Mexico City, Mexico, embodies the word megalopolis
. It is one of the world's most populous cities, at the same time modern and cosmopolitan yet sprawling and ramshackle. Its industry, traffic (with accompanying smog), hotels, restaurants, museums, architecture, historic sites (both Spanish and Aztec) and performing arts are everything you'd expect of a world-class city.
However, Mexico City's poverty-stricken neighborhoods are textbook illustrations of the problems encumbering developing nations. Although Mexico City does present challenges for visitors, its rewards make a visit well worth the effort, and there's a clear sense that this is a city on the upswing. Crime has declined dramatically, the air is cleaner each year, and a lot of money has gone into infrastructure improvements throughout the central core. Those who dive into the fray often become addicted to the city's energy, food and attractions.
Mexico City lies in Mexico's central valley, roughly in the middle of the country. The heart of the city is the Zocalo, a large plaza flanked by the Cathedral and the National Palace. Surrounding it is the Centro Historico (Historic Center), which is where you'll find the heaviest concentration of sights, including the Aztec Templo Mayor and an abundance of Spanish colonial buildings. The park just west of the Zocalo, Alameda Central, is lined with museums, and the Palacio de Bellas Artes is at its northeastern corner. Paseo de la Reforma, the city's most famous and elegant boulevard, runs near the western edge of the Alameda Central. From there it travels southwest to Chapultepec Park, the site of several museums and the zoo.
There are many points of interest in other colonias (neighborhoods) southwest of the Historic Center. About halfway between the Historic Center and Chapultepec Park is the Zona Rosa, a once-flourishing commercial neighborhood of restaurants, shops and nightspots, though it's looking more down-market these days. Just south of Zona Rosa is Condesa, a nice residential area that also has its share of trendy restaurants and bars, which bleed into Roma, the next area to take the hip and trendy baton.
North of Chapultepec Park is Polanco, a posh neighborhood with many fine hotels, restaurants and luxury shops. The northern part is newly developed, with high-profile architecture and new museums. About 6 mi/9 km south of the city center are Coyoacan and San Angel, both with lovely colonial buildings housing museums, galleries, cafes and shops. There are many other colonias in the city, and knowing them by name is often essential in finding your way to an address. You'll often see them noted with the abbreviation Col., as in Col. Roma.
Its size and complexity make Mexico City difficult to navigate, at least for the newcomer. If you want to explore it in its entirety, consider buying a comprehensive map such as the Guia Roji, available in bookstores and newspaper stands in the city center, and consider navigating the colonias by foot—Mexico City is a wonderful walking city. Naturally, a smart phone map can make navigation easier: get one that works offline or buy a local data SIM card for an unlocked phone.
Mexico City's history holds more than 600 years of destruction and rebirth. It began as Tenochtitlan, the clean, well-ordered capital of the Aztec empire. In 1521, it was razed by Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors to make room for a European-style colonial capital, with an enormous central plaza and a neo-Gothic cathedral. For the next 300 years, the Spanish rulers prospered while the Aztecs and mestizos lived in poverty, marginalized by the ruling elite.
In 1810, resentment toward the Spanish exploded into war. After 11 years of fighting, Mexico won independence from Spain, then plunged into almost a century of political violence. During this period, the city was invaded first by the U.S. and then the French, who left behind an Austrian archduke as emperor Maximilian II. Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, refurbished and lived in the castle of Chapultepec, and Maximilian laid out the grand Paseo de la Reforma before he was executed in 1867 by forces loyal to reforming President Benito Juarez.
The unrest came to an end only after strongman Porfirio Diaz took the presidency in 1877. The 33-year presidency—many say dictatorship—of Diaz was a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity for the city, much of which was rebuilt. But Diaz's rule was oppressive; he banned political opposition, democratic elections and a free press, and the city's prosperity was enjoyed by an elite minority.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 finished all that. During the fighting, parts of the city center were leveled, and residents lived in constant fear. When it ended, Alvaro Obregon, a revolutionary leader from Sonora, became president for a four-year term of national reconstruction. His successor, Plutarco Elias Calles, angered Catholics by closing churches and convents and passing laws against religious displays in public. This led to more violence, known as the Cristero Rebellion, which lasted until 1929.
At that time, Calles organized the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), a precursor to the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), which ruled the country—with sometimes despotic methods—for the seven remaining decades of the 20th century. (Mexicans still recall 2 October 1968, when perhaps as many as 400 protesting students were massacred by police near the main plaza.) Prosperity returned for a time, thanks in part to the discovery of large oil deposits in the country's south. Development focused on the capital, and the poorer suburbs swelled with migrants from the countryside who sought work in the new factories.
Growth could not be sustained, however, and a series of currency devaluations plus a flight of capital to foreign real estate and banking institutions spread a pall of neglect over the once-elegant city center. In 1985, an earthquake killed more than 10,000 people and leveled dozens of buildings, many of which have only recently been rebuilt.
In 1997, Mexico City held its first mayoral elections. The political plurality has revitalized the city, and political activism flourishes. In 2000, Mexican voters broke the PRI's seven-decade lock on the presidency when they elected Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN). The PAN triumphed again in 2006, when Felipe Calderon narrowly defeated former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). In protest of the election result, Lopez Obrador and his followers camped out in the central Zocalo plaza and along the Paseo de la Reforma for months, snarling traffic and angering some residents. He even tried to set up a parallel presidency, which failed. In 2012 the PRI returned to power with the election of Enrique Pena Nieto.
Construction in Mexico City proceeds at a breakneck pace, and in the historic center, efforts are ongoing to refurbish the colonial buildings, clean up parks, improve lighting and safety, wash off centuries of grime and attract new investment. It is working: The center is getting livelier all the time and the change in appearance from a decade ago is dramatic. Hip boutiques and hotels are opening in the center, while skyscrapers battle to be the tallest along Paseo de la Reforma.
The city, meanwhile, has been spreading westward—upscale residential neighborhoods, hotels, company headquarters, shopping malls and major banks have opened in Sante Fe, once the site of the biggest city dump with accompanying poverty. It now looks much like an office park area of San Jose, California, much to the joy of those who zip in and out by car.
Mexico City is an exciting combination of Aztec, colonial and modern art and architecture. It's also a huge, sprawling city, so try to focus on one area at a time.
Start at the Plaza de la Constitucion, or Zocalo, the city's main square. The Presidential Palace, with its famous Diego Rivera murals, and the Metropolitan Cathedral flank two sides of it. The surrounding Centro Historico (Historic Center), a 500-block virtual museum of colonial architecture, was built on ruins of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. The Templo Mayor, one block from the Zocalo, is the most important relic of that period. Artifacts unearthed at the site are displayed in the adjacent Museo del Templo Mayor.
Alameda Central is a downtown oasis of greenery, fountains and statuary. The imposing Palacio de Bellas Artes, a performing-arts venue and a must-see for its art-deco interior and elegant dome, is next to the park.
Between Alameda Central and the Zocalo are several impressive buildings and museums, including the Palacio de Iturbide (an Italianate baroque palace), Casa de Azulejos (the House of Tiles), the Correo Central (the lovely main post office), the Museo Nacional de Arte (a grand building with Mexican art exhibits) and Museo Franz Mayer (religious art and European antiques). In the daytime, the park itself is patrolled by police on horseback who are dressed to look like charros, traditional Mexican cowboys.
Modern skyscrapers and hotels flank the stately Paseo de la Reforma, which runs from Centro Historico to Chapultepec Park. Take an afternoon stroll along the tree-lined boulevard, looking at its various monuments, especially the famous Angel of Independence column. Along the way is the Zona Rosa, a neighborhood popular for shopping, dining and nightlife. Chapultepec Park is not only the city's largest park (and the largest city park in Latin America), but it's also home to many fine museums, such as the world-renowned Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology), which we highly recommend. Two neighborhoods just south of Chapultepec Park and Zona Rosa, La Condesa and Roma, are also worth a visit. They're packed with lovely tree-lined streets that are home to cafes, bars and upscale restaurants, as well as tranquil parks and plazas. Police on Segways with sirens now patrol a good portion of Paseo de la Reforma.
Two areas south of the Historic Center, Coyoacan and San Angel, are worth visiting for their markets, museums and general colonial charm. The famous floating gardens at Xochimilco are a pleasant excursion. (Xochimilco is about an hour south of the Historic Center, but is still officially part of Mexico City—remember, the city is enormous.) Xochimilco is also home to the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum, which displays some of the best-known works of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The not-to-be-missed Pyramids of Teotihuacan, north of the city, make for a fascinating day trip.
Nightlife in Mexico City is lively and varied—supper clubs have excellent floor shows; discos play everything from techno to bossa nova, and bars offer traditional Mexican music. The most popular districts for nightlife are Polanco, San Angel, Coyoacan, Roma, Condesa and Zona Rosa.
In view of the lack of security in some places, some visitors to Mexico City enjoy the nightlife provided by their hotels. (Some of the most popular upscale clubs are in hotels.) Another option is to join an organized nightclub tour, which can be convenient and inexpensive—you're picked up at your hotel and taken back by midnight for approximately M$770 per person, including a drink and dinner, or M$250-M$500 without. If your hotel doesn't offer such a tour, it probably can recommend a trustworthy taxi service to drive you around for the night for M$150-M$300 per hour—depending on your starting point, number in your party and the type of car. The city gets noticably safer at night each year, but the only areas that are really conducive to bar-hopping on foot are the Zona Rosa area and on Tamaulipas Street in Condesa.
Nightlife in Mexico starts late and ends late. The suggested hour for dinner at a nightclub is 9 pm, and the shows usually don't start until 11 pm. Most clubs close around 3 am. When drinking alcohol, remember that, because of the high altitude, one drink in Mexico City can have the effect of two at lower altitudes. Also, as in any big city, remember to guard your wallet or, better yet, keep your money in a travel pouch worn under your clothing.
You'll find great eateries everywhere in Mexico City, from taco vendors to upscale restaurants. You'll also find cuisines from every part of the world, especially in Condesa and Polanco. In addition, a lot of big hotels routinely host food festivals with invited chefs who prepare their best dishes.
There are a number of not-to-be-missed treats representing authentic Mexican cuisine. First, foremost and ubiquitous are tacos—corn (or occasionally flour) tortillas wrapped around any of a variety of meats, from chicken and seasoned steak to criadillas de res (bull testicles). Also try carne asada, thin slices of grilled beef fillet, and if you see chiles en nogada (poblano peppers stuffed with meat and fruit and topped with a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds), be sure to order it (some restaurants only serve it seasonally). The most common taco is al pastor, with pork cut off a revolving spit and a piece of pineapple tossed in.
Another traditional dish is mole, a thick sauce that is available in many varieties, not just the kind made with chocolate: It's generally served with chicken and is one of the best-known dishes of the country. Sopa de tortilla, chicken-tomato broth with strips of fried tortillas, chilies and bits of cheese, is tasty and not too spicy.
Some traditional restaurants also offer pozole, a hearty soup filled with hominy and shredded pork. And be aware that Mexicans are more likely to sip tequila or mescal than to gulp it down in one shot, though it's done both ways.
Typical hours for breakfast are 8-11 am. Many of the large hotels offer sumptuous breakfast buffets and weekend brunches. The main meal of the day is usually eaten at a leisurely pace between 2 and 4 pm. A lot of business is conducted during those long lunch hours. Most restaurants remain open into the evening—you may dine as early as you choose, but don't expect to see many other diners before 9 pm. Many restaurants close early on Sunday evening.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than M$100; $$ = M$100-$200; $$$ = M$201-$400; $$$$ = more than M$400.
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