Americans tend to regard Mexico City as a congested, crime-infested volcano crater. Not true. Starting in the 1990s, efforts to clean the air (once so bad that birds were said to drop dead midflight) have resulted in drastically reduced pollution, while the city’s reputation for street crime (also drastically reduced) is no more warranted than in any other major metropolis. As a result, visitors can now often see the ring of mountain peaks surrounding the city from the downtown traffic circle dominated by the iconic Ángel de la Independencia, and wandering the streets after dark feels no more threatening than it does in Manhattan. What’s more, few places in the Western Hemisphere rival the D.F., as it’s affectionately known, for art, architecture, design and cuisine. From the pre-colonial days (when a spectacular Aztec metropolis floated in the middle of a lake) through the Spanish colonial era, the Revolution of 1910 and today, the sensory has always been central, and for anyone with an ounce of imagination, Mexico City is a veritable smorgasbord.
A pillar of the city’s artistic patrimony is muralism, and its birthplace is the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, a 16th-century Jesuit college-turned-cultural center, where visitors can see Diego Rivera’s first mural and feast on the satirical work of José Clemente Orozco, which chronicles the country’s political and social struggles and covers much of the interior courtyards. For lovers of Rivera and his iconic wife, Frida Kahlo, two pilgrimages are necessary. The first is the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, the artists’ studio/living space built in 1931, one of the earliest examples of functionalist architecture. The couple lived there during their tumultuous marriage, but equally significant to their story is the Casa Azul, Kahlo’s childhood home and the place where she died. Also known as the Frida Kahlo Museum, it now houses much of her art and personal belongings.
As for contemporary art, the Mexico City scene is booming, and while the Tamayo Museum in Chapultepec Park is justifiably world-famous, the breadth is best experienced in lesser-known spaces. Ground zero is Kurimanzutto, a gallery/collective that hosted a show by enfant terrible Dr. Lakra this past summer and represents more than 30 of Mexico’s top working artists. Meanwhile, the Museo Jumex—built by the heir to the Mexican fruit juice fortune—spans 45,000 square feet and is said to hold the largest private contemporary art collection in Latin America, and it’s open to the public. Two other gold mines are the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo and the “El Chopo” University Museum, housed in the former National History Museum, which exhibits edgy, thought-provoking work, including a recent show on the gay rights movement. And the lazy culture vulture need walk no farther than one square city block to see the World Heritage Site home of Pritzker Prize-winning modernist architect Luis Barragán, the Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura (founded in 2012 by Fernando Romero and his wife, Soumaya Slim, daughter of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim), and the cutting-edge gallery Labor.
If all of this sounds dizzying, it is, but it’s a testament to the artistic renaissance taking place in Mexico City, which is transforming neighborhoods where tourists would never previously visit into must-sees. Santa Maria la Ribera, which was devastated by the 1985 earthquake, is re-emerging as an artsy, bohemian neighborhood; it’s also home to the incomparably beautiful Moorish Kiosk, designed to serve as Mexico’s pavilion at the 1884 Universal Exhibition. Meanwhile, the Roma district has become the epicenter of hipster culture, with restaurants, clubs, bars, shops and galleries redolent of Brooklyn.
Alas, man does not live on art alone, but fortunately the city’s culinary scene is keeping pace with its art, architecture and design. Pujol has had tongues wagging since it opened in the early aughts, Chapulín offers fine dining wrapped in high design, and Quintonil—No. 35 on the 2015 list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants”—serves up a modernist take on traditional Mexican fare. Basque-meets-Mexican restaurant Biko also earned a spot on the top-50 list, but even off-the-beaten-track places like Casa Virginia serve superb food. Little wonder that Mexico City has surfaced on every foodie’s short list as a dining destination.
Once upon a time, a stroll around the Zocalo and an opera at the Palace of Fine Arts was the sine qua non of culture in Mexico City. Now, the needle’s been moved and the options beggar description. So the next time your neighbors plan a trip to Cancun or Cabo, opt for the artistic riches of Mexico’s capital. You’ll come back with much more than a tan.
With six nonstop Aeromexico flights from Boston every week, getting to Mexico City has never been easier. Once there, don’t discount the newly rehabilitated neighborhoods. Condesa, the district that was home to the old horse racing track, has chic boutique hotels, like the Hippodrome, and is centrally located.
At an altitude of 7,382 feet, the weather is spring-like year-round; there’s never a bad time to visit, but July is surprisingly ideal. It rains for an hour or two nearly every day, which keeps things crisp, while temperatures tend to hover in the 70s during the day and the 50s at night.