Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Central Mexico
The Patron Saint of Mexico, and of all the Americas, is the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to legend, she appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on December 9, 1531. In his vision, she was a teenage girl of indigenous complexion, and spoke to the recently baptized Aztec in his native Nahuatl. There, atop Tepeyac Hill, she asked him to build a shrine in her honor. When the Spanish priests refused to believe Juan Diego's tale, she gave him a sign: Roses in December, and the miraculous painting, echoed all over the world, and still revered today.
Today, the Shrine of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic religious site on Earth, and pilgrims attribute to her image all manner of miracles. They pack the enormous basilica, designed to offer a fine view of her image from anywhere within, asking her help with everything from relationship woes to healing terminal cancer.
Villa Coyoacan is 29 blocks of one of Mexico City’s most charming districts. Also one of the area’s oldest districts, the area is filled with cobblestone streets, counterculture museums, and small park plazas that date back to Spanish colonial times and have an absolutely charming feel. Independently ranked as one of the best urban places to live, Coyoacan is where Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky all chose to reside, and museums dedicated to them now fill their old houses. Tranquil on the weekdays, filled with culture and music come the weekend, Coyoacan is more than simply a nice neighborhood – it’s a hotbed of culture and a must-see if in Mexico City.
Perfumed with flowers and plied by trajineras, a sort of gondola cheerfully painted to reflect the canals' lush beauty, the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco were once the agricultural breadbasket of Mexico City. Today, these last lovely remnants of ancient Lake Texcoco are more a destination for young lovers and enchanted tourists in search of a romantic afternoon.
Though most of the Aztecs' massive system of canals have long since been drained, the suburb of Xochimilco ("Place of Flowers") offers a glimpse into the ancient beauty of of Tenochtitlán. The "floating gardens" that once fed the great nation are smaller, but still here; the trajineras may now come equipped with engines, but they are still festively decorated, and many carry troupes of mariachis and offer relaxed "restaurant" service.
La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, was the birthplace of iconic artist Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954), whose beautifully tortured self portraits and passionate, tumultuous life with muralist Diego Rivera have elevated her to the status of legend.
Her home, today one of Mexico City's most popular museums, doesn't have an outstanding collection of her own work, though there are several sketches and less famous pieces to see. Instead, the rooms and gardens - still in much the same state as she left them - offer insight into her life as a wife, lover, artist, and hub of the city's (and Latin America's) socialist intellectual scene during the 1920s and 1930s. The tender details, from her brushes and canvasses, the pre-Columbian art collected by her husband, and even the prosthetic leg she wore in the months before her untimely death, will touch even casual visitors to the Museo Frida Kahlo.
Considered one of the world's most beautiful buildings, the Mexico City Palace of Fine Arts - or Palacio de Bellas Artes - is a harmonious synthesis of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Baroque styles, a style sometimes called "Porfiriano," after architecture-obsessed Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who commissioned the project.
The exterior, surrounded with gardens, rises in elegant columns and domes above the cool, green Alameda Central. Inside, it is an exceptional art exhibition, filled with a permanent collection of statues, murals, and other outstanding ornamentation. In addition, there are regular world-class art exhibitions open to the public.
In addition to its daytime attractions, you can appreciate the building's acoustic excellence by enjoying a performance at its National Theater. International artists appear regularly, but try to catch Mexico City's own Ballet Folklórico de México Compania Nacional or National Symphonic Orchestra.
The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) isn't your average university. The Mexico City-based school was started in 1551 by King Philip II of Spain (at which point it was called the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico) and is the oldest university in North America and the second oldest in all the Americas. Today, it is the largest university in Mexico and has a strong emphasis on research and cultural impact. UNAM isn't just for students, though; travelers to Mexico City who love history will also enjoy visiting this prestigious school.
The main draw for visitors is to see the Central University Campus, which wasn't built until the 1950s. The Central University Campus is a work of art in and of itself thanks to its modern architecture that features the focal point of a massive block of a building with the side adorned in murals done by Diego Rivera, Diego Alfaro Siqueiros and other prominent artists.
For visitors looking to experience how Mexico’s other half lives, there is no better place than Polanco. This upscale neighborhood in the Miguel Hidalgo borough of Mexico City is home to some of the wealthiest and most influential families in the country. The city’s most luxurious hotels, priciest restaurants and swankiest clubs line the streets of the five colonias that make up this district.
Major malls like Antara Polanco and Plaza Carso attract patrons in search of true destination shopping, while a stroll down the high-end Avenida Presidente Masaryk provides a taste of Polanco’s most expensive real estate and window-shopping at some of the neighborhoods exclusive boutiques. But Polanco is more than just luxury. Visitors can wander through Chapultepec and Parque Lincoln, or get a taste of culture on a visit the National Museum of Anthropology and the Modern Art Museum in the neighborhood as well.
Chapultepec Park, or Grasshopper Hill, is the largest city park in the world, an awesome expanse of greenery marbled with walking paths that meander between quiet ponds, monumental buildings, and a world-class collection of museums. Visitors could enjoy a quiet afternoon in its embrace, surrounded the sidewalk stands, soccer games, and other amusements, or explore the park for months on end, finding something new every day.
The park was probably set aside as green space in the 1300s, but wasn't officially protected until 1428, by King Nezahualcoyotl. The Spanish and Mexican governments have since maintained most of its natural integrity, though they did add aqueducts, palaces and other public spaces within. The most popular attractions include the massive zoo, also founded in the 1400s; the National Museum of Anthropology; La Feria Chapultepec Mágico, a small amusement park; the Ninos Heroes Monument; and the President's mansion at Los Pinos.
More Things to Do in Central Mexico
Came to Mexico City in search of some adventure? Look no further than Arena Mexico. This hard-hitting lucha libre (Mexican Wrestler) playground is known to wage epic battles of good versus evil in full luchador splendor.
Built in 1968 to hold 16,500 spectators, this was once the largest stadium ever built for professional wrestling – proving what a following the sport has in Mexico City, which is a little different from its American counterpart. In Mexico, the lucha libre match is a fight not just of contestants, but of good vs. evil, and the crowd (of all ages) gets behind the event to cheer for their favorite wrestler in whatever his particular plight might be. Beer is served, the rules are announced (though loosely adhered to), and then all bets are off, so to speak. Truly an event unique to Mexico, if you’re the type of traveler who wants to do how the Romans do, you must attend an event at Arena Mexico and see the tight-masked wrestlers do their thing.
Mexico City Alameda Central was first set aside as public green space in 1592, when Viceroy Luis de Velasco had dozens of alamos, or poplar trees, planted above the city's premier destination. It was not until the late 1700s, however, that it was remodeled to its current glory.
The park was first fitted with five fabulous fountains, each echoing the extravagant tastes of Louis the XIV, the "Sun King" of France, which were then surrounded by suitably posh landscaping. Later, President Porfirio Díaz, well known for his architectural achievements, had the Palacio de Bellas Artes built above the park. Today, it is a popular spot, particularly on weekends, when families gather beneath the spreading trees.
It’s easy to spend an entire day exploring the nearly 20 acres that make up Mexico City’s most-visited museum. Opened in 1964, the National Museum of Anthropology houses the largest collection of traditional Mexican art in the world—including the famous Aztec Stone of the Sun (Although the giant carved heads from the Olmec people, uncovered deep in the jungles of Tabasco and Veracruz, are equally impressive).
Each of the museum’s 23 permanent exhibit halls is dedicated to a different cultural region or indigenous group, making it an ideal place to learn about the country’s rich history and the traditions of its diverse capital city.
North America may not be known for its regal royalty or holding court, but Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City—the only palace on the continent—is definitely the real deal. Located more than 7,000 feet above sea level, Chapultepec has housed sovereigns, served as a military academy and was even an observatory. In 1996 the castle was transformed into Capulet Mansion for the movie Romeo and Juliet, too.
Until 1939, Chapultepec Castle served as the presidential residence. Then a new law moved it elsewhere and the castle became home to both the National Museum of History and the National Museum of Cultures instead. A stroll through these halls, followed by a tour of lush castle grounds is a perfect way to spend a Mexico City afternoon.
The Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, commonly just referred to as the Anahuacalli Museum, can be tricky to find in Mexico City, but it is worth the extra effort to visit. Diego Rivera was a famous painter who was known for his cubist style and murals. He lived in Mexico City for most of his life and was married to the artist Frida Kahlo. The Anahuacalli Museum is designed by him and houses ancient artifacts he amassed during his lifetime as well as some of his own works of art. The museum was opened in 1964, after Rivera’s death, though the layout and design of Anahuacalli was planned out by the artist prior to his passing. The pyramid-shaped building made of volcanic stone is impressive in and of itself to see, but the real allure of the museum is inside where 2,000 artifacts from his massive Pre-Columbian art collection is housed. A tour through the museum will teach you about the history of Mexico’s ancient civilizations, a subject Rivera was especially passionate about.
Inbursa Aquarium (Acuario Inbursa) opened its doors in June 2014 and is not only the largest aquarium in Mexico, but one of the largest in the world. With 11,500 square feet, the aquarium houses more than 5,000 marine mammals in a multi-level complex that is mostly underground and cost a reported $19 million to complete. The nearly 230 species of animals include piranhas, sharks, turtles, jellyfish and crocodiles.
Visitors to Inbursa enter at street level and then descend several floors underground to moody lit tanks designed to mimic the varying ocean depths. There are five fish tanks with a total volume of 1.6 million gallons of water, all brought in from the Mexican state of Veracruz, while the sand was brought in from Florida. Exhibits are themed and based on various ecosystems and ocean depths. The lowest level has brightly colored fish swimming with rays and sharks, while the Sunken Ship exhibit contains black tip sharks.
Located at the heart of Mexico City in the center of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, Plaza de la Constitucion—better known as Zocalo—is where old and new Mexico meet. Pre-Hispanic ruins exist side-by-side with impressive colonial structures, and white-collar workers stroll among cultural performers and traditional art vendors. This city-block square is also a gathering place for political protest and cultural celebration—and it’s an ideal spot to savor the flavor of real Mexico City.
Tour nearby Palacio Nacional, just east of Zocalo, where massive murals by Diego Rivera depict the nation’s vibrant history. Next, pass through the doors of Catedral Matropolitana for a look at religious colonial art and impressive golden altars. When it’s time for a break head to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, where incredible views and strong drinks from the terrace bar round out the perfect day.
One of the oldest markets in the city, the San Juan Market (Ernesto Pugibet Market) was established in colonial times and is over 150 years old. One of the most popular places to shop in the city, the market had simple roots, once beginning as people put things out upon blankets on the ground. Perhaps it is for precisely this reason that San Juan Market has excelled where others have failed. Known for its gourmet products and its exotic ingredients, the gathering is what all markets hope to be – unique, genuine and useful.
Look for La Jersey, a famous stall where imported delicacies are sold, such as foie gras, French cheeses and Italian meats. There is also Café Triana where you’ll taste the finest in Mexican organic coffees. Other stalls sell everything from quail to venison to shark.
The seat of Mexico's federal government since the age of the Aztecs (at least), the National Palace - or Palacio Nacional - is a working building, and many offices are off limits to visitors. You can, however, pass through the enormous baroque facade dominating the eastern side of the Zócalo and enjoy some of its ample interior.
Though the arcaded courtyards and fountains are fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture, you're here to see artist Diego Rivera's triptych of murals, "Epic of the Mexican People." From the creation of humankind by Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent god, and subsequent rise of the Aztecs, Rivera plunges you into the horrors of the Spanish Conquest - rape, murder, slavery, and finally, mercy to the defeated survivors. In the final piece, Mexico's resistance to invasions by France, the United States, and corporate robber barons including Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, are depicted.
France has the Champs-Élysées, New Orleans has St. Charles Street, and Mexico City has the Paseo de la Reforma. More than just a major thoroughfare that spans the length of the city, the street is a historical touchstone to remind all who pass through of the robust history of Mexico City.
Once commissioned by then-newly crowned emperor Maximilian, the Paseo de la Reforma was built to connect the center of the city with his imperial residence, Chapultepec Castle in Chapultepec Park. Originally named after his beloved, the promenade was named Paseo de la Emparitz. After Maximilian’s execution and the liberation of the Mexican people, the street was renamed the Paseo de la Reforma and has since stood as a testament to the resiliency of the Mexican people. Today, the most prominent buildings in Mexico City reside along the avenue. For a time during President Diego’s regime, the paseo became popular with the Mexican elite, and some European styled houses developed.
International restaurants, popular nightclubs and trendy bars line the shaded streets of Condesa, an up-and-coming district in the Cuauhtemoc Borough of Mexico City. Just west of Zocalo, this youthful neighborhood is known for its attractive residents, fashionable businessmen and innovative artists. Its quiet cafes, unique galleries and stylish boutiques offer an ideal way to spend a leisurely afternoon in the city, and Art Deco architecture dating back to the early 20th Century makes for picturesque strolls.
Stop by the Trolleybus Theater, where abandoned trolleys provide a creative space for inventive theater and art shows, or wander over to the well-known Parque Mexico. Previously a racetrack, this green space has since become the center of the district and is recognized by the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, as an important part of Mexico City’s unique charm.
The Mexican flag refers to a vision dating to the 13th century, telling Aztec seers to seek an eagle on a cactus, devouring a snake, and build their temples there. The wandering tribe finally found their sign atop an island in Lake Texcoco, and built the mighty city of Tenochtitlán upon it.
Fast forward 7 centuries, to a 1978 electrical problem close to the Zócalo, Spanish Colonial heart of Mexico City. Workers, digging into the soft earth, uncovered a massive, eight-ton stone depicting Coyolxauhqui, Aztec goddess of the moon. Archaeologists who had long suspected that the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple lay beneath this neighborhood, were vindicated. Throughout the 1980s, Spanish buildings were cleared away as excavation revealed an unprecedented wealth of treasures from every corner of the Aztec Empire. The old pyramid was decapitated by the Spanish advance, but much remains: walls of stuccoed skulls and enormous carvings dedicated to Tlaloc, god of storms.
At the historic heart of one of the world's most populous cities, is the first and largest cathedral in the Americas, seat of the Archdiocese of Mexico, and a wonder to behold. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral - or Catedral Metropolitana - is a symphony in stone, composed over 4 centuries into manifold facades, displaying textbook Neoclassical, Renaissance, and wedding-cake ornate Mexican Baroque (Churrigueresque) styles.
Within its fantastic bulk are sheltered some 16 chapels, several alters and retablos, a fine parish church, and a choir, each an inspired work of art replete with gold gilt, fine paintings, and sculptural details. Above it all, 25 bells - measured in tons - ring and sing to the city all around.
The streets of Mexico City come alive with music, performance and mariachi at Plaza Garibaldi. This historic square is the destination for live local music in the capital city. Visitors can cozy up to the bar at one of the numerous tequila joints that line the streets of Plaza Garibaldi, or settle in to an outdoor table and enjoy the hustle of urban life while mariachi bands weave between patrons while playing traditional tunes. The nearby Museum of Tequila and Mezcal, just behind the Agave Garden, is a perfect stop to learn more about Mexico’s most famous spirit and solo musicians frequently perform in the upstairs bar and tasting room. While some argue the plaza’s high prices and petty crime make it a true tourist trap, good drink deals are easy to find and increased security has improved the look, feel and safety of this popular destination.
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