1000 Places

5 Favorite Attractions in Mexico City

With Cinco de Mayo coming up, we’ve got Mexico on the mind. So we asked Patricia Schultz, author of 1000 Places to See Before You Die, to to shine a spotlight on the country’s increasingly popular capital city—one of the largest and most vibrant anywhere. Here are 5 of her favorite destinations in the “City of Palaces.”

“In Mexico City, there is a god under every stone, and when the stones speak,
they are the memory of our people.”—Elena Poniatowska

More than 1,000 years ago, the Aztecs built their capitol of Tenochtitlán on an island in a vast lake here; it was the largest metropolis in the world when the Spanish arrived in 1519. Mexico City, or often D.F. for Distrito Federal, built on top of the ancient city, is again one of the most populous on the planet, where all the disparate strains of Mexican culture come together in a fusion of ancient civilizations and contemporary urbanity. Immense and bustling, sophisticated, and human-scaled, ringed by snow-peaked volcanoes now visible through newly clear air, this much-maligned but gracious Latin American city is fast gaining recognition as one of the world’s increasingly stylish capitals of culture.

5 Unmissable Places in Mexico City

1. The Zócalo

Mexico City’s massive zócalo, also known as Plaza Mayor, is second in size only to Moscow’s Red Square. This was the heart of the Aztec empire, razed by the conquistador Hernán Cortés who recycled its grand temples to build the monuments that
now stand atop it. These buildings include the largest and most impressive cathedral in Latin America, Catedral Metropolitana, and beside it the Museo Templo Mayor, which occupies the first floor of a sacred Aztec temple that was accidentally discovered in 1978 and is now a brilliant showcase of the capital’s preconquest past. The 17th-century Palacio Nacional, Mexico’s seat of government, houses Diego Rivera’s epic murals that depict the sweep of Mexican history. The best views of the plaza are from the Holiday Inn’s rooftop terrace, which occupies the site where Moctezuma’s palace once stood.

Museo Templo Mayor: Tel 52/55-5542-4943. Holiday Inn: Tel 52/55-5130-5130. Cost: from $120.

2. Palacio de Bellas Artes

Situated on the rim of D.F.’s colonial core, the opulent Palacio de Bellas Artes is both the venue for the Ballet Folklorico and the country’s oldest and most important art museum: The murals by Diego Rivera that grace the interior walls are second only to his work in the Palacio Nacional, and the early-20th-century murals by Mexican artists Tamayo, Orozco, and Siqueiros are unequaled. Together with the magnificent 1907 Palacio Postal across the street, the Palacio faces the 10-acre Alameda, a leafy park that is popular with strolling couples and families.

Palacio de Bellas Artes: Tel 52/55-5325-9000.

3. Basilica de Guadalupe

On this spot in 1531, a poor Mexican Indian named Juan Diego reputedly saw the Virgin Mother, who filled his cloak with rose petals and left her image imprinted on it. Today there are two basilicas on the site, which is locally called “La Villa.” Construction of the first started immediately and was completed in 1709. The adjacent basilica, built in 1976 to accommodate the masses of pilgrims who come here—more than any Catholic site except the Vatican—holds the original cloak. Hundreds of thousands converge here to honor the country’s patron saint on December 12. Juan Diego, canonized in 2002, is the first indigenous saint of the Americas.

Basilica de Guadalupe: Tel 52/55-5577-6022.

4. Coyoacan

Cortés once kept his native mistress (the national antiheroine La Malinche) in this Aztec market town turned genteel suburb. This slow-paced colonial enclave, famed for decades as an intellectual hub, is home to Casa Azul, the “Blue House,” where painter Frida Kahlo was born in 1907. It is now a museum dedicated to her art and life—including her marriage to master muralist Diego Rivera, whose work and personal items also appear throughout. A few blocks away is the fortresslike Casa León Trotsky, where the Russian revolutionary took refuge from Stalin’s purges and was assassinated in 1940. A stroll around Coyoacán’s central market and three cheerful public squares is best fueled with a stop at El Jarocho, an outdoor café famous for serving some of the best—and surely the strongest—coffee in the city.

Casa Azul: Tel 52/55-5444-5999. Museo Casa de León Trotsky: Tel 52/55-5554-0687. El Jarocho: Tel 52/55-56-58-50-29.   

5. Xochimilco

In Xochimilco, Aztecs once grew produce on reed islands that floated on a now-buried lake. Only a few canals remain, where families and groups of friends today come for weekend fun among the floating gardens—if you visit, you’re sure to see at least one waterborne wedding party seated at the long central table of a brightly painted, flower-bedecked trajinera (flatboat). Revelers stop at tiny island liquor stores or the pavilion restaurant located at the heart of the watery maze, or they buy beer, corn, and tacos from vendors who ply the canals in canoes. Mariachi bands will float up and take requests, and after sundown, the festively lit scene turns enchantingly romantic.

Where: 17 miles/28 km south of city center.

About the Book:

The world’s bestselling travel book is back in a more informative, more experiential, more budget-friendly full-color edition. A #1 New York Times bestseller, 1,000 Places reinvented the idea of travel book as both wish list and practical guide. As Newsweek wrote, it “tells you what’s beautiful, what’s fun, and what’s just unforgettable—everywhere on earth.” And now the best is better. There are 600 full-color photographs. Over 200 entirely new entries, including visits to 28 countries like Lebanon, Croatia, Estonia, and Nicaragua, that were not in the original edition. There is an emphasis on experiences: an entry covers not just Positano or Ravello, but the full 30-mile stretch along the Amalfi Coast.

Every entry from the original edition has been readdressed, rewritten, and made fuller, with more suggestions for places to stay, restaurants to visit, and festivals to check out. And throughout, the book is more budget-conscious, with starred restaurants and historic hotels such as the Ritz, but also moderately priced gems that don’t compromise on atmosphere or charm.

The world is calling. Time to answer.

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