Most travelers probably think of Mexico City as a place to transfer — en route to beaches or historical towns for their Mexico vacations — rather than a destination unto itself. In 2005 I spent nearly a week here in the "Distrito Federal," to get a feel for this megalopolis of nearly 20 million people. (I’ve included photos from my trip below.) Like São Paulo or Mumbai, it attracts people from all over the country, so it’s a great place to get tastes of Mexico’s unique cultural spectrum. In that way, it’s natural that most people casually refer to the name of the city simply as "Mexico."
Mexico City makes for a fascinating and quite affordable travel destination. You can easily spend a week just visiting major attractions, taking day trips and noshing on great food. The expansive, inexpensive and clean metro (subway) is a great way to see the unique city neighborhoods. The subway doesn’t quite reach the airport, but a ride in 2005 cost me the equivalent of 20 cents. Cabs are affordable, and radio taxis are a good idea for travel at night.
As a starting point for exploring Mexico City, visit the Zócalo, or Plaza de la Constitución, the historic center of the city and the second-largest public square in the world. The Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest and oldest cathedral in the hemisphere, anchors this giant square. Like many of the structures built on the ancient lake bed or on ruins of Aztec structures under Mexico City, it is tilting as it slowly settles into the earth. The plaza and cathedral are located near, sometimes on top of, the remnants of the main temple of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs’ predecessor city. Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world at its peak in about 1500 AD, and its byways form the basis for a number of today’s city streets. This succession of urban areas fascinates me — it’s interesting to walk the streets and imagine the bustle of Tenochtitlan, in the shadow of a gigantic pyramidal temple. The nearby Museum of the Great Temple (Museo del Templo Mayor) illustrates the temples and artwork of the Aztecs, largely destroyed by the Spanish conquerors.
Chapultapec Park is an expansive stretch of green to the west, crowded with strolling families on the weekends. The National Anthropology Museum, in the park, has a world-renowned collection of indigenous art from the layers of clashing civilizations that form the patrimony of pre-European Mexico. The artifacts are bold, otherworldly and unforgettable, including the massive Stone of the Sun (Piedra del Sol) that’s featured on the 10-peso coin. At the edge of the park is Chapultapec Castle (El Castillo), which now serves as the National History Museum. The building is also known for the youth soldiers, the Niños Heroes, who died protecting the building in battle in 1847, during the Mexican-American War.
Neighborhoods a little west of the center have some good hipster amenities. The swank Polanco area is full of cool bars and innovative restaurants. I preferred areas like La Condesa and Colonia Roma, which had quiet leafy streets, dusty Art Deco homes, artists’ workshops, and some funky cafes and restaurants. A good break from the city center is Xochimilco, a little Venetian experience south of the city center, where painted boats ply the canals for locals and tourists alike. Other artistic highlights in the city include the Palace of Fine Arts, and The Frieda Kahlo Museum (in a southern suburb).
If you can, travel about an hour outside of Mexico City to see the pyramids at Teotihuacan, a truly awesome symbol of the indigenous civilization that preceded not only the Europeans but the Aztecs as well. Teotihuacan was the Mexico City of the first few centuries AD, the largest city in all of the Americas. Along a stretch of numerous temple structures, the gigantic Pyramid of the Sun, and the slightly shorter Pyramid of the Moon, dominate the area. After a slow, healthy climb to the top, you can better understand the layout of the whole vanished city, and it’s a good place to hang out with other travelers.
For longer vacations, nearby historical towns like Puebla, Taxco and Cuernavaca are easy, well-traveled day trips, and each is renowned for its history, art and cuisine.
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Andrew Day, Associate Creative Director at Orbitz, lives by the motto "Go places and eat things." He has traveled extensively, most recently on a six-week backpacking trip around India.