Packed with magnificent buildings and absorbing museums, the 668-block area defined as the centro histórico is the obvious place to start your explorations. More than 1500 of its buildings are classified as historic or artistic monuments and it is on the Unesco World Heritage list. It also vibrates with modern-day street life and nightlife, and is a convenient area to stay.
Since 2000, money has been poured into upgrading the image and infrastructure of the centro. Streets have been repaved, buildings refurbished, lighting and traffic flow improved and security bolstered. New museums, restaurants and clubs have moved into the renovated structures, and festivals and cultural events are staged in the plazas, spurring a continued downtown revival.
At the center of it all lies the massive Zócalo, downtown's main square, where pre-Hispanic ruins, imposing colonial-era buildings and large-scale murals convey Mexico City's storied past.
In true forward-looking, chilango (Mexico city inhabitants) style, the Zócalo, Plaza Tolsá and Gran Hotel opened themselves to international audiences when heavily featured in the James Bond Spectre film.
Metro station Zócalo is conveniently in the heart of the centro, but the area can also be approached from the west from metro Allende, or even metro Bellas Artes if you wish to experience the crowds of Calle Madero. In the far southern edge of the centro, metro Isabel La Católica allows you to cross the hip bars on and around Calle Regina.
Alameda Central & Around
Emblematic of the downtown renaissance, the rectangular park immediately northwest of the centro histórico holds a vital place in Mexico City’s cultural life. Surrounded by historically significant buildings, the Alameda Central has been the focus of ambitious redevelopment over the past decade. In particular, the high-rise towers on the Plaza Juárez and adjacent new restaurants have transformed the zone south of the park, much of which was destroyed in the 1985 earthquake. Metro stations Bellas Artes and Hidalgo are located on the Alameda’s east and west sides, respectively. The north–south Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas passes just east of the park.
Paseo de la Reforma
Mexico City’s grandest thoroughfare, known simply as 'Reforma,' traces a bold southwestern path from Tlatelolco to Bosque de Chapultepec, skirting the Alameda Central and Zona Rosa. Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg laid out the boulevard to connect his castle on Chapultepec Hill with the old city center. After his execution, it was given its current name to commemorate the reform laws instituted by President Benito Juárez. Under the López Obrador administration, the avenue was smartly refurbished and its broad, statue-studded medians became a stage for book fairs and art exhibits. It is currently undergoing aggressive development, with office towers and new hotels springing up along its length.
Paseo de la Reforma links a series of monumental glorietas (traffic circles). A couple of blocks west of the Alameda Central is El Caballito, a faded-yellow representation of a horse’s head by the sculptor Sebastián. It commemorates another equestrian sculpture that stood here for 127 years and today fronts the Museo Nacional de Arte. A few blocks southwest is the Monumento a Cristóbal Colón, an 1877 statue of Columbus gesturing toward the horizon.
Reforma’s busy intersection with Avenida Insurgentes is marked by the Monumento a Cuauhtémoc, memorializing the last Aztec emperor. Two blocks northwest is the Jardín del Arte, site of a Sunday art market.
The Centro Bursátil, an angular tower and mirror-ball ensemble housing the nation’s Bolsa (stock exchange), marks the southern edge of the Colonia Cuauhtémoc. Continuing west past the US embassy, you reach the symbol of Mexico City, the Monumento a la Independencia. Known as ‘El Ángel,’ this gilded Winged Victory on a 45m-high pillar was sculpted for the independence centennial of 1910. Inside the monument are the remains of Miguel Hidalgo, José María Morelos, Ignacio Allende and nine other notables. Thousands of people descend on the monument for occasional free concerts and victory celebrations following important Mexican fútbol matches.
At Reforma’s intersection with Sevilla is the monument commonly known as La Diana Cazadora, a 1942 bronze sculpture actually meant to represent the Archer of the North Star. The League of Decency under the Ávila Camacho administration had the sculptor add a loincloth to the buxom figure, and it wasn’t removed until 1966.
A 2003 addition to the Mexico City skyline, the Torre Mayor stands like a sentinel before the gate to Bosque de Chapultepec. The earthquake-resistant structure, which soars 225m above the capital, is anchored below by 98 seismic-shock absorbers. Unfortunately the building’s observation deck is permanently closed.
Across from the Torre Mayor is the Torre BBVA Bancomer, a bank's 50-story skyscraper that became Mexico's tallest building upon its completion in 2015, with sky gardens every nine floors. It was outdone in 2016 by wedge-shaped Torre Reforma across the road, now the city's tallest edifice. Nearby, the 104m-high Estela de Luz was built to commemorate Mexico's bicentennial anniversary in 2010, though due to delays in construction and rampant overspending, the quartz-paneled light tower wasn't inaugurated until 2012. After eight former government officials were arrested in 2013 for misuse of public funds, it became known as the 'tower of corruption.' In the tower's basement you'll find the Centro de Cultura Digital, a hit-and-miss cultural center with expositions focusing on digital technology.
Metro Hidalgo accesses Paseo de la Reforma at the Alameda end, while the Insurgentes and Sevilla stations provide the best approach from the Zona Rosa. On the Insurgentes metrobús route, the ‘Reforma’ and ‘Hamburgo’ stops lie north and south of the avenue respectively. Along Reforma itself, any westbound ‘Auditorio’ bus goes through the Bosque de Chapultepec, while ‘Chapultepec’ buses terminate at the east end of the park at the Chapultepec Bus Terminal. In the opposite direction, ‘I Verdes’ and ‘La Villa’ buses head up Reforma to the Alameda Central and beyond. 'Zocalo' buses also run along Reforma.
Wedged between Paseo de la Reforma and Avenida Chapultepec, the ‘Pink Zone’ was developed as an international playground and shopping district during the 1950s, when it enjoyed a cosmopolitan panache. Since then, however, the Zona Rosa has been in gradual decline and has lost ground to more fashionable neighborhoods such as Condesa and Roma. It's now a hodgepodge of touristy boutiques, high-end hotels, clubs and fast-food franchises, though major 2017 refurbishments have provided wider, cleaner, more pedestrian-friendly streets, with the busy glorieta area around metro and metrobús Insurgentes seeing lit-up fountains and large CDMX signs for photo ops to create a sense of civic pride.
People-watching from its sidewalk cafes reveals a higher degree of diversity than elsewhere: it’s one of the city’s premier gay and lesbian districts and an expat magnet, with a significant Korean population (and associated Korean, Japanese and Chinese restaurants that outshine Chinatown). The pedestrianized Calle Génova corridor was earthquake damaged on the Reforma end, keeping the surrounding area closed until the planned demolition of a building for 2018. The southern end continues to get more polished with new bowl-food joints, and beauty product and gadget stores in an attempt to keep the zone in the pink.
Colonia Condesa’s striking architecture, palm-lined esplanades and joyful parks echo its origins as a haven for a newly emerging elite in the early 20th century. Mention 'La Condesa' today and most people think of it as a trendy area of informal restaurants, hip boutiques and hot nightspots. Fortunately much of the neighborhood’s old flavor remains, especially for those willing to wander outside the valet-parking zones. Stroll the pedestrian medians along Ámsterdam, Avenida Tamaulipas or Avenida Mazatlán to admire art deco and California colonial-style buildings. The focus is the peaceful Parque México, the oval shape of which reflects its earlier use as a horse-racing track. Two blocks northwest is Parque España, which has a children’s play area.
Northeast of Condesa, Roma is a bohemian enclave in the rapid process of gentrification. Once inhabited by artists and writers, it's now also the home of designer labels and international dining, while still retaining its slower pace in the backstreets. This is where Beat writers William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac naturally gravitated during their 1950s sojourn in Mexico City. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood is a showcase for Parisian-influenced architecture, which was favored by the Porfirio Díaz regime. Some of the most outstanding examples stand along Colima and Tabasco. When in Roma linger in the cafes and check out the art galleries and specialty shops along Colima. A stroll down Orizaba passes two lovely plazas – Río de Janeiro, with a statue replica of Michelangelo's David, and Luis Cabrera, which has beautiful fountains (Beat writers once posed for a photo here). On weekends inspect the Bazar de Cuauhtémoc, an antique market in a small park – walk to the eastern end of Álvaro Obregón, the Roma's main thoroughfare, then one block north along Avenida Cuauhtémoc.
Small, independent art galleries and museums are scattered around Roma. Select 'Roma' from the website CDMX Travel (http://cdmxtravel.com) for gallery listings.
Bosque de Chapultepec
Chapultepec (Náhuatl for ‘Hill of Grasshoppers’) served as a refuge for the wandering Aztecs before becoming a summer residence for their noble class. It was the nearest freshwater supply for Tenochtitlán. In the 15th century Nezahualcóyotl, ruler of nearby Texcoco, oversaw the construction of an aqueduct to channel its waters over Lago de Texcoco to the pre-Hispanic capital.
Today Mexico City’s largest park, the Bosque de Chapultepec, covers more than 4 sq km, with lakes and several excellent museums. It also remains an abode of Mexico’s high and mighty, containing the current presidential residence, Los Pinos, and a former imperial palace, the Castillo de Chapultepec.
Sunday is the park’s big day, as vendors line the main paths and throngs of families come to picnic, navigate the lake on rowboats and crowd into the museums. Most of the major attractions are in or near the eastern 1a Sección, while a large amusement park and children’s museum dominate the 2da Sección.
A pair of bronze lions overlooks the main gate at Paseo de la Reforma and Lieja. Other access points are opposite the Museo Tamayo, Museo Nacional de Antropología and by metro Chapultepec. The fence along Paseo de la Reforma serves as the Galería Abierta de las Rejas de Chapultepec, an outdoor photo gallery.
Chapultepec metro station is at the east end of the Bosque de Chapultepec, near the Monumento a los Niños Héroes and Castillo de Chapultepec. Auditorio metro station is on the north side of the park, 500m west of the Museo Nacional de Antropología. ‘Auditorio’ buses travel along the length of Paseo de la Reforma.
The 2da Sección of the Bosque de Chapultepec lies west of the Periférico. To get to the 2da Sección and La Feria amusement park from metro Chapultepec, find the ‘Paradero’ exit and catch a ‘Feria’ bus at the top of the stairs. These depart continuously and travel nonstop to the 2da Sección, dropping off riders at the Papalote Museo del Niño and La Feria. In addition to family attractions, there's a pair of upscale lake-view restaurants on Lago Mayor and Lago Menor.
The affluent neighborhood of Polanco, north of Bosque de Chapultepec, arose in the 1940s as a residential alternative for a burgeoning middle class anxious to escape the overcrowded centro. Metro Polanco is in the center of the neighborhood, while metro Auditorio lies at its southern edge.
Polanco is known as a Jewish enclave and also for its exclusive hotels, fine restaurants and designer stores along Avenida Presidente Masaryk. Some of the city’s most prestigious museums and art galleries are here or in nearby Bosque de Chapultepec.
Xochimilco & Around
Almost at the southern edge of CDMX, a network of canals flanked by gardens is a vivid reminder of the city’s pre-Hispanic legacy. Remnants of the chinampas (raised fertile land where indigenous inhabitants grew their food), these ‘floating gardens’ are still in use today. Gliding along the canals in a fancifully decorated trajinera (gondola) is an alternately tranquil and festive experience. On weekends a fiesta atmosphere takes over as the waterways become jammed with boats carrying groups of families and friends. Local vendors and musicians hover alongside the partygoers, serving food and drink. Midweek, the mood is much calmer.
Xochimilco (Náhuatl for ‘Place where Flowers Grow’) was an early target of Aztec hegemony, probably due to its inhabitants’ farming skills. The Xochimilcas piled up vegetation and mud in the shallow waters of Lake Xochimilco, a southern offshoot of Lago de Texcoco, to make the fertile gardens known as chinampas, which later became an economic base of the Aztec empire. As the chinampas proliferated, much of the lake was transformed into a series of canals. Approximately 180km of these waterways remain today. The chinampas are still under cultivation, mainly for garden plants and flowers such as poinsettias and marigolds. Owing to its cultural and historical significance, Xochimilco was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987.
Though the canals are definitely the main attraction, Xochimilco has plenty to see. East of Jardín Juárez (Xochimilco centro’s main square) is the 16th-century Parroquia de San Bernardino de Siena, with elaborate gold-painted retablos (altarpieces) and a tree-studded atrium. South of the plaza, the bustling Mercado de Xochimilco covers two vast buildings: the one nearer the Jardín Juárez has fresh produce and an eating ‘annex’ for tamales (corn-based snacks with various fillings) and various prepared food; the other sells flowers, chapulines (grasshoppers), sweets and excellent barbacoa (savory barbecued mutton).
Xochimilco also boasts several visitor-friendly pulquerías (pulque bars), and about 3km west of Jardín Juárez is one of the city’s best collection of Diego Rivera works, Museo Dolores Olmedo, which also exhibits paintings by Frida Kahlo.
To reach Xochimilco, take metro line 2 to the Tasqueña station then follow the signs inside the station to the transfer point for the tren ligero, a light-rail system that extends to neighborhoods not reachable by metro. Xochimilco is the last stop. Upon exiting the station, turn left (north) and follow Avenida Morelos to the market, Jardín Juárez and the church. If you don’t feel like walking, bicycle taxis will shuttle you to the embarcaderos (boat landings) for M$30.
Settled by the Dominican order soon after the Spanish conquest, San Ángel, 12km southwest of the center, maintains its colonial splendor despite being engulfed by the metropolis. It’s often associated with the big Saturday crafts market held alongside the Plaza San Jacinto. Though the main approach via Avenida Insurgentes is typically chaotic, wander westward to experience the old village’s cobblestoned soul – it’s a tranquil enclave of colonial-era mansions with massive wooden doors, potted geraniums behind window grills and bougainvillea spilling over stone walls.
La Bombilla station of the Avenida Insurgentes metrobús is about 500m east of the Plaza San Jacinto. Otherwise catch a bus from metro Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, 1km east, or from metro Barranca del Muerto, 1.5km north along Avenida Revolución.
Two kilometers south of San Ángel, the Ciudad Universitaria is the main campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). With about 330,000 students and 38,000 teachers, it's Latin America’s largest university. Five former Mexican presidents are among its alumni, as is Carlos Slim, ranked the world’s second-richest person in 2015, and Alfonso Cuarón, the first Latin-American to win a director's Oscar (for Gravity).
Founded in 1551 as the Royal and Papal University of Mexico, UNAM is the second-oldest university in the Americas. It occupied various buildings in the center of town until the campus was transferred to its current location in the 1950s. Although it is a public university open to all, UNAM remains ‘autonomous,’ meaning the government may not interfere in its academic policies. It is Mexico’s leading research institute and has long been a center of political dissent.
An architectural showpiece, UNAM was placed on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites in 2007. Most of the faculty buildings are scattered at the north end. As you enter from Avenida Insurgentes, it’s easy to spot the Biblioteca Central (Central Library), 10 stories high and covered with mosaics by Juan O’Gorman. The south wall, with two prominent zodiac wheels, covers colonial times, while the north wall deals with Aztec culture. La Rectoría, the administration building at the west end of the vast central lawn, has a vivid, three-dimensional Siqueiros mosaic on its south wall, showing students urged on by the people.
Across Avenida Insurgentes stands the Estadio Olímpico, built of volcanic stone for the 1968 Olympics. With seating for over 72,000, it’s home to UNAM’s Pumas fútbol club, which competes in the national league’s Primera División. Over the main entrance is Diego Rivera’s sculpted mural on the theme of sports in Mexican history.
East of the university’s main esplanade, the Facultad de Medicina (Faculty of Medicine) features an intriguing mosaic mural by Francisco Eppens on the theme of Mexico’s mestizaje (blending of indigenous and European races).
A second section of the campus, about 2km south, contains the Centro Cultural Universitario, a cultural center with five theaters, two cinemas, the delightful Azul y Oro restaurant and two excellent museums.
To get to University City, take metrobús line 1 to the Centro Cultural Universitario (CCU) station, or go to metro Universidad and hop on the ‘Pumabús,’ a free on-campus bus. The Pumabús has limited service on weekends and holidays.
Coyoacán (‘Place of Coyotes’ in the Náhuatl language), about 10km south of downtown, was Cortés’ base after the fall of Tenochtitlán. Only in recent decades has urban sprawl overtaken the outlying village. Coyoacán retains its restful identity, with narrow colonial-era streets, cafes and a lively atmosphere. Once home to Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo (whose houses are now fascinating museums), it has a decidedly countercultural vibe, most evident on weekends, when assorted musicians, mimes and crafts markets draw large but relaxed crowds to Coyoacán’s central plazas.
The nearest metro stations to central Coyoacán, 1.5km to 2km away, are Viveros, Coyoacán and General Anaya. If you don’t fancy a walk, get off at Viveros station, walk south to Avenida Progreso and catch an eastbound ‘Metro Gral Anaya’ pesero (Mexico City name for a colectivo) to the market. Returning, ‘Metro Viveros’ peseros go west on Malintzin. ‘Metro Coyoacán’ and ‘Metro Gral Anaya’ peseros depart from the west side of Plaza Hidalgo.
San Ángel–bound peseros and buses head west on Avenida Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, five blocks south of Plaza Hidalgo.
One of the oldest significant remnants of pre-Hispanic settlement within the CDMX, Cuicuilco echoes a civilization that stood on the shores of Lago de Xochimilco as far back as 800 BC. In its heyday in the 2nd century BC, the ‘place of singing and dancing’ counted as many as 40,000 inhabitants – at that time the Teotihuacán civilization was only just beginning to rise to importance. The site was abandoned a couple of centuries later, however, after an eruption of the nearby Xitle volcano covered most of the community in lava.
Today archaelogical works continue to reveal new sections. The area is overgrown with grass in large areas, creating a real sense of discovery. The highlight is a 23m-tall, circular, pyramid-like mound.
Tlalpan today is what Coyoacán used to be – an outlying village with a bohemian atmosphere coupled with some impressive colonial-era architecture. The municipal seat of Mexico City’s largest delegación, Tlalpan sits at the foot of the southern Ajusco range and enjoys a cooler, moister climate. There are some fine restaurants along the arcades of the charismatic plaza. To get here take metrobús Línea 1 to Fuentes Brotantes and walk four blocks east to the main square.
Worth a Trip: Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones
Cool, fragrant pine and oak forests dominate this 20-sq-km national park in the hills surrounding the Valle de México. Around 23km southwest of Mexico City and 800m higher, it makes for a fine escape from the carbon monoxide and concrete.
The name derives from the Ex-Convento Santo Desierto del Carmen, the 17th-century former Carmelite monastery within the park. The Carmelites called their isolated monasteries ‘deserts’ to commemorate Elijah, who lived as a recluse in the desert near Mt Carmel. The ‘Leones’ in the name may stem from the presence of wild cats in the area, but more likely it refers to José and Manuel de León, who once administered the monastery’s finances.
The restored monastery has exhibition halls and a restaurant. Tours in Spanish are run by guides (garbed in cassock and sandals) who lead you through expansive gardens around the buildings and the patios within, as well as some underground passageways.
The rest of the park has extensive walking trails (robberies have been reported, so stick to the main paths). Next to El León Dorado restaurant, stairs lead down to a gorgeous picnic area with several small waterfalls and a duck pond.
Most visitors arrive in a car, but green camiones head to the ex-convento hourly from metro Viveros (in front of the 7-Eleven), or from Paradero las Palmas in San Ángel, on Saturday and Sunday from 8am to 3:30pm. Monday to Friday departures are few (7:30am from Viveros; and 7:30am, noon and 3:30pm from Paradero las Palmas) and stop short in a mountain town called Santa Rosa from where you need to take a taxi.
Frida & Diego
A century after Frida Kahlo’s birth, and more than 50 years after Diego Rivera’s death, the pair’s fame and recognition are stronger than ever. In 2007 a retrospective of Kahlo’s work at the Palacio de Bellas Artes attracted more than 440,000 visitors. Though attendance at the Rivera survey that followed was not so phenomenal, the show reminded visitors that the prolific muralist had been an international star in his own lifetime. The artists are inseparably linked in memory, and both artists were frequent subjects in each other’s work.
Rivera first met Kahlo, 21 years his junior, while painting at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, where she was a student in the early 1920s. Rivera was already at the forefront of Mexican art, and his commission at the school was the first of many semi-propaganda murals on public buildings that he was to execute over three decades. He had already fathered children by two Russian women in Europe, and in 1922 he married 'Lupe' Marín in Mexico. She bore him two more children before their marriage broke up in 1928.
Kahlo was born in Coyoacán in 1907 to a Hungarian-Jewish father and Oaxacan mother. She contracted polio at age six, leaving her right leg permanently thinner than her left. In 1925 she was horribly injured in a trolley accident that broke her right leg, collarbone, pelvis and ribs. She made a miraculous recovery but suffered much pain thereafter. It was during convalescence that she began painting. Pain – physical and emotional – was to be a dominating theme of her art.
Kahlo and Rivera both moved in left-wing artistic circles, and they met again in 1928. They married the following year. Frida's mother thought Diego was too old, fat, communist and atheist for her daughter, describing the liaison as ‘a union between an elephant and a dove.’ Their relationship was definitely always a passionate love-hate affair. Rivera wrote: ‘If I ever loved a woman, the more I loved her, the more I wanted to hurt her. Frida was only the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait.’
In 1934, after a spell in the USA, the pair moved into a new home in San Ángel, now the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, with separate houses linked by an aerial walkway. After Kahlo discovered that Rivera had had an affair with her sister, Cristina, she divorced him in 1939, but they remarried the following year. She moved back into her childhood home, the Casa Azul (Blue House) in Coyoacán, and he stayed at San Ángel – a state of affairs that endured for the rest of their lives. Their relationship endured, too.
Despite the worldwide wave of Fridamania that followed the hit biopic Frida in 2002, Kahlo had only one exhibition in Mexico in her lifetime, in 1953. She arrived at the opening on a stretcher. Rivera said of the exhibition: ‘Anyone who attended it could not but marvel at her great talent.’ She died at the Blue House the following year. Rivera called it ‘the most tragic day of my life… Too late I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.’