It’s possible that everything you’ve been told about Mexico City is wrong. No longer a place to be afraid of or consumed by, Mexico City is a pulsating burst of colour, taste and incredible architecture…and it feels entirely SAFE. And don’t let that huge number of a 22 million population put you off; it’s spread out over a vast area, rarely will you encounter a crowd and the people are very friendly. Here’s my experience of 7 days in Mexico City in December and my Mexico City top things to see and do. Polanco is a perfect base; safe, quiet, lots of places to eat, walking distance to the main park and only a short taxi ride from the centre (known as Centro and Zocalo).
Day 1 – Monday. We arrived on Christmas Eve late afternoon to warm days in the low 20s with blue sky. We checked in to El Presidente Hotel in the upmarket Polanco district where our standard room on the 29th floor had a picture window with great views.
On a local friend’s advice, we headed to eat taco al pastor at El Tizconcito on Av. Tamaulipas 122 in La Condesa neighbourhood. Very popular with locals, this is the original branch now part of a chain with the claim of inventing al Pastor tacos. We sat at outdoor tables and ordered from an extensive menu in our appalling Spanish. The al pastor with everything on it was delicious.
The staff, humoured by this English visitor attempting greetings of ‘Feliz Navidad’, persuaded me to don a work cap and apron, pose with a huge carving knife as if to serve the pastor and offer free hilarity to the local diners. Happy to oblige I know the best way to enjoy a country is with a well developed sense of humour.
Day 2- Tuesday. Christmas Day! After a lazy breakfast from an impressive hotel buffet setup, we ventured out. Whilst much maligned in many cities, here Uber is a gift to the tourist looking to traverse this vast city easily, cheaply and unhindered by fraught situations with reputed opportunistic taxi drivers. There is a clean and efficient City Metro but with such low prices and the added bonus of being given local knowledge from the drivers, we opted for an easier 7 days to explore.
First to see the jaw dropping 1908 Tiffany stained glass ceiling of the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México. Originally built in 1899 it revels in its French art nouveau style and its star status. The front of the building and the elevators featured in 2 James Bond movies License To Kill and Spectre. The incredible lifts (elevators) are only available for the use of hotel guests, their ornate wrought ironwork climbing through layers of elaborately curved gilded balconies whilst red velvet couches and giant gilded birdcages complete a decadent fantasy in the hotel lobby.
The hotel is near to the Zocalo or historic centre of Mexico City where we were expecting very little to be happening on Christmas Day morning, but the main square Plaza de la Constitucion was buzzing with foreign and visiting Mexican tourists.
The square is dominated on one side by the catchily named Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heavens; the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico…or in Spanish Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos. It is the largest and oldest cathedral in Latin America.
Built in sections from 1573 to 1813, at 109 metres long by 59 metres wide it is an imposing building situated atop the former Aztec sacred precinct near the Templo Mayor on the northern side of the Plaza de la Constitución.
It features two bell towers with 25 bells, the largest weighing 13,000 kilos, and a tabernacle next door which serves as a baptistery. The cavernous space inside showcases two towering ornately gilded carved altars; The Altar of Forgiveness and The Altar of Kings. The 2 organs date to the 18th century, there are 16 chapels and a crypt under the cathedral holds the remains of former archbishops.
Huge Christmas decorations hung suspended between the buildings around the square and the Torre Latino (Latin American Tower), 669 feet to the tip, rises in the distance downtown. If skyscrapers are your thing, for an entrance fee you can go to the tower’s observation deck. Here’s the official website http://torrelatinoamericana.com.mx
After a wander around the Museo Nacional de las Culturas (most places are closed on Christmas Day, this was open) where there was an interesting room showing the different attitudes towards death in different cultures including burial methods we walked through some of the streets leading off the main plaza. Through people setting up wares to sell on the cobbled street, past large groups of Mexico City police grouped nonchalantly around their pick up vehicles… we crossed back in to the main square where groups of people were gathering for ‘smudging’ or limpia ceremonies. A Native American and indigenous custom wherein plants/herbs are lightly rubbed over the person whilst a bowl of smouldering herbs/coals is blown or wafted around the person in a cleansing smoke bath used to purify the body, energy and aura. Some were done in silence whilst others we watched were accompanied by a shamanistic style chanting ritual.
Groups of men in the square deftly assembled long feathered headdresses, many decorated further with fake miniature human skulls, small animal skulls, and in the case of one a small dried leathery crocodile head.
Expecting tips for photographs, these are the Aztec dancers who wear loincloths and heavy shell ankle brackets performing the Aztec mitote whilst engulfed by bowls of smoke and chanting in Nahuatl. These days the ceremony is performed more for the tourist and tips than for any local tradition. Don’t take photos without tipping them, this is their livelihood.
We walked a few blocks to The House of Tiles (Casa de los Azulejos) on Av Francisco I, Madero 4. An 18th century palace built by the Count de Valle de Orizaba family. Three sides of the building are covered with the blue and white tile of Puebla state. It was bought by American brothers, the Sanborns who ran a chain soda fountain/drugstore business and today the building houses their flagship restaurant and some retail counters.
We entered through the less elaborate but still atmospheric cafe where solitary older men sat up at curved counter spaces decorated with Mexican Christmas decorations.
An older couple seated to one side in a booth encouraged us to walk further through the building past the retail counters and opening in to a fantastic columned dining space. Built like an internal courtyard one large wall is painted with a peacock mural by Romanian artist Pacologue in 1919, whilst different floors with courtyard style railings lead upwards to a glass roof. A huge Mexican Christmas decoration hung down from the roof above the diners below and an early mural painted in 1925 by Jose Clemente Orozco is on the main stairway. The restaurant was buzzing with people enjoying a late breakfast or early Christmas lunch.
We had a reservation for 2pm back at our hotel in the French restaurant Au Pied de Cochon, where Dave had eaten on a previous work trip (apparently Julio Iglesias’s favourite restaurant in the city). Furnished and decorated like an old style Parisian restaurant in red, gold and dark wood, it was a great space to enjoy on Christmas Day. It filled with well to do Mexican families; middle-aged husband and wives escorting elderly parents to Christmas lunch and younger conservatively dressed groups in jackets and scarves.
We ate a decadent lunch of 3 courses, with wine and cocktails, coffee to finish, indulgent silver service carried out by friendly efficient waiters. Unusually for Christmas Day the prices hadn’t been inflated. The food was delicious, the service attentive and it was a great treat. By the time we left around 4.30pm, the place was packed out and we were stuffed and ready to pass out in our room. Quite a typical Christmas Day by English standards; all we were missing was bad TV programming and the Queen’s speech.
Day 3- Wednesday. Started the day at the Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropologia) located in the Bosque De Chapultepec between Paseo de la Reforma and Mahatma Gandhi Street. A huge space contemporary in design and rated as the largest and most visited museum in Mexico. Packed with artifacts from the pre-Columbian era of Mexico’s heritage, the main draw is the Stone of the Sun, seen above with the people walking below it (Aztec Calendar Stone). The museum was designed in 1964 by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares Alcerreca. After the ticket desks the space opens out into a large central courtyard with a long pond surrounded by green planting with its central feature, a huge concrete umbrella style pillar fountain. Water cascades from the edges of the top of the ‘umbrella’ and falls down the sides of the central carved pillar.
Along with the layout, choice of structural materials and general aesthetic of the entire building, this is one of the most impressive looking museums I have ever visited. The artifacts inside are wonderfully displayed and cleverly lit creating an engaging experience for visitors. Several halls represent different ages of Mexico’s history.
Their website is equally impressive http://www.mna.inah.gob.mx Worth buying tickets in advance at busy times.Wandered across the park of Bosque De Chapultepec to the Museo Rufino Tamayo, a contemporary art museum which showcased a few select artists. It was interesting but it really depends on which artists they are showing at your time of visiting.
The Restaurant Tamayo on site however is fabulous. Based along the walkway from the art and beyond the shop, it overlooks the park with outdoor and indoor seating. We only wanted a snack and the tacos of cured pork carnitas with ingredients pineapple gel, guacamole, morita Chile gel, watermelon radish, pork rind, purple onion and coriander sprouts were adventurous and delicious. At 1,695 acres, Bosque De Chapultepec is a huge park. Walking distance from our hotel it is home to Chapultepec Castle (inside which is the Museum of Natural History), the Museum of Anthropology, Rufino Tamayo Museum and restaurant and the Modern Art Museum. I think there is also a zoo but we didn’t get time to check it out. These attractions are located in one area with lakes and large areas of trees taking up most of the rest of the park. At the main entrance to the Museum of Modern Art is the Altar a la Patria. Leading across the plaza from this, you reach the Paseo de la Reforma; a grand boulevard of fountains and monuments.I’m a huge art fan which my husband also enjoys, so we visited the Museo de Arte Moderno which houses a large collection of Mexican artists including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, Tamayo, Orozco and some amazing photographs by one of my favourites Graciela Iturbide. There were several temporary exhibitions including one featuring the surreal fairytale like works by Spanish artist Remedios Varo.
A walk back to our hotel through the park led us through a huge street market aimed mainly at Mexican tourists. Lined on both sides with stalls selling T-shirts, giant bags of candy floss, cheap plastic toys and food, it was packed with families and children; the atmosphere of a fair without the rides but with a clown throwing balloon animals out for shrieking groups of kids who’d run after them. I bought a bendy monkey designed to sit on top of a child’s head attached to a simple water syphon which when squeezed shoots water out of the tail at unsuspecting passers-by. I’m sure my niece will torment enough people with it before it falls to pieces. Whilst taking a photo of local kids…in turn having their photo taken with a giant soft toy set up…suddenly the giant panda on the far right leapt up to confront me to pay a tip. Believing the panda to be a giant stuffed toy, I got the most surreal fright of my life when it lunged towards me….paw extended!Sat outside a small restaurant for a bite to eat before calling it a day. It’s warm during the day but as soon as the sun starts going down it cools off quickly.
Day 4 – Thursday. The popularity of Frida Kahlo has spread further through social media and this is where we learned that we should have booked in advance. Arrived around 10.30am to the Frida Kahlo house in Coyoacán approx a 30 minute cab ride outside the city, to packed lines of hundreds of people and were warned that it was over a 5 hour wait. Online booking was sold out until the end of January so with a heavy heart we walked away to make the most of everything else.
So we wandered a few minutes down the road to the fantastic Mercado (market). Crammed full literally to the rafters of everything Mexican from incredible food and condiments, to woven baskets, sweets, shoes, hundreds of huge piñatas; it was an explosion of colour and activity. Loads of places to eat around counters laid out with tubs of chopped ingredients. Handicrafts from different regions from day of the dead style skulls and dioramas to woven necklaces, baskets, shoes and intricately carved black stone candle holders. Walking the streets of Coyoacán revealed street side vendors, cafes, taco stalls, plazas and genteel garden squares. It was worth the drive here for the market and the neighbourhood.
We took a cab to the Luis Barrago house and studio. We couldn’t get in because we hadn’t realised that the timed entrance slots were by advance reservation only. Their website wasn’t clear and the door staff weren’t entirely clear so after hanging around with several other people for 15 minutes we jumped in to another cab and headed instead to the Zócalo to the Diego Rivera Mural Museum. After two disappointments this was a highlight. It is home to a very famous Rivera mural called ‘Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park’ (1947), which incredibly has been moved twice since it was painted. Considering that it’s painted on to brick this was a huge undertaking. The mural was marked by controversy and a section of it covered for several years to prevent viewing as Rivera had depicted Ignacio Ramirez holding a document that read ‘God does not exist’ and refused to edit the artwork. After many years and a diagnosis of cancer Rivera relented and changed the script so that his work could finally be viewed in full as intended. The first time it was moved was because it was originally in the dining room of the once elegant Hotel de Prado which only wealthy privileged Mexicans could access. After a campaign by Rivera’s daughter and the realisation of the restaurant that the weight of the mural was weighing down structural aspects of the building, it was moved from the restaurant to the lobby. An earthquake in 1985 caused massive damage to most of the building…. except remarkably…the lobby. Arrangements were made to move the mural using huge support steels and by building a rail track to relocate it only one block away, in a space that was gradually built in to a museum around it.
From inspiring art with a great background story to the jaw dropping architecture of the main post office, The Palacio de Correos de México which is located at C. Tacuba 1, Cuauhtémoc, Centro, 06000. Definitely take the time to drop in here whilst wandering around the historical centre, I bought stamps from a beautiful marble and iron work counter.
It is across the road from the stunning Palacio de Bellas Artes with its startling roof made of crystal designed by Hungarian Géza Maróti . On to the Secretaria de educacion publica at Calle Republica de Argentina 28 to walk around another stunning building, home to the offices of education but open to the public to view the many (apparently 235) Rivera murals on 3 levels and a beautiful Sequirios mural in the staircase of the main entrance.
We saw only two other tourists here and no entrance fee as it’s a public office building. Quite amazing to see such a huge quantity of Rivera’s work adorning the walls between the wooden doors to the separate offices.
Photo of the day. I went to tip them after taking their photo…only to realise they were mounted police officers! They politely refused the money.A walk around the streets in this area reveals some fabulous Deco shop signage, tree lined streets, churches hidden down steps in flag stoned courtyards and some extremely inventive ‘living statues’ who I usually avoid but these guys had created a brilliantly clever 1910 themed tableau.
We missed out on Frida’s house but karma called when it turned out that one of my all time favourite photographers Graciela Iturbide (Mexican) has a huge exhibition at the Palace of Iturbide at Av Francisco I. Madero 17, Centro Histórico. Free entry. For 50 years Iturbide has been photographing the soul of Mexico; its desert landscapes, rituals, poverty and many strong native women have stared brazenly in to her lens. I especially love the contact sheet accompanying the famous Iguana lady photograph. A wonderful photographer. After an odd start to the day…it turned out pretty amazing.
Day 5 – Friday. Opting for a less hectic day and footsore from museums we spent the day wandering the leafy streets of La Condesa and the slightly more gritty Roma neighbourhoods which it leads in to. A cab ride to La Condesa first where after a brief stop for Churros we walked the streets, gawping at the buildings.
There are a few small boutique style shops around, not many…several cafes and restaurants (most places open after 11am)…but come here for the peaceful streets, the architecture, the trees and Parque Mexico. And look out for the dog trainers in the park…up to 15-20 dogs all behaving impeccably. It was impressive.
And of course the colour, everywhere in Mexico those gorgeous colours which for me can only be rivalled by India.
I’d recently seen the film ‘Roma’ and knew that it was filmed close by in the Roma neighbourhood. As I was standing outside the house where the fictional characters of the film live in 1970s Mexico City, the owner came out to talk with us and gave me a promotional Netflix booklet with a reproduction map of Mexico City in the 70’s. Such a generous lady, it was a shame we couldn’t really talk because I didn’t speak Spanish but I did learn from her that she enjoys people seeking out the location and meeting folks from all over the world due to the film. They changed the window shape in the film and the area above the garage entrance.
Day 6 – Saturday. A highlight of our trip; we started at the colourful Museo de Arte Popular at Revillagigedo 11, Colonia Centro, Centro, 06050, close to the Diego Rivera Mural Museum. There was a small entrance fee (check the days of opening and hours before your visit) and come early as there was hardly anyone here. Absolutely fabulous place, we were here for a couple of hours. Crammed with traditional Mexican artists crafts. Huchinol beadwork, extraordinary masks, giant puppets and the clay Trees of Life.
At the entrance is a VW Golf beetle completely covered in beads…allegedly 2,277,000 of them, 90kg of beads. It took several artists a year to complete. This is the traditional Huichole beadcraft of Mexico. Wouldn’t you love to drive around in this!
The entrance opens into an interior courtyard which when we visited was full of huge fantastic creatures (alebrijes) used for parades. I think they were made from a mixture of papier-mâché and wood.
This place is a playground for anyone in to crafts and bright colours. Delicately painted hand carved alebrijes (mythical and fantasy creatures) by the artists Jacobo y Maria Angeles who we visited 10 years ago at their San Martin Tilcajete studios in Oaxaca. Papier-mâché, ceramics, toys, dioramas, wood carvings, textiles…so much great stuff spread over three floors. Children will love it. We walked around beaming from ear to ear, it’s so colourful and full of wonder that you can’t help but leave it feeling happy and inspired to run home and make things.
Among my favourites was this installation wall of simple clay plates by artists from San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca. The stone jaguar seen above by Jesus Reyes, San Salvador el Seco, Puebla and a beautiful carved and polished wooden cicada which I regret not making a note of the artist’s name.
It’s hard to pick a favourite museum in Mexico City and we weren’t going to have time to visit them all…but this place was absolutely one of our favourite places.
We walked to the Monument of Revolution, the sky was a brilliant blue and the colours from street vendor’s stalls, snack food carts, the huge palm trees and a giant modern sculpture took on a wonderful vibrancy.
The area round the monument was busy with people enjoying their Christmas holiday. There was a large roller skating rink set up crowded with locals, the museum of revolution runs underneath the monument, lots of other activities taking place and a glass elevator that takes you to the top of the monument if you don’t have the energy for the 300 steps.
We had done so much Mexico City sightseeing by now that we chose to sit back and bask in the sun to people watch. Young people posing whilst playing Mexican hiphop through a portable loudspeaker, street dogs playing together and cooling off in the ornamental pools, then running over wagging tails at the homeless youngsters crammed together in tents against the lower walls. We haven’t seen anywhere near as many homeless people here as in New York. The atmosphere was laid back and fun but we pulled ourselves away to head back to Polanco in a cab.
Polanco is ritzy. We don’t have a preference for ritzy areas but were advised by Mexican friends that Polanco is well located for everything, is a very safe place to stay with loads of bars and restaurants and easy to walk around at night. It’s extremely high end with expensive apartment buildings and some stunning architectural gems that are private residences. Designers like Dior and Burberry moved in to the area and there are a couple of malls; one styled like a sloping pyramid catering to the very wealthy (more top end designer labels) and the other featuring Zara and other high street brands.
We went to the well known book shop called El Pendulo (they have other locations in the city but this apparently is the best one) and browsed for a while, they stock plenty of English language books as well as Spanish…. then wandered outside around the streets under beautiful palms and lushly planted sidewalks.There is a park with a pond alongside and a handful of market stalls selling Mexican handicrafts and piñatas, beautiful long chains of woven grasses which would look great hanging in bunches on a wall. Wealthy locals walked their designer dogs and the restaurants and cafes were packed with people. We met a family with two giant poodles, one black one white….groomed and manicured. They insisted on taking my photo with the dogs… who posed so perfectly it was rather unnerving. Back to the El Pendulo book shop which had a cafe with outdoor seating where we ate ceviche and tortillas. It was okay, the bookshop is far better than their cafe.
Day 7 Sunday. Our last day and a late afternoon flight with Jet Blue. We had a lie in, lazy breakfast and wandered again around the local Polanco neighbourhood. Saw more colourful buildings and sat in the park in the sun.
We were going to head to another museum but we didn’t want to rush on our last day. Instead we enjoyed the warmth, the sun and all those sudden surprising pops of colour that is Mexico City. A truly fabulous place…I definitely plan to come back.
I’ve compiled a list of Top 20 things to do in Mexico City below, even though I didn’t manage to go to all of these it gives you an idea by area of a lot of the main sights. There are so many other places such as The Soumaya Museum, National Museum of Art and one I really will go back for…The Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros which looks fascinating.
The origins of the famous Posada ‘La Catrina’ skeleton image recognised worldwide. https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/the-most-recognizable-symbol-of-dia-de-muertos-started-as-political-satire/
Alebrije handpainted mythical fantasty figures: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alebrije
Mexican Photographer Graciela Iturbide; see more images here: http://www.gracielaiturbide.org/en
Diego Rivera life and art: https://www.diegorivera.org/
Frida Kahlo biography and work: https://www.fridakahlo.org/frida-kahlo-biography.jsp
‘Frida’ the movie starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina is really worth watching before going to Mexico City: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOUzQYqba4Y
More information about traditional Mexican handcrafts such as Huichol and talavera: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_handcrafts_and_folk_art
Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations: https://mymodernmet.com/dia-de-los-muertos-day-of-the-dead