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 Zócalo, Mexico City's central square. The right-hand plaque reads: "Here was the palace of Axayácatl, where Cortés 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.
"There are all these multiple readings where you try to decant all the layers," says architect Enrique Norten, whose renovation of the 109-year-old Chopo Museum was completed last year. "The disjunctions and malfunctions are creating energy and opportunities."
Now comes the newest layer to the city, as artists in every medium embrace international movements while they also revalue their past. "It's a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated city," says Robert Littman, a longtime curator here. "But at the same time, it's a very different kind of culture." Activity is everywhere: The renewal of the historic center is gathering pace; landmark towers rise along its main avenue, Paseo de la Reforma; new museums seem to open every month; and the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, their Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture restored, have become poles for art, food, fashion, and nightlife.
Over the past 10 years, the city's filmmakers and artists have helped put Mexico City on the map, reshaping the perception of a crowded, dangerous Third World megalopolis. It still is that—don't hail a taxi on the street and don't wear expensive jewelry—but it is much more. "There is a moment happening, and it has lasted a decade," says Rafael Micha, a partner in Grupo Habita, the hip hotel company that is opening its fourth Mexico City outlet, in the colonial historic center, later this year. "Five hundred years, one on top of the other. This is what we live in Mexico City every day."
It helps to begin at the spot where history weighs heaviest: the Zócalo, first the heart of the Aztec empire, originally called Tenochtitlán; and then the center of the Spanish conquerors' new capital. Diego Rivera offered his own version of the conquest and successive tragedies in his murals in the National Palace on the east side, frescoes that are by turns heroic propaganda and visually arresting art.
At every turn in the Zócalo and the surrounding blocks, there are reminders of how the layers of the past overlap and run smack into the present. Outside the Metropolitan Cathedral, parents bearing babies line up on weekend mornings for mass baptisms. This, in a city that recently legalized abortion and approved gay marriage. Next to the cathedral are the ruins of the Aztec Great Temple, or Templo Mayor, whose museum has a stunning collection of Aztec artifacts. Behind it, the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, founded as a Jesuit seminary in 1588 and rebuilt in the early 1700s, offers eclectic exhibitions. The austere colonial patios here were transformed by muralists in the 1920s: Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others.
But this is also a city of palaces. The baroque palace of the Counts of Santiago de Calimaya is now a home for contemporary art. The magnificent Palacio de Iturbide hosts diverse visiting exhibitions. The Casa de los Azulejos, covered in blue and white tiles, is the flagship store of the Sanborns chain, a combination restaurant and general store.
The historic center is also the part of town where Mexicans come to touch base with what is most enduring: breakfast at Café Tacuba; lunch at El Danubio; a drink at the Opera Bar; traditional candy from Dulcería Celaya; a Panama hat from Tardan, the 164-year-old milliner on the Zócalo.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is the city's most dramatic architectural example of how history leaves its visual imprint. Begun at the turn of the century in a mix of Beaux Arts and Art Nouveau, at a time when the city was fascinated with all things French, the Palacio's construction was suspended during the Mexican Revolution. The structure was not completed until 1934—in glittering Art Deco style, with murals illuminating the upper floors.
Nearby, another Art Deco landmark houses the Museo de Arte Popular, where the displays rescue folk art from tourist-market kitsch. The museum's store is the best place in Mexico City to buy handicrafts, although the textiles and ceramics at the government-run Fonart stores are more varied.
In the trendiest neighborhoods, Roma and Condesa, there is a sense of novelty and experimentation. On any Saturday morning, the oval-shaped Parque México in Condesa is abuzz with activity: yo-yo lessons, a flamenco class, drummers rehearsing, a soccer game. "I think there is a small-town courtliness—that you don't find in small towns anymore—that is extremely seductive," says David Lida, whose book First Stop in the New World profiles the city from every angle. "Culturally, though, the city is along the lines of the capitals in Europe."
Condesa, along with the chic Polanco neighborhood, has also become the center of the city's thriving restaurant scene. Gabriela Cámara helped drive that change when she opened the seafood-centric Contramar 13 years ago. Even now, it is still the place for a long late lunch on a Friday afternoon. "We Mexicans are accustomed to eating well, and satisfying a sweet tooth and a craving is a big part of life, of our culture," Cámara says.
At the city's best restaurant, Pujol, Enrique Olvera offers continually surprising interpretations of Mexican cuisine. Azul Condesa goes back to basics with a selection of regional dishes. At Mero Toro, Cámara's new restaurant with a Baja California twist, the emphasis is on good ingredients, served simply and combined in original ways.
Roma's transformation has been the most dramatic. Chic clothing stores, vintage furniture shops, art galleries, bars, and restaurants give "La Roma," as residents call it, a hipster feel. The early colonizers still gather at Covadonga, a traditional cantina, but younger crowds cluster around new bars like Licorería Limantour and Felix on Álvaro Obregón. They line up to get into M.N. Roy, a club secreted in a decrepit old house that has been reengineered inside into a soaring, high-style space. Rosetta, an Italian restaurant, is where the art crowd does lunch.
Much of the impulse behind the contemporary art scene comes from the Jumex Collection, the largest holding of contemporary art in Latin America and an important sponsor of artists and other institutions. Eugenio López has lodged the works in a purpose-built gallery at his family's juice factory in an industrial suburb—but it is worth the trip. In Roma, behind the concrete wall of a former government storeroom, Pamela Echeverría's Labor gallery works with artists who are socially engaged. "Our society is very dissimilar in terms of social contrast," she says. "This generates good, critical work."
For some artists, social consciousness is embedded in their work. The designers showing at the Pirwi furniture store work with sustainably harvested wood and research traditional ways to assemble furniture without using metal. "If we don't intervene with innovation and design, these traditions will die and that would be a tragedy," says Maggie Galton, whose small Polanco showroom is filled with textiles, pottery, and lacquerware that she has adapted based on native designs. "We always respect the identity, ethnicity, and tradition of the artisan."
Not all of the city's young designers are so recognizably Mexican, but they all draw from the expansive visual richness that surrounds them. "We are proud that we have a tradition, that we have a past," says Héctor Esrawe, whose Condesa furniture showroom highlights this diversity and the deceptive simplicity of his pieces.
"There is a global trend to produce what is local, but in Mexico, we have always done that," says Ana Elena Mallet, the city's leading design curator, who is consulting with New York's Museum of Modern Art as it selects Mexican designers for its stores next year. She is also one of the forces behind MODO, a small, new design museum in Roma.
But Mexico has a long history of transforming international styles into the local vernacular. The brilliant architect Luis Barragán reinterpreted modernism in a Mexican language of light, space, texture, and color. Barragán's own house, completed in 1948 in the unfashionable Tacubaya district, is open to visitors by appointment, as are other of his works, including the Tlalpan Chapel and the Gilardi House.
Some of the newest architecture on display is less subtle. The controversial Museo Soumaya, designed by Fernando Romero, houses billionaire Carlos Slim's smorgasbord of an art collection in a sculpted cuboid covered with hexagonal aluminum plates that shine in the sun. Next door, a home for the Jumex Collection, designed by British architect David Chipperfield, is under construction, promising to make a once-abandoned corner at the western edge of Polanco a new nexus for art.
With so much happening in the center of the city, the south is often neglected. In Coyoacán, Frida Kahlo's house has been preserved intact. The best place to see Rivera's and Kahlo's paintings, though, is farther south in Xochimilco, at the Museo Dolores Olmedo, in a former hacienda belonging to Rivera's last patroness.
Chilangos, as the residents of this tumultuous place are known, have always had a love-hate relationship with their city. They complain endlessly about the crime and the smog (better in recent years), and the traffic (much worse). But go down to Paseo de la Reforma on any Sunday morning, when the avenue is closed off for cyclists, and you will see why they love it. It is here where chilangos find a rare unity, where class differences finally blur, and where, under the new skyscrapers of a changing skyline, the next layer of the city takes shape.
The country code is 52.
Toast the view. Have a drink overlooking the Zócalo. Two hotels with attractive rooftop bars are the Hotel Majestic (Madero 73; ) and the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México (Avenida 16 de Septiembre 82; ) 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; ).
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.
WHAT TO SEE
Metropolitan Cathedral, Plaza de la Constitución: It took almost 250 years to complete the cathedral, resulting in a mélange of styles. Inside, the Altar of the Kings and the Altar of Forgiveness are masterpieces of Mexican baroque.
Museo Casa de León Trotsky, Avenida Rio Churubusco 410, 55-5554-0687; : Trotsky thought the high walls would protect him from assassins. They didn't. Tours in English are available.
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Avenida México 5843, 55-5555-1221; : 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 Antropología, Avenida Paseo de la Reforma y Calzada Gandhi, 55-4040-5300; : 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 (), designed by Juan O'Gorman, who brought European functionalism to Mexico.
WHERE TO STAY
Condesa DF, Avenida Veracruz 102, 55-5241-2600; : A 1928 mansion with a lovely rooftop bar overlooking the greenery of neighboring Parque España, the heart of Condesa.
Hotel Brick, Orizaba 95, 55-5525-1100; : The latest incarnation of a restored mansion (and former brothel). Richard Sandoval prepares Mexican favorites in Lonchería Olivia and French fare in Brasserie La Moderna.
Hotel Habita, Avenida Presidente Masaryk 201, 55-5282-3100; : In fewer than a dozen years, Hotel Habita, designed by Enrique Norten and Bernardo Gómez Pimienta, has become an icon, distinguished by its glass skin.
Las Alcobas, Avenida Presidente Masaryk 390A, 55-3300-3900; : 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; : 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; : A luxe, 15-room hotel in a serene residence.
WHERE TO EAT
Azul Condesa, Nuevo León 68, 55-5286-6380; : Classic Mexican dishes stripped to their essence so the flavors burst forth.
Contramar, Durango 200, 55-5514-3169; : Restaurateur Gabriela Cámara pairs the zest of eating on the beach with city sophistication. Casual and hip, it's the place to be on Friday afternoons.
El Bajío, Avenida Cuitlahuac 2709, 55-5234-3763, and Alejandro Dumas 7, 55-5281-8245; : Celebrated cook Carmen Ramírez 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; : 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; : 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.
WHERE TO SHOP
ADN Galería, Avenida Molière 62, 55-5511-5521; : 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; : This concept store sells clothing by up-and-coming Mexican designers and hats by Tardan, the renowned Mexican hatmaker on the Zócalo. There's a wonderful tearoom, too.
Chic by Accident, Álvaro Obregón 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; : Mexico's government handicrafts store. A broad selection of high-quality textiles and ceramics from all over the country.
Héctor Esrawe, Alfonso Reyes 58, 55-5553-8847; : 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); : 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; : A stunning selection of handicrafts—ceramics, toys, textiles, baskets, masks, and tin lanterns—all top quality.
Pirwi, Alejandro Dumas 124, 55-1579-6514; : 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; : Mexico's premier silversmith. Along with jewelry, the shop sells silver objects by well-known designers.
Trouvé, Álvaro Obregón 186-Bis, 55-5264-4884; trouve.mx : Midcentury design, objects, and art.