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Mexico travel: What’s Doing in Mexico City

Mexico City’s reputation for crime and kidnapping should be no reason to avoid it, but take sensible precautions. The holidays add another layer of flavor to this hemisphere’s largest urban area. Each year about this time, Mexico City is reborn. After five months of seemingly endless rain, the cosmic tap shuts off, the tropical sun blazes forth, and the city dries out and warms up.

Through most of November, the afternoons warm to the mid-70’s, and the cloudless skies are deep blue. Cafes return their tables to the sidewalks and roll up their vinyl awnings until spring.

Then the city has a party, a series of nonstop fiestas that begins with the two-day holiday Day of the Dead on Nov. 1 and 2 and that runs through Three Kings Day, Jan. 6. In between, fireworks herald Día de la Revolución (Nov. 20), pilgrims flock to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe for her festival (Dec. 12), and families gather for elaborate dinners on Christmas Eve.

The holidays add another layer of flavor to this hemisphere’s largest urban area, a spicy stew of twangy street music echoing outside fine-art museums, Spanish colonial mansions abutting modernist high-rises, and rustic crafts markets chockablock with Fifth Avenue-style boutiques. Bustling sidewalks and palm-lined plazas percolate with the whistles and cries of street vendors and the aromas of toasting tortillas, roasting corn and sizzling tripe.

Mexico City’s reputation for crime and kidnapping should be no reason to avoid it, but take sensible precautions. Guard your valuables closely. And don’t hail a street taxi, some of which are linked to kidnap gangs. Instead find a sitio, or taxi stand, or have your hotel or restaurant phone a cab for you.

Events in Mexico City

On Day of the Dead, ancient Mexican tradition holds that the souls of the dead return among the living, those of children on Nov. 1 and those of adults the following day.

Families construct shrines, or offrendas, to honor dead relatives, and visit cemeteries to share a meal or a drink with them. More elaborate offrendas pop up in public spaces, including the Zócalo, the city’s central square, and the quad of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the southern part of town. The student dioramas often take a satirical tone, reflecting the belief that death is just part of life, and not to be feared as much as scorned.

Sightseeing in Mexico City

The trendy Condesa district offers a side of Mexico City that most visitors never imagined. Its pleasant cafes and lush parks evoke southern Europe, while its architecture constitutes the largest concentration of Art Deco this side of Miami Beach. Weekdays, it’s an oasis of beauty and calm, but on weekends its alter ego jolts to life as the boisterous beehive of Mexico’s young, hip and stylish. The action centers in the cafes clustered around Michoacán and Atlixco, but chic restaurants line Tamaulipas and groovy bars are popping up around Parque México.

The original Mexico City was built on a lake with floating islands connected by causeways, a sight that staggered, and temporarily impeded, the Conquistadors. Most of the lake was drained as the city developed, but Xochimilco, on the city’s southern edge, is one of the few remnants of the Venice that Mexico City once was. Today, gaudily painted gondolas ply the canals carrying partying Mexican families. Pack a picnic or hail a floating taco stand, kick back and listen to the cruising mariachis. A boat holding up to a dozen people rents for $12.40 an hour, gondolier included.

Where to Stay in Mexico City

The latest sign of the Condesa’s ascendant popularity is the opening of its first hotel, the 40-room Condesa DF, Avenida Veracruz 102, next month. The gut-renovated 1928 building will feature a spa and alfresco sushi bar on its rooftop terrace, a nueva cocina restaurant at street level and a dance club underground. The sleek rooms, some with balconies overlooking Parque España, have flat-screen televisions, DVD players, high-speed Internet and rocking chairs.

Where to Eat in Mexico City

Except as noted, restaurants are open each afternoon for comida, the main meal of the day, and every evening except Sunday.

The proudly old-world San Angel Inn, Diego Rivera 50, San Angel, (52-55) 5616-1527, fax (52-55) 5616-0973, serves a straight-up traditional Mexican menu in a 17th-century former monastery with a lovely courtyard and sumptuous dining rooms. Signature dishes like the subtly piquant cream of poblano chile soup or the sea bass papillote, smothered with oysters, shrimp, mushrooms, tomato and parsley are expertly prepared. The margaritas, served in silver carafes on ice, are some of the city’s best. Dinner for two with drinks is about $70.

In Coyoacán, locals keep returning to the Jardin del Pulpo, on the edge of the Coyoacán market at Allende and Malintzin, to sit outdoors cheek by jowl at long Formica tables and eat no-frills fresh seafood. The rich sopa de mariscos, a tomato broth chock-full of seafood, is a meal in itself. Comida only, $31 for two.

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