Things to Do in Mexico City
Just north of Mexico City are the mysterious Teotihuacán Pyramids, built beginning around 300 BC as the centerpiece of an enormous city, often compared to ancient Rome. They were inexplicably abandoned centuries before the arrival of the Aztecs, who called the ancient architectural marvel the "Birthplace of the Gods."
Neither they, nor modern archaeologists, have been able to unravel the secrets of these massive ruins, presided over by the third-largest pyramid in the world. Constructed according to precise astronomical measurements, and filled with the bodies of sacrificial victims, it was perhaps a place where bloody rituals were performed to keep the end of the world at bay. But no one really knows.
Thus, this mystic spot is one of the most enigmatic, as well as impressive, archaeological sites in North America. Its vast stone expanse of humbling temples are still covered with rich and detailed stone statues, even faded paintings.
Perfumed with flowers and plied by trajineras, a sort of gondola cheerfully painted to reflect the canals' lush beauty, the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco were once the agricultural breadbasket of Mexico City. Today, these last lovely remnants of ancient Lake Texcoco are more a destination for young lovers and enchanted tourists in search of a romantic afternoon.
Though most of the Aztecs' massive system of canals have long since been drained, the suburb of Xochimilco ("Place of Flowers") offers a glimpse into the ancient beauty of of Tenochtitlán. The "floating gardens" that once fed the great nation are smaller, but still here; the trajineras may now come equipped with engines, but they are still festively decorated, and many carry troupes of mariachis and offer relaxed "restaurant" service.
La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, was the birthplace of iconic artist Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954), whose beautifully tortured self portraits and passionate, tumultuous life with muralist Diego Rivera have elevated her to the status of legend.
Her home, today one of Mexico City's most popular museums, doesn't have an outstanding collection of her own work, though there are several sketches and less famous pieces to see. Instead, the rooms and gardens - still in much the same state as she left them - offer insight into her life as a wife, lover, artist, and hub of the city's (and Latin America's) socialist intellectual scene during the 1920s and 1930s. The tender details, from her brushes and canvasses, the pre-Columbian art collected by her husband, and even the prosthetic leg she wore in the months before her untimely death, will touch even casual visitors to the Museo Frida Kahlo.
Villa Coyoacan is 29 blocks of one of Mexico City’s most charming districts. Also one of the area’s oldest districts, the area is filled with cobblestone streets, counterculture museums, and small park plazas that date back to Spanish colonial times and have an absolutely charming feel. Independently ranked as one of the best urban places to live, Coyoacan is where Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky all chose to reside, and museums dedicated to them now fill their old houses. Tranquil on the weekdays, filled with culture and music come the weekend, Coyoacan is more than simply a nice neighborhood – it’s a hotbed of culture and a must-see if in Mexico City.
The Patron Saint of Mexico, and of all the Americas, is the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to legend, she appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on December 9, 1531. In his vision, she was a teenage girl of indigenous complexion, and spoke to the recently baptized Aztec in his native Nahuatl. There, atop Tepeyac Hill, she asked him to build a shrine in her honor. When the Spanish priests refused to believe Juan Diego's tale, she gave him a sign: Roses in December, and the miraculous painting, echoed all over the world, and still revered today.
Today, the Shrine of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic religious site on Earth, and pilgrims attribute to her image all manner of miracles. They pack the enormous basilica, designed to offer a fine view of her image from anywhere within, asking her help with everything from relationship woes to healing terminal cancer.
Located at the heart of Mexico City in the center of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, Plaza de la Constitucion—better known as Zocalo—is where old and new Mexico meet. Pre-Hispanic ruins exist side-by-side with impressive colonial structures, and white-collar workers stroll among cultural performers and traditional art vendors. This city-block square is also a gathering place for political protest and cultural celebration—and it’s an ideal spot to savor the flavor of real Mexico City.
Tour nearby Palacio Nacional, just east of Zocalo, where massive murals by Diego Rivera depict the nation’s vibrant history. Next, pass through the doors of Catedral Matropolitana for a look at religious colonial art and impressive golden altars. When it’s time for a break head to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, where incredible views and strong drinks from the terrace bar round out the perfect day.
It’s easy to spend an entire day exploring the nearly 20 acres that make up Mexico City’s most-visited museum. Opened in 1964, the National Museum of Anthropology houses the largest collection of traditional Mexican art in the world—including the famous Aztec Stone of the Sun (Although the giant carved heads from the Olmec people, uncovered deep in the jungles of Tabasco and Veracruz, are equally impressive).
Each of the museum’s 23 permanent exhibit halls is dedicated to a different cultural region or indigenous group, making it an ideal place to learn about the country’s rich history and the traditions of its diverse capital city.
Considered one of the world's most beautiful buildings, the Mexico City Palace of Fine Arts - or Palacio de Bellas Artes - is a harmonious synthesis of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Baroque styles, a style sometimes called "Porfiriano," after architecture-obsessed Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who commissioned the project.
The exterior, surrounded with gardens, rises in elegant columns and domes above the cool, green Alameda Central. Inside, it is an exceptional art exhibition, filled with a permanent collection of statues, murals, and other outstanding ornamentation. In addition, there are regular world-class art exhibitions open to the public.
In addition to its daytime attractions, you can appreciate the building's acoustic excellence by enjoying a performance at its National Theater. International artists appear regularly, but try to catch Mexico City's own Ballet Folklórico de México Compania Nacional or National Symphonic Orchestra.
The seat of Mexico's federal government since the age of the Aztecs (at least), the National Palace - or Palacio Nacional - is a working building, and many offices are off limits to visitors. You can, however, pass through the enormous baroque facade dominating the eastern side of the Zócalo and enjoy some of its ample interior.
Though the arcaded courtyards and fountains are fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture, you're here to see artist Diego Rivera's triptych of murals, "Epic of the Mexican People." From the creation of humankind by Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent god, and subsequent rise of the Aztecs, Rivera plunges you into the horrors of the Spanish Conquest - rape, murder, slavery, and finally, mercy to the defeated survivors. In the final piece, Mexico's resistance to invasions by France, the United States, and corporate robber barons including Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, are depicted.
More Things to Do in Mexico City
North America may not be known for its regal royalty or holding court, but Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City—the only palace on the continent—is definitely the real deal. Located more than 7,000 feet above sea level, Chapultepec has housed sovereigns, served as a military academy and was even an observatory. In 1996 the castle was transformed into Capulet Mansion for the movie Romeo and Juliet, too.
Until 1939, Chapultepec Castle served as the presidential residence. Then a new law moved it elsewhere and the castle became home to both the National Museum of History and the National Museum of Cultures instead. A stroll through these halls, followed by a tour of lush castle grounds is a perfect way to spend a Mexico City afternoon.
At the historic heart of one of the world's most populous cities, is the first and largest cathedral in the Americas, seat of the Archdiocese of Mexico, and a wonder to behold. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral - or Catedral Metropolitana - is a symphony in stone, composed over 4 centuries into manifold facades, displaying textbook Neoclassical, Renaissance, and wedding-cake ornate Mexican Baroque (Churrigueresque) styles.
Within its fantastic bulk are sheltered some 16 chapels, several alters and retablos, a fine parish church, and a choir, each an inspired work of art replete with gold gilt, fine paintings, and sculptural details. Above it all, 25 bells - measured in tons - ring and sing to the city all around.
The Mexican flag refers to a vision dating to the 13th century, telling Aztec seers to seek an eagle on a cactus, devouring a snake, and build their temples there. The wandering tribe finally found their sign atop an island in Lake Texcoco, and built the mighty city of Tenochtitlán upon it.
Fast forward 7 centuries, to a 1978 electrical problem close to the Zócalo, Spanish Colonial heart of Mexico City. Workers, digging into the soft earth, uncovered a massive, eight-ton stone depicting Coyolxauhqui, Aztec goddess of the moon. Archaeologists who had long suspected that the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple lay beneath this neighborhood, were vindicated. Throughout the 1980s, Spanish buildings were cleared away as excavation revealed an unprecedented wealth of treasures from every corner of the Aztec Empire. The old pyramid was decapitated by the Spanish advance, but much remains: walls of stuccoed skulls and enormous carvings dedicated to Tlaloc, god of storms.
Chapultepec Park, or Grasshopper Hill, is the largest city park in the world, an awesome expanse of greenery marbled with walking paths that meander between quiet ponds, monumental buildings, and a world-class collection of museums. Visitors could enjoy a quiet afternoon in its embrace, surrounded the sidewalk stands, soccer games, and other amusements, or explore the park for months on end, finding something new every day.
The park was probably set aside as green space in the 1300s, but wasn't officially protected until 1428, by King Nezahualcoyotl. The Spanish and Mexican governments have since maintained most of its natural integrity, though they did add aqueducts, palaces and other public spaces within. The most popular attractions include the massive zoo, also founded in the 1400s; the National Museum of Anthropology; La Feria Chapultepec Mágico, a small amusement park; the Ninos Heroes Monument; and the President's mansion at Los Pinos.
France has the Champs-Élysées, New Orleans has St. Charles Street, and Mexico City has the Paseo de la Reforma. More than just a major thoroughfare that spans the length of the city, the street is a historical touchstone to remind all who pass through of the robust history of Mexico City.
Once commissioned by then-newly crowned emperor Maximilian, the Paseo de la Reforma was built to connect the center of the city with his imperial residence, Chapultepec Castle in Chapultepec Park. Originally named after his beloved, the promenade was named Paseo de la Emparitz. After Maximilian’s execution and the liberation of the Mexican people, the street was renamed the Paseo de la Reforma and has since stood as a testament to the resiliency of the Mexican people. Today, the most prominent buildings in Mexico City reside along the avenue. For a time during President Diego’s regime, the paseo became popular with the Mexican elite, and some European styled houses developed.
A trio of craggy peaks looming in front of the still-smoking mound of Popocatepetl volcano and clearly visible on the horizon from Mexico City, the Iztaccíhuatl Volcano is one of the capital’s most iconic landmarks and a popular choice for hiking and camping excursions. Named for its resemblance to a sleeping woman, Iztaccíhuatl translates from the Nahuatl language to “white woman,” with the three peaks said to appear from a distance like the head, breasts and feet.
Reaching a height of 17,000 feet (5,230 meters), the Iztaccíhuatl Volcano measures in as Mexico’s third-highest peak, and scaling the permanently snow-capped summit offers impressive views over the neighboring Popocatepetl and the Valley of Mexico below. Most hikes start out from La Joya at 12,000 feet (3,700 meters), from where a range of technical and non-technical hiking trails run up the mountainside, taking about three to four hours to reach the summit.
One of the largest stadiums in the world and home to the professional football club America, the Azteca Stadium (Estadio Azteca) is a soccer (fútbol) stadium and is the official stadium of Club America and Mexican national football team. Located in the Santa Ursula neighborhood of Mexico City, this massive architectural structure was built to accommodate the legions of stalwart football fans that Mexico City is known to foster. One of the most highly regarded and notable football stadiums in the world, Azteca Stadium is the first in the world to have hosted two FIFA World Cup Finals, as well as the 1986 quarter-final match between Argentina and England, where both the “Hand of God” goal and the “Goal of the Century” were scored.
Little known fact about Azteca Stadium – now owned and operated by Televisa, during a brief stint in the late 1990s, Televisa was worried about its prized stadium sharing a name with its rival Azteca Television.
For visitors looking to experience how Mexico’s other half lives, there is no better place than Polanco. This upscale neighborhood in the Miguel Hidalgo borough of Mexico City is home to some of the wealthiest and most influential families in the country. The city’s most luxurious hotels, priciest restaurants and swankiest clubs line the streets of the five colonias that make up this district.
Major malls like Antara Polanco and Plaza Carso attract patrons in search of true destination shopping, while a stroll down the high-end Avenida Presidente Masaryk provides a taste of Polanco’s most expensive real estate and window-shopping at some of the neighborhoods exclusive boutiques. But Polanco is more than just luxury. Visitors can wander through Chapultepec and Parque Lincoln, or get a taste of culture on a visit the National Museum of Anthropology and the Modern Art Museum in the neighborhood as well.
The streets of Mexico City come alive with music, performance and mariachi at Plaza Garibaldi. This historic square is the destination for live local music in the capital city. Visitors can cozy up to the bar at one of the numerous tequila joints that line the streets of Plaza Garibaldi, or settle in to an outdoor table and enjoy the hustle of urban life while mariachi bands weave between patrons while playing traditional tunes. The nearby Museum of Tequila and Mezcal, just behind the Agave Garden, is a perfect stop to learn more about Mexico’s most famous spirit and solo musicians frequently perform in the upstairs bar and tasting room. While some argue the plaza’s high prices and petty crime make it a true tourist trap, good drink deals are easy to find and increased security has improved the look, feel and safety of this popular destination.
Perhaps the most popular (and most recognizable) amusement park in the world, Six Flags is a rollercoaster theme park filled with comic, cartoon, and mythological characters and never fails to impress both the young and the young-at-heart. Packed with rides that thrill and delight, Six Flags Mexico has a total of 48 rides from which to choose, eight of them mind-bending, exhilarating roller coasters with two of them being water rides that soak and surprise.
Located on the southern edge of Mexico City, Six Flags Mexico is the only Six Flags operating in Latin America, and has a huge draw. Known for its comic and cartoon themes, Six Flags Mexico City is laid out like a minor city. Stroll with your family through Pueblo Mexicano (Mexican Village), Pueblo Frances (French Village), Pueblo Polinesio (Polynesian Village), Hollywood, Pueblo Suizo (Swiss Village), Pueblo Vaquero (Cowboy Town) and El Circo de Bugs Bunny (The Bugs Bunny Circus).
Located just south of La Merced Market, the Sonora Market was established to rival the La Merced Market for handicrafts instead of foodstuffs. Here, in the Sonora Market, you’ll find all kinds of handmade goods – perfect for specialty goods like pottery, herbal medicine, religious items, and even live animals. A local and tourist favorite, Sonora Market is also known for its Day of the Dead memorabilia. Keep an eye out for sugar skulls, papel picado, witches, ghosts, and alebrijes – locally made figurines that have received international notoriety from the art world. Over 500 vendors all vie for attention, and so this market, like many in Mexico, is best taken with a guide in tow.
The Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, commonly just referred to as the Anahuacalli Museum, can be tricky to find in Mexico City, but it is worth the extra effort to visit. Diego Rivera was a famous painter who was known for his cubist style and murals. He lived in Mexico City for most of his life and was married to the artist Frida Kahlo. The Anahuacalli Museum is designed by him and houses ancient artifacts he amassed during his lifetime as well as some of his own works of art. The museum was opened in 1964, after Rivera’s death, though the layout and design of Anahuacalli was planned out by the artist prior to his passing. The pyramid-shaped building made of volcanic stone is impressive in and of itself to see, but the real allure of the museum is inside where 2,000 artifacts from his massive Pre-Columbian art collection is housed. A tour through the museum will teach you about the history of Mexico’s ancient civilizations, a subject Rivera was especially passionate about.
The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) isn't your average university. The Mexico City-based school was started in 1551 by King Philip II of Spain (at which point it was called the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico) and is the oldest university in North America and the second oldest in all the Americas. Today, it is the largest university in Mexico and has a strong emphasis on research and cultural impact. UNAM isn't just for students, though; travelers to Mexico City who love history will also enjoy visiting this prestigious school.
The main draw for visitors is to see the Central University Campus, which wasn't built until the 1950s. The Central University Campus is a work of art in and of itself thanks to its modern architecture that features the focal point of a massive block of a building with the side adorned in murals done by Diego Rivera, Diego Alfaro Siqueiros and other prominent artists.
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