Mexico City: A city to sing about

Aztec ruins, tavernas, mariachis and a vibrant Jewish heritage.


Images of Frida Kahlo, that nice Jewish girl in traditional Mexican dress who has become the most merchandised art icon in the world, tell you a lot about her native land. That Mexico, where the Catholic conquistadores and indigenous tribes who preceded them were immigrants themselves, is an inherently tolerant country whose Jews feel a deep sense of identity with their adopted country.

"The Mexicans embraced us, and we're grateful," explains Daniel Ovadia, son of a Hungarian who fled the Nazis, over a Mexican brunch - huevos rancheros, the national equivalent of shakshuka sitting in its spicy tomato sauce atop corn tortillas - in his restaurant in the capital's Condesa neighbourhood.

This is Mexico City's own Bayswater with its mix of happening restaurants, elegant, old, regentrified buildings and a wonderful park in which the entire neighbourhood seems to walk their dogs on a Sunday morning.

"I grew up here," says Ovadia, who has moved out to a suburb with no less than five Jewish schools to choose from for his daughter.

"But the synagogue in this neighbourhood never closed, and many of my friends have moved back in."

Getting there

Package: Journey Latin America offers Mexico City from £1,423 including British Airways flights, transfers, four nights with breakfast at Condesa DF hotel and excursions to the Anthropological museum, Xochimilco and Frida Kahlo’s house. Tel: 020 8600 1881

Friends such as Ovadia's pal Rafael Micha, who owns Condesa DF, one of a new breed of boutique hotels which is getting visitors out into less-travelled neighbourhoods.

However, given how many cultural treasures are packed into Mexico City's historic centre, the hotel's stylish sister, the Downtown Mexico hotel, might be a more convenient berth for first-timers.

First stop here must be the Zocalo or cathedral square, so thrillingly showcased at the start of the new James Bond film, Spectre.

It instantly illustrates Mexico's unique and ever-present layers - pre-Hispanic ruins from the original Aztec city centre sit side by side with glorious Spanish colonial architecture, while skyscrapers reflecting the modern American influence loom on the horizon.

The second stop might be the beautiful old monastery housing the collection of Franz Mayer, who left one of the city's most engaging museums as his legacy.

Decorative arts of every kind amassed by the Jewish stockbroker over 50 years, from furniture to ceramics and textiles, are on show, along with some fine photography.

But it's the great museum shop which sets the tone; all Mexico is a shopportunity for lovers of every kind of contemporary handicrafts, particularly jewellery.

So a third stop, after exploring the Shops at Downtown, which showcase some of the finest modern artisans, might be San Angel, the lovely southern village neighbourhood - think Mexico City's Hampstead - with a bustling weekly handicrafts market and some fine shops.

Don't miss the emporia of Flora Moria, an architect turned superlative jewellery designer.

The San Angel Inn makes the best margaritas in Mexico, with refills in tiny pewter pitchers served in a lovely courtyard.

But the finest food is back in town, where buzzy Quintonil currently holds the title of best restaurant in Mexico and Merotoro offers buzzy and excellent dining in the heart of Condesa.

You don't even have to do Mexican, if chillis are a problem - Biko, owned by three chefs who honed their skills in foodie San Sebastian, fields fabulous, high-class Spanish food, while Rosetta offers authentic Italian in a lovely garden setting.

Mexico is always as much a feast for the eyes as the tastebuds, and Mexico City has a positively dazzling collection of museums, of which three are simply unmissable.

The Anthropological Museum tells the intriguing story of each of the country's many indigenous cultures which have preserved their traditions for centuries in a quite fabulous modern building.

Antiquities are on the ground floor, while the present-day culture is brought thrillingly to life upstairs.

If children enjoy this museum they will positively adore the Museo de Arte Popular where Mexico's folk art - everything from colourful painted wooden animals to amazingly intricate trees of life, each a miniature world on the wall - are laid out in a bright, engaging space.

Not far away is the legacy of another philanthropist, Mexico's richest man, Carlos Slim (who between 2010 and 2013 was ranked the richest man in the world). His Museo Soumaya, named for his late wife, resembles an upended whale tail, silver scales shimmering in the sun, and inside await several floors of world-class art, including Rodins, Dalis and Impressionists galore, all on view free of charge.

By contrast, Frida Kahlo's colourful home at Coyoacan, between downtown and San Angel, is a place of intensely Mexican period charm.

This home, which Kahlo shared with legendary painter Diego Rivera for 25 years, is filled not only with paintings by and of the artist herself and a great kitchen, studio and garden to explore, but Kahlo's fabulous collection of votivos - folk drawings made by peasants who experienced miracles and wanted to tell their stories in pictures.

There's modern folk art in the garish but gloriously decorated party boats of Xochimilco, not to be missed before leaving the capital.

Locals flock to the canals on the edge of town every weekend to ride on the water enjoying a beer, a snack and a serenade from floating mariachi and marimba bands.

Those who adore the soaring strings and trumpets of the mariachis must also not miss an evening at Plaza Garibaldi, where dozens of bands compete for the chance to play visitors a song. Get there early and bag a table at Bar Tenampa, a huge taverna decorated with evocative murals of legendary mariachis past.

Order a margarita and corn chips with guacamole, and you'll soon understand why Frida was so attached to all things Mexican.

This is simply one of the most joyous and colourful countries on the globe, and to all of that Mexico City adds its own extra layer of great culture, high and low.

No wonder Jewish immigration just keeps climbing.

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