The Mexican cantina is a wondrous thing, steeped in history, legend and tales of revolution. Mexico City is one of the best places to get to know more about the cantina culture. It’s home to hundreds of traditional cantinas, both renovated and crumbling, in the historic center alone, and more modernized versions hidden among the city’s crisscrossing backstreets. Here is Culture Trip’s pick of the best – should you ever decide to visit.
Typically considered a gathering space for men, with women and children strictly prohibited from entering, the traditional cantina was a place for drinking, enjoying some on-the-house botanas (bar snacks) and playing card games or dominoes. However, these days the rules have relaxed, allowing women to enter.
The cantina’s reputation as the epitome of traditional Mexican drinking culture has led to a growth in tours and tourist groups dropping by these old-fashioned establishments to soak up the atmosphere. You’ll find numerous tours in Mexico City that show you the most popular or emblematic cantinas in the area. The one cantina you can sadly no longer visit, though, is El Nivel. Opened in 1855, this was the oldest cantina in the city until 2008 when its doors were closed for good.
The underrated cantina El Tío Pepe opened in 1890, and still boasts many of its original fixtures and fittings, including what was once a urinal running along the base of the bar and beer-barrel lampshades. Popular, as are most cantinas, in the early to late afternoon, it does remain open until later at night for revelers who want to enjoy this slice of Mexico City history into the evening.
Opened in 1876, Bar La Opera is surrounded by legends and myths; it’s supposedly where revolutionary Pancho Villa kicked back with a beer. Ornate decor dominates the interior, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and red velvet sprucing up the furniture. However, the real draw of La Opera is the bullet hole in the roof, which was apparently put there by Pancho Villa himself.
This cavernous offering lies inside a massive old building in the city center and is Mexico City’s largest cantina. La Faena’s walls are adorned with everything you’d expect from a cantina, including bullfighting posters and faded photographs. There are even display cases of matador costumes. Considered one of the most traditional and ancient cantinas in the city, La Faena is worth visiting.
This traditional Mexican cantina, founded in 1948, serves tequila, mezcal, liquors, beers, free snacks and delicious meals, including shrimp paella and tacos. Step through Cantina El Centenario’s entrance to find an interior peppered with bullfighting memorabilia, complete with a bull head mounted to the wall, that serves as a reminder of where you are and its rich culture and history.
While La Polar is a classic in all senses, it’s also a modern-day cantina. It’s family-friendly – a place where older men mull over their lives while parents try to keep their children occupied. It’s known for its oreja de elefante dish, two pieces of veal presented l§ike elephant ears.
The margaritas here are the main attraction, and the food is a close second. The traditionally cooked dishes are seasoned with local herbs and spices, and the tacos de lengua come highly recommended. You can grab a seat on the outdoor terrace, which is a lovely spot to sit for a few sundowners, and have the mariachi band play for you and your table.
Covadonga underwent a bit of a renovation, transforming this traditional cantina into an elegant and somewhat trendy space. The antique bar and wooden tables are usually full of people – from daytime domino-playing men to young dancers at night. The food is delicious, with the tortilla espanola a popular option. Drink-wise, you’ll find beer, shots and a never-ending list of liquors.
With 250 labels, some of them being extremely rare, Cantina Salón España’s tequila selection is reason enough alone to visit. Spanish refugees founded the cantina in 1925. While it features a rich Spanish heritage throughout the ornaments and architecture, you’ll also find hints of Mexico, with posters from the golden age of national cinema and a valuable collection of photos of the Mexican Revolution. The menu here is ever-changing, with new dishes added daily. If you’re looking for a real bohemian atmosphere, this has it.
This cantina opened its doors in 1872, has been the scene of endless bohemian nights and was also supposedly a favorite of Lucha Villa. Cantina La Peninsular lies two blocks from the metro, making it easy to find. Boasting rustic decor and furniture along with grand chandeliers, it has an old-world charm to it, along with a slightly sports-bar feel, thanks to the TVs showcasing different sports.
When someone describes a traditional cantina to you, Cantina Buenos Aires is what you might imagine: a little red canopy above the doorway, a little dark and rustic inside. Upon entering, you’ll be captivated by the laid-back, friendly atmosphere, chilled music and old-world charm. It’s a local favorite, and not much English is spoken here. However, the staff will put every effort into making your visit comfortable. There is an extensive food menu with an array of must-try traditional dishes.
While Salón Tenampa is eclectic and can be considered a little over the top, it’s impressive. The cantina opened in the early 1920s, with mariachis becoming part of the vibe almost instantaneously – the owner was from the birthplace of mariachi, Jalisco. The decor is eccentric, with colorful murals adorning the space. While the food and drinks are great, you visit Salón Tenampa for its atmosphere.
Cantina La Piedra is more of a restaurant than a cantina, but its dark ambience and great authentic Mexican dishes say otherwise. The tacos and queso con chistorra (melted cheese with sausage) come highly recommended. There is an excellent cocktail and drinks list, all using the top-quality alcohol. Within the lively atmosphere, you’ll find music, friendly staff and TVs that show sporting events. The terrace is a nice spot to go for a breather or a nightcap.
It’s not often you come across a cantina with stained-glass windows, but the friendly El León de Oro is anything but your typical cantina. While the food menu offers delicious specialties, such as tacos de arrachera (skirt steak tacos), it also lists some unexpected items, including snails. There are live mariachi and bolero musicians you can call over to your table to serenade you and your group. It’s a wonderful experience to have on a lazy afternoon.
Additional reporting by Vanessa Gainford
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