Capital of Mexico
In one sentence: I fell in love with Mexico City. For its spacious public spaces, relaxed vibe (yes, despite its size), lively parks, vibrant colours, dramatic murals, intriguing museums, funky benches, friendly people, jolly markets, ancient canals, mysterious ancient ruins….
In a city of 20 million people, they take their time. You feel that relaxed atmosphere straight away, atypical for a large capital. So we took our time too. You see a nice quirky bench? There are plenty about on the Paseo de la Reforma stretch. Well, sit on it and observe people passing by. Don't hurry to your next destination. In any case, you can't expect to do the city in a day or two. To enjoy it, you will need a few more days. We stayed here with my husband in December 2014 for seven days while popping to neighbouring cities in the south and north for another six days.
So here is my seven-day guide to this big city.
First, you do need to look at the map. Mexico City is divided up into 16 delegaciones (boroughs), which are further divided into colonias (neighbourhoods), of which there are about 250. Knowing what colonia you're going to is essential to getting around. In fact, it is best to decide in which colonia you want to stay when you are booking your accommodation. Choosing where to stay can otherwise be daunting. Each colonia has a distinct flavour; it is like a separate city. Some are poor, ugly, and dangerous (avoid colonia Guerrero). But others are hip, tranquil, and full of grand colonial buildings with tree-lined avenues and green parks, such as colonias Juárez, Zona Rosa, Roma Norte, La Condesa, Hipódromo, Polanco (all embassies sit here), Coyoacán, San Miguel Chapultepec. And, of course, the starting point is the Zócalo.
Well, oddly enough, we did not start with the Zócalo. We stayed in Hotel Ejecutivo in Colonia Juárez, just off Paseo de la Reforma. We chose the hotel for its central location, chic and minimalist décor and good price (if you book online). We arrived late, by taxi from the airport. We stepped out to find a dinner place in the Zona Rosa, a few blocks up on the opposite side from our hotel. We walked there at 10pm and felt safe. It is an important business and entertainment district, a former residential area for wealthy foreigners, now widely known as the gay centre of town. It is probably the only area in Mexico City that really never sleeps so it was the right place for our late dinner. And sure enough, there were plenty of chic restaurants to choose from in Genova Street, a pedestrian mall lined with eateries. It's a great place to start and end your night. And our meals were half the price we normally pay in a restaurant in Playa del Carmen.
When we stepped out of our hotel the next morning, we had another pleasant surprise. Hundreds of bikers just passed us, while we were waiting to cross the road. Our aim was to go to the Parque Chapultepec and visit the National Museum of Anthropology there. We decided to go with the flow and walk the Paseo, as there was no traffic. It is a wide avenue that runs diagonally through the heart of the city and is lined with some of Mexico's tallest buildings. We passed a few fancy shopping malls but we did not go in. Instead, we sat on the quirky benches that line this avenue and just watched the happy crowds: at every corner there was a refreshment stall for the bikers, or a dance band. People stopped biking to rest, or dance, or have a picnic. Right on the main avenue!!!!!!!
Basically, it felt like the avenue was transformed into one gigantic park on a Sunday. They told us that the city closes the Paseo to car traffic on Sundays so the locals can go out across the city and enjoy healthy fun. I have never seen such collective bike euphoria before (and I have been to China!). In addition, the town has its ECOBICI bike transport system, which allows registered users to take a bike at any one of the 444 bike stations and return it to the one closest to their destination within 45 minutes. Practical tips: you can register instantly by credit card at 100 of the 444 stations. The machine takes an initial deposit which is credited back to your card five days later. You can sign up for one, three or seven days. If you go over 45 minutes, there's a small surcharge. To avoid it, park your bike at a station, wait five minutes (have a cup of coffee) and pick up another one.
Well, on that Sunday the families were biking in convoys. There were plenty of people jogging alongside the bikers as well. And smiles and laughter everywhere. What a welcome to the city where we expected stress from heavy traffic and large crowds!
On the way to the park we spotted a shiny angel sculpture (Angel de la Independencia), a victory column built to commemorate the centennial of the beginning of Mexico's War of Independence, celebrated in 1910. The bodies of many of Mexico's insurgents are buried in the mausoleum beneath it. History was everywhere around, even on that modern avenue (which was built by Mexican's emperor Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg). After about a two-hour walk we reached Parque Chapultepec, lined with food and gadget stalls and the cheerful shouts of the vendors.
And finally, the National Museum of Anthropology. For a Mayan freak like myself, this was the focus of the day. Needless to say, they had to push us out when they were closing at 7pm. We spent six hours there and it was not enough! They had a temporary exhibition and displayed for the first time the ancient paper books called Codices. I was in heaven. I spent a few hours just in this room, 'deciphering' the drawings.
The permanent exhibitions are dedicated to the cultures of the Maya, the North, people of Occidente, Toltecs, Oaxaca, the Gulf Coast, Teotihuacan and Olmecs. What a treasure! Obviously, by 7pm we were dead on our feet (well, we walked a lot that day) and we took a taxi back to our hotel. Plenty of them about, and all cheap. These days there is also an UBER service, but we just flagged one down at the roadside.
This was definitely the Zócalo day. We walked through Alameda Central Park, adjacent to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. A former Aztec market place is now a public park full of statues, fountains (of French design) and families walking about or sitting on the benches, enjoying their ice creams. Again, a relaxed atmosphere, nobody seemed to be in a hurry. The name comes from the Spanish word álamo, which means poplar tree, and the name is used by other cities for their parks now. We had to skip the Museum of Fine Arts (we had to make tough decisions like that all the time). Diego Rivera's paintings remain on our list for the next visit, alongside Museo Soumaya, a private museum built by one of the world's richest men, Carlos Slim, in a wave-like structure of silver hexagons. Surely different!
All in all, we went to the Zócalo three times, once walking, once by MetroBus along the Paseo de la Reforma and once by the subway. All different experiences and all safe. We were the only foreigners on the subway. I don't think any tourists use it; perhaps they are afraid to do so. Well, media do warn about the safety issues here and admittedly, you need to stick to safe areas, like everywhere else in big cities. But the metro is safe and every ride costs five pesos!
The Zócalo is huge, like all public spaces in Mexico City. It is formally known as Plaza de la Constitución. Residents began calling it the Zócalo, meaning ‘base,’ in the 19th century, when plans for a major monument to independence went unrealised, leaving only the pedestal (all main squares in Mexico are now called zócalo). The historic city centre is focused around the Zócalo and extends in all directions for a number of blocks. Many historic colonial landmarks can be found here. It is the largest square in Latin America and the third largest in the world after Moscow's Red Square and Beijing's Tiananmen Square. On one side there is the cathedral, on another the royal palace. We visited a museum inside the palace. But I enjoyed more just watching people in the square. At the time of our visit, just before Christmas, there was a large ice skating rink and some enormous plastic slides and the locals were out there to have fun. The only downside was that apart from Starbucks round the corner from the Zócalo, we could not find a restaurant for dinner. The side streets were blocked off by the police, to stop the traffic around the centre at Christmas time.
Instead, we walked about our neighbouring areas, Condesa and Roma, to experience evening vibes in different barrios. Both colonias certainly feel more European than Mexican. Colonia Roma was in the past an aristocratic neighbourhood with French-style mansions, but it still retains its art nouveau grandeur and today it is filled with art galleries, bookshops and cafés. It was very tranquil, absolutely no crowds and no tourists here. We found a small boutique restaurant, just right for such a neighbourhood, eating outdoors under the ash trees that line this colonia.
Colour and art were next on our list. While there are many colourful colonial doors and buildings in the city, when you want colour, you go to the Frida Kahlo museum in the southern borough of Coyoacán. La Casa Azul Museo Frida Kahlo is truly cobalt-blue. We had to wait in line for two hours to get in; it is a very popular museum. And we were truly lucky as we were the last ones to get in; after us they closed the door. But the wait was worth it. The building was the birthplace of Kahlo and the home where she grew up, where she painted and at times lived with her larger than life husband Diego Rivera. I absolutely loved this house and I wrote a separate post about it.
The extra bonus of the visit to Coyoacán borough was a stroll through its main park and the Mercado de Artesanías de Coyoacán (artisan market). Once again, the park had some great restaurants around it (packed with tourists, but the service was efficient and our meal was good), while the local families were sitting on the park benches and having a great social time in their own way. Parks are just so important for the Mexicans; they live in them, literally.
If anywhere reveals more about Kahlo and Rivera's lives together, it’s the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo in San Ángel colonia, about 4km south-west of Coyoacán. Built by architect Juan O'Gorman in 1932 for the couple as their studio, the modernist building was way ahead of its time. It comprises two separate buildings, one for each artist, joined by a walkway. One house is painted blue, the other Mexican pink. Guess which colour was Frida's house.
It must have been very avant-garde to build such a modern house, and in such a traditional neighbourhood. It was built in the quarter of the former 17th century Goicoechea hacienda, later turned into a Carmelite monastery, and a pulque factory (alcohol beverage from cactus). Today it is called San Angel Inn, and the truly stylish hacienda restaurant has international cuisine; it was by far my favourite dining place in Mexico City. The waiters also hinted to us that it was the place of secret meetings of the independence revolutionaries (arriving on their horses at night). That felt like an extra excitement for the day.
Plaza Garibaldi, on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps I am a bit spoilt, as there are plenty of mariachi musicians in Playa del Carmen, where we live, and they play all the time in the restaurants and the pedestrian zone. Here, at Garibaldi square, they play when you order them, and during our dinnertime here one night, only a few played for the customers, while others were clearly 'out of a job'. There were also a lot of beggars around asking for help. I found the square sad and forgotten.
Casa Luis Barragán, built in 1948 by this Mexican architect as his residence, is a real jewel! This house is an absolute must see for anyone with an interest in architecture (World Heritage site). We went to the house by subway and then walked to the house (well, admittedly, we did get a bit lost on our way). Once in the house, we found out that you had to reserve your slot online weeks ahead. I nagged the staff so much, that in the end they let us in with a couple of Japanese tourists (only four people are allowed in at a time, with a guide). The house has the typical clean lines of the Modernist movement. Dramatic use of colour and light gives its interiors a particularly subtle and lyrical atmosphere. From the outside you can hardly tell what gem is hiding inside, a deliberate act by the architect.
We made a couple of one-day trips. One of them was an organised tour to Teotihuacán pyramids, about 40km north-east of the centre. We simply did not fancy hiring a car and driving across this large metropolis. Neither could we squeeze all the sights that this tour offered us in one day. Not only did we manage to climb the famous Moon pyramid (although there was not enough time left to climb the Sun pyramid as well), the tour also included a stop at La Villa de Guadalupe in the northern part of the city, home to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is perhaps the holiest Catholic site in the Americas (also the bedrock of where the Virgin of Guadalupe was first seen!) and it was packed with pilgrims. Another stop was at Museo del Templo Mayor. This is where the origins of Mexico City started, back in 1325, when the Aztec capital city of Tenotchitlán was founded on an island in Lake Texcoco. The Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés destroyed it in 1521 and filled the lake with soil and sand. Apparently part of the Mexican city, which stands on this lake, is now slightly sinking. No wonder.
The other one-day trip we undertook independently. It was to Xoximilco in the southern borough of the city, also known as the Mexican Venice for its extended series of Aztec irrigation canals (170km long). These canals, along with artificial islands called chinampas, were once crucial for the indigenous people as they created the islands from the lake mud and grew vegetables on them. Yes, hydroponics were discovered then; it is not a modern phenomenon.
It took us 90 minutes to get there, first by the subway, then a train. The point is to hire a gondola-like boat and have a great time with a picnic and a mariachi band that you can hire. The locals love it and spend their family celebrations this way. It is fun, I agree, but only if you have a party gang with you (and some wine!). With two people (me and my husband), it was just a little canal ride (expensive as well). No frills on the side, no music, no drink. One needs to come prepared.
Afterwards, we tried to find a bank machine for an hour, there were simply none in operation in the colonia of Xochimilco, so come prepared with cash. We did not even have the five pesos necessary for the metro ride and the staff at the subway were very kind and gave us the missing cash to get us back to our hotel.
A final word:
There are many other places to see in Mexico City but you would need more time than one week. For example, in 1864 the French invaded Mexico and the emperor Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg ruled the country from the Castillo de Chapultepec. The castle is certainly worth a visit. I recommend making a list of your travel priorities before coming here. Is it art? Is it history? Is it architecture? Is it a party on the canal? Ancient ruins? Shopping? Or just browsing the old streets? Well, it is all there waiting for you. No hurry, embrace it in a relaxed manner like the locals do. And don't forget the parks!
How to get there:
Mexico City International Airport can be reached via direct service from most major airports. Don't take shady taxi drivers waiting for you outside. Buy a taxi ticket to your destination from the formal taxi kiosks inside the airport. Or use the subway.
How to get to Xochimilco: