make sure it is from an official stand called a sitio. (This will keep you from falling prey to criminals who pose as cabdrivers, take passengers to ATMs and force them to empty their accounts.)
With dozens of museums, you can easily overdose on art in this town. Topping the list are the awe-inspiring murals by Diego Rivera and other Mexican legends in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which also has temporary contemporary exhibits and a stunning performance called the Ballet Folklorico showcasing the country’s traditional dances.
Then walk down Francisco Madero Street to the Zocalo — the largest city square in the world — strolling past the colonial buildings, including a 1596, tile-covered count’s mansion. Today the home is a two-story coffee shop and drug store called Sanborns.
Off the Zocalo, the city’s sprawling main plaza, is the Palacio Nacional, or National Palace, where Rivera painted the entire history of Mexico on its walls. It’s free, and English-speaking guides are on hand to explain the details of the intricate work. On the other side of the Zocalo is the Metropolitan Cathedral, the oldest in the Americas.
Behind the cathedral, the Centro Cultural de Espana has extensive contemporary art exhibits and a rooftop cafe with mouthwatering tapas, most for under $5. On Thursday nights, DJs spin their tunes.
The city is teeming with ruins. One of the best is the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, a 12th century site discovered in the 1970s, squashed between businesses and government buildings. The ruins include a wall of stone skulls representing the human heads the Aztecs used to put on display after sacrificing people to the gods. The entrance fee is less than $3. Better yet, on Sundays the museum is free. If you’re still craving more history, hit the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park, one of the world’s best. Its entrance fee is less than $4.
La Roma and La Condesa are worth a day of strolling, stopping for Chiapas-grown coffee and people-watching in a hip cafe, checking out art galleries, or shopping boutiques that stock young designers. Start at Galeria OMR off the Rio de Janeiro plaza and wander down Orizaba Street to Alvaro Obregon. Then head to Parque Mexico. Check this bilingual list of galleries at arte-mexico.com/galeries.htm.
Surviving the madness
If you’re overwhelmed by the earsplitting noise of honking cars and shouting vendors, you can find respite wandering through the 550-acre Chapultepec Park — and the zoo is free. Or visit the free Jardin Botanico of Mexico’s National Autonomous University, with its cactus-and-maguey-studded lava outcroppings.
Mama Rumba in La Roma is a sure bet. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the $4 cover charge also includes free salsa lessons before 10 p.m., when the live Cuban band kicks in.
Traditional cantinas throw in sizable appetizers, almost a meal in themselves, with $3 beers. Try the 1928 Cantina La Guadalupana in Coyoacan, where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo drank tequila, or the cutting-edge La Bipolar.
In Condesa, cool down with your tequila-based drink on the ice-made love seats at the Icebar, the latest one to open worldwide.
Lucha Libre, Mexico’s masked wrestling spectacular, is a must for lovers of kitsch. On Tuesdays, hit the small, traditional Arena Coliseo for the best two-hour show $2.50 can buy, or go for the glitzy televised productions at Arena Mexico, where tickets run between $4 and $13. Be sure to pick up a cheap mask of your favourite hero outside.
Tacos are amazing here, but so is the vast variety of other kinds of dishes. There’s no better place than the capital to get a sampling of Mexico’s diverse food. La Tecla in La Roma is an affordable spot to try Nouveau Mexican food, such as duck enchiladas with mango sauce. Also don’t miss the squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and bathed in chipotle sauce. Most meals are under $10.
For amazing corn-flour tamales for breakfast, lunch or late-night munchies, try Flor de Lis in La Condesa. Two tamales cost less than $3 and come stuffed with chicken or pork with green or red sauce.