New York City may consider itself the center of the universe, but don't tell that to Mexico City. Mexico's capital, known to locals as "D.F." (for Distrito Federal, or Federal District), easily rivals its northern cousin measure for measure in terms of art and culture, historic sites, nightlife, recreation, transportation services, and culinary excellence.
Although overlooked by tourists and expats who tend to favor Mexico's coastal resort areas—Cabo San Lucas in the west and Cancun in the east—Mexico City is an exciting destination in the heart of Mexico that offers something of interest for every traveler and every taste. This bustling city—the second largest metropolitan area in the Americas and the third largest in the world—is nicknamed the City of Palaces and is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It's a city that embraces the modern and the traditional with equal warmth.
Founded by the Aztecs in the early 1300s, Mexico City was destroyed in a siege in 1521, and rebuilt entirely in the latter half of the 16th century. In the centuries since, the city has evolved continuously, with each generation adding its own unique imprint to the layers of the city's history. Periodic political upheavals and natural disasters such as earthquakes occasionally shake the city, but these incidents haven't kept Mexico City from being ranked as one of the top ten major cities of the future in a world survey.
Three days in the city will give you just enough time to see why there's so much interest in Mexico City and its future. Though the city sprawls across the Valley of Anahuac, you'll find that public transportation and taxis are affordable options for exploring all that Mexico City has to offer, particularly in the popular neighborhoods of Condesa, Roma, Polanco, and the historic district. Accommodations at all price points are available in the city, and range from the luxury chain standards such as W Mexico City and Four Seasons, to the hip boutique hotels Condesa df and Habita. More affordable specialty lodgings include The Red Tree House and Condesa Haus.
Start your day with a full breakfast at the popular Café La Habana, which is a short taxi ride from Condesa df, Condesa Haus, or The Red Tree House. Café La Habana is a spacious diner where it is rumored that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara planned the Cuban Revolution. Café La Habana has a stuck-in-time sort of ambiance, with waiters dressed in black pants and white shirts providing attentive and formal service at a bargain price. The café roasts and grinds its own coffee, so go early to see the roasting in process!
After you've indulged in coffee and an omelette, walk over to Avenida Reforma, one of the major arteries that run across the sprawling capital. Get to know the city by catching the Turibus at the stop between the Segway office and the statue of Christopher Columbus. For just 100 pesos (about $10 USD) you'll receive a pair of ear buds through which the narration is delivered, and you can choose to take the full tour of the city or hop off and on all day long. The trip offers riders a fantastic introduction to the city's well-known neighborhoods and historic sites, and is the perfect way to begin getting a sense of the size and diversity of the capital. Be sure to bring a small notebook; that way, you can note any places you'd like to return to.
One place where you can step off—and it's a site that's obligatory at some point during your visit—is the Zocalo, or the historic square that is the emotional heart of Mexico City. The Zocalo is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, renowned for its centuries old buildings and cathedral. It's also home to the annual "grito" or "shout" of independence, as well as other public events, ranging from transitory art exhibits to protests. The enormous Mexican flag flying in the center of the Zocalo is photo-worthy, as are the vendors selling everything from sunglasses and snacks to "aura-cleansing."
Just a stone's throw away from the Zocalo is the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). Impressive enough from the outside, even more stunning treasures await inside, where the work of Mexico's famous muralists is on permanent display and where special exhibits of Mexican and international art are presented regularly. The Frida Kahlo retrospective in 2007 drew more than half a million visitors, with lines in the gallery extending outside the museum itself at times. If you need a pick-me-up before you move on to the next activity, stop for a coffee at the museum's café.
If all the sight-seeing has made you hungry, duck into one of Mexico City's many markets for a lunch on the run. Mercado Juarez, located on Avenida Chapultepec, is just a few Metro stops from the Palacio de Bellas Artes or the Zocalo, and is one of the best ways to really immerse yourself like a Mexico City local. Choose from any of the numerous stalls where soups, tacos, flautas, and other snacks are sold for the equivalent of a few dollars. Be sure to try one of the local juices, made and served fresh, and, if you'd like, grab some fruit to go.
Diego Rivera's studio
Mornings and evenings are cool in Mexico City, but the heat rises quickly in the afternoon. If you're feeling flattened by the southern sun and are still adjusting to the city's altitude, take a break from exploring the streets and check out Mexico's National Film Archive, the Cineteca Nacional. You'll need to take a taxi or the Metro, either of which will give you respite from the mid-day heat. Mexico has a long and impressive cinematic tradition and though the glory of the good old days is over, you can still get a sense of how important film is—and how affordable it is—at the Cineteca. Tucked in the neighborhood of Coyoacan, the Cineteca has an impressive range of domestic and foreign films, all shown at a bargain price (especially on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). The Cineteca complex also boasts two cafés and a fantastic bookstore, which also sells hard-to-find DVDs.
As long as you're in Coyoacan, why not stop at the Casa Azul, the former home of Mexico's most famous female artist, Frida Kahlo? The home has been lovingly preserved as Frida lived in it, and Frida fans will find the house to be charming. This is also a great place to buy Frida souvenirs, including jewelry, t-shirts, handbags, posters, and handcrafts.
You've had a full day and have likely worked up an appetite. Since you're already in Coyoacan, consider dinner at Los Danzantes, which specializes in classic Mexican food with a contemporary twist. Be sure to ask for the house mezcal, an agave-based liquor, which is made on site! Another great option in the same neighborhood is Oh Mayahuel, which specializes in dishes from Oaxaca, a region known for its richly spiced food, including the complex blend of chocolate, cinnamon, chiles, and nuts that comprises the popular dish, mole. If you enjoyed the bright colors of the Casa Azul, Oh Mayahuel will also delight your senses.
Evening in Coyoacan offers many options, and if you're in the mood for live music, be sure to visit El Recreo de Coyoacan.
to Day 2