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(CNN) — A city of 20 million (some say more), Mexico City is North America’s “maximum city” — one of the most dynamic, fascinating and, yes, enjoyable places on the planet. It’s a sleeper fave among sophisticated travelers who know that perception almost never matches reality when it comes to visiting Mexico or its capital.
In the best of Mexico City, you’ll find what everyone loves about great urban centers: centuries of history, impressive museums, five-star restaurants, sexy boutique hotels, artsy neighborhoods and lots of great conversation with intelligent locals.
Beyond that, there’s an authenticity that makes the city unlike any other. If you ever get bored, a walk down any street offers something to appreciate, amuse or astound.
Below is an itinerary of DF necessities (DF, or Distrito Federal, is the popular local moniker for the capital city), a mix of classics and right-now hot spots to engage every sense.
Real art on the walls. First sign of a hipster hotel.
Ground zero for Colonia Roma’s burgeoning hipster scene, Brick balances style with sincere affection for its best of Mexico City neighborhood. Behind an early-20th-century mansion (once a brothel) encompassing lobby, bar and restaurants, guests discover an intimately scaled tower featuring ultra-fashionable rooms and suites.
On the ground floor, lobby denizens look as good as the decor, a charming mix of antique and modern styles. The spacious front terrace is ideal for power breakfasts or happy hours.
Hotel Brick, Orizaba 95, Roma Norte; +52 55 5525 1100
Hotel Condesa dF
If the private patio is too quiet, there’s always the rooftop bar.
Hotel Condesa DF
Now a veteran, yet still among the best Mexico City hostelries, Condesa dF’s traditional exterior hides a compact courtyard that’s home to a buzzy, sexy scene. Rooms are tight, but loaded with style. Deluxe suites feature marvelous private patios.
The rooftop bar is a delight, especially afternoons before mobs hit, like the deck of an ocean liner, sun dappled and sailing through a sea of magnificent trees. Be on the lookout for visiting celebs.
Hotel Las Alcobas
This best of Mexico City hotel adds soigné and a hint of sex to the sometimes stuffy Polanco neighborhood.
At Las Alcobas everything is just so in muted creams and browns, alongside burnished woodwork and impressive artworks. Upstairs, guest rooms are a silent oasis from city hubbub, and beautifully furnished. Meanwhile, shopaholics and gastronomes couldn’t be happier, since dozens of tony emporia and some of the city’s finest restaurants lie within easy walking distance.
In business since 1907, the Geneve has a great central location — convenient to the Centro, Roma/Condesa, Chapultepec Park and Polanco — and was recently remodeled in an over-the-top “Grand Hotel” style that’s charming, campy and fun.
In addition to location, pluses include large rooms and snappy service, plus a popular Sanborn’s coffee shop/department store just off the lobby. Surrounding blocks are filled with bars and restaurants, some, lamentably, to be avoided — the concierge can direct you to old-school places that recall the Zona Rosa as the city’s chicest neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s.
Located on a lively, attractive downtown street, the hotel takes its name from the nearby Cathedral, half a block away. The Cathedral is reached via a mind-boggling religious-articles shopping gallery.
Comfortably lodged in immaculate rooms, served by a friendly, attentive staff, HC guests are perfectly placed to explore the best of Mexico City’s fascinating historic city center on foot. Location makes up for the lack of deluxe appointments or starched uniforms. On the rooftop terrace, you can take in stunning views of centuries-old churches and palaces.
Considered by many to be Mexico City’s finest restaurant (for 10 years running), Pujol is nothing less than a phenom — one of the principal forces behind the DF’s dynamic food scene.
World-renowned chef Enrique Olvera serves clever, even astounding takes on regional Mexican recipes (ever had a liquid quesadilla shot? shrimp ceviche flautas?), using high-grade local ingredients in a minimalist dining room where everyone looks like a power player or cinema star. Oenophiles love one of Mexico’s best wine lists. Everything you eat at Pujol will be absolutely delicious.
Nothing has been updated at Casino Español — a mainstay for Spanish fare, in a magnificent palace two blocks from the city’s principal plaza — and that’s exactly why the place has remained so popular.
Regulars order Iberian perennials like paella, Serrano ham, roast suckling pig and a variety of fresh seafood. Service is crisp and formal (just like on opening day in 1903) yet not oppressive. Favored by business-suited fat cats, often in the company of women who seem too young to be their wives.
Home of the (very) leisurely lunch.
An exuberantly decorated, high-energy loft space in an attractive part of Colonia Roma, Contramar serves some of the city’s finest seafood and is a second home to table-hopping media types, hipsters and beautiful people.
Flavorful surprises like crab tostadas, fish sope appetizers adobado style, robalo fish meatballs and shrimp in orange-arugula sauce are at once delicate and rich, a world away from those fish tacos you scarfed last year in Cabo. Open for leisurely lunches only, approximately 2 p.m.-7 p.m.
Shocking pink meets solid gold in this best of Mexico City dining room.
The latest venture from celebrity chef Martha Ortiz, Dulce Patria makes a play as a leader on the DF “nouvelle Mexican” dining scene, serving up lesser-known recipes such as vanilla-scented corn chowder, squash blossom soup and duck in black mole, updated and presented in that thoroughly modern way. Desserts are a specialty — the famed “flor más bella del ejido” parfait will forever change your mind about gelatin.
The impeccable service makes Dulce Patria a particular favorite with a new generation of impressively coiffed ladies who lunch.
Nothing is more classic — or tasty — than DF street tacos.
This is of the DF’s best options for “down and dirty” tacos — it’s just as dazzling as any five-star restaurant, in its way.
Set on a raffish (at best) downtown street, Tlaquepaque welcomes all, high and low, for classic tacos al pastor, piping hot quesadillas, carnitas and all the other greasy delights locals crave, especially after a late-night cantina crawl. Still not “local” enough for you? There’s also a selection of organ-meat tacos (e.g., eyeballs, snouts, tripe) that may daunt even the most daredevil diner.
Taqueria Tiaquepaque, Independencia 4, near Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, Centro Histórico
Carmen Titia opened the first mom-and-pop El Bajío back in 1971, in a far-from-affluent neighborhood, where she dished out Mexican comforts amid a lively, colorful and friendly setting. Other, more-upscale locations followed, maintaining the fiesta mood near the city’s principal business districts.
The menu features lots of dishes you won’t find in U.S. Mexican joints (pumpkin-seed and squash tamales, Yucatán-style panucho tostadas and savory mole de olla beef stew), but those craving refined yet hearty iterations of staples such as enchiladas, chilaquiles and carnitas (a house specialty) leave neither hungry nor disappointed.
Ragga and Joy Room
Are you ready for the big time? Don’t be fooled by its in-mall location: this high-end nightlife complex (Ragga is the dance club, Joy the lounge), in the city’s poshest district, is a prime “meet market” for the DF’s most well turned out, prosperous and hottest young singles.
Rivaling anything in New York, Miami or Ibiza, the elegant setting, till-dawn grooves and — we repeat — a crowd that’s very easy on the eyes justifies the hype. Dress up and bring lots of money.
Ragga and Joy Room, Plaza Antara, Ejercito Nacional 83-B, Colonia Polanco; +52 55 5281 3181
Bar San Luis
Keep an eye on your date or you might find her in other hands.
As close to Havana ’59 as you’re likely to get, BSL features live Cuban band music (more Ricky Ricardo than Buena Vista Social Club) and a dance floor that’s always crowded with a slightly older, slightly seedy, entirely fabulous posse of ballroom aficionados.
The infectious energy spares no one. Service evinces a sort of cosa nostra-style formality, but you’ll soon see it’s all in good fun. Gentlemen, establish a loan-out policy with your date before you go — strangers will ask her to dance.
Bar San Luis, San Luis Potosí 28, between Mérida and Frontera, Colonia Roma
Cantina Tío Pepe
A best of Mexico City time capsule from the late-19th century (which might include the customers), Tío Pepe is for many the DF’s most authentic, old school cantina.
Swank it ain’t, but its faded glory is hard to resist, featuring a massive mahogany bar, rickety red vinyl booths and a nonplussed staff that seems to have seen it all. Full disclosure: foreigners and women may attract (completely harmless) attention — at least until someone pulls out a guitar and regulars start their heartfelt, tone-deaf singing.
Cantina Tio Pepe, Independencia 26 at Dolores, Centro Histórico; +552 55 5521 9136
Miralto (atop the Torre Latinoamericana)
The decor could be smarter and the music can be too loud, especially weekend nights. Still, there’s no better way to appreciate the sheer immensity of Mexico City than by enjoying a well-prepared drink at the top of the city’s first and most emblematic skyscraper (beloved like a local version of the Empire State Building).
Nighttime visits have you floating on an immense sea of stars, and if you’re there on a clear day, you can almost see forever. Touristy, but awe inspiring. Note: Bar/restaurant patrons don’t have to pay to use the elevator; simply check in with the lobby hostess.
Salón Tenampa at Plaza Garibaldi
Just north of downtown lies authentically tourist tacky Plaza Garibaldi, where (especially late nights) dozens of mariachi musicians and hundreds of revelers (in varying states of sobriety) gather to appreciate the pageantry, pathos and brass of this traditional Mexican music.
Hire your band right on the plaza, or pay them just to play a song or two while you drink a cerveza, or slide into El Tenampa, a circa-1940s nightclub featuring strolling bands, where all the greats, past and present, have played. The bar is right on the plaza. You’ll be amazed at the cacophony, yet somehow it works. We dare you not to love it.
Shopping / Attractions
With various ample and attractive branches in neighborhoods you’re sure to visit, Fonart stores gather cut-above (often superb) artisan work from every region in Mexico.
You’ll find indigenous textiles fashioned into shawls and dresses; hand-blown glassware in styles you know and some you don’t; baskets and pottery; rustic-chic furniture and some impossibly elaborate but nonetheless exquisite objêts d’art. Visit often as inventory is one-of-kind and therefore constantly changing.
Fonart, Avenida Juárez 89, Colonia Centro; +52 55 5521 0171
Fornart, Paseo de la Reforma 116, Colonia Juarez; +52 55 5093 6000
The Hermès of Mexico. With boutiques throughout the city, PC sells silk accessories (plus other items ranging from eyewear to furniture) in its signature eye-catching, highly chromatic regional motifs: scarves in “monarch butterfly,” purses and wallets in gorgeous silk versions of indigenous textiles, neckties emblazoned with frolicking Day of the Dead skeletons, and on and on.
In this best of Mexico City shop you’ll find beautiful items, with a wink of irony — the perfect souvenir for that luxury-goods lover back home.
Pineda Convalin, Campos Elíseos 215, Colonia Polanco; +52 55 5256 3603
Pineda Convalin, Isabel la Católica 30, Centro Histórico; +52 55 5510 4421
Centuries ago, the discovery of silver helped turn Mexico into Spain’s wealthiest overseas colony. The precious metal continues to be a favorite medium for some of the country’s most creative artists and designers.
Much of the city’s most exquisite work is sold at two Polanco galleries. Taller Ballesteros is an outpost of the famed Taxco workshop, known for traditional design in everything from luxe jewelry to baroque candelabras. Works at nearby Tane evince a more contemporary feel, in pieces ranging from delicate gewgaws and chic tableware to mind-blowing silver sculpture.
Taller Ballesteros, Presidente Masaryk 126, Colonia Chapultepec Polanco; +52 55 5545 4109
It’s obvious, and right there, but that’s no excuse to miss it. Visiting Mexico City’s historic downtown is the perfect crash course in the city’s seven centuries of urban life.
The main plaza, known as the Zócalo, is the logical starting place. Perennial attractions include the massive baroque/neo-classical Cathedral and its next-door neighbor, the ruins of the Aztecs’ main temple.
Around the corner lies the Palacio Nacional, whose striking Diego Rivera murals are a best of Mexico City attraction.
If you have 20 minutes or so, walk all the way down pedestrian-only Madero Street to take in the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Artes concert hall. As you walk, a delightful urban pageant — featuring denizens high and low, traditional and freaky — provides excellent free entertainment
Coyocán/Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul
A pleasant urban breather awaits in the outlying neighborhood called Coyoacán, a once-separate municipality that retains traces of its small-town past. Two adjacent plazas filled with at-ease locals, surrounded by quaint restaurants, cantinas and ice cream parlors, constitute ground zero.
From here you walk past an inviting greenmarket to Casa Azul (Blue House), iconic artist Frida Kahlo’s birthplace as well as the house she shared (off and on) with husband Diego Rivera. Casa Azul’s museum features a number of her most celebrated paintings, along with furniture and artifacts that offer fascinating insights into Mexico’s 20th-century intellectual and bohemian life.
Casa Azul, Londres 247, Del Carmen Coyoacan; +52 55 5554 5999
Pyramids at Teotihuacan
Urban planning at its apex.
During its zenith between 150 B.C. and 450 A.D., the only city larger than Teotihuacan was Rome. Today a visit to its ruins — about an hour north of the city by car — is an obligatory stop for contemplating the vicissitudes of time and human civilization.
Visitors cannot help being awed by the site’s two massive pyramids, dedicated to the sun and moon; the physically fit must be sure to climb one or both. We recommend hiring a guide, as on-site signage and curation are almost nonexistent. But chat with your man before closing the deal to determine how historically knowledgeable, or space cadet, he seems to be.
Mexican-style wrestling (lucha libre) is equal parts sideshow, soap opera and Kabuki theatre, a completely fun (if guilty) pleasure. In addition to the main events, each program features surprises like lady luchadoras, midget combatants or highly shameful unmaskings, and while the crowd is rowdy and working class (slumming hipsters notwithstanding), the bluster is entirely harmless.
Perfect for families: children pay rapt attention to all the cartoonish carrying on and the in-ring “violence” is obviously staged; much more personal yet milder than what you see at a U.S. football game.
About an hour and a half east of the DF by car lies Puebla, Mexico’s “second city” until the mid-20th century. Compared with the capital, today it seems small, and in any case is thoroughly quaint and manageable as a one- or two-day getaway.
Most visitors focus on the city’s splendidly preserved yet still authentic downtown, featuring leafy plazas plus inviting bars, restaurants and historic sites painted in every imaginable Easter egg hue. Not least of all, Puebla’s local cuisine is considered to be among Mexico’s finest.
The excellent mole poblano in the enchanting courtyard restaurant at the Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía hotel is justly renowned; as are regional delicacies like cemita sandwiches and mini-tostada chalupas in markets and at street stalls.
Where to stay: We love the traditional (though exquisite) Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía. That said, the ultra-chic Hotel Purificadora, just outside the historic city center, is by far the city’s most fashionable accommodation.
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