Journey by Design: Mexico City

Journey by Design: Mexico City

By Kate Reggev
Richly layered and elegant with an edge, the capital of Mexico is brimming with incredible art, design, history, and architecture at every turn.

As the capital of Mexico and the most populous city in North America, Mexico City is as complex as it is large—and its layered history and culture make it fertile grounds for some of the most exciting design, architecture, and art around the globe. 

Founded by the Aztecs in 1325 as Tenochtitlan, Mexico City, also known as MXDF, is the oldest capital city in the Americas; it was nearly completely destroyed in 1521 by the Spanish, who then promptly redesigned and rebuilt the city. The new city was planned with a mixture of colonial European urban design with a local twist: the basic existing Aztec layout remained, but the destroyed Aztec temples were replaced with a grand Catholic church at the center of the city, along with royal and religious palaces and government buildings. 

Mexico City's Centro Histórico is full of buildings that span the centuries of the city's history, from the colonial period through today. 

A new era of construction and building design came after the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, which ended the rule of Spain over Mexico, and throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the city followed more of a European-style Art Nouveau. During the 20th century, Modernism in art, architecture, and design took hold in Mexico City as the city expanded, and the 1968 Olympics had a lasting effect with the construction of the subway system, large-scale sports facilities, and a logo that designers still admire today. 

Mexico City's Centro Histórico faced a fate similar to those of other major historic downtowns in Latin America, and was left to deteriorate for decades during the 20th century. The area has seen major revitalization in the past 10 or 20 years, however, and it shows—many of the neighborhood's historic buildings are being restored and reused for exciting new uses. 

All of these factors have produced a culture that is rich, multi-layered, and contradictory (in the best way) in this sprawling city, and this is reflected in the art, design, and cuisine that is undeniably alluring and captivating. Read on as we explore this city’s range of art and history, artisanal shops, mezcalerias, and historic and modern hotels—but be forewarned, this is just the tip of the iceberg! 

What to See and Do

The Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Anthropology Museum) 

The Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City houses incredible archaeological and anthropological finds, including art and artifacts from the Mayan, Aztec, and Olmec civilizations. The building's distinctly modern design contrasts with the historic findings inside.

One of the best places to understand firsthand the layered history of Mexico City is the Museo Nacional de Antropología—the largest museum in Mexico and most visited museum in the country. The museum contains significant archaeological and anthropological artifacts from Mexico's pre-Columbian heritage, including the Stone of the Sun (giant stone heads of the Olmec civilization that were found in the jungles of Tabasco and Veracruz) and Mayan artifacts. These historical items are housed in a decidedly modern building that was completed in 1964 by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez. 

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo House Studio Museum

Connected by a bridge, the separate studios/residences of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are open to the public. The compound was designed by Juan O'Gorman, an important figure of functionalism in the Mexican art and architecture scene.

Art and architecture fans will not want to miss the house and studio spaces of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, which was designed by the renowned Mexican artist and architect Juan O’Gorman, friend of Rivera, and completed in the 1930s following a functionalist style. The geometric shapes of the buildings—Rivera and Kahlo shared the property but each had their own house connected by an elevated bridge—is celebrated in bright colors, and the interiors are filled with pieces of both artists’ work and collections. Don’t miss the cactus fence that surrounds the property, a nod to local climate and plantings that also provides privacy.

UNAM (Ciudad Universitaria) Campus in Coyoacán

Modernism, Mexican-style, is on view at UNAM’s school of medicine. Francisco Eppens designed the elaborate mural on the Facultad de Medicina building’s façade.

Also not to be missed for architecture and design lovers is the campus of UNAM, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Autonomous National University of Mexico)—one of the top research universities. Designed in the 1950s by some of Mexico’s best-known architects including Mario Pani, Enrique del Moral, Domingo García Ramos, Armando Franco Rovira, and Ernesto Gómez Gallardo, the campus is today a UNESCO World Heritage site. Be sure to drink in the incredible materials and public art that covers the walls of many of the buildings— these types of murals have been an important part of Mexican art and architecture since the 1920s. 

Centro Histórico (Historic Center) 

The Palacio des Bellas Artes, located west of the Zocalo, or Plaza de la Constitución, is home to an extravagant art nouveau lobby and murals by José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera.

Mexico City boasts the largest plaza in Latin America, and one that holds particular significance: it was originally the main ceremonial center in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Plaza de la Constitucion is at the center of the historic city center, which is bordered by monuments including the Palacio Nacional, the Cathedral Metropolitana, the Templo Mayor with its adjoining museum, and Nacional Monte de Piedad building. A walk through the plaza, its buildings, and the surrounding neighborhood will take you back in history and bring you some of Mexico’s most exciting contemporary spaces as well (more on that below). You’ll notice that many of the buildings are in various states of repair and disrepair, because since the early 2000s, the Mexican government, along with private investments, has sought to revitalize this area of the city. 

What to Eat and Drink

Milán 44

Milan 44 in Colonia Juarez is an exciting reuse of an old warehouse in the neighborhood. Inside, visitors can find everything from a barber to a sushi restaurant to a rooftop bar featuring local beer.

Located in a formerly abandoned warehouse, Milan 44 is a mixed-use building in the city’s Colonia Juarez neighborhood. The building’s market-like variety of activities and spaces include a beauty salon, barber, pilates and yoga studios, a coffee bar, sushi restaurant, and rooftop bar serving beer from local micro-brewery Cru Cru. Architects Francisco Pardo Arquitecto and Julio Amezcua made sure that during the renovation of the building, it still retained its industrial vibe. 

Condesa DF

The patio café at Condesa df is framed by the hotel’s unique sliding balcony shades.

In the trendy, bohemian neighborhood of Condesa lies a Condesa DF, a hotel with a fabulous restaurant with modern interiors designed by architect Javier Sánchez and Paris–based designer India Mahdavi. The hotel and restaurant are located in a neoclassical building from the 1920s, and the restaurant serves up a unique menu of Mexi-Franco food that reflects the neighborhood’s fusion of local and European architecture.

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The interior of Sanborns Casa de los Azulejos restaurant features floor-to-ceiling murals in the courtyard of the historic palace. 

History buffs will relish the opportunity to dine in the Casa de los Azulejos, or "House of Tiles," a centuries-old mansion in the historic center. With an unforgettable facade of traditional blue and white tiles, the building is today the flagship of a Mexican chain of restaurants and department stores originally run by the Sanborns brothers. The restaurant is located in the palace’s courtyard, allowing for perfect viewing of a mosaic fountain and two oversized murals completed in the early 20th century. Consider starting your day here with some enchiladas suizas before embarking on a walk exploring the historic center. 

Mezcaleria La Clandestina 

La Clandestina, a mezcal bar in Colonia Condesa, features 25 different kinds of mezcal as well as mezcal-based cocktails and small bites to eat like tostadas, fundidos, and chalupitas. 

Tucked into the streets of the city’s Colonia Condesa neighborhood lies Mezcaleria La Clandestina, a mezcal bar that serves 25 different types of mezcal and has become one of the top places to taste the local beverage. The bar’s walls are lined with large glass bottles of mezcal that glow in a moody light, making it as smoky and mysterious as the drink itself. 

Where to Stay

Downtown Mexico

Downtown Mexico is a hotel located in a historic colonial mansion, with a rooftop bar whose views and vibe are not to be missed.

What this boutique hotel in the historic center of Mexico City lacks in number of rooms (there are only 17 rooms and suites), it makes up for in ambiance, design, and dining (side note: the building also offers hostel lodging under the name Downtown Beds). Housed in one of the oldest residences in the neighborhood, the building was constructed in the 17th century but blends this colonial style with local, indigenous culture in a renovation by Serrano & Cherem Arquitectos and interior design by Paul Roco. If you’re not able to reserve a room, fear not: the ground floor features several artisanal shops and a restaurant, and the rooftop has a lovely bar. 

Apartment Rental in Roma Norte

At a two-bedroom apartment in the hip neighborhood of Roma, the majority of the furnishings and textiles were made by Mexican designers and artisans, allowing visitors to really surround themselves with local design.

If staying in a hotel isn’t your thing, apartments and rooms for rent abound across the city. Consider staying in the neighborhood of Roma, where you can rent this two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment that has been completely outfitted with art, objects, furniture, and fabrics by Mexican designers and artisans. The bedrooms are well-equipped with Tempur-Pedic mattresses, so you know you’ll be sleeping well, and the generous floor-to-ceiling windows are perfect for observing the street scenes below.

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Originally dating to the 1970s, Hotel Carlota was revamped by JSa Arquitectura and completed in 2015. As part of the renovation, a pool became the focal point of the courtyard, and its modernized, streamlined design makes a dramatic statement.

Formerly Hotel Jardin Amazonas, Carlota was redesigned by local firm JSa Arquitectura and art-directed by Cadena & Asociados. The goal was to not only renovate, but also to meld past and present, calling to the forefront the neighborhood in which it resides—Cuauhtémoc, an area teeming with history with the U.S. and British embassies. Reforma 222—a major mixed-use commercial project that takes up an entire city block—the Historic Center, Zona Rosa, and La Condesa are just minutes away.

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Minimalist glamour in the form of fine finishes, tall ceilings, large windows, and white walls are found at the Distrito Capital Hotel in Mexico City's skyscraper district, Santa Fe.

If minimalist interiors and stunning views are what you’re seeking, then look no further than Distrito Capital Hotel. Located in Santa Fe, the skyscraper district of the city, the hotel was designed by Diámetro Arquitectos and David Cherem, Isaac Sasson; the interiors were designed by Joseph Dirand, the art by Thomas Glassford, and the graphic design by Research Studios and Pablo Rovalo.

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