Mexico City: The essential guide for first-time visitors.
January 1, 1970
by Alejandra Peña-Rios
In Mexico City there is always something going on. It couldn’t be other way considering the 20 million of people living in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. Four periods of time gathers in the city: –Pre-hispanic, Colonial, Post-Revolutionary and Modern, in the shape of neighborhoods, traditional markets, temples, cultural centres, architectural structures and gastronomy.
The city was first named Mexico-Tenochtitlan and was founded by the Aztecs around 1325 A.C. on a small island surrounded by the Texcoco lake. Later, the Aztecs expanded their territory by designing a sophisticated technology to build and maintain symmetrical artificial land divided across large roads and canals that were connected to mainland through three big avenues.
Now the Valley of Mexico’s territory occupies 1499 km², that utterly increases to 7954 km² considering the Metropolitan area. However, some of the remains of the Aztec culture are still preserved, most part of it, downtown, in the Centro Histórico, so for first-time visitors walking down its crowded streets, is a must.
Centro Histórico (Downtown)
The historic center’s main square is named Plaza de la Constitución, although Mexico City residents -also known as chilangos–, usually refer to it as Zócalo. Right in the middle of the square, a monumental mexican flag waves at the highest. At the square’s surroundings, on the north side, stands the Metropolitan Cathedral, a colonial-period catholic temple built above the area where once stood the Templo Mayor.
Still, a part of the Templo Mayor ruins can be visited. This ancient pre-hispanic structure once was Aztecs’ main religious temple, dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the God of war, and to Tlaloc, the God of the rain. Contiguous to the archaeological area, its museum exhibits several important Aztec sculptures, such as the high relief dedicated to the Goddess Coyolxauhqui, found by accident by construction workers while excavating the subway line, which led to the discovery of the rest of the temple.
Usually in Zócalo, the aroma of copal –an incense commonly used by the american indigenous-, can be perceived in the air, and a mixture of sounds produced by ancient american music instruments can be heard, meanwhile modern Aztec dancers recreate old pre-hispanic religious rituals adding a perfect vibe into the landscape.
Walking on the west side of the square, there is the Presidential Palace which rises for almost a block. It is worth to visit because indoors it keeps a botanical garden and numerous impressive murals painted by recognised artist Diego Rivera in the first half of the XX century.
Tip: The 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. 😉
Plaza de la Consitución (left), Metropolitan Cathedral & National Palace (right).
Walking a few blocks to the occident, 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 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. 😉
On the left side of the palace, you will find the Alameda Central, which is the oldest public park in Mexico City. 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.
Fine Arts Palace.
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 and was inspired by Europe’s most important avenues, such as Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Reforma can take you from downtown to the Polanco area. This 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, an 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.
Ángel de la Independencia, Paseo de la Reforma.
Paseo de la Reforma goes through Chapultepec, which is the largest urban park in Mexico City, and it is divided in three sections with two artificial lakes inside. As it is 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 residency of the Mexican presidents until the 1940’s. Nowadays it is a museum that houses the National History Museum.
Tip: The sight of the castle’s impressive structure is worth enough to take a visit to this place. 😉
Chapultepec Castle. Photos: Graciela Ríos.
The city’s most significant neighborhoods
Roma and Condesa Neighborhoods
These are two of the city’s most chic neighborhoods –along with Polanco and Chapultepec. 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.
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 an hygienic place. 😉
San Juan Bautista Cathedral, Coyoacán.
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 Teotihuacan –the place where men become Gods, by the Aztecs, however they did not found 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.
Pyramid dedicated to the Sun, Teotihuacán.