The Cultural Guide to Mexico City

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I always knew I was going to dislike Mexico City. Everything I read before my trip foreshadowed an insipid megalopolis drowning in the sea of frou-frou restaurants, superfluous street art and über-rich neighborhoods that makes most American cities north of the Rio Grande unbearable to visit.

While I hoped going there myself would prove this assumption wrong—I hate putting my name on anything that could be perceived as a hit piece—I fell asleep my first night in Mexico City wishing I’d skipped it for Baja California or Oaxaca.

Mexico City: Downtown Disaster

I try to strike a balance between the tourist trail and the less-beaten path in my blog posts, but I generally begin my own time in a city with a visit to its most ubiquitous landmark. In Mexico City’s case this was Zócalo square, which was desecrated by the ugliest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen, and a massive plastic slide that made the plaza all but impossible to photograph.

Bothered but still bullish, I made my way westward along Avenida Cinco de Mayo toward the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is probably Mexico City’s other most-famous landmark. While not obscured by hideous decorations (well, unless you count the nearby Torre Latinoamericana, whose observation deck is inexplicably a no-DSLR zone), it was far less attractive in-person than it had appeared in photos, though I decided to reserve full judgment until after night fell.

In the interim I headed north to Plaza Garibaldi, where I expected to find mariachis strumming and singing, but instead found them bored and talking shit amongst themselves, to say nothing of the generally run-down condition of the square.

As the sun descended toward the horizon, I ascended to Café don Porfirio, which seemed to be the best place to marvel at the aforementioned performance hall. But I ended up leaving just seconds after arriving, as construction on the Sears department store below had all but obstructed any view of the now lit-up Palacio.

Apartment in Mexico City's La Condesa neighborhood
Zócalo square in Mexico City
Mariachi musician in Mexico City
Robert Schrader at Teotihuacan, Mexico
Mexican mole at Teotihuacan
Street scene in La Condesa, Mexico City
Mexico City's Angel of Independence

La Concesión

Disappointed, I retreated to my apartment in the famed La Condesa neighborhood, which I’d admittedly found charming upon my mid-day arrival from the airport and during my hurried check-in. Taking to the district’s streets in search of dinner, on the other hand, was nothing short of an exercise in soul-depletion.

In addition to the fact that nearly every person I walked past was white and speaking English, many of the restaurants my host had recommended were precisely the dens of condescension and pretentiousness that make me happy I left the US. Just as I conceded I’d be going to bed hungry, I happened upon a deserted taqueria, where I wolfed down a plate of conchinita pibil.

Muy rico!” I answered the sweet, middle-aged waiter when he asked me how my meal tasted, wishing I could say the same, in my heart of hearts, about the rest of my experience in his city thus far.

Day Trips and Denouement

Being that I had only 48 hours in Mexico City before my planned excursion to see the monarch butterfly colony at Cerro Pelon, I’d always intended to wake up my second day without a definitive course of action. The aftertaste of Wednesday afternoon and evening was still quite rancid on Thursday morning, however, so I decided the safest bet would be to make a day trip to the pyramids to Teotihuacan.

This proved a satisfying choice, not only because my crack-of-dawn arrival at the historical site meant I had it almost to myself, but because a tacky tourist restaurant nearby served me perhaps the most satisfying plate of mole I’ve ever torn into. Arriving back to my Airbnb around noon, I faced a binary choice for the evening: Venture out of town again, this time to the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco; or make a second attempt at appreciating the city center.

I ended up walking through door two, but rather than exploring the much-hyped districts of La Roma and Polanco (which I feared would be even more whitewashed than La Condesa), I decided to enjoy the view from Chapultepec Castle, before heading down Paseo de la Reforma to admire its skyscrapers (and El Ángel de la Independencia, the de-facto symbol of Mexico City) as day darkened into night.

Oddly, this proved to be my most fulfilling experience in the city-proper, which surprised many of my Instagram followers. “Sorry you weren’t blown away,” one wrote, as if leaving a comment in a guest book at a funeral.

(Yo también, mi amigo.)

The Bottom Line

I’ll admit that I didn’t devote enough time to Mexico City—hell, I didn’t even see any Frida-related sights—and although I arrived vowing to prove prevailing narratives about the city wrong, the cynical light they painted it in obscured my judgment. With this being said, I stand by my general conclusion—that Mexico City is vastly overrated—and imagine much of its positive reputation among Norteamericanos derives from how poorly-traveled they tend to be.

I plan to return to Mexico in the future, but while I can see myself making a second visit to delightful Guadalajara, there’s almost no chance I’ll give Mexico City another one.

Also see Head to Mexico City for Culture and Art, and this Guide to Guadalajara Mexico and this one.

Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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