In the weeks before arriving in Mexico City I was confronted by hysterical headlines about crime waves, drug wars and a litany of civil problems that made the Mexican capital sound like Pulp Fiction come to life. And yet just hours after landing at Benito Juárez International Airport, I was relaxing on the jasmine-scented roof terrace of the hip hotel Condesa DF amid a siege of stylish and beautiful chilangos (city dwellers). With a chilled pinot grigio in hand, a selection of stunningly good snacks (fried calamari with jalapeño and ponzu sauce, chicken brochettes, spicy tuna rolls) and funky rhythms handpicked by the in-house DJ, Mexico City felt decidedly civilised. Rumours of its demise appeared to have been exaggerated.
Over the next five days I grew very fond of this metropolis that simmers in the crater of an extinct volcano 2240m above sea level (that's 12m higher than our Mount Kosciuszko, FYI). I tore around the streets in battered vochos, the city's trademark green and white VW taxis, and strolled its leafy neighbourhoods graced with Beaux Arts and neoclassical buildings. I ate at a spectrum of restaurants from the vile to the visionary and along the way discovered that Mexican food extends deliciously beyond beans and cheese. I stayed in hotels whose design was refreshingly inspired and whose concierges magically secured my entrée to exclusive clubs and bars. But mostly I spent the time marvelling at how a city saddled with such a shocking reputation could contain so much charm and charisma. Like Beirut and Sarajevo, Mexico City proved to be one of those largely unsung destinations whose notoriety often overshadows their substantial attractions.
It's a great story, Mexico City, a gory epic that spans five centuries of rebellions, uprisings and conflicts. The dawn of its independence in 1821 merely ushered in another hundred years of battles and hostilities, including a two-year war with the US and invasion by France in the 1860s. Turmoil continued to define the capital through much of the 20th century.
The modern-day metropolis still has many problems, it's true, but that's to be expected in a city of 20 million impassioned and often impoverished inhabitants. Danger and fear lurk alongside wonder and joy, but visitors are unlikely to be troubled by the former; the violence of today is almost exclusively internecine.
"The situation is not as bad as you might have heard, but it is kind of dangerous," Rafael Lafarga, editor-in-chief of publishing house Travel Group Expansión, assures me over lunch in Condesa, one of the city's more exclusive neighbourhoods. "It's not something to be stressed about, but be sure to be alert.
"This is a very chaotic and difficult city to live in," he continues, "but it is great… getting great. We are like a work in progress; we have been a democratic country for a long time, but we are far from a functioning democracy."
Still, as he says, they're getting there. For much of the past decade municipal authorities have been polishing the city's rougher edges, gentrifying its suburbs and tackling critical quality-of-life issues such as crime and pollution (the latter an urgent concern since the city was branded the world's most polluted in 1992 by the United Nations).
The determination to address the city's longstanding ills can be traced in part to the awakening of something very like patriotism among Mexicans. This is a new sensation for a people who have traditionally taken their cultural leads from Europe or the US. Their cultural cringe even has a name - malinchismo, after La Malinche, the traitorous Aztec who became consort to the Spanish invader Cortes and helped him conquer her people in the 16th century.
"It's when you think a culture that's not your own is better because it's foreign, or from the first world," explains Isabel Gil, a 20-something broadcaster and my guide for a day. "Now there are a lot of people fighting that; they are no longer denying their own culture. Now we have our own Mexican style."
You can witness this cultural revolution at weekends in the city's public spaces brimming with chilangos come to hear musicians play or to browse traditional arts and crafts; in the nightclubs that nurture the talents of emerging artists; and in the upmarket neighbourhoods where boutiques and galleries now stock the brightest local stars.
You can also see it in the grand central avenue of Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico's magnificent answer to the Champs Elysées. Built in the 1860s during the reign of Emperor Maximilian I, Reforma has recently been restored to its full glory - a broad sweep of boulevard extending from the city centre to the vast green heart of Chapultepec Park, punctuated with extravagant statues and fountains, freshly minted five-star hotels and the gleaming headquarters of global corporations. Reforma is also home to the Dialogue of the Benches, an innovative civic program in which artists, architects and sculptors have been commissioned to create dozens of whimsical seats. The idea is to engender a little harmony and understanding by providing inviting spaces for chilangos to sit and discuss their differences, political or otherwise.
Self-respect is seeping into the city's finest restaurants, too, where a cabal of talented cooks is transforming Mexican staples into sophisticated cuisine. In the upstairs test kitchen of his restaurant, Pujol, in the glamorous Polanco district, the feted young chef Enrique Olvera takes familiar street fare and reinvents it for the elites. One dish he prepares for us - vacuum-pressed fruits draped with gossamer sheets of honey gelatine and dusted with lemon snow - pays homage to the city's ubiquitous roadside fruit stands.
"This is what people eat every day - we just make the ingredients taste better, make them more truthful," says Olvera, who, in his early thirties, is the youngest member of a culinary movement that includes such names as Patricia Quintana, Monica Patiño and Martha Ortiz (many of the city's best chefs are women). Together they are shaping a modern, very personal Mexican cuisine.
"We are trying to move away from the techniques of Spain and France and do our own techniques," Olvera says. "In Mexico we are starting to understand that as modern cooks, we embrace our tradition and are proud of it."
Olvera also oversees the menus at Condesa DF, one of the standard bearers of this new Mexican wave. The hotel is owned by Grupo Habita, the four savvy entrepreneurs behind a string of distinctive design accommodations that tweak the radars of stylish urban nomads. Condesa sits somewhere between high society and high camp. Its neoclassical façade is the backdrop for a wind-up vintage car by best-selling artist Betsabée Romero - twist the key on the side and strains of romantic composer Agustín Lara's Veracruz seep into the street.
The city's fashion crowd flocks to the roof terrace, the ground-floor fine diner and the basement nightclub and cinema, while sybarites head for the open-air therme and the Aztec-inspired temascal - like a hammam but the heat is dry instead of steamy. Mexican architect Javier Sanchez remodelled the 1920s apartment building into a hotel, while Paris-based designer India Mahdavi was responsible for the walnut-panelled room interiors and whimsical public spaces.
"We saw a trend happening in the world, of hotels with a high dose of design, small in size, but with very, very good service," managing partner Rafael Micha says of Grupo Habita's plan to inject some homegrown flair into Mexico's hotel scene. "Our hotels also become platforms for showcasing Mexican food, wines, styling and design."
The group now has eight properties throughout Mexico - including La Purificadora, a stunning industrial conversion in Puebla, 130km from the capital, and a sharp business hotel, Distrito Capital, just opened in the business centre of Santa Fé - and two more opening soon.
Three hotels opening in 12 months? It seems alittle hyperactive. But perhaps they're just making up for lost time. After years of looking elsewhere for inspiration, Mexicans are eager to show the world what they're really made of.
THE GUIDE What follows is, by necessity, a limited look at a vast, limitless city. It includes some well-known places and others we discovered that we recommend you seek out too. The four areas covered - the historical centre, Polanco, Condesa/Roma and San Angel - are those that visitors are most likely to explore. But don't restrict yourself. Part of the fun of Mexico City is letting yourself get swept along by its endless fiesta.
The centre (centro historico) Zócalo (aka Plaza de la Constitución) The huge city square, former site of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, ringed by the Metropolitan Cathedral, the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor and the Palacio Nacional.
An imposing structure built in 1563 on the site of Aztec king Moctezuma II's original palace. Once home of presidents, it's now executive government headquarters. The staircase and second floor of the main patio are adorned with Diego Rivera murals. Free entry.
Possibly the world's busiest pastry shop. Cavernous, packed with patrons buying vast quantities of oven-fresh pastries. Join them. 16 de Septiembre 18, +52 55 5130 2970
Gran Hotel Ornate former department store reborn as five-star lodgings. The Art Nouveau lobby is a highlight. Rooms from $210. 16 de Septiembre 82, +52 55 1083 7700
Mumedi Great café just off the Zócalo. Relax over coffee and teas and browse trendy design books. Francisco I Madero 74, +52 55 5510 8609
Pasaje America Popular nightclub featuring live music and local DJs. Cinco de Mayo 7, +52 55 5521 4375
Palacio de Bellas Artes The city's cultural heart, a grandiose marble folly home to its orchestras, its opera, the national dance company and two museums, as well as sweeping murals by the country's leading muralistas. Juárez y Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, +52 55 5512 2593
Paseo de la Reforma
Magnificent central boulevard linking the Zócalo and Chapultepec. Closed to traffic Sunday mornings, when it becomes an open-air exercise yard.
Museo del Estanquillo
Unique museum tracing the country's history through the personal collection of the leading writer/satirist Carlos Monsiváis. Isabel la Católica 26
Casa de los Azulejos Brilliant blue-tiled building housing a chain restaurant called Sanborns. While the restaurant is not worthy of your time, the covered courtyard, fluted stone columns and mural are. Francisco I Madero 4, +52 55 5510 1311
Brand new bolthole from the prestigious hotel chain. Rumoured to be the new home of leading chef Martha Ortíz's La Cantina, plus a franchise of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's global steakhouse empire. Rooms from $330. Paseo de la Reforma 439, +52 55 5528 1818
Roma & Condesa Condesa is a leafy, late 19th-century Art Deco neighbourhood graced with restaurants, galleries and young designers. The handsome Beaux Arts colony of Roma, badly damaged in the 1985 earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people, is slowly gentrifying but remains more eclectic and bohemian than Condesa.
Condesa DF 40 rooms and the cool pulse of the capital. Rooms from $245. Veracruz 102, Condesa, +52 55 5241 2600
Cultural centre, fine restaurant, bar, library, art gallery... and reputedly the most expensive bookshop in the city. Alvaro Obregón 99, Roma, +52 55 5525 3938
Cibeles Popular bar/restaurant at weekends, when security can be daunting (ask your hotel concierge to ring ahead and get your name on the door list). Plaza Villa de Madrid 17, Condesa, +52 55 5208 1456
The city's best seafood restaurant is a favourite spot for long lunches. Arrive at one, finish at six. Book ahead. Durango 200, Roma, +52 55 5514 3169
Leonor Simple bar packed with dressed-down, 20-30-year-old chilangos. Very exclusive and you can't call ahead (there's no phone), but Condesa DF's PR Deborah Vertiz can get your name on the guest list. Nuevo León 163, Condesa
Dine beneath disco balls at this loud, rather chaotic restaurant/bar. Try the risotto with chapulines (grasshoppers) - it's not half bad. The tables disappear around midnight and the party begins. Medellin 65, Condesa, +52 55 5208 4055
Legendary after-hours basement club once owned by comedian Mario Moreno, aka Cantinflas. Expect electro-house from visiting international DJs and red polka-dot designs by renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Insurgentes 377, Condesa, +52 55 5584 0613
Polanco A wealthy colonia settled by moneyed Spaniards fleeing the civil war. Defined by the central thoroughfare of Masaryk, which some locals like to think of (perhaps a little fancifully) as Mexico's Fifth Avenue. Very classy residential area enlivened by some of the capital's finest restaurants, bars and boutiques.
The city's debut design hotel, with roof terrace and pool. Rooms from $300. Masaryk 201, +52 55 5282 3100
Gourmet produce and wines in this little outpost of France, part of the trendy Ivoire complex that includes a restaurant and wine bar. Emilio Castelar 95, +52 55 5282 1539
W Hotel Accommodation with attitude. Decadent rooms with panoramic city views, very cool bar and hip terrace restaurant. Campos Eliseos 252, +52 55 9138 1800
Basque chefs Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Alonso reign in this fine-dining temple.
Masaryk 407, +52 55 5282 2064
Izote Top chef Patricia Quintana cooks classic Mexican. Popular business lunch spot. Masaryk 513, +52 55 5280 1671
Pujol Contemporary Mexican cuisine by the gifted Enrique Olvera. Dégustation menu about $55. Petrarca 254, +52 55 5545 4111
Naos Just out of Polanco in Lomas de Chapultepec, renowned cook Monica Patiño creates high-end organic fare. Palmas 425, +52 55 5520 5702
San Angel Handsome neighbourhood of mansions, embassies and cobbled streets, settled by the conquistadors in the 16th century and notable today for a market, two great restaurants and a studio.
Bazar del Sábado (Saturday Market)
Surely one of the world's best-quality markets, from the painters hawking their wares in the park to brilliant crafts and art in the covered market. You'll find everything from wild orchids harvested from rainforests to stunning Puebla embroidery and Mexican jumping beans (really). Plaza de San Jacinto
San Angel Inn 17th-century Carmelite college, now a favourite weekend lunch spot of old- money families. Gorgeous gardens. Diego Rivera 50, +52 55 5616 1402
La Taberna del León
Another Monica Patiño restaurant. Modern Mexican with flair in a 19th-century building. Altamirano 46, +52 55 5616 3986
Casa Estudio de Diego Rivera Functionalist house set behind a fence of organ-pipe cactus, home to Diego Rivera until his death in 1957 (Frida Kahlo lived here with him from 1934 to 1940). Rivera's personal art collection and effects are on display. Altavista, cnr Diego Rivera, +52 55 5550 1518