Recently, I spent 18 days in Mexico City with my 84-year old mom flaneuring Mexico City and was truly amazed by what I found. Our two key reasons for going - she wanted to see the Guadalupe shrine (she has travelled the world to see Roman Catholic sacred places) and I love cities but had never been to a mega-city, i.e. one with a population over 10 million.
While Mexico City has a reputation of being smoggy, unsafe and gritty, what we found was a city that was safe, bustling with activity and had clean air except for two days. Yes it was gritty, but that seemed authentic for a city 500+ years old. We loved the unpretentious nature of the city and its people.
Here are our top seven reasons why you should visit Mexico City:
#1 The History
Anyone who is into history will love Mexico City. The historic center is 150 blocks (give or take a few blocks) of historic buildings - some immaculately restored (Post Office Building and Palacio de Bellas Artes concert hall), some left to age gracefully (Palacio Nacional) and others in an advanced stage of decay. The City centre is chock-a-block full of monumental buildings oozing an mind-boggling amount of history. Today, we can build big buildings but I am not convinced they can be described as monumental.
The literally sinking Cathedral Metropolitana, is the heart of the world’s largest Catholic diocese, took almost three centuries to build (1525 to 1813 AD) and is the second largest church in the world (only St. Peter’s in Rome is bigger) and you can just walk right in. You can even climb to the bell tower to look out over the Plaza de la Consititucion commonly known as Zocalo, the second largest plaza in the world (Moscow’s Red Square being the largest).
There are even the remains of Templo Mayor, a 14th and 15th century Aztec temple unearthed in the 1970s - right in the middle of the historic centre of the city and another ruin on the edge of the historic district.
An hour outside of the city lies Teotihuacan, one of the world’s most impressive cities of the ancient world. Founded before the Christian era, the city housed 125,000 people and covered 20 sq. km. It dominated the region until AD 650 before being destroyed (possibly by its own people) and abandoned. The name means “the place where men become gods” and it was later held sacred by the Aztecs. You can climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun one of the biggest pyramids in the world (the base is of similar dimensions as the Great Pyramid of Egypt but only half as high at 65 meters).
Our day at Teotihuacan was memorable, not only for the two pyramid climbs (Sun and Moon), the walk along Avenue of the Dead, Jaguar Mural and Temple of Quetzalcoatl, but also for the mini-history lessons from our very enthusiastic tour guide. The tour also included demos for locals on carving, getting water from cactus plants and using plants for colour. It was mentally exhausting and exhilarating.
#2 The Muralists
Today every city seems obsessed with acquiring iconic public art, yet much of it is generic, i.e. it could be anywhere. For example, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park could easily be in Calgary’s Olympic Plaza or any urban plaza for that matter.
In Mexico City, you won’t find a lot of modern public art but what you will find is the work of early 20th Century muralists – Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. From the 1920s to the 70s, these three Mexican artists created hundreds of murals documenting the historical, nationalistic, social, political and everyday living messages of the Mexican culture. I was captivated by the power of these murals in conveying a sense of the human struggles (work, passions and violence) that took place in Mexico before and after the arrival of Europeans. There is a wonderful sense of humanity and story telling in the murals, something that is often missing in modern public art.
In good urban design, we talk about the importance of human scale of buildings (i.e. buildings that don’t dwarf people, usually under 10 or 12 storeys). Similarly, I think good public art should connect with local history and have a sense of humanity too.
#3 The Museums/Churches
There are supposedly over 250 museums in Mexico City and I don’t doubt it. It seems like there is a church and/or a museum on every block - sometimes both. Our favourite four museums were: Archeology Museum, Museum of Popular Art, Soumaya Museum and the Toy Museum.
The Archeology Museum is huge with 23 galleries that tell the story of Mexico history from the arrival of man to present day. The artifacts and displays are perhaps some of the best I have ever seen. It is at least a half-day visit and possibly a full day if you want to really try to take it all in.
The Museum of Popular Art is housed in a wonderful art deco building – a perfect setting for folk art. And the Soumaya Museum, outside the historic centre in Polanco, is an uber-modern architectural gem that houses the art and artifacts of Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world. It houses one of the largest collections in the world of Rodins in the top floor sculpture gallery.
A hidden gem is the Toy Museum, otherwise known as Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico. Located outside the historic centre in a non-descript, four-storey office building, it is jam-packed with 55,000 toys. This is not a real museum in that the work is not curated or labeled with accompanying didactic panels. It is more like a flea market, with displays and vignettes from floor to ceiling – everything from foot-peddle cars to dolls, from robots to games. It is guaranteed to make you smile.
When you think of Mexico City, you probably don’t think of great parks, plazas and boulevards – but you should! Bosque de Chapultepec is one of the great urban parks in the world. A public park since the 16th century, today it is home to numerous museums (Architectural, Tamayo and Modern Art), Castillo de Chapultepec (once home to Emperor Maximilian), a zoo (free) and botanical gardens.
As well, Paseo de la Reforma, a 3.5 km boulevard (that connects downtown to Bosque de Chapultepec) once lined with beautiful houses, is today home to numerous skyscrapers (offices and hotels), as well as monumental traffic circle with a magnificent statues commissioned in the 19th century to commemorate prominent Mexicans. On Sunday mornings, the street is closed to traffic, allowing thousands of cyclists, joggers and walkers to use the street.
Then there is the Monumento a la Revolucion plaza. It includes Porfirio Diaz’s unfinished congress building which was turned into a monument, museum and plaza. A glass elevator to the roof top deck offers outstanding views of the city. At night, the monument is surreal as it is lit up pink or blue. The plaza is used for numerous events from outdoor conferences to concerts. When we were there, it hosted six hours of Beatles tribute bands one Saturday and a lineup of Mexican bands including Jenny and the Mexicats the following Saturday. It was also used for some sort of convention for a couple of days during the week.
A highlight of our trip was heading to the plaza on Sunday nights to watch people of all ages run through the colourfully lit dancing fountains. The shrills of excited, soaked kids will be a lasting memory of Mexico City.
#5 The Villages
You definitely don’t feel like you are in a city of 21 million people when you visit one of Mexico City’s suburban villages. While most tourists just check out the Historic Centre village, there are many other interesting villages to explore.
We especially loved the artists’ village of San Angel with its Saturday artisan market in the lovely Plaza San Jacinto, lined with cafes, galleries and restaurants.
Coyocacan, its sister village, to the east is home to Museo Frida Kahlo, Museo Estudio Diego Rivera and Casa/Museo Leon Trotsky. I think every city should have a designated artists’ village.
Though Xoxhimilco lies 20 km southeast of the city centre, it is definitely worth the trip. We joined six others from the hostel to catch the subway to the end of the line and then a train to this once lakeside village. Today, it is home to canals and semi-floating flower and vegetable gardens built originally by the Aztecs. Here you can rent a colourful punts (wooden roofed boats with a table down the middle) with a local boatman who poles the bunt along the canals. Beware: you will be accosted by other boats trying to sell you beer, food, trinkets and live music. The village is also home to a thriving farmers’ market, charming park and Iglesai de San Bernardino, a fortified monastery built by the Franciscans in late the 16th century. While travelling to this quaint village, along the way you will see what the working class suburbs of Mexico City are like and get a better appreciation of what a city of 21 million looks like.
# 6 The People
There is something endearing about the people of Mexico City that I have never felt in any other city. The first hint of this came when walking through Alameda Park. Located in the city centre, it was once an Aztec marketplace. Today, it is 75 percent park (with restful pathways, huge trees and decorative fountains) and 25 percent tented vendors selling food, clothing, CDs and trinkets.
It was here that we first began to appreciate how Mexicans have mastered the art of “sitting.” The park is full of ornate benches where people of all ages sit, talk, cuddle and kiss. While all around them is the hustle, bustle and honking of a big city, the park holds a tranquility that is almost surreal.
Soon we began to notice that handholding is also very popular in Mexico City, not only with parents holding kids’ hands on busy streets, but also by couples (young and old), mothers and adult daughters and just friends. Somehow this handholding on busy sidewalks created a wonderful, subtle sense of tenderness and caring in what is definitely an intimidating, alienating urban environment.
Finally, after visiting many churches and attending several masses, my mother observed that people of Mexico City had a spirituality that she has never experienced in any city she has ever visited - including Rome. She was impressed not only that every church had multiple masses every day, but that they were full. She also noted churches embraced a diversity of people from homeless to rich and were open all day long. One day a homeless man, in need of good bath, sat next to her at mass. He was respectful throughout the service and even found a coin in his pocket to give a donation.
My mom befriended another homeless man who sat slumped on the sidewalk all day just a few doors down from our hostel. She would go out each morning and say Hi and he would wave to us each day as we headed off on our journey. Before we left for home, she said good-bye and gave him some money for which he gratefully thanked her.
In an email to family after our trip, my Mom said, “I went with the idea of seeing and feeling something at the Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe, but found it instead at the Church of St. Jude.”
#7 Mexico is a bargain
Where in the world can you ride the subway for $.05 USA (yes, that is five cents), or get into a world-class museum for $5 USA or less (many of the museums are free). We stayed at the Hostel Suites (Youth Hostel) for $40 USA a night, which included a huge private room with two beds, breakfast, a full bathroom with a huge shower, daily housekeeping, two lounges/patios and the best staff I have ever experienced (their concierge services matched those at any 5-star hotel). Meals are cheap and you can get a beer for under a $1 USA. The all day tour to Teotihuacan was great value at $45 USA and front row seats at the Lucha Livre wrestling cost only $12 USA.
After spending three weeks in Florence and Rome last year and 18 days in Mexico City this year, I would have to say Mexico City has more to offer historically and culturally than both of these major European cities combined. I encourage everyone to visit Mexico City at least once in their lifetime.
Over the next several weeks, I will be blogging in more detail about Mexico City. I hope you will find the blogs interesting and intriguing.