Shutterstock.com | View from the Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City
Shutterstock.com | View from the Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City

Fun, food and folklore in Mexico’s fast-paced metropolis

By Christina Orlovsky Page

Editor’s Note: As this magazine went to press, Central Mexico was
struck by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake. Our thoughts and prayers are
with the people affected by the devastation.

When most people hear the phrase “the city that never sleeps,” they automatically think New York City. Translated into Spanish, however, and suddenly you realize that it’s Mexico City, the pulsing metropolis newly known in tourism circles as CDMX and long known to locals as DF (for Distrito Federal). No matter what you call it, this capital city—the oldest capital city in the Americas and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world—is electric. Noisy, crowded and frenetic, it’s a city that’s alive with history, culture and exceptional cuisine. Here, past and present collide on every street corner, and it remains a place where all travelers should visit at least once.

With its tumultuous history, Mexico City is a place where the old is constantly being rediscovered in the process of redevelopment. Occupied by the Aztecs and Spaniards before gaining independence in 1824, the city has been built, destroyed and rebuilt again numerous times in its 700-year history, and ancient ruins from the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan—built on an island of Lake Texcoco in the 1300s—are routinely excavated in the city’s historic center, or Centro Historico. No visit is complete without a day or two spent exploring the city’s main square, or Zócalo, home to the stunning Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. Situated adjacent to the Templo Mayor, one of Tenochtitlan’s main temples, the cathedral was built atop the site of the Aztec temple after the Spanish conquest in the late 1500s. Today, excavations have resurrected bits of the ancient city—an Aztec ball field was recently discovered underneath a modern hotel undergoing renovation—and the ancient past lives side-by-side with the contemporary, preserving the city’s cultural and historical past while advancing its future as a modern-day metropolis.

While the city’s history is one of its major highlights,
there’s so much more worth exploring.

Mexico City’s storied past can be explored in greater detail at the Museo del Templo Mayor or the world-class Museo Nacional de Antropología. A full-day experience in itself, the National Museum of Anthropology presents a fascinating showcase—even for non-history buffs—of artifacts and replicas depicting Mexico’s indigenous populations and gods throughout the ages. For perhaps the best exposure to the city’s cultural and architectural past, a visit to the pyramids of Teotihuacan is a must. Located roughly 30 miles from the city center, the ancient city is a spectacular example of pre-Aztec engineering, and should only be experienced through a climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Not for the faint of heart—or short of breath—the 248-step climb is worth the effort in Mexico City’s high altitude to appreciate the full magnitude of the site and all its mystery.

While the city’s history is one of its major highlights, there’s so much more worth exploring.

Art lovers won’t want to miss spending an afternoon at the Frida Kahlo Museum (advance tickets recommended) and the lively surrounding neighborhood of Coyoacán or the Museo Nacional de Arte. A side trip to the floating gardens of Xochimilco offers a unique experience outside the city, where colorful canal boats come complete with sailing mariachi bands. And a visit to the trendy Museo del Tequila y el Mezcal in the famous Plaza Garibaldi offers a taste of Mexico’s spirited side. Braver imbibers can take a step back in time at Pulquería Hermosa Hortensia in the corner of Plaza Garibaldi and sample the fermented agave wine known as pulque, an ancient alcoholic beverage that dates some 1,000 years to the Mesoamerican era.

From ancient ruins to modern high rises, and from prehistoric wine and street tacos to top-shelf tequila and haute cuisine, Mexico City is where the old and new converge. Here, fast-paced modernity meets time-honored tradition, and the city truly never sleeps.

Zócalo square and Metropolitan cathedral of Mexico City
Zócalo square and Metropolitan cathedral of Mexico City

If you go

Getting There
Domestic travel within Mexico is fast, easy, safe and economical thanks to the new Cross Border Xpress (CBX), a pedestrian walkway that connects the United States at Otay Mesa directly to the terminal at Tijuana International Airport. Purchase a one-way ticket for $16 or a round-trip ticket for $30 and simply walk across. Mexican airlines like Volaris and Aeromexico offer frequent nonstop, round-trip flights from Tijuana to Mexico City for as low as $90 per person.

Where to Stay
As in any major metropolitan area, accommodation options abound. Stay steps from the Zócalo at Zócalo Central, where a night’s stay comes complete with a full breakfast—try the chilaquiles—in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant that overlooks the square and the Metropolitan Cathedral. Chain hotel options are abundant on the city’s main drag, Paseo de la Reforma, while Airbnb and boutique hotels fill trendy, tourist-friendly neighborhoods like Roma, Condesa and Polanco.

Where to Eat
Mexico City has solidified its stature as a destination for foodies and superstar chefs alike. From ubiquitous street food stalls to exquisite five-star restaurants, culinary connoisseurs cannot go wrong. For an upscale experience—one that requires reservations months ahead—try Pujol by celebrated Chef Enrique Olvera. For a taste of history—and the richest mole you’ll ever consume—visit Café de Tacuba, dating back to 1912 in the Centro Historico. For a truly unique Mexican food market experience, visit the Mercado de Coyoacán near the Frida Kahlo Museum. And for the sake of foodies everywhere, do not fear the street-side food stands, which serve up the most flavorful, fulfilling tacos al pastor you’ll ever find.

Xochimilco's Floating Gardens in Mexico City
Xochimilco's Floating Gardens in Mexico City
Templo Mayor, Mexico City - Tenochtitlan
Templo Mayor, Mexico City - Tenochtitlan

Tour Tip
While you can easily travel to Teotihuacan via bus or Uber, it’s worth it to book a knowledgeable tour guide in advance instead of paying inflated prices at the site. For an affordable, small group experience, try Mexcity Tours (mexcitytours.net) and tour operator Leonel Rivera, who runs insightful van trips to many popular attractions in and around Mexico City.