Mexico City is having a moment. Fresh from curating the Royal Academy's exhibition on Mexican Art, Adrian Locke lists which of the city's museums matter most
Twenty years ago, Mexico City was tarnished with a reputation for filth, petty crime, dishonesty and violence. So I was uncertain as to what to expect when I was on my first visit, and was nervously planning as short a stay as I could get away with.
I knew the places I wanted to see and was keen to tick the main sights off my list, then head to a more tranquil environment. How wrong I was. I was captivated by Mexico City and its extraordinary museums.
Mexico consists of many parts, historically and culturally, so it can be a little overwhelming to decide what to see first. For me, the pre-Columbian period (that is before the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492) is a rich seam especially given most visitors have a sense of the Aztec and Maya before they arrive. Mexico City is the heart of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, and in the old colonial center of the city one can visit the Templo Mayor [Great Temple], an extraordinary museum. Likewise the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec, one of the greatest ethnographic museums in the world, is a must see. Less well known is the Anahuacalli, the museum that Diego Rivera – the most famous Mexican painter of the 20th century – designed and started to build to house his vast collection of pre-Columbian art. This imposing building, finished after his death, allows one to glimpse the type of objects that inspired artists in the 1930s and 1940s and which appeared in their work of the time. Relatively nearby are the houses of Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, where he lived in exile in Mexico until his assassination in 1940. Both are museums that allow a personal glimpse of these two individuals, linked by a brief love affair in 1937. Coyoacan with its colonial feel and shady squares is a delightful place to have lunch. In the area is the Museum of Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco (an area famed for its canals and raised fields system dating back more than 500 years where one can take a lazy boat trip). What was once a country estate, now hemmed in by roads, retains a beautiful and tranquil feel, and the museum has one of the finest (and largest) collections of Kahlo's work plus important works by Rivera and his first wife, the Russian artist Angelina Beloff.
The colonial period (when Spain ruled over what was known as New Spain from 1519 until the 1820s) is apparent through the huge number of churches and grand buildings in the historic center of the city. Housed in a former monastery is the Franz Mayer Museum, which has the greatest collection of decorative art and paintings from this period. The Chapultepec Castle, now the National Museum of History, houses an impressive collection (as well as modern murals) and was the residence of the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian, whose execution in 1867 was painted by Edouard Manet. The Soumaya Museum in Polanco, is very popular with Mexicans and houses the eclectic collection of Carlos Slim, the world's richest man. It is worth a visit for its unusual design.
The Museum of Popular Arts, located in a newly restored and exquisite Art Deco building close to the colonial center, celebrates the huge diversity of popular arts across Mexico with the finest examples (as indeed does the close by Collection of Banamex, housed in a 16th century palace). It is perhaps through the popular arts that one can really get a sense of the size and variety of Mexico today. Moreover, one can take some examples home as there is a shop full of tempting objects.
The Museum of Modern Art and Museo Rufino Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Chapultepec are surprisingly less visited than one might expect. The former has a stunning collection of 20th century Mexican art and photography boasting innovative hangs and temporary exhibitions (as can be said of the National Museum of Art in the colonial center) and the latter highlights the work of one of Mexico's most famous 20th century artists as well as temporary exhibitions. For contemporary art the Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC) located on the campus of the National Autonomous University, is a new building that attracts international artists of the highest caliber. It's off the beaten track, but receives fewer visitors than it deserves, and is well worth a visit as it reinforces Mexico's continuing commitment to the visual arts.
Where to eat
In terms of places to eat, there are new and old, traditional and modern. I personally love the dark intensity of the historic La Opera Bar. With its small, slightly cramped interior it is like going back in time. The well-known Café de Tacuba offers tradition (including a troupe of medieval music players) but can feel soulless when half-full, so aim to be there when it is busting with noise and wonderful aromas. There are three El Cardenal restaurants which also offer good traditional Mexican food. In what was once the courtyard of the palace housing Downtown México, is the fine and very popular Azul Histórico where one eats under trees in the open air. Finally in the colonial center of the city is the extraordinary Casino Español de México with its formidable exterior but bustling restaurant hidden upstairs. Further from the center is the new and incredibly stylish Pujol, which, thanks to its inspirational chef Enrique Olvera, has shot into the top 20 restaurants in the world with a menu full of surprises. For the traditionalist there is the old fashioned but delightful Bellinghausen in the Zona Rosa which has a quiet and cool patio hidden away from the busy streets outside. My final recommendation is Monica Patiño's Delirio, a mix of deli and relaxed brasserie in Condessa with homemade produce, which
it is hard to resist picking up on the way out and is reminiscent
of London or New York. A.L.
Where to stay
Like all great cities Mexico City offers wonderful accommodation. My personal favorite is the sprawling Hotel Camino Real which residents of the city have been known to check themselves into to steal a quiet weekend. Covering a block it offers an oasis of calm from the city with its garden and swimming pool. Even if you do not stay there you can enjoy a drink in the stylish lobby bar under the 1971 mural, El Hombre Frente al Infinito, by Rufino Tamayo. Downtown México, the new member of the Habita stable of hotels, is a funky restoration of a 16th century palace in the old historic center with a lively night life. The original Habita is a chic minimalist boutique hotel in the affluent Polanco district. Check out their super cool Condessa DF in the hip district of the same name. The Hotel Majestic has an enviable view over the Zócalo, the main square of the city with a delightful rooftop bar.
Adrian Locke is the curator of Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940 at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, until 29 September.