Most of us are looking to 2021 with optimism, but for Mexico, this upcoming year won’t just be about saying goodbye to 2020. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says 2021 will be the “year of independence and greatness” for Mexico, celebrating not only 500 years since the founding of Mexico City, but also 200 years since Mexico achieved its independence from Spain.
While many travelers flock to coastal destinations like Tulum or Cabo, Mexico City offers a range of experiences far beyond slipping into a swimsuit and ordering poolside margaritas.
Mexico City is teeming with history, but stylish hot spots are also breathing new life into the 16 boroughs that make up North America’s most populated city. Any given day could be spent on a wooden boat drifting down an ancient canal and listening to live mariachi bands, followed by a nightcap at a rooftop lounge overlooking the city. Whether it’s climbing an ancient pyramid or dining at one of the world’s best restaurants, here are all of the reasons to visit Mexico City.
Historic Enclaves for the Non-historian
Experiencing a foreign city is easiest with a local, especially a guide like Francisco Sandoval, who built his private driving company based entirely on referrals. He operates his business with his wife, Rocio Perez, who sits in the passenger side as an English translator.
As he drives, Sandoval explains that Mexico City is situated where the Aztecs “found an eagle standing on a cactus devouring a snake, just as their god Huitzilopochtli had predicted, so they started to build [their empire], Tenochtitlán.”
Arriving southeast of the city at the Xochimilco waterways, which were used by the Aztecs to cultivate and transport crops, colorful Mexican gondolas (or trajineras) are seen docked and waiting to be steered with poles that reach the bottom of the canals. Passengers can order from floating vendors selling micheladas, tamales, and elote, or pay a small fee to be serenaded by a mariachi band.
Northeast of Xochimilco is Teotihuacán, a city that was abandoned for more than a century before the Aztecs arrived 700 years ago. While not much is known about the initial builders, clues have been discovered as recently as six years ago, when 75,000 artifacts were unearthed.
After climbing about 250 steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, lunch can be enjoyed below ground level at La Gruta, a restaurant inside a cave that uses pre-Hispanic culinary techniques and local ingredients to create flavorful dishes. Colorful wooden chairs offset the formal white table cloths inside, and Mexican folk dance performances take the stage on weekends.
Another pocket of preserved history is Coyoacán, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Mexico City. It boasts Spanish colonial architecture and cobblestone streets lined with artisan markets, cafés, parks, and ice cream parlors. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, regarded today as a feminist symbol and fashion icon, lived at the Casa Azul in this area in the early 1900s. The house has since been transformed into the Frida Kahlo Museum, where her artwork and dresses are displayed alongside plaques with lesser-known facts about the artist, including details of her disability, which drove both her creativity and depression.
Stylish Neighborhoods With Vibrant Activity
Old-boned mansions covered in colorful façades and creeping vines play host to up-and-coming restaurants and emerging bars that make up the trendy Roma Norte neighborhood, which feels like the Williamsburg of Mexico City.
On the popular Álvaro Obregón Avenue is Licorería Limantour, ranked annually among the World’s 50 Best Bars since 2014. A bartender there named Alfredo recommends visiting Casa Franca, a moody jazz and cocktail lounge across the street on the second floor above a pizza shop. Continuing along this bar crawl, the next stop should be Bar Las Brujas, led by female bartenders who mix drinks designed with the herbed remedies of “Mexican witchcraft” in mind.
Arguably the best view in the neighborhood can be enjoyed from the rooftop bar Supra Roma, where DJs keep the crowd dancing into the early morning. From there, you can spot the next borough over, La Condesa, where the Amsterdam Avenue loop — a former horse trail — is a favorite for local joggers, and Parque México is frequented by obedient off-leash dogs that follow their owners into cafés.
Northwest of Roma and La Condesa is the upscale Polanco district, a destination for shopping at chic stores by the most prestigious Mexican designers, including Marika Vera, Kris Goyri, and Raquel Orozco, as well as world-famous brands such as Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Prada.
Indulgent Street Tacos and Tasting Menus
It’s almost impossible to talk about Mexico City without dedicating part of the conversation to food, and specifically, tacos. The classic tacos al pastor from street vendors are sliced from a marinated pork rotisserie and topped with onions, cilantro, and pineapple, costing about $1 each.
Mexican comfort food has commonly been considered cheap, but changing people’s minds is chef Enrique Olvera. His restaurant, Pujol — ranked No. 12 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and featured on the Netflix docuseries Chef’s Table — presents an upscale Mexican dining experience. Located in the high-end neighborhood of Polanco, the restaurant offers a seven-course tasting menu that applies traditional Mexican flavors to elevated dishes sourced from Oaxaca. A mole (commonly served as a sauce) is the main course here, aged 2,000-plus days and counting.
Somewhere between street tacos and fine dining is Mercado Roma, a multilevel gourmet food hall where locals belly up to counters or sit at communal tables with plates full of barbecue, tacos, tapas, and more.
Other standout restaurants include Rosetta, an Italian-Mexican fusion concept by chef Elena Reygadas; Contramar, with its seafood-driven menu; Azul Histórico, a traditional Mexican restaurant by the notable chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita; and Yakumanka, a destination for Peruvian ceviche and pisco sours.
Accommodations for Less
One-bedroom apartments in high-rise buildings on the hip Roma-Condesa corridor can be rented for less than $100/night on apps like Airbnb. If you prefer a hotel stay, The St. Regis Mexico City is a solid option. Set in the heart of Paseo de la Reforma, the Marriott-owned hotel is situated next to Bosque de Chapultepec (Mexico City’s Central Park) and minutes away from the Zócalo, the historic center.
“2021 will be a remarkable year for the city — a city that welcomes all and provides a home for people of all ages and nationalities, which has resulted in a unique cultural hybrid,” says Paulina Feltrin, director of marketing and communications at The St. Regis Mexico City. “I hope this becomes another reason for international and domestic travelers to come celebrate with us.”
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