Nestled in an ancient valley, North America’s oldest city has seen a revival that highlights its always amazing mix of culture and commerce, the old and the new. This colorful capital contains layers of architecture and vigilant reminders of the Old World, yet a face-lift here and a trendy neighborhood there, stylish new hotels and enticing restaurants, are bringing a vibrancy to Mexico City. Some neighborhoods bear little resemblance to their image of five years ago. Sometimes more famous internationally for its problematic blanket of smog, the city seems to have gotten a grip on air pollution; the nearby volcanoes, once a rare visual treat through the haze, are now a common sight for visitors. Rising crime, another major threat to Mexico City’s cosmopolitan outlook, also has subsided. The city’s sheer size, about 600 square miles, and tightly packed population of about 20 million can make navigation difficult, yet the multitude of attractions more than compensates.
This sprawling city, referred to locally as Distrito Federal (DF), is divided into sections. Names such as Polanco, Condesa, Coyoacan and Zona Rosa will soon become familiar to visitors. A walking tour of downtown Mexico City’s Centro Historico is an ideal introduction. Repeat visitors will notice the area has been restored, and includes newly paved streets. The Zocolo, the centerpiece and one of the world’s largest squares, is framed by centuries-old architecture, such as the 17th century Metropolitan Cathedral. Older yet are the fascinating 14th century Aztec ruins, accidentally discovered by workmen while digging cable trenches for the subway in 1981. Interestingly, the cathedral was constructed by the Spanish with stones garnered from the Great Temple of the Aztecs, which the conquistadors destroyed. Many of the Aztec remains are now housed in the nearby Templo Mayor Ruins/Museum.
Mexico’s economy is also on the rebound, growing 4.4 percent last year, its strongest showing since 2000 and a boost to its huge commercial center. This greater-than-expected growth is attributed to increased U.S. demand for Mexican exports following a three-year slump. The United States is responsible for about 70 percent of Mexico’s export trade, making Mexico our second largest trading partner. NAFTA has clearly been good for Mexico’s trade, economic and employment growth. Retail sales, construction, growth in consumer credit and tourism also remain strong. Still, growth for the coming year is expected to level off at about 3.8 percent.
More than 20.6 million tourists visited Mexico last year, an increase of 10 percent over 2003. Not long ago a Mexican friend of mine traveled to Miami to shop. On her return to Mexico City, her suitcase was filled with clothing and supermarket items she couldn’t find at home. Now, she happily proclaims, those trips are no longer essential. The film industry is a burgeoning market in Mexico due to its lower costs (about 20 percent less than in other countries), talented filmmakers, new government tax incentives and high-tech theater chains.
Mexico has long been known for its art. Diego Rivera’s famed mural “Epic of the Mexican People in Their Struggle for Freedom and Independence” in the National Palace is a fitting place to begin your discovery of the country’s artistic talent. More of Rivera’s work can be seen nearby, hidden away in the seldom visited Ministry of Education (28 Republica de Argentina). Visitors may have to charm their way in, but it’s worth the effort. Nearby, inside the famed House of Tiles, is an interesting mural by the artist Orozco. Another cultural landmark, the Palacio de Cultura Banamex, is an art and sculpture complex located in the 18th century Palacio de Iturbide.
Uptown, inviting Chapultepec Park encompasses 2,100 acres of green landscape and is home to six museums. When there’s time to visit only one, the National Anthropology Museum is the best bet. To adequately explore this labyrinth of Mexico’s rich past and many ancient cultures, it is prudent to hire a guide. Southern Mexico City is also well worth a detour for an exploration of Diego Rivera’s studio, now a museum, and to see the Frida Kahlo museum, essentially the home she shared with her husband, Rivera. There, visitors gain poignant insight in Kahlo’s troubled life; a mirror above her bed, for example, enabled her to paint despite failing health in her later years. For more of Rivera’s and Kahlo’s work, the Dolores Olmedo Museum in what was once a beautiful private estate is a must. Try to visit the area on Saturday and take in the Bazaar Sabado market in nearby San Angel for upscale handicrafts and art.
The trendy, newly revitalized Condesa area — Mexico’s SoHo — is another must see. It is where art deco architecture meets the avant-garde, and the intriguing mix draws throngs of visitors to trendy boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Not far from the Zona Rosa, Condesa really jumps along Michoacan avenue between Mazatlan and Tamaulipas.
Mexico City offers a wide array of accommodations, with 4,000 hotel rooms just in the five-star range. Most business travelers tend to stay in the upscale, more residential Polanco district, where several noteworthy new hotels and established properties satisfy the most discerning business travelers.
FOUR SEASONS MEXICO CITY
In a class by itself, Four Seasons is a welcome oasis in this often frenetic city. Centrally located on the city’s main avenue (Paseo de la Reforma), it skillfully blends the necessities for doing business with fine accommodations. The hotel has 240 spacious guestrooms and suites, most of which overlook a charming flower-filled courtyard. (All the guestrooms will be renovated by September of this year.) The business center is open 24/7. Don’t miss tequila tasting in the popular El bar, and do take advantage of the restaurant’s delicious breakfasts. Many locals are regulars here, coming for such Mexican specialties as chilaquiles and huitlacoche (a prized black corn fungus) omelet. On weekends, business travelers often elect to stay on for the special cultural tours hosted by art historians and offered only to hotel guests. $$$$
FOUR SEASONS MEXICO CITY
500 Paseo de la Reforma
tel 011 52 55 5230 1818, fax 011 52 55 5230 1817
W MEXICO CITY
The new and trendy W Hotel is the first Latin American property of this growing hotel group. Situated in Polanco with great views of Chapultepec Park, the W caters to both business and leisure travelers. Its 237 guestrooms include such amenities as flat-screen TVs and large circular bathtubs or showers with massage jets. For more hedonistic among us, the bathrooms even have hammocks with a view. The hotel’s “whatever/whenever” service assures your every need is met at the press of a button. The W hotel nightclub/bar is the current “it” bar, and as such is always crowded with local jet-setters and international visitors. $$$$
W MEXICO CITY
252 Campos Eliseos
tel 011 52 55 9138 1800, fax 011 52 55 9138 1899
A sleek, new boutique hotel in Polanco, Hotel Habita is a modern showstopper designed by the well-known Mexican architect Enrique Norten. Its 36 guestrooms were created from what was once an apartment building. Amenities include a gym, spa, pool and Jacuzzi. Visitors, whether they are staying at the hotel or not, flock to Hotel Habita’s hip rooftop bar. $$$-$$$$
201 Avenida Presidente Masaryk
tel 011 52 55 5282 3100
Featuring 659 guestrooms and 33 suites, the Presidente InterContinental is a longtime favorite among business travelers. The modern high-rise, conveniently located in Polanco, is known for its club rooms with a private lounge and an executive floor for ladies. A good bet, when you’re craving something other than Mexican food, are the hotel’s dining venues — which are affiliated with both The Palm and the famed Paris restaurant Au Pied du Cochon. $$$$
218 Campos Eliseos
tel 011 52 55 5327 7700, fax 011 52 55 5327 7703
SHERATON CENTRO HISTORICO HOTEL
The opening of the Sheraton Centro Historico Hotel and Convention Center generated a great buzz as the first major new hotel in the heart of the city’s historical center. The hotel, overlooking Alameda Park, is close to gove rnment offices and financial institutions, as well as many cultural attractions. There are 457 guestrooms and suites. It is about 15 minutes from the airport. $$$-$$$$
SHERATON CENTRO HISTORICO HOTEL
70 Avenida Juarez
tel 011 52 55 5130 5300, fax 011 52 55 5130 5255
HOTEL MARIA CRISTINA
With its flower-filled garden and rooms that are Spartan clean, Hotel Maria Cristina is the perfect address for travelers on a tight budget. Located just off the Paseo de la Reforma and near the U.S. Embassy. $-$$
HOTEL MARIA CRISTINA
31 Calle Rio Lerma
tel 011 52 55 5703 1212, fax 011 52 55 5592 3447
Restaurants in Mexico City have improved dramatically in the past 10 years. Any talk of a revolution in Mexico City today is probably about the food, which has been raised to a new level of sophistication by its young, innovative chefs. Many talented chefs draw inspiration from the country’s rich heritage, the cuisines of the Aztecs, Mayans and Spanish. While many chilangos (as Mexico City natives are called) prefer French and other foreign cuisines when they dine out, visitors should experience what the local chefs do best: their own take on Mexican dishes. Lunch, often the main meal, begins at about 1:30 p.m. and can last for three hours. Mexicans generally have a light meal in the evening, after 9. Many restaurants are open on Sunday only for lunch. At the end of the meal you must request the check; in Mexico, it will not be brought to you automatically.
AGUILA Y SOL
Its white walls and plain surroundings are a perfect setting for chef Martha Ortiz Chapa’s contemporary Mexican cooking, which epitomizes the new breed of stylish Mexican restaurant fare. Ortiz Chapa uses traditional local ingredients to create exciting dishes such as guacamole paired with pomegranate, and delectable chicken seasoned with pistachio sauce. $$-$$$
AGUILA Y SOL
tel 52 55 5281 8354, fax 011 52 55 5281 8371
Featuring the cuisine of the well-known chef and cookbook author Patricia Quintana, Izote is known for traditional dishes with a modern twist. Don’t miss the shrimp with ancho chili sauce or the special lamb shank steamed in a banana leaf and seasoned with adobo sauce, or the red snapper with saffron sauce. $$-$$$
513 Avenida Presidente Masaryk
tel 52 55 5280 1671
Overlooking the lake in Chapultepec Park, this is an ideal setting for upscale contemporary Mexican cooking, particularly at lunchtime. Try the rib-eye tacos with bone marrow and chili sauce, or the sea bass with a guacamole crust. $$
tel 52 55 5515 9585, fax 011 52 55 5515 4507
This popular Polanco restaurant exemplifies the upsurge in Mexico City dining. Casual but stylish, Villa Maria is crowded with well-heeled locals who come for creative, contemporary dishes. Try the sopa seca Pueblerina (dried noodles spiced with chili) that would give even Italian chefs strong competition in a pasta contest. Other recommended choices from the innovative menu include red snapper cooked in tamarind sauce and wrapped in a banana leaf, or tacos filled with crispy chicken rind and guacamole. Tamarind juice is used to make a great margarita. $-$$
tel 52 55 5203 0306
Another stylish yet casual restaurant, La Valentina is influenced by both Indian and Spanish kitchens. Many of the dishes on the extensive menu were created by Mexico’s leading chefs. The cilantro soup was developed from a 300-year-old recipe, while the crisp flour tortilla stuffed with marinated shrimp is an old Veracruz dish. La Valentina is also the place to try a mole dish like chicken poblano, first prepared in the 17th century in Puebla. $$$
tel 52 55 5282 2297
FONDA DEL CLAUSTRO
The food of Puebla, considered home to the best traditional Mexican cooking, is featured at this attractive restaurant. The charming Mexican décor, including stucco-covered walls highlighted by Puebla ceramics, is enhanced by the mariachis who serenade diners each evening. The menu features a wide selection of regional dishes such as tinga poblana, seasoned shredded pork with chipotle chilis. The small fried tortillas are similar to those made by the native s in the Pueblo mountains. The restaurant also offers interesting seasonal specialties. Business is often conducted here at breakfast, so be sure to book ahead. $$-$$$
FONDA DEL CLAUSTRO
tel 52 55 5557 6144
The real bargains are pottery, glassware, handicrafts and art. Avenida Presidente Masaryk, in the upscale Polanco area, is lined with mostly European boutiques. Tane, Mexico’s equivalent of Tiffany, is located here and has lovely silver jewelry. Las Artesanias (29 Oscar Wilde, tel 011 55 5280 9515), also in Polanco, features attractive handicrafts from around the country. Pottery from Puebla is particularly beautiful.
Just the Facts
Location: Mexico City is in the center of Mexico, due south of the United States.
Climate: There are three seasons. It’s mild from October to March (the city is more than 7,000 feet above sea level, so mornings and evenings can be cool). It’s dry and warmer from April to late May. Expect rainy afternoons from June to September.
Time Zone: GMT-6
Phone Code: 52 55 (If you encounter a seven-digit local calling number, add 5 at the beginning.)
Web Site: www.mexicocity.com.mx
Currency: Mexican peso
Official Language: Spanish
Electricity: 110 to 120 volts
Key Industries: Petroleum, food and beverages, tobacco, chemicals, iron and steel, mining, textiles, automobiles and tourism
INFO TO GO
Both domestic and international flights arrive at and depart from Benito Juarez International Airport (MEX). The airport is about eight miles (40 minutes) from downtown. It’s best to buy a voucher at the Taxi Autorizada booth located in the baggage claim area, which ensures the tab will come in at about $11. It is not advisable to hail a taxi anywhere in Mexico City. Rather, find and use a sitio (radio taxi) or a taxi stand. Better yet, have your hotel or restaurant of choice arrange taxi service for you.
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