The first time I visited Mexico City was in April 1998 with my Dutch photographer friend Johan. Driving south from Ciudad Juarez on our way to try to find the Zapatistas in Chiapas, we had already been on the road for a week when we arrived at the capital at the worst possible time: Friday afternoon rush-hour. We spent a long weekend getting lost, soaking in the insanity of of the largest mass of humanity in the Western Hemisphere, and trying (with modest success) to convince Mexican journalists covering the insurgency to provide us with their contacts in Chiapas. But mostly we careened around the city at death-defying speeds in a tequila-fueled search for the next party.
After a decade of reading and writing too much about drug-war violence, I figured I'd never return to Mexico, least of all on vacation. Although several of our friends had raved about their recent trips to the city, one told us of how his friend, who worked in Mexico City, had been kidnapped, beaten and robbed after taking a taxi home from his office one night. But my paranoia was no match for my wife's obsession with Daniel Craig. After watching the first few minutes of the latest James Bond movie, SPECTRE, when the British actor waltzes into an art nouveau hotel wearing a suit and skull mask and rides up a fin-de-siecle iron-cage elevator toward an ornate stained-glass roof, she immediately booked us a week's vacation at the filming location: the Gran Hotel de Ciudad México (Av. 16 de Septiembre No. 82, Cuauhtémoc, Centro; www.granhoteldelaciudaddemexico.com.mx). Located on a corner of the Zócalo, in the heart of the city's historic central zone across the street from the Palacio Nacional, the Gran Hotel proved to be a surprisingly elegant and affordable home base for the perfect Mexico vacation—sans sand and obnoxious American tourists.
We spent our mornings touring museums and bagging murals and our afternoons strolling through leafy neighborhoods, before returning to the hotel's rooftop Terraza restaurant for dinner and a sunset view of the Zócalo. Although the buffet was somewhat pedestrian, if we arrived early enough, we could take advantage of the taco stand, which offered hand-pressed tortillas. After a few nights, however, we discovered the amazing terrace restaurant at La Casa de las Sirenas (República de Guatemala No. 32, Centro Histórico; www.lacasadelassirenas.com.mx) behind the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Some of the best murals in the world decorate government buildings, including the Palacio Nacional (Plaza de la Constitucion; www.historia.palacionacional.info), which is just a block away from the Gran Hotel. The block-long building consists of three multi-arched interior balconies surrounding a central courtyard and cactus garden. Lining the balconies and stairwells are numerous Diego Rivera murals depicting various chapters of Mexican history, from the Spanish conquest (the Palacio actually sits on the site of Moctezuma's palace) to the War of Independence and the Mexican revolution. It's free to enter the palace—best to show up when it opens at 10 a.m.—but you'll have to surrender ID and contend with stern guards. After the museum, walk to the cavernous, century-old Mexican lunch spot Cafe de Tacuba (Calle de Tacuba 28, Cuauhtemoc, Centro, 06010; www.cafedetacuba.com.mx).
For excursions farther afield, it's best to have your hotel concierge book a taxi. If you don't want to pay for a driver to wait for you while you eat, shop or stare at art, just walk to the closest hotel near your destination—or a government-sponsored taxi stand—to find a safe ride home. You'll need at least two days to take in Chapultepec Park, the largest municipal park in the Americas, and that's assuming you don't spend the entire time checking out one of the best museums in the world, the mighty Museo Nacional de Antropología (Avenida Paseo de la Reforma & Calzada Gandhi S/N, Chapultepec Polanco, Miguel Hidalgo; www.mna.inah.gob.mx). This two-story monolith is both the largest and most popular museum in the country, and it's easy to see why. Wrapped around a wide courtyard and fountain that's shaded under a flat extended awning, the bottom floor of the museum features a vast collection of archaeological artifacts from all the major pre-Colombian, Mesoamerican cultures: Olmec, Zapotec, Mayan and Aztec. Each wing has rear exits leading to outdoor areas featuring kid-friendly, reconstructed ruins. Upstairs is an even more compelling collection of exhibits on every indigenous culture in Mexico, from Nayarit to Chiapas, featuring life-size dioramas of typical dwellings, costumes, ceremonial masks and other artifacts, as well as interactive displays. The museum is closed Mondays and free to all Mexican citizens on Sundays, so plan accordingly.
Any visit to the park must include a stop at the hilltop Chapultepec Castle, the highest point in Mexico City, the former residence of Emperor Maximilian, and the site of the Battle of Chapultepec at the end of the Mexican-American War. The castle is an easy 15-minute uphill stroll, although for a few pesos, you can take a Disneyland-style people-mover. First, stroll the gardens and check out the view of the city, especially the line of newly constructed skyscrapers in the nearby white-collar neighborhood of Polanco. Along with yet more Rivera murals, there's an entire room of eerie Siqueieros murals that starkly details the human cost of war. The castle also houses the Museo Nacional de Historia, which has several galleries of nifty historical items, including Pancho Villa's boots. After walking back down the hill, you can rent cheap paddleboats and compete for patches of shade in the nearby Lago del Bosque de Chapultepec.
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One of the best reasons to visit the upscale Polanco district is to see the Museo Soumaya (Lago Zúrich 245, edificio Museo Soumaya, Colonia Ampliación Granada; www.museosoumaya.com.mx), a private art museum founded by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who named it after his late art-loving wife, Soumaya Domit. The museum has shifted locations over the years, and one of its current incarnations, a goliath structure of tessellating octagonal aluminum tiles at Plaza Carso, is a sight to behold. Inside, a gently sloping ramp walkway takes you to several circular galleries full of everything from Greek sculptures to works by all the European masters, as well as Latin American colonial-era paintings and Asian artworks. Afterward, move downhill through one of Polanco's most upscale thoroughfares, Avenida Presidente Masaryk, and stop for lunch at Guzina Oaxaca (Presidente Masaryk 513; www.guzinaoaxaca.com), which offers delicious Oaxacan fare with a contemporary twist. Don't leave without trying the sautéed chapulines—they go down great with a mezcal-infused Portfirio beer or, better yet, a shot of the strong stuff itself, served in a shallow clay cup.
If lunching amid the ranks of Mexico's business elite isn't your bag, consider taking a gastronomic tour of the city. One of the more affordable options is EatMexico (www.eatmexico.com), which, among other tours, offers a Taco Crawl of Roma and Condesa, two of the city's hippest residential neighborhoods. Our guide, Ubish Yaren, took us through the Medellin market, a nixtimil tortilla factory, and a half dozen taco joints featuring, among others, excellent carnitas, campechanos, tacos al pastor, tacos árabes and cochinita pibil-style tacos.
Another day trip is Coyoacan, which half a century ago used to be a rural enclave totally separate from the capital, but has since been swallowed up by the city. If you intend to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum (Londres 247, Del Carmen, Coyoacan; www.museofridakahlo.org.mx), which will be packed no matter when you show up, you should book your tickets before you leave your hotel. That way you'll at least be standing in the slightly less long of a pair of two very long lines out front. If you're a Frida freak, you'll enjoy the Blue House, which includes many of her most famous paintings, plus a well-preserved kitchen, art studio and bedrooms. If Frida alone isn't enough to entice you to Coyoacan, consider the nearby Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky (Rio Churubusco 410, Coyoacan; museocasadeleontrotsky.blogspot.com). There, you can see where Stalin's martyred arch-rival met his bloody fate at the wrong end of an ice ax and where any hope of a true international socialist revolution was buried beneath a hammer-and-sickle-decorated concrete slab in the courtyard. ¡Viva, Frida! (No long lines here, comrade.)
Finish your stay in Mexico City in the city's most interesting neighborhood, the Centro Historico. Within walking distance—a 10- to 15-minute walk west from the Zócalo—is the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Avenida Juárez, Centro Histórico, 06050 Ciudad de México, D.F.; www.inba.gob.mx), whose multidecade construction was initiated by Porfirio Diaz and stalled by the Mexican Revolution. A domed and colonnaded exterior conceals an Art Deco and art nouveau interior, including a marbled lobby that resembles that of the Empire State Building and houses murals by Rufino Tamayo; upstairs are more murals by Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueieros and Jose Clemente Orozco. The palace also houses the Museum of Architecture and a theater in which you can hear symphonies or, even better, see the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico de Amalia Hernandez. In the latter case, if you pay cash in advance, your hotel concierge can reserve front-and-center seats, which will guarantee you an unforgettable experience. The show starts in darkness with a barrage of Aztec drumming and dancing and progresses with mariachi performances and a series of dances, everything from charrería (a mesmerizing display of cowboy rope dancing) to contemporary interpretive ballet—a rousing celebration of Mexican culture. I wanted to relive the show so badly I paid 20 pesos for a concert DVD outside, only to discover it was actually a 1980s-era documentary about the show that did little to capture the magic. If you arrive early enough, be sure to have dinner at the palace's restaurant, where you can eat on the veranda and watch throngs of mingling hipsters ruin the mighty capirucha.