City vacations generally include iconic stops like the Eiffel Tower or Charles Bridge, Westminster Palace or St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Cultural Heritage TravelingMom set out to find what the icons might undergird Mexico City energies.
Cultural Heritage in Mexico City
Manhattan’s my idea of a metropolitan holiday. London, Paris, Prague, Chicago too. Never did I picture me in Mexico City. Mexico’s for beaches with side trips to Mayan archeology for diversity. Until I went to Mexico City. Now I think differently.
This change of heart happened with an invitation to dinner. Do your travels ever launch in unlikely ways?
Essence of Mexico City
My friend Elsie Mendez believes in the chefs of Mexico City and she thinks the culinary arts are a big part of the reason UNESCO praises this city for its cultural heritage. I ate sumptuously and can point you the right directions. But I also explored things I couldn’t touch or taste, only sense. Intangible stuff. What’s the essence of Mexico City?
UNESCO gave it a mouthful of a title: Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Does that strike you too as a new kind of framework for shaping a trip: seeking the intangible?
Perhaps trying to channel the ancestors of those I met helped a bit.
City Center Is The Place To Stay
This is a walkable city so overnighting within foot distance of many experiences makes sense. So does balcony sitting throughout the day and in the evening. Those grand views triggered intangible, insightful thoughts.
Here’s where I focused my adventures —- Hotel Zocalo Central. My room was quite comfortable with ample plugs to charge devices and closets to keep my clothes neat. The big dining balcony cinched the deal.
Exploring the History of Mexico City
At first, I simply appreciated the expansive view of a big and bustling plaza. And then gazed at the multitude of church spires and softly shaped tall buildings with their own, but smaller, balconies.
After walking a few blocks, I grew to appreciate the “heritage of humanity” within my sight. Five hundred years of architecture exist side-by-side in just one block.
A sacred place known as Temple Mayor was built in 1325, rebuilt six times and destroyed in 1521 when the Spanish wanted to build the cathedral dominating the hotel balcony view. How’s that for connecting to history over breakfast? Or this?
Or this? The Hotel Zocalo Central used to be Montezuma’s palace and later the residence of Hernan Cortes who came to conquer in 1532.
Now, the 105 rooms preserve that history in their colors, furnishings and Talavera pottery. Hallway displays present artifacts of daily life along with indigenous art, and the dining room reflects the entire food chain with artistic presentations of Mexico’s beloved foods.
5 Nearby Explorations
While catching a ride is a fine idea to multiple Mexico City experiences, start with these closer-to-the-hotel places:
- National Palace with Diego Rivera murals
- Temple Mayor archeological dig and museum
- Cathedral Metro
- Teresa Convent turned art center
- Museums of Art
Diego Rivera Murals Distinguish National Palace
Two reasons to stroll from the Hotel Zocalo Central to Mexico City’s National Palace: architecture within appealing landscapes and nine massive Diego Rivera murals.
Enjoy the many courtyards, carved brass balconies, arched entryways. Sit on a bench to contemplate why Hernan Cortes demolished the Imperial Palace built by Aztec Emperor Moctezuma (yes, also spelled Montezuma) to build his own in 1523.
Then zoom forward to 1929. Diego Rivera started telling stories with murals on the walls here.
Climb the double-curved stairway. Hang over the banister to stare at these works. History through Rivera’s eyes starts with the Aztec plumed serpent god named Quetzalcoatl and robustly continues to Karl Marx.
Knowing the history would enrich the experience but if you don’t, just gaze and pick out details from the complexity to relate to your other Mexico City experiences.
I only went once, but believe starting a holiday with the murals has benefits.
That means you can return after absorbing some of the city’s history.
Dine on street food and multi-course meals and then notice culinary stories in Rivera’s murals. Explore the city some more, return to the art, and better process the cultures and centuries of Mexico City.
Understand Artifacts In Temple Mayor
Observing archeology action is like watching grass grow, right? Easier to process at Temple Mayor than many sites because the results of the painstaking, meticulous, ever-so-slow digs are exhibited next door.
Stroll the sloped, paved walkways, peer into excavations and then encounter 14,000 discoveries from that exact place in exhibits both attractive and instructive.
Rich with symbolism, sometimes touchable, shown from many angles, these treasures in Temple Mayor Museum helped me grasp the relationships of centuries.
Here, the 14th century Aztec city became interesting.
Conqueror Cortes describes a grand and sophisticated place, far more developed than the European towns he left to explore new worlds.
Accessing this double opportunity of dig plus discoveries-on-display, walking distance from my hotel, is indicative of the Mexico City charms I kept finding.
Hush In The Metropolitan Cathedral
The spires of the Cathedral Metro and its elegant façade anchor the city center view from Hotel Zocalo’s balcony, but walking up to this late 16th century structure from the side facing Temple Mayor connected me.
Historians say Hernan Cortes placed the first stone – and it came from the Aztec temple site I had just explored. No wonder “Here legends are made” is repeated often by museum docents and history-focused tour guides.
TravelingMom Tip: Chat with the kids or your traveling buddies before you get to the massive front door because silence is emphatically requested. Photos prohibited too.
The Cathedral artwork and architectural features are exquisite and abundant so I recommend a little study ahead of time to appreciate them more.
Convent Energies Makes You Dizzy
Mexico City is squishy. Soggy. Earthquake crooked.
Don’t go inside the convent turned art center if you’re prone to vertigo.
This Carmelite convent launched in 1616 clearly illustrates the sogginess of the soil on which Mexico City is built. The building inclines backwards, the floors create angles and the result is disorienting.
Closed to nuns in 1863 and later to the military, universities and businesses that worked there until 1989, St. Teresa’s became an Alternative Art Center in 1989. The 1845 earthquake didn’t help stability much either.
If you hesitate to experience the almost-automatic dizziness, stop on the sidewalk and look up to see 16 Corinthian columns, the face of God in the cupola and images representing virtues. Let that suffice.
Museums of Art Stir Mexico City Energies
Would you take the kids (or go yourself) to three art museums? These are a reasonable walk from the hotel and each offers a totally different experience. Very glad I did.
The walk is an experience too—combination of fast traffic as you cross wide boulevards, and sidewalks tilting every which way.
TravelingMom Tip: Plan lunch, or a relaxing coffee and pastry break, in the Franz Mayer Museum courtyard where fountains and greenery are lush and calming.
- Palacio de Belles Artes is a quick visit—unless you get tickets to a performance. It’s all about architectural wonderment and concert going. The experience won’t take long but the 1934 art deco and art nouveau is a jolt of inspiration.
- Franz Mayer Museum abounds with decorative art from a personal collection given to the people – not the government – of Mexico. Allow ample time to hang out in the front courtyard, gazing at yet another tilting building, and muse about the soft soil and earthquakes.
- MUNAL – Museum of National Art housed in an exquisite 1902 building designed as the Palace of Communications. Detailed friezes, graceful marble stairway with wrought iron handrails designed by artisans lead the way to the collection of 16th – 19th century paintings by Mexican artists. Baroque columns and richly painted murals on the ceilings force the eye upward as well.
Culinary Mexico City insight comes later, another story, because this intangible cultural history is so robust the dining details stand on their own.
History Buff TravelingMom delved into Mexico City in 2015 with fine results. And Travel Hack TravelingMom, ever alert to the best deals, shared Mexico City successfully with her eight-year-old daughter.