Mexico City slicker

by Ben Marshall

From the rooftop Area bar, packed with beautiful people, to the ultimate boutique hotel (the Condesa DF) and the blue house once lived in by artist Frida Kahlo, Mexico City is madly fashionable

The approach by air to Mexico City is awesome. As the aircraft twists and turns over the buildings, parks and roads below, the view gives a dramatic and lasting impression of the sheer size of the place. With its population of 20 million, the metropolis is packed with people – but also with art, culture and history dating back to ancient times.

However daunting it may look from the air, Mexico City is manageable once you are on the ground. The airport is modern, with an efficient taxi system to get downtown. Tourists are warned to avoid the taxi touts. A simple ticket-buying system is in place, costing roughly $10 for the ride into the city centre.

The 5km drive can take a lot longer than expected. Mexico City is renowned for its traffic, and even the shortest journey from the airport can take 40 minutes.

Where to stay

An increasing number of hip hotels have sprung up in the trendier areas of the capital, but the slightly outdated Zona Rosa has the lion's share of the business-style hotels. Its streets are awash with mediocre bars and restaurants and familiar Latino high-street stores – but this is a good starting point when looking for accommodation, and some of the hotels offer discounts to airline staff. The Marco Polo is well located, within staggering distance of the bars, and has large, well-equipped rooms.

The Zona Rosa is flanked by two distinct neighbourhoods: fashionable Polanco and colonial Condesa. Polanco is home to the architecturally impressive Habita Hotel. Its glass-fronted façade sits well next to the Ferrari showroom and is illuminated white at night. The rooms are almost clinically minimalist with low-slung beds, a flat-screen TV and a mountain of style magazines.

A visit to Habita’s rooftop bar, Area, is probably enough to get a feel for the place. It is populated with Mexico’s young, rich, beautiful things. Whether you are posing with a cocktail or relaxing to chill-out tunes, this really is the hangout to be seen in.

Despite its hip feel, Polanco is quiet both during the day and at night. Its wealthy residents are concealed behind stylised doorways, in its expensive restaurants and its (mostly) hotel bars. What the district lacks in atmosphere is made up for in nearby Condesa – a colonial tree-lined enclave of alfresco dining, with a gem of a hotel as its centrepiece.

Condesa is south of Polanco and has retained its old-fashioned charm. It is trendy without being pretentious. A few blocks down from the Parque España, the streets are lined with atmospheric cafés, restaurants and bars. There's a great buzz here, especially from late afternoon, and surprisingly few tourists.

Just up from the park sits the ultimate boutique hotel – the Condesa DF. With more character than its sister hotel, Habita, it is also better value for money. The rooms are a voguish artwork in themselves, retaining a 1920s charm with a modern twist. IPods nailed to the bedside table pipe hip tunes through the flat-screen TVs.

Art and culture

The six-hour time difference (-GMT) and high altitude (2,400m above sea level) should induce a good first night’s sleep, leaving visitors ready to explore the city’s fascinating culture, art and history.

Despite the traffic, the capital is relatively easy to get around. The individual districts can be discovered on foot, while other areas can be reached by the super-efficient underground system. At only 2 pesos a ride, it is remarkably cheap. It is a good idea to plan your route before embarking on your journey. The metro lines are numbered, with the final destination indicating the direction (dirección) in which the train is travelling.

Visit the former home of  Frida Kahlo (the controversial Mexican artist whose work was displayed at the Tate Modern in London last year), which is open to the public. Her unusual blue house, which was shared with husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, offers a fascinating insight into her troubled life.

Just a few minutes' walk away is Coyoacán Plaza Central, made up of two adjoining squares surrounded by cafés and arty shops. This is the perfect opportunity to try out some local dishes. Unlike international Tex-Mex cuisine, the diversity and number of cooking ingredients used is massive. Chocolate is frequently used to enrich a savoury mole sauce, with a hundred different varieties of chilli added to corn- or maize-based meals.

On a much larger scale, the Zocalo (in the heart of the metropolis) is one of the world’s largest city squares. It is lined by impressive government buildings and the cathedral. Entertainers draw in the crowds here – and so too does the lowering of the enormous Mexican flag, which takes place every night at 6pm.

To explore the ancient history of Mexico, visit the monumental Anthropology Museum – or take an excursion to the Teotihuacán pyramids, just outside the city. The Anthropology Museum can easily take up a whole day of your stay in Mexico. Entry is free on a Sunday, but the place gets packed out with visitors taking up the offer. The pyramids can be reached by local bus, or through an organised excursion.

As with many capitals, a few days here (together with some good research) are enough to get a real flavour of what is on offer. Arts, culture, cuisine, nightlife… all can be sampled in the shortest of visits. With the airport so close, Mexico City also serves as great base for exploring the rest of the country. Regular shuttles operate to inland cities as well as popular destinations on the Yucatan and Pacific coasts: Cancun, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Huatulco.