Compelled to read every account I come across about travel in Mexico’s capital city – pieces like 36 hours in Mexico City and Why You Should See Mexico City Like a Tourist – I’m always bemused that the authors’ touts aren’t mine. But then again if you ask the Aztecs, Mexico City is the umbilicus of the moon, and it would take lifetimes to explore this ever-expanding, never-ending megatropolis.
When you’re traveling to CDMX (aka Ciudad de Mexico), don’t forget to pack some flexibility. Be ready to abandon carefully laid plans at the drop of a peso, because you never know what’s around the corner. Massive marches and demonstrations wrecked last November’s weekend plans, so I pivoted and made other plans.
Supposedly only Paris (or London, depending upon the source) has more museums than Mexico City, but who’s counting? In addition to its standard-bearers, the National Anthropology Museum and the National Museum of History, better known as Chapultepec Castle, both of which merit repeat visits and allotting no less than four hours for each, there are a number of museums that don’t make the usual lists of places to visit. Here are some of my favorites:
Museum of the Mexican Army and Air Force
MODO, the Museum of the Object of the Object
Museo Soumaya-Casa Guillermo Tovar de Teresa
Maybe it’s art that piques your interest. The Museo Soumaya is known for its knock-out, over-the-top architecture as well as what’s inside. Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo. Museo de Arte Moderno. The National Museum of Art. The Palace of Bellas Artes.
Culture is a genuine bargain in this town. The only admission price I had to pay to visit the museums listed here came to $4. The rest were free to Mexicans over the age of 60.
And then there are the stores. In the Centro Historico, small specialty stores can be found for just about anything, many selling only one kind of ware –zippers, buttons, string bracelets with the hamsa or evil eye, men’s belts, the kinds of corsets that no one’s worn since 1964, fake police and military uniforms, quartzes, tiny charms and doodads wholesale and retail, religious supplies, incense and priestly garb. Yet another store sells only body parts of dolls. Be a flaneur and explore. When you’re in another country or out of town, even a block dedicated to prosthetics can be interesting in an odd way. Even if you’re not there to shop, take in the architecture, step back into 150 years past, and marvel at the quotidian.
Visiting Mexico City without dropping in on one of its many public markets would be like going to Paris and not noticing the Eiffel Tower. Are you up for a lion hamburger or iguana sausage along with a glass of wine? Or maybe you just want to gawk at the array of edible pre-Hispanic bugs, exotic meats, and gourmet produce from hither and yon. Mercado San Juan is the place to be, and right across from this market is another three-story market dedicated to flowers and another selling only artesania and curiosities.
La Lagunilla is one of the city’s largest markets, but Sunday is the day to go for its famed antiques market. Even though this antiques market is frequented by some of the city’s famous and wealthy, you’re better off leaving the good clothes and fancy electronics at home, dressing down just a bit.
If you’re not inclined to make the pilgrimage to La Lagunilla, every weekend is an antiques flea market at Parque Dr. Ignacio Chávez, also known as Tianguis de Cuauhtémoc. Some of the vendors who sell at La Lagunilla also sell here.
Wherever I go, I have to have my Chinatown fix. There are actually two. Downtown, the more established and larger one is fully two blocks long, selling the kind of Chinese food you ate in the 1950s, stores stuffed with gewgaws made in China, always crowded and everyone having a great touristy time. And then there’s yet another one, down in the Viaducto Piedad middle class neighborhood, populated by a more recent wave of immigrants, many of whom speak neither Spanish nor English.
Enough with history, it’s time to head over to Antara Polanco, a pet-friendly mall so fancy that the dogs being walked likely have better pedigrees than their owners. It was the first mall I’ve ever visited that required its canine visitors to register for a credential. The three floors of Casa Palacio, an upscale home store, will require hours to thoroughly explore everything you didn’t know you wanted, saving you from spending even more money at Hamleys (the world’s oldest toy store), Coach, L’Occitane, Apple, Dyson (Even vacuum cleaners take on magic properties at a mall like this one.), Kiehl’s, and more.
GETTING AROUND. Mexico City is a great walking city, but even the fittest need a lift around town. While CDMX has an extensive public transportation system that’s practically free, I’m at the stage where it’s just not my thing. It’s safer and easier to use a ridesharing service or secure taxi. And you, dear reader, should do the same. You’re not in your twenties, you’re not some harried commuter, and you’re spending discretionary income to travel.
A dozen Uber trips during a 6-day stay cost me a whopping $70. Cabify is a Spanish Uber-like company operating in Latin America, and its app bears downloading just in case Uber is swamped.
WHERE TO EAT. Sure, there the places that are included in those lists of the 100 best restaurants in the world, places like Pujol and Quintonil, but there are plenty of others that aren’t nearly as precious and just as good.
Gardela is my latest favorite splurge restaurant, an Argentine steakhouse in Roma Norte.
One of the pioneers of the slow food movement, Restaurante Nicos, cab ride, reservations necessary, but worth the effort.
El Cardenal, a white tablecloth chain with affordable prices, serves up Mexican food at its best.
Macelleria Roma is a mid-range Italian restaurant in Roma Norte.
Jing Teng Restaurant Estilo Hong Kong is perhaps the most authentic Chinese restaurant in Mexico City. Located in the Viaducto Piedad area, it’s clearly not expensive and always interesting.
El Moro is all about churros, hot and cold chocolate, and coffee.
A block from the American Embassy is Les Moustaches, an old-school, white-shoe French restaurant.
A trek from the city center but an unforgettable experience is El Arroyo, the largest Mexican restaurant in the world, seating over 2000 diners and providing parking for 600 cars. The cost of a cab ride there is more than offset by the modest menu prices. Hosting diners ranging from campesinos to politicians and titans of industry, people dressed in everything from schmattes to tuxedos, the restaurant offers up a happy cacophony of piñatas, mariachis, and bands, but it’s best visited with a team of your own, because a party of two risks getting lost in the crowd.
WHERE TO STAY. There was a time when where I stayed defined who I was, but I’ve given that up, at least now that I’m a Mexican visiting Mexico City, no longer able to afford to sleep in Polanco and fancy venues.
Now I mostly stay at Stanza Hotel, because Roma Norte has become my stomping ground. The area is hipster central, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. You don’t have to worry about wearing the right eye makeup or good pearls. An upper-class Porfirian neighborhood in the early years of the last century, it later became middle-class, then dodgy, not becoming gentrified until this century. The movie Roma was filmed in Roma Sur, an adjoining, more residential neighborhood.
Fancier, more intimate, more expensive, and a favorite among English-speaking visitors is The Red Tree House in Condesa, a swank area adjoining Roma Norte, tabbed as a Magic Neighborhood for Tourists.
Bordering Roma Norte on the north is the Zona Rosa, which is ground zero for the gay community and recent Korean immigrants. The Hotel Geneve, a historical property was the first to offer lodging to unaccompanied women – and the first to serve a sandwich in Mexico – is the place to stay in the Zona Rosa.
And now about enjoying Mexico City for $100 a day. Last November, I spent six days in the town, staying at Stanza Hotel, wandering around, visiting museums and whatever piqued my interest, stopping in at Chinatown and Antara, and eating in my usual when-I’m-alone style of eating when I get hungry at wherever looks appealing. I did not eat at anyplace downscale, and I didn’t eat any street food. My splurge meal cost $40 at Gardela. For the first time, I actually kept track of my expenses, and the total – hotel, food, and transportation – came to a whopping $630.
Whether you’re inspired to visit Mexico City or just want to learn more about the most fascinating city in the world, take in these resources:
Jesus Chairez. His Facebook page operates as a blog for this expatriate Texas writer, artist, and man about town.
David Lida, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century
Juan Villoro, Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico
Francisco Goldman, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle
Ilan Stavans, Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots
Josh Barkan, Mexico: Stories
Daniel Hernandez, Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century
Carlos Monsivais, Mexican Postcards
Jonathan Kandell, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City
Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century