Despite this city's enticing concoction of brighter-than-life colours, strong flavours, and the jigsaw of its cultural heritage as reflected in the look of the city today, there used to be a few reasons people didn't take city breaks in Mexico City. In 2009 it was swine flu, but before that it was the pollution and crime that put people off, but just like the swine flu epidemic, those problems have seemed to sort themselves out, so it's time to re-consider the perfect Mexico City break.
Your arrival here may be heady, but it's more likely to be from the altitude - this is North America's highest city - than the pollution. And you're more than likely going to fuel that light-headedness with some tequila, taken in a the kind of stately old cantina that will make you feel like it would be rude not to. Once balance has been regained you may be thrown off again strolling round the city when you notice the ruins of great Aztec temples and palaces just poking out from between grand colonial dames of buildings. This city is now proud of both its pre and post colonial heritages and they seem to be reconciled in the bright art and the lively markets, so that you get the best of all worlds.
Scenes from the bright, bold murals on display in many public buildings can be found on the streets, both enacted in real life and for sale, and whether you eat at one of the best restaurants in town or dine on street food you're still going to be assaulted by a hundred wonderful spices and flavours.
Mexico City's hub is the Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución), a vast expanse of public space paved using stone from the Aztec palaces and temples that once stood on this spot. It should also be the first place you visit. The name of the square means plinth, referring to the empty plinth in the middle of the square, on which there was supposed to be a monument to independence: only the government never got around to erecting it. Instead there's the massive Mexican flag flying, which is ceremoniously taken down every evening by the Presidential Guard.
The unique looking cathedral at the square's north end, is the Metropolitan Cathedral – the weight of so many architectural styles on it is because it was built on soft ground - once an Aztec sacred site – and it's almost continuously being worked on to prevent it subsiding. Along the eastern edge of the square runs Mexico's National Palace, or Presidential Palace. The middle entrance is the one for visitors, which leads to the main patio, which is where you can see the vast triptych mural by Diego Rivera titled “The Epic of the Mexican People”, which tells the story of Mexico between 1521 and 1930. More of Diego's art can be seen on the Palace's first floor, where there are another eleven panels. The Grand Courtyard, which is below the central entrance, is also open to the public and worth visiting, because from here you get a good idea of the scale of the whole building. The history of the building is also well worth looking in to if you enjoyed the taster of the triptych.
Along another edge of the Zócalo is the remains of the Templo Mayor, which was the main temple of the Aztec nation. The temple was dedicated to two gods: Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain, and this double dedication explains the way the temple is shaped – like two pyramids built very close to each other, with separate staircases up to the shrines at the top. When they were constructed, in around 1330, they were approximately 80m high.
The bad news is that it was partly destroyed by the Spanish in 1521, and now exists as an archaeological site and museum, but a very thorough one. Because the Aztecs did their building improvements on top of the previous building, six other temples have been uncovered under the remains of the first, and parts of the excavation are on display as well as more than 7000 artefacts.
Fitting these four sights in is an impressive effort, so you should probably congratulate yourself with a few tequilas and some real Mexican food. Remember, in Mexico the main meal is generally had between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, so the evening meal happens from around 9pm and is usually lighter – maybe even just a desert course and some coffee or drinks?
One of the best places to spend your evenings is the Zona Rosa, which is Mexico City's nightlife hub. Its bars and restaurants cram out of pink tiled streets named after international cites. This is the perfect place to people watch between meals, or even after dinner – just choose a chic looking pavement cafe and keep the drink orders trickling though and you have yourself an excellent evenings worth of entertainment. The Independence Monument (El Ángel de la Independencia) is in this neighbourhood as well.
Today is a day for art and life. Head over to San Ángel, one of Mexico City's oldest and prettiest neighbourhoods – until the 1950s it was a separate town with firmer, more farming friendly soils than that of Mexico City proper. Which is why it had an orchard and textile mills, and why the wealthier families wanted to build graceful homes there on cobbled streets lined with other graceful homes grown over with multi-coloured bougainvillea. These days it's still a very exclusive part of town, but still just as colourful as well.
The Saturday craft market in the Plaza San Jacinto is known for quality art and pottery as well as all sorts of handicrafts, and the restaurants that line the square are some of the city's best. The thing to remember at this market is that inside the bazaar building are the permanent stores with the higher quality purchases and outside are the bargains – after that go with what you like from a good selection of art, pottery and crafts, blown glass, figurines and embroidered clothing.
Visitors might have clocked this neighbourhood because it's where the Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera Studio and Museum is, in the house they once shared.
Spend your Saturday afternoon relaxing in the nearby 'Floating gardens' of Xochimilco. These farm lined canals have now been around for about 700 years but they still look, and work, in a very similar way to how they did in Aztec times. Rent a trajinera, which is a sort of very colourful flat bottomed gondola, coming complete with gondolier, to take you for a cruise along the canals that both line and feed the gardens. Instead of the operatic tones of Venice, it's likely you'll be confronted with the lively music of a mariachi band punting by on another boat. Boat based vendors will try to sell you some refreshments and on most days it's a pretty festive atmosphere – especially at the weekend.
Sunday is a good day for mercado, or market shoppingSome of your options are Tepoztlan: for chillies of all kinds, La Lagunilla: which has been around for about 500 years and is known for unique souvenirs, including old coins and paintings - you can also find all sorts of 20th Century treasures, including magazines, clothes, books, toys, furniture etc. al. Or La Merced, which is one of the busiest places in Mexico City, the place to pick up your Mexican produce, and an excellent place to try antojitos: street food in taster sizes.
After the crazy push of the morning take a Sunday afternoon stroll over to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). This building was intended to be Mexico's national theatre, an Art Nouveau masterpiece. Now it's an art gallery, home to some of Mexico's most wonderful murals, and a concert hall, so it retains some of its theatrical pedigree. The Ballet Folklorico de Mexico perform traditional pre-Hispanic dance performances here most Wednesdays and Sundays so you should get a chance to see them perform.
If you prefer a different kind of dancing there are bullfights in the Plaza México most Sunday afternoons, charreadas or Mexican rodeos at Rancho del Charro in Chapultepec Park, most Sundays at around noon, or Sunday Lucha Libra wrestling matches you could attend downtown.
About an hours drive from Mexico City is Teotihuacán, one of the great ancient sites of the Americas, a whole ruined city, which at its height, would have had between 60,000 and 80,000 inhabitants. Excavations at the 83 square km site have been going on since 1917 and several interesting constructions have been unearthed as well as a wealth of material from every day life in Teotihuacan.
The most striking architectural structure of Teotihuacan is the towering Pyramid of the Sun: a man-made sacred mountain. From atop this pyramid - whose base is nearly equal in size to the Great Pyramid of Egypt - numerous other pyramids may be seen along the ‘Avenue of the Dead’.
On the way back to Mexico City drop in on the shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe - the most visited shrine or religious site in Latin America. It's so popular that there are now two buildings on the spot - the earlier one is baroque, and was built between the 16th and 18th centuries, and is rather beautiful. The story behind the shrine is that a poor Indian from Tepeyac was visited by an angel who revealed herself to be the mother of God, and instructed him to build a place of worship on the site – her image appeared miraculously on his cloak as proof for him to take to the bishop and this is the relic people are coming to see.
Tuesday morning wind your way towards Bosque de Chapultepec Park, to see its ancient forests and archaeological treasures, many of them housed in the National Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Castle. Some people visit Mexico City just to see this museum: significant exhibits include the Aztec Stone of the Sun, the mysterious giant stone heads that are relics of the Olmec civilization and rooms full of Mayan treasures. Within the park's bounds you will also find the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum, Mexico's Natural History Museum and a zoo.
If you have time, or love silver jewellery, Taxco is also worth considering as a day trip option. Taxco is where a lot of the colonial silver came from, it was mined nearby, but it's also where some of Mexico's best silversmiths have always been able to be found, so it's an excellent place to buy your Mexican silver if that's on your Mexican travel todo list. Taxco is also a very pretty colonial town – supposedly one of the prettiest in Mexico.
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