Over the years, we’ve traveled to Mexico many times – lounged on the white sand beaches, hunted for exotic shells, roamed small, sleepy Colonial towns, and drank one too many shots in brightly colored karaoke bars. Somehow the draw of the ocean and the charm of the quieter ways of south of the south meant that we never made it to the sprawling metropolis of Distrito Federal. Being one of the largest cities in the world, it was incredibly difficult to decide how to fill just a couple of short weeks but from the small fraction that we did manage to hotfoot it around, here are our list of 10 not-to-be-missed favorites.
1. The Parks
The city is incredibly lush and green with parks around every turn. They’re the perfect spot to take a load off between attractions with free wifi in most, and enough coverage here and there to wait out an afternoon rain. The parks were remarkably clean compared to New York with recycling and garbage bins everywhere. We especially enjoyed Parque México in Condesa – strolling paths, graceful swans in an aquamarine cement lake, swaths of brightly colored flowers, and soccer games.
2. Shopping the Markets
We get all hot and bothered thinking about even the most touristy markets in a city that’s new to us – there’s so much one can find out about a place in a few blocks of sweaty commerce. We tried to hit as many as we could of the seemingly hundreds of square miles of vendors that Mexico City has to offer. La Lagunilla was by far our favorite. On Sundays antique vendors set up around the perimeter – rows and stacks of incredible books, handmade milagros, and a solid assortment of vintage Mexican treasures. We spent a thoroughly enjoyable few hours picking through and looking for traditional and distinct pieces that make a Mexican market different from any other. The antique and secondhand vendors butt up against another section of the market where vacuum sealed sneakers, very practical underwear, and knock-off sunglasses are peddled and pushed to locals and tourists alike. When bargain hunting fatigue sets in, there’s a ton of aromatic and delicious food, loud, pulsing music that skips though Kanye to Def Leppard to Patsy Cline fast enough to make your head spin, and gigantic, refreshing micheladas to keep it spinning long after the stalls close up.
El Bazar Sabado in San Angel was also a good mix of the usual tourist fare with local designers selling their wares. A great spot to pick up Mexican jumping beans, pretty paper flowers, and lucky three-legged pigs, along with an Ex Voto or two if you’ve got anything to be particularly thankful to the saints for.
3. Panadería Rosetta
There are bound to be hundreds of amazing breakfast options, but we’re dizzy until we’ve had coffee and something to kickstart our brains. We began every day at a local spot called Panadería Rosetta (aka Cafe Nin) in Juarez. Typing becomes difficult because the drool is so plentiful when we think of the guava roll and they have fresh juices and strong coffee. Enough said.
4. Casa Luis Barragán
Make sure to book a tour ahead of time, this is not to be missed. The architect's home is exactly how he left it – his housekeeper still lives on the property and helps maintain the space. As you would expect, every single detail of the home is considered – door knobs, passageways, the varying shades of white, yellow, and pink. Architecture students guide the small, intimate tour and share a wealth of knowledge about his career and process. We loved looking at his large, personal library and the thoughtful curios he displayed.
5. El Vilsito, Tacos Tony, La Costilla
The Narvarte neighborhood is home to amazing street food and budget-friendly dining. A mechanic shop by day, El Vilsito transforms into a bustling al pastor stand at night with delicious tiny tacos topped with theatrically sliced pineapple. Just down the street is Tacos Tony, another popular late night spot for heavier, meat tacos. Try their campechano taco, suadero (a Mexican confit) mixed with longaniza sausage, and their grilled onions. A couple of blocks from there, La Costilla has seating and is worth a stop for their chopped meat smothered in cheese and poblano peppers, and garlic volcanoes, light and crispy tortillas smothered in garlic.
6. Frida and Diego
Frida’s home, La Casa Azul, was towards the top of our something-you-have-to-do-once list. Make sure you buy tickets ahead of time, the line is maddeningly long to enter and the place is always packed. Skip the audio tour – it leaves out all the good stuff, like her very first self portrait painted as a gift for her ex-lover, Alejandro, to remind him of what he was missing. Watch this PBS documentary before going, refreshing some of her story, timeline, and relationship with Diego makes the visit much more memorable.
Our only disappointment was that there are not nearly enough of her personal belongings on display, and those that were out felt a bit “packaged”. A highlight were the details in the courtyard – inlay stone frogs, fountains, and abalone and conch shells embedded in the exterior walls make this place very distinct.
From there, we stopped by Trotsky’s home a couple of blocks away. The opposite of the Kahlo museum, it’s dark, spare, and far less visited. They have a sizable archive of photos and memorabilia and it’s great for a quick history lesson. You can see the subtle influence that the time living at Casa Azul had on Trotsky and his wife Natalia when you notice details like their colorful kitchenware and sizable seashell collection.
We then took an Uber from Coyoacán to San Angel for the Museo Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo. The building itself is the true attraction, designed by Mexican artist and architect Juan O’Gorman. (Make sure you pop-in before or after this stop for a margarita next door at the San Angel Inn.)
7. Friday Night
We were staying around the corner from Taberna Luciferina in Juarez. The bar itself isn’t anything to write home about, but the Aragog, their house drink is made with mouth-numbing tarantula venom (Aragog is the giant spider from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). We left feeling confused about whether or not we liked the taste, but it’s a novelty and we’re suckers for that kind of thing.
Patrick Miller goes down on our list of top spots for fun. Open on Fridays only, it doesn’t get going until after midnight. Think pulsating, high energy Italo Disco, dance circles (that you’d better bring your A-game to break into), and hundreds of mind blowing laser lights. Just down the street is another late night only spot, Yu Yu, an intimate basement club if the stroke-inducing, high energy disco isn’t your thing – but check their calendar before you go, it’s only open on certain nights.
8. All the Restaurants
There were a few key spots that almost every single person we spoke to recommended we try, and none of them disappointed. Contramar is as good as everyone says it is – we could eat their tuna tostadas and fig tart on the daily. We did Pujol over Quintonil. It was delicious, but we were so full halfway through the 6-course meal that we didn’t enjoy the 1688 day old mole as much as we would have liked. (Next time we’ll do Quintonil a la carte.) El Hidalguense for barbacoa and pulque. Broka for courtyard dining. Rosetta for incredible pasta and perfect ambiance. Fonda Fina is great for Monday night dinner when most other spots are closed. Tres Galeones is the spot for cold beer and fish carnitas. El Palenquito for sipping post-dinner mezcal. We also highly recommend a night of drinking and eating at a neighborhood cantina – a great way to try good, old fashioned, Mexican drinking-food and a nice break from the overload of the more upscale, polished dining establishments.
9. Museo Jumex
This contemporary art museum has incredible programming and the building itself is worth a visit. We stopped for a cocktail and a snack in their open air cafe and then made our way through the galleries. The basement floors are a stunning stone inlay installation by artist Martin Creed, and they use the space for a rotating series called Passersby, small exhibitions of ephemera that explore the artist’s influence on Mexico and Mexico’s influence on the artist. They have a very solid bookshop and their catalogues are well priced and perfectly designed – good mementos to bring home. It also has a wonderful view of the Museo Soumaya and the Polanco neighborhood from the second floor balcony.
[The city is home to more than 150 museums so we had a really hard time picking and choosing. We also didn’t make it to the pyramids outside the city, Templo Mayor in Centro was the only taste of that we got. And we could have spent 2 days in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.]
9. Boutiques and Window Shopping
There is so much great shopping in the city with a lot of small boutiques selling a mix of familiar names and local designers we’d never heard of. A few of our favorites… Void in Condessa offers a tightly curated vintage assortment broken down into themed rooms – Western Americana, Chanel, Iggy Pop, etc. Pick up a perfectly broken in flight suit, a mint condition Birkin bag, or an old copy of Playboy. It’s pricey but makes for good browsing. Balmoria in Roma Norte sells all-natural beauty and skincare from all across Mexico. And Utilitario Mexicano in Juarez is the place to go if you can’t make it to the markets and want to pick up some design-centric Mexican souvenirs – modern home goods, spare notebooks, and utilitarian and pretty pens and pencils (if you were a fan of Kiosk in NYC, this is your jam).