Mexico City: City of Museums

Mexico City is rumoured to have over 150 museums and I don’t doubt that number. There seems to be a museum or two on every street in the 150-block historic centre (Centro Historico), as well as many outside it. My mom estimates that over our 18-day visit, we visited over 30 museums.  Quite frankly, I lost count.

But whatever the number, we do agree on our seven favourite museums (no particular order):

  • Museo Nacional de Antropologia
  • Museo Soumaya
  • Museo Nacional de Arte
  • Museo de Arte Popular
  • Secretaria de Educacion Publica
  • Museo Frida Kahlo
  • Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico (aka the Toy Museum)

Museo Nacional de Antropologia 

Built in 1964 and designed by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (MNA) still looks very contemporary - flat roof and huge central plaza largely covered with a 275-foot canopy balanced on a 36-ft pillar decorated with European and Mexican civilization reliefs.  Unlike many new museums and art galleries in the late 20th and early 21st century, the architectural design of MNA enhances, not competes with the artifacts. Just as it ideally always should.

The museum is unique also in that the ground floor, dedicated to archaeological finds from ancient Mexico - each room dealing with a particular civilization or region of the country - allows you to wander outside into gardens and courtyards thus recreating an “in situ” experience with the artifacts.   I loved the outdoor reconstructions of the Mayan temples and Monte Alban Tomb.

This is a huge museum with 23 exhibition rooms on two levels, covering 800,000+ square feet and sitting on almost 20 acres.  While most people we talked to spend about 2 hours at the museum, they must have been running through it. I think all North Americans should visit this museum to develop a better appreciation of our collective history – the artifacts and stories are compelling.

Admission: 64 MX pesos (about $5 CDN) (no children or family pricing)

Time: Could easily be 4+ hours. While you are in the area, you might want to check out the Mexico Zoo or the Chapultepec Castle at the top of a hill in the middle of the park of the same name – both are close by. There are also two other smaller museums nearby - Museo Tamyo and Museo de Arte Moderno.

Tamayo's bold and beautiful mural graces the entrance to Mexico City's insightful Anthropology Museum a "must see" for all North Americans. 

The museum's courtyard has a zen-like atmosphere.

This single pillar not only holds up the entire canopy, but it serves as a powerful waterfall and relief sculpture. The museum is gracefully designed to enhance and respect the sense of place created by the artifacts.  It is part of Mexico City's wonderful connectivity between the past and present. 

The entrance to the first gallery tells the story of man's evolution on the planet earth. 

The gallery spaces are spacious but not overwhelming, making for a enjoyable experience. 

The exhibition spaces are a wonderful link to the architecture and artifacts of past cultures. 

One of the many gardens that link the indoor galleries with outdoor spaces to create a unique museum experience. 

Found this Mayan mural when I stuck my head into one of the ruins spaces it covered all the walls and roof. I couldn't help but immediately think of Picasso's Guernica and how the early Mexican cultures foreshadowed many of the 19th and early 20th century European art practices.  

The upper floors of the museum showcase information on the diversity of indigenious cultures in different parts of Mexico. 

It was interesting to see this image, after encountering two young men wearing contemporary deer heads masks in the Zombie Walk. 

When you see an artifact like this you quickly make the connection to the iconic skull-like face paintings of the "Day of the Dead" festival. 

Found this one-eyed figure painted on a artifact and was stuck by how contemporary it was.  

  As an urbanist, this panel made me realize that Mexico City has centuries of architecture and urban design to build upon. I realized how infantile we are in Calgary. 

As an urbanist, this panel made me realize that Mexico City has centuries of architecture and urban design to build upon. I realized how infantile we are in Calgary. 

  This panel was enlightening as it illustrates how violence and war has been part of Mexico's (and many other nations') culture for thousands of years. It is very hard for Canadians to understand this. 

This panel was enlightening as it illustrates how violence and war has been part of Mexico's (and many other nations') culture for thousands of years. It is very hard for Canadians to understand this. 

Museo Soumaya

A private museum of Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world, it is named after his deceased wife Soumaya Domit, designed by his son-in-law Fernando Romero and engineered by Frank Gehry and Ove Arup.

The six-story building is an uber-contemporary design with its flat base (perched above the sidewalk) and roof anchoring a twisted tower that gives the building a tension and shape that defies description. The 16,000, shiny, hexagonal, aluminum tiles (supplied by a company owned by Slim) are like the skin of a snake.  Opened in 2011, the museum anchors the Nuevo Polanco district, which includes several other contemporary office, hotel and shopping centres including a modern Costco across the street.

Inside, you are greeted by a huge, stark white minimalist lobby that is home to just three artworks - murals by Mexico’s iconic artists Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo and the renowned sculpture “The Thinker” by Rodin. This is just the beginning of your exploration of the 66,000 pieces of art including the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic and colonial era coins.  If that isn’t enough to make you want to go, how about seeing the largest collection of casts of sculptures by Auguste Rodin outside of France. Its a “who’s who” of works by modern European artists like Dali, Picasso, Renoir, Miro, Monet, Matisse and van Gogh. 

The museum is easy to navigate thanks to ramps that wind their way up the side of the building, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York City. The galleries are full of art and artifacts that appeal to all ages.

Admission: Free

Time: Give yourself at least two hours to explore the museum and another hour or so to explore the area’s architecture and shopping.  As well, Acuario Inbursa, one of the world’s top aquariums, is located across the street.

This museum is diametrically opposed to the Anthropology Museum as it shouts loudly -  "Look-At-Me" design.  

The shape and the facade skin make the building very photogenic. 

Inside the lobby and staircases are as cold as ice, which contrasts with Mexico's culture of warm and colourful artifacts and murals. 

The top floor sculpture gallery is a bit of a free-for-all of sculptures. 

  These dark powerful Rodins figures are centre piece of the gallery.

These dark powerful Rodins figures are centre piece of the gallery.

Dali's sculptures provide the comic relief. 

 The Palanco community around the museum is full of modern buildings that make for some interesting exploring.  Note the green wall on the right; this is one of many green walls in Mexico City, including one that covers the entire entrance wall of a parkade for probably 200 + feet. 

The Palanco community around the museum is full of modern buildings that make for some interesting exploring.  Note the green wall on the right; this is one of many green walls in Mexico City, including one that covers the entire entrance wall of a parkade for probably 200 + feet. 

Museo Nacional de Arte

An equestrian statue of Charles IV guards the entrance to the National Museum of modern Mexican art, which opened in 1982.  While the art is spectacular, the Ministry of Communications and Public Works building (completed in 1911) is the star of this show. In the words of my mother, “this museum is worth a visit for the building alone.” Our Eyewitness Travel book agrees, “Its double staircase, in bronze and marble, is enclosed by a semi-circular staircase, three stories high. The interior, with its intricate ironwork and many candelabra, is sumptuous.” We agree; we were in awe!

The artwork spans the time from 16th century to mid 20th century, with excellent examples of works by Mexico’s great muralists - Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco. The collection of Mexican monumental religious paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries was a real eye-opener, never before appreciating the quality and depth of Mexican art. At points in our visit, we just had to sit and rest, as the art and architecture were overwhelming.

Admission: Free

Time: Minimum of 2 hours

 

The ornamentation of this building was spectacular. 

The three-floor spiraling stair case was jaw-dropping.

  Just one of the many ceiling paintings. They were truly heavenly!

Just one of the many ceiling paintings. They were truly heavenly!

The colour in this photograph is real, it was an assault to your senses. I will let the other images speak for themselves.

This is a painting of Mexico City in the 16th century. Not the lake and mountains in the distance.  Today the lake is gone and the city is climbing the mountains, severing as a reminder of how urban sprawl has existed from centuries, it is not a late 20th century phenomena. 

Diego Rivera, Zapatista Landscape, 1915

Jose Clemente Orozco, The Demagogue, 1947

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Self Portrait, 1945 (Could he be taking a selfie?) 

Ramon Alva de la Canal, The Cafe de Nadie, 1930

Museo de Arte Popular 

When flaneuring the hardware district, we happened upon this museum because of its cathedral-like, art deco building amongst a mish-mash of buildings with facades covered with gaudy signage.

The museum brings together folk art from all over Mexico, from traditional to contemporary pieces, representing the country’s cultural and geographical diversity.  The exhibition spaces and displays were world class.

The museum is best known as the sponsor of the yearly Noche de Alebrijes (Night of the Alebrijes) parade in which fantastical creatures are constructed on a monumental scale (some up to 25 ft high) and then paraded about 10km from the Zocalo to the Angel of Independence monument.  We missed the parade, but we did see the 200+ creatures on the street the next day, which made for a free, fun outdoor gallery experience.

A highlight of our visit to this museum visit was seeing a school tour of very excited junior high students who seemed to love everything about the museum.  Of course, my Mom had to chat with them and they were only too willing to practise their English.

Admission: 40 MX pesos, Free for seniors (over 60) and children under 13

Time:  1 hour (Don’t forget to stop into their lovely gift shop – great for souvenir hunters)

The streets surround the Popular Arts Museum are full of hundreds of small shops selling "Home Hardware" type goods, including the kitchen sink. 

The classic art deco building was originally the Fire Department Headquarters. 

The interior courtyard of the building has been glassed over to create a wonderful gallery space that looks like a modern South Beach Hotel. The colourful Alebrijes creatures in the distance bring the space alive in a fun folk-art manner. 

The windows in the courtyard were used to display items from the collection.  I loved the exquisite interaction of the reflections of the artifacts and architecture. 

The galleries were full of exhibitions of crafts of all kinds.  These devil creatures captured by imagination. 

The workmanship of the objects was outstanding. 

An image from the video of the Night of the Alebrijes Parade 

The Alebrijes creatures on parade on the sidewalk next to the Angel of Independence monument. 


Secretaria de Educacion Publica 

This museum is a hidden gem – it took a bit of searching to find it on our last day, but my Mom wouldn’t give up and I’m glad she didn’t as it has, in our opinion, the best collection of murals in Mexico City. Bonus – there was no line up (in fact, we had the entire place to ourselves).

This former convent, which dates back to 1639, has hundreds of Diego Rivera murals from 1923 to 1928, illustrating the diversity of his artistic practice and influences – Italian frescoes, cubism and pre-Columbian Mexico.  The ground floor is dedicated to the glorification of labour - rich colourful paintings and monochromatic portraits depicting scientific, artistic and intellectual pursuits.  On the staircase and second floor are a series of landscapes and state emblems from different parts of Mexico. The third floor showcases stories about the Revolution including one of his Rivera’s signature pieces “The Arsenal” where his wife, artist Frida Kahlo is shown handing out guns to the revolutionaries. It was a reminder of how much political revolution and violence has been part of Mexico’s history for centuries.

While most visitors line up to see the Palacio Nacional with its iconic murals, temporary exhibitions and gardens, our recommendation - if you are pressed for time - is to come here instead.

Admission: Free

Time: 2 hours

  The Arsenal, Diego Rivera

The Arsenal, Diego Rivera

Untitled, Diego Rivera

Untitled, Diego Rivera

All of the walls of the building are covered with murals each telling a story of the lives and rich history of Mexico.  

Wall Street Banquet, Diego Rivera

Capitalist Dinner, Diego Rivera

Agriculture, Diego Rivera

Untitled, Diego Rivera (Note the deer head on the shaman-like figure. Rivera was very interested in the ancient cultures of Mexico as he was the modern art of Europe). 

Museo Frida Kahlo

This Museum is the actual house where Frida Kahlo was born, lived most of her life, painted some of her best works and died.  Generally, not a big fan of famous peoples’ homes that have been turned into shrines, I was thus not impressed when we first arrived and had to line up.  We had been spoiled to this point of just walking into museums and having them pretty much to ourselves.

However, we got to chatting with some young people in line about our thoughts about Mexico City and their insights into what is it like living and growing up in Mexico City - the time did pass quickly. 

 The house and gardens where a delight to wander, even if it was too crowded for my liking.  The house was donated to the nation in 1955, by Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera shortly after Kahlo died.  As you would expect, the home is full of Kahlo’s artwork, artifacts from her studio and everyday items and artifacts she collected.  This includes a lovely collection of small religious paintings on metal called Votive paintings, which interested me having purchased one for our art collection earlier in the week.  I also found the simple, cartoon-like, giant “Judas” figures made out of paper (later I learned these are burned on Easter Sunday as a symbolic destruction of evil) both playful and eerie. 

One of the surprises was the contemporary display of some of Kahlo’s dresses and personal belongings. Especially spooky was the black dark room featuring her corsets (in lighted glass cases) that she used to hide her body (it was disfigured by childhood polio and a near-fatal traffic accident that forced her to have over 30 operations, including a leg amputation in her later years).  It certainly added to the surrealistic experience, as did the lovely garden oasis – a sea of tranquility in a life of torment.

Admission: 120 MX pesos weekdays and 150 MX pesos weekend for adults; 40 MX pesos for post secondary students and 15 MX pesos for children and seniors

Time: 1 hour to tour the museum, but you should give yourself 30 minutes in the line-up (you can purchase tickets in advance). If time permits, the Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky is near by and/or the Coyoacain community which is full of cafes, shops and parks.

Kahlo's Museum had the best "Day of the Dead" altar that we found in Mexico City.

Kahlo's garden oasis. 

Like Rivera, Kahlo was interested in both past and present cultures. This was a display of her dresses. 

Kahlo elaborate corset

Kahlo's contemporary dresses

Surrealistic display of Kahlo's artifacts

There were dozens of Judas figures like this one scattered around the house. I chose this one as it seemed to relate to the suffering and hardship of broken body that Kahlo experienced in her life. 

Museo del Juguete Antiguo Mexico (Toy Museum) 

Located in the heart of the Doctores neighbourhood, this museum, located in a five-story office building, is definitely off the beaten path.  However, for urban explorers and those who love toys, it is a “must see.” In fact, it is more like an antique or flea market than a museum as there are no fancy display cases, no labels with titles, dates and artists’ names, no information panels and no security guards. In fact, the main floor sells toys that could easily be extras from the museum – you will not confuse it with a typical gift shop.

The museum was started by Roberto Shimizu, a Mexican of Japanese descent, who began to hoard every toy he could get his hands on since the age of 10.  Most of the 20,000+ toys, games, dolls etc. date back to mid-20th century.  One of the highlights for me was the small peddle-cars. Backstory: My Mom tells me I loved my peddle-car so much they had to replace the tires!

The museum is absolutely chockablock full of toys, piled up everywhere, making you have to step over and around them in this hoarder’s dream. There is a “thrill of the hunt” atmosphere to the museum with lots of smiles and giggles from parents and children.

Admission: 50 MX pesos per person

Time: Give yourself about 1.5 hours depending on how much you are into toys and nostalgia.  There is not a lot else to see and do in the vicinity of the museum.

Mexico's Toy Museum office block. 

Walt Disney fun.

What would a toy museum be without truck and planes. 

  The museum is full of vignettes like this one of small toy people. 

The museum is full of vignettes like this one of small toy people. 

There are many home-made toys and displays like this one.  Note how the inside is filled with figures. 

One of about 10 pedal cars. 

I wish I had one of these as a kid...it might have changed my life. 

Every toy museum must have toy soldiers. 

The museum is full of fun displays like this one of yo-yos. 

This flying saucer fill of robot vignettes was perhaps my favourite piece. 

Last Word

I was constantly amazed during my adventure in Mexico City how their contemporary culture still seems to evolve around evil, death, religion and spirituality. It made visiting the museums seem more relevant and authentic, with the strong connectivity between past and present in Mexico City.

Hot Tips

You could easily plan a 7-day vacation in Mexico City just around visiting these seven museums.  Be aware too that many of the museums are free on Sundays for Mexicans so they can be quite busy and distract from the experience, so we suggest choosing a less popular museum on Sundays if possible. Also, many museums are closed on Mondays, an exception being the Museo Soumaya (open Mondays and closed Tuesdays) making it a good destination for a Monday adventure.

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Mexico City vs Calgary / Public City vs Private City

Recently, I embarked on an 18-day adventure in Mexico City to see what could be learned about city building from a mega city. “How can you compare Calgary, a city of 1.2 million and just 100 years old, with Mexico City, a city of 21 million that’s five centuries old?” you ask.  While there were many differences and some similarities, the biggest revelation was an appreciation for how people in Mexico City experience personal and public space.

Personal Space

Calgary is a very private city - we love the privacy of our cars, our single-family homes (often with six-foot fences and attached garages), our 6,000+ parks, playgrounds, green spaces, plazas and 800+ km of pathways all of which give us the option of not having to mingle with others.

Mexico City is the complete opposite - families work, play and even dine on busy sidewalks and 75 percent use a very crowded pubic transit as their primary mode of transportation. A typical home or apartment is a third the size of an average Calgary home.  Young children quickly learn how to live without much personal space.  Babies are carried (no humongous strollers) until they can walk, then they just walk alongside their parents everywhere.

In Mexico City a popular activity is reading the newspaper on the sidewalk. 

Family dining on the street in Mexico City.

In Mexico City you don’t live in the entire city, but one of the 16 boroughs (ranging in size from 116,000 to 1.8 million), which are further divided into 160 colonias. While this is somewhat like Calgary with its four quadrants and 200+ communities, the density eight times greater than Calgary’s.  

How is that accomplished? Surprisingly, not with a lot of highrises but rather with homes having no front yards, backyards or driveways, as well the average home being 70% smaller than Calgary’s. In fact, many homes are called “informal homes,” i.e. self-built on “found” vacant land.  Only recently has the City adopted more formal zoning and building permit processes.

Also there are few schools with huge playing fields, large community playing fields, green spaces and no dedicated dog parks.  I didn’t see a single huge surface parking lot anywhere. 

Public Space 

Like Calgary, homes in Mexico City’s inner city are the most expensive, but unlike Calgary, its suburbs are where the low-income, transit-dependent, working class live. Mexico has one the most extensive and well-used transit systems in the world; the subway and buses are packed from 7 am to 10 pm, a far cry from Calgary where its transit is only heavily used for a few hours in the morning and afternoon on weekdays.  Transit fare in Mexico City is ridiculously cheap at 40 cents per trip.

Despite being packed in like “sardines-in-a-can,” sellers jump on the subway trains, pawning everything from USB keys to BIC pens. Backstory: Vendors are literally everywhere on sidewalks, including in front of new iconic office buildings.  Can you imagine The Bow or Eighth Avenue Place’s plazas/sidewalks being occupied by dozens of haphazardly placed vendors?

A crowded subway car with vendor selling trinkets for Day of the Dead in Mexico City, mid-afternoon.

Upscale vendor sheds on the sidewalk in front of one of Mexico City's newest office towers. 

Street Vitality

Having transit operate at capacity all day long does not mean less road traffic road in Mexico City; the main streets are probably 20 times more crowded with cars, buses, taxis and delivery trucks than Calgary.  A constant, ear-piercing symphony of honking and traffic police whistling accompanies the dance of pedestrians and vendors on crowded, narrow and uneven sidewalks and roads. 

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Check out the video below for a sample of Mexico City's street symphony.

Mexico City’s historic district (a 150-block rectangle) has several pedestrian malls that are crowded all the time - on the weekends it’s like Stampede time in Calgary. These malls have no seating, but do allow cyclists and in some cases, even cars (only to access parkades). One street has 200,000 pedestrians per day! On one street I counted 30 different shops on just one side, not including the street vendors – no wonder they are busy. It is a free-for-all on many Mexico City sidewalks; in comparison Calgary is a pastoral place.

Sidewalk dining on a side street in Mexico City.

Mexico City has lots of market streets like this one that are a free-for-all, while at the same time full of life and energy. 

Sterility vs Vitality

Whoever coined the term “messy urbanism” must have had Mexico City in mind.  There is garbage everywhere, partly due to no garbage cans anywhere and to the streets being filled with thousands of food and retail vendors with all their accompanying waste. The City has also lost the battle with graffiti; it exists on pretty much everywhere. There is a totally different urban aesthetic in most of Mexico City. The streets are a beehive of activity with people coming and going, setting-up or taking down their stalls, cooking, eating, selling and buying – messy, but alive!

Head to Avenida Presidente Masaryk in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco district and you discover a typical Calgary urban street scene – wide, clean sidewalks, trendy boutiques, larger restaurants and patios and no street vendors. Here, like Calgary, the sidewalk is devoid of people - even on a nice Saturday afternoon.  Could Calgary’s streets be too sanitized to create the vibrant street life the late urban lobbyist Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet?”

Avenida Presidente Masaryk in the upscale Polanco district is devoid of people, like many of the sidewalks in Calgary's urban districts. Could it be that pretty streets are empty streets?

Crowds quickly gather waiting to cross the street in Mexico's historic district's pedestrian malls. 

Typical Mexico City sidewalk ballet.

Public Space: Keep It Simple

Like Calgarians, people living in Mexico City love their public spaces.  The Zocalo square, the second largest plaza in the world (Moscow’s Red Square being the largest) is always crowded. Calgary’s equivalent would be Olympic Plaza. In the 18 days I was there, it was used for a huge book fair, world archery championship, major concert and Day of Dead activities. The Monumento `a la Revolucion plaza is also huge with the monument/viewing platform in the middle, underground museum, two huge flat plaza areas as well as sunken, flat hard-surfaced areas activities like soccer and dog play. Calgary’s equivalent might be Shaw Millennium Park.

Check out the video below of how Revolution Monument plaza is used for an outdoor dance studio.  We also saw it used for a street performance and wedding photos and lots of other informal activities. 

People trying to get to and from Monumento a la Revolucion plaza for a major event. 

Public Affection = People Friendly 

Mexico City is home to one of the world’s great urban parks – Bosque de Chapultepec.  At 1,695 acres, it is 1,000 acres smaller than Nose Hill or Fish Creek Park. One third of the park is home to numerous museums including the world class Anthropology Museum, a zoo, castle, walkways, garden and ponds while the rest is a natural area.  It was amazing how refreshing it was to walk in this and other Mexico City parks - you get a real appreciation for parks being the “lungs of the city.”

Boulevard road in the middle of Bosque de Chapultepec.

Mexico City’s parks are more urbanized than Calgary’s with buildings, attractions, vendors, formal walkways and lots of benches, while their plazas are simple, open spaces with little ornamentation allowing them to be multi-purpose spaces.  In contrast, Calgary has lots of parks, most left natural, while our plazas are heavily ornamentalized.

The "art of sitting" is popular everywhere in Mexico City. 

While Calgarians always seem to be on the move (walking, cycling or jogging) in our parks and pathways, Mexicans have mastered the art of sitting, talking, people watching and engaging in public affection. (Couples young and old love to hug, cuddle and kiss in public and people of all ages hold hands in the streets.) I was surprised too at how they loved to have their pictures taken by strangers.  Collectively, this created an unexpected and lovely pedestrian friendliness in a harsh urban environment.

Delivering toilet paper takes on a different perspective in Mexico City.

Last Word

Mexico City’s public spaces not only serve as a community living room, but also as their kitchen, dining and bedroom. It is not unusual in the evening to see a family dining at a street vendor, young children playing on the sidewalk while older children do their homework. In Mexico City the majority “live, work and play” in public, not in the privacy of a home. 

Let’s remember Calgary is only 100 years old. We have grown very rapidly in geographical size based on 20th century planning and regulations (good and bad) not organically and without public engagement and regulations over centuries, as is the case for Mexico City and many other vibrant urban cities. 

For Calgary, the 21st century will be one of infilling development projects (big and small), which will dramatically change our personal and private spaces.  It has already begun and it is to be expected many will “kick and scream” about losing their privacy and personal space.

Editor's Note: An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo Section on November 21, 2015. 

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Mexico City: Full of Surprises

One of my criteria for a great urban experience is how many fun surprises you encounter while on your way to other places.  Recently, while in Mexico City for 18 days, I was super impressed by the number and diversity of surprises my mother and I encountered – everything from coming upon thousands of locals participating in a Zombie Walk, to a plaza’s fun dancing waterfall with coloured lights that attracted hundreds of families and young adults on a Sunday evening.  

Reforma Fun

The first surprise happened on our first day when I unexpectedly discovered I could walk on 8-lane Reforma Boulevard (think Paris’ Champs-Elysees), as it closed Sunday mornings to allow cyclists, joggers and walkers to wander. After a few blocks, my second surprise was happening upon some 20 feet tall, colourful and fun paper-mache creatures. Soon I realized there were over 200 sculptures lined up like a parade on both sides of the boulevard.  Hundreds of people, taking pictures and laughing at the imaginative sculptures that linked indigenous spiritualism and decoration with modern surrealism, created a carnival atmosphere.

Everyone loves a parade, especially if there are fun, colourful and imaginative floats like these ones.  In this case the floats were stationary and the people paraded around them. 

Sundays on Reforma were amazing with cyclists, joggers, pedestrians and public art.  Who could ask for anything more? 

One of Reforma's traffic circles was turned into a fun playground.  Caught these guys trying their hand at double-dutch skipping.  How cool!

Archery Fun

On another day, I wandered to the Zocalo Square having earlier noticed new bleachers had been set up. I found a small crowd watching a dozen or so archers with their high-tech bows seemingly firing arrows randomly and silently to a target about 100 meters away. Alternatively you could actually stand by the targets and hear the “invisible” arrows “thud” as they hit the their targets – almost all of them dead centre or just inches away.  Given there was no protection from a stray arrow; it was a bit of a hair-raising experience.  I soon realized they were warming up for the World Archery Competition that was happening in the temporary stadium in another part of Zocalo.

Ready! Aim! Fire!

Pretty good shooting if you ask me?

Loved how they use the area underneath the bleachers for swings.  

Bakery Fun

Later that same day, as we were wandering back from the fabric block (my Mom is an avid quilter), I was intrigued by a reflection in a bakery window and the word “Ideal”.  Upon a closer look in the window we realized this was Pasteleria Ideal, the motherlode of bakeries - there were hundreds of people inside and we couldn’t see all the way to the back.  Once inside we were in awe - this was definitely the biggest and busiest bakery we had ever seen. The size of a small department or grocery store (estimated 40,000 square feet), it even had a second floor gallery with specially decorated cakes for weddings, birthdays, first communions etc. The place was swarming with people many carrying huge trays (30 inches in diameter) heaping with their favourite breads and pastries.  So mesmerized, we didn’t even buy anything that day.

This was just one quarter of the store and you can see how packed it is with people.  They truly were swarming around.

This was just the pastry section of the store.

The second floor exhibition space is much less crowded. 

Hammock Fun

Another surprise was the 20+ fire engine red shed-shaped metal structures that appeared one day in Alameda Central Park. Interesting-looking, but we had no idea what they were all about. The next day as we wandered by, we noticed they now had hammocks attached to them – which were all occupied. Later in the day, I figured out it was part of Design Week, which included dozens of pop-up displays and exhibitions throughout the city.  Very cool!

How cute is this?

People of all ages and backgrounds loved the hammocks. 

St. Jude Fun

Then one night we were kept awake by firecrackers going off every few minutes – my Mom was not happy.  I was thinking this might go on for several days, as the Day of the Dead was still a few days away. The next then we encountered a small parade with people carrying statues of St. Jude and a small marching band.  My mother, a devout Catholic, quickly realized we were at St. Jude Church and it was October 28th – St. Jude’s Day. They were simply celebrating this apostle and patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.

The street in front of St. Jude Church was packed with people buying statues and other items. It was like the Stampede midway. 

Zombie Fun

Perhaps the biggest surprise came when we got off the bus late in the afternoon of our first Saturday as we were heading back to our hostel. We found ourselves in the midst of tens of thousands of people (from infants to seniors) dressed up in gory outfits with makeup to match. “Was this the beginning of the Day of Dead celebrations?” we wondered.  The procession of people was slowly walking from Revolution Plaza towards the historic city centre. Only later did we find out it was a Zombie Walk.  Too fun!

The Zombie Walk took over the road and both sidewalks with participants and spectators for several blocks.

It was a blood bath!

People of all ages joined the fun.

These two girls crawled up to me as I was taking photos. Parents smiled and nodded "Yes" when I asked if I could take their picture.  

Fountain Fun 

Then there was also our first Sunday when we decided to take an evening walk toward an eerie pink-lit building in the distance.  Not only did we discover it was the monument at Revolucion Plaza that is lit every night, but that it has a large, fun, dancing fountain that attracted hundreds of people (young and old) to watch or run through it.  The squeals and screams of happiness were infectious. 

People gathering around the fountain with the Revolution Monument in the background. 

It was like being in a surrealism painting watching people play in the fountain.

One night we were treated to an impromptu performance of all women moaning, groaning and dancing on the plaza next to the fountain. Great public spaces allow for lots of spontaneous activities.  

Another popular activity was for young women to get dressed up like princesses and have their picture taken at the fountain. It was like being in a Disney movie.  

Lottery Fun

The BEST surprise was attending the National Lottery draw.  Early in the day, we finagled our way into the art deco National Lottery building (who can say “no” to an 84-year woman politely asking questions in English) with its spectacular murals and auditorium. It turnout, a public draw takes place to choose the winning lottery numbers.  As chance would have it, there was a draw that night at 8 pm.  We didn’t give it much thought until we were just about back at our hostel and realized it was 7:45 pm and we were just a block from the National Lottery building. We decided to see if we could get in.

Again, my mother thanks managed to talk our way in and we were treated to the most amazing evening of entertainment.  As we headed for our seats, we encountered about a dozen young people (ages 10 to 16) in military uniform lined up waiting to get into the auditorium.  No sooner had we taken our seats then they marched in and up onto the stage. After a flurry of hand-shaking and greeting of the head table dignitaries, the young people took over the night, managing the elaborate system of ball dropping and number calling/chanting – a spectacle almost impossible to describe.  Watch the video and you will know what I mean.

Canoodling Fun

The public displays of affection that occurred in the parks, plazas and sidewalks was a delightful surprise. Everywhere we went, couples (young and old) were sitting on benches canoodling, not the least bit shy about it (they even liked having their pictures taken). We also noticed how handholding was very popular with people of all ages. Paris may commonly be known as the “City of Love,” Mexico City – in my opinion – gives it a run for its money.

These couples saw me taking photos from a distance and smiled as I went by. I asked if they'd like their picture taken and they nodded "yes." 

Just one of dozens of photos of people hand holding in Mexico City. How many couples can you count holding hands in this photo?

Hostel Suites Fun

Our final surprise happened as we were leaving. My Mom, returning to our room after saying goodbye to the hostel staff, held two decorated sugar skulls – gifts from the Hostel Suites staff. The staff there are the best!

Me, Mom and Hostel Suites staff member

Our home away from home in Mexico City Hostel Suites. 

Last Word

We came to Mexico City for the "Day of the Dead" and Our Lady of Quadalupe shrine but left with memories of dozens of other fun, memorable and everyday surprises. 

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Mexico City: Seven Reasons You Should Visit


Seven Reasons To Visit Mexico City

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.

Palaciao de Bellas Artes' Art Nouveau facade is equalled only by its impressive Art Deco interior that includes murals by some the greatest Mexican artists of the 20th Century. The concert/theatre space is magnificent and home to Mexico's iconic ballet company - Ballet Folklorico. 

The Palace Postal still functions as a post office and includes a contemporary art gallery space as well as a post office museum.  The interior may well be the most elegant space I have every experienced. 

  Climbing the Temple of the Sun was one of the most memorable experience of my life - I didn't think it would be a big deal.  

Climbing the Temple of the Sun was one of the most memorable experience of my life - I didn't think it would be a big deal.  

Just one of the many powerful carvings that remind you of human cultures that have existed in North America for centuries. It changed my perception of North America. 

#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.

A segment of one of Diego Rivera's murals titled "In the Arsenal."  Both the National Palace and the Secretaria de Educacion Publica are filled with Rivera murals that tell the stories of violence and passion of the Mexican people (both have free admission).  At the end of our visit my mom commented, "Did you notice that most of his murals have a gun and military in them."

#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.

Plaza de Santo Domingo is home to the Santo Domingo Church with its red volcanic rock a Tuscan colonnade for vendors and while we were there a modern art artwork with video inside.  Funny story - the artwork in the plaza we had seen before in workshop space next to the Toy Museum where is had been the focus of some sort of artists' party the night before. 

I had a peddle car as a kid but not a cool as this one. 

#4 Parks/Plazas/Boulevards

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.

Monumento a la Revolucion towers above the surrounding buildings.  The plaza encompasses a super block that provides space for a variety of activities and event. The museum is underground at the base of the monument. 

Enjoying a Sunday morning ride along Passeo de la Reforma.  Note the playful, colourful sculptures in the backbround. They helped created a carnival atmosphere that will be the subject of a future blog. 

Young couple enjoying the temporary installation of red house shaped objects that supported a single hammock for Design Week. 

#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.

The Saturday Art Market in the Plaza San Jacinto hosts dozens of artists working in many different genres.

There are hundreds of colourful punts at Xoxhimilco. Once you are on the canals it becomes a wonderful kaleidoscope of colour with the boats, the flowers and the reflections. 

# 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.”

The streets of Mexico City are full of couples of all ages holding hands. Count the number of couples holding hands in this photo. 

Benches come in all shapes and sizes in Mexico City.  One of the things we observed early were the number of families who love to hang out together in their public spaces. 

Two young girls crawling on the Revolution Plaza during the Zombie Walk.  Everyone was keen to have their picture taken that day and everyday in Mexico City. 

#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.

Last Word

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.

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