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Riding the buses » Great cities, Mexico, Travel itinerary » Visiting Mexico City? Here’s my guide

Visiting Mexico City? Here’s my guide

Mexico City is great! Really. So why do so few foreigners visit, even those who travel regularly to other parts of the country? It’s because of the “fear” factor and I think it’s been overplayed.

A travel writer with Australia’s Sydney Morning Sun-Herald wrote a rather humorous article on his trip to Mexico City, about how he hardly took any photos the first few days because he was “too scared of being mugged to pull my camera out of my bag.” He went on to say that “every time someone brushed against me, I expected to be thrown into a white van and driven at knife point to the nearest ATM.” Needless to say, he lived to write about it.

Mexico City from Chapultepec Hill

Mexico City from Chapultepec Hill

Sure, Mexico City is BIG—the second largest city in the world—and you have to be selective about neighbourhoods when you visit big cities. But even the US State Department doesn’t have an advisory out on Mexico City (at least not today), and that says a lot.

Of course you need to be a smart traveller, leaving expensive jewelry and fancy clothes at home, passport and credit cards in the hotel safe. And you should always be smart about taxis in Mexico City (more about that later). Not knowing the language should not be an excuse; I speak almost no Spanish (something I plan to rectify one day). On my latest trip I was amazed at how friendly the people were, stopping to help me find my way whenever I was lost, which was frequently. It was like the government issued an edict telling locals to be nice to foreigners!

Taking the plunge

Mexico City's historic centre

Mexico City’s historic centre

This is a city where one great culture (Spanish colonial) was literally layered upon another (Aztec), and then along came a revolution. It’s a place of incredible architecture, with glass and steel towers rubbing up against historic landmarks. Mexico City has more than 150 museums and 100 art galleries. The downtown has recently been spiffied up and it is gleaming.

Where to stay

If this is your first visit to Mexico City, then I suggest you choose a hotel or hostel close to the zocalo in the Historic Centre or in Zona Rosa, the Pink Zone (which also happens to be gay-friendly). As a woman who often travels alone, I find both areas comfortable to walk about in, with restaurants and various transportation choices close by.

There are many hotels to choose from. Within my price range for a city this size (around US$100/night), I’ve stayed at the Best Western Majestic and Holiday Inn Zocalo in the Historic Centre and the Geneve Hotel in the Zona Rosa. Both the Best Western and Holiday Inn have restaurants overlooking the zocalo and all you have to do is walk across the square to be at three of the most important historical sites in the whole city.

Hotel Geneve

Hotel Geneve

Geneve Hotel’s claim to fame? Aside from being a charming, 100-year-old property, it was the first hotel to admit unaccompanied single women! Perhaps more importantly, it is by Genova Street, a pedestrian walkway where many restaurants and shops are located, and if you stroll two blocks one way you are at La Reforma Avenue near the Angel of Independence monument, probably the most famous street and landmark in the city. If you walk along Genova Street in the other direction you are at the Insurgentes Metro station.

Last month I stayed at Trip Advisor’s #1 rated Mexico City b&b, The Tree House, and this place deservedly has a very loyal following.  It’s in the Condesa Zone and a little hidden so I’d probably wait until visit #2 to put it on the list.

How to get around

Walking in the zocalo area

Walking in the zocalo area

By Foot

If you have stamina (and good knees) then you can get around the Historic Centre on foot, from the Zocaloup 5 De Mayo to Alameda Central Park.

The walk down La Reforma Avenue from Alameda Central Park to Chapultepec Park is magnificent but a good distance. There are bikes you can rent along the way or consider having a taxi drop you off at the Cuauhtemoc Monument and walking down La Reforma from there. Or you can take the metro to Insurgentes (pink line #1), walk up two blocks to La Reforma (you will be between the Palmera and the Angel of Independence monuments).

The distance between the most important sites in Chapultepec Park are walkable.

Just don’t try to do everything in this “By Foot” section the same day (or at least plan to take a taxi back to your hotel).

Turibus

Turibus, Mexico City

Turibus, Mexico City

I always take hop-on hop-off buses when I’m new to a city but I rarely get off because it seems to take forever for another one to show up. There’s lots of traffic in downtown Mexico City so if you have visions of whipping around town on a Turibus then forget it. That being said, the Turibus does provide a good overview of the main attractions (although the English audio has never worked for me despite pleas to the driver).

Taxis

You really must be careful about taxis in Mexico City. When arriving at Benito Juárez Airport, you should only use airport taxis, after prepaying the fare inside the airport. Within the city, only take a taxi arranged by your hotel or one based at a designated stand (sitio). The Canadian government travel advisory says government-authorized taxis in Mexico City have license plates starting with an A or a B and taxis from designated stands have both the logo of their company and the plate number stamped on the side of the car.

Metro

Mexico City metro map

Mexico City metro map

This was my year to become comfortable with Mexico City’s metro and although it was a rather steep learning curve (okay, one day of madness), I did it and felt so much more empowered because of it. Aside from being incredibly cheap (one trip with unlimited transfers within the system costs 5 pesos) and the fact that you are entertained by musicians, magicians, sellers of flashlights, CDs, candies and pens on every trip ( and there seemed to be friendly-looking police everywhere), it was such an efficient option.

First you need a metro map. Then you need to understand that taking the metro requires lots of walking and going up and down stairs. But if that works for you, then give it a try. It certainly made me feel more secure to know that if I couldn’t find a secure taxi then I could take the metro.

I was told that if I was stuck somewhere then I should hop on a bus bearing the name of a metro station. Good backup plan, I say. Consider downloading the Metrobus map too, if for no other reason than you’ll probably see these fancy buses go by and want to hop on. Metrobuses generally stop at places the metro doesn’t such as La Reforma Avenue (Cuauhtemoc Monument). Tickets for the two systems are not transferable though.

Where to go

Historic Centre

The Historic Centre includes the area around the zocalo (the main square), up 5 De Mayo, past the Belles Artes to the Alameda Central Park. The Blue Line #2 Metro stops at Zocalo, Allende, Belles Artes, and Hidalgo (which is just after the Alameda Central Park and on La Reforma).

The Spanish built Mexico City on top of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec ceremonial centre. The zocalo is an enormous public square, more formally called Plaza de la Constitucion. There are more than 1400 colonial buildings branching out from here.

Metropolitan Church

Metropolitan Church

On one side of the zocalo stands the towering Metropolitan Cathedral, an apt symbol of the Spanish colonial period. Many of the Cathedral’s stones came from demolished Aztec temples.

Not that long ago, archeologists discovered ruins of the most important Aztec religious centre, Templo Mayor, underneath the cathedral, and started the slow excavation process that continues today. Their finds are housed in the nearby Museum of Templo Mayor, which is considered to be one of the most important sites in the city.

Diego murals

Diego murals

The other structure that demands attention around the zocalo is the National Palace, the seat of government. You go there to see the fabulous murals of Diego Rivera, depicting the revolutionary period and the end of colonialism. Last year I also saw the most incredible exhibit on the Maya there. As you leave the Palace you pass through a lovely botanical garden.

Alameda Central Park

Alameda Central Park

Now make your way to 5 De Mayo Street towards Alameda Central Park (between Hidalgo and Juarez). This park was once the exclusive realm of the elite, fenced off from the masses. Then it was overrun by vendors. Today, the vendors are gone, the gardens are lovely, the benches a peaceful place to rest  and it’s a WiFi zone.

Palacio de Belles Artes

Palacio de Belles Artes

Next to the park, on avenue Juárez, is the Palacio de Belles Artes, Mexico’s home for the performing arts. You can’t miss it; it’s that spectacular, white marble “art nouveau” building surrounded by greenery. Have a look inside and think about going to a performance, perhaps the orchestra or the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico (the latter is on every Wednesday evening at 20:30 hrs and Sunday at 9:30 and 20:30 hrs).

Museum of Art

Museum of Art

There are several well known museums in this area, starting with the National Art Museum (Calle Tacuba 8), best remembered for its stunning marble staircase. I particularly enjoyed a temporary exhibit called “Consumption”, especially a photography series of 12 years of a life called “My Things”.

There’s the Franz Mayer Museum, almost hidden at Av. Hidalgo 45, which is Mexico’s “largest decorative art collection” but not my thing. There was a temporary exhibit on bicycles when I was there that attracted a large and very enthusiastic crowd.

Museum of Popular Art

Museum of Popular Art

My favourite museum in this area is the Museum of Popular Art (Calle Revillagigedo 11). Finding it requires some effort because you have to cross Alameda Central Park and walk another block or so but the display of Mexican handcrafts and folk art is engaging and informative.

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