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. They played right into the stereotype of the machista Mexican man, drowning his sorrows in a dingy bar, while his wife was left at home with the children. While these still exist to this day (many still think that no proper woman should deign to enter a true cantina) the majority have relaxed their rules and allow entry to women.
What’s more, the reputation of the cantina as that which epitomises Mexican drinking culture has led to a growth in tours and tourist groups dropping by these old-fashioned establishments to soak up the atmosphere for themselves. In Mexico City, you’ll find numerous tours that offer to do the rounds of the most popular or emblematic cantinas in the city. The one cantina you can sadly no longer visit though, is El Nivel. Originally opened in 1855, this was the oldest cantina in Mexico City until 2008, when it’s owner died and its doors were closed for good.
El Tío Pepe
The underrated cantina El Tío Pepe was opened in 1890 and 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 10.30pm for revellers who want to enjoy this slice of Mexico City history into the evening.
Dolores, Centro, Ciudad de México, México, +52 55 5521 9136
Bar La Ópera
Famed among locals and tourists alike for being the supposed place in which revolutionary Pancho Villa kicked back with a beer, Bar La Ópera (opened in 1876) is surrounded by myth and legend. An ornate décor dominates the interior, with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and red velvet sprucing up the furniture. However, the real draw of La Ópera is the bullet hole in the roof which was apparently put there by Pancho Villa himself.
5 de Mayo 10, Cuauhtémoc, Centro Histórico, Ciudad de México, México, +52 55 5512 8959
Mexico City’s largest cantina, this cavernous offering is situated in a massive, old building in the centre of the capital. The walls are papered with everything you’d expect from a cantina, including bullfighting posters and faded photographs. There are even display cases with full matador costumes inside them. Considered one of the most traditional and ancient cantinas in the city, La Faena is worth a visit.
Calle de Venustiano Carranza 49, Centro, Ciudad de México, México, +52 55 5510 4417