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
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
The following is a basic guide that travel agents and clients
can follow as they get to know this bustling region:
In the neighborhood
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'
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Main attractions include the 16th century Palacio de Cortes -- a
fortress built by Hernan Cortes -- as well as churches and
• 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. --