“ Ciudad de México is the capital city of Mexico. It is the most important economic, industrial and cultural center in the country, and the most populous city with 8,720,916 inhabitants in 2005. However, Greater Mexico City (Zona Metropolitana del Valle de México) extends beyond the limit of the Federal District and covers 58 municipalities of the State of Mexico and 1 municipality of the state of Hidalgo, according to the most recent definition agreed upon by the federal and state governments. In 2005 Greater Mexico City had a population of 19.2 million. „
Mexico City is a sprawling metropolis, but luckily for visitors, most things worth seeing are huddled together in distinct tourist zones. I'm going to tell you about three such zones: the historic centre, Chapultepec and Coyoacan and San Angel.
The HISTORIC CENTRE is what most people here call the down town. It's also the first stop for many visitors, as it's here you'll find the main square (Zócalo), the cathedral, the national palace and the partially excavated Templo Mayor. The latter three are all located around the edges of the former, making it a good place to start. The Zócalo metro brings you up either inside its namesake, or just across the road from it, depending on the exit you choose. In the centre of the square the Mexican flag flies proudly, and if you're ever around Monday to Friday at around 9am or 6pm, it's worth heading over to watch the massive fanfare that is its daily raising and lowering. We caught this once, accidentally, and it really was a sight to behold, complete with an obscene number of soldiers marching in perfect synchronisation, finally giving an answer to that age-old question, how many Mexican soldiers does it take to raise a single flag? Answer...100 at a conservative guess.
This square is also the base for the Turibus, the double decker bus tour that takes you round the central part of the city. The Zócalo is also the place to be for any festive celebrations throughout the year. On Independence Day in September, crowds gather to hear the president give the traditional 'gritas' from the balcony of the National Palace. For the Days of the Dead in November, it transforms into a jam packed maze of offerings and shrines. At Christmas, the whole place is taken over by a massive ice rink, which is free of charge...if you can get tickets (which can require queuing up a good 4 hours before you actually wish to skate). Every weekend you can come along and watch the traditional dances of the indigenous people (who like to wear loin cloths and prance around) and also get a 'blessing' complete with incense and smoke if that's your thing. The strangest thing about the Zócalo is that, when there's nothing special on, it's rather empty and boring. There are no pavement cafes or souvenir shops, or any of the other things you'd expect to find on the main plaza of a capital city.
Mexico City is set out on a fairly even grid pattern, using American style 'blocks' and the streets that run west of the Zócalo are home to various shops and restaurants, though not much in the way of things aimed at tourists. The main shop I know of for tourist buys (sombreros, ponchos, all the necessities) is quite a way away, bizarrely located down a small side street in the Zona Rosa (pink zone / gay village). However walk down any street towards the Alameda park and you'll happen across another must-do, the Latin American tower, which is the only place (apart from closed-to-the-public office blocks) where you can get a decent view over the city. Even on smoggy days, the view is great, and unlike many Mexican constructions, this one doesn't seem too dodgy - lifts take you up to the top, there are secure wire enclosures and so on.
Looking west from the top of the tower, you can see what looks like a tiny, dense forest in the middle of the city. It's actually just the Alameda park, a block away, and on the ground this is a much lighter, airier place than you'd imagine having seen it from above. At weekends it really comes to life, with food stands and stalls selling everything from sunglasses to tattoos, while magicians and comedians entertain. It's a nice place to walk through as it's beautifully landscaped and has pretty fountains and do on. Diego Rivera (Freda Kahlo's cheating husband) created a mural called 'Sunday afternoon at the Alameda' and you can see this in a small building to one side of the park, though I'd recommend that you too go on a Sunday since it's free on that day, and otherwise is a bit of a rip off as a museum with just one piece.
Near here you will also find the Fine Arts palace (pretty from the outside, not worth paying admission for), the city's main classical art gallery (a little better) and various other niche museums including the MIDE or Museum of the Economy which is a brand new, highly interactive set up where you can create credit cards, see money being made, look at the typical shopping basket from around the world and so on.
CHAPULTEPEC park is best accessed by metro if you're coming from the historic centre, though you could walk if you had time and energy, and the blessing of the weather gods (we're currently in the hideous rainy season). This park is huge, so it's good to have a plan before you set off walking, as you can wander for hours and not find what you're looking for. The main draws include the castle, where Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet was filmed. This is up a steep hill, which, if you don't want the exercise, can be avoided by taking the mini-train up. There are also good views from up here, worth remembering if you didn't bother going up the Latin American tower.
Back at the bottom there are a few stands and stalls every day, but dozens more appear at the weekends. Some of these include costumed creatures that you or your kids can pose for photos next to. However it is worth noting that these 'characters' are law suits waiting to happen as far as Disney is concerned, and are also something you avoid if you have delicate children, as you can often find a row of just the heads arranged on long sticks, or a half dressed Winnie the Pooh body wandering around with a scruffy man's head. If you're after a more 'authentic' experience, you can also choose to pose on plastic horses, clad in the ubiquitous sombrero and poncho a la Ugly Betty.
The park has a few restaurants but these are pricy and the food is not especially good. I would recommend taking a picnic instead, perhaps to enjoy at the side of one of the lakes. On the biggest of these you can also hire boats by the hour, which is a really fun way to enjoy the sunshine. Near the main entrance the park also boasts live entertainment on summer weekend afternoons, all free of charge. This includes a wide range of acts, from local dancing schools to magicians, acrobats and drama troupes, all with a distinctly 'Mexican' flavour - I can recall one particularly memorable show in which a team of angels competed with a team of devils for the soul of a recently deceased person, with God overseeing the action, and the audience choosing the winners.
Clustered in one area at the north east of the park, you can also find a number of museums, including two art galleries and the famed Anthropology museum. There's also botanical gardens and a large zoo, also within the park's limits. It's hard to put into words just how massive the whole park is, and you could literally spend days exploring it, but I hope from the description I've given (of just some of many attractions within it) that you'll get an idea of its enormity.
COYOACAN and SAN ANGEL are two neighbouring suburbs in the south of the city. Accessed by metro or Metrobus, they might take up to an hour to reach from the downtown, but it's well worth the trek as the atmosphere down here is distinctly different. Often compared to Paris' left bank, this part of town has an almost hippyish vibe to it, and is home to various artists and musicians. Both areas have an array of museums, reflecting on their history as bohemian places with the same kind of residents you'll find there today. You can visit Frida Kahlo's house, her studio (located quite a way from the latter), Leo Tolstoy's house and so on. There are also some fantastic markets to explore - this is the place we go to buy home furnishings with style rather than the generic, if a little cheaper, stuff you'll find in WalMart, and it's also a great location to pick up some flowers, though even if you're not buying, the flower markets are worth a visit in their own right. You can walk between the two areas, which will take about 45 minutes, but the route, through a residential area, is pleasant, crossing streams on little bridges, passing tiny churches and so on.
These are my favourite areas of the city, though there are many others worth exploring too if you have the time. You can walk to Del Vale, along Insurgentes Avenue and find, among other things, an Avon shop (the first I've ever seen on a high street), the World Trade Centre, and a plethora of bars and restaurants, leading to Parque Hundido, a medium sized park with random archaeological remains scattered throughout. You could hit Tepito, the 'wrong' part of town, but the place to go for 'interesting' markets, and all the pirate goods you could ever desire. For shopping, you could try the business district of Santa Fe's monolith mall, or an equally sizable affair at Perisur. Or you could head for La Condesa / Roma, a pair of residential neighbourhoods with many mini parks, great restaurants and stylish, witty, intelligent, opinion writing residents...
For more information:
NB: In Mexico they call suburbs 'colonia' not 'barrio' as in Spanish-Spanish. Here, the latter is used for only poorer, less desirable areas.
Ciudad de México is the capital city of Mexico. It is the most important economic, industrial and cultural center in the country, and the most populous city with 8,720,916 inhabitants in 2005. However, Greater Mexico City (Zona Metropolitana del Valle de México) extends beyond the limit of the Federal District and covers 58 municipalities of the State of Mexico and 1 municipality of the state of Hidalgo, according to the most recent definition agreed upon by the federal and state governments. In 2005 Greater Mexico City had a population of 19.2 million.