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Cantinas in Mexico: More Than Just Bars, a Tradition

  • Joel CZ 
  • 7 min read
cantina in mexico
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By tradition, custom, celebration, and even work, a cantina in Mexico is the meeting point and the perfect excuse to get together and leave behind, at least for a few hours, the hectic daily life and forget it all.

In the cantina, many varied stories converge, some true and others just fiction and drama to spice up the moment.

But who cares if the story is true or not, the main thing is to have a good time in the company of a friend, family, compadre, colleague, or love date.

In Mexico, visiting a cantina is an experience everyone should have more than once.

What makes a Mexican Cantina so special?

Classic and traditional ones, cantinas are usually housed inside historical buildings, with pictures of the important people who attended the place and stories made by legends.

There are versatile and modern ones, with dance floors and lights. You’ll find them for all types of budgets and in all the cities of the beautiful Mexican Republic.

Despite their differences, I must emphasize what they all have in common:

Cantinas in Mexico are synonymous with abundant Mexican foods and/or snacks (always free, so long as you’re drinking), varied drinks, live music, or DJs; some with shows included but above all, fun and entertainment full of tradition.

What is the origin of Cantinas?

what is a cantina in mexico
Salon Madrid Cantina in Mexico, City – Source: Fernando Gonzalez / flickr.com

It all began with the appearance of taverns in the XVI century, which were transformed into bars and saloons in the old west style.

But it wasn’t until the XVIII century that cantinas took shape.

One of the main characteristics of a Mexican cantina, besides feeding you lots of food for free, is that they’re open during the day, normally from 10 am – 10 pm.

Social gatherings in a cantina Mexicana have no limit since its customers celebrate a birthday or a graduation, a proposal or the closing of a business, watch a game, etc.

Everything, practically everything, finds a perfect scenario to toast in a cantina.

It is well known that cantinas in Mexico are considered mandatory tourist attractions in the travel plan.

Singers, bohemians, writers, musicians, and painters have found the source of inspiration that has led them to success in some cantinas.

José Alfredo Jiménez and Chavela Vargas are worthy representatives.

Mexican Cantinas are not to be missed

what is a cantina mexico
Cantina La Fuente in Guadalajara – Source: Nelson Taylor / flickr.com

I’ll show you some examples of cantinas you can visit in some major cities if work or pleasure takes you there.

If you are traveling through downtown Guadalajara, you can’t miss the famous cantina “La Fuente.”

It is an iconic cantina where you can enjoy a good tequila or have a cocktail in a traditional “Chabela” while you savor a delicious torta ahogada, soft birria taquitos, pork rinds, or marrow soup.

If you are passing through Oaxaca City, it would be a sin not to go to “La Farola” to taste a good mezcal from the region and eat a “Tlayuda de cecina.”

In the port city of Veracruz, visit the cantina “La Bomba,” where you must try the famous Toritos or Micheladas.

TOP 9 Cantinas in Mexico City

tio pepe mexico city
The bar at Tio Pepe Cantina Mexico City – Source: Benn… / flickr.com

Of course, I couldn’t leave out Mexico City. Although there are tons of cantinas, I’ve selected the 9 most popular and classic ones. Take note:

1. Buenos Aires

The interior of this cantina still has an antique ambiance. It is praised for its food and excellent service.

In addition to its longevity, it is conveniently located on Motolinia Street, between Madero Avenue and 5 de Mayo, downtown.

2. El Gallo de Oro

best cantinas in mexico city

The history of this cantina started in 1874 when it was opened to the public to begin a successful journey.

Today it is still alive and attracts hundreds of visitors interested in experiencing one of the most legendary and oldest cantinas in downtown Mexico City.

3. La Dominica

La Dominica is a sexagenarian cantina in Downtown.

Make sure to arrive at 2 pm, when they serve the daily three-course specials (soup, stew, side dish).

Accompany with three drinks, and the meal is free.

A beer costs only $20-30 pesos (1.5 USD), and if you want to know the best place’s anecdotes, ask Poncho, the manager.

4. La Faena

cantinas in mexico
La Faena – Source: Gary Denness / flickr.com

The atmosphere at La Faena comprises dusty wooden telephones from the early 20th century, plastic chairs and tables, a cash register that triples the youngest attendees’ age, oil paintings with bullfighting themes, and an altar of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

This is pretty much what a typical Mexican cantina should look like.

5. La Casa de la Opera

This mystical place was inaugurated in 1876 by the French Boulangeot sisters.

In its beginnings, it was located on the site now occupied by the Torre Latinoamericana, but it was so crowded that it had to be moved.

Currently, the cantina is located on 5 de Mayo Avenue, on the corner of Filomeno Mata.

6. La Peninsular

what is a cantina mexico
Source: Angelica Portales / flickr.com

It is said that it was inaugurated in 1872 and that Mexican golden age singer Lucha Villa was one of the customers who visited the cantina the most.

Even though women were not allowed to enter cantinas in Mexico until 1982.

7. Salon Covadonga

salon covadonga

For decades it was a peaceful cantina whose clients dedicated themselves to growing old while drinking and playing dominoes.

But something happened in the early 2000s.

An ever-growing band of writers, filmmakers, plastic artists, designers, architects, journalists, beautiful foreign models, and related characters began to corner the original patrons.

Because of that informal custom of drinking before the weekend, the “Thursdays of Covadonga” were established.

8. Tio Pepe

tio pepe
Tequila with Sangrita at Tio Pepe Cantina – Source: Alejandro De La Cruz / flickr.com

El Tío Pepe, founded in 1878, is one of the first cantinas in the city.

It may go unnoticed at first glance, but its folding doors and discreet sign welcome you to a world where thousands of stories have been told, laughed at, and cried.

El Tio Pepe is everything you would expect from a typical cantina:

  • Uniformed waiters
  • A large and well-stocked bar
  • The bartender behind his bar polishing glasses
  • And even old license plates prohibiting access to minors and vendors

Nowadays, its clientele is not only reserved for older men but also young people, women, office workers, and the occasional curious passerby.

9. Cantina La Valenciana

La valenciana

The food here is exceptionally generous and tasty, and what can I say about the drinks? They are wonderful!

They have some of the city’s best mezcal, tequila, and beer selections.

Salud!

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