Mexico City’s very existence is improbable, nonsensical and beyond all logic, but perhaps that’s what makes it so special. It began as a collection of fishing and farming settlements among inland lakes and waterways. Eventually the largest island became the seat of the Aztec Empire. The Spanish rode in looking like gods on horseback in 1519 and started their march of domination here. They drained the marshes and built cathedrals and palaces — which started sinking as soon as they were finished.

Despite ongoing earthquakes, nearby volcanoes and a highland valley location that’s expert at trapping smog, Mexico City has mushroomed into the second-largest metropolis in the world, after Tokyo.

This implausible city continues to improve, however, despite all the odds stacked against it. It carries itself with a swagger now, aglow in its reputation as one of the best cities in the world for culture and food. With some 160 museums to choose from and enough good restaurants to keep a foodie occupied for a lifetime, this is more than a place for closing business deals.

Some of the most visible improvements are clear to the eye. The downright deadly air of recent decades gets a little less smoggy each year. The main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, is closed to traffic on Sundays, and free bicycle rental stands are set up in various neighborhoods all week. While Mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s ambitious goal to turn the capital into a true “green city” is probably wishful thinking, his efforts to upgrade the public transportation system and encourage less driving are having a noticeable effect. The city center is getting a scrubdown as well, with crews cleaning up centuries of grime and chewing gum, and construction crews bringing abandoned historic buildings back to life. There’s a clear sense of renewal and rebuilding in the air.

In contrast to the sleepy siesta feeling in most of the country, there’s a heightened level of intensity in Mexico City. Here workers in suits grab a tamale on the run, millions whiz by underfoot in the metro each day, and CEOs emerge from black limos to negotiate a global deal over huevos rancheros.

In some neighborhoods, such as Polanco next to Chapultepec Park, it’s clear that Mexico City is dripping with money. The Bentleys roll by Gucci and Prada stores, and a meal for two can top $200 in some spots. This is the shiny Mexico City of moguls and fashion models, of developers and movie stars. In the center life is more traditional, with government offices and tourist facilities drawing a different crowd. In between are the pedestrian-friendly artistic neighborhoods of Condesa and Roma, with the Zona Rosa nightlife area and the business hotels of Paseo de la Reforma just to the north of those.

Mexican wrestling, street tacos and Spanish colonial buildings mix with minimalist nightclubs, chic boutiques and striking modern architecture. The heady mixture in Mexico’s capital surprises many visitors and inspires them to return. Old reputations die hard, but today’s visitors find a buzzing metropolis that can rank among the world’s great cities.


LODGING

CONDESA DF
Artistic but functional, hip but not pretentious, this boutique hotel in the leafy Condesa neighborhood is a consistent delight. $$$
CONDESA DF
Av. Veracruz No. 102, Colonia Condesa
tel 52 55 5241 2600
www.condesadf.com

GRAN HOTEL CIUDAD DE MÉXICO
This lovingly restored Art Nouveau masterpiece makes the most of its Tiffany glass ceiling, birdcage elevators and wrought iron balconies. $$
GRAN HOTEL CIUDAD DE MÉXICO
16 de Septiembre 82 Centro Histórico
tel. 52 55 1083 7700
www.granhotelciudaddemexico.com.mx

SHERATON CENTRO HISTÓRICO
A 5-star hotel just steps from Reforma Avenue and the main entrance to Me xico City’s historic district. $$$$
SHERATON CENTRO HISTÓRICO
70 Av. Juarez
tel 52 55 5130 5300
www.starwoodhotels.com/sheraton


DINING

EL CARDENAL
Political powerbrokers and tourists alike flock to this institution keeping traditional Mexican cuisine alive — try eggs with black beans or pork-stuffed chilies. $$
EL CARDENAL
Calle de Palma 23, Centro Histórico
tel 52 55 5521 8815

NEMI
Opened in 2008, this Michael Mina outlet has already ascended to the top of the high-end culinary scene. $$$$
NEMI
Las Alcobas Hotel, Presidente Masaryk 390, Col. Polanco
tel. 52 55 3300 3950
www.michaelmina.net/nemi

EL TIZONCITA
For delicious tacos in a sit-down atmosphere, it’s hard to beat this friendly restaurant known for its variety of salsas. $
EL TIZONCITA
Corner of Tamaulipas 22 and Nuevo Leon, Condesa
tel 52 55 5286 8671


JUST THE FACTS
Time Zone: GMT-6
Phone Code: 52 Mexico, 55 Mexico City
Currency: Peso
Entry/Exit Requirements: U.S. citizens must have a valid passport with at least six months remaining; no visa is required. All visitors must obtain a $22 tourist card, included in the price of your airline ticket.
Official Language: Spanish
Key Industries: Tourism, oil, agriculture, cement, automobiles, packaged food and beverages


DIVERSIONS

The most spectacular museum in all of Mexico is the National Museum of Anthropology (Paseo de la Reforma in Chapultepec Park, tel 52 55 5553 6253, www.mna.inah.gob.mx), containing the greatest collection of pre-Columbian art anywhere. Nearly 20 acres of displays cover every period of history in a dramatic building.

Next to Alameda Park, two adjacent buildings designed by the same architect capture the city’s elegance at the beginning of the 20th century, with a mix of Belle Époque and Art Deco styles. The gilded Palacio Postal is still used as a post office (Tacuba 1, tel 52 55 5510 2999), and the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Juarez y Lazaro Cardenas, tel 52 55 5512 2593) is an opera house and museum.

The huge Plaza de la Constitución in the center of the city is better known as the Zócalo. On one side is the Palacio Nacional (tel 52 55 9158 1259), with a sprawling mural by Diego Rivera. On another side is the propped-up Metropolitan Cathedral (tel 52 55 5510 0440), which took 277 years to complete.

A day trip 31 miles to the northeast is a must to see the spectacular ruins of Teotihuacán (San Juan Teotihuacán, tel 52 59 4956 0276), which flourished from A.D. 100 to 750 and later was reoccupied by the Aztecs.


INFO TO GO

Benito Juarez International Airport (MEX) is less than 10 miles from most hotels. Buy an official taxi ticket for $12–16 before exiting. Mexico City’s metro connects to the airport, but — technically — luggage is not allowed. In the city the metro is useful outside rush hour. If taking a taxi, it’s best to use a sitio taxi rather than flagging one down on the street. Visit www.mexicocity.gob.mx.


CHECKING IN WITH JIM JOHNSTON
Artist and author of Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler

WHAT LED TO THE ADOPTION OF MEXICO CITY AS YOUR HOME?

I’d lived all of my adult life in New York City until 1997 when I moved to San Miguel de Allende with my partner, Nick. We’re both artists, so our portable careers made the move possible. After a year in San Miguel we both realized a need for more urban energy. We’d often stop in Mexico City en route to San Miguel and enjoyed the city as tourists. In 1998 we began spending more time here, eventually moving to the capital in 2005. Mexican culture is still remarkably undiluted by globalization. Living here is a rich experience.

HOW DO FOREIGNERS’ PERCEPTIONS OF SAFETY AND QUALITY OF LIFE IN MEXICO CITY CONTRAST TO THE REALITY?

The gap between what’s seen in the news and the realities of daily life is great. It saddens me because it causes so many people to miss out on the wonders of Mexico City. Living here is not a fearful experience. I’m careful, as I would be in any city, but never feel afraid or restricted in my movements in any way.

There’s a notably peaceful side to this city. Mexican people are friendly and warm, at ease in crowds — surprisingly so, given the enormous size of the city. If you look at the crime statistics here, you’ll see that tourists are very safe. Unfortunately, the perception about safety in Mexico is awful and getting worse with all the stories about drug violence and police corruption. I try to offset these negative impressions in my book and blog about Mexico City.

WHAT DOES THE CAPITAL CITY OFFER THAT YOU CAN’T GET ELSEWHERE IN MEXICO?

Of course, there are the museums, the restaurants, shopping and movies. But, more important, it’s the urban energy, what you feel as you walk down almost any street here, as you ride the metro or shop in the markets. It’s a certain “buzz,” a pulse of life, a reminder of the vast possibilities of being human.

Another big attraction is the sense of time. You can pass by 700-year-old Aztec ruins, 300-year-old Spanish colonial mansions, 80-year-old Art Deco houses and brand-new steel-and-glass skyscrapers in the course of a day.

WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON FOR THE CITY IN TERMS OF TOURISM?

In 2010 Mexico celebrates 200 years of independence from Spain — a great time to visit. Already, the streets of the Centro Histórico are being spruced up with new paving and lighting, and hundreds of old buildings were recently painted in a range of pastel colors. Calle Regina is now a pedestrian area full of bars, restaurants — life. There are more police patrols around and a new TV surveillance system that should increase tourists’ sense of safety.

Everyone I know who has visited has gone home with positive stories, surprised at how different their experience was from their expectations. The word is getting out, slowly but surely, that Mexico City is a great place to visit.