Mexico City is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. The city proper has the population about 9 million, and with the surrounding areas it reaches way over 20 million. This post covers only a small part of the city – and arguably the most interesting one from the tourist perspective – the historic center.
The historic center is basically an old Spanish town, as far as the architecture is concerned. It feels safe and hospitable, with lots of historic sites, museums, art, temples, shops – and good food. It makes a great short vacation destination, and if you have more time on your hands there is enough there for a long stay as well.
A side note: our experience in Mexico City was unforgettable mostly due to our excellent tour guide Lynda. Both the content and logistics of the tour were perfect. I highly recommend Lynda and her tour company:
Understand Mexico Customized Tours of Mexico
I am not in any way affiliated or involved with Lynda’s business, and this recommendation is just an honest reference from a happy customer.
Zócalo Square and around
Zócalo Square, officailly called Plaza de la Constitución, is the main square of Mexico City. It is one of the largest squares in the world. It is framed by several historic sites, such as the Metropolitan Cathedral, The National Palace that host the national government offices, Federal District offices and Hotel Grand Ciudad de Mexico, to name a few. The archaeological site of Templo Mayor is just a few steps away from the Cathedral.
The Cathedral occupies the northern side of the square. It full name is Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos, or Metropolitan Catherdal of the Assumption of the Most Holy Virgin Mary into Heaven. It is an impressive and beautiful structure, imperial and imposing on the outside, rich and elegant inside. It is difficult to see it on this photo, but the Cathedral is actually leaning forward due to the sinking soil underneath it.
The Cathedral, pictured above, like much of the historic downtown of Mexico City, was built on the former lakebed, and the soil underneath it is unstable and prone to sinking, especially under the pressure of heavy structures like bell towers. One of the rear corners of the Catherdral is located above an ancient pyramid, so it remains anchored against it, while the front keeps sinking, tilting the whole building forward. Several attempts to stop the tilting have been undertaken with a varying degree of success. The sinking is not limited to the Cathedral and can be observed all around the City.
This plumb-bob was installed the Cathedral for keeping track of the tilt of the building:
This is the view of the Western side of the Cathedral:
The Metropolitan Tabernacle (Sagrario Metropolitana) is located immediately to the right (east) of the Cathedral. It also has the sinking problem:
The area of the Square outside the Cathedral is full of street vendors, tour guides looking for customers, and street photo models:
The Federal District office (Mexico City administration building) is on the southern side of Zócalo Square:
Detail of the Federal District building facade. On the left, the mosaic of Mexico City coat of arms; on the right – that of Coyoacán:
Another noteworthy building at Zócalo is Grand Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, located at the south-western corner of the Square. It is probably more interesting on the inside than on the outside. Its interior (along with some helicopter stunts over Zócalo) was featured in the opening scene of the recent James Bond movie Skyfall:
Zócalo Square is huge – one of the largest squares in the world. We were told that it rarely remains empty, as the city authorities hold all kinds of fairs, trade shows and other events on it, in part to prevent rallies and pickets from taking place at this location.
Zócalo Square with a makeshift trade fair pavilion in the center:
Street protests and rallies are a part of everyday life, and during our 3 day stay there were a few of them across the city. One of them was held at the south edge of Zócalo. It was quite peaceful, but there was a very visible presence of riot police which began gathering at the Square early in the morning in anticipation of the rally.
A rally at Zócalo Square:
Despite an occasional rally Zócalo Square is a tourist friendly place, with lots of shops and some nice restaurants. This building located at the west side of the square has at least two restaurants providing a great view of the Cathedral: one on the 3rd floor and another at the rooftop. We ate at the rooftop and the food was great.
The street of Calle Moneda, starting at the north-east corner of Zócalo and going eastward, is worth checking out for its historic Spanish looks.
An alley off Calle Moneda:
The church of Templo de Santa Teresa la Antigua, on a side streat near Calle Moneda. Note how the facade is tilted (this is not a lens distortion effect):
This is the view to the West from Calle Moneda. Straight ahead you can see the leaning bell-towers of the Metropolitan Cathedral, and on the left – the National Palace, which is our next stop:
The National Palace
The National Palace, sutuated on the eastern side of Zócalo, is the seat of the President of the country. Some of the stones used for its construction were taken from the palace of Moctezuma II that was located on the same site.
The Palace is open for tourists and can be accessed through an entrance on its northern side at Calle Moneda.
An inner courtyard of the National Palace:
One of the main attractions in the Palace is the collection of murals by Diego Rivera. Rivera’s political views aside, his murals are fun to watch and to read, and his personality was larger than life. He was married to Frida Kahlo (she was not his first wife), was close friends with Leon Trotsky, and his murals can be found all over in Mexico City, as well as in New York, San Francisco and Detroit.
If you know of other places, not mentioned above, where one can find Rivera’s murals, please let me know!
A fragment of one of Rivera’s murals in the National Palace. It is about Mexico’s history. It can be read as a story (revealing Rivera’s political and social views as well):
Visitors in front of a mural by Rivera at the open gallery of the National Palace:
The Palace was built at the site of an pre-Colombian palace complex, and the remains of the old structures can be viewed via so called archaeological windows – special dug-outs that allow peeking into the ground. Such archaeological windows can also be found in other places around the city.
Visitors looking into an archaeological window inside the National Palace:
More from the National Palace:
Templo Mayor used to be a major Aztec temple. Its partially excavated walls and foundation are located off the north-eastern corner of Zócalo Square. I would not call it the most exciting site in the city, and at the first glance it looks like a bunch of piles of stone rubble. However a guided tour might let you see it in a different light, once you know what to look for. One can see for example how since the very early time the temple was extended and enlarged by building one new set of walls after another on the top of the existing building, creating a nested doll-like structure.
Templo Mayor – a view from a rooftop at Calle Justo Sierra north of the site:
Loreto Square and Calle Justo Sierra
Loreto Square is located in about 10 minutes of walk to the north-east from Zócalo. It is dominated by the Church of Nuestra Señora de Loreto. The Church is of a very solid size, and is crowned with a huge yellow dome. One thing that is impossible to miss about this church is that it is very strongly titled due to the sinking soil:
No, this isn’t a lens effect or perspective distortion. Here is a close-up:
Other than this leaning church, Loreta Square and the adjacent Calle Justo Sierra street are not-so-touristy, not so neat but lively residential areas:
The Historic Synagogue (Sinagoga Histórica Justo Sierra) is nearby:
And if you’re hungry, the rooftop restaurant El Mayor at the very beginning of Calle Justo Sierra offers fine local food and views of Templo Mayor and Zócalo:
Calle Madero and around
Calle Madero is a pedestrian-only street about 1 mile long that starts at Zócalo and ends at Avenida Juárez, near Torre Latinoamericana and Palacio de Bellas Artes. The street is all shops, cafés, with some historic buildings.
Calle Madero, with Torre Latinoamericana in the background:
A church at Calle Madera:
An elegant, slightly leaning church Iglesia La Profesa is located at Calle Isabella La Catolica near Calle Madera intersection:
While at Calle Isabella La Catolica you may want to check out the lobby of Hotel Downtown. Not only it hosts a couple of good restaurants, but it also features a rooftop bar with nice urban views:
Torre Latinoamericana is a 188m, almost 600ft tall tower at the intersection of Avenida Juárez and Calle Madera. It was built in 1956 and survived the 1985 earthquake with no damage.
The restaurant and bar at the top floor of the Tower are worth visiting for the views. This is the view from the northwest corner of the Tower onto the park of Alameda Central and Palacio de Bellas Artes (bottom center):
Palacio de Bellas Artes
The Palacio de Bellas Artes, built in 1904-1934, is a very noticeable building located across the street from Torre Latinoamericana and next to the Alameda Central Park. The building is built in the fin de siècle / art deco style that was in vogue in the early 20-th century, and it reminds of a Byzantine Church, a mosque, a theater and a museum at the same time. And it actually does function as a theater and a museum. In addition to various art shows it hosts a impressive permanent collection of murals by Rivera, Siqueiros and other famous artists. It has an elegant concert hall that is worth visiting by itself.
The interior of the Palacio:
Visitors in front of a mural by Diego Rivera at the Palacio de Bellas Artes:
The Theatre at the Palacio is large and elegant enough to stage grand performances and operas:
Even the restroom looks like a museum, with its fin de siècle urinals:
Palacio de Correos
Palacio de Correos, or the Main Post Office, is located across the street from Palacio de Bellas Artes. It was originally built in 1907 and significantly restored after the 1985 earthquake. It has a stylish 1900-s interior that was featured as Sanchez’ bank in the James Bond movie License to Kill. It still functions as a post office – you can mail a postcard from there.
Coyoacán is a municipal area about 10km to the south of the city center that consists of several neighborhoods. Some of the its neighborhoods are very upscale, and many have distinct historic charm, with cozy parks, many good restaurants shops and museums.
We went there mainly for the museums of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Trotsky. Unfortunately the line at the Frida’s museum was enormous and we decided against waiting for a few hours, and moved on. Next time we’ll get the tickets online in advance to avoid the line.
La Casa Azul (The Blue House) – the museum and former house of Frida Kahlo:
We then proceeded on foot to the house and museum of Leon Trotsky.Trotsky lived there for the few last years of his life until his assassination in 1940. He was friends with Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo (the rumors say more than friends with the latter). More about Trotsky’s museum in a separate post .
Trotsky’s museum was easy to find:
Trotsky’s office – the way it was at the day the guy was assassinated:
As for the house and museum of Frida’s husband Diego Rivera (nearby in Coyoacán), it was not crowded at all and it was definitely worth a visit. It was aggressively modernistic for its time. It consists of two separate narrow 3-story structures, one for Diego and another for Frida, connected by a walkway at the roof level. There are quite a few of Diego’s drawings, his collection of huge painted dolls, multiple photographs of Diego and his entourage, and lots of his personal items and housewares. It is covered in more details in my other post on Diego Rivera.
Diego Rivera’s house – a view from the street:
Another site worth visiting in Coyoacán is Parroquia San Juan Bautista – a Franciscan monastery and a church:
And there is a nice park across the street from it where one can find some shade on a hot day:
There are quite a few restaurants and food stores in the neighborhood:
Coyoacán is also home of the Ciudad Universitaria – the Campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The architecture and the art on the campus are typical for the 1950s. Some of the buildings are decorated with murals by David Alfaro Siqueiros:
The Olympic Stadium at the Ciudad Universitaria was build in 1952 and hosted the 1955 Pan American Games and the 1968 Olympics.
The Museum of Anthropology
The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is arguably one of the best and largest in the world. It is located in the Paseo del la Reforma area. It’s exhibits cover the pre-Columbian history of Mexico and Mesoamerica, including the heritage of Aztec and Maya people.
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a National Shrine of Mexico and the second most visited pilgrimage site after St. Paul’s in Vatican. Basilica consists of two buildings, the original one that is quite beautiful but is leaning pretty badly due to sinking soil, and the new modern looking building in the shape of a circular tent. It is the new one that the crowds of pilgrims are directed to. It was build on the site where according to the story the image of Mary appeared before a local peasant. It is located in the north of the city, next to the former site of the temple of Tonantzin (a mother goddess of pre-Colombian people), which was destroyed during the Spanish conquest.
Below: the original basilica. When viewed from the front it does not look tilted at all. Note the leaning chapel on the right:
The new basilica is where the services and the worship are now held, since the old one is considered unsafe due to the sinking soil:
This concludes our story about Mexico City. Thank you for staying with us so far!