Although it has a venerable age of over 500 years, a historic center that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and neighborhoods that burst at the seams with cultural wonders and ancient gems, Mexico City has been going through a no-so-quiet rejuvenation phase over the past few years. And the whole world is watching. Among the solemn and serene churches, vibrant indigenous patterns, Old World architecture, historic murals, rustling palm trees, and fragrant markets with spices and delicacies, one can find a mosaic of contemporary street art, gleaming buildings rising to the sky, avant-garde architecture, and boutique shops holding the latest in modern design. It’s no wonder that architecture and design aficionados are falling head over heels in love with the city.
But at first glance, visiting can be a bit daunting. With a population in the greater metropolitan area of 21 million – second in the Western hemisphere only to New York City – the capital is a pretty big city. To put it mildly. Wherever you turn, there’s always something worth seeing. Worth visiting and experiencing. We’ve put together a few locations that caught our eye – hopefully you’ll have at least a place to start from when planning your own visit. So grab an Agua Fresca (cold water and fruit mixed in a blender) and read on:
Chaya B & B Boutique stands at the top of a recently renovated building which dates back to the 1920s. Right near the historic center, the hotel not only overlooks the lush green Alameda Central park, but it’s also within walking distance of Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, Palacio de Bellas Artes, and just 2 minutes away from Zócalo, the city’s main square. Breakfast introduces tourists to their first taste of the capital: mole and quesadilla, with a continental option also offered. An abundance of wood and green plants make the rooms feel extra cozy and welcoming. Oh, and there’s a hammock area on the rooftop as well.
Tasteful décor, art, and comfort await guests at La Valise Hotel. The 20th century French building is charming enough, but the hotel also benefits from the picturesque location, right in the heart of the hip Colonia Roma neighborhood. If you can (translation: if you find it available), book La Terraza. The suite has a king size bed which rolls from the bedroom to the rooftop terrace, where you can also watch a projected movie before dozing off under the stars.
For history architecture and art buffs, the Downtown boutique hotel is ideal. It’s located in the historic center, in a 17th century building that features colonial-style architecture, murals by artist Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and cutting-edge design with boho-chic as well as indigenous accents.
Because sleeping late is OK when you’re on vacation, start your day with the most important meal: brunch. Head over to Colonia Roma and visit the popular Delirio for a Mexican-Mediterranean brunch and a cup of coffee. Be warned: the place is beloved by locals and tourists alike, so expect to wait a bit for a table during the weekends.
If you’re around Polanco, go to the Quintonil restaurant where you can order a reimagined version of a traditional Mexican dish. This comfy and airy place looks welcoming, unpretentious and warm, yet this restaurant is also considered one of the best in the city and even in the country. While you’re in the neighborhood, drop by Quesadillas Maria Isabel for a street food treat. Like its name suggests, here you can order fried quesadillas with various fillings to feel like a local.
Taco lovers will get a glimpse at heaven at El Califa. Among numerous taco variations, this busy taqueria also offers a local specialty, “the Costra”: a meat tortilla with crisped cheese on top. To finish the day in style, walk to Colonia Centro and enter Azul Histórico. Located in the courtyard of a 17th century palace, the restaurant features tables set among tall trees. Whether you prefer a traditional or original dish, don’t forget to try the mango margarita.
Set a day or two aside to explore two of the capital’s most charming neighborhoods: Roma and Colonia Condesa. Unlike touristy areas, here you can stroll through quiet and peaceful streets, bump into local artists, get a sweet treat from an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, and dance to the beat of music played by an 11-piece band at the San Luis Club. Condesa is also filled with architectural wonders, from French-style and Bauhaus-inspired buildings to Art Deco designs. Art galleries, parks and plazas, homey eateries and refined restaurants are also dotted throughout the area.
In Mexico City, architecture and art lovers can find exciting things to see virtually anywhere they look. Art museums and galleries abound, and some of them are architectural destinations in of themselves, like Museo Soumaya. After taking plenty of photos of the graceful building, visitors enter a wonderland of Mexican and European art. Not many know this, but the museum also houses the largest Rodin collection outside of France. The small Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros museum and research center is a must-visit place for those who want to find out more about the city’s mural tradition, while Museo Jumex Arte Contemporáneo shouldn’t be missed by those who love contemporary art.
But if you prefer a different kind of museum experience, you can also visit two special houses. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Casa Luis Barragán offers a glimpse into the life of the iconic architect. Barragán’s home and studio provides an opportunity to see his designs as well as personal objects and a stunning art collection which includes works by José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, or Picasso. Impossible to miss, the family home of Frida Kahlo stands out thanks to its cobalt-blue walls. Known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House), the museum celebrates the life and work of the legendary artist. Unsurprisingly, it’s filled with gems. And some of them are not even related to Kahlo’s art.
After immersing yourself in architecture, art and culture during the day, it’s time to kick back and enjoy the capital’s nightlife after the sun goes down. Start with Balmori Rooftop bar and restaurant, famous for its cocktails. If you feel like grabbing a bite to eat, there’s also a good selection of seafood and international dishes. Hard to find, the exclusive Hanky Panky Cocktail Bar hides behind a restaurant in the La Juarez neighborhood. Those with reservations receive directions to the bar. Beyond the average-looking front door, they enter a glamorous space with 1920s-inspired décor, gilded accents, as well as red leather chairs and sofas. The cocktails are the highlight, but don’t miss the snack selection which looks like a foodie’s dream. And you can’t leave Mexico City without going at least once to one of the capital’s most popular bars: Limantour. The refined interior takes inspiration from Art Deco and modern design, which goes extremely well with the sophisticated cocktails made with local ingredients and house-made infusions and syrups.
Mexico City is not an ordinary place and its shops are no exception. Casa Del Agua is a water brand and boutique with an aesthetic as pure and clean as the product it provides: rainwater, collected and purified on site. The reusable glass bottles feature vintage-inspired designs; totes and cards are also available to purchase. If you’re looking for contemporary designs, head over to Onora and Anatole 13, both located in Polanco. The former offers artisanal objects designed with a modern aesthetic – think black clay candle holders or fabrics with simplified patterns and subdued colors – while the latter features clothing and jewelry from popular designers, rare design and art books, as well as food, coffee and tea to recharge your batteries after a day of shopping.
On weekends, you can go to various fleamarkets around the city, but we’ve picked two of them. Just make sure you have plenty of time to see everything and find some hidden treasures to take back home. Located in the San Angel area, El Bazaar Sábado has stalls filled with artisanal objects, art and traditional designs, paper flowers, embroidered clothing, or engraved Pepita glasses. Vintage fans shouldn’t miss Mercado Lagunilla in the historical center. Here one can discover anything from retro clothing and sunglasses to furniture and antiques.
You don’t have to stray far away from the city to get your a first-hand look at Mexico City’s Aztec past. Cerro de la Estrella, or Hill of the Star, sits on the Eastern edge of the capital in the Iztapalapa neighborhood. The small volcano is now part of a national park, but its was an important location for the Aztecs, with the last New Fire ceremony held here in the early 1500s right before Spanish conquistadors arrived. On top of the hill, you can admire the capital in all its glory and even get a glimpse at the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes on clear days. Beneath the volcano, there are more than 100 caves which the Aztecs believed to lead to the underworld, Mictlan.
The most visited archaeological site in the country, Teotihuacán is about 25 miles away from the capital. Here you can stand in awe in front of the Pyramid of the Sun – the third largest in the world – and the Pyramid of the Moon. Thankfully, there’s no reminder of the bloody sacrifices performed here by the Aztecs, but the air is filled with an unmistakable gravitas specific to monumental spaces.
If you have the time for longer trips – think 3.5 to 4 hours by car – you should put Cuetzalan and Tolantongo on your list. Considered by many a ‘magic’ town (it was even named ‘Pueblo Magico’ in 2002), Cuetzalan is located in a mountainous region surrounded by coffee plantations and lush tropical forests. Ancient temples, stunning French-Gothic churches, waterfalls, and cobbled streets await. On Sundays, you can also see locals dressed in traditional clothing going to the local market. The ultimate destination for relaxing in the middle of nature, Tolantongo features hot springs carved in the steep walls of volcanic mountains, overlooking a picturesque landscape. If you want to cool off, you can also swim in the turquoise Tolantongo river. Hotels, restaurants, and a grocery store are also located in the resort, so you can make it a weekend trip.