Why you need to visit Mexico City in 2017
My husband and I recently returned from a long weekend in Mexico City. It’d been on our travel bucket list for a while, so when we saw $180 roundtrip flights (here's where, in case you like cheap flights), we jumped. We live in Dallas, so the flight was direct and only 2 hours. I had a feeling I would really like Mexico City (or DF, for Distrito Federal, as it’s often called) but still it surprised me how much the city excited me and still beckons me to return. Since it was such a quick, cheap and easy trip, the call is tempting.
Mexico City is a fascinating mix of contradictions: rich, crumbling history and traditions coexist with a youthful, vibrant energy and modern aesthetic. Fine art (the city has almost as many museums as Paris) and gorgeous architecture can be found just steps away from poverty and dilapidated, grimy buildings that might better fit some tourists’ expectations. Some of the most innovative high culinary experiences anywhere can be found in Mexico City, often inspired by common everyday street food. And the city has a relatively tolerant culture - gay marriage has been legal there since 2009 - despite the longstanding influence of the Roman Catholic Church.
Travelers interested in visiting Mexico City should do it now. The atmosphere has that palpable sense of possibility that I love about cities on the cusp of being overrun by tourists — adolescent, bootstrapped and full of energy, explored by only 'adventurous' travelers, and still mostly undiscovered by the touring masses. Get there now while people still think it’s dangerous (it’s really not).
And here’s what to do when you arrive:
1. Cram your face full of tacos.
First order of business! Seriously, the real recommendation is this: do not be afraid of street food. If you are, you need to either get over it or not visit Mexico City at all. I couldn’t even begin to count how many tacos al pastor I shoveled into my mouth in my 3 days there and it was absolute heaven on earth. I would happily still be there on a sidewalk, sat on a low wobbly plastic stool in front of a hot rotating trompo, juices dripping down my arm, mouth full of glorious taco and hand mid-shovel if not for my need to come back to Dallas, earn money, feed my cat, and not weigh 300 lbs. I’m salivating just writing this. And no, I didn’t get sick, of course.
Now here's something crazy I didn’t realize until later in the trip: there are Mexicans who live in Mexico City who, just like some tourists, are needlessly scared of street food too. On our last day, we met up with some friends who're from Mexico City - and the look they gave us when we told them about our frequent and beloved street tacos was pure shock. Then, at Christmas I told my step-grandfather (who’s half Mexican and lived in Mexico City for 10 years) about the street food we'd eaten, and he gave me a side-eye “WTF" look I’d never seen on the man. Here’s the thing: Mexico City has a strong class divide, and upper-class Mexicans probably give side-eye to a lot of things that are delicious and fun and completely worth it, for reasons completely unrelated to the food or activity in question. It’s just how it is. They’re absolutely missing out, though, so don’t make the same mistake. Personally, I cannot imagine living in Mexico City and never eating a street taco. (And what do they eat after a night out at the bar?)
2. Go on a street food tour
Because there’s so much amazing food to choose from, and you’ll only have so many meals and belly real estate available during your trip, you’ll need some help identifying the best of the best. Lately, we’ve made a point of doing street food tours everywhere we go for this very reason. Street food tours are also great because you’ll likely end up trying something you may not have otherwise. We chose Club Tengo Hambre for our tour, which they bill as more of a “roving supper club” than a street food tour. It was the most expensive food tour we’ve ever done ($90 USD per person) but my husband and I both agree it was worth it for the culinary knowledge our guide was able to provide.
Mariana is a chef by trade, and took us not only to some of the best street food stands in the city, but also a famous market where fresh spices, produce and ingredients of all kind (including some that still had its fur and hooves…) were on display. It was fascinating to learn about the history of the food we were eating and to try so many interesting things. Like… mezcal with worm salt (ground up worms) and… crickets. Crunchy, salty, garlicky — that part’s fine — but I’m not a fan of the feeling of trying to pry a cricket leg from the back of your teeth. I’ve done it once, so now I never have to again!
Although Club Tengo Hambre is definitely for adventurous foodies, most of the food on your tour will still take the form of more expected dishes like quesadillas and tacos - but made with fresh and local ingredients (huitlacoche, mmmm) and in a delicious, authentic style, so they’ll bear little resemblance to what passes as Mexican food in the US.
Pro tip: Book your street food tour for as early in your trip as possible - the first day, if possible. That way you have ample opportunity to go back to your favorites again and again.
3. Make a reservation at this secret Prohibition-style bar
I don’t think I’ve ever had to make a reservation at a bar before, but it’s critical to reserve in advance if you want to gain access to Hanky Panky. The bar has no listed address - they provide it once you’re booked - and is accessed only through a secret entrance in the back of an unassuming taco joint. They took us behind the registers down a long hallway, then into a small room with a giant secured door; when they punched in the number I could swear there was a burst of steam or dry ice and the heavy door swung open to reveal a dark, tony 1920s style bar. When I asked our bartenders about the ruse, they said the owners really wanted to maintain the Prohibition-era style — not just the cocktails and the aesthetic, but even the secrecy. The cocktails were treated like works of art, and even their creation was like a mesmerizing performance. Delicious, interesting, and well worth it. Even the way you exit (not the way you came in) is a fun final surprise. To make a reservation, just send them a message on their Facebook page.
4. Make a reservation at Pujol
Widely considered to be the best restaurant in Mexico City, reservations fill up fast at Pujol. We weren’t able to get a reservation, but we’re making a point of it next time and will try for a table as soon as we book our flights. Since I didn’t eat there, I can’t speak for it myself, but reviews all around are glowing for young chef Enrique Olvera’s modern takes on traditional Mexican dishes.
5. Visit one of the city’s many museums
We only had time for one museum, so of course being a big fan of Frida Kahlo’s life and work, I had to go to Casa Azul. This sprawling residence in Coyoacán (a bohemian neighborhood just south of Mexico City) so-named for its blue walls, was Frida’s family home and where she lived with Diego Rivera for many years. There’s very little of her art on display; you go there for the experience of seeing where she lived and worked. As an artist and painter myself, I was especially fascinated by her studio. All of her pastels, paints and brushes were out just as she left them, even one of the mirrors she used to paint her self-portraits. It was a special experience for me to be standing where one of my favorite artists made her work. If you’re a Frida fan or even just curious about her life, this is a must-do.
Next time we visit Mexico City, I’ll put the Museum of Anthropology and Soumaya Museum at the top of my list - I’ve heard great things about both. There’s no shortage of amazing and even off-beat museums out there to satisfy every taste, so do some research and make a point of going. If you visit the Frida Kahlo Museum, be sure to buy your ticket ahead of time to avoid standing in the long line.
6. For a taste of the 'real Mexico,' visit Mercado La Merced
Mercado La Merced is the kind of place that must be experienced to be understood. Outside, an endless maze of stalls sell clothing and trinkets. Inside, a giant warehouse you will (no question) get lost in. Towering displays on either side sell everything from vegetables to raw meat to toothpaste; people are crammed into every possible spot and trying to pass. You’ll want to hold onto whoever you’re with if you don’t want to lose them, and keep your hand on your belongings at all times. Inside along one of the long sides of the warehouse, an ‘avenue’ of food stands sell tacos and other delicious dishes - just pick one and give it a try. When we went, it was a payday weekend (a big deal in Mexico City) and absolutely chaotic and packed with people. Mercado La Merced is for locals, not for tourists, but it will give you the most authentic experience of what Mexican life is really like. Plan to spend an hour there soaking everything in and grabbing a bite, and then grab an Uber to your next destination. For a deeper dive of La Merced, check out this Eater article.
7. For great people watching, give Lucha Libre a try
The fun of Lucha Libre, the Mexican wrestling spectacle, is usually not the performers but the crowd. Drunk, rowdy, throwing their beer at the stage - it’s the ultimate people watching experience. When we went, the crowd was a little more tame than we’d hoped. The wrestlers did dive into the crowd at one point, and people were yelling, but nothing was thrown by the audience. Oh well. If you’re not sure you’ll love this experience, show up about halfway through the performance — the crowd will be drunker, and the performances will start to get a little crazier, so you’ll see the best of it.
I do hope more people will decide to give Mexico City - an incredibly underestimated, cosmopolitan, delicious destination - a try. If you’re interested, create a flight alert on Kayak and see what happens! You can also do what I did - like The Flight Deal’s page on Facebook and select “See first” to put their geo-targeted deals at the top of your feed (not an affiliate link, just a site I use a lot.) I just so happened on the $180 fare to Mexico City, and was able to book before it went away.
Have you been to Mexico City? What are your favorite spots? What should I not miss on my next trip there?