Mexico City 2016-2017 - Latin America's Emerging Gay Cultural Capital
There's nothing new about the fact that Mexico's huge, vibrant capital, Mexico City - or just "DF" (for el Distrito Federal) as most locals and regular visitors call it - is one of the world's leading centers of art and culture. Mexico City has been continuously inhabited since the early 14th century, and it's the oldest capital city in the Western Hemisphere, having been established as the center of the Spanish Colonial Empire in 1585. These days, to know Mexico City is to love it, but it's taken some time for many gay tourists from elsewhere in North America to discover the charms of this this grand but sprawling city with more than 9 million residents (and 21.2 million in the metro region).
The city has finally passed a tipping point, however, having become a must-visit among artists, fashionistas, foodies, gay clubbers, cafe lovers, history buffs, hipsters, budget vacationers, and just about every other kind of urban adventurer. Indeed, among trend-spotting travelers seeking plenty of bang for the buck, Mexico City in 2016 represents an astounding value. You can live well - roosting in trendy boutique hotels or spacious Air B&B flats, visiting two or three renowned museums a day, eating at superb bistros - for a fraction of what you'd spend in a similarly alluring world capitals like London, New York, Tokyo, or Sao Paulo.
Mexico City is about as laid-back and welcoming as any other major city in North America when it comes to LGBT residents and visitors. Same-Sex marriage has been legal here since 2009, and although you're unlikely to see many rainbow flags around much of the city, the gay nightlife district in Zona Rosa is always abuzz with revelers, it's common to see same-sex couples (especially younger ones) sitting together on park benches or in restaurants, and DF's Gay Pride March in June is well-attended by gays and straight allies alike. Being gay just isn't a big deal in Mexico City, particularly in the parts of the city visitors are likely to frequent. Mexico City is temperate and pleasant to travel in year-round, but you might also consider timing your visit to coincide with some of the city's other festivals - you can learn more about these at About.com Mexico's events page, which lists great goings-on all around the country.
With these thoughts in mind, here are seven reasons Mexico City is a wonderful destination for gay travelers in 2016.
Mexico City is Safer and Easier to Navigate than Ever
During the latter half of the 20th century, Mexico City developed a reputation for smog and crime, and although air quality continues to improve, it's still a problem (the haze and pollution is relatively comparable to that of Los Angeles, and generally poorest during the winter months). As to safety, however, Mexico City's violent crime rates are much lower many major U.S. cities (we're looking at you New Orleans and Chicago), and your odds of encountering any safety or even small-crime issues are quite low. Exercise prudence, as you would in any major city (here's a great article on keeping safe in Mexico, and another debunking some of the myths that still persistently hover over Mexico City), by sticking to well-traveled streets, avoiding displays of fancy jewelry and fashion, and eating at restaurants and street carts that look crowded and popular with locals. Similarly, gay couples might want to exercise discretion, especially in neighborhoods they're not familiar with, but the likelihood of experiencing harassment or even stares in Mexico City's core districts are exceedingly low - about the same as you might expect in any other large North American city.
Mexico City's extensive, cheap, and quite safe Metro system continues to expand with new lines and stations - it's an easy way to get around, although it can get very crowded during the morning and evening rush hours. Taxis are much safer and more reliable than they were 15 years ago, back during the infamous days of dodgy and dilapidated VW bug cabs (which have now been banned). But better yet, use Uber, which has become by far the most efficient way to get around Mexico City these days. Drivers use modern and comfortable cars and are quite friendly (many of them are happy to offer sightseeing suggestions and insider advice), and rates are reasonable - about US$10 from the city center to the airport, and much less (as little as US$3 or US$4) for rides between close-in neighborhoods.
Another reason Mexico City has become easier and easier to navigate: the cost of cellular data, text, and talk plans has dropped drastically in Mexico in the past year or two, with most U.S. companies offering extremely reasonable plans. As of this writing, for example, Verizon Wireless had begun offering a plan that allows customers to bring their U.S. domestic plan with them to Mexico for just $2 per day. This makes it increasingly practical to use your smartphone wherever you are, whether to consult Google Maps or arrange an Uber pickup, or to cheaply call your hotel or restaurant for directions or reservations.
Finally, although the current Benito Juarez Mexico City International Airport is a fairly run-of-the-mill facility in terms of its services and comforts, the city is currently in the process of building a fantastic, much larger, and architecturally stunning new airport, which will lie a bit east of the current facility. Designed by the firm of famed British architect Norman Foster (Millennium Bridge, Winspear Opera House, Beijing Airport) and talented Mexican architect Fernando Romero (best known for Polanco's stunning and curvy Soumaya Museum; see below), the new Mexico City International Airport is expected to open in early 2020.
Gay Clubbing and Bar-Hopping in Zona Rosa
A bustling quadrant of nightclubs, restaurants, and shopping centers that's equally popular among locals and tourists, Zona Rosa is a centrally located neighborhood that's within walking distance of the many international hotels along Paseo de la Reforma as well as the boutique properties and inns of Condesa and Roma. The entire neighborhood is considered a major nightlife hub, but the vast majority of Zona Rosa's gay bars are clustered along a couple of blocks of tree-shaded Calle Amberes, near the famed Angel of Independence statue on Paseo de La Reforma (the site of the Mexico City Gay Pride Parade in June). By sundown, these blocks along Calle Amberes pulse with bars and dance clubs, and even the sidewalk strolling makes for a cruise-y and fun experience for both gay men and lesbians. You'll find several other gay bars and hangouts elsewhere in the neighborhood. The Mexico City Tourism Office produces a terrific, English-language LGBT Mexico City guide,available for free online in PDF format, that lists some of the top gay clubs and bars in Zona Rosa as well as detailing cool things to see and do elsewhere in the city.
Sidewalk Strolls and Cafe Culture in Condesa and Roma
A charming, relatively quiet, yet centrally located neighborhood of tree-lined streets, verdant parks, Euro-chic cafes, hipster bars, and design-minded shops, Condesa ranks among DF's most desirable destinations, especially among artsy types, culture vultures, and gays and lesbians. Known for its old-world town houses and grand old homes, the neighborhood as well as the adjacent Roma district are also rife with stylish new and smartly designed contemporary apartment buildings - it's one of the best-represented areas of the city on Air bnb, where you can find stunning luxury flats, often for well under US$100 nightly. Or book a room in the chic and artfully designed Hotel Condesa, which also has a lovely rooftop bar serving colorful cocktails and sushi. In terms of trendy hot spots, Condesa and Roma are Mexico City's "it" neighborhoods.
Mexico City's Must-See Museums for Art and Design
In a city with some truly spectacular museum buildings, both centuries-old palaces and stunning contemporary structures, it's worth pointing out that some of the most compelling museums have nothing explicitly to do with art or design. Take, for example, the impressive Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) in the heart of leafy, 1,700-acre Chapultapec Park. One of several notable museums in the park, this low-slung warren of exhibit halls displaying amazing artifacts that tell the story of human history in every region of Mexico centers on a dramatic courtyard with a tower rising in the center to support a massive ceiling. A short cab ride away amid the swanky shopping malls and luxury hotels of Polanco, the contemporary Museo Soumya fascinates shutterbugs and passersby with its curvaceous facade. Built to house the estimable art collection of ultra-rich magnate Carlos Slim, the museum charges no admission.
Other top picks for design-minded museums goers include the dramatic early-20th-century Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), which houses a theater, bookstore, restaurant, and museums devoted to murals painted by Rivera, Orozco, Siqueros, Tamayo, and other vaunted mid-century Mexican muralists as well as a top-floor architecture museum. The nearby Museo de Arte Popular contains a richly colorful collection of folk art, and near the Zocalo, the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (former San Ildefonso College) shouldn't be missed for its stunning murals by Orozco. It's less famous, but the MODO Museum (Museo del Objeto del Objeto, or Museum of the Objective of the Object) in Roma, which focuses on popular art, often has cool new exhibits. Nearly all of the major museums in the city charge less no more than US$4 or US$5.
In the southern end of the city, the famously charming Coyoacan and San Angel neighborhoods also hold several important art museums, including the former homes and studios of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Skip below for more information on this engaging part of the city.
From Street Food to Haute Gastronomy: Mexico City is a Food Mecca
Dozens of creative and talented chefs have opened stylish, often upscale (but still affordable by U.S. standards) restaurants in Mexico City in recent years, with some of the neighborhoods mentioned elsewhere in this article among the top foodie destinations, such as Condesa, Coyoacan, and San Angel. The upscale residential and shopping district of Polanco is another favorite for see-and-be-seen dining. Finding hot restaurants is pretty easy in this city, with great sources including About Luxury Travel's Top 10 Dining Experiences in Mexico City and Eater's 12 Hottest Mexican Restaurants.
But one type of dining that's a must for foodies is Mexico City street food, which by and large is quite safe for the stomach (although it wouldn't hurt to pack your favorite tummy-ache meds on your trip) and astoundingly inexpensive. If you're new this, stick with tried-and-true areas where street-food vendors are keeping busy and doling out their delectable dishes at a rapid rate (in other words, food isn't sitting around too long). Alameda Central Park, by Palacio de Bellas Artes, is a good bet, especially on the north side of the park. A few blocks farther north, along Calle Republica de Cuba on the blocks stretching east from the Metro Bellas Artes station to around Plaza de Santo Domingo, you'll find dozens of vendors hawking every imaginable Mexico street-food favorite. There also happens to be one of the only well-frequented gay bars outside Zona Rosa along this stretch, Marrakech Salon (at Calle Republica de Cuba 18), so you can combine nibbling with a bit of socializing.
What to look for food-wise? Elote (grilled corn with a piquant lime-chile sauce, sprinkled cheese, and either crema or mayo), tlacoyos (elliptical fried corn-masa cakes filled with beans, chicharrón, cheese, and the like), huaraches (open-face sandal-shaped tacos filled with any number of goodies), and tacos al pastor (filled with shaved, pineapple- and chile-marinated pork), but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Many other delicious bites are available, from tostadas to gorditas to sweet churros filled with chocolate sauce or cajeta (a creamy caramel sauce). Also look for stands selling fresh-squeezed orange, watermelon, guava, papaya, and mango juices. You can pretty much stuff yourself silly for the equivalent of US$3 or US$4, and it can cost you less than US$1 for a quick snack.
Exploring Coyoacan & San Angel: Frida & Diego's Mexico City
Located roughly a 15- to 20-minute drive or 30-minute metro trip from the city center, the historic neighborhoods of Coyoacan and San Angel were their own bustling municipalities for decades but are now part of the larger DF and among the most fashionable and charming parts of Mexico City for exploring. If you have time, try spending a couple of nights in these parts - there aren't many formal accommodations in either of these neighborhoods that visitors know best as the former homes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but Coyoacan in particular has in the past few years become abundant with Air bnb options. I recently stayed at a highly affordable and lovely Air bnb just a couple of blocks from the Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky museums—it's a terrific option, but you'll find many others, too (the same owner also rents out this one). This central part of Coyoacan is also rife with lively, artsy cafes, and the very center of the neighborhood - anchored by Jardin Centenario, Jardin Plaza Hidalgo, and stately Parroquia y Ex-Convento San Juan Bautista - feels like a giant festival every weekend, as visitors stroll the gardens and pedestrian lanes and gather in the many open-air restaurants and cafes.
The southern end of Coyoacan is also home to the esteemed UNAM-Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, whose architecturally impressive campus is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Read my article on visiting the Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, and Diego Rivera museums - along with some other key attractions in the area - for more ideas about touring and spending time in this memorable part of town.
Day Trips from DF: Puebla, Cuernavaca, Teotihuacan, and more
Yet another key reason that Mexico City makes such a terrific destination is its proximity to a number of other intriguing and beautiful cities, including some of Mexico's most vibrant colonial cities. Many visitors head off to farther-flung destinations like gay-friendly and wonderfully picturesque San Miguel de Allende and the nearby historic university city of Guanajuato - these cities are a few hours' drive northwest of Mexico City, and it's very easy to reach them via one of Mexico's clean, affordable, and comfortable private bus lines (such as ETN and PrimeraPlus).
But there are several exciting cities and attractions within easy day-tripping of Mexico City, again ideally reached by using one of the bus lines mentioned above (better yet, try booking your trip on the BusBud website or app, which offers a particularly efficient way to buy tickets instantly and without having to print out tickets).
There are quite a few places to visit as day or overnight trips from DF, but some favorites include the historic colonial city of Puebla, which is itself the fourth-largest metropolis in the country and is well-regarded for its handsome and historic city center, some of the best street food and traditional Mexican fare in the country (Puebla is particularly famous for chiles en nogada and mole poblano), and one of the coolest design hotels in the country, La Purificadora. Puebla is two to three hours' by bus from DF.
Also well worth a visit is sunny Cuernavaca, which is about a 90-minute drive south of the city and is home to a number of posh resorts and restaurants, one of the more unusual art museums in the country, the Robert Brady House (which was owned by a gay U.S. expat), and a small but festive scene of gay and gay-friendly bars and eateries.
Highly popular and also reached by a roughly 90-minute bus ride is Teotihuacan, one of the world's most renowned archaeology sites. Here you can tour the gigantic Sun and Moon Pyramids and the museums that explain their histories, dating back to around 200 BC.