Mexico City (or Mexico D.F as it’s also known) is one of the world’s largest cities with a population of over 17 million people. The humongous urban sprawl may be overwhelming but once you scratch below the surface, you will find some of the best cultural attractions in the world.
There has never been a better time to visit: with crime down, the pollution problems improving, major regeneration and a move to having more green open spaces there are so many reasons to sample the wonders of Mexico City.
Where better to start than the city’s historical and geographical heart. Constructed on top of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, it is the spot where in 1519, Hernan Cortes is said to have met Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor. On one side you will find the Cathedral of Mexico City and on the other, the national palace.
It is ranked along side Moscow’s Red Square and Beijing’s Tienanmen Square as one of the world’s largest city squares. on any day of the week you will find buskers and market sellers trading in jewellery and gifts. If you’re lucky you may even catch a show of people in traditional Aztec outfits. When we were in there in 2014 the square was overtaken one evening as a huge protest and candlelit vigil took place for the 43 missing students.
Picture the scene – you’re floating down a network of inner city canals, music in the air and a boatman using a long wooden pole to smoothly push you through the water. No, you’re not in Venice, this is Mexico City.
We may not have had the best experience in Xochimilco, but if you head over on a weekend people flock here in their droves to boat on the canals and chinampas (floating gardens) of Tenochtitlán, a former Aztec city that the conquering Spanish named ‘the Venice of the new world’. As you float along in your open air gondola, or trajinera, mariachi musicians will play traditional songs on passing barges, flower sellers and food vendors will pull up next to you and families will be partying with beers on nearby boats.
THE FINE ARTS PALACE (PALACIO DE BELLAS ARTES)
Just from the outside, this building is something special. However, head inside to see a famed Diego Rivera, El Hombre en el Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center. A top tip is to head over to the department store across the pedestrianised square and climb a few floors up for an even better view of this architectural wonder.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY
The National Museum of Anthropology is one of the world’s great museums, housing the most significant collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts to be found anywhere. The Aztec sun disk, the museum’s breathtaking centerpiece, served as a gladiator’s ring and sacrificial altar in the Templo Mayor, the palace of the Aztec ruler that stood at the center of Mexico City.
only a short hop from the Zocolo this former Aztec Temple has been expertly excavated and converted into the most accessible museum about the capital’s pre-conquest past.
CHAPULTEPEC CASTLE AND PARK
Easy to reach by metro, the park is perfect if you have a spare afternoon and want a walk in comparatively fresh air. It is one of the largest city parks in the Western Hemisphere, measuring in total just over 686 hectares (1,695 acres) and contains monuments, boating lakes, the stunning Chapultepec castle and Mexico Cities best museum – The National Museum of Anthropology.
DIEGO RIVIERA MURALS
Diego’s world famous murals can be found all over Mexico City. The main attraction of the Palacio Nacional is his mural depicting 1000s of years of the area’s history. After this, head over to Palacio de Bellas Artes to see El Hombre en el Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center. Just up the road from Museo Frida Kalo you can see Diego Riviera’s studio, preserved as if he was going to step in at any minute to continue painting.
MUSEO FRIDA KALO
Not only is the hip area of Coyoacán a beautiful part of town filled with cobbled streets, fountains and tree filled squares, it’s also home to the Blue House – once home to Frida and Diego and now beautifully preserved as a museum in their honour. A permanent collection of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings can be seen here and only here: the artists stipulated they would never leave the premises. The house is preserved as if they still live here and contains collections of Frida’s photographs, clothing and jewellery as well as Diego’s collection of pre-Colombian sculpture.
While in the area, why not head to the less visited Museo Leon Trotsky.
Other than the food, nothing in popular culture says ‘Mexico’ to me like Lucha Libre. The sport became a national phenomenon in the early 1900s with the formation of Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling Enterprise) and secured its place in the nations heart with the advent of television. The masks have been part of the sport since the beginning, having a historical connection to masks worn by the Aztecs. Check out my experience of lucha libre here for information on how to watch this cultural phenomenon.
A short walk from Palacio de Bellas Artes you will find Plaza Garibaldi, most likely to be populated with groups of Mariachi bands and performers hanging around waiting to be hired for a fiesta. Surrounded by bars, inebriated locals often gather here to pay the performers to sing them a tearjerker or have a dance.
When I think of ancient Mesoamerican cities, Teotihuacan is the one that comes to mind. Move over Tikal and Chichen Itza, Teotihuacan is the daddy of them all. Located 40km north or Mexico City, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more. The city was established around 100AD and was under construction until approximately 250AD and may have lasted until the 7th or 8th century. This was possibly my highlight of our time in Mexico City. The Temple of the Sun is the largest ancient pyramid outside of Egypt but the Temple of the Moon and the Palace of Quetzacoatl are equally impressive.