Books, books, books. Buying and reading them is one of my favourite things to do, and exploring where you can browse and purchase them is pretty up there on my things I no longer have time to do list too, which is why I’ve put together the second part of my literary guide to Mexico City for fellow book lovers in the Mexican capital – a literary tour of the historic centre, Mexico City.
Wait, what? You didn’t read the first part, about Roma and Condesa?! Go on, go ahead. I’ll wait.
This second instalment will focus on an in-depth exploration of the literary highlights that can be found hiding in plain sight in Mexico City’s centro histórico, from beautiful bookstores, new and used, to off-the-radar libraries that deserve more than a second glance (Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, I’m talking about you), so if you were wondering what to do in the historic centre of Mexico City, wonder no more.
Even though I’ve planned this as a walking tour of the main sights (complete with a handy downloadable map at the bottom), you can definitely pick and choose which literary favourites you want to check out while you’re in Mexico City. I’m greedy though, so don’t expect this to be a literary tour lite, but rather a comprehensive insider guide to the book-loving heritage of Mexico City.
A LITERARY TOUR OF THE HISTORIC CENTRE, MEXICO CITY
While I’m marketing this as a one-stop-shop, hit all the sights in a day walking tour, don’t be deceived. Mexico City’s historic centre is a tricksy bastard and journeys you think will take ten minutes end up taking thirty because no one knows where the place you’re looking for is and Google Maps registers the entrance as been at the back rather than the front of the building. And that’s just a small slice of the hassle I ran into whilst researching for this piece. BUT, don’t let silly old me put you off, because seeing the top sights is definitely doable if you (or, say, your friendly neighbourhood travel blogger) plans ahead for you. I recommend making Metro Juárez your starting point, if you’re planning on doing the tour in its entirety.
It’s worth mentioning that none of these mentions are sponsored in any way. I really rate all of the places, establishments, bookstores and literary points of interest mentioned on this guide and hope you enjoy them too!
Café La Habana
The first point of literary attraction on my guide is actually one of the few I haven’t been to. I failed you all, but when I went to do my second bout of research for this piece I WAS EXHAUSTED and the things I still had to see were just so far from Café La Habana (Morelos 62, Juárez) that I couldn’t be bothered to schlep all the way over there. Shoot me.
Anyway, this is one of those sights that will only hold true appeal for the hardcore literature fans, more specifically, hardcore Roberto Bolaño fans. As some of you may know, he’s the Chilean author most famous for his texts set in and inspired by Mexico City and, as it happens, Café La Habana was the inspiration for his fictional Café Quito in The Savage Detectives. Skip it if this fun fact leaves you uninspired, but read this and this if you want to learn more.
Biblioteca de México (Balderas)
Attraction number two is the Biblioteca de México (Tolsa 4, Centro), which is situated right next to the Balderas metro, making it an excellent start point if you decide to give Café La Habana the miss. As you can see on the map waaay at the end of this mega-post, I’ve indicated that you need to enter through the south doorway. There is method in the madness, as this route will lead you right down through the beautiful old building, off which you can find numerous smaller reading rooms, libraries and even a braille text collection. Bonus points for the fact that the leafy-green, bench filled room at the back had plug sockets I could charge my phone with in preparation for my literary tour of the historic centre.
Beware confusion over this library though, because, in the typical Mexican fashion of giving everything several long and confusing names, the Balderas Biblioteca de México also goes by the name the Biblioteca de México José Vasconcelos, the new version of which is located in Colonia Santa María la Ribera. Confused? Me too. Just stick to calling it ‘that one that’s next to Balderas metro’ and you’ll be fine.
Librería Educal Alejandro Rossi
This bookstore is one I’ve seen a ton about on social media, and it is genuinely very aesthetically pleasing…but it’s another of the best bookstores in Mexico City that I couldn’t for the life of me find. Google Maps was no use and your average Joe on the street didn’t fare much better either, so I called it a day and continued on with my research.
As it turns out, idiot that I am, it’s actually located inside the Biblioteca de México (Balderas), a.k.a. the place I just mentioned. Yeah, don’t make my mistake guys, and please hunt it down when you visit; according to the website, the entrance can be found at the north of Plaza Ciudadela.
Claustro de Sor Juana
If you call yourself a literary buff, you’ve probably got a decent idea who Sor Juana is and if you’re just a mere poser, 1) thanks for reading this post that’s clearly not in your field of interest and 2) she’s a legendary Mexican proto-feminist and poet. You’re welcome.
To visit her Claustro (José María Izazaga 92, Centro Histórico), which is actually now a university, you will have to first hunt down the entrance that sits hidden away on the east side of the huge perimeter wall. The entry is free all year round and you just leave an ID at the door to enter, but given that it’s a university, you can’t wander around willy nilly and instead you’re kind of restricted to the courtyard. This is no bad thing however, because, prepare yourself…IT’S FILLED WITH CATS.
So, if you like cats and books, which I figure are two cross-sections of the population that likely come together pretty frequently, then the Claustro de Sor Juana is an unmissable destination.
It’s worth mentioning that if you don’t want to walk from Balderas to the Claustro, you can simply get on the pink line of the metro and get off at Metro Isabel la Católica.
Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada
By far and away my most recommended literary highlight in Mexico City’s historic centre, this library literally took my breath away and I knew what to expect before I went in. I can only imagine how you’d feel if you had no idea what was waiting for you. Vibrant and beautiful, albeit with a snippy receptionist who was more interested in reading the paper than doing her job, it was amazing. Oh, and the façade of the building is nothing to be sniffed at either.
I would 100% go back every day and work in the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada (República de El Salvador 49, Centro Histórico) if I wasn’t terrified of having my laptop stolen on the Mexico City public transport system.
You have to provide ID At the door and leave your back with aforementioned snippy receptionist to enter, so grab anything you want to take in with you (phone, wallet, book?) beforehand and soak up the floor to ceiling murals that surround you. I was totally eyeing up the twisty spiral staircase that sat in one corner, but unfortunately it was out of bounds for the public. Either way, if you go to one literary destination in the historic centre, make it this one.
Biblioteca Antigua de México (Now Antiguo Templo de San Agustín)
Remember I told you about the confusingly named Biblioteca de México by Metro Balderas? Well, the confusion saga of its name doesn’t end there, as there’s an old version too. I eventually found the Biblioteca Antigua de México after much arduous searching, mainly because if you ask for it by that name, people will look at you weird and try to send you to Balderas. DO NOT GO BACK TO BALDERAS, THAT IS NOT THE LIBRARY YOU’RE LOOKING FOR! Instead, be smarter than me, and ask for it by the name it’s currently going under – the Antiguo Templo de San Agustín (República de El Salvador 76, Centro Histórico).
When I went, you didn’t seem to be able to enter, which was a shame; however, it was surrounded by some of the most amazing street art, that I had no idea even existed! So, even though you can’t enter, and I stress this enough, go for the street art. You won’t regret it!
Plaque to Cafe Cazador
Café Cazador was once a favourite haunt of the Mexico City-based literati, but it sadly no longer exists. However, I’d heard rumour of their being a small plaque marking its existence so I set out to find it. Google Maps shows this plaque as being a bit further up Madero than it really is and I was starting to despair slightly as I got ever nearer to the zocalo. Let me reassure you though, dear reader, that it does exist – in fact, it’s right on the corner, just next to the Portal de Mercaderes jewellery market (Plaza de la Constitución 13, Centro Histórico). A fun snippet of history and close enough to the main sights of the city that you can go take a peek without disrupting your day, but nothing life changing.
Museo del Estanquillo
‘Why would a museum by considered a literary landmark?’, I hear you wondering. Well, the Museo del Estanquillo (Isabel la Católica 26, Centro Histórico) was both founded and inaugurated by the late Carlos Monsaváis, a prolific Mexican journalist, and the majority of the artefacts are sourced from his own personal collection and centre mainly on Mexico and folk art. While I haven’t been there myself, it’s the perfect rainy day destination for book lovers in Mexico City.
Bar La Ópera
A historic and literary icon of the Mexican capital, Bar La Ópera (5 de Mayo 10, Centro Histórico) supposedly has a bullet hole in the roof that was left there by revolutionary Pancho Villa. However, post-Revolution it converted itself into a hub for literary talents, with names like Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo and Julio Cortázar reportedly passing through there at one point or another and composing some of their greatest works. Now just an unassuming cantina from the outside, stop by for a quick drink if you want a great anecdote. Not thirsty? Wander past, snap a photo and give it a miss.
Tianguis de Libros
Speaking of anecdotes, I have one about the Tianguis de Libros (Condesa, Centro Histórico), which you can find tucked down a narrow alley just opposite the Museo Nacional de Arte. Picture the scene: it was 2015 and I’d just arrived to Mexico City for the first time, on my way to Guadalajara. It’s my 20th birthday, so I decide to stroll around the historic centre for a bit, write some postcards and check out the Palacio de Bellas Artes (which was closed, by the way – bad luck with that museum would later become a staple of my Mexico City experience). Instead, I ended up stumbling on this apparently incredibly well known little tianguis that’s to be found daily on Calle Condesa, and that’s how it became my first Mexico City discovery, overflowing with new and used books as well as other artisanal products. It’s not the most interesting anecdote, I grant you, but I enjoy it. Erm, so yeah, go buy old books there instead of at one of Mexico City’s bookshops. I remember I paid like MXN$10 for mine – bargain!
Biblioteca de la Cámara de Diputados
Honestly, I thought I stumbled past the Biblioteca de la Cámara de Diputados (Tacuba 29, Centro Histórico) on my way to another location on this guide and was in awe of the fact that I’d never seen this building before in my life. However, when I came back to look for it and see if I could get into the library, I was more shocked by the fact that I either a) imagined its existence entirely or b) it has the power to fucking disappear. I asked several people where it was and, as usual, received a range of widely varying yet incredibly confident sounding responses (that’s nothing unusual though), but I just couldn’t find it. Reader, I gave up. Sorry. You’re on your own with this one.
If you do try to hunt it down, I’ve heard that the library is all wood panels and smoking-room-vibes though. Let me know if you find it!
I have heard this street raved about more times than I can count and yet it was…meh. There was a good selection of small independent bookstores, but from what I could tell (I was at the end of Donceles near the Templo Mayor) they were mainly those weird self-help books that look like someone knocked them up in their kitchen and started flogging them. It was mainly a Mexican audience they seemed aimed at, let’s say that, and English-language options were thin on the ground.
In fact, I found more promising and attractive bookstores (albeit commercial ones) like Porrua and Educal along this end of Donceles, as well as the Colegio de San Ildefonso. Feel free to check out Calle Donceles, because for all I know the other end could be a magical, mystical world of rare book finds, but I was slightly disappointed with this ‘legendary’ Mexico City location.
UPDATE: Insider info tells me that the really great hidden gems of Donceles are to be found towards the Bellas Artes end of the street, between Calles Peralvillo and Allende.
Plaza Santo Domingo
Your final stop off point (or start point, who am I to judge?!) should be Plaza Santo Domingo, the square with a historically literary reputation for attracting writers and book lovers. The rumour goes that they used to position themselves around the plaza to write love letters for their illiterate clients, but nowadays you’re more likely to find snack sellers and stationery booths. It’s still an overwhelmingly pretty spot to grab a coffee and relax in though. Write your own letters there instead!
WHERE TO EAT
As with my Roma-Condesa piece (which you can find here), I’ve marked on the map below a selection of places to grab food in Mexico City for when you inevitably get peckish and/or light-headed during your literary tour of the historic centre.
If you just want something quick, grab a taco de canasta from literally any street vendor, like I did when I was researching. They’re fast, cheap and delicious, although I advise you stick to meat-free ones to be on the safe side of the bathroom stall door. I like potato ones. I bought mine on the corner of Uruguay and 5 de Febrero, for reference.
Alternatively, if you’d prefer to sit down and eat, try either one of the centre’s most famous 24-hour cafés that dish up Mexican food on the daily. Café El Popular (5 de Mayo 52, Centro Histórico) isn’t called that for a reason – there’s always a waiting list to get in and once you are, I recommend a huge plate of chilaquiles. If you want somewhere a little less ‘known’ amongst tourists, La Pagoda (5 de Mayo 10, Centro Histórico; next to Bar La Ópera) is ideal and a touch cheaper, apparently.
For any sweet tooth cravings, stop by the famed Pastelería Ideal (República de Uruguay 74, Centro Histórico) and grab a quick pastry to tide you over to lunch. I got a delicious, sugary, chocolatey and entirely unhealthy donut finger thing. I’m not selling it, but it was great. Once you’ve chosen your product, take it to the counter for them to wrap it for you. There, they’ll give you a slip of paper with a number. You then take that to the cash desk (leaving your purchases at the counter) and pay before returning to get your treats. Definitely not the most intuitive system and even I fucked it up, despite knowing how weird bakeries are about this kind of stuff in Mexico. Totally worth it though.
Or, alternatively, the legendary Churrería El Moro (Lázaro Cárdenas 42, Centro Histórico; also 24-hours, fyi) serves up sugary, cinnamon churros and cups of chocolate, in various different forms. For example, the Spanish version is far thicker and the Mexican hot chocolate has the classic cinnamon touch.
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