Mexico City is losing its crime-and-grime image

My kind of place: The sprawling Latin American megalopolis is full of Aztec history and world-class food, writes Sarah Gilbert.
The Palace of Fine Arts in central Mexico City. The capital city sits in a basin encircled by mountains, 2,240 metres above sea level. Susana Gonzalez / Bloomberg
The Palace of Fine Arts in central Mexico City. The capital city sits in a basin encircled by mountains, 2,240 metres above sea level. Susana Gonzalez / Bloomberg

Why Mexico City?

With a cultural heritage spanning seven centuries, more museums than any other city and restaurants that regularly appear in the world’s best lists, Mexico City is shaking off its crime-and-grime image, moving on from its stopover status and becoming a hot destination in its own right.

This sprawling megalopolis sits in a basin encircled by mountains, 2,240 metres above sea level, with an enviable year-round spring-like climate. It’s a fascinating blend of ancient and contemporary: from dramatic Aztec ruins to stunning modern architecture, ramshackle markets to chic boutiques and street food to fusion restaurants.

At its heart, the rejuvenated historic centre stands on top of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. You can still see the remains of its grand temple, but it’s worth travelling 50 kilometres north-east to Teotihuacan and the monumental pyramids dedicated to the sun and the moon.

Art is everywhere, from Frida Kahlo’s Blue House (www.museofridakahlo.org.mx) and the Popular Art Museum (www.map.df.gob.mx), to the state-of-the-art Soumaya Museum (www.soumaya.com.mx), showcasing Carlos Slim’s private collection, and Eugenio López Alonso’s vast collection of contemporary art at the new Jumex Museum (www.fundacionjumex.org/site/museojumex).

And banish thoughts of tasteless Tex-Mex. Mexican cuisine is so complex that it’s been granted Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage status, and native chefs, such as Enrique Olvera at Pujol (www.pujol.com.mx), are transforming traditional dishes.

A comfortable bed

Set on tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma, with luxurious rooms and first-class service, the St Regis Mexico City (www.stregis.com/mexicocity; 0052 555 228 1818) is within easy reach of the major sights and the shops and restaurants of Polanco and Condesa. Its new “48 Hours in Mexico City” package includes a personalised programme from its “cultural curator”. The package starts from US$435 (Dh1,598), valid Thursdays to Sundays, including deluxe-room accommodation, airport transfers, a city bus tour, breakfast and a meal at the J&G Grill.

Grupo Habita’s first hotel, Habita (www.hotelhabita.com; 0052 555 282 2199), is still a place to see and be seen, tucked down a quiet street in the upscale Polanco. The trendy Mexican hoteliers eschewed ornate colonial style in favour of a revamped 1950s building, with a frosted glass exterior and minimalist interiors. The rooftop is home to one of the city’s hottest nightspots, as well as a pool with a view. Doubles from $215 (Dh790).

Find your feet

The historic centre is perfect for exploring on foot. At its heart is the vast and perpetually busy Plaza de la Constitución, also known as the Zócalo. Start at the National Palace (take photo ID), where Diego Rivera’s vibrant murals are a visual history of Mexico, from the Spanish conquest to the revolution. Opposite is the Metropolitan Cathedral – one of the oldest and largest in the Americas, it took almost three centuries to complete. To the north-east, you can visit the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor and its small museum (www.templomayor.inah.gob.mx; 0052 554 040 5600). Walk along Francisco Madero Avenue to the white-marble Palace of Fine Arts (www.bellasartes.gob.mx; 0052 555 512 2593). Its sumptuous art-deco interior is home to Mexico’s opera, the Ballet Folklórico, and the work of more legendary muralists, including Orozco and Siqueiros.

Meet the locals

Street food is an integral part of the city’s culture. On a small-group tour from Eat Mexico (www.eatmexico.com; tours from $66 [Dh242]) led by an in-the-know local, you’ll stop at the best stands for tacos and tamales (parcels of corn dough filled with meat and vegetables and steamed in a corn husk) , learn how tortillas are made and sample healthy juices, such as nopal cactus.

Book a table

At Dulce Patria (www.marthaortiz.mx; 052 553 300 3999), the chef Martha Ortiz takes inspiration from Mexican culture and age-old recipes to create colourful art on a plate. From salmon tostadas with spicy chile chipotle mayonnaise (158 Mexican pesos [Dh45]), to beef fillet with tomatillo sauce, sweet orange and prehistoric papyrus (375 pesos [Dh106]) and a toy carousel decorated with petit fours, it looks just as good as it tastes.

The locals’ favourite, Maximo Bistrot Local (www.maximobistrot.com.mx; 0052 5564 4291), in Roma, has a menu changed daily from the passionate young chef Eduardo Garcia. Dishes include surprisingly delicious escamoles (ant larvae) on crostini (210 pesos [Dh60]) and duck breast in a vanilla and orange sauce (290 pesos [Dh83]).

Set in the tree-shaded patio of a 17th-century palace in the Historic Centre, Azul Histórico (www.azulrestaurantes.com; 0052 5510 1316) is part of the recently opened Downtown complex. The chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita has sourced regional favourites from around Mexico, such as enchiladas de mole negro (125 pesos [Dh35]) – chicken in a rich sauce that includes chillies and chocolate.

Shopper’s paradise

The Downtown complex also has a collection of shops (www.theshops.mx) focused on high-end Mexican design. Try Pineda Covalin (www.pinedacovalin.com) for printed silks inspired by iconic Mexican motifs; Caracol Púrpura (www.caracolpurpura.com.mx) for folk art from around the country; and Remigio for exquisite, hand-embroidered textiles from Oaxaca. Polanco is the place for high-end international designers: take a stroll down President Masaryk Avenue (currently being semi-pedestrianised) or visit the al fresco mall Antara Polanco (www.antara.com.mx). For all manner of Mexican crafts, head to the Saturday Bazaar (www.elbazaarsabado.com) in San Angel, where stalls spill out in to the cobbled streets around the Plaza San Jacinto, selling everything from textiles to jewellery, carvings and kitsch art.

Don’t miss

The National Museum of Anthropology (www.mna.inah.gob.mx; closed Mondays) is one of the most important collections of its kind in the world. Set in the historic Chapultepec Park – the city’s green lung – it’s a treasure trove of pre-Hispanic artefacts, including an Aztec sun stone, Mayan sculptures and Mesoamerican crystal skulls.

What to avoid

Don’t hail a taxi in the street; ask a hotel or restaurant to order one for you, or pick one up from an official rank, or sitio.

Getting there

Delta (www.delta.com) flies from Dubai to Mexico City via Atlanta from Dh6,520 return, including taxes.

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Published: June 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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