The very best shops in Mexico City
Shop these stores in Mexico City, says one writer, and you’ll connect with its rich blend of cultures.
We hear a lot about migration northward to the US, but in recent years, young Americans have been quietly relocating to Mexico City in a reverse flow, chasing the metropolis’s creative energy, lower costs of living (for those earning US dollars), and a pace of life that has become harder to find at home.
I came to Mexico City two years ago to fulfill two dreams: to pursue a career as a culture writer and to satisfy a promise I made to myself that I would live here one day, back when I was a high school exchange student who fell in love with the country.
Where, exactly, do you go shopping in Mexico City?
Travellers encountering Mexico City for the first time (or even the third, or fourth – many of the friends who came to see me when I first moved have become repeat visitors) are captured by the magic of its markets, where local craft and flavour are on display.
Mexico’s complex colonial history has resulted in a fascinating culture that blends ancestral customs and Spanish influences, while internal migration to the capital from rural areas over the past 50 years has made the capital a microcosm of folk traditions from around the country.
You can still find artisans specialising in trades handed down through generations. But with enormous income inequality and an influx of tourists and expats like me, Mexico City is also swiftly gentrifying – and there’s a danger that the Mexicanism that draws so many will be pushed out.
When the man who comes in from the outskirts to sell produce in front of my apartment every week slips a rose into my vegetable basket and calls my dog by name, it’s a reminder for visitors both long- and short-term: there’s a unique opportunity for connection beyond consumption.
And so, I set out to five Mexico City shops where tradition reigns, to discover artisan souvenirs that not only support its preservation but offer a deeper understanding of the makers who give form to their heritage.
1. Cerería la Purísima
The interiors of Cerería la Purísima.
The very first article I wrote in Mexico waxed poetic about velas escamadas, candles decorated like burnable bouquets. They hang from the ceiling at Cerería la Purísima, a century-old business that produces candles of all sizes, shapes, and colours from its mint green shop on a street in Mexico City’s historic centre. Stone virgins of Guadalupe flank the entrance, and images of saints watch over every corner.
“For us as Catholics, the candle represents the light of God,” says candlemaker Jose. “The light that illuminates one’s home, that helps us preserve our faith.”
An elderly woman comes in to buy candles for her advent wreath; she’ll bring them to church to be blessed, then light one at home every week until Christmas. La Purísima’s candles are different, she says, because they’re made from beeswax, not paraffin.
Wares hang from the ceiling at Cerería la Purísima.
Candles light every Mexican celebration: baptisms, quinceaños (girls’ 15th birthdays), weddings, and above all, Jose says, ofrendas, home altars for the deceased on the Day of the Dead. I’ve given velas escamadas as wedding gifts and filled my home with them, though they’re too pretty to actually burn. But that’s the point, Jose says: to burn away. To remind us of cycles and impermanence.
2. Dulcería de Celaya
The exteriors of Dulcería de Celaya belie the range of colourful treats on offer inside.
Besides candles, no Day of the Dead altar would be complete without sugar skulls. But to satisfy the sweet tooths of the living, the place to go is Dulceria De Celaya. This confectionary was founded in 1874 by the Guizar family, and boasts the oldest marquee in Mexico City. Its small historic centre shopfront is itself a confection: an Art Nouveau jewellery box with etched glass windows, chandeliers, elaborately carved ceilings, and faded flower frescos.
Glass display cases reveal typical sweets from all over Mexico with evocative names such as kisses and whispers. My favourites are whole candied limes stuffed with shredded coconut, and puerquitos: pig-shaped gingerbread cookies made with piloncillo, a rich brown cane sugar. (”Kids love those,” says Miriam, one of the shopkeepers.)
Creamy treats at Dulcería de Celaya.
The bestseller is dulce de leche stamped with the shop’s flower logo, in creamy flavours such as scalded milk and pine nut. Miriam says the secret to 145 years of delighting taste buds is in the simple ingredients and unchanged recipes, though she warns that “we don’t use preservatives, so you have to eat them pretty quickly”. That’s never been a problem for me.
3. Mercado San Juan
A shopper waits for service at Mercado San Juan.
Mexican markets are a bounty of year-round fresh produce: mushrooms, more kinds of beans than I knew existed, a rainbow of fruit and even insects, an alternative on the vanguard of sustainable cuisine.
Mexicans have been crunching on bugs since the pre-Hispanic era, from ahuatle (dried water fly caviar) to chicatanas (leafcutter ants used to make a charred salsa), to a shot of mescal with sal de gusano (savoury salt made from agave worms). Find these and other adventurous bites at Mercado San Juan, the “chef’s market” known for exotic and gourmet ingredients.
Edible insects on offer in brightly coloured casings, at Mercado San Juan
Esmeralda, whose grandmother also sold at the market, is a shopkeeper at a stand called Oaxaca Linda with trays of chapulines: fried crickets seasoned with lime and salt, garlic and olive oil, or spicy chilli. Her favourite way to eat them is in a tortilla with guacamole and stringy Oaxacan cheese, but she gets that visitors are squeamish.
“If I went to another country and saw people eating insects, I would think it was gross – but we grew up with these,” she says. “And they’ve been raised on alfalfa, so they’re clean.”
The chapulines are crispy, salty, and not unlike very umami potato chips. “Eating insects is a tradition from our ancestors,” Miriam says, “but they say it’s the food of the future.”
4. Sombrería Escandón
Signage at Sombrería Escandón.
Stepping out of the dim market, the sun is a blinding reminder that we’re at 2250 metres. I was never a hat person before, but Mexico City’s UV index makes personal shade a must – and a visit to the hat shop Sombrería Escandón is a delightful trip back in time.
Ignacio Reyes has been working there almost since his father opened the shop in 1950, as part of his former hat shop empire. The only one left is in Escandón, a central but off-the-beaten-path neighbourhood with family vibes and retro hand-painted signs.
Inspecting the wares at Sombrería Escandón.
“Everyone in Mexico used to wear hats,” he says. “In the 1930s and ’40s there was a hat shop on every block.” Reyes is an encyclopedia of hat types, and seems to have one of each crammed into his 17-square-metre store, from bowlers to fancy wide-brimmed sombreros worn by rodeo riders.
Using 100-year-old instruments that look simultaneously from the past and the future, he has customised hats for bullfighters, actors, luchadores (wrestlers), and tourists – who prefer his packable Panama hats.
“In the ’50s and ’60s people stopped wearing hats; we lost a lot of work,” Reyes says. But his personal touch, selecting hats to fit the wearer’s unique face shape, has kept people coming back. And of course, the hats themselves deserve credit: “These are hats made with Mexican hands.”
5. Studio MA
Colour and texture inside Studio Ma.
Reyes hopes his sons will take over the sombrería one day, but trades such as his are being lost to mass production. One project preserving traditional artisanship is Studio MA, a collaboration between artist Melissa Avila and indigenous artisan communities from Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Yucatan.
The handmade rugs and ceramics at this studio in leafy Condesa are a blend of folk techniques and modern style, at fair and accessible prices.
“Artisans are used to people haggling, and have been obligated to devalue their work,” Avila says. Instead, Studio MA seeks to centre wealth in these communities while promoting craft through educational workshops and bringing artists’ work to market in Mexico City.
Avila grew up in Tijuana, witness to the daily struggles at the US-Mexico border. She says this project is an invitation to young people: “Hey, you don’t have to cross the border, you don’t have to leave your family. You want a steady job with a fixed, just salary? You can do it in your community, with your traditions that you already know how to do.”
Shopping with a side of feline, at Studio Ma.
The wool rugs woven with face motifs that Avila calls “guardians” are influenced by indigenous medicine and cosmovision (the traditional Mesoamerican world view), from yarn coloured with dyes both natural and synthetic – because “we’re Mexican; we love super-bright colours”. The abstract forms of the red ceramic vessels are inspired by market life and traditional costume; “all of that Mexicanism, but a more contemporary point of view”. They’re made in communities where historically only women have been allowed to work the clay.
“One of the really beautiful things about Mexico is that specific pueblos [villages] are home to specific crafts,” says Avila, sitting on the studio’s pistachio love seat with her fluffy cat Maya asleep on her lap. “Not everyone does them, but everyone has grown up around these processes that have been passed down for generations - I love that.”
Words by Ellen Freeman, images by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock; published Friday 31 January 2020.