Something for Everyone
If you wanted to take advantage of everything there is to do in Mexico City, you'd need to stay a month. But you'll find plenty of activities for your whole family to enjoy during a few days to a week. While the capital's appeal is timeless, its sheer size makes it somewhat intimidating. Mexico City is not easily conquered. It's so big that it can take weeks to explore it in its entirety. To get a sense of the city, the best option is to tackle the areas containing the biggest concentration of attractions. You'll find most grouped into three major areas — Centro Histórico, Bosque de Chapultepec, and the Zona Rosa.
For about $10, take the open-air, double-decker Turibus tour of Mexico City. The whole tour, with English narration by earphones, lasts one hour, but you can get off and on at designated stops along the way from the Zócalo to Bosque de Chapultepec from 8:30 A.M. to 10:00 P.M.
Things to Do
Mexico City is a place to be savored, a cornucopia for the senses. But you may feel overwhelmed by it all. If possible, devote a day to each major area of the city — taking an overall tour first may be the best way to orient yourself to the sights.
The Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square) or Zócalo (written with a capital “Z” to distinguish it as the original) is not only the heart of the city but of the country. The largest square in the Americas and the city's meeting place, it was, before the arrival of the Spaniards, the site of the Halls of Moctezuma, the core of the Aztec world. Surrounded by two city halls, the Palacio Nacional, and the Catédral Metropolitana with its Sagrario, it has witnessed Mexico's history through the fight for independence to the Revolution. It was even the site of the first bullfight in Mexico.
Join the free two-hour walking tour of the Centro Histórico on Sundays at 10 A.M. (55-5510-2541). Or board a trolley tour, departing daily (except Mondays) every thirty minutes from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. across from the Museo de la Ciudad.
The thirteen-acre Zócalo is also the epicenter of the Centro Histórico, a 600-square-block area of 1,500 designated historic buildings, many restored to their former glory. The
On the east end of the Zócalo, the Palacio Nacional, one of the first buildings built by Cortés (in 1693), houses offices of the president and the finance ministry. Diego Rivera vividly portrayed his vision of daily life in pre-Columbian Tenochtitlán in his mural
Located just off the Zócalo, the most impressive testimony of the Aztec period are the ruins of the Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlán (Great Temple of the Aztecs), destroyed by the conquistadores and now part of an extensive museum. In 1978, a power company crew burying a cable came upon a huge altar stone buried where the temple had stood. A massive archaeological dig revealed thousands of artifacts, including life-size figures of eagle warriors along with the skulls of their sacrificial victims. You can see them in the museum behind the site. One of the most intriguing finds is an eight-ton stone disc representing Coyolxauhqui, Goddess of the Moon. (Open daily 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., closed Mondays, 55-5542-4787.)
Avenida Francisco Madero, the main street of the Centro Histórico, was once known as the Calle de los Plateros (Street of the Silversmiths) and has, since colonial times, been a shopping street. At its west end, the ornate Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles), formerly a viceregal palace, now contains several restaurants and shops. Just west of the Casa de los Azulejos stands the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). A monument to the art deco style, it's both an opera house and art gallery showing paintings by Diego Rivera, José Climente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. This impressive marble palace is home to the world-famous Ballet Folklórico de Amalia Hernández and the Mexican symphony and opera. The theater's stunning twenty-two-ton beaded stained glass curtain, designed by Tiffany, shows the volcanoes surrounding Mexico City (55-5512-2593).
To get a feel for the Belle Epoque in Mexico, step into La Opera, a bar on Cinco de Mayo that dates back to the days of the Mexican Revolution. You can still see bullet holes in the ceiling made by Pancho Villa when he stormed in on his horse (55-5512-8959).
Alameda Central, laid out in 1541 over the remains of an Aztec marketplace, extends beyond the Belles Artes. During colonial times, members of the Spanish Inquisition burned heretics at the stake in the Plaza del Quemadero (Bonfire Plaza), off to one side. If you're strolling through the Centro Histórico, you'll find this shady oasis to be a pleasant place to rest. A few blocks west of the Alameda stands the enormous Monumento de la Revolución (Monument to the Revolution), with a museum in its base.
Originally designed to connect Maxmilian's residence with the Zócalo, the tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma, lined with modern office buildings and hotels, runs through downtown from west to northeast. Bronze monuments to Columbus, Cuauhtémoc, the last of the Aztec emperors, and others grace its
The Zona Rosa (Pink Zone), a twenty-one-block neighborhood of chic boutiques, hotels, and restaurants catering to tourists, lies half-way between the Zócalo and Bosque de Chapultepec. Unfortunately, this is also the area where you're most likely to be robbed, for thieves prey on the high concentration of unsuspecting tourists lured into a false sense of security by the area's designation.
Further beyond the Zona Rosa lies the expansive 2,100-acre Bosque de Chapultepec, which means “hill of the grasshoppers” in Nahuatl — the world's largest urban park. You can see remnants of the city's turbulent past — occupation by England, Spain, France, a revolution, and a civil war — at Castillo de Chapultepec, Maxmilian's residence on Cerro de Chapulín (Grasshopper Hill). The boy figures of the
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the second-most visited religious site after the Vatican.
Another must-see is the Santuario de Nuestra Virgen de Guadalupe (Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe), considered by Latin American Catholics to be the holiest site in the Western Hemisphere. It was here in 1531 that Juan Diego received a cloak from the Virgin with her image on it. Wander into the ultramodern church, then visit the museum with its hundreds of antique
Mexico City has over 130 museums, where you can find exhibits of art and history that show off its larger-than-life past. Most are closed on Mondays but are open from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. other days. The following are just a sampling.
Museums in the Centro Histórico include these:
• Museo Templo Mayor: A modern museum with exhibits of 7,000 artifacts found in the ruins of the Templo Mayor out front, including the Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec Goddess of the Moon, stone disk (55-5542-4784)
• Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City Museum): Formerly the eighteenth-century Palacio de la Santiago de Calimaya, contains works by Impressionist painter Joaquin Clausell (55-5512-0671)
• MUNAL (The National Museum of Art): Housed in the former Palacio de Communicaciónes y Trabajos Públicos (Office of Communications and Public Works), displays more than 700 works dating from the fifteenth to the twentieth century (55-5521-7320)
• Museo Diego Rivera: Located at the Jardín de Solidaridad, on the site of the Hotel Regis which was destroyed in the 1985 earthquake, contains the fabulous Diego Rivera mural
Museums in Bosque de Chapultepec include these:
• Museo Nacional de Antropológia (National Museum of Anthropology): Mexico's most famous museum, with exhibits of artifacts representing thirty centuries of Mexican human evolution to help you understand the colorful and heroic past of pre-Columbian Mexico (55-5553-1902)
• Museo de Artes Moderno (Modern Art Museum): Works created by some of the most outstanding Mexican painters, such as Orozco, Rivera, Toledo, and Siqueiros (55-5553-6233)
• Museo Nacional de la História (National History Museum): Located in Castillo de Chapultepec, shows the panorama of Mexican history, from the Conquest to the Revolution, through paintings, uniforms, sculptures, old coins, musical instruments, antique carriages, flags, and historical documents (55-5553-6224)
• Museo Rufino Tamayo: Works by the world-renowned Mexican painter as well as those of over 160 other contemporary artists (55-5286-6519)
For the Kids
When you visit Mexico City, join your children in discovering all that the city has to offer. Bosque de Chapultepec offers the largest concentration of kids' activities. Row across the lake, with swans and geese gliding alongside your boat. Afterward, visit Parque Zoológico de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Zoo), the best in Latin America. Here, you'll see over 1,300 species of animals — including panda bears and a rare black rhinoceros — over 200 of which roam in natural habitats. Admission is free (closed on Mondays, 55-5553-6229).
RAINY DAY FUN
Mexico City has special movie houses and theaters for children, with an ongoing variety of family movies and shows to capture their attention.
Nearby is La Feria de Chapultepec, an amusement park where you can ride the world's largest wooden rollercoaster, Montaña Rusa, an impressive ferris wheel, and a minitrain for a $15 all-day pass. (Open Tuesdays to Fridays 11 A.M. to 7 P.M., weekends 10 A.M. to 9 P.M., 55-5230-2121.) Close by, you'll find the interactive El Papalote Museo del Niño (Butterfly Children's Museum), where your children can travel through fantasy and technology through over 380 exhibits in the arts, science, and technology, walk through a five-story maze, and view films about Mexico culture on an IMAX screen (55-5237-1781). The Centro de Convivencia Infantil is a kids' playground, complete with its own small zoo, where your little ones can get their faces painted. A waterpark, Divertido, has a wave pool, giant slide, and a log ride, guaranteed to give you a good splash.
On Sundays, kids can laugh at puppet shows and eat cotton candy in Alameda Central. And at Six Flags Amusement Park, Reino Aventura, six international-themed villages, plus forty-five rides, a water show, and the thrilling El Escorpión (The Scorpion) will keep them entertained for hours. (Open daily 10 A.M. to 7 P.M., 55-5728-7292.)
La Cosa que Flota Jardínes de Xochimilco (The Floating Gardens of Xochimilco), a few miles east of Avenida Insurgentes, are a reminder of Mexico City the way it was in Aztec times. Actually, the gardens don't float, but they once did. The Aztecs, needing more farmland, placed earth-covered rafts in the swampy waters and planted vegetables in the soil, creating
Be sure not to miss the incredible collection of Diego Rivera's work at the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, set in a sixteenth-century hacienda with extensive gardens (55-5555-0891).
Other Parts of the City
Avenida Insurgentes leads to some of Mexico City's more attractive suburbs. San Ángel, a village of narrow winding cobblestone streets, walled mansions, and beautiful gardens, has retained the gracious ambiance of its colonial past. Today, it attracts artists, writers, and intellectuals but is best known for its Bazar del Sábado (Saturday market), where artisans sell a wide variety of fine arts and crafts. You should also visit Museo-Estudio Diego Rivera, the muralist's former home where he and ex-wife Frida Kahlo lived separately after their divorce (55-5548-3032).
You can take a free guided walking tour of San Ángel on Saturdays at noon, 2 P.M., and 4 P.M. (55-5277-6955)
Museo Frida Kahlo, also known as Casa Azul (Blue House), the home of controversial painter Frida Kahlo, the wife of artist Diego Rivera, stands on a quiet street corner in Bohemian Coyoacán. Now a museum, it shows a part of her life through her paintings, diary, and home decor (55-5554-5999). The Museo Leon Trotsky, the refugee home of the Communist leader while in Mexico and where he was later assassinated, stands behind fortified walls around the block. The Museo Nacional de las Intervenciónes (The Interventions Museum), housed in a former monastery, displays a history of Mexico through the country's various foreign invasions, through arms, flags, paintings, lithographs, maps, and historic documents (55-5604-0699).
Reminiscent of Paris's Latin Quarter, Coyoacán is home to many students of UNAM (Mexico's National University). Bookstores and cafés serving espresso line its twin shady plazas, Plaza Hidalgo and Jardín Centenario. You'll also see outdoor displays of paintings, handcrafted silver, and leather by local artists.
Bullfights and Horse Races
On Sundays from November to March you can enjoy a bullfight at the world's largest bullring, Plaza Mexico You can also attend a
Visit the Past
Avenida Insurgentes leads to Teotihuacán, “Place Where the Gods Are Born.” This ceremonial center was once one of the most important cities on the continent and thrived from about the sixth to the seventh century. Although much is unknown, there are signs that its people came from the east approximately 2,000 years ago and worshiped the rain god. When the Aztecs discovered the city, it was already long abandoned.
The Museo de Teotihuacán showcases artifacts discovered at the site. Exhibits include a reproduction of a burial site, sculptures of animals thought sacred to the Aztecs (such as jaguars, eagles, serpents and frogs), richly ornamented ceramics, and well-preserved fragments of murals showing mythological figures.
The two most impressive structures at Teotihuacán are the Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun), standing 205 feet high, with 365 steps leading to a temple and astronomical observatory on top, and the Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), 140 feet high with 112 steps. The Avenida de la Muerte (Avenue of the Dead), containing twenty-three temples, connects to the pyramids. Sculptural decoration based on the theme of the serpent in motion and masks of Quetzalcoátl and the god Tlaloc fill the Templo de Quetzalcoátl.