Mexico City is the largest and oldest Latin American capital and is also one of the most important commerce and cultural centers in the world due in large part to its pre-Colombian legacy. Before the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the establishment of Mexico City as the capital of Mexico we know today, it was first the commercial and cultural center of the Aztec civilization known as Tenochtitlan. Ruins of the ancient Aztec city have been partially excavated and on display at the center of town. There are also a large number of pre-hispanic historical sites on the outskirts of Mexico City as well as countless museums dedicated to Mexico City’s fascinating history, a history that has shaped the present culture so completely that most Mexicans today pride themselves on being “mestizo”, that is a mixture of indigenous and Spanish blood and therefore a culture that embraces modernity and tradition.
As a traveler, you too will explore this magical mixture of past and present. Here are a few of my favorite museums, historical sites, and cultural events that aptly convey the fascinating complexity of Mexican culture and identity.
My all-time favorite museum in Mexico City is the National Anthropology Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropologia) located in the famous Chapultepec Park. This museum offers the most fascinating and thorough depiction of past and present indigenous cultures in Mexico. Plan on spending a good 2 to 4 hours meandering through this massive 20+ room museum with the largest collection of Mexican and ancient Meso-American artifacts in the world.
Another museum worthy of visiting in Chapultepec park is the Modern Art Museum (Museo de Arte Moderno) that along with its beautiful architectural design, showcases a vast array of Mexican and international artists. Permanent collections include Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Siquieros. If you are in search of more art, head to the Centro Historico to Palacio de Bellas Artes. El Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of Mexico City’s most beautiful and well-known art museums featuring incredible murals by Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco as well as many other temporal exhibitions and all-around stunning architecture of the museum itself and of the surrounding grounds.
The Frida Kahlo Museum, also known as the Casa Azul, is located in my favorite neighborhood, Coyoacan and has become one of the more popular tourist sites in Mexico City. Tickets can be purchased online for faster entry. This museum is fairly quick to view as it is the late artist´s former home with only a few rooms for permanent exhibits and a small house in the garden for temporary exhibitions.
You cannot leave Mexico City without experiencing Teotihuacan and Xochimilco. Both are remnants of the Aztec civilization; while Teotihuacan are the ruins of the ancient civilization, Xochimilco has evolved into one of Mexico´s most enchanted barrio magico (as with the idea of pueblo magico, barrio magico or magical neighborhood are government-designated and promoted neighborhoods for tourism due to cultural, historical and\or artistic significance).
Teotihuacan is located around an hour outside of Mexico City center. The cheapest way to get to the ruins from Mexico City is by taking a bus; however, there are ubers, taxis and organized tours that can get you there for a higher price. The pyramids of the sun and moon in this gargantuan excavation of Aztec architecture are still open to the public to climb up their steep stairs to the summit. There is something truly powerful and haunting about Teotihuacan that surely impacted and continues to impact me every time I visit.
Xochimilco is a borough of Mexico City even though it is located at least an hour to 2 hours away from the center of town depending on traffic. Xochimilco is known for its canal systems and floating markets which tourists explore on long gondola-like boats called trajineras. These boats will take you from market to market and from island to island that have all been beautifully manicured and preserved by the government as Xochimilco is a UNESCO national heritage site. The canals are crowded with a large number of trajineras, smaller boats with Mariachis and other merchants selling crafts, food, and drink. On the weekends it may feel overly crowded, but the bustle of the canals adds to Xochimilco´s charm. The cheapest way to get out to Xochimilco is via metro and train; from the metro stop Tasqueña you simply purchase a ticket on the tren ligero to Xochimilco which leaves you at the center of the neighborhood where you can either explore or walk directly to the docking sites to board a trajinera. Another more expensive but certainly affordable option is an uber ride; although depending on the day of the week and the time of day you go, traffic can be really terrible.
A few of my favorite lesser known historical sites are two architectural feats designed by Mexican architect Luis Barragan: a beautiful home in the neighborhood of La Condesa, and the Cuadra San Cristobal stables located around 45 minutes outside of the city in the state of Mexico. To view these sites, you must make a reservation as they are both private properties, and thus considerably more expensive than the government owned and run museums. However, because these are privately owned, they are very well preserved and private, in-depth tours and discourses are given by the owners who coincidentally have very interesting ties to the late architect.
Mexico City´s largest university, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), has a wide variety of free events such as concerts, theatrical productions, and workshops that most tourists do not know about. The Centro Cultural Universitario of the University Cultural Center puts out a monthly schedule of free or discounted events open to the public on the weekends that include theatrical productions, national orchestra performances, independent film screenings, and dance performances. Check their website for events going on during your stay.
As you plan your trip to this colossal gem of a city, make sure to check out the museums and historical sites that both honor Mexican culture and encompass Mexican identity. While I have mentioned a few of my favorite tourist sites, they are merely the tip of the iceberg and will hopefully leave you hungry for further exploration of Mexico City´s endless cultural and historical bounty.
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