5 Things You Shouldn’t Miss in Mexico City

Bella des Artes
Bella des Artes

By Shelley Seale

 Mural at the Zocalo.
Mural at the Zocalo.

International, sophisticated, diverse and vibrant, Mexico City has much to offer for the traveler — as well as a few surprises. The sprawling metropolis has seriously addressed its pollution problems over the past decade-plus, with strong measures that have resulted in a far cleaner city with more green spaces.

For those who are concerned about crime and the sensationalized stories of kidnappings, it's important to note that travel warnings apply to very specific parts of Mexico — and Mexico City is not one of those areas. I felt extremely comfortable walking around among the city, and would recommend that travelers simply take the same smart cautions that they would in any big city.

The street leading to the Zocolo, Mexico City's massive square.
The street leading to the Zocolo, Mexico City's massive square.

That said, the city and its treasures of art, food, history, traditions, performing arts and recreation are a jewel just waiting to be discovered and explored. Here are my top 5 "Don't Miss" attractions:

Walking Tour of Zócalo

Zócalo (also called Plaza de la Constitucion) is the heart of Mexico City. In ancient times this was the main center for the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, with their pre-Hispanic ruins still sitting alongside majestic colonial buildings. This is the spot where Hernan Cortes is said to have met Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, in 1519.

It is rather a sad story to most of us today; albeit a common one of ancient, historic glory oppressed and overridden by foreign invaders determined to secure lands and riches for themselves. The Aztec ruins, razed and then built over by the Spanish, provide a very interesting insight into the complex history of Mexico and the city.

The best way to see this area is by a walking tour, either self-guided or better yet, with an informative guide with a company such as Maritur or Tours by Locals. There is so much to explore and learn about in the area, including the National Palace, Catedral Metropolitana, Bellas des Artest performance center and even the post office, which is an ornate example of Renaissance Revival architecture, designed in the early 20th century by Italian architect Adamo Boari and Mexican engineer Gonzalo Garita.

At the National Palace, don't miss the murals painted by Diego Rivera between 1929 and 1951, which cover the walls above the main staircase and corridor of the second floor, depicting the history of Mexico from before the arrival of the Spaniards through to modern times and highlights the most dramatic moments of the nation's past. Stop in at La Opera Bar for a drink; open since 1895 the lush interior retains much of its old grandeur — and be sure to check out the bullet hole in the ceiling, purportedly made by Pancho Villa.

Chapultepec Park

Chapultepec Castle sm
Chapultepec Castle

If you aren't familiar with Chapultepec, don't let the "park" designation fool you. This is a sprawling green space complex that is the crown jewel of Mexico City's park system, its "Central Park" if you will. It is the largest city park in Latin America, covering more than 1,600 acres, and one of the city’s loveliest places to visit. The complex is also home to 10 of the city's top museums and a host of recreational activities.

Chapultepec Park is divided into three sections; the main entrance leads to a path that winds past a lake and up the hill leading to Chapultepec Castle. Once an imperial palace and presidential residence of Maximilian I, the castle was built in 1775 and today is full of paintings, historical artifacts and lavishly furnished rooms, with amazing views from its hilltop vantage point.

The massive grounds contain multiple lakes and fountains, several monuments, a botanical garden and ten museums, including Modern Art, Anthropology, History and Childrens, among others. The most visited attraction of the park is the zoo, and large sections are dedicated to recreation with jogging trails, places for yoga and other exercise, and a Protected Natural Area filled with trees and wildlife and silence — a great respite from the bustling city around you.

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Frida Kahlo memorial in Mexico City.
Frida Kahlo memorial in Mexico City.

La Casa Azul

Known as "The Blue House," this is a top destination for lovers of art or of love stories. It is the home where Frida Kahlo grew up, and later she and husband Diego Rivera lived there for many years of their marriage.

Frida spent the first and last years of her life in this home, and it's full of hers and Diego's life together. Now a private museum open to the public, La Casa Azul still looks very much like it did when the celebrated artistic couple lived there. Their furnishings, kitchenware, art collections and personal art studios and supplies are still in the home.

Frida's wheelchair and bed where she spent much of her last years are there, including the death mask put on her body after her death in 1954.

The home is a beautiful, shaded respite with leafy courtyards and a very interesting outside shrine to Frida. A cafe and good boutique are also on the grounds. The museum's setting in the Coyoacán neighborhood easily leads to a day exploring the nearby area after a visit to the house.

There is a market a few blocks south, the main square of Plaza Hidalgo, the San Juan Bautista church, and the neighborhood itself, which is one of the prettiest and most interesting to simply stroll around, with its tree-lined cobblestone streets and interesting architecture. It was among the first of the Mexico City's neighborhoods to receive the Secretary of Tourism's Barrios Magicos (Magic Neighborhoods) designation. Coyoacán is also home to other museums such as the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares (pop culture museum), Leon Trotsky museum and the Acuavida Coyacán Aquarium.

Xochimilco

Xochimilco, Mexico City's famous water park.
Xochimilco, Mexico City's famous water park.

This is the Mexican version of the Venice canals; only, since this is Mexico after all, there is much more of a fiesta atmosphere at Xochimilco. This was, quite honestly, my most surprising find and experience during my recent week in Mexico City.

The neighborhood is in an outlying part of the city, where ancient canals and manmade islands have been developed into an attraction unlike any other. Xochimilco was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, and today it is mostly locals who come to enjoy its unique experience.

The canals are full of colorful wooden boats called trajineras, each with their own name. Visitors can hire boat at any of the docks, and once on the water you will enter a festive, party atmosphere. Among other hired boats full of their own passengers, there are also floating mariachi bands and other musicians that you can hire to provide entertainment; boats selling all manner of food and drinks; and boats with vendors offering toys and other souveniers.

These boats simply pull up alongside each other as transactions are made. The air is full of the smells of fresh tortillas and grilled meat, along with the melodies of mariachi bands and the laughter and calls of the revelers having fun.

If this all sounds a bit garish and cheesy, it is. But in a very, very fun way. The trajineras of Xochimilco have long been a typical way that people of Mexico City would celebrate a birthday or graduation, and there are far more locals than tourists here. If you go on a weekday, especially early in the morning, you may find a calm quiet among the canals as the early mist rises off the water.

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Dulce Patria plate
Dulce Patria plate

But the weekend brings full party atmosphere and almost bumper-to-bumper boats. There is a colorful market on land just by the docks, and many floating and land-based flower markets; Xochimilco is the Nahuatl word for "place of flowers" and how it got its name.

Don't miss the Voladores, or flying men, who perform in the market square. A tradition from the state of Veracruz, the men perform a tradition by climbing to the top of a high pole, tying themselves on, and then twirling down while playing drums and a flute. It's all quite a show.

La Comida

Of course, one cannot come to Mexico City without partaking in the delightful, varied, often inventive foodie scene. From upscale restaurants run by celebrated chefs, to small family establishments, I was absolutely thrilled with the food I discovered (though not so much with the weight gain it entailed). On the casual side, there are traditional taquerias such as El Fogoncito, the first taqueria opened in the city in 1968 and now boasting 11 locations.

On the gourmet end you’ll find spots such as Dulce Patria and Astrid & Gaston, both run by female chefs. Martha Ortiz of Dulce Patria known as one of the best chefs in Mexico City. Ortiz presents known Mexican dishes in an elegant and modern style, and draws inspiration from traditional cooking styles, along with the arts and literature. At Astrid & Gaston, billed as the top restaurant in Latin America, chef Yerika Munoz creates the signature Peruvian dishes with style, adapting local ingredients and traditions.

One fantastic way to experience both the culture and food of Mexico City is to take a gastronomic tour, one of my favorite activities while I was there. Check in with a company such as Sabores Mexico, which offers walking and eating tours of both the historic center and Colonia Roma, one of the liveliest and hippest neighborhoods in the city. You'll visit 7 different establishments to taste food, wine, beer, mezcal and coffee; all at locally owned, high quality spots. A great way to see, and eat, your way around Mexico City.

There is so much to see, do and experience in Mexico City. This list is only a start, but I would highly recommend that no traveler to the city miss any of of these!

Shelley Seale
Rent a car in Mexico from Alamo and enjoy seeing even the most faraway sights.

Shelley Seale is an Austin Texas-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business, and nonprofit issues. She writes about her adventures around the world at her blog, <a "color: #666633;" href="http://tradingplacesglobal.wordpress.com/">Trading Places Read more of her stories on GoNOMAD.

Shelley Seale

Shelley Seale is an Austin, Texas-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business, and nonprofit issues. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Andrew Harper Traveler magazine, Yahoo, CNN, the Austin Business Journal, Austin Woman, and many others. Her favorite quote is by Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”