A local’s guide to the city of Mexico, where age-old traditions mix seamlessly with modern life.

In the late 1990s, Mexico City was draped in smog and haunted by gangs. Ten years on, Mexico is sophisticated, green and safe, though life is still lived on the edge.  

Mexico City or Distrito Federal is a maze of architecture, archaeology and art. The chilangos (locals) are a mixture of Aztec, other indigenous races and Europeans. Chilangos are an experience in themselves — they are loud but tolerant (same-sex marriage is legal here); they are industrious but prefer art and are surprisingly affluent. What gets lost in the news from the US is that Mexico’s economy is booming (it has thriving oil, mineral, agriculture, manufacturing and tourism industries). And, of course, the city is laden with culture. Here’s your Mexico City masterclass. 

Aztec Grandeur

El Zócalo in Centro Histórico is one of the biggest town squares in the world. This is where the New World began — Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519 (two years later destroying it all), building the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas, over the site of an Aztec temple. On weekends, you’ll now find market stalls and Nahuan smoking ceremonies as you admire the Gothic façades recently restored by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim (Forbes magazine’s richest man in the world).

Taking up the entire east side of El Zócalo is the Palacio Nacional, which is home to the presidential offices and some breathtaking murals painted by artist Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo). If you don’t get time to see all of Mexico, The National Museum of Anthropologywill put the pieces together. Avoid Sunday, for that’s when Mexicans and foreign residents with a Mexican address are granted free access, making the museum heavily crowded.

La Casa Azul, or The Blue House of Frida Kahlo, is where the famed artist painted and where exiled Russian politician Leon Trotsky slept, with his rifle next to him. In the courtyard you can find a collection of photos and love letters between Kahlo and Rivera. 

Chew on This

ONE:  Sanborns is set in the 17th-century colonial mansion Casa de los Azulejos. The two-level restaurant features a superb courtyard and traditional Mexican cuisine.

TWO:  The original two-storey façade of El Centro Cultural de Españahides a four-storey modern-art gallery with a rooftop tapas bar. It’s located behind the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María. Listen to a live jazz performance at the bar while enjoying a moonlit view.  

THREE:  El Lugar del Mariachis is a traditional place featuring a live Mariachi band. Try the mole poblano con pollo — chicken with sauce made from chocolate.  

No Way, Jose

There are many hidden surprises to discover in Mexico City. If you’re visiting between 31 October and 2 November you may notice that cemeteries are decorated with candles, sweets and puppets in celebration of Day of the Dead. Aztecs believed the dead returned and, in modern times, Mexicans use the occasion to celebrate, through song and dance, the lives of those who have passed. 

In the late 1960s, construction of the Mexico City Metro subway lines encountered two problems: the soft soil the Centro Histórico is built on and the discoveries excavators made while digging. The archaeological ruins they came across included an Aztec idol and 12,000-year-old bones of a mammoth (under exhibit in Talismán Station on Line 4 in Gustavo A Madero). You can also see the pedestrian tunnels veer around an Aztec altar at Metro Pino Suárez station on Line 1 and Line 2 in Cuauhtémoc. 

Another discovery to be made is that worms in tequila is a myth — they’re actually found in mezcal, a distilled alcohol made from the maguey plant, a form of agave native to Mexico. Patrons of mezcal bars treat the drink almost akin to wine — best sipped, savoured and compared. If you find your appetite’s been whetted for the national drink, a visit to the Museum of Tequila and Mezcal (Plaza Garibaldi, Eje Central) is a must.

A Call to Coyoacán

HISTORY: Coyoacán  was once a farmer’s village quite separate from the capital, but became part of Mexico City as the population sprawled outwards. It still retains its country feel and in particular, the Plaza Jardin is a place to watch lovers stroll and children play. Coyoacán is a historic place, the scene of Cortés’s famous affair with La Malinche, condemned for betraying her people to the Spanish conquistador. It’s also where Kahlo and Rivera’s tumultuous love story unwound, and was the backdrop to Kahlo’s affair with the Stalin-exiled Leon Trotsky, who was later assassinated near the town square. You’ll also find the Leon Trotsky museum here.

DELICACIES: Local artist Omar Reyes recommends getting a table at Los Dazantes restaurant. “Make sure you try their handmade tortillas with mole negro (dark sauce),” Reyes says. 

Nectar of the Gods

Ranchera music blares, with its drunken tales of lost love, from the swinging doors of pulque bar Las Duelistas. Inside, you’ll find colourful murals covered in cheerful skulls and Aztec warriors… and owner Arturo Garrido. 

What is pulque?

The Aztecs called pulque the beverage of the gods. Like tequila and mezcal, it comes from the agave and is alcoholic, but it’s prepared fresh on-site in pulquerías (pulque bars) each morning.

What are some of your favourite pulque flavours?

I like it with pineapple, with lemon and with tomato. I don’t really like those mixed with milk.

When do you drink pulque?

It is best before 3pm because it is made fresh in the mornings.

Why drink pulque?

It is 100 per cent natural, it doesn’t contain any chemicals. It’s healthy and it contains nutrients and even proteins.

What else do you serve at Las Duelistas?

Those who come here, come here for pulque. I neither drink nor serve anything else. Pulquerías seemed to have gone out of fashion, but are experiencing a revival. 

Why is that?

Young people are interested in discovering their roots and the pulque is part of our race. It’s Aztec and only Aztec.  

Pancho Villas

ONE: Hotel Condesa DF is a heritage property that mixes the bold and quirky with clean and modern features.

TWO: Believed to be constructed in the early 17th century, Hotel Boutique de Cortés was one of the first hospices in the Americas. 

THREE: Hotel Gillow is cosy and colonial with a courtyard restaurant.

FOUR: Hotel Brick is a mansion modelled into a modern boutique hotel.

FIVE: The Gran Hotel de Ciudad de Mexico. Built in the 16th century, this hotel celebrates the decadence of the conquistadors and is right next to El Zócalo.

Daytripping

About 40 kilometres from the city, Teotihuacán is a complex of pyramids built in the 1st century, and was known in ancient times as the place where men become gods.

Guanajuato is a World Heritage-listed city about four hours drive from Mexico City. Apart from its famous mummy museum, this colonial-era town features some of the most famous examples of baroque architecture in Central and South America.

The city’s main church, Basilica Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de Guanajuato, may be rather restrained on the outside, but its opulent interiors make it worth a visit.

You can also head to Tlaxcala, which is about an hour-and-a-half out and the site of the dormant volcano, La Malinche. It’s an ideal camping site to acclimatise before attempting to climb.