Mexico City is, and has always been, the sun in the Mexican solar system. Though much-maligned in the past, these days the city is cleaning up its act. Revamped public spaces are springing back to life, the culinary scene is exploding and a cultural renaissance is flourishing. On top of all that, by largely managing to distance itself from the drug war, the nation’s capital remains a safe haven of sorts. Far from shaking off visitors, the earthquakes of 2017 revealed a young society who attracted admiration through their solidarity.
A stroll through the buzzing downtown area reveals the capital’s storied history, from pre-Hispanic and colonial-era splendor to its contemporary edge. This high-octane megalopolis contains plenty of escape valves in the way of old-school cantinas, intriguing museums, inspired dining and boating excursions along ancient canals. With so much going on, you might consider scrapping those beach plans.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Mexico City.
Immense murals by world-famous Mexican artists dominate the top floors of this splendid white-marble palace – a concert hall and arts center commissioned by President Porfirio Díaz. History Construction on the iconic building began in 1905 under Italian architect Adamo Boari, who favored neoclassical and art nouveau styles. Complications arose as the heavy marble shell sank into the spongy subsoil, and then the Mexican Revolution intervened. Architect Federico Mariscal eventually finished the interior in the 1930s, utilizing the more modern art deco style. With art nouveau on the outside and art deco on the inside, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is considered one of the most spectacular buildings from this era. Murals On the 2nd floor are two early 1950s works by Zapotec-heritage painter Rufino Tamayo: México de hoy (Mexico Today) and Nacimiento de la nacionalidad (Birth of Nationality), a symbolic depiction of the creation of the mestizo (mixed ancestry) identity. At the west end of the 3rd floor is Diego Rivera’s famous El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center. The Rockefellers had the original destroyed because of its anti-capitalist themes, but Rivera re-created it here in 1934. On the north side are David Alfaro Siqueiros’ three-part La nueva democracia (New Democracy) and Rivera’s four-part Carnaval de la vida mexicana (Carnival of Mexican Life). To the east is José Clemente Orozco’s La katharsis (Catharsis), depicting the conflict between humankind’s ‘social’ and ‘natural’ aspects. The 4th-floor Museo Nacional de Arquitectura features changing exhibits on contemporary architecture. In addition, the palace stages outstanding temporary art exhibitions. Bellas Artes Theater The renovated Bellas Artes theater is itself a masterpiece (though only viewable during performances), with a stained-glass curtain depicting the Valle de México. Based on a design by Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo (aka Dr Atl), it was assembled by New York jeweler Tiffany & Co from almost a million pieces of colored glass. The theater is the stage for seasonal opera and symphony performances and the Ballet Folklórico de México. Tickets and information Admission is M$75 per adult and free for those under 13 or with a disability. Entry is free on Sundays for both foreigners and Mexican nationals. It's not possible to book online in advance or reserve tickets – they must be purchased on the day from the museum ticket office. There are lofty views of the Palacio from the cafe terrace of the Sears building across the road.
To the casual observer this little-visited government building holds nothing of interest but those in the know flock here to gaze at the 120 murals tucked away on site. The two front courtyards of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (Secretariat of Education) are lined with fresco panels painted by Diego Rivera in the 1920s. Murales de Diego Rivera Together the courtyards form a tableau of ‘the very life of the people,’ in the artist’s words. Each one is thematically distinct: the one on the east end deals with labor, industry and agriculture, while the interior one depicts traditions and festivals. On the latter’s top level is a series on proletarian and agrarian revolution, underneath a continuous red banner emblazoned with a Mexican corrido (folk song). A likeness of Frida Kahlo appears in the first panel as an arsenal worker. Uniquely, the murals are open-air and not in a museum, but along the passageways lining the working offices of the education department, which means you are likely to ponder the murals all to yourself and can get up close to see every detailed brushstroke. Tickets and information The murals are free to visit but you will need to show a photo ID to enter. The paintings are labelled in both Spanish and English, but since this is a working government site and not a museum, there aren't any other explanatory materials. Guided tours are available if you'd like a full breakdown of the murals' composition. No onsite amenities are available to the public.
As the seat of the federal branch of the Mexican government, the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) is home to the offices of the president of Mexico and the Federal Treasury. It also contains the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, one of the most renowned and important libraries in the country – the walls are covered in stunning murals. But the Palacio Nacional is probably most renowned among visitors for the many stunning artworks by Diego Rivera, one of Mexico's most famous artists. History The first palace on this spot was built by Aztec emperor Moctezuma II in the early 16th century. Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortés destroyed the palace in 1521, along with most of the other Aztec structures in the area, but there are records of how lavishly decorated and impressive the emperor's palace was in the form of letters Cortés sent back to the Spanish king. The conquistador then hired two Spanish architects to rebuild the structure as a fortress with three interior courtyards. In 1562 the Spanish crown purchased the building from Cortés’ family to house the viceroys of Nueva España, a function it served until Mexican independence. The name was changed from Viceroy Palace to its current moniker in honor of the end of Mexico's colonisation. As you face the palace, high above the center door hangs the Campana de Dolores, the bell rung in the town of Dolores Hidalgo by Padre Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 at the start of the War of Independence. From the balcony underneath it, the president delivers the grito (shout) – ¡Viva México! – on the evening of September 15 to commemorate independence. Diego Rivera's 'The History of Mexico' Inside this grandiose palace you'll see Diego Rivera murals (painted between 1929 and 1951) that depict Mexican civilization from the arrival of Quetzalcóatl (the Aztec plumed serpent god) to the post-revolutionary period. The nine murals covering the north and east walls of the 1st level above the patio chronicle indigenous life before the Spanish conquest. The murals are located in the open air, covering the walls of an internal courtyard. Nothing can really prepare you for the shock and awe of turning a corner and seeing them in all their glory for the first time. It truly is a must-see attraction in Mexico City. Tickets and tours Entry is free, which is why it's such a popular attraction with both tourists and locals! There are guides available but they're not really necessary unless you're a Rivera superfan. Be aware that this is a working government building, so it's important to be respectful of that as you explore your surroundings. It will occasionally close at odd times if there are visiting dignitaries or government functions, so check in advance of your visit to avoid disappointment.
The Torre Latinoamericana was Latin America’s tallest building when constructed in 1956, and remains the dominant focal point of Centro Histórico. It's an iconic part of the Mexico City skyline and a convenient way to sense check you're going in the right direction when downtown. Construction Thanks to the deep-seated pylons that anchor the building, the Torre has withstood several major earthquakes, including those of 1985 and 2017. Views from the 44th-floor observation deck and the 41st-floor lounge bar are spectacular, smog permitting. You can really get a sense of the sheer scale of the city in a way that's not possible at ground level. Tickets and information Entry is M$170 for adults and M$100 for kids. You're free to leave and return the same day – useful to get views both by day and, perhaps more spectacular, night. Admission includes access to an on-site museum that chronicles Mexico City's history. Admission is free if you're just visiting the bar (apart from the price of a drink!). There's a separate elevator for the bar, so it's a good option if the queue for the viewing platform is busy.
This world-class museum stands in an extension of the Bosque de Chapultepec and is a highlight of visiting CDMX. Its long, rectangular courtyard is surrounded on three sides by two-level display halls. The 12 ground-floor salas (halls) are dedicated to pre-Hispanic Mexico, while upper-level salas show how Mexico’s indigenous descendants live today, with the contemporary cultures located directly above their ancestral civilizations. The vast museum offers more than most people can absorb in a single visit.
Renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was born in, and lived and died in, Casa Azul (Blue House), now a museum. Almost every visitor to Mexico City makes a pilgrimage here to gain a deeper understanding of the painter (and maybe to pick up a Frida handbag). Arrive early to avoid the crowds, especially on weekends; book tickets online to jump the queue.
Before the Spaniards demolished it, the Aztec 'Great Temple' Teocalli of Tenochtitlán covered the site where the cathedral now stands, as well as the blocks to its north and east. It wasn’t until 1978, after electricity workers happened on an 8-tonne stone-disc carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, that the decision was taken to demolish colonial buildings and excavate the Templo Mayor.
One of Mexico City’s most iconic structures, this cathedral is a monumental edifice: 109m long, 59m wide and 65m high. Started in 1573, it remained a work in progress during the entire colonial period, thus displaying a catalog of architectural styles, with successive generations of builders striving to incorporate the innovations of the day. The conquistadors ordered the cathedral built atop the Templo Mayor and, as a further show of domination at a key historical moment, used most of these Aztec stones in its construction.
Designed by Diego Rivera to house his collection of pre-Hispanic art, this museum is a templelike structure of volcanic stone. The ‘House of Anáhuac’ (the Aztec name for the Valle de México) also contains one of Rivera’s studios and some of his work, including a study for Man at the Crossroads, the mural whose original version was commissioned and destroyed by the Rockefeller Center in 1934, which Rivera later reproduced in the Palacio de Bellas Artes.