MEXICO CITY: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR FIRST-TIME VISITORS

In Mexico City there is always something going on. Of course, it could not be other way considering the 20 million people living in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, where four ages co exist together, such as the Prehispanic, the Colonial, the Post-Revolutionary and the Modern times; all manifesting by way of the people, places and gastronomy.

The city previously named Mexico – Tenochtitlan was founded around 1325 a.C. by the Aztecs or Mexicas as they actually named themselves, over a small island surrounded by the Texcoco lake. A few years later, they had expanded their territory by building and maintaining symmetrical artificial land divided across large roads and canals, which were connected to the mainland through three big avenues; and by the time the Spaniards conquerors arrived around 1519 a.C., the Great Tenochtitlan was an empire dominating most of the mesoamerica area; with a beautifully designed capital city with majestic architecture and a perfectly organized civilization.   

After the fall of the empire, the Spaniards tear down the city erected by the Mexicas in order to build their own; fortunately some of the remains buried underground have been rescued and preserved downtown, which leads us to our first must-visit stop: Walking down the Centro Histórico crowded streets.

Downtown (Centro histórico)

Zócalo

The main square is named Plaza de la Constitución, although Mexico city residents a.k.a. chilangos just refer to it as Zócalo. Right in the middle of the square a monumental Mexican flag waves proudly.

On the north side stands the Metropolitan Cathedral, which is a colonial-period Catholic Temple built from 1571 a.C. to 1813 a.C., over what it once was the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Mexicas

Mexico City Cathedral

Photo of the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Templo Mayor was the Aztecs’ main religious temple which was dedicated to the Gods of the war and rain, Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, respectively. Contiguous to the archaeological area, the Templo Mayor museum exhibits several important Aztec sculptures, such as the high relief dedicated to the Goddess Coyolxauhqui, which was found by accident by construction workers while excavating the subway line, and led to the discovery of the rest of the temple.  

In Zócalo, the aroma of copal, which is an incense commonly used by the American indigenous, can be perceived in the air. A mixture of sounds produced by ancient American music instruments can be heard, meanwhile modern Aztec dancers recreate old prehispanic religious rituals adding a perfect vibe into the landscape.

Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor.

Walking on the west side of the square, there is the Presidential Palace which rises for almost a block. It is worth to visit since indoors keeps botanical gardens and numerous murals painted in the first half of the XX century by artist Diego Rivera.  

Tip: Zócalo square has now become a reunion place for cultural events and protests, just make sure there is no event going on the day you plan to visit it. 😉

Zócalo

Plaza de la Consitución (left), Metropolitan Cathedral & National Palace (right).

Walking a few blocks, you will come across with the majestic Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Palace). Built from 1904 to 1934, it took 30 years to be finished because the Mexican Revolution armed uprising that took place in between those years.

This architectural treasure is one of the city’s most important cultural centers to witness stage plays or orchestral performances. In addition, its museum shelters important Mexican art pieces, such as murals from artists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo.

Tip: Palacio de Bellas Artes, also exhibits temporal expositions, so make sure to check the billboard and you might find something interesting to see. 😉

Fine Arts Palace

Fine Arts Palace.

On the left side of the palace the oldest public park in Mexico City, the Alameda Central . This is one of the places that people use to take a break from the hectic life in the city. In order to fresh up in really hot days, kids enjoy playing around the fountains.

Paseo de la Reforma

Near Alameda Central, there is one of the city’s most significant avenues: Paseo de la Reforma, which crosses from northeast to southwest. Reforma was built in 1860, inspired by Europe’s most important avenues, such as Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The avenue is full with hotels, restaurants, shops and monuments; being the most distinguished the Ángel de la Independencia, dedicated to the Independence of Mexico; the fountain of Diana Cazadora and the monument dedicated to Cuauhtémoc, one Aztec emperor. Nearby Reforma, there are plenty of noteworthy museums such as the Modern Art Museum, the National Anthropology Museum and the National History Museum.

Tip: Ángel de la Independencia has a little museum inside and at its highest point it has a little balcony, so don’t miss the chance to go up and enjoy a lovely view of Paseo de la Reforma, from the heights.

Ángel de la Independencia

Ángel de la Independencia in Paseo de la Reforma.

Chapultepec

Divided in three sections within two artificial lakes, Chapultepec is the largest urban park in Mexico City. Considered as one of the city’s lungs, people enjoy making outdoor activities in there, such as organizing picnic days, taking kids and pets for a walk, or just go to breathe a bit of fresh air.

One of the main attractions of this area is the Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle) which is located in the middle of the park. This majestic colonial-period structure was built as a summer home for the Spanish viceroy and nowadays it is the only royal palace standing in the Americas.

After the defeat of the Spaniards, the castle became a military school, an astronomical observatory, and later the official home of the Mexican presidents until the 1940’s. Nowadays it is a museum that houses the National History Museum.

Tip: Watching the castle’s impressive structure is worth enough to take a visit to this place. 😉

The city’s most significant neighborhoods

Roma and Condesa Neighborhoods

These are two of the city’s most chic neighborhoods. Filled with restaurants, concert halls, bars, pubs, shops and cultural facilities, let’s just say this is the hipster side of the city, perfect for going out for dinner, a drink or a concert.

Colonia Condesa

Condesa neighborhood.

Coyoacán

If Condesa neighborhood is the hipster brother, Coyoacán is the hippie one. This neighborhood houses what once was Frida Kahlo’s home, known as La Casa Azul, now turned into a museum. In addition, Coyoacán holds beautiful gardens; the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, a Franciscan temple built in the XVI century; as well as a kiosk, very representative of the neighborhood, which dates from the first year of the XX century.

Tip: No matter which Mexico City neighborhood you are in, don’t hesitate to try the street food, such as tacos, tamales, churros, esquites, or elotes, to mention some. Just make sure it is properly prepared and it is a hygienic place. 😉

Cathedral de San Juan Bautista

Catholic Cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist in Coyoacán.

Kiosk

Kiosk in Coyoacán.

Teotihuacan Pyramids

Technically speaking these are not inside Mexico City, but it is inexcusable to leave without going to Teotihuacan, being located only an hour and a half away. This archaeological area, considered as Cultural Heritage of the Humanity, was named by the Aztecs as Teotihuacan, the place where men become Gods, however they did not founded this ancient city and it is unknown who did. The most significant structures in Teotihuacan are the Pyramids dedicated to the Sun and the Moon, and the Road of the Dead.  

Teotihuacan

Pyramid dedicated to the Sun (back).

Published originally in Travelicious on October 13, 2016.