he roots of Mexico's capital lie in the so-called Historic Center, an
area which occupies the original core of the city which the Aztecs set
out like a celestial map, aligned according to the four cardinal points.
The Spanish then retraced the area in a checker board pattern, and it
was subsequently rebuilt as a convent-filled, aristocratic metropolis
before eventually transforming into a microcosm of modernity.
Consequently, the visitor finds this to be a lively, boisterous and contradictory
place, guaranteed to stir the senses: the discreet tones of city center
architecture are based on an interplay between pink sandstone and red
tezontle rock; its rhythm determined by an age-old penchant for commerce,
framed beneath wrought-iron balconies; its intensity pulsating to the
beat of religious festivities and social struggles. Although the constant
flow of vehicles which crisscross this downtown area today is slowly but
surely leading to its extinction, visitors can still tour the streets
in fixed-route streetcars or bicycle taxis, although it is best to simply
tour this area on foot. Mexico's Cathedral is good starting point of the
visit. The geometric regularity of the downtown area allows the visitor
to become acquainted with various neighborhoods (roughly grouped into
four sectors: San Sebastian, Santa Maria, San Juan and San Pablo) which
converge at the Zocalo, or to visit certain streets that denote the four
cardinal points and which are named after Latin American republics, national
heroes and events, with one or two names stemming from traditional anecdotes.
The city may also be enjoyed from one or more of its old squares and gardens.
This great square, called the Zocalo, evokes the place of homage and center
of the world which was the heart of the ceremonial nucleus of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
The Zocalo brings together the rhythmic beating of drums, the ankle-rattles
of the native dancers and the glowing incense of modern day medicine men.
A point of reference, of protest, of ritual and of national celebration,
by night it offers an imposing spectacle which culminates in the tumultuous
popular festivities on the 15th of September (eve of Mexico's Independence
Dominating the east end of Alameda Central, Mexico City's leafy city-centre
park, is the white-marble Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts).
Construction of the concert hall began in 1904 under Italian architect
Adamo Boari, who tended toward neoclassical and art nouveau styles. But
the building's heavy marble shell began to sink into the spongy subsoil,
and work was halted. Architect Federico Mariscal eventually finished the
interior in the 1930s, with new designs reflecting the more modern art
deco style. This is the place to see if you're mad about murals: some
of Mexico's finest are found upon the immense wall spaces of the second
and third levels. Works by Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José
Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera are among the highlights.
Paseo de La Reforma/Chapultepec Park
Spans several kilometers along the city's grand east-west, French-inspired
avenue; an area with strong European influence; outstanding museums (including
the Anthropological Museum, children’s Papalote Museum and Chapultepec
Castle) and the stylish Zona Rosa and Polanco areas.
About 2 km. north of the Alameda is the area known as Tlaltelolco, site
of several historic events, some glorious and others tragic. The area
served as a satellite city to the Aztec capital, and was the site of the
area's major marketplace. It is also here that the last battle to take
the capital was fought in 1521. More recently, the area has been the site
of a bloody political demonstration just days before the 1968 Olympic
Games, and its massive housing projects suffered horrendous damage during
the earthquake of 1985. The major historic attraction is the Plaza of
Three Cultures, a fascinating site that dramatically portrays the city's
history. The plaza juxtaposes three periods of the city's history. Atop
the excavated remains of Aztec temples, in what was once the Aztec's most
important marketplace, is a church dating back to 1609. Nearby stands
the modern Foreign Ministry building.
National Museum of Anthropology
Arguably the finest archaeological museum in the world. There are 26 exhibit
halls covering some 100,000 square feet of exhibits! Each room
is dedicated to a portion of Mexico's 30 centuries of human evolution.
You'll see thousands of artifacts, including burial tombs, giant Olmec
stone heads, exquisite pottery and ceramics, the famous Aztec Calendar
Stone, and a reconstructed Mayan temple. In 1997 the new Mayan
exhibit halls opened. All the exhibit halls surround an enormous central
courtyard that is partially covered by a gigantic 5,300 sq.ft. "umbrella"
resting atop a sculptured bronze column. Plan on spending several hours.
English speaking guides are available. Fine gift shop on site; closed
Mondays. The Museum finished a $13 million renovation in Dec. 1999, adding
interactive high tech enhancements.
Begun in 1785 atop a 200-foot-high hill, it was originally intended to
be a weekend retreat for Spanish viceroys. Upon completion in 1841 it
became a military academy which earned infamy as the last stronghold against
the U.S. invasion in 1847. Maximilian converted the castle into his private
residence in 1864, and it later served as home to Mexican presidents until
1940. Today it is the fine Museum of Mexican History with displays, antiques,
artifacts and vibrant murals by famed Mexican painters O'Gorman, Orozco,
Chapultepec Park Zoo
Recently re-opened following a two-year $32 million renovation, this is
Latin America's best zoo. It features 1,300 animals representing 220 species
housed in natural habitat settings. The zoo's main draw is its family
of five Chinese panda bears. There is also an aviary and a rare black
rhinoceros. Admission is free; closed Mondays. Other museums in the park
include the Museum of Modern Art and the sleek Tamayo Museum, both favorites
of art lovers.
The "high fashion" center of Mexico City, this stylish neighborhood
to the north of Chapultepec Park is home to many of the capital's chic
boutiques, trendy restaurants and hip night spots. Dozens of European
designer shops line Avenida Presidente Masaryk. Many of the city's most
popular new restaurants are here, including Spagos, Los Alcatraces, Chez
Wok, and Casa de Campo (see Dining section for details).
About 10km (6mi) south of downtown, Coyoacán was Cortés'
base after the fall of Tenochtitlán. It remained a small town outside
Mexico City until urban sprawl reached it 50 years ago. Close to the university
and once home to Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky (whose houses are now the
fascinating Museo Frida Kahlo and the Museo Léon Trotsky), it still
has its own identity, with narrow colonial-era streets, plazas, cafés
and a lively atmosphere. Especially on the weekends, assorted musicians,
mimes and craft markets draw large relaxed crowds from all walks of life
to Coyoacán's central plazas. A pleasant way of approaching Coyoacán
is via the Viveros de Coyoacán (Coyoacán Nurseries), a swath
of greenery, popular with joggers.
To the southeast of the city lies the traditional neighborhood of San
Angel. Its wistful name spirits us back, not surprisingly, to the times
of the founding of the Carmelite college during the 17th Century, established
here to take advantage of a location ideally suited to quiet meditation
and the contemplation of Nature. The temperate climate, abundance of water,
and the rich, firm subsoil also encouraged the growth of a once-famous
orchard, the establishment of textile and finishing mills, and the construction
of many fine country estates inhabited by the wealthier citizens of Mexico
To this day the local streets retain their cobblestones and invariably
lead into small, romantic plazas. Many of the local houses, with their
capricious architectural details, today serve as centers for different
cultural and artistic activities. Diego Rivera's Studio The urban sprawl
of the city divided San Angel, cleaving it from Chimalistac, another charming
neighborhood. On Saturdays the San Jacinto plaza comes to life with the
hustle and bustle of the local handicrafts bazaar, which adds to the already
burgeoning variety of antiques and fine handicrafts which can be found
here each day.
Xochimilco, which means 'Place where Flowers Grow' in Náhuatl,
lies about 20km (12mi) south of downtown Mexico City. It is known for
its canals, which remain one of Mexico's favourite destinations for fun
and relaxation. Hundreds of colourful trajineras (gondolas), each punted
by a man with a pole, cruise the canals with parties of merrymakers and
tourists. You can board one at one of the embarcaderos (boat landings)
near the centre of Xochimilco. On weekends, a fiesta atmosphere takes
over and the waterways become jam-packed with boats, people and tourist-targeting
touts. Weekdays offer a more relaxing vibe.