Mexico City: Part I – Things to do and how to get to them

Traveler: Danielle Gervalis

When: April 2017

Overall Experience:

I can’t believe it took me so long to get to Mexico City. I spent a long weekend here bouncing from site to site and stopping to eat along the way! A little site and sip, if you will. Mexico City has world-renowned museums, invaluable archeological sites and artifacts, and obviously delicious food! This city packs such a cultural punch that I broke up this trip into two posts; one for activities and one for food. Que te divertas!

Logistics:

Getting there: I found a direct flight from Dulles via the Hopper app that I couldn’t pass up! I had been eyeing Mexico City for a few months and the timing and price finally aligned.

Getting around: Mexico City is enormous, I’m talking almost twice the size of New York City. It’s a sprawling city of interesting things to see and experience. I stuck to this outline of points of interest. You’ll notice most are clustered in one area and this is how we determined which neighborhood to stay. I highlighted the three popular neighborhoods and put a little red dot where our Air BnB was located.

map

Now, once you’ve established where you want to stay, you’ll need to figure out how to get from point A to B. My first inclination is to walk everywhere. I love walking around new cities, I feel like you get to see more, hear more and experience more than if you are taking the subway or bus. However, we’re human, we get tired. So when we did need a break from all the miles we were racking up, we took Uber. Once we realized how cheap Uber was, we got lazy and took it even more.  The ride from the airport was about $6 for an Uber… getting around town rides were between $3-$5. It was the most convenient and quickest way to get to places in the city, and several of the drivers gave us great suggestions on what to check out.

Air BnB:

IMG_7209We found a beautiful modern condo nestled between the Azures and Polanco neighborhoods. It’s on a quiet residential street within walking distance to the bars and restaurants on Calle Maseryuk and Chapultupec Forest. The owners of the unit could not be more hospitable! They had water, fruit, Coronitas, and mini-chocolates ready for us. Additionally, they made sure we knew how to operate everything in the space, including the French press coffee maker. They also had an informative homemade guidebook containing recommendations, a map, and other helpful hints. We were comfortable and well cared for staying at Ivonne’s Air BnB.

Activities:

Chapultepec Forest

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One of the festive entrances to the park

This park/forest covers almost 1,700 acres in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City. There are endless things to do here – multiple museums, a lake where you can rent boats, vendors selling trinkets, and most importantly – lots of food! We ate tasty tacos and quesadillas in the park and washed it all down with Mexican Coca Cola, which to me, tastes the exact same as American Coca Cola. There’s also the famous “Paseo de la Reforma” which is a pathway through the park very popular with runners, particularly on Sundays. There was actually a Nike sponsored race the day I was there, and as a faithful runner myself, I stood on the sidelines and cheered on the runners who were sprinting to the finish line at an altitude of over 7,000 ft….. In any case, if you are looking to spend a lazy day wandering around, this is the place to do it! If you are feeling a little more ambitious, walk up the long hill to Chapultepec Castle and enjoy sweeping views of the city below.

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The lake in the park

Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Anthropology Museum)

This world-renowned museum is located within Chapultepec Forest and was a delightful shaded walk from the Air BnB. We got there right at 9am when the museum opens and spent a little over two hours exploring the exhibits. After you turn in your selfie stick and pay 70 pesos in cash ($4), you’ll walk outside into the large courtyard with a commanding water feature and see there are multiple room options to begin your tour. I was instantly attracted to the bright colors on my right for the temporary exhibit on the Huichols, turns out these are the people who imbibed on Peyote. The colors were making a lot more sense now.

At the far end of the courtyard is a comprehensive exhibit on the Aztecs and Teotihuacan. The amount of complete stone sculptures is unbelievable. Everywhere you turn there are priceless artifacts that have detailed and expressive images beyond anything you could imagine. The “Stone of the Sun” is a centerpiece of the collection. When it was unearthed it was incorrectly identified as the Aztec calendar, but is actually a gladiatorial sacrificial altar. Additionally, there is a smaller scale version of the ancient Mesoamerican ball game, ullamaliztil (the word for rubber) as well as recreations of temples lining the exterior of the rooms.

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Stone of the Sun

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Named after the rubber ball the game was played with

The museum does an excellent job describing the differences between the various cultures living in Mexico and where and how they overlapped or influenced each other. The scope of this collection of artifacts is incredible. It’s a comprehensive record of the complex and advanced civilizations who ruled the land and well worth a visit.

Frida Kahlo Museum – The Blue House

This was hands down my favorite part of the trip.  I did not expect to be so taken with Frida Kahlo but I was completely swept up in La Casa Azul. I knew a little of Frida, as embarrassing as it is to admit this, from what I learned about her via a random Facebook video.  Frida’s father was a photographer and she would accompany him when he would do his work. She was actually enrolled in medical school but was in a horrific trolley accident when she was 18 and bedridden for many months. This is when she began to hone her painting skills. After her long recovery, she eventually became involved in politics where she met and married Diego Rivera. The two artists had a famously tumultuous marriage but lived at the Blue House during their time together and eventually, this is where Frida died.

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Courtyard of the Casa Azul

The museum features many of Frida’s paintings, portraits, as well as works by Diego Rivera, and many of their personal items. Frida’s studio has been meticulously maintained – displaying her easel, paints, brushes and the wheelchair she sat to paint. The airy studio filters in the outside light and you can see how it would be easy to spend hours here.

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Frida’s Studio

Another favorite room of mine was the kitchen, it’s colorful and warm. Frida explained her style as, “If we are not our colors, aromas, our people, what are we? Nothing.”

They also had a special exhibit featuring Frida’s dresses and designs. The clothing and headpieces are beautiful. You also see the many corsets she had to wear throughout her life to assist with the terrible pain she endured as a result of her accident.

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It’s a thrilling place to visit and a must see if you are in Mexico City. I strongly recommend ordering tickets in advance online (we purchased them the day prior to visiting) or else you will be waiting in a loooong line.  The tickets have timed entries and cost about $12. There is an additional fee to take pictures in the house (around $2) and is well worth it.

Templo Mayor and Museum

Another amazing must see in the center of the city is the Templo Mayor, which was the main temple complex of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City)! It gives the more famous Anthropology Museum a run for its money and for less than $5 you get to explore the ruins and expansive museum.  The outdoor portion consists of a walkway through several areas of the archeology site of the sacred temples and pyramids. The first temples began construction around 1325 with multiple reconstructions until the seventh remodel was destroyed when the Spanish invaded Mexico.

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The Templo Mayor site was said to be the spot where the god of war, Huitzilpochtil, gave the people his sign that they had reached the Promised Land. Templo Mayor saw  both thousands of human sacrifices, so many that it was said the steps and streets ran with blood, and violent clashes with the Spanish invaders. It takes less than an hour to walk around the ruins and it’s a great primer into the Aztec world before you enter the museum.

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Ruins in the middle of the city

The museum itself has eight distinct rooms dedicated to different themes such as specific deities, rituals, and various factors of Aztec daily life. There are more than 7,000 objects to see here. Two of the most famous include the enormous relief of the Earth goddess, Tlaltecuhtli, which is on the bottom level but it is best viewed from the upper floors to get the full immensity of the relic.

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Additionally, there is a circular relief of the moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui. It’s displayed with projected lights shining on the relief so visitors get a true picture of what it looked like with vibrant paint.

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There are so many interesting artifacts that you should plan to spend a few hours here as well!

Zocalo Square

Officially known as the Plaza de la Constitucion, Zocalo is one of the largest city squares in the world and has been a bustling center of activity since the Aztecs. It’s anchored by the Cathedral in the north end, the National Palace in the east, and a massive flag pole in the center where the Mexican flag is raised and lowered each day.

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View of the Cathedral in Zocalo Square

Walking around the square, you’ll see tour guides, vendors, and performances by people in authentic Aztec dress. It’s easy to get to and worth strolling around. When we visited the area, it was during the May Day protests, so there were swarms of people wearing red in the square. If you visit on a quieter day, check out the:

National Palace

The building hosts federal government offices, a museum, courtyards, of which one is open to the public, and multiple famous murals by Diego Rivera.  Due to May Day, we weren’t able to get into the building so I was sad to have missed seeing his famous work “The Epic of the Mexican People” in the stairwell of the Palace. It depicts the history of Mexico from 1521 onward and Rivera does not hold back his feelings about external influences in the “Conquest” panel. Another interesting historical item about the building is that the materials used to reconstruct the palace are the very same stone as the Aztec building, blending the two cultures in the prominent palace. Entering is free and it’s open every day beginning at 9am.

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Cathedral

The Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos  (Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven) is the largest Cathedral in the Americas. Inspired by the Spanish Gothic style, it took almost two centuries to build the sixteen chapels, each dedicated to a different saint. There are many beautiful religious paintings, gilded alters and important religious artifacts, so it is worth a visit since you are already roaming the square. If you aren’t interested in religious history, the architecture and beautiful stained glass will hold your attention.

Soumaya Museum

You’ve probably seen photos of this architecturally unique building designed by Fernado Romero. It cost $70 million to build and is covered by 16,000 hexagon tiles. The building opened to the public in 1994 and is named after the late wife of the owner Carlos Slim.

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The interior design is just as impressive, you’ll walk into a cavernous space with brilliant white walls and white marble floors with an open feel and a curved ramp/staircase that wraps around the walls to ascend to the six different levels (don’t worry there are elevators too).  Each level is shaped differently and has distinctive exhibitions.  Another interesting thing about this museum is that most of the interior walls are moveable and have openings where the pictures are hanging, so you have a clear view of the back and front.

There is an incredible amount of artwork contained in this building, over 66,000 pieces. I suggest checking where some of your favorite artists or styles might be featured and explore that way. It’s a wide-ranging collection featuring impressive works by El Greco, Renoir, Piccaso, Monet and Diego Rivera. When you walk into the museum, your eye is immediately drawn to the large, colorful murals Rivera is famous for. Needless to say, you can spend hours here drifting from painting to painting and seeing all the masterpieces.

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Works by Diego Rivera

That being said, make sure you make your way to the top floor. It’s open concept, so sunlight pours into the room. It’s dedicated to the works of French sculptor August Rodin, as well as a few sculptures by Salivdor Dali, and contains the world’s largest private collection of Rodin’s work.

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Top floor dedicated to Rodin

Best of all, the museum is free to the public. The operating costs are covered by the fortune of Carlos Slim. When planning your visit, the museum opens at 10:30am and is closed on Tuesdays.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

This gorgeous building with the prominent colorful dome stands out in its Alameda Park setting. The Palacio began construction in 1904 but due to some complications and the onset of the Mexican Revolution it lay dormant and unfinished for almost 20 years. Finally completed in 1934, it has a neoclassical exterior and art deco interior style. Today it has permanent art and sculpture exhibitions, including Diego Rivera murals, and hosts events such as ballets, operas and Aztec ritual dances.

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I would’ve loved to see a show here but just getting to see the building itself is a treat! I highly recommend stopping here when in Mexico City. It’s open to the general public from 10-5 everyday except Monday when it’s closed. You can purchase tickets for events directly at the ticket window or through ticket master.

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La Ciudadela Market

If you are looking to shop for traditional Mexican crafts and amazing souvenirs, then you must go to this massive market. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the Palacio de Bellas Artes through a neighborhood that seems to specialize in industrial and machinery shops and it’s also conveniently located across the street from the Juarez metro stop.

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The massive yellow building has an interesting history in and of itself. It was originally constructed to be a Tobacco factory but was converted to a citadel during the war of Mexican Independence in 1816. Additionally, it was the site of a skirmish where 67 people lost their lives during the “La Decena Tragica” (Ten Tragic Days) of the Mexican Revolution in 1913. The market as it’s now known was established prior to the 1968 Summer Olympics to promote Mexico’s heritage and artisans and hosts over 350 vendors.

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A maze of crafts and goods

The Ciudadela is open daily beginning at 10am and hosts numerous stands where you can pretty much purchase anything you can imagine. Make sure you bring cash! There are also multiple eateries so you can grab a bite when you are famished from all the shopping you will be doing! I picked up a few adorable stuffed animals, day of the dead skulls, and my favorite keepsake magnets!

Tips:

  • Wear sunscreen!
  • Download Uber. It made it very easy to get around the city.
  • Learn a few Spanish phrases
  • Plan your trip so you know what is open and closed on Mondays. Many of the sites and restaurants are closed on Mondays.
  • Drink lots of water. I did not experience altitude sickness in Mexico City. I took a pre-emptive Advil, avoided alcohol and chugged water.

3 thoughts on “Mexico City: Part I – Things to do and how to get to them

  1. Pingback: Mexico City: Part II – Oh the places you’ll eat! | World Travelers Union

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