A city of many layers
Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, is the most populous city in North America. It’s a bustling megalopolis home to millions, with a youthful energy that buzzes through ancient veins.
Bohemian, tree-filled neighborhoods where well-dressed locals sip coffees and digital nomads work on laptops contrast with the hectic downtown, where an Aztec temple with a wall of skulls sits beside one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas.
Baroque, art deco, and art nouveau architecture dots the city while southern neighborhoods like Coyoacán and San Ángel showcase the city’s colonial and Mesoamerican roots with hacienda-style homes constructed with the same thick volcanic stone as the ancient temples. There are more than 150 museums, spanning topics including art, history, anthropology, literature, invention, and even chocolate.
A history lesson without even trying, the city simply bursts with trailblazing design, fashion, and fun, while never quite forgetting its centuries-old roots.
The small island that became a big city
If you look at the Mexican flag, you’ll notice the image of an eagle perched on a cactus, with a snake in its mouth, which sits in the center. It’s not just a pretty picture, it speaks of the founding of Tenochtitlán (now the historic center of modern-day Mexico City) by the Aztec in 1325.
The nomadic people set out on a journey with the prophecy that they would build a city when they found an eagle on a nopal holding a serpent in its beak. As luck would have it, the fated bird was seen on an island in the middle of a lake. Tenochtitlán was born. Later, the arrival of the Spanish saw the conquistadors drying out the lake and extending their dominion further by building a city on top of the dry lakebed.
While majestic to observe, this caused flooding in colonial times and today, the metro area’s 21 million residents sure know the city was built on a lakebed when an earthquake hits and the ground wobbles like Jell-O.
The place the gods were born
Mexico is dotted with temples, so many of which have yet to be unearthed or rediscovered. Teotihuacán, often referred to locally simply as the pyramids, was one of the first sites to be excavated, with the initial work starting in 1884.
Visitors can climb to the top of the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun and look down the Avenue of Death that runs between them to imagine how the ancient Teotihuacano lived from roughly 300 BCE to 700 CE. By the time the Aztec people arrived in the 1400s, the site had long since been abandoned; they revered it as the Place where the Gods were Born—and even on the hottest days when the site is overflowing with visitors, it’s easy to see why.
Mingling in the markets
Air scented with cinnamon, chile, chocolate, and corn. Stalls stacked with fresh fruits and vegetables, blossoming flowers of every color, freshly baked bread, and cuts of meat. The sound of merchants calling you. The incomparable feeling of holding warm tortillas that are begging to be rolled up and eaten immediately.
Mexico City’s markets are the most joyous assault on the senses and are like little microcosms of life in their own right. Even as the city modernizes, neighborhoods still center around their markets as they have done for centuries.
La Merced Market is the largest—and one of the oldest—markets in the city and sells everything you can imagine, from prepared food (the infamous Tacos McTeo, filled with freshly made french fries are worth a trip in themselves) to fruit and vegetables and aisles and aisles of Mexican candy. Nearby, the esoteric Sonora Market offers potions, candles, idols, and herbs that can be brought by those wishing to dabble in the dark (and not so dark) arts. Foodies won’t want to miss the San Juan Market, where stall owners offer tastings of everything from cheese and wine to edible flowers.
Where you’re never more than five minutes from a taco
It has been proven that in Mexico City virtually no resident lives more than 400 meters (about a quarter-mile) away from a taco stand. There seems to be one on every corner.
The famous tacos al pastor that are now synonymous with Mexico City were originally created by Lebanese immigrants. If you’ve ever eaten shawarma, the trompo, a huge revolving metal skewer layered with marinated meat, may look familiar. There’s a little added theatrics with these tacos, as the talented taqueros send a slice of a pineapple that sits above the meat flying through the air at the speed of light to land on each taco in turn.
The variety of tacos in Mexico City is immense, from tacos de canasta (basket tacos), a kind of steamed taco traditionally—and often still—sold from the basket at the front of the seller’s bike, to barbacoa (barbeque tacos) filled with stewed goat. There are even vegan tacos for the increasing number of plant-based taco lovers in the city. There are so many different taco types there is an encyclopedia of tacos called the Tacopedia, that lists them all, in mouth-watering detail.
>> Get more tips on what to eat in our travel guide to Mexico City
The dish that made Mexico City a fine dining destination
Not only will you find some of the best street food in the world in Mexico City, there’s also incredible haute cuisine and the name of the game is multiple-course tasting menus with mezcal and wine pairings. In fact, six of the top 50 restaurants in Latin American call Mexico City home in a place that has certainly become known for its top-end gastronomic offerings.
Pujol, a restaurant started by Chef Enrique Olvera, arguably put Mexico City on the gourmet-food map. Its aged mole dish (over 1,000 days old) gained extra notoriety when Olvera was featured on Chef’s Table. Once the stage was set, it didn’t take long for the fine-dining scene to erupt like Mexico’s Popocatépetl volcano. Mexico City’s best chefs call on ancient ingredients (think insects and heirloom corn) and Mesoamerican techniques to inspire contemporary dishes that are also quintessentially Mexican.
In Mesoamerican times, the banks of the Xochimilco canals were carefully constructed into fertile floating gardens on which to grow crops. One-third of the food needed to feed the residents of Tenochtitlán was grown there and transported by canoe to the city’s central markets.
Nowadays, the banks are once again being used to grow crops and many of the top restaurants look to Xochimilco as the source of their local produce. The waterways also come alive at the weekends as revelers on colorful boats called trajineras make their way around the canals, buying food and drinks from passing bar and restaurant boats and paying for serenades from mariachis.
Friday night’s alright for fighting
Are you rooting for the rudos or the technicos? The rudos are the baddies and the técnicos are the goodies in Mexico’s famous wrestling extravaganza, Lucha Libre fighting.
Lucha Libre’s roots date back over a century and a half. The first fights, inspired by Greco-Roman wrestling, took place in 1863. On Friday nights, the Arena Mexico close to downtown fills with expectant fans wearing the masks of their favorite fighters. The masks increase the fighters’ mystique and are a symbol of status. To be ‘unmasked,’ (which occurs if they lose a special Mask vs. Mask fight) is the greatest humiliation. Famously El Santo, the country’s most iconic wrestler, was buried in his mask after his death in 1984.
The acrobatics of a Lucha Libre fight is off the charts, with fighters in tight, brightly colored leotards flying through the air before landing with a slap on another wrestler and then bouncing off the ropes only to somersault through the air again. It might not be real (or is it?) but the skill involved is immense and the atmosphere is lively.
A flourish of Frida
The face with the most famous unibrow in Mexico—and maybe the world—Frida Kahlo’s visage can now be found on everything from keyrings and water bottles to dolls and t-shirts. What the anti-establishment painter would have made of that is hard to tell.
Kahlo’s Blue House, in the tranquil Coyoacán neighborhood, is one of the most-visited museums in the city and allows visitors to get a small glimpse of her life in the city. The bookshelves are still stacked with her favorite tomes and the studio set up with her paints and easels. The garden, which includes a miniature Mesoamerican pyramid, is like a lush green jungle offset by the bright blue of the walls.
The 2002 film Frida, in which the painter is played by Salma Hayek, brings her to life in full force and helps to explain perhaps why Frida has now captured the world’s imagination.
A designer destination
Always known for its traditional handicrafts, Mexico City is now also a hub of cutting-edge art and design. The annual Art Week (scheduled for April 27-May 2, 2021) attracts thousands of people to check out the art on display across the city—and the bustling parties that go along with them.
Design Week, which generally runs over two to three weeks in October, showcases designers from the city, the country, and the world in the capital’s art galleries and open houses. A freshness in Mexico City, brought by both established and young designers always open to trying new and unusual things, has made the capital the one to watch when it comes to art and design.
Coming alive for the Day of the Dead
Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico City was once reserved for the impressively decorated and lit-up cemeteries in the deep south of the city. However, in an interesting twist of fate, Hollywood has played a role in changing that. Spectre, the James Bond film that starts with a Day of the Dead parade through the streets of Mexico’s capital, and the Disney animated film Coco, which takes place during the festival, have both provoked a change in how the city celebrates Día de Muertos.
Now parades of skeletons (just like in Spectre) fill the streets and the main Paseo de la Reforma is lined with skulls painted by artists from around the country. The markets bursting with flowers and sugar skulls for Day of the Dead altars also really come to life (excuse the pun) in late October.