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The Cole Haan Guide to Mexico City
What to eat, see, and do in the bustling streets of CDMX.
By Olivia Villanti

There have been a lot of metaphors made about modern day Mexico City: It’s “the New York of the ‘80s”, or “the Berlin of the ‘90s”, or “the Barcelona of the ‘00s.” Which you could translate, loosely, to mean it’s a cultural hub that deserves a visit. It’s a place with a lot of energy—bolstered by a population of 21 million—and world-class restaurants, museums, markets, and more. While it’s daunting and perhaps even impossible to distill a list of must-dos to a narrow edit, if you manage to get in a solid mix of off-the-beaten path gems with the classics, you’ll get a hint of what this city is all about. There’s no straight-and-narrow way to explore, you need to follow the winding road and be open to wherever it leads you. Our stops below are a good guide for getting from A to Z, while leaving space for appropriate detours. Note that an attempt to put at least some grade-school level Spanish to use and a smile go a long way in this city.

All Illustrations by Russ Pope

What to See

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The National Museum Of Anthropology, Mexico City’s #1 tourist destination, actually lives up to the hype. It also allows you to choose your own adventure, meaning you can stay all day or just an hour. But be warned: You’ve got 857,890 square feet to explore if you choose to do the whole circuit. If you’re going to try and breeze through, don’t miss The Aztec Sun Stone (it’s this museum’s Mona Lisa). The modernist architecture of the museum is also impressive with every room spilling into a giant concrete courtyard and a stone column fountain that provides a welcome misty cool-down from CDMX’s midday heat.

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La Lagunilla market is an indelible part of Sunday in CDMX. It’s a giant flea market that runs adjacent to a daily tianguis (an open air market) in a colonia (neighborhood) that goes by the same name, La Lagunilla. All of these facts make it relatively confusing to find but here’s what you need to know: The flea market only sets up on Sundays from about 10AM–5PM and the main dropoff spot for your Uber should be along Calle Reforma. Now onto what you’ll find: A dizzying mix of mid-century furniture, rugs, kitschy ‘70s memorabilia, art (with varying degrees of authenticity), books, clothing, jewelry and more. It’s an adventure whether you’re there to shop or just browse with a spicy Michelada in your hand. And while having cash is important anywhere in Mexico, here it’s the only thing the stalls will accept.

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Curator and writer Su Wu opened Casa Ahorita in her garage this past fall and it’s already become a must-visit for travelers, expats, and locals in CDMX. Wu partners with Mexican artisans across the country to create limited-edition designs from hand-painted plates, to life-size ant sculptures, to sheepskin sandals. The results are unique, beautiful, and one of a kind. Her love of craftsmanship is evident in each piece and she will happily talk to you about every item in her shop. Just check their Instagram before you go as shop hours vary.

What to Eat

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Chef Gabriela Cámara’s first—and most renowned—restaurant is likely the most ubiquitous among tourists visiting CDMX. But don’t let that stop you: Contramar deserves its reputation. While you will probably hear a lot of English spoken at the surrounding tables, there are many things that make Contramar distinctly Mexican. First and foremost, the coastal fresh seafood. The tuna tostadas are, without hyperbole, mildly transcendental in their freshness. The whole grilled fish, slathered with green and red salsa and eaten on corn tortillas creates a perfect taco. Service is quick and attentive—you will want for nothing. Lastly, the vibe encourages the Mexican tradition of sobremesa which is a beautiful word for the hours spent post-meal drinking carajillos or mezcal over great conversation.

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If Mexico City had a signature dish the taco al pastor would be it. Pastor is, essentially, pork marinated in a cacophony of spices that includes the Mexican mainstay achiote, slow-cooked over an open flame, then served in a corn tortilla with diced raw onion, a dash of cilantro, and a slice of pineapple. It’s a delicious bite and Roma’s Taqueria Orinoco makes, arguably, the best of the bunch. With a cafeteria-style setting, this is not a sit-down-and-stay-a-while spot. You eat and go—which is exactly how a taco is supposed to be enjoyed. There are often lines out the door at their locations, but be patient because the food is worth it.

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Unlike Mexico City’s cosmopolitan counterparts, there’s a surprising absence of wine bars. Following their opening this past year, Hugo El Wine Bar proves there was a void to be filled if their notoriously long waits for tables during peak hours are any indication. Located in Condesa, with a menu full of delicious small plates and a wine list that includes natural varieties from across the globe, this is not a run-of-the-mill wine bar. It’s excellent. If you’re visiting from a city like New York, it may feel familiar but sometimes a little bit of familiarity is welcomed on the road—especially when it takes form like this. Bonus: It is also the place for people watching.

What to Do

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In the 20 or so years since his death, Luis Barragan has become internationally, and rightfully, recognized as one of the most influential architects of our time—which is why the Luis Barragán House and Studio is a must-visit. This house was his personal residence from its construction in 1948 through the final year of his life, in 1988. When you walk up to the entrance, it’s difficult to intuit what lies just on the other side of the stark gray wall, but the transition into the main foyer is transformative. Barragán was famous for his use of light and space and the serenity you experience upon entry is proof. Most of Barragán’s original furniture and artwork has been preserved, so theoretically you’re seeing the space as it would’ve been had the architect invited you over himself. Signature Barragán elements like brick red exterior walls, rail-less staircases, skylights doing a lamp’s job, and giant windows that obliterate the division between “in” and “out” are found throughout. It’s an unforgettable experience that speaks volumes about why Barragán has earned a reputation as one of the most important architects of the past century.

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Chances are that if you’re coming to Mexico you have one of the following on your shopping list: A pair of huaraches, an embroidered belt, barro negro (black clay) pottery, silver jewelry or woven housewares. The good news is if you spend a few hours at the Mercado de Artesanías La Ciudadela in Centro, you’ll find all of the above and so much more. It’s a one-stop spot for artisan-made anything and everything. The prices are fair, the scene is calm (and often quiet if you go on a weekday) and while it’s big, it isn’t overwhelming. A highlight to look for are the authentic, vintage ex-voto (votive) paintings. Plus, they make great gifts.

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Cucina, the new spot by Marco Carboni, the powerhouse chef behind Sartoria, features a rotating list of guest chefs teaching cooking classes or hosting tastings. From martini and oyster events to sourdough tutorials, there’s a lot of variety in their offerings. Reserve a spot in advance of your trip, we suspect whatever is happening during your stay will be worth the time.

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