In one of the world's biggest cities, high and low art coalesce and stereotypes are busted at every turn. Here are our tips on where to go to get in on the action, and what you need to do to stay safe till the sun comes up again.
Sure enough, you can have your fill of swooning mariachis in Plaza Garibaldi, slam tequila shots in spit and sawdust neighborhood cantinas and gyrate to salsa and cumbia in the clubs and bars of the Centro Histórico, but Mexico City is more than the sum of its clichés.
The French influence (most people forget that Napoleon III of France established the second Mexican Empire) holds sway in elegant neoclassical bars and cafés, the renowned Ballet Folklórico de México dances to critical acclaim at the Art Deco Palacio de Bellas Artes and in hip hotels, such as Hotel Habita, local celebrities preen on stylish roof terraces.
Regardless of age or vocation, chilangos fully subscribe to the notion that the weekend begins on a Thursday; also referred to as ‘little Fridays' or juebebes, an amalgam of Jueves (Thursday) and beber (to drink).
After sundown, when the traffic chaos has subsided and the smog has cleared a little, Mexico City truly comes into its own. Most bars don't even start to hum, never mind buzz, until around 10pm. Nightclubs open their doors after midnight and pulsate until cafés open for breakfast—it's every night crawler's rite of passage to party until the live music begins again around 8:30am.
Most chilangos launch their evening with the precopeo (or pre-party), a laid back gathering at a party elder's home or under a fluorescent glow at a local café. As the night unfolds, the overarching theme is variety. The chilangos' night on the town isn't complete until they have embraced every aspect of the city's bohemian life and redefined for the media's mood makers, just what's cool. Revelers hop from bristling cantina to gallery opening, taco joint to topless bar and from charmingly tacky cabaret act to chic hotel terrace, regardless as to whether a dress code applies or there's a 9am meeting on the docket.
Of course, snarf some tacos, be serenaded by a mariachi and coif tequila but, when you're done with all that, cast your net wider and get under the skin of the city that forever pushes the envelope when it comes to offbeat entertainment.
On every street, in every neighborhood, you'll find the slummy, the sophisticated, the sensational, the inspired and the outlandish coalesce with a surreal energy. As erstwhile resident Gabriel García Márquez aptly remarked, "surrealism runs through the streets [in Mexico]. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America."
Bar La Opera, Colonia Centro
The iconic Bar La Opera began its life as a French patisserie (Napoleon III of France, following on the heels of the Aztecs and Spaniards, claimed Mexico as his own in 1863). With its ornate décor—chandeliers, velvet curtain, lavish banquettes and a gold leaf ceiling sporting one of Pancho Villa's bullet holes—it has always attracted Latin America's intelligentsia; previous patrons include Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. The service is excellent, the tequila free flowing and the classic menu (try bull's testicles) extensive.
Only in Mexico City could a former fellowship hall (with really bad lighting) for old age pensioners become one of the most fashionable watering holes in the city. Every night of the week, this eclectic Roma cantina buzzes with aspiring beatniks, slick executives glued to their cell phones and a coterie of new age navel gazers. Meanwhile, old men drink tequila, put the world to rights and play dominoes. While the tequila-laced cocktails are a major draw, it's the refreshing dose of community inclusivity that makes the place so extraordinary.
La Perla, Colonia Centro
This retro cabaret lounge and former red light venue has found its vocation as a camp dance hall featuring hilarious drag shows (11:30pm and 1:30am). The décor, which juxtaposes images of Marilyn Monroe, Jesus Christ and a giant oyster, speaks to the bar's Dalí-esque ambience. To a soundtrack of Barry White and Earth,Wind and Fire, rock chicks, hipsters, tourists and a fair few fetishists down beer and sip tequila while a swinging crowd tears up the dance floor. Book early for shows; tickets sell out fast.
Bar Tenampa, Plaza Garibaldi
This hallowed bar has been a mariachi's parade ground since 1925. With hulking swing doors, colorful murals and a vaulted brick ceiling, Tenampa is a fascinating crossroads where Mexico's authentic and tourist-board generated images coalesce to a bizarre effect. Every Mexican knows of the place, movies have been filmed here and teary eyed locals will wax lyrical about the time they saw the iconic Pedro Infante or Miguel Aceves strum a ranchero ballad to them from across the room. Even the most jaded traveler can't help but enjoy the festive vibe.
La Faena, Colonia Centro
Definitely no wine, certainly no cocktails at this no-frills 1920s' time warp cantina. La Faena would have the drab feel of an empty dance hall were it not for the irreverent décor (including a Technicolor shrine, a giant glass case display featuring a bull fighter and an antique cash register) smatterings of kitsch and inebriated chit chat from the seamed-faced clientele. Less on the tourist trail than Tenampa, it's worth a visit for the people watching alone, especially after a bullfight.
When crisscrossing neighborhoods at night, always take registered sitio taxis rather than public transportation (anytime after 9pm this is a good rule of thumb). Never hail a taxi in the street. Once you enter a cab, check your driver has a license (although even legit cabs often don't). A well-publicized streak of robberies has occurred in fake taxis so always be on your guard and watch out for creative fare scams.
The city's double-decker Turibus offers a convenient nighttime service on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to the hottest party spots in the city.
Aspiring Puff Daddies should forget the bling. Valuables, especially expensive watches, jewelry, cameras and devices, should stay locked up in your hotel room. Bring only the cash you will need for the evening and stash it inside ‘secret' pockets sewn into your pants or skirt.
In Mexico City, be especially aware that pickpockets are active in tourist heavy destinations, including Plaza de Garibaldi. Although the plaza has cast off its sleazy traditions—even the mariachis seem to have polished the silver buttons on their bolero jackets these days—and police presence beefed up, never hang out in the square alone and be wary of classic Mexico scams.
The Alameda, the city's central parkway, plays host virtually every day to a political demonstration. Protests and demonstrations in Mexico can quickly turn violent. Travelers should avoid being implicated in activities considered 'political' by the authorities; the Mexican Constitution prohibits political action by foreigners. Such engagement may result in detention and/or deportation.