A weekend in Mexico City: Eat, drink and see sites

A cost-conscious 4-day guide to seeing a lot while staying safe in CDMX

It might fuel your next nightmare, but a cruise of Xochimilco's canals is incomplete without stepping onto La Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls).Photo: SFGate
  • It might fuel your next nightmare, but a cruise of Xochimilco's canals is incomplete without stepping onto La Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls).Photo: SFGate

From some major U.S. cities, flying to Mexico City takes about as long as flying to Chicago. And flights from Yucatan have been quick and easy for years.

A weekend is all it takes for visitors to devour great food, see amazing art and architecture — and make their Instagram accounts a lot more interesting.

Four days won’t be enough to see everything — the museums alone would take that long or more. But it’s enough for a large chunk of all the food, culture, and creepy dolls you can handle, at a favorable exchange rate for some foreign travelers.

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This value includes lodgings. A modern Airbnb studio with a security guard in the Centro Historico district cost US$270 total for four nights. Staying in the posher Polanco or Condesa districts doesn’t cost much more.

Mexico City’s murder rate may scare some away, and indeed homicides rose to 382 through the first four months of 2018. A San Francisco investor relations analyst named Tatiana Mirutenko was killed by a stray bullet in 2018 while exiting an upscale restaurant.

But adjusted for population size, Mexico City’s murder rate is three times less than that of Chicago, and cartel violence isn’t nearly as prevalent as it is elsewhere. Stick to the well-touristed areas at night (except for Centro, which can be dangerous). Cheap Uber rides are ubiquitous, and women-only cars exist on the subway.

Food

Mexican food is deliciously diverse, and you can find all regions represented here. Just don’t look for burritos, which aren’t a thing in most of Mexico outside the border state of Chihuahua. The tacos alone merit their own trip, because they’re so varied and every chef brings their own approach to them.

For sheer taco density, plan for a pit stop during a walking tour of Condesa, Roma or Juarez — all of which are teeming with casual, hip cafes — and you’re bound to stumble upon something good. El Parnita in Roma has outdoor seating, a relaxed San Diego-esque feel and tongue-melting spicy salsa.

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Tacos Don Juan in Condesa is another local favorite, especially for its carnitas, which are only served Friday and Saturday.

Polanco is Mexico City’s wealthiest neighborhood and slightly further away from the Centro. The cochinita pibil —roasted pork — tacos at El Turix are legendary, and a nod to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Avoid anything too upscale, which may leave you shortchanged on both the experience and your wallet. Limosneros in the Centro is highly rated and offered some impressive decor, but it couldn’t make up for the tiny, overpriced tacos. While we’re talking about the Centro and the Zocalo, be careful about filtering out the tourist traps there.

If you can only make time for one seafood meal, do it at Contramar in Roma. It’s a bit chi-chi, but they make an art form of ceviche and fish tacos, and the portions are generous.

For spicier fare, make sure to have some aguachile — similar to ceviche with shrimp, lime juice, onion and chile peppers. One restaurant that does aguachile justice is El Pialadero de Guadalajara, a Jaliscan spot near Chapultepec Park.

Oaxacan food is among the world’s best — great enough to visit that city just to eat for days — but it’s well represented in Mexico City as well. One ideal date-night spot is Yuban in Roma Norte, known for excellent service and cocktails for a third of what you might pay for in San Francisco.

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Mexico City’s tortas — sandwiches generously stuffed with meat and vegetables — are everywhere and usually delicious. In the Coyoacan neighborhood, try La Barraca Valenciana. Another standout is Tortas Al Fuego in Condesa.

And now for the churros. The Roma district is where the cool kids flock to a café that specializes in them: Churrería El Moro. Long line or not, cleaning a plate of four churros with a friend and washing it down with some excellent coffee is worth planning around.

You can visit large museums with stunning art and architecture in Mexico City — the grand domes of the Palacio de Bellas Artes are unmistakable — but you don’t have to. Muralists such as Diego Rivera left their mark all over the city, and you can find them in some surprising places. Such as the education ministry building in Centro, which is free to enter and includes 235 panels of Rivera’s work, much of which is political and celebrates the country’s working class.

Likewise, the Supreme Court building is packed with large murals, including one called “War and Peace” by American artist George Biddle, with an audioguide to explain them.

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The Blue House of Frida Kahlo, in Coyoacan, is a must see for anyone interested in Mexican art, and it’s something you’ll want to buy tickets for in advance — not just to skip the line, but also to take photos in the museum. The hassle is worth it, not just for the art but the way that art tells a touching story of Kahlo’s life, which includes her rocky marriage with Rivera.

While in Coyoacan, you can also stop by the Leon Trotsky Museum. It’s where he lived in exile from Russia and was assassinated.

The list of museums goes on and on. For scenery, visit Chapultepec Castle atop the city’s main park; for an extensive history of the country, the Museo Nacional de Antropología; and for something quirky, the Museo del Juguete Antiguo, with over 20,000 historical toys.

Day trips

The top day trip from CDMX has to be a visit to the pyramids of Teotihuacan — a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates from 2,000 years ago. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest in the world. Plan your entire day around the trip if you want to make the most of the pyramids and museum — arrive in the morning to limit your sun exposure while you’re hiking up all those steps. You can buy bus tickets from the Autobuses del Norte metro station, take an Uber that costs about US$25 each way, or book a tour.

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For a mix of bucolic scenery and horrific, creepy dolls, book a canal tour at Xochimilco, about a half-hour drive south of Centro. The colorful, gondola-style boats are popular with locals and tourists alike, and you can bring food and drinks onboard. If you go on the weekend you can expect a rowdy party scene on the water, but go during the week and it’s significantly more chill with abundant water fowl flying about.

No canal cruise at Xochimilco can be complete without a four-hour tour to La Isla de las Muñecas (Island of the Dolls), which could be mistaken for the set of Jordan Peele’s next horror movie.

There’s a lot of fact mixed with mythology in the story of the dolls, but it goes like this: A real man named Don Julian Santana was living on the island in the 1950s when he supposedly encountered the body of a girl who drowned in the canal, with her doll beside her. He also may have imagined the whole thing.

Regardless, Santana collected hundreds of wayward, mutilated dolls that he found in the surrounding canals and trash, and hanged them all over his island to protect the girl’s spirit, much like scarecrows. The dolls have not been cleaned up in the decades since, and many are missing bodies or eyes. So the easily frightened may want to stay away, but everyone else can see the dolls up close. There’s a “museum” for some of the most important dolls, and another section that’s been adopted by a Mexican Facebook group.

Santana died in 2001, found drowned in the same area as the girl he allegedly found.

One caveat: the tour costs US$75, which is an investment if you’re traveling solo.

Drinks and nightlife

As they are in San Francisco, mezcal bars are booming in Mexico City. Some favorites include include Bosforo in Centro, La Botica or Baltra in Condesa, and El Palenquito in Roma Norte.

For a more down-to-earth experience, make sure to visit some cantinas. They’re the equivalent of dive bars here, serve ultra-cheap tacos and beer, and the best ones are infinitely welcoming. I felt at home instantly at Villa de Sarria, a hole in the wall in Roma Sur. For something more historic, try Tio Pepe Cantina in Chinatown which dates to 1870. Everyone from old locals to politicians to wide-eyed tourists can be found there.

Mexican locals may not eat burritos, but they do like jazz. The best venue to find that jazz is Zinco, an intimate, underground bar that used to be a bank vault. The décor and drinks are mid-century-styled, and the biggest jazz acts in Mexico come through here.

The bar I most wished I could have taken back with me, though, was Casa Franca. The world needs more bars shaped like houses, especially when there’s a saxophone playing five inches from your face in the living room while you munch on pizza. If live jazz isn’t your thing, there are other rooms where you can lounge about and drink.

Only-in-Mexico-culture

If you’ve strolled down San Francisco’s Mission, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered some kind of lucha libre reference, including wrestler masks for sale. But Mexico City is the place to go for the real thing. Lots of companies offer tours to watch the luchadors at Arena Mexico, but you can just as easily go buy buying tickets online or at the door. The snacks at the events aren’t known to be memorable, but you can body-slam some cheap beer in large quantities.

For a more high-brow pop culture experience, you can always visit the house whose exterior is featured in the Oscar-winning film “Roma.” Located on Calle Tepeji in Roma Sur, It’s not the house director Alfonso Cuarón grew up in, though it is next door to it.

As Oscar nominations will do, the house has become a tourist attraction, and we were fortunate to snap our photos just before a horde of visitors arrived. There was an actual vintage Volkswagen Beetle parked about 30 feet away, but I couldn’t muster the nerve to push it in front of the house to recreate one of the movie’s most iconic shots of the father getting into his Bug as he abandoned his family.

Where to go for the Gram

Fill your Instagram feed with cool pics.

For spectacular sunset photos, consider the 44th-floor observation deck at the Torre Latinoamericana, which looks right down on the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Brunch at El Balcon del Zocalo comes with two benefits: actual good food, which can be challenging in the Zocalo, and rooftop seating with an up-close view of the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Adapted from a story in SFGate.

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