The sprawling megalopolis sits in a highland basin encircled by mountains, with an enviable year-round spring-like climate. I began in the city’s historic heart, a rich mix of architectural styles that reveal its layers of history.
In the 16th-century, the conquering Spanish built on top of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. You can still see the remains of its grand temple, the Templo Mayor, and there’s a small museum of archaeological finds, but it’s worth travelling 50 kilometres out of the city to Teotihuacan and the Aztec’s monumental pyramids dedicated to the sun and the moon.
The vast and perpetually busy Plaza de la Constitución, otherwise known as the Zócalo, is still at the centre of things. On the northern side of the square is the imposing Catedral Metropolitana; one of the oldest and largest in the Americas, it took almost three centuries to complete this Baroque masterpiece. On the eastern side is the Palacio Nacional, much of it built with stone from Moctezuma II’s palace. Inside, the walls are lined with Diego Rivera’s vibrant murals, a visual history of Mexico, from the Spanish conquest to the revolution.
There are more of Rivera’s murals at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso and the Secretaría de Educación Pública, but I walked through leafy Parque Alameda to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a white marble wedding cake of a building,. Its sumptuous Art Deco interior is home to Mexico’s opera; the renowned Ballet Folklórico, whose glittering twice-weekly show is a whirl of colourful costumes and stirring music from around the country, and the work of more legendary Mexican muralists, including Orozco and Siqueiros.
In fact, art is everywhere. In upscale Polanco, where top international designers line Avenida Presidente Masaryk, the architecturally stunning Museo Soumaya showcases Carlos Slim’s – one of the world’s wealthiest people – spectacular private collection, while Eugenio López Alonso’s vast collection of contemporary art fills the neighbouring Museo Jumex.
Frida Kahlo is probably the most iconic of Mexican painters and in the tranquil suburb of Coyoacán, the house where the flamboyant artist was born, lived with Diego Rivera on and off and died in 1954, is now a delightful museum, La Caza Azul.
The kitchen is a riot of colour; decorated in blue and yellow tiles, the walls lined with Mexican pottery. Upstairs, a brightly decorated plaster corset sits on her tiny four-poster bed, underneath the mirrored canopy that enabled her many self-portraits. In the lovely walled garden, I can imagine her menagerie of monkeys, dogs and cats roaming amongst the tropical plants and pre-Columbian statues.
I went west to the affluent colonial-era community of San Angél. At the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s studio remains exactly as he left it and his paintbrush and palette look as if they’ve just been put down. Designed in 1931 by Mexican architect and painter Juan O’Gorman, the cubist building behind the high cactus fence is actually two separate houses connected by a walkway; a symbol of the couple’s independent union.
Their homes are filled with colourful Mexican folk art and I dipped into the Bazar Sábado where every Saturday a warren of stalls spill out of a colonial mansion into the cobbled streets around the Plaza San Jacinto, selling everything from colourful textiles to ceramics and jewellery to kitsch art.
For high-end Mexican design, head to the recently opened Downtown complex, set in the 17th-century Palacio de los Condes de Miravalle, all part of the on-going regeneration of the Centro Histórico. Among its chic boutiques are Pineda Covalin, who specialises in printed silks inspired by iconic Mexican motifs, Caracol Púrpura with folk art from around the country, and Remigio, stacked with exquisite, hand-embroidered textiles from the state of Oaxaca.
And banish thoughts of tasteless Tex-Mex. At Azul Histórico in the tree-shaded patio, the chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita has sourced regional dishes from around the country, such as shredded pork cochinita pibil from the Yucatán. In fact Mexican cuisine is so complex that it’s been granted UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status and increasingly, native chefs such as Enrique Olvera at Pujol, are transforming traditional dishes into gourmet fare.
That evening I headed to Dulce Patria, where renowned chef and author Martha Ortiz takes inspiration from Mexican culture and age-old recipes to create exquisite art on a plate. From salmon tostadas with spicy chilli chipotle mayonnaise, to beef fillet with tomatillo sauce, sweet orange and prehistoric papyrus paper and a toy carousel decorated with petit fours, it was a feast for all the senses. I washed it down with some artisan mezcal, that fiery smoky spirit eloquently described by a Mexican friend as the love child of tequila and peaty whisky.
On Sunday mornings, one of the city’s main arteries the Paseo de la Reforma is closed to traffic, attracting cyclists, joggers and roller-bladers. So to work off the city’s gastronomic delights, I rented a bike to explore the Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s green lung. This seemingly boundless oasis is home to various museums – including Museo Tamayo and the Museo de Arte Moderno, and you can climb Chapultepec Hill to the former imperial palace for stunning views over the city. But I had to visit the Museo Nacional de Antropología to marvel marvelled at the treasure trove of pre-Hispanic artefacts, one of the most important collections of its kind in the world, from an Aztec Sun Stone, to Mayan sculptures and Mesoamerican crystal skulls.
Later, I strolled around Colonia Roma, an up-and-coming neighborhood where the elegant turn-of-the-century mansions are starting to fill with bars, restaurants, contemporary art galleries and quirky museums.
For lunch I chose locals’ favourite, Maximo Bistrot Local where tables spilled out onto the pavement, perfect for people watching. The daily changing menu of passionate young chef Eduardo Garcia, focuses on whatever’s caught his eye at the market that morning. I began with the unexpectedly delicious Aztec super food escamoles, or ant larvae, on crostini, followed by duck breast in a vanilla and orange sauce, rounded off with a sublime mezcal-infused sorbet.
But it’s not all about haute cuisine; street food is an integral part of Mexican culture and antojitos, or little cravings, date back to pre-Hispanic times. The following morning, on a small-group tour with Eat Mexico, a local-in-the-know led me through the central neighbourhoods of Cuauhtémoc, Juárez and Zona Rosa and taught me a tlacoyo from a tortilla, while tasting the best tamales – parcels of corn dough filled with meat and vegetables and steamed in a corn husk, and tacos as we went, all washed down with a healthy nopal cactus juice.
Having survived colonisation, revolution, earthquakes and more, the Chilangos, as city dwellers are known, are fiercely proud of their city. And I can see why. With everything from ancient ruins to stunning modern architecture, ramshackle markets to chic boutiques, street food to fusion restaurants, mariachi bands to lucha libre, this dynamic city is hard to beat.
St Regis Mexico City (stregis.com/mexicocity; +52 555 228 1818) is within easy reach of the major sights, as well as the shops and restaurants of Polanco and Condesa. Its ‘48 Hours in Mexico City’ package includes a personalised programme from its cultural curator. The package starts from US$435, valid Thursdays to Sundays, including deluxe room accommodation, airport transfers, a city bus tour, breakfast and a meal at the J&G Grill. Eat Mexico culinary tours (eatmexico.com)