[To view an interactive map version of the Mexico City guide click here.]
Mexico has always been in my blood. My artsy American parents lived and traveled here in the ’50s, drawn by the postwar cultural renaissance happening south of the border. They passed their fascination down to me—I would make Mexico City my home decades later, moving there permanently from New York City in 1996.
When I visited the Mexican capital for the first time, in 1986, I was impressed by the many eras that coexist here. A metro station built in the ’60s housed an Aztec altar. Horses pulled carts full of refuse through back streets around the corner from gleaming skyscrapers. Traditionally dressed indigenous people strolled side by side with designer-clad yuppies. The past lingered over a crumbling Centro Histórico that had been devastated by an earthquake the year before. Seemingly abandoned buildings sat forlorn, and a deteriorating transport system and horrible pollution spoke of better days.
It would take two decades before new energy returned to this metropolis, whose moniker, “Paris of the new world,” had long been forgotten. Several economic crises hampered the progress, but as economist and chilanga Verónica Moctezuma once told me, “We’re always in a crisis, so we don’t really notice. We move on.”
The turn of the millennium brought an exciting cultural rebirth; its theme was the fusion of the glorious past with new global trends. Ambitious high-rises sprang up—the svelte and soaring Torre Mayor, designed by Reichmann International and inaugurated in 2002, usurped the boxy Torre Latinoamericana, which since 1956 had symbolized modern Mexico as the tallest building in Latin America. Residential neighborhoods such as Colonia Roma, whose buildings are a virtual tour of 20th-century styles from art nouveau to modernism, and Colonia Condesa, which harbors one of the world’s largest collections of deco homes, were saved from destruction. They once again became sought-after residential, dining, and nightlife destinations as spectacular facades were lovingly restored alongside newly built structures. The well-heeled Polanco district saw the construction of several cutting-edge hotels, and has served as a proving ground for modern Mexican cuisine, spearheaded by forward-looking chef Enrique Olvera at his restaurant, Pujol.
I sense a bohemian energy that reminds me of New York in the ’70s and ’80s. Earlier generations mired in malinchismo, a preference for all things foreign, have given way to a new breed of creative types who proudly incorporate the native culture into their work, embracing pioneers like Frida Kahlo and Luis Barragán in art and architecture, or employing similar craft in fashion.
This sprawling megalopolis is now an exciting place to live. Through concerted government efforts, streets are safer, smog has abated to a degree (helped along by a bike-sharing system and tighter emission controls), and social policies such as gay marriage have taken hold. Big, bold arts projects have bolstered the city’s cultural cred and transformed it into a heavyweight on the global stage. An architecturally gutsy district has appeared at the western edge of the city in an area called Santa Fe, a business center that reminds many of Tokyo. A curvilinear international airport with a design inspired by the eagle and snake that adorn the Mexican flag, a collaboration between Foster + Partners and local architect Fernando Romero, will break ground this year. It’s the country’s largest-ever infrastructure project.
The old-fashioned barrio feel, an essential aspect of Mexico City, still prevails. Convivial street markets are set up weekly; knife sharpeners pass by, the sound of their whistles announcing their presence; mom-and-pop shops compete successfully with multinationals. The past and present intermingle with harmony and grace. The late Mexican poet Octavio Paz once wrote that “Today we all speak, if not the same tongue, the same universal language … yesterday and tomorrow exist as a confused jumble in each one of us.” Nowhere is this truer than in today’s Mexico City.
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In recent years, the city has emerged as a major player in the art world. (It’s rising art fair Zona Maco is evidence of that.) The National Museum of Anthropology, Museo Frida Kahlo, and Museo Dolores Olmedo are obligatory visits, as is the home of Luis Barragán, the visionary architect who combined traditional Mexican design with a modernist aesthetic. The privately owned Museo Jumex exhibits works by such prolific artists as Damien Hirst, Gabriel Orozco, and Cy Twombly. The inward-looking white travertine structure was designed by British architect David Chipperfield. Its neighbor, the steel-clad Museo Soumaya, has a striking, undulating exterior by Fernando Romero, but its interiors and private collection from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim may be a letdown. A fan of industrial design, Romero also turned his old office into the gallery Archivo de Diseño y Arquitectura, in Colonia Ampliación Asturias. On display: 1,500 design curios he’s amassed over many years. If that’s not enough, the offbeat Museo del Objeto del Objeto (MODO) offers exhibitions of consumer objects. A recent show examined the modern Mexican kitchen; a previous one charted the history of the now-iconic blue Nivea-cream jar. Commercial galleries promoting contemporary art are found mostly on either side of Chapultepec Park, in Colonia Roma and funky San Rafael. Powerhouse dealers Mónica Manzutto and José Kuri’s Kurimanzutto, set in a dramatically refurbished bakery, helped spawn Mexico City’s contemporary art movement in the ’90s and is known internationally. House of Gaga features installations by emerging artists. Galería Hilario Galguera’s impressively stark spaces are settings for themed and single-artist shows. And OMR has established the standard for local talent across numerous genres since the ’80s.
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A new generation of chefs has forged a new category, Modern Mexican, which looks to international trends while respecting traditional cooking techniques and ingredients. Limosneros, located in the heart of the Centro Histórico, is Mexican to the core. Dishes are classic yet creative, and the 400-year–old colonial structure, updated by the owner, balances original features such as volcanic stone with a contemporary simplicity. Pared-down Merkavá, in stylish Condesa serves chef Daniel Ovadía’s and Salvador Orozco’s refined Jerusalem cuisine. The design scheme offers a “play of contrasts between the antique and modern vanguard,” says Alex Cohen of Más Espacio Arquitectos, referencing materials like golden stone, black clay, and undulating blond wood paneling spiked with gold leaf. Nexo, headed by chefs Diego Niño and César Vázquez, is deceptively simple. The beautiful combinations of market ingredients they turn out are influenced by European cuisine—as is the Scandi-esque dining room—and span everything from house-made ravioli to Spanish arroz negro.
The just-opened Parián Condesa gourmet market peddles high-end tacos and ceviche made with hyper-local produce. The firm Estudio Atemporal modernized the line of open stalls, contrasting rustic cinder block and steel beams with elegant pink granite. Considered one of the best places for Japanese cuisine, Tori Tori, in Polanco, has an imaginative design that is as big a draw as the sushi. Behind a glowing mesh steel facade, Michel Rojkind and industrial designer Héctor Esrawe used wood inlay, custom furniture, and a living wall to create a Zen atmosphere. Set in a formerly dowdy ’60s structure in the up-and-coming Cuauhtémoc neighborhood, the sleek new Hotel Carlota’s restaurant is one of the hottest tables in town. Designed by architect Javier Sánchez, the airy, sun-drenched space overlooks a tranquil lap pool, and is lined with slate and aquamarine walls that give it a tropical-urban feel. The menu deftly fuses French, Spanish, and Mexican elements using seasonal ingredients. The artisan cocktail movement is alive and well—mezcal and rum are the spirits de rigueur—and is increasingly being showcased in compelling spaces. Cool elegance prevails at Colonia Juárez’s Bucardón, a cement-walled venue that doubles as an art gallery and hosts live music, while the more intimate Felina Bar, in Condesa, resembles a stylish loft, with retro wallpaper and midcentury furniture culled from flea markets.
The mix of past and present is nowhere more evident than in the increasingly varied hotels cropping up across numerous barrios. At Grupo Habita’s 17-room Downtown Mexico in Centro, Cherem Arquitectos cunningly restored a 17th-century palace, while maintaining its historic integrity. Colonial and indigenous elements—ornamental carved stone, hand-forged railings—are pared down to their most essential forms. The same team recently completed Distrito Capital, a glassed-in high-rise soaring triumphantly from granite in the futuristic Santa Fe business area. Parisian designer Joseph Dirand envisioned the midcentury aesthetic that pervades the 30 rooms and public spaces with a collection of ’60s furniture: Eero Saarinen tables, Wim Rietveld chairs, Verner Panton lamps. Other highlights include a lighting installation by local artist Thomas Glassford in the reception, and the fifth-floor restaurant conceptualized by chef Enrique Olvera.
At La Valise, a 1920s townhouse on a quiet street in Colonia Roma, Frenchman Emmanuel Picault pays homage to retro design in just three suites. The rooms are outfitted with bold touches such as the Yucatecan hammock that hangs lazily over a ’60s coffee table covered in crocodile skin, and a massive reclaimed parabolic antenna that acts as a partition.
AR218, a private home turned hotel in Condesa, has an original art deco facade that blends seamlessly with a contemporary glass, steel, and concrete tower. The 35-room Las Alcobas is the place to stay in Polanco. Canadian firm Yabu Pushelberg used the neighborhood as a reference point when appointing the rooms with handmade rugs and leather-stitched headboards. Inside, 1930s-style Talavera floors line the lobby and are contrasted with modern amenities like Baccara tableware. The property’s showpiece: a stunning corkscrew-shaped rosewood staircase in the lobby.
Local designers are taking advantage of the country’s rich artisanal traditions. Carla Fernández pays homage to her Mexican roots in her men’s and women’s lines, textiles, and household objects. The work on display in her Polanco boutique may be avant-garde—leather-embroidered ponchos, sleeved rebozos—but it’s firmly rooted in indigenous craft and weaving. Nearby, current fashion star Lorena Saravia shows off her minimalist label in a spare space on the city’s most luxurious retail avenue, Masaryk. Often described as wearable art, the silk and leather pieces are coveted for their casual-to-elegant flexibility. Another neighborhood hit is Francisco Cancino’s understated Yakampot, designed by Emiliano Godoy and Tuux with brick and patterned tile to mirror the pared-down womenswear, handcrafted by artisans from all over the country. The Chiapas-bred Cancino is “inspired by the identity of artisan creators; from an early age I was impressed by the traditional dress of the indigenous people who surrounded me.” Polanco’s Uncommon Market and Barrio Alameda in Centro are modern takes on mini-malls, each housed in a refurbished historic space. The former, in a 1940s villa, is the encore to Common People, the cult concept shop by husband-and-wife duo Max Feldman and Monika Biringer. The theatrical three-floor space was imagined by a team of stage and interior designers. Expect a rooftop cafe, barbershop, and labels such as Rick Owens and Tomorrowland Tailors. Also on hand: collaborations between local designers and mainstream brands like Puma and Adidas. Situated in a retrofitted art deco office building, Barrio Alameda’s orderly layout is easy to navigate. Don’t miss Utilitario Mexicano’s home furnishing store and Hom’s line of postmodern fashions.