The Plaza Mayor or Zócalo of Mexico City (in the Centro Historico). Photo by Uwebart.
The Metropolitan Cathedral is on the left (north side), Palacio Nacional in the background (east side) and on the south side is the city government’s Federal District Building. Zócalo mean base and 800 years ago this was the ceremonial and religious base of the Aztec Empire.
Mexico City tourism
Mexico DF (Distrito Federal) offers the adventurous tourist a bizarre combination of macabre ancient sights surrounded by increasingly shiny modernism, brilliant museums and superb drinks and food at low prices. (toasted roaches anyone? ). On the other hand the city is crowded and polluted in addition to being being 2, 200m above sea level so oxygen is in short supply.
Travelers to Mexico do need to see the city and its sights, but not for long, it is not the best perspective from which to view this colourful and fascinating country.
History of Mexico City
Mexico City was called Tenochtitlan before the Spanish destroyed it in 1521, led by Hernán Cortés. It was created by the Aztecs in 1325, a group of outcasts from a northern tribe who were banished from the north for their belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice.
Tenochtitlan was huge, the capital of the Aztec empire and rich, with a population of over 100, 000 and many spectacular buildings. Cortés, understanding the importance of the city rebuilt it as the Spanish capital of Mexico City, replacing the Aztec ceremonial center with the Plaza Mayor, the main square.
A model and picture of Tenochtitlan in Aztec times in the excellent Museum of Anthropology. Photo by Luidger.
Human sacrifices in Mexico City (not recently!)
Human sacrifice as practiced by the Aztecs and Maya generally involved captured enemies and was a respectable, even honourable way to die so when prisoners were in short supply or gods required someone specific local volunteers were used, sometimes drugged, sometimes not. More information
The Maya people further south in what is now the state of Yucatan and neighbouring country Guatemala also thought it essential to take human life to placate or encourage various gods.
The illustrated history of Mexico via Diego Rivera’s murals at Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional are a stunning and horribly descriptive work of art and make you wish the Aztecs had managed to sacrifice a few more Conquistadors.
An Aztec calendar seen on the Sun Stone in the same National Anthropology Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropología). Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
Mexico City main attractions
A shaman working his magic on a local in the Centro Historico.
• Free! Centro Historico (Historic Center) is a mass of things to see and do: street performers, shops, restaurants, hotels, bars, pedestrian streets, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Templo Mayor excavations and museum, plus outdoor ice skating and tobogganing in winter season! Unsurprisingly the core Zocalo plaza gets very crowded!
• The National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropologia) One of the best museums in the world for content and layout. Artifacts and displays from the Origins of Man to all the cultures that have called Mexico home. Spotless and extremely up to date. Clear videos and explanations, subtitled/with English explanations. Plan to spend quite a long time there and visit before going to Teotihuacan, it’ll enrich your visit.
• Free! Diego Rivera mural in the Secretaria de Educacion Publica displays three floors of brilliant Diego Rivera murals painted between 1923 and 1928. All the paintings are outdoors in a spectacular courtyard. If the Palacio National is closed due to security problems this is a perfect compromise.
Chapultepec Lake with Polanco office buildings in the background. Photo by Kenrou II.
• Chapultepec Castle in Bosque de Chapultepec. Chapultepec park is a first class urban park (free! ) and the Castillo is on the top overlooking Mexico City. Tourists can walk up or take a trolley. The grounds are stunning and perfectly manicured while the interior artwork, artifacts, rooms and decor are superb, tho’ much information is exclusively in Spanish.
Fine Arts Museum
The Fine Arts Museum. Photo by Diego Delso.
• Palacio de Bellas in Alameda Park is a theatre/orchestra hall with two museums – the Bellas Artes Museum and the Architecture Museum. It’s also an art deco masterpiece housing some of Diego Riviera’s best murals in a setting that can’t be beat.
Wall of Skulls of the Templo Mayor, the centre of the universe. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
• Museo del Templo Mayor in the Centro Histórico. There aren’t many cities where the ruins of an 800 year old civilisation are buried in the city center, but Mexico City is one of them, the ruins discovered by chance in 1978. Excavations of these ancient ruins just 250m from the zócalo and the Metropolitan Cathedral led to many findings such as this Wall of Skulls of the Templo Mayor (Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan). This is considered to have been the most important building in Tenochtitlan and the centre of the universe.
The Museo Templo Mayor here is dedicated to the Aztecs, displaying many objects recovered at this site and others, along with interesting information on life in Tenochtitlan 700 years ago. The entrance to the site is near the Zocalo.
The well designed museum has everything in both Spanish and English except on the ground floor so don’t leave because you think there is no English information. There are guides for hire who will give you a personal tour but there is no need to pay as there are informative panels along the trails of the ruins.
The walking tour progresses logically through the remnants of the temple and there is a chilling feeling when you confront the stone on which there were hundreds of of human sacrifices.
Museo Soumaya in Plaza Carso. Photo by Raystormxc.
• Free! Museo Soumaya Plaza Carso displays a huge art collection belonging to Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man. Items range from religious relics, historical documents and coin collections to some of the best known paintings and sculptures of European artists between the 15th – 20th centuries. There is another Museo Soumaya Plaza Loreta, older but with similar offerings. It’s also free.
• Visit Coyoacan historic district that retains the original narrow street layout and plazas dating from the 16th to the early 20th centuries.
• Wrestling at Arena Mexico, Lucho Libre! For something completely different try comedy/pantomime masked wrestling, a very local experience with lots of audience participation – including dressing up in wrestler costumes – and good laughs. Shows start about 7. 30m and last two hours. The area’s a little rough so perhaps arrange a taxi collection for the end. Tour groups go there but their mark up is ridiculous so go on your own without hesitation if you speak a little Spanish. Seats are cheap so go for the best to get a really good view. Check the tickets are correct and payment change too, before leaving the disturbingly reflective window.
The main altar of the Centro Historico Metropolitan Cathedral, lavishly embellished with Aztec gold. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
Try superb cuisine in one of many great colonial-style restaurants. This one is Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles). Photo by Diego Delso.
Mexico City Weather
Mexico DF is at its very best March – May but in theory OK year round as the tropical latitude is buffered by the altitude. We went to Mexico/Oaxaca for the Days of the Dead festival (end of October-ish) and the weather was fine but there was quite a lot of flotsam thrown up onto Maya Riviera beaches, some clouds about and fairly rough seas as they’d just come out of the storm season. Pollution in Mexico CF was acceptable, blowing in the wind.
Rain/temperature is not the big issue in DF, it’s the pollution exacerbated by too many poorly maintained vehicles and location in a geological bowl with high-altitude low-oxygen rock walls, at least 2, 000m above sea level. Pollution is worse in winter.
The canals and islands of Xochimilco. Photo by Jim.
Trajineras take tourists for pole-boat rides around the canals and gardens of Xochimilco, south of the city where weird baby islands seem to be a creepy fashion. Other boats sell snacks and beers while Mariachi bands serenade tourist boats or the occasional wedding party. It’s all a bit odd. Probably best visited in a group with the intention of having quite a few drinks.
For families or young thrill-seekers Six Flags Mexico theme park is just south of Mexico City, a massive US-owned operation with plenty of wild rides, water features, glitzy shows.