Know Before You Go: Mexico City

Experience the best of Mexican traditions in the cosmopolitan capital of Mexico City.

One of the best times for a visit to Mexico City is during its Día de Muertos celebration. This lively holiday centers on November 1 (traditionally honoring deceased children) and 2 (honoring deceased adults), but spans from late October through early November. You can see and do everything you could the rest of the year, with the added spirit of Mexico at its festive finest. Look for ofrendas everywhere. These altars of remembrance hold flowers, candied skulls, toys, and sometimes bottles of tequila; some can be quite elaborate. You’ll also encounter plenty of catrinas—skeletons dressed to the nines.

While you’re in the city, or if you plan to visit Mexico City at other times of the year, take time to visit some of its UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Historic Center, Xochimilco, UNAM (Mexico’s largest public university), and architect Luis Barragan’s House and Studio. Mexico City has more museums than any city in the world except London. In 2008 UNESCO added Día de Muertos to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Here are some ideas to get you started.

WHEN TO GO: Perched at 7,382 feet, Mexico City enjoys pleasant weather year-round, with summer and autumn high temperatures in the low 70s. In the dry months of winter, the thermometer ranges from the low 40s to around 70F, while spring can climb into the upper 70s. It’s a good idea to use sunscreen, drink plenty of water, and, on your first day or two, take it easy. To enjoy Day of the Dead activities, plan to visit Mexico City from mid-October to the first week in November.

PACK: Bring a good pair of walking shoes for your explorations about the city and environs. Plan on casual clothes during the day, but something a little dressier for restaurants and bars. A light jacket for cooler evenings can come in handy.

SLEEP: Some of the best hotels options are found in the upscale Polanco and Reforma areas. The mix of leafy neighborhoods and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture with bustling thoroughfares and modern conveniences make these areas a big draw. One of the city’s top boutique hotels, Las Alcobas pampers you at every turn—from the welcome refreshments to the in-room spa. Situated in the heart of Polanco’s business and entertainment district, the hotel was designed to create an intimate retreat within the city.

Located on the lovely Paseo de Reforma (the Champs Élysées of Mexico City), Le Meridien offers luxury rooms, a gym, and swimming pool within walking distance of great museums and 18th-century palaces. Also on the Paseo de Reforma, St. Regis has palatial rooms, with 350-thread-count Pratesi linens, marble baths, and state-of-the-art technology. And the nearby Four Seasons is always a reliable word in luxury.

EXPLORE: A showcase of Mexican folk art, the MAP Museum (Museo de Arte Popular) features a large Day of the Dead altar, as well as its regular exhibits, workshops, and seminars. After taking in the museum, stroll along the Paseo de la Reforma to see the Mexicraneos Expo, an exhibit of 50 monumental skulls created by Mexican artists.

You don’t want to miss the Day of the Dead Parade, a colorful procession of flower-bedecked floats and costumed revelers. At night visit the spooked-out Victoria Hotel of Legends and experience an immersive theatrical experience as you “check in” and hear chilling tales from three bellboys. Be sure to get tickets ahead of time.

On another day, check out the Casa Frida Kahlo in the vibrant Coyoacan neighborhood; the famous Mexican artist worked and was born here. Craving more art? The Dolores Olemedo Museum holds a huge collection of pre-Hispanic, colonial, folk, and modern art, as well as a special Day of the Dead exhibit. While you’re in the southern part of the city, you can experience La Llorona (legend of the Crying Woman), a dance and music presentation at the Xochimilco canals, originally built by the Aztecs.

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Looking for further adventures? Head out to the sprawling temple complex of Teotihuacan, with its impressive Avenue of the Dead. Later, go on a Tacos and Mezcal tour. Admire the Day of the Dead altars in the gardens of Ciudad Universitaria, the main campus of UNAM.

SHOP: Promenade the ritzy Avenida Presidente Masaryk if you’re looking for upmarket shopping. For high quality Mexican silver, you’ll want to go to Tane, which dates from the early 1940s. Silk ties, scarves, and other luxury accessories are at Pineda Covalin. For Mexican handcrafts head to La Ciudadela market, where hundreds of vendors sell colorful handbags, dolls, instruments, and the like.

EAT: In Mexico City you can sample cuisine from all over the country. How about mole poblano made with shrimp and cactus? Or toasted corn chilaquiles scones and banana-leaf wrapped whole fish, followed by mango pound cake? You could start with lunch at Azul Histórico, located in a 17th-century building. Fresh, warm tortillas accompany such dishes as cochinita pibil (pit-roasted pig) and vegetarian enchiladas de jamaica organica. Along with outstanding gastronomy, Blanco Colima serves up after-dark atmosphere with its mixology and music. Fonda Fina features fine cuisine made from fresh, local ingredients—try the crema poblana or the fried peneques tortillas. Porfirios offers a good mix of Mexican cuisine incorporating a variety of regional traditions.

The question is not if you're interested in going, the question is how far will you go?

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