Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City

Three Great Days in Mexico City

If you want a reprieve from the cold of winter, Mexico City offers top easy-to-navigate attractions for a perfect three-day visit.

Overview

Our initial orientation to Mexico City's historic center was greatly assisted by attending a "free" walking tour (payment for the tour is by tip) offered by Estacion Mexico and booked through Freetour.com.

This tour is recommended by Trip Advisor and begins most days at 11 AM at the Metropolitan Cathedral. Our guide provided us with more historical information on Mexico than we could absorb during these two hours.

He first focused on telling us about the buildings around the impressive large downtown square, the Zocalo, including the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral and Temple Mayor. We spent some time within the Plaza de Santo Domingo where we learned about a wonderful side of Mexican culture.

Low budget scribes offer their services to write missives for clients who are unable to read or write, usually using antique typewriters or old printing presses. We also enjoyed strolling by a few sites off the beaten track, such as the streets where fancy and colorful dresses and gowns are sold for the quinceanera celebration when girls turn fifteen.

Saturday

Metropolitan Cathedral

The massive cathedral is impossible to miss, as it is huge and located on one side of the central square, the Zocalo. The cathedral was built on and off from 1573 to 1813. As a result, different architects left their marks with elements of a variety of styles, including Gothic, baroque and neoclassical. Although the foundation has been stabilized, we were told that the church continues to slowly sink and it does appear to tilt.

The exterior is grand. It features two bell towers with 25 large bells and four facades with statues of important saints. The sumptuous interior contains many alcoves, religious paintings and fourteen side chapels with religious objects. The two main altars tower in size and depth. The golden altar in the central nave is particularly impressive.

This Roman Catholic Church was constructed on top of a former sacred Aztec area. Glass panels are placed outside the cathedral which show some of what was found from the Aztec era. Admission is free, but pictures are limited during mass.

Temple Mayor Museum (Great Temple)

Next to the Metropolitan Cathedral and by the Zocalo, the Temple Mayor displays extensive ruins of the great Aztec temple and displays many artifacts found during excavations. Pathways through the reconstructed foundation allowed us to walk through the remains of the temple. The ruins include faded murals and sculptures.

The temple was first constructed around 1325 and was rebuilt seven times. The ruins show buildings on different levels. In Aztec belief, this spot was considered to be the center of the universe. The temple was dedicated to the gods of war, rain and agriculture. The site is part of the UNSECO world heritage designation of Mexico City's historic center. .

Diego Rivera Mural Museum

Located at the edge of Alameda Central Park on Balderas and Colon, the small museum Diego Rivera Mural Museum was hard to find. Its exterior is not noteworthy and the building blends into the surrounding buildings and park. The first floor of the museum contains the huge Diego Rivera mural entitled Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central.

The 1947 mural originally was in the lobby of the Hotel del Prado, but was relocated when the hotel was damaged by an earthquake in 1985. Photos on the first floor show the effects of the earthquake on the hotel and what the mural looked like when it was housed in the hotel. The mural was transferred in its original frame from the wrecked hotel.

There is no English language signage, but we were able to listen in on an English language tour guide's explanation of the mural's characters, including Diego Rivera himself, one of his wives the artist Frida Kahlo and many Mexican personalities. The museum put up a chart so that visitors can identify characters in the mural. The second floor contains temporary art exhibits.

Palace of Fine Arts

Located on the Avenue Jaurez just past the Alameda Central Park, the massive white Palace is hard to miss with its huge dome. The opulent exterior mixes Roman and Greek classical statues with Aztec motifs. Its design blends neo-classical and art nouveau. The interior is a beautiful art deco structure. The palace's main use is as a grand performance space, including the national theater, concert hall and arts center.

After waiting more than an hour for admission, we were very happy that one of the staff provided us with a short English language tour of the Diego Rivera murals on the third level of the palace. One entire wall consists of the 1934 Rivera mural entitled Man, Controller of the Universe. This mural was originally painted for the RCA Building in New York's Rockefeller Center, but was removed by John Rockefeller when Rivera refused to remove the figure of Russian Communist leader Lenin. This mural depicts the modern worker at a symbolic junction of science, industry, capitalism and socialism. Rivera then revised the mural and incorporated a portrait of John Rockefeller in a nightclub, surrounded by sleek women. Several smaller Rivera works are on the same floor, including the four part Carnival of Mexican Life.

Museum of Memory and Tolerance

The Museum of Memory and Tolerance is located at Avenue Juarez 8, across from the Alameda Central Park. The first part of the museum is dedicated to the World War II holocaust. The excellent English language audio guide greatly enhanced our experience. The second part of the museum focuses on other genocides (including Rwanda and Bosnia). The final part of the museum highlights tolerance of different peoples living together.

Sunday

National Museum of Anthropology

Located on Paseo de la Reforma 203 across from Chapultepec Park, the National Museum of Anthropology is a world class museum of anthropology and one of the largest museums in Latin America. Signage in English is sufficient to get a general understanding of the museum, supplemented by English language brochures but an English language tour guide would have been even better. Most of the museum's detailed explanations are in Spanish.

We began on the ground floor's eleven archaeology halls. In particular, we enjoyed the introduction to anthropology hall and the Mayan halls with their detailed outdoor reproductions of actual structures found at Mayan sites in Mexico. The Mexica Hall was most representative of the area around Mexico City, focusing on the Mexica Empire and the Aztecs. Of particular note, we saw an original Aztec calendar sunstone. Another eleven halls are located on the second floor and are dedicated to ethnography. The museum is treasure trove of exhibits focusing on Mexico's indigenous cultures. This museum is Mexico's most visited museum. The museum is mobbed on a Sunday, when Mexican residents get free admission.

Castle of Chapultepec (El Castillo de Chapultepec)

From the anthropology museum, we walked through the spacious public park (Chapultepec) to the castle. The park is one of the largest in Latin America and is hugely popular, becoming quite crowded as the day went on.

The Castle of Chapultepec is located at the top of the mount of Chapultepec (grasshopper hill), and is now National Museum of History. We made our way around with an English language pamphlet, as all of the signage inside the castle was in Spanish. The museum presents an overview of Mexico's history. The castle's interior contains several beautiful murals by top local artists featuring Mexican history and revolutionary leaders. At the top of the hill, we had great panoramic views of Mexico City.

On the way up the hill and right below the castle we saw the Monument to Los Ninos Heroes, honoring the deaths of six cadets in the battle against the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1847 during the Mexican-American War. Their deaths are honored by six tall columns, each topped with a black eagle.

Museum of Modern Art

We briefly stopped in the Museo de Arte Moderno, located near the Monument to Ninos Heroes, just inside the park. Inside the museum is a permanent collection of Mexican art from the twentieth century. The museum is fairly small and most of its artists were unknown to us. Several temporary exhibits focused on recent Mexican paintings with a focus on contemporary art. In between its buildings, the Museum has an outdoor sculpture garden.

Monday

House of Tiles (Casa de los Azulejos)

Originally built in the sixteenth century, it wasn't until the eighteenth century that the owners covered the exterior with blue and white Talavera tile on three sides that gave the building its name. It's now the site of Sanborn's flagship Restaurant. In addition, there are shops located within the house. The main courtyard contains a magnificent fountain and a stained glass roof. Porcelain art on the upper floor surrounds the patio. This historic house was declared a national monument in 1931 and can be visited without paying an admission.

Ministry of Public Education Building (Diego Rivera Mural Project)

Located on Calle Republica de Argentina, there is no entrance fee to visit Ministry of Public Education Building in the the classical Greek building. The mural collection contained within it is amazing. Mural painting was considered the ideal way to achieve graphic literacy so that Mexican citizens could read social reality. Diego Rivera and other painters and sculptures were invited to decorate these buildings. The building staff provided us with an English language brochure but we also joined an English language tour (tipping for the service) provided by an outside vendor who explained the Diego Rivera murals.

Diego Rivera worked on his series of more than 100 colorful murals from 1923 to 1929. The beautiful murals are painted on two interior court yards. The labor yard shows scenes related to labor activities. These murals include revolutionary social struggles, heroes and national ideals. There are many thematic messages of Mexican politics, social inequality and anti-capitalism in these murals. The fiesta or party yard recreates Mexican celebrations. Both sets of murals have been restored to retain their vibrant colors.

This complex is an artistic jewel and is listed on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. Official identification such as a driver's license is required to be admitted. This complex contains the most extensive collection of Rivera murals in Mexico City and is not to be missed.

Justo Sierra Historic Synagogue and Museum

We did a self-guided tour of the Justo Sierra Historic Synagogue and Museum with the assistance of an English language brochure provided at admission. Entrance is free. The two synagogue buildings are located at Justo Sierra 71, just minutes from the Zocalo, the city center. The buildings can only be identified as a synagogue by the Stars of David on the exterior heavy wooden doors. Now primarily a museum, the congregation first opened its doors in the early twentieth century as Nidje Israel. Mexico was open to Jewish immigration during a time period when the United States had immigration quotas. The first floor contains a court yard and a ballroom used for social gatherings and community events. The second level features the synagogue sanctuary. With its congregation consisting primarily of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the sanctuary was designed to be a replica of an Eastern European synagogue from Lithuania. In the front, two beautifully decorated golden menorahs are contained on each side of the ark. Above the ark, a representation of the Ten Commandments is surrounded by a blue crystal circle. The ceiling showcases a mural representing the Garden of Eden, with the tree, serpent, plants, flowers and animals as well as symbols of Judaism.

While three days was sufficient to see the highlights of Mexico City, an additional day or more would have enabled us to explore the Coyoacan neighborhood or to the floating gardens of Xochimilco. Perhaps next time.

Tips for a Mexico City Visit

  • Most museums are closed on Monday. Museums are extra crowded on Sundays, when admission is free for Mexican residents.
  • Credit cards are not accepted at many locations. We took out extra cash as a result.
  • A guidebook was especially helpful because English signage is limited at most attractions. We used Moon's Mexico City, published by Avalon Travel, which grouped attractions by geographic locations with extensive descriptions and easy to use maps.
  • The city's high altitude takes a little adjustment on day one. It will get better.
  • Within the central historical area, most attractions are walkable. Ubers are the most reasonable way to travel between neighborhoods.
  • From the airport, the authorized taxis are the best option. At the airport, official taxis charge a fixed price after the purchase of a ticket. They are more reliable and less expensive than the unofficial taxis.
  • Staying at a hotel downtown was ideal for walking to the attractions of the central historical area. Our stay at the Hilton Reforma was spectacular. The hotel is located at Avenue Juarez 70 across from the Alameda Central Park with its statutes, trees and small plazas. The Hilton is decorated with original artwork from Mexico. The staff was very helpful.
  • Generally the cost of attractions and meals was substantially lower than in the United States.
  • The air quality is often poor and the sidewalks are very crowded and often in need of repair. Walk carefully.

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Saul Schwartz lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Fern. He loves to travel throughout the world and share his experiences through stories and pictures. Saul has published many articles, but most focus upon his passion to travel. Photos by Saul Schwartz



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