If you’re heading to Mexico for some fun in the sun with your family this spring break think about making a pit stop in Mexico City. In just a couple of days you can experience a taste of what the city has to offer: gourmet restaurants, historic architecture and loads of art and culture.
History in a nutshell
The city was established about 1325 by the Mexica peoples and was later named Tenochtitlán (pronounced Teno-cheet-lan) by the Aztecs. The Aztecs ruled the city until the 16th century when the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortéz, landed with his army and small pox to virtually wipe out the indigenous people and take their land. Although Cortéz was struck by the city’s beauty and size, that did not stop the Spanish from demolishing it to remove all traces of its history and rebuild it in their own image. Lucky for us, he did not do a great job and there are numerous ancient artifacts and ruins in and around the city.
Discover the Templo Mayor
Part of a UNESCO heritage site, the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) was one of the Aztec’s most important temples. Destroyed and built over by the Spaniards in 1521, it was largely forgotten until the 20th century when several scholars made small but important discoveries. The discovery in the 1970’s of a ten foot disc with the image of the moon goddess, Cyolxauhqui, finally induced the government to start taking the excavation of the area seriously.
The site and the Museum of the Templo Mayor are open to visitors Tues-Sun 9-5pm. Admission is about $4 US and children under 13, teachers, seniors with ID are free, free for all on Sundays.
TravelingMom Tip: Stop for lunch across the street at El Mayor, a rooftop restaurant with good food and great views of the site. To get to the restaurant go to Republica de Argentina 15 at the corner of Justo Sierra and enter through the bookshop where you will see an elevator to the roof.
Browse the Museo de Antropologia
It is well known that Mexico City has more museums than anywhere in the world. The National Museum of Anthropology is one of the 10 most visited museums worldwide. It houses collections from different indigenous cultures throughout Mexican history including the Mayans, Aztecs and Toltecs.
A guided tour is recommended otherwise everything starts to look the same and you miss the details that make it all so interesting, like the beautiful and innocent looking stone disc of Tizoc, which is believed to be a repository for human hearts that were recovered after ritual combat.
Open Tues-Sun from 9-7pm. Admission about US$5. Must-sees: Mayan section, Piedra del Sol (Aztec Calendar) and a representation of how Mexico City (Tenochtitlán) looked like before the arrival of Spaniards.
Stroll the Paseo de la Reforma
It’s not surprising that the Paseo de la Reforma feels like the Champs Élysés because that was the intent of the newly crowned Emperor Maximilian. Built in 1860, the avenue was originally named after his royal consort, Empress Carlota, but was later renamed after his execution.
This pleasant tree lined avenue runs in a straight line from Chapultepec Park, through the Zona Rosa to the Centro Histórico (about a 45 minute walk). There are several monuments to mark your progress including the most famous, the Angel of Independence.
Enjoy the Palacio de Bellas Artes
When you reach the tip of the historic district the first landmark will be the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
After Maximilian’s demise later President, Porfirio Díaz, had a plan to create a metropolis to rival the great European cities (that were not Spanish!). This late-19th century modernization of the city included the demolition of many Spanish Colonial-style buildings in favor of a Mexican-French fusion promoted by the President and ultimately referred to as Porfirian architecture.
A functioning performance theater for dance, opera and music, the decadent Beaux Arts style building also houses some of Mexico’s most important murals as well as featuring contemporary art exhibits.
Admission is free but there is a small fee to take photos—and they are very strict about this.
Relax at the Palacio Nacional
A former palace of the Spanish Crown, most of this building now houses government offices. There is a courtyard garden where visitors can escape the city’s clamor to relax and reflect on the past. There are artworks throughout the areas that are open to the public but the star attraction is the murals.
After the Mexican Revolution, a nationalist artistic movement called muralism was born in Mexico City. Its most famous painters were José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siquéiros and Diego Rivera (who was fired for including Marxist messages in his mural at Rockefeller Center in New York City).
These avant-garde artists used art as a means to comment on the political and social challenges faced by a post-revolutionary Mexico. Several of Rivera’s most beautiful murals are here including his most complex, the History of Mexico, which includes the image of his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo.
Admission is free. Hours are 10-5pm. Closed to the public Mondays.
Explore the Historic District
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Centro Histórico surrounds the Zócalo or Plaza de la Constitución. The plaza has been the gathering place for Mexicans since the Aztecs. Today it houses federal buildings among other architecturally significant buildings and is often the central location for political demonstrations.
There was a peaceful demonstration during my visit where hundreds of people lined the main street and the Zócalo. The festive atmosphere was explained by a local who said that people make a day of it and come from small villages to attend and perform in the streets.
TravelingMom Tip: Stay at the modern boutique Downtown Hotel with its rooftop lounge and swimming pool, or at least have lunch in the charming courtyard restaurant, Azul Historico. Afterwards visit the unique shops on the surrounding mezzanine.
Other Notable Places to Visit
Visit the trendy Condesa and Roma neighborhoods for the boutiques, gourmet cuisine and people watching.
Frida Kahlo’s House – Now more famous then Diego Rivera, Kahlo’s provoking self-portraits hang in the Museo de Arte Moderno and in several museums in the U.S. The house she was born in was was turned into a museum and much of it is still as she left it.
For visitors, Mexico City is pretty safe as long as you follow the usual safety precautions for traveling in a foreign country and in a large city. We were advised by locals to never hail taxis on the street. If you are out and about go to a large hotel and ask them to call one for you.