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Just Back From: Mexico City

By Maya Stanton
September 14, 2018
Bright blue exterior of the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City
Maya Stanton
From cutting-edge museums and fine dining to street-side taco stands and hyper-colorful graffiti, Mexico's capital has something for everyone.

When a friend suggested a trip for her banner-year birthday, we needed a destination that was reasonably priced, close enough for a short visit, and, in early September, warm enough to make us forget that summer was ending. With Mexico City, we got two out of three: It is indeed reasonably priced, both in terms of getting there ($250 roundtrip from New York!) and getting around ($5 to Uber from the airport to the city center!), and the time change is negligible, making it more than manageable for a holiday weekend. The weather wasn’t as unrelentingly hot and sunny as expected, but we packed northern California-esque layers, and it was perfectly pleasant. 

Mexico’s capital is a sprawling metropolis that offers so much to see and do that it’s practically impossible to check everything off your list in just three or four days. Which is fine—you’ll be planning your next visit before your return flight has left the runway. Here’s a little taste of what to expect from one of the world’s most populous urban centers.

1. A Network of Neighborhoods

Home to more than 20 million people spread across some 571 square miles, there's no chance of seeing all of the city in one go. Your best bet is to focus on a few colonias, or neighborhoods, and even then, you’ll probably be frustrated by the sheer volume of museums, galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars in each that you don’t have time for. We stayed in the Centro Historico—a friend called it the Times Square of Mexico City, but with more monuments and historical landmarks. It may not be the prettiest or the trendiest, but true to its name, its central location makes it a convenient base of operations. Check out the Zócalo, the city’s main plaza; visit the ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán at Templo Mayor, and hit a museum or two before taking an Uber (or the metro) to one of the outlying neighborhoods. West of the Centro, a half-hour cab ride away, the moneyed, tree-lined streets of Polanco provide a respite from the downtown scrum, with posh boutiques (and plenty of upscale chains familiar to the American eye), fancy restaurants, and chic cocktail joints. Southeast of Polanco, Condesa offers ample opportunities for people-watching, with sidewalk cafés and bars that draw tourists and locals alike. And to the east, the neighboring Roma is a hipster hangout par excellence, with great restaurants, coffee shops, and bookstores.

2. A Collection of Curiosities

For unique sights and experiences that give a distinct sense of place, look further afield. The Museo Frida Kahlo (museofridakahlo.org.mx), for one, sits in the peaceful suburb of Coyoacán, and it’s worth braving the throngs for a glimpse into the private lives of two of Mexico’s most iconic artists. Pro tip: For the best chance of avoiding the crowds, book tickets in advance for the earliest timed entry available, and go on a weekday. Allot plenty of time to wander through Frida’s bedroom, gaze out onto the idyllic gardens from her studio window, and imagine yourself at the kitchen table, sipping tea with Diego Rivera. Directly north, in the decidedly nondescript environs of Buenavista, is Biblioteca Vasconcelos (bibliotecavasconceles.gob.mx), an architectural marvel designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach. With interlocking, towering metal-and-glass stacks holding more than 600,000 volumes, this public library is pretty much heaven for bibliophiles.  

3. An Array of Fantastic Food

Anyone who’s nibbled on a subpar burrito and dreamed of the real deal, rest assured: You'll find it in abundance here in the motherland. From perfect little three-bite tacos in the Centro to upscale bistro fare and chi-chi tasting menus in the outlying neighborhoods, a culinary revolution is underway in the Ciudad de México. We booked a table at Máximo Bistrot Local (maximobistrot.com.mx) in Roma for a leisurely—if unfashionably early—lunch. (The cognoscenti don’t sit down until at least 2:00 p.m.) A swank, smart-casual spot, Máximo specializes in beautifully plated, Frenchified takes on classic Mexican dishes, from an outstanding sea urchin tostada to an unparalleled octopus ceviche. Also in Roma is Fonda Fina (fondafina.com.mx), a small space that treats Mexican cuisine with the reverence it deserves. Try the memela, a masa cake topped with octopus, pressed pork, and roasted cauliflower; the tortilla soup and the squash blossom–laden salad are also standouts. On the other end of the scale, the tiny tortillas from Taqueria Los Cocuyos in the Centro are as good before a night on the town as they are after one. The suadero (brisket) is good, as is the lengua, but the mixed-meat campechano was my personal favorite. If a sugary nightcap is more your speed, the 24-hour outpost of Churrería El Moro is not to be missed. Four churros and a side of dipping chocolate will set you back less than $2, and you’ll have sweet dreams to boot. Do note, though, that almost all sit-down spots close at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. on Sundays, so plan your meals accordingly. 

4. A Booming Art Scene

From hyper-colorful graffiti to carefully preserved murals by national treasures like Diego Rivera, and from sleek contemporary galleries and museums to grand dame institutions, Mexico City is a hotbed of artistic activity. In the Centro Histórico, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (palacio.bellasartes.gob.mx) is a must-see. This extraordinary theater was completed in 1934 and boasts a neoclassical facade, Art Deco interiors, and eye-catching murals. Take a tour or catch a show (the folkloric ballet is particularly memorable; see below for details), but whatever you do, get there before the curtain—a shimmering stained-glass number from Tiffany & Co.—goes up. A few blocks away, the Museo Nacional de Arte (munal.mx) focuses on art produced between the late 1500s and the early 1950s, with rotating exhibitions on subjects as varied as landscape master José María Velasco and modern muse Nahui Olin. A few miles to the west, the 1,655-acre Bosque de Chapultepec plays host to a number of noteworthy sites, including the Castillo de Chapultepec, a mansion with historic displays, a solid gift shop, and a terrace with sweeping city views; the Museo de Arte Moderno (museoartemoderno.com), featuring assorted work by 20th-century Mexican painters, sculptors, photographers, and more; and the Museo Nacional de Antropología (mna.inah.gob.mx), a supremely cool collection of galleries arranged around a central courtyard and dedicated to the country’s pre-Hispanic history. Just be aware that most museums are closed on Mondays. 

5. A Show of National Pride

The citizens of North America’s largest capital have plenty of reasons to be proud of their city. I visited just before the country celebrated its Independence Day on September 16th, and Mexico’s red, white, and green were on full display throughout the streets. But you don’t need a special occasion to get a feel for the city’s national pride. Performed year-round, twice a week, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández (balletfolkloricodemexico.com.mx) is a high-energy interpretation of classic Mexican dance. Through costumes, characters, and music that reflect the country’s heritage, the members of this skirt-swirling, lasso-twirling, tap-dancing company channel the traditions of days gone by. For 300 pesos (roughly $15), you can snag a seat in the nosebleeds, and you won’t find better value for the money. ¡Viva México! indeed.

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10 Exquisite Musical Events Worth Traveling to in 2018/19

Whether your idea of “classical music” is a ferocious symphony by Beethoven, the pulsing minimalism of Philip Glass, or a brand-new opera adapted from a Hitchcock thriller (really), the 2018/19 classical music and opera calendar promises to be one of the richest, most diverse ever. Here, 10 noteworthy musical events in travel-worthy destinations across the U.S. 1. Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival September 20 - 30, 2018 Opera Philadelphia showed themselves as one of the most interesting companies with last year’s O17 festival. This season’s 018 line-up features "Lucia di Lammermoor" and the world premiere of "Sky on Swings," which brings back the team of composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch, plus a production of Poulenc’s "La Void Humaine" that will include star Patricia Racette singing French art songs. Performances are staged all over, including at the Barnes Foundation art museum and concert (operaphila.org). 2. Daniil Trifonov With the Chicago Symphony October 18 - 20, 2018 Pianist Daniil Trifonov is a legend in the making, and his youth makes that even more exciting—there’s a sense he’s discovering new music and ideas at his every concert. Among many notable performances in North America this season, this appearance with the Chicago Symphony stands out for both his collaborators—the great Chicago Symphony and conductor Marin Alsop—and the material, Prokoviev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Stick around for the entire concert to hear Copland’s mighty Symphony No. 3 (cso.org). 3. 'Marnie' at the Metropolitan Opera October 19 - November 10, 2018 Five years after composer Nico Muhly’s opera "Two Boys" caused a considerable positive stir at the Met comes "Marnie." Best known as an Alfred Hitchcock film, "Marnie," adapted from a novel by Winston Graham, has the perfect operatic theme of a beautiful young woman who assumes multiple identities. It’s a star turn ripe for the taking by the great mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. Michael Meyer, who produced the Met’s scintillating "Ratpack Rigoletto," promises an appropriately  cinematic staging (metopera.org). 4. 'Satyagraha' at LA Opera October 20 - November 11, 2018 Composer Philip Glass may be most widely known for his film scores, including most famously "The Hours," but his operas are uniquely beautiful and intriguing. Glass's opera "Satyagraha," about Gandhi, is probably his music beautiful, and for the LA Opera it is the final leg of their stagings of Glass’s opera trilogy on science, religion, and politics. This co-production with the English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera comes from director Phelim McDermott, who has triumphant stagings of Glass's "Einstein on the Beach" and "Akhnaten" under his belt. His "Satyagraha" is a stunning interweaving of evocative settings and history, and features tenor Sean Panikkar in the lead (laopera.org). 5. Yuja Wang Perspectives Series at Carnegie Hall, New York City October 26, 2018 - May 2, 2019 (various dates) The Perspectives Series hands over programming to selected artists, and pianist Yuja Wang’s choices mix expected pleasures with real surprises. Across six concerts, she’ll play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with the New World Symphony, and premiere a new work from Michael Tilson Thomas (May 1-2); she’ll play duos (Feb. 6 and April 10); and on February 11 she’ll perform with the classical music comedy duo Igudesman & Joo in a concert that will absolutely be something completely different (carnegiehall.org). 6. Celebrating MTT at the San Francisco Symphony November 15, 2018 - June 22, 2019 (various dates) Conductor Micheal Tilson Thomas (a.k.a. MTT) will not be leaving the San Francisco Symphony until the end of the 2020 season, but a long goodbye is in the works for this immensely important musician. 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Salonen’s Stravinsky at the Los Angele Philharmonic April 12 - 20, 2019 Among many exciting musical events in Los Angeles, this one stands out for its balance of variety and compactness. Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen brings his distinctive vitality and sense of color to three programs at the Los Angeles Philharmonic devoted to works of the titanic, indispensable 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky: Rituals, Faiths, and Myths. "The Rite of Spring" is there, of course, alongside the astonishing "Agon," there will be great choral works for the Faith program, and Myths presents two beautiful and infrequently heard ballet scores, "Orpheus" and "Perséphone" (laphil.com). 9. Music of Conscience at the New York Philharmonic May 26 - June 8, 2019 Jaap van Zweden begins his first seasons as music director, thus already an exciting year for the New York Philharmonic. 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