Where to start? Perhaps with two small plaques on either side of the door at No. 7 Monte de Piedad, the colonial-era pawn shop at the northeast corner of the Z?calo, Mexico City?s central square. The right-hand plaque reads: ?Here was the palace of Axay?catl, where Cort?s stayed on his arrival, 1519.? The inscription on the left hints at what followed: ?Here were the old houses of Moctezuma until 1521.? What happened, of course, was the Spanish Conquest, the most abrupt of the ruptures to mark Mexico City. History has draped layer upon layer here, so that different periods overlap, merge, and clash, but never entirely vanish. It makes for visual chaos, but one that?s exhilarating and vital.
The Z?calo, Mexico City?s central square. Photographer: Jeremy Woodhouse
Toast the view. Have a drink overlooking the Z?calo. Two hotels with attractive rooftop bars are the Hotel Majestic (Madero 73; majestichotel.com.mx) and the Gran Hotel Ciudad de M?xico (Avenida 16 de Septiembre 82; granhoteldelaciudaddemexico.com.mx) whose Art Nouveau lobby and Tiffany ceiling are a sight in themselves.
Cruise the canals. The Xochimilco district retains the last remnant of the city the Aztecs built on a lake. A boatman will glide you through the canals on a gaily painted boat while mariachis on a neighboring vessel serenade you.
Experience market day. San Juan Market downtown is a foodie?s paradise that harks back to your grandmother?s day, when meat and fish were really meat (on the hook) and fish (with heads).
Engage in a Sunday ritual. The San Angel Inn, on the grounds of a former monastery, has a gracious restaurant where you are likely to see four generations of Mexican families take a late Sunday lunch (Diego Rivera 50, 55-5616-1402; sanangelinn.com).
Eat on the street. Everybody has a favorite place for tacos al pastor, the chilango street classic of grilled pork and pineapple. One to try is El Tizoncito (Campeche 362A) in Condesa.
Boats along a canal in the Xochimilco district. Credit: ? Free agents Limited/Corbis, Dallas and John Heaton
WHAT TO SEE
Metropolitan Cathedral, Plaza de la Constituci?n: It took almost 250 years to complete the cathedral, resulting in a m?lange of styles. Inside, the Altar of the Kings and the Altar of Forgiveness are masterpieces of Mexican baroque.
Museo Casa de Le?n Trotsky, Avenida Rio Churubusco 410, 55-5554-0687; museocasadeleontrotsky.blogspot.com: Trotsky thought the high walls would protect him from assassins. They didn?t. Tours in English are available.
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Avenida M?xico 5843, 55-5555-1221; museodoloresolmedo.org.mx: The magnificent restored hacienda of Diego Rivera?s last patron, Dolores Olmedo, is now a museum with an excellent collection of works by both Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Museo Nacional de Antropolog?a, Avenida Paseo de la Reforma y Calzada Gandhi, 55-4040-5300; mna.inah.gob.mx: Daunting but a don?t-miss; pick one or two rooms, like the Maya and Mexica exhibitions, and lose yourself.
San Angel: Wander the cobbled streets of this colonial-style neighborhood. Stop in at the Diego Rivera Studio Museum (estudiodiegorivera.bellasartes.gob.mx), designed by Juan O?Gorman, who brought European functionalism to Mexico.
Hotel Habita. Credit: Courtesy of Hotel Habita
WHERE TO STAY
Condesa DF, Avenida Veracruz 102, 55-5241-2600; condesadf.com: A 1928 mansion with a lovely rooftop bar overlooking the greenery of neighboring Parque Espa?a, the heart of Condesa.
Hotel Brick, Orizaba 95, 55-5525-1100; hotelbrick.com: The latest incarnation of a restored mansion (and former brothel). Richard Sandoval prepares Mexican favorites in Loncher?a Olivia and French fare in Brasserie La Moderna.
Hotel Habita, Avenida Presidente Masaryk 201, 55-5282-3100; hotelhabita.com: In fewer than a dozen years, Hotel Habita, designed by Enrique Norten and Bernardo G?mez Pimienta, has become an icon, distinguished by its glass skin.
Las Alcobas, Avenida Presidente Masaryk 390A, 55-3300-3900; lasalcobas.com: Boutique-hotel comfort and spa indulgence in the heart of Polanco. A Yabu Pushelberg design, with local touches including rugs by Mexican artisans.
St. Regis, Paseo de la Reforma 439, 55-5228-1818; stregishotelmexicocity.com: The newest addition to the city?s luxury hotel lineup is in a sleek tower designed by Cesar Pelli with interiors by Yabu Pushelberg. The view from the 15th-floor indoor pool is unparalleled.
Villa Condesa, Colima 428, 55-5211-4892; villacondesa.com.mx: A luxe, 15-room hotel in a serene residence.
The Gran Hotel Ciudad de M?xico. Photographer: Courtesy of Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico
WHERE TO EAT
Azul Condesa, Nuevo Le?n 68, 55-5286-6380; azulcondesa.com: Classic Mexican dishes stripped to their essence so the flavors burst forth.
Contramar, Durango 200, 55-5514-3169; contramar.com.mx: Restaurateur Gabriela C?mara pairs the zest of eating on the beach with city sophistication. Casual and hip, it?s the place to be on Friday afternoons.
El Baj?o, Avenida Cuitlahuac 2709, 55-5234-3763, and Alejandro Dumas 7, 55-5281-8245; carnitaselbajio.com.mx: Celebrated cook Carmen Ram?rez Degollado stays true to Mexican tradition. The restaurant in the Azcapotzalco neighborhood is the classic, opened 39 years ago. The new Polanco branch has a fancier address but the same delicious food.
Mero Toro, Amsterdam 204, 55-5564-7799; merotoro.com: Seafood and meat dishes cooked with creative flair. The decor is deliberately plain and the artsy crowd likes it that way.
Pujol, Francisco Petrarca 254, 55-5545-3507; pujol.com.mx: Master chef Enrique Olvera takes traditional Mexican ingredients and prepares them in ways that nobody else could dream of, in a restaurant that many consider the city?s best.
Rosetta, Colima 166, 55-5533-7804: Exquisite Italian food served in a belle epoque mansion.
Tacos Hola, Amsterdam 135, 55-5286-4495: This hole-in-the-wall has achieved legendary status; fillings include vegetarian options like squash, quelites (a Mexican green), and cauliflower. Try the chile relleno taco.
The tearoom at Celeste House. Credit: Courtesy of Celeste
WHERE TO SHOP
ADN Galer?a, Avenida Moli?re 62, 55-5511-5521; adngaleria.mx: The best of vintage design, including Spratling silver and Don Shoemaker chairs, along with playful pieces by some of Mexico?s most creative designers.
Celeste House, Darwin on the corner of Kepler, 55-2614-6031; celeste.com.mx: This concept store sells clothing by up-and-coming Mexican designers and hats by Tardan, the renowned Mexican hatmaker on the Z?calo. There?s a wonderful tearoom, too.
Chic by Accident, ?lvaro Obreg?n 49, 55-5511-1312: Emmanuel Picault has filled his shop with what he calls 20th-century antiques, often spiced with offbeat Mexican finds.
Fonart, Avenida Patriotismo 691, 55-5093-6000; fonart.gob.mx: Mexico?s government handicrafts store. A broad selection of high-quality textiles and ceramics from all over the country.
H?ctor Esrawe, Alfonso Reyes 58, 55-5553-8847; esrawe.com: The showroom of one of Mexico?s most innovative designers, with furnishings by turns whimsical and elegant.
Maggie Galton, Hegel 346, 55-5255-2230 (by appointment); maggiegalton.com: Galton works with Mexican artisans to strip down their traditional designs and bring out the details: Textiles, ceramics, and lacquerware are both timeless and fresh.
Museum shop at the Museo de Arte Popular, Revillagigedo 11, 55-5510-2201; map.df.gob.mx: A stunning selection of handicrafts?ceramics, toys, textiles, baskets, masks, and tin lanterns?all top quality.
Pirwi, Alejandro Dumas 124, 55-1579-6514; pirwi.com: Designers Alejandro Castro and Emiliano Godoy?s creative team produces furniture from sustainable materials using traditional craftsmanship.
Tane, Avenida Presidente Masaryk 430, 55-5282-6200; tane.com.mx: Mexico?s premier silversmith. Along with jewelry, the shop sells silver objects by well-known designers.
Trouv?, ?lvaro Obreg?n 186-Bis, 55-5264-4884; trouve.mx : Midcentury design, objects, and art.
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