The Renaissance of
BY DUANE WELLS
Once upon a time, when most people thought of Mexico, they were immediately consumed with thoughts of warm, sun-drenched beaches, excellent cocktails, cozy cabanas, and sprawling, all-inclusive resorts. And to be honest, for many travelers to America’s neighbor to the south, that is still the case.
However, there is another, more cosmopolitan, and nuanced vision of Mexico taking shape not so far away from the country’s popular coastal destinations, and it offers a stark and intriguing contrast to what many have come to expect. And perhaps no city embodies this trend better than the country’s capital, Mexico City (a.k.a. Ciudad de México or CDMX, or for others, El Distrito Federal, or D.F.).
But to be fair, Mexico City has always been a wonder — far ahead of its time in many ways.
Originally built on the ruins of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which was established in the 14th century, Mexico City’s history is as fascinating as it is complex. Long before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century, the region that would become Mexico City was inhabited by indigenous peoples who would later come to be known as the Aztecs. To the surprise of the colonizing Spaniards, and the handful of others who witnessed Tenochtitlan before war destroyed it, the capital city that the Aztecs built on a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco was a marvel of urban planning, characterized by an intricate network of canals, causeways, and floating gardens called chinampas. Equally impressive was the city’s architecture which featured massive pyramids, temples, and a grand central plaza.
Though the Aztec capital was largely decimated by the Spanish, it would soon be reborn as the seat of power for the Spanish colony of New Spain and meticulously re-designed with a grid layout, European-style plazas, and Spanish-style buildings, including the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace which were among the earliest structures built during this period. Likewise, the colonial era saw the construction of more grand cathedrals and magnificent palaces as well as distinctive mansions and monasteries, all of which showcased the influence of Spanish Baroque architecture.
Today, many of the structures erected during the Spanish colonial period remain, coexisting alongside an array of lively restaurants, bustling bars, boutique hotels, gleaming high-rises, department stores and other contemporary buildings. Zócalo, also known as the Plaza de la Constitución, is one of the best examples of this phenomenon.
Thought of as the beating heart of Mexico City, Zócalo is one of the largest public squares in the world and has held a unique place in the city’s collective consciousness for centuries. That said, the significance of the space has less to do with size or sentimentality and everything to do with the history it embodies because, at its core, the Zócalo is a place of convergence. Surrounded by architectural wonders such as the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace, and the ancient ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor, Zócalo is a place where Mexico’s rich history and cultural heritage intersect with its present. And by present, I mean spaces like the trendy, stylishly designed rooftop bar Terraza Catedral (Cathedral Terrace) where smart cocktails and gastronomic nibbles are served as a rotating roster of DJ’s spin a mix of global pop hits, Latin rock, hip-hop, and urban grooves against the backdrop of ancient Aztec ruins and the oldest and largest church in Latin America, both of which sit directly across the street from the buzzy boîte.
It’s old meets new, and it’s one of the signatures of Mexico City.
Although Mexico City is steeped in history, CDMX is a modern and sprawling metropolis alive with culture, art, nightlife, and gastronomy befitting a city that is by far the largest in North America. With a population of more than 21 million residents, Mexico City has a kinetic, lively vibe with an infectious energy. It is crowded on the streets of the city and has notoriously difficult traffic.
Culturally, contemporary CDMX is an absolute wonderland. Let’s set aside for a moment the more than 2,000 buildings of historic significance in the historic city center alone and turn to the city’s impressive collection of more than 180 museums. Of note is the world-renowned National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropología) which is the repository of the world’s largest collection of ancient Mexican artifacts and the most visited museum in Mexico. Chock full of artifacts dating from the Preclassical period, which began around 5000 BC, up through the early 16th century, the museum’s architecture and scale is as impressive as its contents. Whether anthropology is your thing or not, this museum is an absolute must-see.
Also of note is the Frida Kahlo Museum (La Casa Azul), the second most visited museum in Mexico, which is worth a gander if only to take a sneak peek into the world and tumultuous life of one of Mexico’s most iconic artists. Housed in Kahlo’s former home in the Coyoacán neighborhood, the museum provides profound insight into the artist’s work, her challenges, and her inspiration in an extraordinarily intimate way. (And, as a bonus, a visit to this museum is also a wonderful excuse to stroll the cobblestone streets of Coyoacán and explore the many charming boutiques, cafes, galleries, and bookstores this corner of the city has to offer.)
Finally, a word about the gastronomy scene in Mexico City, which like the art scene, is exploding. It will come as little surprise that the street food scene in CDMX is, in a word, incredible (try Condesa Pibila in Roma Norte for starters, you won’t be disappointed). But what may come as more of a surprise to those who have yet to experience CDMX is that the foodie scene is probably one of the best and most exciting in the world right now.
In neighborhoods like Polanco, you’ll find some familiar favorites like KYU, Sonora Prime, and Bagatelle where the food is excellent and the service punches way above its weight. However, from a gastronomic point of view, restaurants like Quintonil and Punto, both of which regularly rank in the top 20 of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, demonstrate the heights to which the food scene in Mexico City is currently soaring. These restaurants are raising the bar for all restauranteurs in CDMX and it’s evident at every turn and on every block. Whether its yakitori (try Hiyoko in the Cuauhtemoc District), a fashionable brunch in Polanco (Mandolina is an excellent choice) or a sumptuous meal at a hipster hotspot like Restaurante Máximo in Roma Norte, your taste buds are guaranteed to dance with delight at each ever-more-diverse, superbly prepared offering you unearth in what is fast becoming one of the most buzzed-about foodie destinations on the planet.
All of which is simply proof of Mexico City’s ceaseless ability to adapt, innovate, and reinvent itself just as it has done for more than seven centuries. From its ancient Aztec roots, through conquest and revolution, CDMX has managed to seamlessly combine its dynamic history, vibrant art, blended culture, and delectable cuisine into a singularly captivating cultural experience, without sacrificing an ounce of its identity. Quite the contrary, in fact. Mexico City celebrates everything about where it’s been and where it’s going.