The Mexican novelist Juan Villoro once noted, “To write about Mexico City is a challenge as elusive as describing vertigo.” From my apartment near the city’s center, I try anyway, with AirPods stuffed in my ears in a futile attempt to block out the noises below my window. On top of the shrieking drills of construction work come the characters who parade up and down my street every afternoon. One man plays the trumpet with his little boy in tow, banging on a drum. Another pedals by, announcing the arrival of his “ricos y deliciosos tamales oaxaqueños.” Trucks driven by men who buy and resell scrap iron blast the audiotape that has become Mexico City’s unofficial anthem: a woman’s droning voice, listing the objects they seek. “Mattresses, refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, microwaves, or any old iron that you’re selling,” she implores in Spanish, drawing out the last syllable of “vendAAAA!” in a howl.
These idiosyncrasies can be charming one moment and deranging the next. That’s the thing about this chimerical, shape-shifting metro area of more than 22 million residents—almost the size of three Houstons. It has a peculiar way of engaging its inhabitants in a game of give-and-take, often soothing you right after it strikes. Here you can escape a subway car—and the occasional leer or thieving hand—to ascend, eyes squinting at the sudden eruption of sunlight, to a place as beautiful and imposing as the Zócalo. One of the world’s largest public squares, it’s flanked by grand colonial constructions, including the president’s home, Palacio Nacional.
The voracious capital holds something like a monopoly on nearly every institution in the country, from business and finance to government to the arts—which is not to say these don’t exist elsewhere, only that their provincial versions tend to pale in comparison. Mexico City’s allure stems from its commanding fusion of power and grandiose beauty, or at least that’s what drew me here, from Guadalajara, seven years ago, when I was 23 and straight out of architecture school. I had a vague sense of the sort of life I wanted to build—as a writer, not an architect—and almost no idea how I would go about it. The one thing I felt certain of was where to be. In 2016, on the same day I arrived in Mexico City, the New York Times declared it number one in its yearly “52 Places to Go” roundup. This news—along with the fact that the city, in a move toward more autonomy, had recently shed the moniker Distrito Federal, or DF, in favor of Ciudad de México, or CDMX—felt auspicious to me, a good omen. Hand in hand, Mexico City and I were stepping into new eras of our lives.
That year, foreigners started flocking here in droves. The vast majority came from the U.S. It seemed that the city was especially attractive to Texans—in fewer than three hours on a nonstop flight, you could be transported from Austin, Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio to an international capital that felt both somewhat familiar and like another world. Visitors in Stetsons and Luccheses clamored for tables at Contramar and stocked up on the ceramic bowls and woven palm baskets sold in mercados. They promenaded the verdant streets of the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, unwittingly challenging Spanish as the dominant language heard on the sidewalks. Above all, I noticed, many searched for an “authentic” experience, turning up their noses at places packed with “tourists,” a term almost vilified in the past decade or so by start-ups offering the possibility of living “like a local” wherever you go. (A few months after I moved here, the vacation rental company Airbnb rolled out its “Live There” campaign, along with app updates focused on insider knowledge and tips.)
Recently, when an American acquaintance asked for my recommendations, I told her she shouldn’t miss the National Museum of Anthropology, which opened in 1964 in the Bosque de Chapultepec, a park of more than 1,600 acres in the middle of the city, to harbor an extensive collection of pre-Hispanic objects and art. Its lead architect, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, was known to imbue his buildings with a sense of transcendence, designing them as tangible proclamations of power. (The modern Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, honoring Mexico’s patron saint, and the Aztec Stadium, where the national soccer team plays, were also sketched by his hand in the sixties and seventies. Both are worth a visit.) Near the entrance of the museum’s central courtyard, water cascades down the edges of an immense roof that rests atop a bronze-clad column, and the sound of it hitting the ground echoes off the stone walls of the surrounding galleries, labyrinthine halls with lighting so dim and tantalizing that the artifacts on display acquire an almost mystical energy. Walking through the museum, with its monumental glory and all its shadows and secrets, is somehow at once crushing and exhilarating. That humans are capable of inducing this experience through architecture is something I find astonishing. Because of that, and because I go there several times a year, it was vexing to have my friend dismiss my tip, informing me that she wanted to avoid places she deemed “too touristy.”
Would she say the same thing to a Washington, D.C., local who recommended that she not miss the Lincoln Memorial or the Smithsonian museums, and then spend all of her time exploring only trendy neighborhoods? Why would a modern traveler seek out only the prosaic? I don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t have its charm. There is beauty in the quotidian—in aimless walks that lead you to a Mexico City produce vendor’s minuscule shop, tucked between buildings; in the way the fruits’ colors pale next to the neon poster boards on which the owner has scribbled prices in bold black marker. In picking out the ripest peach and resuming your stroll, noticing, if it is summer, the brilliant green moss on the sidewalks. By all means, do that whenever you’re here. What I can’t bring myself to accept is that anyone, especially a visitor to this city, should feel that they’re too cool to experience the extraordinary.
I may be biased, but I think one of the best ways to get to know a culture is through its architecture. The places we build and inhabit tell our stories, reflect our desires, articulate our values. And when speaking of Mexico City’s architecture, there’s no way around one particular figure. In the twentieth century, Mexican architect Luis Barragán developed a language of design that continues to reverberate in the work of his successors. His buildings are a great starting point for any visitor.
When he accepted the Pritzker prize (considered the Nobel Prize in his field), in 1980, Barragán said, in a celebrated speech, “It is alarming that publications devoted to architecture have banished from their pages the words Beauty, Inspiration, Magic, Spellbound, Enchantment, as well as the concepts of Serenity, Silence, Intimacy, and Amazement.” He was the second recipient of the prestigious award, and his work was a significant departure from that of the previous laureate, Philip Johnson. While Johnson pushed the future of architecture toward transparency—designing sleek structures inundated with light by way of ubiquitous glass walls—Barragán turned a sentimental gaze on the traditional. Spread across Mexico City are his most iconic buildings: houses enveloped by untamed gardens, with thick, textured walls often painted in vivid colors and girthy wooden furniture reminiscent of old haciendas. For Mexicans, it seems that our past is so alluring that it has a choke hold on even our most decided steps forward; local architecture and design remain overwhelmingly predicated on the artisanal.
You can schedule a visit to many of Barragán’s buildings, including the Cuadra San Cristóbal and Casa Luis Barragán, the home he designed for himself and inhabited until his death, in 1988. But perhaps the most emotionally charged work of his career stands in Tlalpan, a former village about seventeen miles south of the city center that was once separate from the metropolis but has been engulfed by its sprawl. The convent of the cloistered nuns called the Capuchinas Sacramentarias del Purísimo Corazón de María, or Capuchinas for short, is located there, and Barragán, a devout Catholic, offered in the early fifties to design a new chapel for it, pro bono.
The result—a room where silence feels palpable and light seeps through a yellow stained glass window, flooding every corner—could move even an atheist to tears. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or not; there’s something universal about the chapel. Barragán’s lifelong love affair with color found its apex here. A single orange hue covers the walls and transforms throughout the day from golden to an intense crimson, depending on how the light strikes.
Before you make your way back to the city center, stop at Ciudad Universitaria, the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Its most emblematic building is the Central Library, built in the fifties and partly designed by Juan O’Gorman, a disciple of European modernism who injected Mexican identity into his Le Corbusier–inspired constructions. (O’Gorman is familiar to San Antonians for his Confluence of Civilizations mural at the city’s Hemisfair Park.) For me, though, the space to visit on the campus is the less conspicuous Espacio Escultórico, a staggering piece of land art that functions as a paean to emptiness, one of the “greatest moments of void,” as Mexican painter and sculptor Mathias Goeritz, one of Espacio’s six artists, called it. It evokes how I imagine it would feel to inhabit a Mark Rothko painting. In a city where vendors have seized dominion over the streets—offering to prepare you a taco or shine your shoes or sell you plastic buckets and wooden spatulas—here is an antidote to the frenetic flow of functionality.
To be clear, there isn’t anything to do, exactly, at the Espacio. Sixty-four concrete pyramids are organized in a perfect circle around a pit of volcanic rock, which sounds grim, but vegetation sprouts from all the stones’ crevices, hosting an ecosystem of insects and small lizards. You can stand below the expanse of blue sky. You can walk in circles around the structure as many times as you like, savoring the silence and forgetting that you’re surrounded by what is estimated to be the world’s fifth-largest metropolis. That’s about it. Sometimes the most powerful experiences are that simple.
Also in the southern part of the city is La Casa Azul, the house in which Frida Kahlo was raised. It has been converted into a museum and should be seen along with the Museo Anahuacalli, about three miles to the southeast, designed by her husband, Diego Rivera, to harbor his vast collection of pre-Hispanic art. The couple’s torturous love story inspired many of Kahlo’s most brutal paintings. To experience even more of their saga, venture about three miles west of La Casa Azul and visit the house and studio they shared—actually two houses, one for each artist, united by a bridge—designed by the famed O’Gorman and now known as the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo.
Have lunch across the street from this museum at San Ángel Inn, where you’ll notice that no one is in a hurry. Certain restaurants in Mexico City, like this one, were made to honor sobremesa—those expansive hours that follow a meal, when you stay at the table with your group, drinking, smoking, growing louder and looser. A local tradition, sobremesa is something of a social marathon, a time when business deals, friendships, and romances are cemented. It’s what I miss most whenever I’m stateside, where easy leisure isn’t as ingrained in the culture, and waiters always seem eager to bring the check. (“La prisa no es elegante”—“It is inelegant to rush”—a friend always reminds me when I’m restless.)
In fact, haste is what marks you as a foreigner at Contramar, another restaurant built for spending half the day there. It’s in La Roma, a neighborhood full of restaurants, shops, and art galleries that make it ideal for leisurely strolls. On any day, but especially on Thursdays through Sundays, Contramar habitués—artists, gallerists, architects, designers—float from one table to another. It makes for a mess of a check, but after imbibing mezcal for six hours, no one ever seems to mind splitting it, however things end up. Between roughly one and three in the afternoon, about half of the patrons are notably less at ease, giving the impression that they soon have somewhere else to be. They are here likely because a friend or a travel guide told them that Contramar is not to be missed, and it’s true that any staple on the menu (the tuna tostadas and the red-and-green grilled snapper), as well as some of the less popular options (the esmedregal al pastor, which is cobia rubbed with pineapple, onions, and chiles), is alone a reason to visit. But Contramar wouldn’t be Contramar without sobremesa.
I have, though, stopped insisting to foreign friends who visit that they leave an entire afternoon open for post-meal leisure to unfold there. I still think they should go, but the experience isn’t quite the same if you’re not running into friends. Even if you tag along with a local, the gossip they’ll be doling out and savoring can be interesting only to those at least tangentially involved. Your time, I believe, would be better spent rushing, however inelegantly, to one of the many encounters with the sublime that the city offers.
Finding the glamorization of “living like a local” misguided, I decided to try living like a tourist instead. I would experience the popular Centro Histórico—the city’s historic district—as if I were a visitor. First, I checked in at Círculo Mexicano, a newish hotel. I say newish not only because it opened a couple of years ago but also because the building itself is an exercise in bridging the past and present. Erected as one lavish residence in the nineteenth century, it was split into smaller dwellings in the twentieth and then, most recently, reimagined into a luxury boutique hotel by local architecture studio Ambrosi | Etchegaray. It’s a place for history nerds and design enthusiasts alike, where the renovation is subtle: sleekly minimalist spaces punctuated by artisanal accents with rich textures. The tasteful starkness of the rooms stands in pleasant contrast with the ornate facades of the surrounding buildings, which you can see up close through every window.
“It’s a rather generic idea,” writes Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli of the oft employed metaphor of cities as palimpsests. “But it’s perhaps particularly true of Mexico City, where the practice of repurposing ruins has been the rule and not the exception: the stones of Aztec ruins were used to build the first colonial buildings, and the ruins of those to build the neocolonial ones.” Nowhere else in the city are the layers of history more apparent than in the Centro, a chaotic place by day, unfolding atop the buried remains of Tenochtitlán—the capital of the Aztec empire—where constructions dating back to the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest serve as the backdrop for all kinds of commercial activities.
More than a thousand buildings in the neighborhood have been deemed important enough to protect as heritage sites, but somehow preservation efforts haven’t calcified the area. It is every bit a living urban sphere. Teenage girls swoon at the tiaras and dresses on display along the street dedicated to quinceañeras. Photographers haggle with vendors in shops that sell cameras and old-fashioned film. Seamstresses and clothing designers walk around, bumping other pedestrians with the rolls of fabric they carry tucked under their arms. My friend and his husband recently had their wedding rings made in a tiny workshop in the diamond district. Another friend keeps his art studio there, where he carves abstract sculptures made of volcanic stone. During my day exploring the Centro, I was somehow convinced by an expert salesman that I needed no fewer than eight pairs of colorful nylon tights.
I left his warehouse with my purchase and headed toward the Zócalo. I walked to the corner of the square that leads to the Templo Mayor, an archaeological site that was once the sacred center of the Aztec empire, twin pyramids dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the gods of war and rain, respectively. According to the legend, this is the site where the Aztecs encountered an eagle eating a snake atop a cactus, which they interpreted as a divine instruction to settle here after a previously nomadic existence. In 1521, the temple was destroyed by the Spanish to build the Metropolitan Cathedral, an enormous building incorporating various architectural styles that were popular during its prolonged construction. It was finished in 1813 and stands next to the sunken ruins of the pyramids: a tangible before and after.
I’ve always been entranced by places like this, where there’s a tension that is palpable yet ineffable. In a way, I think that sense of being split in two is at the heart of Mexican identity. How could it not be? Ours is a country that has always teetered between order and disarray, frenzy and repression, mythological splendor and everyday trivialities. I was happy to confirm that day that the seven years I’ve spent in the capital haven’t managed to blind me to its charms—that I could still feel, for a moment, like the outsider I once was.
That’s the value, to me, in not attempting to mimic the “authentic” experience of a local but instead embracing your genuine condition as a visitor; in chipping away at the surface knowing that’s all that is really within your reach. Were you to come to Mexico City, I would tell you to explore the obviously grand but also to wander into the unknown and unlauded—the anonymous restaurant, for instance, where a mediocre meal might allow you to turn your focus on your surroundings and become conspicuous to yourself. What else do we travel for but to be able to observe ourselves in a new light?
There is something powerful about each of the sites I love, a quality inherent to their materiality, but they also stir something in me that is entirely mine. This is what I think Mexico City is, really—a place that can reveal something personal to all who enter it, if they are attuned to listen.
Originally from Culiacán, Sinaloa, writer Ana Karina Zatarain is based in Mexico City. Her first book, To and From, will be published by Knopf in 2024.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Why You Should See Mexico City Like a Tourist.” Subscribe today.