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.
1. It's actually not impossible to navigate
Known locally as D.F., for Distrito Federal, Mexico City sprawls across almost 600 square miles—it's roughly the size of Houston but packs in four times as many people. Still, if you plan your itinerary by colonia, or neighborhood, it's easy to get a handle on things. Some of the most popular sites are in perpetually thronged Centro as well as in hipper districts southwest of it, like Condesa and Roma.
2. Art appreciation is an all-ages affair
At the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, you can expect to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with students, young families, and skeptical-seeming abuelas, who examine the mixed-media installations as carefully as they do melons at the market. Insurgentes Sur 3000, Ciudad Universitaria, 011-52/55-5622-6972, muac.unam.mx, admission $2.25.
3. Traditional textiles are getting a new life
Designer Carmen Rion was working with artisans in Chiapas five years ago when inspiration struck. With a few creative modifications, they could turn the beautiful fabrics the weavers made on old-fashioned waist looms into modern, one-of-a-kind garments. Rion's sliver of a shop in Condesa shows off the results: black evening dresses covered in elaborate pleats, and floor-length gowns swirling with hand-painted prints. While a few pieces top $3,000, there's something in here for everyone, such as woven-fabric handbags with leather straps (from $117) or necklaces made of brightly colored needlepoint circles knit by one of her salesclerks ($28). Michoacán 30-A, Hipódromo Condesa, 011-52/55-5264-6179, carmenrion.com.mx.
4. Real margaritas that don't have umbrellas
Don't be deceived by the thimble-size glasses: The Fonda El Refugio's decidedly potent signature drink is one of the city's best. (The perfect ratio of fresh lime to tequila accounts for the dangerously smooth sipping.) Fortify yourself with regional dishes such as huachinango a la Veracruzana (red snapper in a spicy-tomato-and-olive sauce) before ordering a second round. Liverpool 166, Zona Rosa, 011-52/55-5207-2732, fondaelrefugio.com.mx, entrées from $18.75.
5. Day-after medicine that goes down easy
Contramar, an airy, white-walled lunch spot in Roma that's favored by businesspeople and creative types, has a valuable secret of its own: the caldo de camarón, a rich broth bobbing with shrimp. According to lore, it's a surefire cure for a hangover. Durango 200, Roma Norte, 011-52/55-5514-9217, contramar.com.mx, soup from $4.25.
6. Down-home snacks in a swanky setting
On sidewalks all over the city, you'll see vendors selling fried chapulines, or grasshoppers—a salty, crunchy treat doled out of grimy plastic buckets and doused with fresh lime. For those who want a less dodgy source of pre-Hispanic finger foods, there's Restaurante El Cardenal, which has uniformed waiters, stone columns, and stained-glass windows. Escamoles, served in a mortar, look like grains of rice swimming in butter. Spread them across a warm tortilla, add guacamole, and take a bite. You'll never guess that the slightly sweet granules erupting in your mouth are ant larvae; they taste just like popcorn. Palma 23, Centro, 011-52/55-5521-8815, restauranteelcardenal.com, escamoles $9.25, entrées from $13.25.
7. A Mexican design hotel done right
Wherever Grupo Habita goes, a scene is sure to follow. And the splurge-worthy CondesaDF outpost from the country's champion of hip hotel design is no exception: Weekend brunches in the turquoise-walled breakfast room draw local aesthetes looking to unwind on cowhide-covered banquettes. And the 40 mostly white guest rooms are equipped with iPods loaded with indie rock (from Cat Power to The Killers) and have sliding walnut screens for extra soundproofing. But the design doesn't come with attitude. Don't be surprised if staffers start calling you by name 15 minutes after you arrive—and the resident chocolate Lab, Conde, stands at the ready to welcome you. Veracruz 102, Condesa, 011-52/55-5241-2600,condesadf.com, doubles from $195.