What to see in Mexico City: a pocket guide

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First impressions can be misleading. My first impression of Mexico City, on landing here for the first time in 40 years, was of a city in need of a touch of paint. But that was the side of the city most tourists don’t see. Over the next two days I saw the other side, the parts of Mexico City people come from all over the world to experience And they were well worth the trip.

I covered a lot of ground in that time, some on foot and some using the Metro, Mexico City’s extensive subway system. But whether you travel by taxi, public transit or shoe leather, you can see most of the highlights of the city in two or three days without stretching yourself too thin.

Here’s a look at the highlights a visitor really shouldn’t miss. Or as I call it, What to see in Mexico City: a pocket guide.

The Zocalo

Zocalo Mexico City

This central plaza is the heart of colonial Mexico City, and it’s impressive, if only for its size. The vast plaza spreads out in front of  the Cathedral Metropolitana, with its twin steeples soaring above the old city. Inside, the cathedral is not particularly ornate, but still worth a look. Across the street is another enormous building, the Palacio National. Built on the rubble of Moctezuma’s royal palace, it’s the seat of the Mexican government. Inside you’ll find murals by Mexico’s most famous artist, Diego Rivera.

The area around the zocalo has sights worth seeing, as well. The area beyond the Palacio National is filled with a maze of colourful shops that spill out onto the street like one large bazaar. There are museums, as well, and some great street art, like the mural in the photo at top. And around the great plaza are some of the old city’s more affluent streets, with good shopping and restaurants. The arcade along its west side is a good place to look for jewellery.

The Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor Mexico City

Just a block past the cathedral stands the Templo Mayor, an Aztec ruin that was unknown when I first visited Mexico City. But in 1978, electrical workers uncovered a statue of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui on the site. Subsequent digging revealed a huge temple complex that was once the religious centre of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital that is now Mexico City.

The ruins have been extensively excavated, and while only the foundations of the temples remain, walking around the complex is still a fascinating experience. Beside the central pyramid there were several auxiliary buildings and plazas, and you’ll find original statues and walls with some of the original paint. Many of the artifacts from the site are now in the excellent museum that is the last stop on the tour – to me, this was one of the highlights of the city.

The Palacio Postal

Palacio Postal Mexico City

Walking west from the zocalo, you pass through charming neighbourhoods filled with interesting shops. And unexpectedly, you come across one of the most impressive buildings in the city: the old post office, though the term is a gross understatement. This is truly the palace of post offices, built with all the art and finery of the Golden Age. Today this amazing building hosts art exhibits, but still functions as a working post office – you can send a letter, for a memorable postal experience.

The Palacio de las Bellas Artes

Bellas Artes Mexico City

Just past the postal palace, you’ll come to a lovely park called the Alameda, on the site of 16th-century plaza. And beside it stands one of Mexico City’s grandest and most beautiful buildings, the Palace of Fine Arts. Built using the art nouveau and art deco styles and fronted with classical statues, it’s a lovely sight. The interior is as lavish as the exterior. For a real experience, attend a show in the palace’s famous theatre, which boasts a Tiffany glass curtain.

The Paseo de Reforma

La Reforma Mexico City

If you’re looking for Mexico City’s high-class neighbourhood, this is it. The Paseo runs through the city’s business district, past big-name hotels and ultra-modern shopping malls like Reforma 222, filled with high-end stores and American-style restaurants. The broad boulevard down the centre is full of sculptures, both historic and fanciful. There are  lots of banks and other services here if you want to get some business done.

The Zona Rosa

zona rosa mexico city

Just a couple of blocks from the Reforma is the Zona Rosa, the entertainment district I mentioned in an earlier post. This is where both visitors and locals go to have fun, and on a Saturday night it’s pretty much a club scene. However, there are bars and restaurants of every description, from Chinese and Mexican buffets (the latter with a live mariachi band) to places like McDonald’s and Subway. Some the streets around the central pedestrian mall are torn up at the moment, so walk carefully.

Chapultepec Park

CChapultipec Park Mexico City

If you follow the Paseo de Reforma or several other major downtown arteries, sooner or later you come to Mexico’s answer to Central Park. This huge green space provides welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the city, with its forest paths, modern art museum, zoo, aviary and lovely blue lakes (not to mention one of the greatest concentrations of food and souvenir stands I’ve ever seen). High on a rocky outcrop above the park sits Chapultepec Castle, which has a history museum with an interesting art collection,. If you’re not that interested in Mexican history, it’s hardly worth the climb — even if seniors get in free.

The National Museum of Anthropology

sculpture Anthropology Museum Mexico City

Mexico is home to some of the world’s most diverse and sophisticated indigenous cultures, both past and present. Ancient Mexicans built great cities, created great art, wrote books, and erected monuments that rivalled the pyramids of Giza. The world-renowned museum Museo de Anthropologia, located in Chapultepec Park, has a vast collection of artifacts from the country’s major cultures.

There are galleries devoted to the peoples of all Mexico’s diverse regions. And the presentation is masterful, with thousands of artifacts, replicas of ancient temples and displays showing how the cultures developed. The Aztec collection is the centrepiece of the museum; it will give you a whole new perspective on Mexico City.

Coyoacan

This is a part of Mexico City that a lot of visitors miss, but to me, it’s one of the city’s hidden treasures. A walk through the lovely Viveros de Coyoacan Park leads to the colourful Coyoacan market, and quaint neighbourhoods filled with shady gardens. The highlight of Coyoacan is the Casa Azul, or Blue House, where artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived and hosted notables including Leon Trotsky. End your visit with dinner at one of the patio restaurants around the Plaza Hidalgo.

That’s my take on what to see in Mexico City in a short visit. But as always, there’s a lot more if you’re intent on getting a broader view. The city is filled with parks, theatres, historic churches and places like the Plaza Garibaldi, the home of the mariachis. And on the outskirts, there’s Xochimilcho, the Aztecs’ floating garden – though many reviews call it a tourist trap.

And if you’re a fan of museums, you could spend a month in this city just touring one after the other. There’s a wax museum, a natural history museum, a tequila museum, a museum of the revolution, a museum of plastic art, a popular culture museum — even a Leon Trotsky museum.

If you do stay for a while, it won’t cost the earth. By comparison with Canada, the U.S. and Europe, Mexico is still a cheap destination, especially with this year’s favourable exchange rates. Good hotels are available for less than $100 Canadian, and you can have a meal in a good restaurant, with a drink, for around $15. (If you’re spending U.S. dollars, the prices are even cheaper.) Admissions to museums are usually around $5 or $6, and a long cab ride rarely costs more than $6 or $7, And you can ride the Metro for the princely sum of 33 cents (but don’t try it after dark, when the cars are packed like sardine cans).

I came to the new Mexico City not knowing quite what to expect. But I found a city with as much to offer, and as many impressive sights, as many European cities. The people are friendly, the food is good, and while it can be chilly in the early mornings and evenings – this city is high in the mountains – it’s usually sunny and warm at mid-day. And if you were wondering, I saw no sign of desperados or drug gangs.

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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