INTREPID TRAVELER DISPATCH: Mexico City
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY DAVID DUDAR.
My well-traveled colleagues at TravelOjos.com supplied this Intrepid Traveler Dispatch, from contributor David Dudar, who recounts his trip to Mexico City.
WHO: Just me.
WHY: I have been traveling to Mexico City since the 90s, when I worked for United Airlines. For me, it is about as exotic a city as I can visit in a fairly short flight. In fact, when I worked for UA, I would fly down for the weekend from Chicago. Less than four hours later, you know you are not home anymore. Mexico City is the double espresso of world capitals—and a great base for many interesting day trips.
GETTING THERE: Flew American to Dallas then connected. Mexico City is an easy nonstop flight from many US cities. Though some guidebooks don’t suggest it, I took the Metro into town. . .less than 20 cents and one transfer later, I was just blocks from my hotel. If you are less adventurous, an approved taxi (and only take the official taxis from the cab stand) will cost about $16 into the heart of the city.
I WAS REALLY SURPRISED: Mexico City just keeps getting cleaner and cleaner. Was notably impressed at how cleaned up the streets in the old city, the Centro Historico, have become, and the iconic boulevard Reforma is tidier than many European cities’ avenues. Smog and air quality can still be an issue, but it has gotten better over the years. And initiatives like free bicycles at times, and closing off the Reforma to cars on Sundays until 2pm have really made a difference. Mexico City has even banned smoking in restaurants in bars—an innovation that Miami, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta haven’t quite mastered yet.
I KNEW I’D LOVE MEXICO CITY WHEN: I visited the first time in 1998, and stayed at a lovely little hotel in the Condesa Roma neighborhood called La Casona. The morning was cool, and I was enjoying coffee in the courtyard of this jewel box of a hotel. Later I ventured into San Angel, which remains one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city. As you’d expect, this city is quite Mexican—what you don’t expect is how European Mexico City can be. I have to remind myself where I am, sometimes. Oh, and the altitude makes the temperature spring-like year round. Gotta love that.
ACCOMMODATIONS: If the Paseo de la Reforma is tres European (Maximillian’s wife reportedly based it off the Avenue Louise in Brussels), it only follows that this boulevard has a few very continental hotels lining its sidewalks. The Emporio Reforma would not be out of place in Paris—small, chic, cute coffee bar on the Paseo-side of the lobby, stylish black and white marble floor. What is not particularly Parisian about the hotel is the price—my very nicely appointed, though small room was $70 a night, and included a continental breakfast in Condimento, the hotel’s well attended restaurant. In Paris, a hotel with a marble bathroom like this, recently renovated furnishings and beds, and this level of service, could easily be four times the cost. Once you deal with the very compact rooms, the hotel is a find—great location on Reforma, near to Metro and the Insurgentes Metrobus, with the Zona Rosa and the Centro Historico both close at hand. For me, this is the best hotel value in the city.
Have also enjoyed my stays at La Casona (a jewel box of a little hotel on the edge of one of the city’s more interesting neighborhoods—Roma—though the room prices have gone up considerably), the Four Seasons (visit just for the spectacular courtyard—this very introverted hotel has 90% of its rooms overlooking the inside of the building, beautifully done) and the Hilton Reforma, actually on the edge of Parque Alameda in the Centro Historico, not far from the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
THE COOLEST ATTRACTIONS WERE: Ah, where to start? Love visiting San Angel on Saturdays. . .take the Insurgentes Metrobus to Bombilla, and walk a few blocks to the center square. From the art shows, to the cafes there, it is all a wonderful stroll. On Saturdays, the Bazar Sabado showcases more handicrafts, and be sure to try a quesadilla in the courtyard of the Bazar building. Also, a great church across the street surrounds an atmospheric courtyard. You can wander through the residential neighborhood nearby, or call for a cab to take you to the Old San Angel Inn—one of the prettiest restaurants on the planet, I’m sure. Have never eaten there—and it is on my list—but be sure to enjoy a margarita in the courtyard. Just gorgeous. Diego Rivera’s studio (now called the Museo Estudio Diego Rivera) is across the street, and you can tour it, if so inclined.
On Sundays, visit Coyoacan—again, Metrobus to Bombilla, but find the cab stand, and ask to go to Tres Cruces. That is the top of the center square, and from there, Coyoacan reveals itself. . .cafes around the square, foodstalls in the nearby market buildings, and lots to see.
You could have a very fulfilling trip to Mexico City if you never left the Centro Historico. From the huge Zocalo—one of the three largest squares in the world, to the wedding cake-like Palacio de Bellas Artes performing arts center, each block of the core has a remarkable texture and history to it. Some things you might overlook—find a shady day, and have breakfast on the roof of the Holiday Inn for great views of the Zocalo and the main Cathedral. Grab coffee on the 8th floor of Sears where the outside terrace affords views out over the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Do a bit of shopping in the original Palacio de Hierro (literally the iron palace) in a grand old building reminiscent of the Chicago Marshall Field’s on State Street or some Berlin department store. The gardens and murals at the Palacio Nacional off the Zocalo are well worth the stroll through the building and its courtyards. And wander into the lobby of the Gran Hotel de Mexico City to see its belle époque atrium. The food is not noteworthy, but the Sanborns in the House of Tiles is gorgeous inside and out. . .even if you are not eating, be sure to stop in.
The twin neighborhoods of Condesa and Roma are both art deco and European in feel, with a few lovely parks—Parque Mexico and Parque Espana—at their center. In fact, as it was just before Christmas when I was last there, city ground crews were planting poinsettias in the parks. . .just gorgeous. The area around Av. Michoacan has a number of great sidewalk cafes, among them my favorite Fonda Garufa—an Argentine place, for good food and interesting people watching.
IF I HAD TO DO IT OVER AGAIN: I’d have stayed longer, both to enjoy more of Mexico City and some of the day trips that are so convenient from the city.
Mexico Tourism Board: http://visitmexico.com/wb2/