Mexico City Travel Guide


Alameda Central
Dominating the east end of Alameda Central, Mexico City's leafy city-centre park, is the white-marble Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts). Construction of the concert hall began in 1904 under Italian architect Adamo Boari, who tended toward neoclassical and art nouveau styles. But the building's heavy marble shell began to sink into the spongy subsoil, and work was halted. Architect Federico Mariscal eventually finished the interior in the 1930s, with new designs reflecting the more modern art deco style. This is the place to see if you're mad about murals: some of Mexico's finest are found upon the immense wall spaces of the second and third levels. Works by Rufino Tamayo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera are among the highlights.

Speaking of Rivera, the Museo Mural Diego Rivera was built in 1986 specifically to house a single outstanding mural of his. In his Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda), the artist imagines many of the figures who walked in the city from colonial times onward. All are grouped around a skeleton dressed in prerevolutionary ladies' garb; a pug-faced-kid version of Rivera and Frida Kahlo, appear next to the bony figure. The museum has a space for temporary exhibitions.

Bosque de Chapultepec
Chapultepec, which means Hill of Grasshoppers in the Aztec language (Náhuatl), once served as a refuge for the wandering Aztecs before eventually becoming a summer residence for Aztec nobles. In the 15th century, Nezahualcóyotl, ruler of nearby Texcoco, gave permission for the area to be made a forest reserve. The Bosque de Chapultepec has remained Mexico City's largest park to this day. It now covers more than 4 sq km (1.5 sq mi) and has lakes, a zoo and several excellent museums. Still an abode to Mexico's high and mighty, it contains the current presidential resident (Los Pinos) and a former imperial and presidential palace (Castillo de Chapultepec).

One of its handful of museums, the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Anthropology Museum) is one of the finest museums of its kind in the world. It is extremely large and overwhelming, with more than most people can absorb (without brain strain) in a single visit. The ground-floor halls are dedicated to pre-Hispanic Mexico, and the upper level covers the way modern Mexico's indigenous people, the descendants of those pre-Hispanic civilizations, live today. With a few exceptions, each ethnological section upstairs covers the same territory as the archaeological exhibit below it, so you can see the great Mayan city of Palenque as it was in the 7th century, then go upstairs and see how Mayan people live today.

The park has other museums, including the Museo del Caracol, which covers the subject of the Mexican people's struggle for liberty, the Museo de Arte Moderno, which has a permanent collection of Mexico's notable 20th-century artists, the excellent children's museum Papalote Museo de Niño and the Museo Nacional de Historia.

Centro Histórico
Centro Histórico (Historic Centre), brims with fine colonial buildings and historic sites. Its nerve centre and the heart of Mexico City is Zócalo, the Plaza de la Constitución, which is home to the powers-that-be. On its east side is the Palacio Nacional, built on the site of an Aztec palace, which formerly housed the viceroys of New Spain. It now holds the offices of the president, a museum and the historical murals of Diego Rivera. On the northern part of the plaza is the Catedral Metropolitana (built by the Spaniards in the 1520s on the site of the Aztecs' Tzompantli), while on the south you'll find the offices of the Distrito Federal government. The plaza is also a stomping ground for political protesters - it's often dotted with makeshift camps of strikers or campaigners. At daily the huge Mexican flag flying in the middle of the Zócalo is ceremonially lowered by the Mexican army and carried into the Palacio Nacional.

Also in the vicinity is the excavated Templo Mayor (Main Temple) of Aztec Tenochtitlán. Its excavation commenced after electricity workers happened upon a buried eight-ton stone-disc carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui in 1978. The temple is thought to be on the exact spot where the Aztecs saw their symbolic eagle with a snake in its beak perching on a cactus - still the symbol of Mexico today. In Aztec belief this was literally the centre of the universe. Like many other sacred buildings in Tenochtitlán, the temple, first begun in 1375, was enlarged several times, with each rebuilding accompanied by the sacrifice of captured warriors. What we see today are sections of several of the temple's different phases. Museo del Templo Mayor, an excellent museum within the Templo Mayor site, houses artefacts from the site and gives a good overview (in Spanish) of Aztec civilization.

The Museo Nacional de Arte (National Art Museum) is one of the most stellar museums in the area, while the panoramas from the modern Torre Latinoamericana skyscraper are the truly tremendous.

About 10km (6mi) south of downtown, Coyoacán was Cortés' base after the fall of Tenochtitlán. It remained a small town outside Mexico City until urban sprawl reached it 50 years ago. Close to the university and once home to Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky (whose houses are now the fascinating Museo Frida Kahlo and the Museo Léon Trotsky), it still has its own identity, with narrow colonial-era streets, plazas, cafés and a lively atmosphere. Especially on the weekends, assorted musicians, mimes and craft markets draw large relaxed crowds from all walks of life to Coyoacán's central plazas. A pleasant way of approaching Coyoacán is via the Viveros de Coyoacán (Coyoacán Nurseries), a swath of greenery, popular with joggers.

San Ángel
Sixty years ago San Ángel was a village separated from Mexico City by open fields. Today it's one of the city's most charming suburbs, with many quiet cobbled streets lined by both old colonial houses and expensive modern ones, and hosting a variety of things to see and do. Every Saturday the Bazar Sábado brings a festive atmosphere, masses of colour and crowds of people to San Ángel's pretty little Plaza San Jacinto. The 16th-century Iglesia de San Jacinto, off the west side of the plaza, is entered from a peaceful garden where you can take refuge from the crowded market areas. Ten minutes walk northwest of the plaza is the Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Studio Museum, the 1930s avante garde abode where the famous couple lived from 1934 to 1940, when they divorced. The museum has only a few examples of Rivera's art and none of Kahlo's, but has a lot of memorabilia.

Plaza Loreto, a 600m (a third of a mile) walk south of Plaza San Jacinto, is Mexico City's most attractive mall, converted from an old paper factory a few years ago. It's more than just a place to shop: there is a mini-amphitheatre for performances, two multiscreen cinemas, a variety of eateries and the excellent Museo Soumaya, which houses one of the world's three major collections of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, plus work by Degas, Matisse, Renoir, Tamayo and others.

Xochimilco, which means 'Place where Flowers Grow' in Náhuatl, lies about 20km (12mi) south of downtown Mexico City. It is known for its canals, which remain one of Mexico's favourite destinations for fun and relaxation. Hundreds of colourful trajineras (gondolas), each punted by a man with a pole, cruise the canals with parties of merrymakers and tourists. You can board one at one of the embarcaderos (boat landings) near the centre of Xochimilco. On weekends, a fiesta atmosphere takes over and the waterways become jam-packed with boats, people and tourist-targeting touts. Weekdays offer a more relaxing vibe.

Off the Beaten Track

Basílica de Guadalupe
Dedicated to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a Spanish manifestation of the Virgin whose cult was particularly popular in early colonial times, the enormous Basílica de Guadalupe was established in the mid-16th century after an indigenous Christian convert saw a vision of the blessed lady on Cerro del Tepeyac (Tepeyac hill).

Lotería Nacional
The tall art deco tower on the west side of Paseo de la Reforma opposite Avenida Juárez is the headquarters of a Mexican passion: the Lotería Nacional (National Lottery). Each ticket purchased is for a particular draw (sorteo) on a specific date, with prize money ranging from nice to woah. All sorts of calculations, hunches and superstitions are often called upon to decide which numbers may be lucky. Regular zodiaco draws, in which each ticket bears a sign of the zodiac as well as a number, adds more spice to the procedures. Take a seat in the cozy auditorium upstairs, and at exactly the ceremony begins. Cylindrical cages spew out numbered wooden balls, which are plucked out by uniformed pages who announce the winning numbers and their respective monetary winnings. You can buy a ticket of your very own at a street vendor or kiosk, and start dreaming of an early retirement in Mexico, a lifelong trip around the world, or at the very least, a lifetime supply of Bohemian lager.

Tlatelolco - Plaza de las Tres Culturas
The Plaza of Three Cultures is a calm oasis in the city, but is haunted by the echoes of its sombre history. Founded by Aztecs in the 14th century, Tlatelolco was a separate dynasty from Tenochtitlán, on a separate island in Lago de Texcoco. In pre-Hispanic times it was the scene of the largest market in the Valle de México. Cortés defeated Tlatelolco's Aztec defenders, led by Cuauhtémoc, here in 1521. Tlatelolco is also a symbol of more modern troubles; it was where hundreds of protesters were massacred by government troops on the eve of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games.

You can view the remains of Tlatelolco's main pyramid-temple and other Aztec buildings from a walkway around them. The Spanish, recognising the religious significance of the place, built a monastery here and then, in 1609, the Templo de Santiago. Outside the north wall of the church stands a monument to the victims of the 1968 massacre. The full truth about the massacre has never come out: the traces were hastily cleaned away, and Mexican schoolbooks still do not refer to it.

Other Mexico Attractions

Maybe it's the romantic history of spice ships and pirates; maybe it's the golden beaches, tropical jungles and lagoons; or perhaps it's the high-rise hotels, glittery nightlife and famous daredevil cliff-divers that have made Acapulco the first and foremost resort town in Mexico.

The beaches are the big drawcard at Acapulco, and most are content to limit their sightseeing to a view of the sun slowly traversing the blue yonder. For variety there are musuems, aquariums, a fun park, and the famous divers of La Quebrada, who plunge into the ocean swell from vertiginous heights.

Baja California
With Tijuana as its frontier post, Baja is the epitome of 'south of the border'. The peninsula is renowned for its long coastline of fine white beaches, peaceful bays and imposing cliffs, sharply contrasting with the harsh and undeveloped interior. Baja has long been a hideout for revolutionaries, mercenaries, drinkers and gamblers, but these days visitors are attracted by more healthy pursuits like horse riding, surfing and whale-watching. Highlights include Loreto, with its Spanish mission history and offshore national park; the extraordinary pre-Columbian rock-art sites of Sierra de San Francisco, near San Ignacio; La Paz, the laid-back capital of Baja California Sur and known for its equally gorgeous beaches and sunsets; and the hiking paradise of Sierra de la Laguna, a botanical wonderland of coexisting cacti and pines, palms and aspens set beside granite rockpools.

Chihuahua-Pacífic Railway
Mexico's most scenic railway connects Los Mochis on the Pacific coast with Chihuahua in the country's arid inland. The route takes 14 to 16 hours, and includes several stops in the fabled Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) - actually a group of 20 canyons, and all up four times larger than the Grand Canyon. The 655km (406mi) train line passes through 86 tunnels and over 39 bridges as it cuts through the Sierra Tarahumara's sheer canyons, hugging the sides of towering cliffs and offering dizzying glimpses of river beds far below.

The views are stunning, particularly between Creel and Loreto; they're generally best on the right side of the carriage when heading inland (east) and on the left when heading to the coast (west). Stops along the way include the attractive colonial town of El Fuerte; Divisadero, with excellent views down into the 2300m (7544ft) depths of Copper Canyon; Areponápuchi, teetering right on the canyon's edge; Creel, a base for hikers and the regional centre for the local Tarahumara people; and the Mennonite hub of Cuauhtémoc.

Many of the traditions considered characteristically 'Mexican' were created in Guadalajara, the country's second-largest city. Guadalajara can be held responsible for the mixed blessings of mariachi music, tequila, the Mexican Hat Dance, broad-brimmed sombrero hats and the Mexican rodeo. Part of Guadalajara's huge appeal is that it has many of the attractions of Mexico City - a vibrant culture, fine museums and galleries, handsome historic buildings, exciting nightlife and good places to stay and eat - but few of the capital's problems. It's a bright, modern, well-organised and unpolluted place, with enough attractions to please even the pickiest visitor. Highlights include the giant, twin-towered cathedral and the lovely plazas that surround it, the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas and its frescoes by José Clemente Orozco, the Plaza de los Mariachis if you're a masochist, and the twin handicraft-filled suburbs of Tlaquepaque and Tonalá.

This Spanish-built city of narrow streets has a special atmosphere - at once relaxed and energetic, remote and cosmopolitan. Situated in the rugged southern state of the same name, Oaxaca has a large indigenous population, flourishing markets and some superb colonial architecture. Not least of Oaxaca's attractions are the abundant local handicrafts and the conviviality of the local cafes. Centre of town is the shady, arcaded zócalo and the major landmark is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the most splendid of Oaxaca's many churches. The city also has a clutch of worthy museums, exploring Oaxacan culture and the lives of famous former inhabitants such as Benito Juárez. There are many fascinating places within day-trip distance of the city, notably the Zapotec ruins at Monte Albán, Mitla, Yagul and Cuilapan.

The Spanish colonial flavour is particularly piquant in the old city of Puebla, 125km (77mi) east of Mexico City. Despite the ravages of the 1999 earthquake, Puebla is home to more than 70 churches and a thousand other colonial buildings, many of them adorned with the city's famous hand-painted tiles (azulejos). The town's towering cathedral is considered one of the country's best proportioned, blending severe Herreresque-Renaissance and early baroque styles. Local indigenous influences can be seen in the prolific stucco decoration of the Capilla del Rosario in the Templo de Santo Domingo - a sumptuous baroque proliferation of gilded plaster and carved stone with angels and cherubim popping out from behind every leaf. Puebla is also known for its regional cuisine, celebrated and imitated throughout Mexico; try the mole poblano, spicy chocolate sauce usually served over turkey or chicken.

Not too far from Puebla are two other colonial gems. Some 85km (53mi) south of the capital is Cuernavaca, a retreat for Mexico City's wealthy and fashionable citizens since colonial times, thanks to its spring-like climate. Much of the city's elegance is hidden behind high walls and courtyards, but a number of residences have been transformed into galleries, hotels and restaurants. Those on a tight budget may find Cuernavaca a bit of a squeeze, but the little luxuries go down a treat with visitors who stay on to enroll in a Spanish-language course.

The old silver-mining town of Taxco, 180km (112mi) southwest of Mexico City, is one of the most picturesque and pleasant places in Mexico. The gorgeous colonial antique clings to a steep hillside, its maze of narrow cobbled streets spooling into leafy plazas lined with engagingly distressed buildings. The entire town has been declared a national historic monument.

Puerto Vallarta
Nestled between palm-covered mountains, a river and an azure sea, full of cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses, and sitting in front of a gorgeous sandy beach, Puerto Vallarta is seriously picturesque.

The city has mutated from a sleepy seaside village into an international resort so quickly that it is fashionable to deride its spoilt charms, but it's almost impossible to hold a grudge against its lively beaches, bars, restaurants and galleries.

Pátzcuaro boasts some particularly stately colonial architecture, but the town's major claim to fame is its candlelit Day of the Dead celebrations on November 2. The local Purépechas' celebrations have an especially magical quality and notably pre-Hispanic undertones. Graveyards are lit with candles, decorated with altars of marigolds and filled with traditional dancers and musicians.

Pátzcuaro has a handsome core of lovely colonial buildings, churches and fine plazas, its streets climbing steeply to Our Lady of Good Health in the east of town. Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, the city's beautifully proportioned main plaza, is one of the loveliest in Mexico, flanked by trees and arcaded 17th-century mansions. Several mansions are devoted to the display and sale of the region's notable handicrafts, including copperware, straw goods, musical instruments, gold-leaf lacquer ware, hand-painted ceramics and lace. The town's market is also a good place to pick up local crafts and textiles.

Pátzcuaro is a five-hour bus trip west of Mexico City in the western central highlands. It lies 3.5km (2mi) from the southeast shore of neighbouring Lago de Pátzcuaro, which is ringed by traditional artisans' villages and has four island communities. Isla Janitzio in particular comes alive (so to speak) with its famous Día de los Muertos parade of decorated canoes.

San Cristóbal de las Casas
This handsome colonial town in the pine-clad Valle de Jovel is surrounded by the classic Mayan villages of the Chiapas highlands. It's a delightful place and a magnet for travellers who want to learn a little Spanish, absorb the bohemian atmosphere and enjoy the lively bar and music scene. Since 1994 San Cristóbal has been caught up in the Zapatista struggles. Regional crafts play a large part in the town's tourism, and dolls depicting the black balaclava'd Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos are as typical a souvenir here as the region's renowned Tzotzil textiles.

San Cristóbal has a fine plaza and a swag of churches, the most beautiful of which is Santo Domingo with its pink baroque facade and golden interior. Horse riding is popular in the surrounding hills, and other pursuits include discovering traditional Maya medicine, stocking up at the local weavers' cooperative, sampling delicious organic coffee at the Coopcafé, visiting the nearby indigenous villages and drinking in the amazingly clear highland air.

The fabulous archaeological zone Teotihuacán lies in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de México. Site of the huge Pirámides del Sol y de la Luna (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon), it was Mexico's biggest ancient city and the capital of what was probably the country's largest pre-Hispanic empire. A day here can be awesome, unless the hawkers get you down.

The site's main drag is the famous Avenue of the Dead, a monumental 2km (1.2mi) thoroughfare lined with the former palaces of Teotihuacán's elite. To its south is the pyramid-bedecked La Ciudadela, believed to have been the residence of the city's supreme ruler. Enclosed within the citadel's walls is the Quetzalcóatl Temple, with its striking serpent carvings.

Heading north, the avenue passes the world's third-largest pyramid: the awe-inspiring, 70m (230ft), 248-stepped Pyramid of the Sun. The pyramid was originally painted a suitably sun-drenched, bloody red.

The avenue terminates at the Pyramid of the Moon, flanked by the 12 temple platforms of the Plaza de la Luna. Nearby are the beautifully frescoed Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly, the Jaguar Palace and the Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells. Teotihuacán's most famous mural, the Paradise of Tláloc, is in the Tepantitla Palace, a priest's residence northeast of the Pyramid of the Sun. The site has a museum to help make sense of it all; bring a hat, water and your walking shoes.

Yucatán Peninsula
Cross the Río Usumacinta into Yucatán, and you enter the realm of the Maya. Heirs to a glorious and often violent history, the Maya live today where their ancestors lived a millennium ago. Yucatán has surprising diversity: archaeological sites galore, colonial cities, tropical forests, peerless snorkelling, seaside resorts, quiet coastlines and raucous nightlife. The region's famous Mayan sites are particularly impressive at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, near the Yucatán state capital, the attractive colonial city of Mérida (home of the hammock). The coastal state of Quintana Roo attracts plane-loads of sun-loving tourists to its islands and white-sand Caribbean beaches, particularly Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and, party central, Cancún. The stunning cliff-top ruins at Tulum, overlooking a palm-fringed beach and turquoise sea, attract their fair share of visitors too.

This tranquil little town in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental has been declared a national historic monument - for very good reasons. Back in the 18th century Álamos was a silver boom town of gorgeous mansions and haciendas, but by the 1920s it had declined into a forgotten backwater. An injection of expat norteamericano funds gave the dilapidated ghost town a much-needed facelift, and today Álamos' Spanish colonial buildings have been beautifully restored. Much of the architecture has a Moorish influence, thanks to the Andalusian artisans who originally built the city.

Álamos' narrow cobblestone streets are lined with colonial mansions, concealing courtyards lush with bougainvillea. You can get to see inside several of these old mansions too, as they've been converted into hotels and restaurants. The whole town has a distinctly peaceful, timeless feel. Sunday evenings in particular are reserved for that traditional pastime of strolling and people-watching on the Plaza de Armas.

Álamos is on the border of two very different ecosystems of desert and jungle. Hordes of nature-lovers swoop on the place because of its 450 species of birds and animals (including some endangered and endemic species), and more than 1000 species of plants. Horse riding, hiking, swimming and dining in opulent colonial mansions are also on the Álamos menu. The obvious souvenir to buy while in town is a bag of brincadores, or Mexican jumping beans, as Álamos is the jumping bean capital of the world. Actually they're seed pods, not beans, and they jump because they're inhabited by moth larvae.

Cascada de Basaseachi

The dramatic 246m (806ft) Cascada de Basaseachi are the highest waterfalls in Mexico, and are especially spectacular in the rainy season - it's worth the bumpy three-hour drive and every footstep of the five-hour hike to reach the falls and back. If that sounds too daunting, the views of the falls from up on the rim aren't so bad either.

All those images of romantic Mayan ruins shimmering in the morning mist come true at the lost jungle city of Palenque. Surrounded by emerald jungle, Palenque's setting is superb and its Mayan architecture and decoration are exquisite.

Evidence from pottery fragments indicates that the site was first occupied more than 1500 years ago, flourishing from 600 to 700 AD when many plazas and buildings were constructed, including the elaborate Temple of Inscriptions pyramid crypt, the tallest and most prominent of Palenque's buildings. The best time to visit this sweltering, breezeless complex is in the early morning when a humid haze wraps the ancient temples in a mysterious mist. Only a handful of the almost 500 extant buildings have been excavated, and all were built without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel.

The instantly forgettable new town, where most hotels and restaurants are clustered, is about 7km (4mi) from the archaeological zone, and shuttle buses trundle the route every 15 minutes. Palenque is easily accessible by bus, but keep an eye on your valuables during the trip. There is a bus and ferry connection from Guatemala's Tikal via the border town of La Palma, linking two of Central America's most impressive Mayan sites.

Real de Catorce
This reborn ghost town has a touch of magic. High on the fringes of the Sierra Madre Oriental, and reached by a road tunnel through former mine passages, Real de Catorce was a wealthy silver-mining town of 40,000 people until early in the 20th century, when it inexplicably went into decline. The town lies in a high valley with spectacular views looking westward down to the plain below.

Only a few years ago Real de Catorce was almost deserted, its paved streets lined with crumbling stone buildings, its mint a ruin and a few hundred people eking out an existence from old mine workings. Nowadays Real is attracting increasing numbers of trendier residents - wealthy Mexicans and gringos looking for an unusual retreat. North American and European expats have been restoring the old buildings and setting them up as hotels, shops and restaurants. Artists have settled here, and filmmakers use the town and the surrounding hills as locations.

Real de Catorce has a charmingly timeworn, neoclassical parish church - la Parroquia - whose reputedly miraculous image of St Francis of Assisi attracts pilgrims by the thousands (by the hundreds of thousands between September 25 and October 12 for the festival of San Francisco - don't say we didn't warn you!). The town also has more-pagan remnants in the form of a cock-fighting ring built like a Roman amphitheatre. The Huichol people believe that the deserts around Real are a spiritual homeland, inhabited by their peyote and maize gods. Every May or June, the Huichol make a pilgrimage here for rituals involving peyote. Real de Catorce is a 1.5-hour bus ride from Matehuala, which in turn is seven hours from Mexico City.

Santa Rosalía
Aficionados of industrial archaeology will find Santa Rosalía well worth exploring for the ruins of its massive copper-smeltering operation. The former French company town lies on the Sea of Cortez coast of Baja California Sur, some 50km (31mi) east of San Ignacio. The town also has unusual clapboard residential architecture and a church designed by the famous Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, of Paris' tower fame. The prefabricated church was originally intended for a destination in West Africa but somehow ended up being shipped to Mexico. The French left their legacy in other ways as well: the bakery here sells the best baguettes in Baja.

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