Mexico City is currently one of the most exciting cities in Latin America. And it is enjoying its moment in the sun with an emphasis on its open green spaces, art galleries that push the boundaries, restaurants that are playing with local flavours and shopping arcades to lure all kinds of visitors.
The version of Mexico City as we know it now was originally called Teotihuacan and was founded by the Mexicas (also known as Aztecs) in 1325AD. But the area has been inhabited by indigenous tribes since 100AD.
Today, the past and present live together comfortably in the most populous metropolis in the Western Hemisphere, ancient archaeological ruins rubbing shoulders with modern steel and glass structures. Its art scene is world-class, with the striking new Museo Soumaya housing one of the biggest collections of Kahlil Gibran paintings outside Lebanon.
Not surprisingly, this city can be a sensory overload, and in the best possible way: streets crowded with unruly traffic, horns blaring a staccato chorus, corn-on-the-cob steaming from vendor carts, and the colours of traditional Mexican ceramics inviting shopaholics to have a closer look. In the past decade, Mexico City has reinvented itself, doing away with the image of it being unsafe and rife with criminal gangs.
9am: Breakfast on the go
If you have only one day in Mexico City, then it is best to stick the central area around Zocalo Square as much as possible. The massive piazza more formally known as the Plaza de la Constitucion has several significant sights to keep you occupied for weeks, if not days. Tuck into a taco or three (from Dh30) at one of the street stalls such as the Taqueria Los Paisas, who churn them out by the dozens every hour, ensuring both taste and freshness.
10am: Murals on Mexico’s history
Begin your discovery of Mexico City's core with a trip to Palacio Nacional (palacionacionaldemexico.mx), getting there early to beat the crowds. The National Palace, which dates back to 1693, is now the seat of the central government, which explains the armed guards everywhere. Ignore them and make your way straight to the staircase and then up to the corridors on the first floor, which houses Mexican artist Diego Rivera's epic mural. This sweeping work of art – think more than 1,200-square-feet of wall paintings – brings alive two millennia of Mexico's history, through all its troubles and glories.
11am: Visit an archaeology site
Walk out towards Zocalo, stopping for a brief look inside the imposing 16th-century Metropolitan Cathedral (catedralmetropolitanacdmx.org), which now covers an entire side of the plaza. The interiors are as grand as the facade, an equal mishmash of architectural styles from various periods, added on to the original. Around the corner is the city's most significant archaeological site, the Templo Mayor, a remarkable slice of ancient Mexican history that remained buried under the march of progress, until it was accidentally discovered by municipal workers in 1978. Although most of it is in ruins, the temple and the adjoining museum still display several interesting artefacts from the times of the Aztecs, a powerful Meso-American tribe that ruled around the 15th century.
1pm: Lunch with a view
Head to El Mayor (elmayor.com.mx) for lunch, hidden away above a bookstore in the alley right in front of the temple Mayor. This open-air cafe has good food and great views, where mains cost from Dh28. Try the arrachera beef steak, with a side of tangy chilaquiles (corn tortillas, lightly fired and topped with salsa or guacamole and refried beans), or go for an order of a trio of quesadillas (beans with cheese, huitlacoche and pumpkin flower)
3pm: Take a peek into the past
You cannot leave this city without at least a cursory exploration of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (mna.inah.gob.mx) or the National Museum of Anthropology. So jump into a cab straight after lunch and head to this sprawling space, it's filled with one of the finest archaeological collections in the world, and houses unmissable exhibits such as the gigantic 24-tonne Piedra del Sol sun stone and the colourful headdress of Aztec ruler Moctezuma. Audio guides are available for a small fee at the ticket counter, but it is much better to explore with a local guide who can point out just the major highlights in a couple of hours.
5pm: Window shopping at city centre
Head back towards the historic centre for a leisurely saunter on the Avenida Francisco I Madero, or simply Madero, the pedestrianised shopping street where locals congregate for their evening cuppa. The avenue is lined on both sides with new boutiques and brand chains, trendy restaurants and taco stalls, all scattered carelessly in the midst of old churches and mansions. Stop by at the Casa de los Azulejos, towards the other end of the street, away from Zocalo, to admire the pretty Portuguese azulejo tiles covering the outer walls of this mansion, which is now a busy coffee shop.
6pm: Catch aerial views of the city
Walk a few more steps ahead on the same road, to the Torre Latinoamericana, visible from nearly everywhere in the inner shopping district, and buy a ticket (approx Dh20) to the Mirador viewpoint (miradorlatino.com) on the 44th floor of this skyscraper. The best time to head here is just before sunset, when the heart of Mexico City hesitantly begins to wind down and the twinkling lights of the buildings come on. From the top, you can catch 360-degree views to the low hills in the distance.
7pm: A Mexican meal
Mexico City has been getting high praise for its cutting-edge gastronomic scene, and restaurants such as Limosneros (limosneros.com.mx) are part of this trend. The menu varies with season and the mood of the Argentinian chef, Marcos Fulcheri and his partner Carlo Melendez. Start your meal with a selection of tacos with interesting toppings, such as crayfish, and then move on to a main course of woodfire octopus or Azteca lamb cake (mains cost from Dh54).
10pm: Time for a sugar rush
El Moro (elmoro.mx) has been creating sweet delights in the form of traditional Spanish churros since 1935. The 24-hour churreria always has long lines of locals and tourists waiting to take away their churros in a paper bag. Beat the crowds by finding a quiet seat at the back and eat the churros hot and fresh, with or without a chocolate sauce dip.
11pm: Go to sleep
For location and ambience, there is nothing to beat the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico (granhoteldelaciudaddemexico.com.mx/en). The hotel has preserved its impressive history as a prosperous trading house before its conversion into a luxury hotel in the late 1960s. The Art Nouveau architecture and the stunning Tiffany stained-glass ceiling (one of the largest in the world) alone are enough reasons to book a room here. Doubles cost from Dh625, and include breakfast).
Fly to Mexico City on Emirates or Etihad from Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively, with a stopover at an American airport; return fares cost from Dh7,748. Visit cdmxtravel.com/en for more information.