Mexico City Unmasked
Steering your way to the heart of a city of nearly 10 million is no easy feat. These 20 insider tips demystify the metropolis, from its homegrown design scene to its best cheap eats.
8. A chain-hotel alternative with style
Bridging the gap between cookie-cutter franchises and tiny B&Bs is Hotel La Casona, a 29-room inn in a 1923 beaux arts mansion just a few blocks northeast of Condesa. Polished details such as black-and-white-checkered marble tile, framed architectural engravings, and crown moldings show off the inherent grace of the high-ceilinged structure. Plus, the included breakfast (cappuccinos, cooked-to-order omelets) puts the old banana-and-a-roll routine to shame. Durango 280, Roma Norte, 011-52/55-5286-3001, hotellacasona.com.mx, doubles from $140.
9. Candy you can't find anywhere else
The recipes for the handmade sweets at Dulcería de Celaya—itself a confection of mirrors and swirling belle epoque paneling—were handed down by the original owners of the shop, established in 1874. Six generations later, the Guízar family sells the same sugary treats that lined the shelves on opening day: crumbly jamoncillo made from milk, candied-sweet-potato-paste rolls called camotes, and suspiros, chewy, multicolored coconut bonbons. 5 de Mayo 39, Centro, 011-52/55-5521-1787, candies from 50¢.
10. A befitting home for Diego Rivera
There's no shortage of places to see Rivera's paintings, but only one destination showcases his lesser-known architectural achievement: the Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli, completed to the artist's plans in 1963. A hybrid Aztec-Mayan pyramid reimagined through the lens of mid-century modernism, it's made of glass and black-lava stone and spans 12,916 square feet, looming over a reproduction 10th-century Toltec ball court. Inside, a maze of shadowy rooms showcases Rivera's own vast collection of pre-Hispanic pottery, sculpture, and artifacts. Museo 150, San Pablo Tepetlapa, 011-52/55-5617-4310, museoanahuacalli.org.mx, admission $1.50.
11. Lunch can last until 7 p.m.
Chilangos, as locals are known, have a continental sense of time: Work begins at 10 a.m., no one thinks about lunch until 3 p.m., and once they sit down to la comida, it can take hours. Although many restaurants are technically open only for the midday meal, it's not unusual to walk by at 7 p.m. and see people still huddled around what must be a 10th round of drinks—turning tables means nothing to Mexicans.
12. Independent fashion has a suitable site
With its glossy black-steel-and-glass exterior, Sicario may seem out of place on a grungy strip of Roma, but inside, the tightly edited selection of distressed jeans and blue-suede shoes from Mexican labels like Yakuza and Paola Hernández is a natural fit. Adding to the ambience: plywood displays, street art, and a lively soundtrack (the collective that runs the place also promotes emerging DJ acts like Beat Buffet and The Wookies. Colima 124, Roma Norte, 011-52/55-5511-0396, sicario.tv.
13. Even bread has its own institution
Follow the smell of baking bread wafting down a Centro sidewalk into Pastelería Ideal, founded in 1927—a vast, chandelier-lit room where tables are piled high with every Mexican pastry imaginable. It's self-serve, so grab a tray and load up on goodies like cochitos, gingerbread cookies shaped like pigs, or the sugar-encrusted buns known as conchas, which locals like to eat for breakfast. Be forewarned: When a baker emerges from the back with a batch fresh from the oven, stand back or risk being trampled. República de Uruguay 74, Centro, 011-52/55-5512-2522, pasteleriaideal.com.mx, pastries from 25¢.
14. The best view $3 can buy
Just above the wood-paneled Librería Porrúa downtown, El Mayor, a sunny rooftop café bordered by succulents, provides a crowd-free vista of the Aztec-era Templo Mayor and the bell towers of the 18th-century Metropolitan Cathedral. Take it all in for a minor fee: the roughly $2.75 cost of a michelada, beer spiked with lime, salt, and, often, spices. República de Argentina 15, Centro, 011-52/55-5704-7580, porrua.com/elmayor.
15. A gourmet meal at a taco-stand price
Get beyond the school-cafeteria vibe and you'll see that Café Azul y Oro, in an institutional 1970s-era building on the campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Coyoacán, serves some of the best meals—and deals—in town. Food writer and chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita is on a mission to make high-minded food affordable to students (and anyone who values taste over atmosphere). With dishes like salpicón de venado, a vinegar-laced venison salad, and duck ravioli stacked in a pyramid and strewn with blackberries and mole sauce, you'll eat as well as you would at any of the city's top restaurants—all for well under the $15 mark. Insurgentes Sur 3000, Ciudad Universitaria, 011-52/55-5623-3500 ext. 1065, entrées from $6.50.