Much-maligned Mexico City is cleaning up its act these days. Revamped public spaces are springing back to life, the culinary scene is exploding and a cultural renaissance is flourishing. On top of all that, by largely managing to distance itself from the drug wars, the nation’s capital remains a safe haven of sorts!
Mexico City can at first appear extremely daunting – it’s enormous. Where to start? You could spend months exploring all the museums, monuments, plazas, colonial buildings, monasteries, murals, galleries, archaeological finds, shrines and religious relics that this encyclopedia of a city has to offer – Mexico City shares billing with London for having the most museums of any city in the world. Plan ahead as many museums close on Monday, while most waive their admission fees to residents on Sunday, thus attracting crowds.
Mexico City in Two Days – day one.
Day one dawned and I found myself stepping into a train on the Mexican metro, headed for station ‘Zócalo’. The cost of this journey was 20 pence.
Centro Histórico: Packed with magnificent buildings and absorbing museums, the 668-block area defined as the centro histórico was the obvious place to start my explorations. More than 1500 of its buildings are classified as historic or artistic monuments and it is on the Unesco World Heritage list.
Zócalo (plaza): The heart of Mexico City is the Plaza de la Constitución. Residents began calling it the Zócalo, meaning ‘base,’ in the 19th century, when plans for a major monument to independence went unrealized, leaving only the pedestal. Measuring 220m from north to south, and 240m from east to west, it’s one of the world’s largest city squares.
Catedral Metropolitana: One of Mexico City’s most iconic structures, this cathedral is a monumental edifice: 109m long, 59m wide and 65m high. Started in 1573, it remained a work in progress during the entre colonial period.
Templo Mayor: Before the Spaniards demolished it, the Teocalli of Tenochtitlán covered the site where the cathedral now stands, as well as the blocks to its north and east. It wasn’t until 1978, after electricity workers happened on an eight-tonne stone-disc carving of the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, that the decision was taken to demolish colonial buildings and excavate the Templo Mayor. The temple is thought to be on the exact spot where the Aztecs saw their symbolic eagle perching on a cactus with a snake in its beak – the symbol of Mexico today. In Aztec belief this was, literally, the center of the universe.
The Palacio Nacional is also home to the offices of the president of Mexico and the Federal Treasury. Inside this grandiose colonial palace you’ll see Diego Rivera murals (painted between 1929 and 1951) that depict Mexican civilization from the arrival of Quetzalcóatl (the Aztec plumed serpent god) to the post-revolutionary period. The nine murals covering the north and east walls of the first level above the patio chronicle indigenous life before the Spanish conquest.