Mexico City is so close you can have your morning bodega coffee and still get there by noon, then have the rest of the day to dive into a city full of art, literature, bizarre amphibians, and, of course, tortas.
Grab a taxi from the airport to the neighborhoods of La Condesa or Roma Norte, and walk around the beautiful Hipódromo, a former racetrack now flanked by the city’s most upscale and rapidly gentrifying districts, with new restaurants, boutiques stuffed into the tiniest of storefronts, and outdoor cafés and bars that let you watch the endless parade of resident dogs. Glorious clashings of dissonant architecture, built after the 1985 earthquake, stand side-by-side along the tree-lined streets where the Font sisters lived in their gated home in Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives.
If that puts you in a literary mood, duck into El Pendulo, a small bookstore chain featuring new novels from the city’s resurgent fiction scene. Even if your Spanish isn’t up to the task, stock up on books from presses like Sexto Piso, known for publishing pretty much every great young Mexican novelist, including Valeria Luiselli, whose Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is the single best book on the North American refugee crisis (and available in English). With book-filled tote in hand, grab a torta from Torteria Jardín, a literal hole-in-the-wall with the best tortas in Mexico City. Ask for the pierna and eat it in the nearby Parque México, where schoolkids will most likely be making out (at any time of day).
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To walk off the calories, follow the tree-lined Avenida Veracruz to Chapultepec Park, home to the Chapultepec Castle, which was built in the 18th century then later turned into an imperial palace by the French when they briefly controlled Mexico during the American Civil War. The castle features breathtaking murals by Gabriel Flores — a mid-century artist whose stature rivaled Diego Rivera — that memorialize the deaths of six young Mexican soldiers during the Mexican-American War. Hope for happier days ahead for international relations as you savor the mamey ice cream at Nevería Roxy, a Fifties-style ice cream joint, then watch the light of the day slowly fade from the inside of La Clandestina on Avenida Álvaro Obregón, where you’ll find the best mezcal outside of Oaxaca.
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The next morning, grab breakfast at Rosetta, a French-Mexican panadería tucked into a century-old townhouse. Go for the bollos de romero, small balls of dough packed with rosemary (which might be what happiness tastes like), down some of the strongest coffee you’ll find in Mexico (which is more of an espresso town), and then head back to Chapultepec for the Museo Nacional de Antropología. You’ll need at least three hours to get through even half of the thousands of years of cultural history stored inside the architecturally stunning space, which surrounds a gigantic concrete umbrella that looks like it might tip over at any moment. You’ll also find out why Mexico City was built on a lake (spoiler: an eagle was eating a snake there), and how that’s causing large portions of the aging city to sink.
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Take the Metrobús crosstown to Coyoacán, home to generations of artists, including Frida Kahlo. Walk through her beautiful blue home, where you can check out her studio, some original works, and her deathbed — then visit the nearby Museo Casa de León Trotsky, where Frida’s onetime lover was killed by a Soviet assassin with an ice ax. Dream of the people’s revolution while wandering the Viveros de Coyoacán, a public park where the city’s trees are grown and then distributed elsewhere when they reach maturity. Get some rest for a full day of drinking micheladas on a boat in the floating gardens of Xochimilco, just a half-hour taxi ride from the center of the city. (Taxis are abundant, especially near the Zócalo, the unofficial center of the city.)
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At Xochimilco, rent a boat for yourself or with newfound friends and drift along the canals for hours, as floating musicians and food vendors swing by to hand you another michelada or several more tacos. The boats are long and flat-bottomed, each with a separate name and color scheme, while wide enough to contain a dining table that could fit at least twelve. You can rent one for three hours for less than $20. Get a sunburn and look out for the near-immortal axolotl, a salamander indigenous to the canals and capable of growing back entire limbs, even parts of its brain.
Don’t forget to finally get off the boat, buy a hammock as a souvenir, and with your remaining pesos (at least 150, just to be safe) hail a cab to get back to the airport, because your time in Mexico está ya completa.
Where to stay
Seek out any Airbnb in the tree-lined neighborhoods of Condesa, Roma Norte, or Centro Histórico, or splurge on the Four Seasons on the Paseo de la Reforma.
How to get there
Aeroméxico runs flights about every two hours from JFK, with prices starting at $300.
What to do/see
Walk around Chapultepec Park and Castle, see the Museo Nacional de Antropología, take a ride on a boat in Xochimilco, tour Frida Kahlo’s house, and see three cultures at once (pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, and Mestizo) at the Zócalo.
What to eat/drink