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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dive bars can show you a city in its truest form

A shot and a beer with locals can instantly make you feel at home

(Min Heo/for The Washington Post)

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Arriving in a new city can be stressful.

You’re on alert, worried about looking like a tourist and wary of being ripped off. Lugging bags around while finding your way can leave your mind and body on the brink of exhaustion.

But there’s a shortcut that can solve some of these problems: A trip to a local dive bar.

There are two approaches to finding such an establishment. If you plan your trips meticulously, you can research before you arrive. That way you’ll know why Jimmy’s Corner and Rudy’s can be an escape from the suffocation of midtown Manhattan, why to look for Sam Smith’s pubs in London, and why you should ask for a “city wide” — a shot and a beer — at a dive bar in Philadelphia.

That was my approach during a visit to Mexico City in February 2019. When it was time to explore, I had already made a long list of potential establishments.

While there were many trendy options to pick from, one bar immediately stood out. La Nuclear is tiny, narrow and dark — and proud of all three. Once through its saloon doors, you’re confronted by the bar and a pack of people queuing for drinks. Most are there for the same thing, too.

A local's guide to Mexico City

Pulque is a traditional central Mexican beverage, made from the sap of the maguey plant.La Nuclear has pulque in a variety of flavors, including pina, mango, and celery. It’s made in the morning, and the bar regularly runs out later in the day.

As I sat and drank my pulque — which looks like milk, but tastes more like kombucha — I realized that La Nuclear was the perfect place to not just people watch, but to get a sense of the true Mexico City.Being in such close confines with a mixture of locals and tourists, I felt at home — not just in the bar, but in Mexico City.

But other times, you just want to fly by the seat of your pants. In Valparaiso, Chile, Cerro Concepcion’s cobbled hills, beautiful street murals, and colorful houses is a place where you can walk for hours and never feel bored.

I was ecstatically lost among its labyrinth of streets during a visit in July 2017. In need of rejuvenation, I popped into a half-packed local bar, where the paint was falling off and the chairs and tables were all different sizes.

At the airport bar, rules don't apply

Then, just a few sips into my beer, some patrons stood up, their brass instruments in hand. Instantly, the room was full of blaring live music. Everyone in the bar soaked it up with a reverence usually reserved for Mass. The next morning, hung over and on the brink of tinnitus, I basked in the memory of the previous evening, without realizing that I didn’t know the bar’s name or even where it was, exactly.

Yet the thought of going back there never even crossed my mind. My main rule when exploring dive bars is: Never return. There are too many unseen corners of the city and unconsumed beer-and-shot deals for repeated visits.

Of course, if there’s a great happy hour to be had, though, there’s always room for exceptions.

Born and raised in Northern England but now based in Philadelphia, Gregory Wakeman writes on entertainment, travel and soccer.