One of the world’s biggest cities is bursting at the seams with energy, culture, great food and enough surreality to keep it endlessly fascinating
Author JOE KEOHANE
PHOTOGRAPHS BY HOLLY WILMETH
MEXICO CITY, a.k.a. “El Monstruo.” The French poet André Breton called it the most surreal place on earth, while writer Salvador Novo said you don’t live in Mexico City, you merely practice it. For generations, writers, wanderers and musicians have flocked here from around the world, drawn by the city’s mad improvisational energy and deep culture, its freewheeling lifestyle and seeming lack of any organizing principle.
Formerly Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Mexico City still suffers from a reputation earned in the later years of the past century, but the city known by the roughly 20 million residents in its metro area as “D.F.,” for Distrito Federal (akin to D.C. in the U.S.), is booming. Real estate prices are rising; the film, publishing and music industries are among the strongest in the Spanish-speaking world; and a new mayoral administration has launched a slew of programs to cut smog, improve mass transit and enhance public safety, making it easier to enjoy the city’s 160 world-class museums, countless acres of beautiful parks and some of the best food going.
An endlessly surprising, utterly fascinating mix of the sublime and the surreal, D.F. is beloved by its people, known as Chilangos. Come here and they’ll squander no opportunity to tell you about it, argue about it, sing its praises. And here’s the thing: After a few days, you will too.
DAY ONE | It’s Saturday morning, and the push of a button on the bedside console in your corner suite at Las Alcobas (1), a stylish new hotel in the wealthy Polanco neighborhood, opens the curtains, revealing, through the gracefully curved window, an uncharacteristically quiet street below. You have the front desk call you a taxi. By the time you get to the lobby — more like the front hall of a grand residence than a hotel foyer — the car is waiting to take you a few miles south to Coyoacán.
Step out at the Frida Kahlo Museum (2), in the Casa Azul, the former home of painter and global cultural icon Frida Kahlo, where she learned to paint while bedridden after an accident and where she later lived with her equally iconic husband, Diego Rivera (and, for a time, an exiled Trotsky). The rambling home is airy, full of light and cluttered with art, pre-Columbian pottery and books; on a kitchen wall, “Frida” and “Diego” are spelled out in hundreds of tiny teacups.
After an hour of wishing you lived here, you walk out and follow Avenida Ignacio Allende past vendors setting up stands of woolen plush toys, lucha libre masks, clothes and food. You follow the mariachi strains to El Jarocho (3), a lively corner café. Coffee in hand, you take a seat on a sidewalk bench and catch up on the local gossip. Farther down, you cross Plaza Hidalgo (4), a stately public space with the old city council building on one side, ringed by cafés and ice cream shops, and then pass through the shady, manicured Jardin Centenario to Francisco Sosa, a leafy street lined with colorful colonial homes.
You cross the major avenue La Paz and make your way to the Plaza San Jacinto in San Angel, home of El Bazar del Sábado (5), D.F.’s legendary weekly art fair. Chilangos pack into the bazaar building to peruse handmade jewelry, iron solar system mobiles and impossibly detailed sculptures carved out of single toothpicks, while outside, hundreds of artists sell their paintings, which range from conventional to subversive to exuberantly kitschy.
Wind your way along cobblestone residential streets to San Angel Inn (6), a famed local institution housed in a sprawling, high-class hacienda. You take a table in the bar area, call for one of the house margaritas, poured from a silver decanter buried in a dish of crushed ice, and follow that with roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and beef in a sweet sauce with undertones of smoke.
After a brief nap back at the hotel (the city is 7,200 feet above sea level, and the air is thin) and a shower, you stroll through Polanco, past mansions, embassies and streets named for great writers, to Pujol (7), considered by some to be Mexico City’s most important restaurant. The dizzying tasting menu marries the traditional with the avant-garde. There are the pumpkin flowers stuffed with bean paste; the baby corn in coffee mayonnaise; the egg in a pastry puff drizzled with caterpillar sauce; fried dough and tomato crudités with fried tomato skin, queso fresco and a sprinkling of tiny, crunchy beetles; a raspberry sorbet served with salt and flaming mezcal. It seems to go on forever.
You’re half-delirious from food, but you’d be remiss if you didn’t take in some of the nightlife, so you have the waiter call a car and you head out to the Roma neighborhood. Per the urging of an expat, you stop first at La Nuclear (8), a narrow, noisy, brick-lined space that sells pulque, a traditional milky beverage made from fermented cactus that’s enjoying a revival among bohemians. Then it’s off to Mama Rumba (9), a popular salsa club. The place is slammed, with two levels of people dancing to a ferocious salsa band. You stake out a spot by the bar and order a mojito. You try to keep from being sucked in, but resistance is ultimately futile.
View Three Perfect Days: Mexico City in a larger map