Story and photography by Melanie Votaw
The Art, Culture, and Food of Mexico City
It’s a shame that so many tourists think only of visiting beach destinations like Cancun when they travel to Mexico. Mexico City simply has so much to offer. No, you can’t sun or swim on a beach, but you can experience Mexican culture, art, fine food, and wine that you won’t experience anywhere else. For one thing, the city contains more than 150 museums.
This was my second visit to Mexico City, but it had been several years since I was there the first time. The city itself is beautiful with numerous monuments and its own version of the Champs Elysées called the Paseo de la Reforma. This wide boulevard contains an array of unique benches that were created as part of a massive art project called Dialogo de Bancas. Many of the artists found ingenious ways to create sculptures that could still function as chairs. It was fascinating to see these surprising pieces along the street.
Our hotel, the Marquis Reforma Hotel & Spa, is located right on the Paseo de la Reforma. The 5-star property is gradually renovating all of its rooms and will be finished by 2011. The newly renovated rooms include widescreen televisions and iPod docking stations. The lobby contains an Aztec liberty fountain, and the hotel has two restaurants, as well as a bar. It was a comfortable hotel, and the service was fine. You certainly cannot beat the location.
One of the main draws of Mexico City actually exists 25 miles northeast of the city limits. Teotihuacan is the remains of an ancient city with several pyramids. Some of the original paintings of the civilization still exist, but little is known about the people who built the structures prior to the Aztec and Mayan cultures. It’s a great place to visit, but lots of locals are aggressive about selling things to tourists, which can become an annoyance. The site is not to be missed, though, if you’re visiting the city.
On the way to Teotihuacan, we stopped at a workshop where they make reproductions of much of the smaller Mexican artwork found in Mexico City’s spectacular National Museum of Anthropology. This place or another like it is usually a stop on the many Teotihuacan tours offered by various outfitters, and you will get a very hard sell from the merchants inside. Outside of the store, we were treated to a demonstration of how early Mexicans used different parts of the Agave plant for paper, needle and thread, and sweet syrup.
On the way back to the city, we ate lunch at La Gruta, a restaurant near Teotihuacan that is unlike any I have ever seen. It was built inside a cave with an opening in a small section to let some sunlight inside. We walked down the stairs to brightly colored tables and chairs. La Gruta has been in existence since 1906, when it was used for private official functions, and it became a restaurant in 1929. I was surprised that I had never heard of it before. The food was fantastic. I started with a spinach salad with cactus flower dressing, followed by chicken with a red molé sauce that I wish I could have again right now as I write this. On Saturdays and Sundays, the restaurant hosts Estampas de Mexico, an excellent dance troupe that performs several traditional dances, including a pre-Hispanic fertility dance with fire.
On another day, we strolled along the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, and one of the largest squares in the world. The area is quite crowded, but that makes it great for people watching. There is a lot of shopping in the vicinity, and there are often special events held in the square itself.
If you’re a fan of Frida Kahlo, visit the Museo Frida Kahlo in the home where she was born and lived her last days. Besides some of her artwork, there are many personal items that belonged to her and Diego Rivera. Even more interesting is the Museo Dolores Olmedo, which houses an incredible collection of Mexican art (including works by Rivera and Kahlo), as well as Asian art. Olmedo donated her estate as a museum, and it includes beautiful gardens with peacocks. I loved strolling the grounds and viewing Olmedo’s art collection.
One of the other major sites in Mexico City that we visited (often added on to a tour of Teotihuacan) is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Basilica has a rich history and includes a modern building as well as the original building which was completed in 1709, both of which are examples of very different but impressive architecture. Pilgrims crawl for miles on their knees to the site every December 12 to pray.
Besides the culture, the best part of visiting Mexico City is the food. Some of the finest restaurants are contained in hotels, and locals even frequent these well-known establishments. We had dinner one evening at Habita, a hip boutique hotel with a rooftop terrace bar. We lounged on couches while having a drink at the bar, which sometimes shows films on the side of the building across the street. Downstairs at the restaurant, I had delicately flavored snapper cooked in herbs for dinner. It arrived wrapped in paper, and the waiter unwrapped it with a fork. The restaurant tries to serve Mexican ingredients and products whenever possible, including local beers and bottled waters.
The same owner has another boutique hotel in the city called Condessa, which has been frequented by celebrities like Hugh Jackman, U2, and Tom Cruise. The hotel is famous for a four-legged member of its staff – a chocolate labrador that greets guests upon arrival. Our lunch in the open-air restaurant was excellent and beautifully presented with some of the best hot bread I’ve ever tasted, accompanied by very fine olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I also enjoyed the sangria, which is served differently from what I have found in the U.S. The wine and the vodka are poured separately, making for a two-tone glass with the clear liquid on the bottom and red on the top.
We had lunch one day at the Maria Bonita Cantina in the Camino Real Hotel in the neighborhood of Polanco. The salsas were a bit hot for me, but otherwise, I recommend the restaurant highly if you’re in the area. The hotel was designed by famed Mexican architect, Ricardo Legorreta, in his trademark bright colors and geometric shapes.
Also in Polanco is an elegant restaurant called Izote de Patricia Quintana. When we had dinner there, I ordered beef tenderloin with refried beans and a dessert of chocolate crepes. It’s another restaurant that I recommend. In fact, everywhere we ate in Mexico City was excellent. The food was not only prepared well, but with an eye toward an aesthetic plate.
The prize for the best meal, however, must go to Au Pied de Cochon, a French restaurant in the Hotel Presidente Intercontinental Hotel, also located in Polanco. The menu is the same as the Au Pied de Cochon in Paris, with perhaps slight changes to accommodate local ingredients. The service, the food, and the presentation were all exquisite. We were served many courses, including crispy shrimp, vegetable tartare, the best French onion soup I’ve ever tasted, a main course, and a selection of desserts. I chose a sautéed beef fillet with Bordelaise sauce and potatoes for my main course. Often, when I ask for my meat to be cooked well, I either get something that is still a bit pink or meat that has been cooked dry. This fillet was probably the most perfectly cooked beef I’ve encountered. The chef knew exactly how long to cook it so that it would be well done but still juicy. All I can say about that is “thank you.”
The Presidente Intercontinental Hotel itself has a number of “brand name” restaurants on the premises, including Chinese, Italian, and Mexican cuisine, as well as an English tea house. It is the official residence of all heads of state, and U.S. President Barack Obama stayed in the two-bedroom presidential suite which also has a sauna.
There is so much to do and see in Mexico City – much of which I haven’t experienced even in two visits – that you can easily spend an extended vacation there. If you’re in the U.S., the flights are quite easy. Aeromexico’s flights were very pleasant, and we were fed full meals each way. From New York, the flight is only about five hours non-stop, but the airline’s Mexico City flights depart from many locations around the world.
© August 2009 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.