The Colonia Roma unfolded early in the past century as an aristocratic haunt of wide boulevards and stately homes built in the beaux arts style - until the Mexican revolution of 1910 halted development.
A less bourgeois set arrived shortly thereafter, which included many artists, writers and politically minded folk ( Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs and retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro among them), earning the neighbourhood a lasting reputation for well-cultured denizens. Then, in 1985, a devastating 8.1 magnitude earthquake rocked La Roma, flattening buildings and displacing residents for years.
La Roma gradually rebuilt. Many of the old families moved back, while a new wave of creative types followed.
Today, slightly more than a century after its founding, La Roma is coming full-circle, rediscovering its aristocratic roots. Socialites and the moneyed set are returning - bodyguards in tow - chic restaurants and lounges are opening, and speculators have ignited a real estate boom.
Much of the appeal owes to its central location, leafy streets, architectural gems and several expansive squares - including Plaza Rio de Janeiro, home to fountains, a replica statue of Michelangelo's David and soccer-playing youths.
The appeal is also thanks to an eclectic mix of lowbrow and highbrow establishments, easily visible when strolling Calle Colima. This street is book-ended by a funeral parlour and a smoke-belching hamburger cart, and is home to flower shops, a skateboard store, boutiques bursting with blue jeans and funky T-shirts, chi-chi restaurants and several public and private art galleries.
All the changes in La Roma invite comparisons to the adjacent Colonia Condesa, a fashionable and popular neighbourhood at risk of becoming overrun with cookie-cutter developments, Argentine grills and Starbucks.
Roma locals worry that their neighbourhood will move upmarket too quickly and become another La Condesa, which many artists abandoned because of rising rents. But antiques dealer Emmanuel Picault, owner of the shop Chic by Accident, is more sanguine about La Roma's future. "It's evolving," he said.
Re-Pack your bag
As the name suggests, La Valise draws inspiration from items stuffed into a suitcase. This bazaar delivers a truly random assortment of goods, which includes classic books, Spanish-language vinyl records and pink boxing gloves. Zacatecas 126; 52-55-5564-9013
French expatriate Emmanuel Picault has scoured markets and private collections across the capital - and beyond - for the past decade in search of rare finds inspired by Mexican designers. Current items on display at Chic by Accident include armchairs designed by famed architect Luis Barragan, an oversized papier-mâché skull and clay arboles de vida (trees of life), which depict the story of creation. Alvaro Obregon 49; 52 55-5511-1312 www.chicbyaccident.com
Guru, a design store and gallery, promises "lowbrow, surrealistic pop" and retro offerings - and it largely delivers, stocking everything from ceramic unicorns to notebooks adorned with lucha libre imagery to World Cup-inspired tarot cards. Colima 143; 52-55-5533-7140
Mexican fashion sense
Dime - pronounced "dee-me" and meaning "tell me" - highlights the creation of young Mexican fashion designers, whose inspiration is frequently culled from national icons, landmarks and myths. Examples include oversized bags emblazoned with Our Lady of Guadalupe and T-shirts featuring images of temperamental soccer star Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who's considered a demigod in some areas. Alvaro Obregon 185; 52-55-2454-6790; www.dimetienda.com
Tough name, cool clothing
The boutique Sicario draws its name from the Spanish word for the toughs employed by narcotics-trafficking cartels. Little about the merchandise - jeans, funky T-shirts, loads of sneakers and even vintage bicycles - suggests criminal links, however. Sicario also promotes DJs and provides information on shows. Colima 124; 52-55-5511-0396; www.sicario.tv
Perhaps the best street food in Mexico City, hamburguesas a la parrilla are served at a popular grill parked on Calle Colima. A double cheeseburger with a roasted pineapple ring costs about $2.50 and is best washed down with a bottle of Jarritos brand pop. The tamarind flavour is sublime. Corner of Colima and Morelia
All in the family
The arrival of Sobrinos (nieces and nephews) marked La Roma's upmarket ascent and it quickly became popular with the young and wealthy - known locally as "fresas" (slang for "snobs"). The most recent outlet in an empire of bistros named for family connections - including Primos (cousins) and Tios (uncles and aunts) - Sobrinos has won as much fame for catering to the glitterati as its Spanish-inspired fare and decor. Alvaro Obregon 110; 52-55-5264-7466
Keep it simple
A long-time La Roma favourite, NonSolo occupies a hole in the wall across from the fountains of Plaza Luis Cabrera. This Italian eatery boasts a simple menu of paninis and salads and a pleasing wine list. Another location one-block north on Alvaro Obregon offers more tables and larger menu, along with a cozy upstairs lounge. Plaza Luis Cabrera 10; 52-55-3096-5128; www.nonsolo.com.mx
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Brick Orizaba 95; 52-55-5525-1100; www.hotelbrick.com. Once the abode of an English banker and later a brothel, this boutique hotel has drawn fawning reviews and a clientele of socialites since opening earlier this year. Guests can belly up to a lobby bar, sip cocktails in the ground-floor lounge, nosh on wood-fired pizzas in a lonchería (lunchroom) or dine in the brasserie, which specializes in Provençal cuisine. The 17 rooms and suites are modern in design. From $230 per night
Hostel Home Tabasco 303; 52-55-5511-1683; www.hostelhome.com.mx. A pioneer in the Mexico City hostel scene, Hostel Home sleeps 22 (there are no private rooms) in a former mansion with hardwood floors, spacious common areas, free wireless Internet and a kitchen. Owner Juancho Nunez moonlights as a DJ and always extends performance invitations to guests. $12 a night, breakfast included.