Inside the magical courtyard garden of famed artist Frida Kahlo, the striking cobalt blue walls are rimmed with green and red accents around windows and doorways.
Long, pointed leaves of potted plants and towering trees breathe life and green into the space. Indigenous statues dot the grounds; they were hand-picked by Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, and provide a glimpse into their artistic muses and styling.
Wandering the garden, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. So did other visitors, I noted, who were not shy about taking a selfie or two — or 20. Given the breathtaking backdrop, it shouldn’t have surprised me that La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, has become a prime spot for that more modern art form. I laughed out loud as I saw the dramatic, moody expressions of other visitors’ faces as they snapped away on their smartphones in the courtyard.
Before too much eye-rolling ensued, it occurred to me that there was perhaps no more appropriate place for selfies than in the house of Frida. After all, she was, of course, most well known for her self-portraits. So in a way, we were all just paying homage to the original queen of selfies, right?
Kahlo’s image is experiencing a rebound at the moment, her distinctive face showing up on T-shirts, cooking aprons and pillows in Mexico and beyond. Interest in Mexico City, where she lived much of her life, is rebounding, too.
Still, the sprawling, bustling city had not yet made it onto my own list of the top places in the world I wanted to visit. So when one of my frequent travel buddies suggested we meet up there, I needed some persuading.
“What would we do there?” I texted her.
Her response was immediate and definitive: “Art. Fashion. Food. Architecture.”
It was hard to argue with that.
A month or so later, I soon found out for myself why Mexico City, whose reputation was once marred by stories of kidnappings and high crime, has increasingly been considered one of the next up-and-coming hot travel destinations.
As my plane descended into Ciudad de Mexico last August, I stared in wonder at the dense city below me with its many clusters of tall buildings that seemed to go on as far as the eye could see. I shouldn’t have been surprised; it is, after all, one of the world’s most populous cities.
A hipster enclave
A quick — and relatively cheap — Uber ride took us from the airport to an apartment we rented through Airbnb in the bohemian neighborhood of Roma Norte, known for its bars, restaurants, art galleries and boutiques.
With adrenaline pumping at being in a new city, we quickly dropped off our things and immediately hit the streets in search of a late-night snack and some mezcal.
We ended up at a hip, darkly lit mezcaleria a couple of blocks away that could have easily been transposed from the Lower East Side of New York. Skilled mixologists — who laughed kindheartedly at our terrible Spanish and helped fill in our gaps with their limited English — prepared some tasty libations for us. We toasted to our first night in Mexico City. It was an auspicious start.
The next morning, the first item on the agenda was caffeine, Luckily, a cute coffee shop, Buna, was close by. Drip coffee was nowhere to be found here. Rather, stylish baristas hand-poured each coffee drink, another sign we were staying smack dab in the middle of a hipster mecca.
Over the next several days, we strolled many of the city’s picturesque neighborhoods, often stopping to chill out at the serene parks and plazas that make the city feel very European. They were perfect spots for people-watching — and dog-watching, as hired walkers often entertained and hustled to keep track of all of the pets on their leashes.
Condesa, a neighborhood near our rental with some of the city’s best restaurants and bars, has two particularly lovely parks with canopies of trees and a duck-filled pond.
And then there’s the granddaddy of them all, Chapultepec Park, a massive urban oasis that reminded me of New York’s Central Park. At a large lake there, locals rent orange and blue pedal boats. Throughout the park, numerous stands offer an eclectic mix of tchotchkes and salty snacks.
The park is also home to a castle, once the stamping ground of Mexico’s rulers atop a hill; the hike up is well worth the effort. We ambled up the sloping walkway and arrived at the top just a half-hour or so before it closed. So we found ourselves speed-walking through its beautifully manicured courtyard, black-and-white checked floors, and rooms with stained glass windows. The castle is a feast for the eyes — and so is the view of the city spread out below. We wished we had more time to explore it; that feeling became a recurrent theme during the trip.
When it comes to art, Mexico City’s bountiful offerings go well beyond Kahlo and Rivera, though they are a major draw for tourists. And for good reason. I could have spent hours studying and admiring Rivera’s revolutionary murals at the National Palace.
But I quickly found that there is a whole lot more to see beyond that. Of the abundance of art museums, we hit several. One of the highlights was the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporaneo, which seemed to be popular with young Mexicans, not surprising since it’s located on a college campus. We were lucky enough to catch an exhibit by British sculptor Anish Kapoor (the artist behind “Cloud Gate,” the “bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park) replete with many of his funhouse-type mirrors and fantastical art installations. Mexico City’s selfie game was alive and well at this spot, too.
We didn’t have to go out of our way to find art — we bumped into it everywhere we went. Colorful, edgy and sometimes political street artworks dot the city’s concrete walls, often in surprising places and around unsuspecting corners.
Food, we discovered, was just another art form, and we ate our way across Mexico City.
A number of highly acclaimed chefs have put the city on the map as a growing foodie hot spot. Because of the generous currency conversion that favors the U.S. dollar, we didn’t feel too guilty about splurging on more extravagant multicourse meals at some of the city’s finer restaurants. But we didn’t have to go fancy to eat well.
We were a bit wary of trying out the vibrant and tempting street food scene of taco stands that reminded me of the food truck scene in the U.S. But we got our fill of tacos through other means.
Our Airbnb host pointed us to one of our most memorable meals. She recommended El Parnitas, a popular place among locals that was about a 10-minute walk from the apartment, right when it opened at 1 p.m. to avoid having to wait for a table. We got there a good 15 minutes early, but still weren’t the first ones in line.
The restaurant itself, with its simple decor, didn’t look that impressive. But we knew we were in for a treat when our server brought us a refreshing (and free) appetizer of jicama sticks splashed with a spicy sauce.
Then we went a little taco crazy (when in Mexico ... ), ordering several tacos from the menu’s extensive list. Wrapped in house-made tortillas, they were oh so tasty, especially when topped off with the array of colorful salsas brought to our table.
The city’s Beverly Hills
When it came time to shop, the city’s many mazelike markets offered an endless supply of bright and pastel-colored Mexican peasant shirts and frocks of various quality. For the nicer stuff, we found ourselves returning again and again to the boutiques of Carla Fernandez that can be found across the city. An acclaimed fashion designer, Fernandez works with indigenous communities to make traditional textiles that she styles into loosefitting, contemporary designs. My friend and I both found some pieces to add to our wardrobe.
To be sure, we mostly kept to the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, where the wealth could be jaw-dropping. It was not unusual at some restaurants for servers to bring out stands on which to place your handbags, and I would sheepishly hang up my banged-up purse.
While wandering around Polanco, which is like the city’s Beverly Hills, I felt like I could bump into Carlos Slim at any moment and not know it among the sea of men in well-tailored business suits.
It was a much different scene in the city’s crowded and bustling Centro Historico, where we shared the streets with an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life. The area is jam-packed with a number of tourist sites — the stunning Palacio de Bellas Artes and the massive square, the Zócalo, flanked by ornate buildings such as the gilded Metropolitan Cathedral.
Getting to and from this part of the city in the afternoon also introduced us to another fact of life in Mexico City: mind-numbing traffic.
An art market
On our last full day, we headed out to the neighborhood of San Angel to visit its famous art market. On weekends, artists sell their paintings in the square and other artisans sell weavings and handmade pottery. The market has grown so big that it now spills out into nearby streets.
A contemporary open-air mall across the street also offers some higher-end Mexican designer fashions and wares.
After shopping, we had a memorable last meal at one of the restaurants around the square. I chowed down on an unforgettable chile relleno that looked like it was floating in tomato broth; I washed it down with a Pacifico beer. And, of course, there was an endless supply of fresh-made tortillas that kept coming to our table to accompany it. It was the perfect last day that hit on all of the main themes of the trip.
Since I returned to Minnesota, many friends and co-workers have quizzed me about what I did in Mexico City and why I would go there on vacation. I recognize the same curiosity — and skepticism — in their voices that I had when my friend first suggested it to me.
Just like she did, I begin my response with four words:
“Art. Fashion. Food. Architecture.”
Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113