Capital captures country's countless charms

Travel Weekly senior editor Mark Chesnut recently spent time in Mexico City. His report follows:

f tourism officials here have their way, "Frida," the movie about artist Frida Kahlo that was released this year, will help promote interest in leisure travel to Mexico City.

But even clients with no interest in the celebrated painter will find plenty to do in Mexico's largest city.

With a population of 15 to 20 million, the metropolitan area offers limitless attractions and activities as well as temperate weather year-round.

The following is a basic guide that travel agents and clients can follow as they get to know this bustling region:

In the neighborhood

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City is a medley of baroque and neo-classical influences. Mexico City's size may be daunting, but sightseeing is simpler if you consider the city as a collection of colonias (neighborhoods). Each colonia has its own name, and several are of particular interest to visitors.

A logical place to begin is where the city's history began, in the Centro Historico (Historic Center).

Between 1325 and 1345, the Aztecs founded a city -- Tenochtitlan -- on an island near the western shore of Lake Texcoco, which covered much of present-day Mexico City.

Today, the Centro Historico is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The centerpiece, El Zocalo (sometimes called Plaza de la Constitucion), is one of the world's largest city squares. It is bordered by the massive Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), which was built between 1573 and 1813.

Nearby is the excavated site of the Templo Mayor, the Aztecs' main temple.

A few steps away, the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) is home to offices of the president. This is where Frida Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera, created several famous murals between 1929 and 1951; visitors can still enter and admire the artwork today.

North of the Zocalo, the Basilica de Guadalupe is dedicated to Mexico's patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe. In 2003, this area will get a $50 million facelift that will include a new visitor information center, a museum and auditorium.

A quick walk west of the Zocalo brings visitors to the attractive Casa de Azulejos (House of Tiles), built in 1596, which now houses a branch of Sanborns, the restaurant/department store chain.

The Museo Nacional de Arte (National Museum of Art) houses an array of Mexican work. And whether clients need stamps or not, they should step into the Correo Central (Central Post Office), which opened in 1908, a beautiful, gold-trimmed building decked out like an Italian Renaissance palace.

The 44-story Torre Latinoamericana (Latin American Tower) is a modern landmark nearby. Opened in 1956, the steel-and-glass building was, for a while, the tallest building in the city. The observatory on the 42nd through 44th floors offers a good view on clear days and nights.

Across the street is the lovely Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), a marble concert hall and arts center built between 1904 and 1934. Its art deco interior is lined with murals by artists including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siquieros, Juan O'Gorman and Rufino Tamayo. The facility also hosts performances of the popular Ballet Folklorico.

The Palacio is on the edge of one of the city's prettiest parks, the pristine Alameda Central. Once a site for burning heretics, it was converted to a park in the 19th century, with elegant shrubbery, fountains and monuments. On the far side of the park is the Museo Mural Diego Rivera (Diego Rivera Mural Museum), which houses a single mural -- "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda."

Royal past

During France's brief occupation of Mexico in the 1860s, Napoleon III installed Austrian archduke Maximilian as emperor here. One of the emperor's best-known creations, the Paseo de la Reforma, today is Mexico City's largest boulevard, lined with upscale hotels, embassies and office buildings.

The Paseo is marked by several impressive glorietas (traffic circles), each with its own statue commemorating historical figures, including Christopher Columbus and Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor.

The most-photographed traffic circle probably is the one watched over by "El Angel," the angel statue at the Monumento a la Independencia (Independence Monument), which commemorates Mexico's independence from Spain.

Just beyond that is the Zona Rosa (Pink Zone), a lively hub for shopping, dining and accommodations, with restaurants, sidewalk cafes and boutiques.

Nearby are two other noteworthy neighborhoods, Condesa and Roma, which also feature boutiques, art galleries and restaurants.

Leading attractions

One of Mexico City's must-sees is Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park), the largest park in the capital. After serving as a refuge for the Aztecs and then as a fortress for Moctezuma I in the 15th century, it became a summer residence for Aztec nobles.

The first stop for most visitors is the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Anthropology Museum), one of the world's top anthropological collections. Clients could easily spend a whole day here viewing exhibits on Mexican civilizations from before the Spanish conquest up to modern indigenous culture.

Other museums in the park include the Museo de Arte Moderno and the Museo Rufino Tamayo, both of which specialize in contemporary art.

Perched atop a dramatic hilltop in the park is the Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), which is home to the Museo Nacional de Historia (National History Museum). Part of the castle was built in 1785 as a residence for Spanish viceroys when Mexico still was a Spanish colony. In 1864, it became the main residence for Emperor Maximilian.

Just beyond Chapultepec is a neighborhood called Polanco, an upscale area with expensive restaurants, hotels and a bit of nightlife. This is yet another place to do some designer shopping.

Heading out

A bit farther away from the city center are several worthwhile places, two of which tie in with the current Fridamania. Coyoacan and San Angel were once villages outside the city but now are part of Mexico City -- still, their charming 16th- and 17th-century homes give the feeling of being outside of town.

After wandering the lively plaza in Coyoacan, clients may want to pay a visit to the one-time home of Frida Kahlo, who was born in 1907 at what is now the Museo Frida Kahlo (Frida Kahlo Museum, also called the Blue House).

She also spent the final years of her life here, from 1941 to 1954. Today, the museum houses some of her original furnishings and artwork.

Not far away is the Museo Anahuacalli, which showcases pre-Hispanic artifacts belonging to fellow artist Diego Rivera, with whom she shared a turbulent relationship marked by affairs, divorce and reconciliation.

Kahlo's and Rivera's glamorous circle of friends included Leon Trotsky, who is commemorated at the Museo Leon Trotsky (Leon Trotsky Museum). After losing to Joseph Stalin in a Soviet power struggle, Trotsky found refuge in Mexico in 1937, largely thanks to support from Rivera and Kahlo.

At first, Trotsky and his wife lived in the Blue House, but after a falling out with Rivera in 1939, he moved a few streets away to what now is the museum, which has been left much as it was when one of Stalin's agents killed him there in 1940.

The nearby neighborhood of San Angel is filled with expensive designer shops and pricey homes along cobblestone streets, as well as the Bazar Sabado (Saturday Bazaar). After shopping, visitors can head to the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo (Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Studio Home Museum), a 1930s-minimalist abode where the couple lived from 1934 until their divorce in 1940. They later remarried, but Kahlo lived in her Coyoacan residence until her death in 1954, while Rivera stayed at the San Angel home until his death in 1957.

Another popular destination on the further edges of Mexico City is Xochimilco. Once a horticultural center for the Aztecs, this network of canals lined by gardens and agricultural plots has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1987.

Hop aboard a colorful trajinera (gondola) for a slow cruise along the canals, stopping at the colorful market and enjoying the floating mariachi and marimba bands and food vendors.

Also on the southern side of the city is the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (National Autonomous University of Mexico, usually known by its initials, UNAM), which is the largest university in Latin America.

Its campus, constructed between 1950 and 1954 by a group of 150 architects, is renowned for its contemporary architecture featuring murals by noted artists.

Area offers out-of-town adventures

MEXICO CITY -- If time allows, there are plenty of things to see in the area surrounding Mexico City.

Most hotels can help make arrangements for escorted or self-guided tours. Here are a few suggestions:

• Teotihuacan. This spectacular archeological zone, less than 50 miles north of Mexico City, is an excellent side trip.

Construction of this complex began about 2,000 years ago, and it grew into one of the nation's largest pre-Hispanic cities at its peak around 400 A.D.

The Pyramid of the Sun, which was reconstructed in 1908, is the world's third-largest pyramid.

• Cuernavaca. Located an hour south of Mexico City, Cuernavaca is called the "City of Eternal Spring" due to its lovely climate.

Main attractions include the 16th century Palacio de Cortes -- a fortress built by Hernan Cortes -- as well as churches and museums.

• Taxco. Mexico's silver capital is a picturesque hillside town of colonial buildings, red-tiled roofs, white-washed houses, cobblestone streets and gardens.

Jewelry, silver and crafts are good buys here. -- M.C.

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