1. Where to Stay
Ask for a balcony suite at the CONDESAdf (from $190), the 40-room India Mahdavi–designed hotel overlooking Parque España. Sooth your hangover on the rooftop terrace on Sunday afternoons with a D.J. set of down-tempo Latin lounge music.
Be discreet at Habita (from $250), a boutique hotel hidden behind a frosted-glass box façade on Mexico City’s most luxurious avenue, Avenida Presidente Masaryk. The third floor’s minimalist suites are the quietest, but find action upstairs at the rooftop bar.
Feel like you’re visiting friends at the eight-room Red Tree House (from $50), the affordable California colonial B&B run by an American set designer and his partner. Rooms in the newly added garden house overlook the patio, and the owners host frequent wine parties for their guests.
2. Where to Eat
Spring for the tasting menu (six courses, $55) at Pujol to sample the range of avant-garde, U.S.-trained chef Enrique Olvera. When his cookbook comes out in May 2010, you’ll have already tasted his liquid quesadilla.
Guess what the 30 ingredients are in El Bajío’s mole sauce, served over chicken or as a stew. Don a plastic bib before trying the carnitas, which have been braising since 3 a.m.
Eat organic, regional cuisine prepared by the author of the Encyclopedia of Mexican Gastronomy at the unpretentious Café Azul y Oro. Work off the meal with a walk through the adjacent year-old University Museum of Contemporary Art.
Take your taxi to the “drive-in” at El Borrego Viudo (Avenida Revolución 241; no phone), a tiny 41-year-old taquería with an enormous parking lot and carhops.
3. What to Do
Find D.J.’s instead of mariachis at actor Diego Luna’s La Bipo (Malintzin 155, Coyoacán; 52-55/5484-8230), the faux dive bar in the artsy Coyoacán neighborhood inspired by traditional cantinas.
Hear cutting-edge electro acts like Kinky or Mexican Institute of Sound at Pasagüero, a recently renovated cultural center near the Zocalo that also stages exhibitions and fashion shows. Indie bands play at the year-old El Imperial (Álvaro Obregón 293, Roma Norte; 52-55/5525-1115), where the downstairs space is decked out in modern baroque with chandeliers and lace-draped columns.
Shake it at Pasaje America, where a roster of international D.J.’s like New York’s Tommie Sunshine spin deep house and minimal techno below giant disco balls. Or get down at the legendary Patrick Miller, a cavernous space that has attracted high-profile patrons like Diplo, and is still the favorite spot for high-energy music lovers to battle it out in laser-lit dance circles.
Learn to dance to synth-heavy cumbia sonidera at Buttergold, the megasize disco with five bars and twice-nightly drag revues that draw as many straight folks as gay. The $9 cover includes two domestic beers.
4. Insider’s Tip
Considered sacred by the Aztecs, pulque is an alcoholic drink fermented from the maguey plant. You can find it in cans in New York, but drink it out of the barrel at La Pirata (13 de Septiembre, Escandón; no phone), where the floors are covered in sawdust and black-and-white photos of nude women adorn the walls. The pulque, which is combined with different flavors—oats and pine nut are the most popular—costs 80 cents a liter.
5. Oddball Day
Take a taxi an hour south of the city center to the Aztec canals of Xochimilco ($10 for the cab ride), where families and visitors gather at “the Venice of Mexico” for special occasions aboard brightly painted wooden trajineras (flat-bottomed boats). Get out at the Embarcadero Nuevo Nativitas, the busiest of the nine landings, and snag a spot on a twenty-seater green-roofed boat equipped with buckets of domestic beer ($12 per hour, plus drinks). Request a ranchera song from one of the mariachi bands-for-hire coasting by ($6) or enjoy a floating picnic from canoegoing vendors hawking hot soup, barbecued rabbit, and grilled corn. Make arrangements with the boat guide to stop at the Isla de las Muñecas, located two hours outside of the water park. Explore this spooky shrine to a poor girl who drowned in the canal by walking beneath the hundreds of old dolls hanging from trees. Don’t forget to leave an offering—a doll or candle—to placate any restless spirits.
Chilango.com, the website of the Spanish-language print magazine, lists every bar and antro (or nightclub) in town by genre and neighborhood.
To brush up on your street slang, check out Swearin DF, a manual of communication for English speakers visiting Mexico City.
Flip through the virtual version of El DF’s Expat Guide for information on restaurants, museums, and concert venues—and detailed maps to ensure you’ll get there.
Still nervous to venture south of the border? The Truth About Mexico aims to balance the negative media attention coming from the North.