By Julie Meade
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- Experience the city: Navigate by neighborhood or by activity with color-coded maps or follow self-guided walks through Mexico City's most interesting neighborhoods
- See the sights: Wander the ruins of Tenochtitlán at the Museo del Templo Mayor or visit Frida Kahlo's home. Explore the colorful Mercado de la Merced, admire Mexico City's sleek contemporary art museum, or venture into the past at the National Anthropology Museum
- Get a taste of the city: Feast on tacos al pastor from a street stand or indulge in the foodie scene with a multicourse meal of creative ceviche and mole negro dishes. Sip tequila and snack on botanas with locals at a cantina, belly up to the bar at a taquería, or try Oaxacan-style chiles rellenos at a beloved family-owned spot
- Bars and nightlife: Sip your way through a dazzling array of traditional dance halls, chic nightclubs, and hip mezcal hideaways
- Trusted advice: Author Julie Meade, who lived in Mexico for 10 years, shares her cultural and artistic expertise on her beloved city
- Itineraries and day trips: Head out to Cuernavaca, Puebla, or the ancient pyramid ruins of Teotihuacán or follow itineraries ranging from family-friendly tours to a relaxing Saturday at the markets, all accessible by bus, train, or public transit
- Full-color photos and detailed maps so you can explore on your own, plus an easy-to-read foldout map to use on the go
- Handy tools: Background information on the landscape, history, and culture of Mexico City, packaged in a book light enough to toss in your bag
Exploring more of Mexico? Check out Moon Oaxaca or Moon Yucatán Peninsula.
DISCOVER MEXICO CITY
Mexico City occupies a piece of land that seems destined to hold a grand place in history. Blanketing a broad alpine valley, it was once Tenochtitlan, an island city that was the most populous in the Americas—and by some estimates, the world—during the 15th century. Razed following the Spanish conquest, Tenochtitlan’s ruins lie beneath the modern metropolis, which covers 1,480 square kilometers and has a population of over 21 million.
Amid the urban sprawl, there are lovely residential enclaves, architectural landmarks, and a multitude of cultural treasures, from dazzling pre-Columbian artifacts to artist Frida Kahlo’s childhood home. For those who love to eat, there is no better place to explore Mexico’s varied palate. The city’s famous food scene runs the gamut from relaxed street-side taco stands to elegant fine dining.
Mexico City defies expectations. Baroque palaces rise above streets noisy with traffic, generic convenience stores stand beside old-fashioned coffee shops filled with seniors sipping café con leche, and contemporary art galleries adjoin hole-in-the-wall bakeries and auto repair shops. Many of the descriptors most closely associated with the capital—crime, pollution, poverty—belie a city that is beguilingly low-key and friendly, rarely gruff, and invariably worth the effort it takes to explore. In this and every way, Mexico City is a place you must experience to understand. Come expecting one city and you’ll likely find another. The contrasts, both jarring and delightful, define this mad metropolis, one of the most singular and marvelous places on earth.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Visit Museo del Templo Mayor: Mexico City’s rich and tumultuous history is revealed at these ruins of a great temple-pyramid that was destroyed during the 16th-century Spanish siege on Tenochtitlan. The museum showcases artifacts recovered from the archaeological site.
2 Admire Palacio de Bellas Artes: With its grand marble facade and opulent art deco interior, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of Mexico’s most striking buildings, as well as its keynote arts institution.
3 Tour Museo Nacional de Antropología: In this fascinating museum, the most impressive rooms are dedicated to the people who lived in Tenochtitlan, today Mexico City.
4 Get to Know Frida Kahlo: A superbly talented painter and a beloved icon throughout the world, Frida Kahlo is celebrated at the lovely, intimate museum in her childhood home.
5 Enjoy Cantina Culture: These relaxed neighborhood bars and gathering spots are an essential part of life in Mexico City. Spend a few hours enjoying the convivial atmosphere with a shot of tequila in hand.
6 See Spectacular Teotihuacán: Admire the views from the top of two spectacular temple-pyramids at Mexico’s most visited archaeological site, a day trip just outside the city limits.
7 Stop by Contemporary Art Galleries: With the opening of new world-class museums and the continued excellence of many long-running galleries, the city’s contemporary art scene continues to flourish.
8 Devour Tacos: Mexico City’s tremendous food scene is reason alone to visit, and nothing is more emblematic of the capital than tacos, from inexpensive carnitas served at street stands to gourmet iterations.
9 Sip Pulque: This fizzy fermented beverage is made from the sap of the maguey cactus. Drinking pulque is a tradition in the capital and today the beverage is experiencing a deserved revival.
10 Stoll through Traditional Markets: If you only have time to visit one of the city’s many colorful and atmospheric markets, make it Mercado de la Merced.
EXPLORE MEXICO CITY
THE BEST OF MEXICO CITY
DAY 1: THE CENTRO HISTÓRICO
Mexico City’s Zócalo, one of the largest public squares in the world, was once the center of the Mexica city of Tenochtitlan, the remains of which lie beneath the modern metropolis. After the conquest, the Zócalo became the heart of the new Spanish city, and was called the Plaza Mayora throughout the colonial era. Take a moment to feel the power and history of this grand plaza, then head north to visit the remains of Tenochtitlan’s holiest site at the fascinating and recently expanded Museo del Templo Mayor. This twin temple-pyramid, which adjoined Tenochtitlan’s central plaza, was destroyed by the Spanish and then buried for centuries beneath the colonial city. Its base was uncovered in the 1970s, along with hundreds of artifacts now held in the on-site museum. It’s one of the Centro’s most important sights.
Have lunch at El Cardenal, just a block from the Zócalo, widely considered one of the best traditional Mexican restaurants in the city. After lunch, head east along the bustling pedestrian street Madero, stopping to see the current show in the Palacio de Cultura Citibanamex, if it’s open, and taking note of two iconic buildings just before the Eje Central, the Casa de los Azulejos and the Palacio Postal. Next, cross the Eje Central to take a turn around the museum in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, one of the city’s flagship cultural institutions, where the gorgeous art deco interiors are as opulent as its elaborate marble facade. It’s worth the admission fee to ascend to the top floors of the building, where there are interesting murals by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo, as well as contemporary art galleries.
Dusk is the perfect time to start a tour of the Centro’s cantinas. Begin by sipping a tequila at the grandest old joint, Bar La Ópera, on Cinco de Mayo. Next, see the city in all its glittering glory for the top floors of the Torre Latinoamericana in the in-house bar and restaurant Miralto.
DAY 2: CHAPULTEPEC AND THE CONDESA
Metro: Chapultepec, followed by Sevilla
Set aside the morning to tour the Museo Nacional de Antropología, a vast and absorbing museum dedicated to pre-Columbian and modern-day cultures in Mexico. You won’t have time to see the whole museum, so streamline your visit by focusing on the spectacular rooms dedicated to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan, as well as the Teotihuacán galleries. Back outside, take an hour or two to explore a bit of the surrounding Bosque de Chapultepec on foot, strolling past the multidisciplinary cultural center Casa del Lago Juan José Arreola, the pretty lake beside it, and the striking modern facade of the Museo de Arte Moderno. Stop into the museum if the show interests you, or continue your walk past the base of the Castillo de Chapultepec, which sits on a rocky outcropping overlooking the park and the Paseo de la Reforma.
Just below the Castillo de Chapultepec are the main gates to the park. From here, take a taxi or jump on the Metro one stop from Chapultepec to Sevilla, then walk into the Roma Norte for a late lunch at Contramar, an ultra-popular, always-bustling seafood restaurant near the Glorieta de la Cibeles. There’s often a wait around lunchtime, but the food and atmosphere are ideal.
After lunch, spend a few leisurely hours watching dogs romp and children play in Parque México. Stroll along Avenida Amsterdam, snapping photos of the Condesa’s distinctive art deco architecture and enjoying the people-watching in the many neighborhood cafés. Wrap up the day with a leisurely beer at Monstruo de Agua, or at Roma favorite Páramo.
DAY 3: COYOACÁN
If you arrive in Coyoacán via the Metro stop Viveros, you can admire old country mansions and towering trees while walking into the heart of the neighborhood via Avenida Francisco Sosa. Peek into the rust-colored Moorish-inspired hacienda that is home to the Fonoteca Nacional, an interesting sound archive and gallery space. Down the road, take a breather in charming Plaza Santa Catarina, a quiet, cobbled square popular with locals and their dogs. Once you arrive in the center of town, spend some time people-watching in Jardín Hidalgo and Jardín Centenario, the two old-fashioned public plazas at the center of the neighborhood.
Grab a mocha at Coyoacán classic Café El Jarocho, then wander through the Mercado Coyoacán, where you can snack on a tostada or two (the market is famous for them) to tide you over till lunch. From there, it’s a few blocks to the Museo Frida Kahlo, a moving museum dedicated to the life and legacy of its namesake artist. Walk back to the Jardín Centenario for a late lunch on the patio at Los Danzantes, and accompany your meal with a shot of their eponymous mezcal. If you want to extend the evening, drop in for a craft beer (or another mezcal) at the convivial Centenario 107, just a few blocks away.
DAY 4: SAN ÁNGEL AND UNAM
Metrobús: La Bombilla, then CCU
Saturday is a popular time to visit the colonial-era neighborhood of San Ángel, where the weekly Bazaar Sábado attracts some excellent artisan vendors, as well as some modern designers. If you aren’t visiting on a Saturday, check out the lovely Museo de El Carmen, housed in a colonial-era Carmelite monastery. From there, stroll through the neighborhood to the elegant San Ángel Inn for a late brunch, accompanied by one of their famous margaritas. Just across the street, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera fans should stop into the small but interesting Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera, the home where the couple lived and worked together in San Ángel.
From San Ángel, take the Metrobús along Insurgentes to the CCU stop, then spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the cultural center on the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) campus. Spend a few hours in the light-filled Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, one of the finest contemporary art museums in Mexico City, opened in 2008. From there, wander into the northern section of the Espacio Escultórico de la UNAM, a massive outdoor sculpture garden built atop an expanse of volcanic rock in the 1960s.
Head south for an easy but classic pick for dinner: tacos, the city’s signature dish. Eat them standing up at Los Parados, in the sidewalk at Orinoco, or vegan at Gracias Madre Taqueria Vegana, all in the Roma.
MEXICO CITY WITH KIDS
Mexico City is large, loud, and relentlessly urban, yet it’s a remarkably agreeable place to visit with family. Here, children are treated with respect and kindness, graciously welcomed at most restaurants and hotels, and usually granted free admission to museums and other cultural institutions. The capital’s rich history and diverse local culture make it a truly magical and eye-opening place to visit—at any age.
A number of smaller boutique properties do not accept children, but many others, like the Hotel Catedral in the Centro or the Hotel Stanza in the Roma (which adjoins a large playground), don’t charge extra for children under 12, making it an economical choice for families traveling together. The ultra-posh St. Regis has a children’s center with arts and crafts, story time, and other kid-centric activities on-site.
THURSDAY: CENTRO HISTÓRICO
The Centro Histórico is a magical neighborhood, filled with old palaces, bustling with visitors, and buzzing with years of history. Start with breakfast in the historic dining room at Café de Tacuba, then walk to the Zócalo, where you’ll often find brightly dressed concheros (also called “Aztec dancers”) performing a rhythmic dance to the beat of a drum.
For older children, Diego Rivera’s extensive murals inside the Secretaría de Educación Pública, or SEP, north of the Zócalo, provide an engaging look into Mexican history and popular culture—as well as Rivera’s communist political views. There are often free English-speaking tour guides wandering through the plaza, who can help provide context and background for Rivera’s work.
Have lunch at Balcón del Zócalo, a rooftop Mexican restaurant in the Zócalo Central hotel, which has gorgeous views of the cathedral and plaza. Next, walk down Cinco de Mayo to the Dulcería de Celaya, one of the oldest and most charming sweet shops in the city. It’s particularly festive during Día de Muertos and Christmastime. From there, it’s an easy stroll along the pedestrian avenue Madero to the Torre Latinoamericana. Take the elevator to the 44th-floor observation deck, which affords tremendous vistas of the city in every direction, including the snowcapped volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl to the south.
Back on the ground, cross the Eje Central to the Alameda, peeking into the museum at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Finally, let the kids stretch their legs along the paved paths in the Alameda Central, Mexico City’s oldest urban park, which was remodeled and expanded in 2012.
Set aside the day to boat along the canals in Xochimilco, a small remnant of the vast system of waterways that once ribboned the Valley of Mexico. You can take the light-rail from Metro Tasqueña all the way to Xochimilco, and then a taxi to the docks, though if you wait till midmorning, lighter traffic can make a taxi or Uber an easier and faster option.
Enlist the kids to help pick out a trajinera, one of the colorful flat-bottomed boats typical to Xochimilco, and plan to spend a few hours exploring the canals. Departing from any of the docks, the main tourist corridors are often jammed with boaters (and mariachi musicians paddling by in canoes, waiting to be commissioned for a tune), creating a convivial atmosphere. If you’d also like to visit the traditional “floating gardens,” or chinampas, where people still live and grow food, ask the boat’s driver to take you farther into the canals for the tour ecológico (ecological tour), outside the main tourist zone.
Back on dry land, take a taxi (or take a taxi to the train station and the train to La Noria) to visit the former home of philanthropist and art collector Dolores Olmedo, now her namesake museum. Housed in an old hacienda, the Museo Dolores Olmedo contains a large collection of work by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, among other modern artists, as well as Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. It’s particularly delightful to wander the grounds, where peacocks and xoloitzcuintle (Mexican hairless dogs), Olmedo’s favored pet, roam freely.
There is an old-fashioned feeling in central Coyoacán, a popular weekend destination for both visitors and Mexico City locals. Arrive in the morning, taking a lap around the famous coyote fountain in Jardín Centenario, then wandering through Jardín Hidalgo as it begins to fill up with vendors selling balloons, toys, and raspados (shaved ice). From the plaza, it’s only a few blocks to the neighborhood’s atmospheric market, Mercado Coyoacán, where there are artisan crafts, textiles, and baskets for sale, in addition to food and snacks. You can stop for a mocha and a doughnut at Coyoacán institution Café El Jarocho on the way.
Go early to buy your tickets for a midday performance at La Titería (there’s a garden and small library where kids can play while you wait for the show to begin), a wonderful marionette theater in the center of historic Coyoacán. There are usually two performances on Saturday and Sunday, appropriate for kids of almost any age (though plays are in Spanish, they are both visually entertaining and include lots of music and dancing). After the show, get a low-key lunch at La Barraca Valenciana, where kids can have a ham-and-cheese torta (sandwich) while parents sip a glass of Spanish wine or a craft beer.
After lunch, visit the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, a small museum that showcases work by traditional Mexican artisans. The exhibits, which change frequently and are often dedicated to themes like corn or textiles, are educational, but also visually engaging and colorful. During holidays, like Día de Muertos, the museum hosts artisan markets or musical performances in their outdoor patio. Wrap up the day by wandering down Francisco Sosa, stopping for an artisanal ice cream at Picnic.
Closed to automobile traffic every Sunday till 2pm, the Paseo de la Reforma fills with cyclists, in-line skaters, pedestrians, and dog walkers. Get an early start on the day to ride a bike (or simply stroll) along Reforma, checking out the many famous monuments, like the Ángel de la Independencia, as you make your way to the Bosque de Chapultepec’s main entrance.
Families flock to the Bosque de Chapultepec on Sunday, when museums are free and the footpaths are filled with vendors selling balloons, bubbles, rubber balls, tacos, and fresh fruit, among other treats. There may be a wait at the Castillo de Chapultepec, but it’s an excellent family destination in the park, boasting marvelous views of the surrounding city and the Paseo de la Reforma, while the period rooms bring the opulence of 19th-century Mexico City to life.
Save Chapultepec’s children’s museum for a weekday (it’s insanely crowded on the weekends); instead stop by the Casa del Lago Juan José Arreola, a wonderful cultural center that often has concerts and special workshops for kids. And even small children will enjoy the eye-catching interactive exhibits and video installations at the Centro Cultural Digital, just outside the main gates. From there, the family-style restaurant El Pialadero de Guadalajara is just around the corner.
MEXICO CITY’S PRE-COLUMBIAN PAST
Mexico City’s streets tell the story of its past, with institutions, architecture, and landmarks that are testament to 600-plus years of culture and change.
DAY 1: CENTRO HISTÓRICO
After the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, Spanish settlers destroyed the Mexica capital, building a European-style settlement atop the ruins—and, in many cases, using the stones from fallen Mexica temples to construct their own churches and palaces. Five hundred years later, Mexico’s pre-Columbian heritage is embedded throughout the Centro Histórico—in its layout, in its place-names, and, quite literally, in its architecture.
In the 1970s, the ruins of the Templo Mayor, a twin temple-pyramid at the heart of Tenochtitlan, were unearthed after more than four centuries under the city. After an extensive excavation that demolished a number of colonial-era buildings beside the Catedral Metropolitana, the archaeological site was opened to the public, alongside the fascinating Museo del Templo Mayor, which contains dozens of pre-Columbian artifacts recovered from the site.
Though they haven’t received permission to continue demolitions, archaeologists surmise that even more ruins lie beneath the 17th-century palaces on the street República de Guatemala, as evidenced recently at the Centro Cultural de España, a contemporary cultural center overseen by the Spanish government. In a planned expansion of the space, belowground construction unearthed Mexica ruins, believed to have been part of a calmécac, a school for young Mexica nobles. The ruins are on display in the on-site Museo del Sitio,
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- On Sale
- Aug 8, 2023
- Page Count
- 424 pages
- Moon Travel