Though a trip to Mexico typically means lolling about on the beaches of Los Cabos or Cancun, going to Mexico City is where you should go to get an authentic shot of cosmopolitan Mexico. This booming metropolis offers an active and educational vacation that shows you what's behind Mexico's veneer of plush, oversized resorts. It too has its own grand hotels, like the Marquis Reforma (left).
Mexico City is home to world-class art and history museums, delectable cuisine and fabulous architecture. From bohemian enclaves to financial districts to working-and upper-class neighborhoods, it's a city of multiple personalities.
Though people have stayed away because of safety and health concerns, I can report that there's nothing to worry about—especially Montezuma's revenge. Many restaurants serve bottled or filtered water. Police are everywhere, in cars, on foot and riding around on a fleet of Segways. There is also a fastidious attention to cleanliness, with workers constantly sweeping and mopping streets and public grounds.
Mexico City today stands at a historical crossroads. For hundreds of years, the country's rich and colorful Mayan and Aztec past was suppressed. The ruling European class essentially eradicated indigenous culture and religion, foisting Catholicism on Mexico's citizens. They knocked down temples of worship and used the stone to build massive cathedrals, forcing the people to convert.
A tug of war is playing out below the surface—literally and figuratively—at places like the National Cathedral. The 127,000-ton cathedral was built directly on top of an Aztec temple between 1573 and 1873, using stone taken from Indian temples. There are 14 chapels, five altars and two massive 3,500-pipe organs, which are played Sundays at noon.
Just outside is Zocalo Square. It's one of the world's largest public squares and home to a bazaar full of knickknacks, street food and performers doing everything from playing ranchero music to enacting historically significant Aztec dances in full garb. The square is also home to many celebrations and a humongous flag that's removed with pomp and circumstance by military men at 6 o'clock every night. Flanking the square are government buildings, including the national palace, as well as cafés, restaurants and shops.
The Mexico City Folkloric Ballet—a rousing exploration of all styles of Mexican dance and music—is performed in the Palace of Fine Arts, which is within walking distance. This show simply cannot be missed, since it really leads to an understanding of the complex and vast Mexican culture, which we're not normally exposed to stateside.
Frida and Diego
Art and history museums abound in Mexico City. The capital has an extreme reverence for its world-famous artists, such as Frida Kahlo, a national icon known for her revolutionary self-portraits. Her home has been preserved and turned into a museum that features her works and those of her husband, the famous painter Diego Rivera. Nearby is the home of ousted communist Leon Trotsky, with whom Kahlo had a torrid affair. His writings are on display, and a visit gives insight into his political experience. Also here is Anahuacalli, a building designed by Rivera as a studio.
Get a taste of Mexico before the Spanish invasion with a trip to the Museo de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology). Learn about Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and more through exhibits featuring priceless artifacts—this is a must-see. The National Art Museum features 20th-century, locally influenced work, while the Soumaya Museum focuses on Mexican art and French sculpture, most notably by Auguste Rodin.
Strolling the Streets
Because the majority of neighborhoods are safe, there are lots of places to take leisurely strolls—an excellent way to enjoy the city. Most notable is how many structures take artistic cues from the Italian and French. In fact, many architects were brought from Europe to imbue the city with their style.
Meander down the city's main drag, Paseo de la Reforma. Modeled after Champs-élysées in Paris, there's lots of green space and seemingly endless amounts of art lining the corridor. Some of the art is actually a creative take on seating. On Sundays, the Reforma is closed to cars and open to pedestrians, bicyclists and inline skaters. It's a great way to enjoy the heart of Mexico City. The Coyoacán area is not only home to the Kahlo museum, it's also Mexico City's hub of bohemian life—full of cafés and artists' studios. Drink coffee and look out on the town square, then wander around and discover artsy gems.
Mexico City is a vibrant, aesthetic mishmash. Adventures can be found around every corner. Close to home but extremely international, it's great for a long weekend or a whole week.