The sixth-floor terrace of Puro Corazón, with its crisp linens and serene, tuxedoed waiters, is an oasis of calm overlooking Mexico City's Zócalo, the city's vast central plaza. The high price of mezcal-tamarind cocktails in martini glasses rimmed with fried-grasshopper salt is justified by views of the motley scene in the square below: A power-suited businessman buys steamed tacos de canasta out of a wicker basket on a teen's bike, a mariachi band entertaining street-side espresso drinkers is drowned out by a group of students chanting protest slogans, and a fauxhawked male model poses in boxer briefs in front of a 16th-century cathedral.
This is modern-day Mexico City – an urban center whose artistic credentials and cultural cool sit respectfully beside its Old World traditions and history. It's a huge place – packing 9 million people into 570 square miles (with more than 21 million people in the greater metropolitan area). It is dense, chaotic, at times rough-and-tumble, but not exactly dangerous. While the international media paint a picture of a country decimated by narco violence and corruption (much of it true, if 600 miles away at the border), its capital is enjoying a surge of creativity and national pride, as well as a homicide rate below that of Miami. "Sure, things are messed up here," says Mauricio Katz, a writer, filmmaker, and professor. "But there's crazy energy and a constant struggle to change things. It's an exciting time."
You'll want to start in a hip, young artist center like colonia Roma, the best neighborhood for witnessing the city's rejuvenated energy. To get here, bypass the legendary traffic and take the metro, a huge, clean, safe, and cheap system – a ride costs about a quarter – that runs until midnight and reaches nearly every outskirt of this large city. From the bustling Insurgentes metro stop, walk south through the historic district, with beaux-arts mansions, lush parks, art galleries, and trendy bars and restaurants. Colonia Roma is populated with artists and musicians, balancing fashionability with grit. Arróniz Arte Contemporáneo opened in 2006, focusing on younger Mexican artists, whose work reflects the city's rich modern-art tradition as well as its edgy cosmopolitanism.
Gustavo Arróniz, the proprietor, sees the invigoration in the arts as a by-product of the country's problems. "In some ways, this is the worst time in the history of our country – worse than the Mexican Revolution," he says. "But for most young artists, the idea of 'crisis' has always been present. It motivates them to find a voice." Joseph Ian Henrikson, a New York gallerist, opened a branch of his Anonymous Gallery in Mexico City last fall. "When I first visited, it reminded me of how New York used to be," he says. "The history, cultural juxtapositions, excitement, diversity, but rough around the edges."
In Mexico City, mealtime – the main meal of the day being a leisurely late lunch, usually several courses with a drink or three – is an opportunity to explore the breadth of the city and its people. Each meal in the city can highlight one of Mexico's 31 states – shrimp aguachile from coastal Sinaloa at Mi Gusto Es; Coox Hanal's pan de cazón ("shark bread," a kind of tortilla casserole) from the Yucatán peninsula.
The best places to eat also offer a map of Mexico City beyond the tourist's guidebook. In scrappy colonia Mixcoac, Los Tres Reyes roasts lamb barbacoa overnight to serve in the mornings to throngs of hungry (and hungover) locals; in colonia Justo Sierra Maestro, Casa Licha offers heavily garnished bowls of pozole stew; and in colonia San Miguel Chapultepec, El Mirador cantina serves tribilín, a ceviche-style dish of raw beef, fish, and shrimp. Then there's posh colonia Polanco, home to some of the most celebrated chefs and restaurants, including Pujol, often cited as the best restaurant in the country. Pujol offers creative takes on traditional dishes – tostadas of escamoles (ant larvae), leek, and kohlrabi; seafood cocktail rolled in avocado slices to look like tubular deep-fried flautas. "It's a very special moment for Mexico in terms of cuisine," says Enrique Olvera, Pujol's chef-owner and the star of the TV show 'Chef's Diary.' "Just like with art, film, and architecture, there's been a reappraisal of Mexico's culinary expressions.
There is a saying in Mexico City, "Somos hijos del maguey" ("We are sons of agave"), and likewise, one of the most visible expressions of national pride is the rise of native tipples, like small-batch tequila and mezcal, and a burgeoning wine and craft-beer scene.
Walking through the rickety saloon doors of tiny Pulquería la Risa, in the historic center just five blocks south of Puro Corazón's mezcaltinis, we meet Armando Ortigosa and Andres Velasco from the indie band Chikita Violenta for a couple of glasses of pulque, an ancient, beerlike drink of fermented agave sap. In 1870, Mexico City had a pulque bar for every 400 residents, but most disappeared decades ago. Now, it's hugely in fashion again, alongside mezcal – "tequila's stoner brother," according to Velasco.
Packed with giggling American Apparel-clad students, la Risa has obviously been discovered, but the locals don't seem to mind. The bartender ladles the milky, viscous brew from huge glass jars into mugs or, in the case of one older man in a ripped suit, a three-liter Coke bottle. A policeman carrying a rifle ducks in to escape a rainstorm, while a man squeezes past, playing Mexican love songs on a squawky clarinet for pesos. A scuffle breaks out between an elderly drunk and a tank-topped bodybuilder; the bartender stops him, whispers something, and ushers him outside. "People think Mexico City is big, dirty, chaotic," says Velasco. "And it is – in a good way. It's also one of the most fascinating cities in the world." Ortigosa adds with a smile: "Besides, rough seas are more interesting than calm water."
• A Guide to Taquerias In Mexico City