Mexico City Vacations
French poet André Breton called Mexico the surrealist country par excellence, and the capital does revel in its strangeness. The city is a wonderfully weird and welcoming world, captivating visitors them with its year-round springlike climate, bubbling street life and abundant cultural offerings.
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Like any great metropolis, Mexico City presents a mosaic of scenes. Drinking tequila at a grand old cantina, grooving to world-class DJs on a rooftop terrace, eating tamales from a street corner vendor, watching masked wrestlers at the lucha libre (wrestling) arena downtown.
What To Do
Mexico City's altitude, pollution and noise make strenuous outdoor activity a bit trying. But that shouldn't stop you strolling the Centro Histórico, ambling through Parque México, cheering on the 'good guys' at a bout of lucha libre, or cruising Xochimilco's back canals to the Isla de las Muñecas.
What To See
A city so packed with wonders your eyes will pop.
One could spend many months exploring all the museums, monuments, plazas, colonial buildings, monasteries, murals, galleries, historical remnants, archaeological finds, statuary, shrines and religious relics this bonanza of a city has to offer. Start in the Centro Histórico, where it all began.
Highlighting Mexico’s plant diversity, the 4-hectare complex is divided into sections that reflect the country’s varied climatic zones. The garden also features a greenhouse full of rare orchids.
Museo Frida Kahlo
Renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was born in, and lived and died in, the ‘Blue House,’ now a museum. Almost every visitor to Mexico City makes a pilgrimage here to gain a deeper understanding of the painter. Built by her father Guillermo three years before Frida’s birth, the house is littered with mementos and personal belongings that evoke her long, often tempestuous relationship with husband Diego Rivera and the leftist intellectual circle they often entertained there.
Museo León TrotskyHaving come second to Stalin in the power struggle in the Soviet Union, Trotsky was expelled in 1929 and condemned to death in absentia. In 1937 he found refuge in Mexico. The Trotsky home, now a museum, remains much as it was on the day when a Stalin agent, a Catalan named Ramón Mercader, caught up with the revolutionary and smashed an ice pick into his skull. Memorabilia and biographical notes are displayed in buildings off the patio, where a tomb engraved with a hammer and sickle contains the Trotskys’ ashes.
Monumento a la Revolución
Begun in the 1900s under Porfirio Díaz, this monument was originally meant to be a legislative chamber. But construction (not to mention Díaz’ presidency) was interrupted by the Revolution. Though they considered demolishing it, the new regime chose instead to modify the structure and give it a new role. Unveiled in 1938, it contains the tombs of the revolutionary and postrevolutionary heroes Pancho Villa, Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Plutarco Elías Calles and Lázaro Cárdenas. The plaza and the monument got a major makeover in 2010 to commemorate Mexico’s centennial anniversary of the Revolution. The star attraction is the 65m-high Observation Deck, reachable by a glass elevator. The vertigo-inducing lift opens to a spiraling staircase that ascends to a wide terrace with a panoramic view of the city.
Plaza San Jacinto
Every Saturday the Bazar Sábado brings masses of color and crowds of people to this square, 500m west of Avenida Insurgentes. Museo Casa del Risco is midway along the plaza’s north side – look for the elaborate fountain inside the courtyard. Upstairs is a treasure trove of Mexican baroque and medieval European paintings. About 50m west of the plaza is the 16th-century Iglesia de San Jacinto and its peaceful gardens.
The temple is thought to be on the exact spot where the Aztecs saw their symbolic eagle, perching on a cactus with a snake in its beak – the symbol of Mexico today. In Aztec belief this was, literally, the center of the universe. The onsite Museo del Templo Mayor (included in the site’s admission price) houses a model of Tenochtitlán and artifacts from the site, and gives a good overview of Aztec civilization. Pride of place is given to the great wheel-like stone of Coyolxauhqui (She of Bells on her Cheek), best viewed from the top-floor vantage point. She is shown decapitated, the result of her murder by Huizilopochtli, her brother, who also killed his 400 brothers en route to becoming top god.
Home to the offices of the president of Mexico, the Federal Treasury and dramatic murals by Diego Rivera, this palace fills the entire east side of the Zócalo.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Dominating the east end of the Alameda is this splendid white-marble palace, a concert hall and arts center commissioned by President Porfirio Díaz. Construction began in 1905 under Italian architect Adamo Boari, who favored neoclassical and art nouveau styles. The recently renovated Bellas Artes theater (only available for viewing at performances) is itself a masterpiece, with a stained-glass curtain depicting the Valle de México. Based on a design by Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo (aka Dr Atl), it was assembled by New York jeweler Tiffany & Co from almost a million pieces of colored glass. In addition, the palace stages outstanding temporary art exhibitions and the Ballet Folclórico de México.
Sells more than 5000 masks from all over the country; it’s in the Lagunilla market area.
This local designer has come up with a cool and comfortable line of women’s fashion, using all-cotton fabrics in colors like salmon, Mediterranean blue and cream. Embroidered shawls complete the flowing summery look with the prices more off-the-peg than off-the-wall.
Mexicans love their vibrantly-colored artificial flowers. You may not be of the same persuasion but this place is superbly kitsch, with a display that includes fake fruit that you would never be tempted to bite into.
Black-clad youth gravitate toward this space on the upper floor of a magnificent colonial building. The varied program includes cult films, poetry readings and live music, which might be anything from ska to electronica.
National Music Conservatory
The country’s most important music conservatory was founded at the beginning of the 20th century and still produces some of the country’s top classical musicians, like current golden boy José Antonio Espinal, recognized as one of the most talented young conductors, pianists and musicians in Mexico today. The Conservatory holds regular free concerts, but is not famed for its publicity or advance notice. Keep a close eye on the local press, stop by or telephone the information office.
This city has one busy calendar. Between Christmas and Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings' Day or Epiphany) on January 6, Santa Clauses around Alameda Central are replaced by the Three Kings. Kids get loads of gifts, and the streets are aflutter with shopping stalls. In late March, plazas, palaces and theaters around the city are taken over by the three-week Festival de México, a program of classical and popular music, dance and cultural events. Semana Santa (Holy Week) starts on Palm Sunday, and closures are usually from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
On Día del Trabajo (Labor Day), there is a big unionists' gathering in the Zócalo in the morning, as well as parades around the city. Día de la Independencia (September 16), commemorates the start of Mexico's war for independence from Spain, and on its eve, thousands of people gather in Zócalo to hear the president recite a version of the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores).
Mexico's most characteristic fiesta by far, though, is Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead): a happy atmosphere prevails as families build altars in their homes and visit graveyards to commune with their dearly departed, bearing garlands, gifts and food. A week or more of celebrations leads up to Día de Nuestra Señora Guadalupe (December 12), the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the country's major religious icon and Mexico's national patron. Groups of brightly costumed indigenous dancers and musicians perform on the basilica's large plaza for two days.
Food and Drink
La Ópera Bar
With booths of dark walnut and an ornate tin ceiling (said to have been punctured by Pancho Villa’s bullet), this late-19th-century watering hole remains a bastion of tradition.
Águila Y Sol
A modern temple of somewhat stark decor coupled with exciting updated Mexican flavors, Martha Ortiz is something of a culinary goddess in these parts. Start in style by sipping a bandera mexicana, so named because it features the colors in the Mexican flag (green, white and red) : three shot glasses filled with oak-barrel aged tequila reposada, sangrita — a tomato citrus drink — and lime juice. The menu includes traditional dishes given the dynamic taste sensation treatment, like the succulent pork loin in yellow mole with gingered mango.
Fresh seafood is the star attraction at this stylish dining hall with a seaside ambience. The specialty is tuna fillet Contramar-style – split, swabbed with red chili and parsley sauces, and grilled to perfection. Also a standout is the tuna tostada, topped with crispy onions.
Fonda El Refugio
Amid a collection of colorful pots and whimsical ceramic ornaments, the family-run fonda (inn) serves Mexican favorites such as mole poblano (chicken drenched in a chocolate-based sauce) and chiles rellenos (chillies stuffed with ground beef).
Working-class chilangos line up for their share of paella valenciana, made fresh daily and patiently ladled out by women in white bonnets. Jesús from Cantabria oversees the proceedings.
With seating inside the big dining hall, on the sun-dappled patio or alongside the formidable grill, this taco temple makes a great pit-stop after shopping at the Ciudadela crafts market, opposite.
Part-owned by Mexican heartthrob Diego Luna (of Y tu mamá también movie fame), this popular cantina plays up the kitschier elements of Mexican popular culture, with wall panels fashioned from plastic crates and sliced tin buckets as light shades. Got the munchies? Try the revamped versions of classic Mexican snacks.