CAPITAL WONDERS Mexico City for beginners: Exploring the city’s history and vibrant street life
MEXICO CITY — Like a lot of Californians, I’ve made dozens of trips to Mexico over the decades — beach resorts in Baja, Maya ruins in the Yucatan, colonial towns in the interior. Yet I’d never made time to explore the capital’s top museums and landmarks, even though their global popularity has boomed in recent years. When I finally gave myself a good look at Mexico City this year, most of those attractions surprised me.
I knew the city’s seismic history but didn’t expect it to show up as dramatically in the Metropolitan Cathedral.
I expected vibrant street life but didn’t anticipate jazz musicians jamming on the sidewalk.
I knew there would be bright colors at Xochimilco but didn’t expect to see so many people having so much fun.
Here, based on my visit in February, is a Mexico City cheat sheet for rookies. Most of these spots are clustered in and around the city’s historic core.
The Palacio Nacional, east of the Zocalo, is more than the seat of Mexico’s federal government. It’s also home to Diego Rivera’s vision of Mexico. It’s free to see the artist’s epic mural “The History of Mexico,” painted 1929-35, covering four centuries.
If you could see only one mural in Mexico, this is it. Take your time — the walls are dense with imagery, including scenes of pre-colonial village life, the Spanish invasion, cultures and economic theories in violent conflict. Look for Frida Kahlo and Karl Marx (on the left, of course).
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is a strange confection. Begun in 1904 and designed by Italian architect Adamo Boari in Art Nouveau and Neoclassical styles, it was not completed until 1934 under architect Federico Mariscal (which helps explain all the Art Deco details inside).
Besides dance, opera and orchestral programs in its theater, the building’s upper levels include murals by Rivera and others, along with a museum of architecture and a Museum of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Cross the street (Eje Central Lazaro Cardenas) to the Palacio Postal, another wonder designed by Boari. It has elaborate ironwork, curving stairs, bronze railings, marble floors, vintage elevators. It’s free.
Another good option, especially after dark, is to cross Avenida Juarez to the Sears store. Catch the elevator to the eighth floor, grab a drink at the small cafeteria (Finca Don Porfirio) and step outside to the small terrace, where a jaw-dropping urban there are plenty still being discovered here. In 2017 excavators found a tower of more than 650 human skulls from men, women and children.
Aztec street performers entertain onlookers in the Zocalo in Mexico City. Even better people-watching can be found on a walk along the nearby Avenida Francisco I. Madero.