On my first trip to Mexico City, almost a decade ago, the walkway leading into Chapultepec Park was hosting an exhibit of public art – a series of sculptures, one of which encompassed all of Mexico City in a single piece: an oversized spit of al pastor meat – the standard of local taco stands – shaped like a heart. It immediately and beautifully encapsulated the best aspects of visiting Mexico City: giant parks, endearing public art and falling deeply in love with the city’s exceptional street food.
Whether it’s masterful murals inside a tile-covered bookstore, tamales outside the door, or a creepy doll collection hanging on an island, the accessibility of Mexico City’s best art and brightest flavors shapes the city. Some of the coolest museums, like the Soumaya, charge no entry fee, the top tacos cost only pocket change, and anyone can wander the mazes of markets that covers so many blocks, shopping alongside chefs, locals, and tourists alike. But for all of Mexico City’s grand scale, the many parks and open spaces provide a sense of calm among the chaos, the invitation standing on every street corner and in every taco shop: bienvenidos, welcome, come and enjoy the best of Mexico City.
Wide Open Spaces
The Zocalo, the public square in the center of Mexico City lined with ancient Aztec ruins, a giant cathedral and assorted governmental buildings, holds everything from folklore festivals to free Justin Bieber concerts. On any given day, dancers, protesters and tourists share the same space – but it’s just the beginning of Mexico City’s stunning collection of plazas. Just a few blocks away are: Plaza Garibaldi, which hosts wandering mariachi bands (and a tequila museum); the plaza at La Cuidadela, just across the street from a traditional craft market, where old-school dancers practice their art to keep it from dying out; and Alameda Central, built in 1592, which is considered the oldest public park in the Americas, dominated at one end by the stunning Palace of Fine Arts.
The Zocalo and Alameda may be at the heart of the sprawling city, but further out, public spaces continue to interrupt the overwhelming urbanity of a place with more than 20 million people. The large Moorish ‘kiosk’ (like a giant pergola) in Santa Maria la Ribera; the walking path along Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa that traces an old horse racing oval as it encompasses trendy restaurants and a dog park; and the sprawling forest of Chapultepec, which contains monument, a castle, a zoo, several museums and an amusement park, in what’s one of the biggest parks in the hemisphere.
So much of Mexico City is about the rush of a fast-moving city, so it follows that much of the public space is designed for doing just that. On Sunday, La Reforma, the city’s major boulevard, closes to cars and hordes of cyclists and pedestrians take over. Also, on Sundays, the canals of Xochimilco are full of party boats bearing musicians – through traijeneras (the local boats) ply these waters daily. Once part of a system that connected the entire valley by water, this small section of what remains navigable serves as an island-based farmland and tourist attraction. For about $15 an hour, boats (driver included) float along the waters, hitting the ‘island of the dolls’ – hung creepily with severed plastic limbs and decapitated porcelain heads – and stopping for a drink from a floating vendor. Earlier last year (2019), the center of the Miguel Aleman Viaduct, a main thoroughfare, was transformed into a mile of ‘Ecoduct’, pedestrian walkways with artificial wetlands that act as a sewage treatment plant, lined with decoratively lit trees, dotted with benches (and USB charging points) to rest on along the way.
Marvel at Murals
Just one neighborhood over from the canals of Xochimilco sits the sleepy near-suburb of Coyocan, once home to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The darlings of Mexico City’s art scene give tourists a well-beaten path from Kahlo’s Casa Azul to the Dolores Olmedo Museum, a sprawling estate featuring some of both Kahlo and Riviera’s best work (as well as peacocks and hairless dogs wandering the grounds), but it’s also a jumping off point for those looking to dig deeper into the word of Mexican art.
Rivera’s works, along with that of fellow Mexican muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, show up all over town. The most accessible one – and a great place to begin a journey into Mexico City’s art – is the Sanborns department store right in the historic center. The Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) is an 18th-century palace and a work of art in its own right. Now a department store with a restaurant inside, it houses two famous murals, including a 1925 one by Orozco. In the nearby Zocalo, two of Rivera’s murals are on display inside the Palacio Nacional, while the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), best known as home of the ornate performances of the Ballet Folklorico, has one as well, along with ones by Siqueiros, Orozco and Rufino Tamayo.
In 2011, billionaire Carlos Slim put his personal art collection on display for all to see in an iconic, hexagonal-tiled, shimmering building. Free to enter, the spiral layout of the building leads visitors through everything from Rodin’s The Thinker to Juan de Sáenz’s Virgen de Guadalupe con las Cuartro Apariciones – along with plenty more Rivera pieces.
But Mexico City’s art scene delves beyond household names for those willing to chase it. Museo Jumex focuses on contemporary art and leans more toward homegrown artists, as does Kurimanzutto, which is much smaller. The latter flies below the radar, but offers rotating exhibitions, mainly of single, internationally-known artists with a connection to the history and culture of Mexico. As with any big and art-focused city, the fascination with beautiful works trickles down to smaller spaces and forward-thinking modern artists. The Roma neighborhood in particular hosts an intriguing collection of contemporary art galleries and spaces, including Monclova, Galería OMR, Celaya Brothers Gallery and the tiny Lulu.
One can hardly take two steps down Mexico City street without tripping over a tamale cart or bumping into a taco stand. From just-pressed tortillas to freshly-squeezed juices, the key to Mexico’s best food is, in part, its immediacy. Everything is cooked, crafted, or assembled on the spot.
While visitors might be familiar with tacos, tortas and tamales, there are a few other foods that fall under the Vitamin T label – a quintessential ingredient in the Mexican diet – and one that’s not to be missed. The tlacoyo is among the easiest and most exciting to find on the street: look for a pair or trio of ladies squatting around a comal (hot cooking surface) – one will be patting out what looks like a flat football of blue-corn dough, the other will be concentrating on fillings. Stuffed with beans, mushrooms, or cheese and topped with more cheese, cactus salad and salsa, it’s best eaten immediately, standing just a few feet from where it was made – such as the stands at either the entrance to the Mercado Medellin in the Roma neighborhood.
The taco might be more famous, but it’s important for visitors to try specific local specialties, including the pride of Mexico City, mentioned previously, the al pastor taco. Spit cooking, brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, was adapted to the local favorite meat, pork. Literally meaning “in the style of the shepherd’, al pastor tacos are cut from a rotating stand topped with pineapple. The best taqueros will make one deft swipe and cut both the pineapple and meat directly into a waiting tortilla below, as they do at El Vilsito in the Navarte, where a car repair shop by day transforms into a late-night local stand.
The city’s other main taco is suadero or campechano (mixed meat), such as those found at Los Cocuyos. The menu is basically a list of body parts – tripe, cheek, tongue, eyes – and it’s all on display on the rounded cooking surface, surrounded by a moat of lard, where it cooks. When ordered, the meat gets griddled before being chopped and topped with onion and cilantro. Suadero is generally regarded as the beginner’s cut, coming from what would be known as the brisket in the U.S., but the tacos are cheap, and half the fun is tasting through the menu to find your favorite dish.
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