Many who visit Mexico City compare it to the greatest cities in Europe, perhaps because its downtown is layered in 1,000 years of culture, with one civilization built upon another.
While Mexico City is rich with landmarks and tourist attractions, it only holds a fraction of what Mexico has to offer. Here are a few must see attractions in Mexico City.
1. Historic Center (Mexico City)
This neighborhood comprises what was originally the seat of the New Spain viceroyship and the seed from which the monstrousity that is Mexico City nowadays sprung forth.
It was built on the smoldering ruins of Mexico Tenochtitlan by the conquistador himself, Hernán Cortés.
Almost every house and manor there has a story, and it holds enough history to stay there and explore for weeks, and is also known as the business district (it’s commonly said, with good reason, that if it isn’t sold in El Centro, it doesn’t exist).
Walk about five minutes to the west of Zocalo town square, and you’ll find this gem:
This is the Palacio de Bellas Artes. I’ve been told by visitors from all over the world it looks decidedly European (and I agree–the project was started by an Italian architect who favored Art Noveau), but a look at the decorations outside and the inside will reveal Art Deco work, as well as what I jokingly call Noveau Mexicaine–there are pre-Hispanic motifs and Aztec/Mayan statues all over the place.
Further to the west, there’s the Alameda Central park–buy yourself some coffee from the surrounding stores and go read an afternoon away here.
2. Xochimilco (Mexico City)
Although drunken students and spring-breakers have reduced this place to a shadow of its former glory, it’s still worth it gathering a group of friends, buying snacks and light drinks, and renting out a highly decorated trajinera boat to take a ride through Xochimilco’s channels.
Feeling fancy and able to afford it? Retain the services of a Mariachi band to put music to your trip through the channels.
Historically, Xochimilco was inhabited by an indigenous tribe called the Xochimilca, who were one of the many peoples that paid tribute to the Aztecs.
What makes Xochimilco so important to the Aztecs is that the man-made islands that separate the channels (called chinampas) were so fertile that they made Xochimilco the agricultural heart of the Aztec empire.
Still nowadays, Xochimilco is greatly responsible for the agricultural production of Mexico City (although our levels of output pale in comparison with other states).
3. Coyoacán (Mexico City)
A personal favorite. An old neighborhood right in the geographic heart of Mexico City, Coyoacán overflows with culture, fun and good food.
It’s also the neighbourhood where Friday Kahlo was born and spent a sizeable chunk of her life (her Blue House museum is here, but I suggest you either arrive early in the morning or don’t visit it at all–the lines to enter seem to be longer than at Disneyland).
Some way or another, Coyoacán has become the “good vibe capital” of Mexico City, where artisans, citizens and tourists all gather to relax, sell and buy, and enjoy a good afternoon. If you’re having coffee with friends, Coyoacán is a must.
Some minutes to the north of Coyoacán square (on the picture) you’ll find the market, where you can buy just about everything–from traditional Mexican clothes to more modern garb, food from all regions of Mexico for very little, hand-made baskets, sweets, produce, meat.
4. Chapultepec Forest
Chapultepec is to Mexico City what Central Park is to New York (excepting that Chapultepec is about twice as big as Central Park–I’ve been living here for more than 25 years and have seen less than a fraction of the forest). Besides the forest (which is free to be walked around almost in its entirety), it holds a zoo, about four (I think) museums, and the royal castle in which Mexico’s last emperor, Maximilian, lived with his wife until the premature end of his life.
5. The National Autonomous University of Mexico (Mexico City)
The largest university in Mexico City, with a main campus so huge it’s called University City (not joking).
The heart of the main campus is built around a park nicknamed “The Islands” (in spite of it being my alma mater, I’m still not sure why), which is worth a stroll around.
A network of free buses runs through several routes that allow any tourist to see (most of) the campus.
Worth a visit within University City:
- Central Library (pictured–it’s the building that looks somewhat like a tape recorder). Ten floors of books.
- MUAC, or University Museum of Contemporary Art
- Nezahualcoyotl Concert Hall
6. Teotihuacan (Mexico City’s outskirts)
One of the best conserved pre-Hispanic ruins. It’s about an hour away from the city, and it can be seen both from the ground (yes, I meant walking) and from the air (from rented hot air balloons).
On the ground, you can climb both the Sun and Moon pyramids, as well as some of the structures around them.
Some people think Teotihuacan is an Aztec ruin, but it actually predates the Aztecs–the people living here were long gone by the time the Aztecs passed the city.
It struck such an impression on them that they based a large part of their architecture and religious culture off it.
Logistically speaking, I honestly suggest that if you’re visiting this place, you absolutely should go before noon, and also put on sun screen and a hat.
It sounds like an odd recomendation, but the sun is merciless in Teotihuacan, even when it’s sort of cloudy.
A friend once went to Teotihuacan in the middle of summer in nothing but a tank top and shorts, and came back with second-degree burns on part of his face and shoulders – not a nice way to end your vacations.
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