Like a Local – The Best Cantinas in Mexico City

by Peter Noyce  |  Published August 29, 2016

Some days in Mexico City are just made for cantinas. If you’re here during the six months of rainy season, you can expect fierce downpours that tear through the afternoon like a tornado through a hay stack.

The relaxed atmosphere of Dos Naciones (Photo: Peter Noyce)

Famous Mexicans adorn the walls of Dos Naciones cantina (Photo: Peter Noyce)

On such days there’s nothing better than settling in at one of the many traditional cantina bars that litter the historic centre and enjoying never-ending lunches, a bewildering array of classic cocktails and the yearning notes of a good bolero. There’s a lot to choose from, so here’s a who’s who.

Dos Naciones

Open till around 4 a.m., Dos Naciones has got it all: a jukebox with all the Mexican classics, drinks the size of a house and a solid menu. There’s even a salsa club upstairs if you‘ve brought your dancing shoes. Whether you sit at the bar or at a table, the atmosphere is incredibly relaxed, as people routinely leave their drinks to go outside for a smoke. There’s a mix of draught and bottled beer ($1.50). A decent bottle of tequila costs a reasonable $70. “This is a living museum,” says Cristián, the owner. “What we offer is nostalgia.” There can be few better places to spend an evening remembering old times.

Bolívar 58, Centro Histórico, Mexico City

La Faena

The glorious colonial grandeur of La Faena (Photo: Peter Noyce)

Bull fighting attire and giant paintings at the eccentric La Faena (Photo: Peter Noyce)

As you walk in and see the dusty displays of famous matador outfits, you might wonder if you’re in the right place. Set in a glorious colonial building with intricate tile flooring, La Faena is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the taste buds. Enormous oil paintings the size of Olympic swimming pools hang from the walls. Old suited gents play quiet games of dominoes and wandering trios fill the room with notes of aching nostalgia. Sumptuous blood-red sangrias are the order of the day. They come pretty charged and cost a modest $3. For those feeling a little more adventurous, the cocktail menu features such delights as Silk Tights, Bull and Rabbit. A truly unique experience.

Venustiano Carranza 49, Centro Histórico, Mexico City

La Opera

Famed for the bullet lodged in its ceiling allegedly fired from the gun of Pancho Villa, La Opera is one of Mexico City’s most-visited and best-known cantinas. Its ornate décor and Parisian vibes make it a firm favourite among the well-to-do. Clientele range from suited politicians to camera-toting tourists. Seafood is their speciality and with prices ranging from around $8-12 per dish, you can find cheaper bites elsewhere in the centre, but La Opera is definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for something a little more luxurious.

5 de Mayo 10, Centro Histórico, Mexico City

La Mascota

Lively La Mascota (Photo: Peter Noyce)

Unlike other establishments in Mexico, cantinas like La Mascota let you stand at the bar (Photo: Peter Noyce)

With its bright yellow walls and low ceilings, La Mascota, or The Pet, is a lively choice. Two ageing rockers play a mix of rock and roll tunes in both Spanish and English to a crowd of both young and old. Some stay for a couple of beers and a bit of lunch, but most seem to have been there for at least a couple of years. If you’re out to make friends, stand at the bar and chat to the regulars. There’s a wide range of Mexican fare available, from sea-food to quesadillas and tacos. By late afternoon, many tables will have a bottle of rum or brandy on it. Prices range from about $50-120 per bottle.

Mesones 20, Centro Histórico, Mexico City

La Reforma

With smartly-dressed waiters and a crooner with a portable speaker belting out the finest love songs, La Reforma ticks all the boxes. So long as you keep drinking, you can eat as much as you want from their daily menu. Alternatively, you can go à la carte: steaks come in at around $10. If you want to fit in, you should get a beer, brandy or tequila, but there is a selection of soft drinks available too. Across the street is the Mercado San Juan food market, which is well worth a visit to gaze at the extraordinary selection of meats and some of the finest cheese available in the city.

Ayuntamiento (corner of Dolores), Centro Histórico, Mexico City

Bar Mancera

Mancera's elegant wooden-paneled bar (Photo: Peter Noyce)

Mancera’s elegant wooden-paneled bar and a wide array of drinks (Photo: Peter Noyce)

Right next door to La Faena is Bar Mancera. Together they occupy what was once the Palace of Marqués de Selva Nevada, home to an aristocratic family. A classy affair with elegant wooden panelling and suitably dimmed lighting, Mancera strikes a contrast to its more eccentric neighbour. The atmosphere isn’t quite as lively and the drinks are a little more expensive, but the two complement each other well. Lunch and a couple of drinks will set you back around $15.

Venustiano Carranza 49, Centro Histórico, Mexico City