Historic Downtown and the Anthropological Museum
If you really want to say you’ve visited Mexico City, then there’s one trip you simply shouldn’t miss and that’s a day to the historic downtown. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1987, it’s brimming with culture, life and identity. You’ll come away buzzing with energy, photographs and perhaps even a drop of Mezcal.
We wouldn’t ordinarily suggest a tick list, but when it comes to the downtown it’s filled with so many highlights you simply do need to pick and choose and tick them off as you wander around.
So pencils at the ready, here it goes…
A great central point to the downtown is the opera house, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which sits next to the beautiful park of Alameda Central. The opera house is an opulent design, a fabulous mix of Neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Art Deco in its exterior and interior. It is perhaps best know for its murals by Diego Rivera, Siqueiros and others and hosts many regular exhibitions and theatrical performances. Away from the bustling crowds that flock to see the opera house, Alameda Central Park is a wonderful contrast of huge space, greenery and pedestrianized calm. Take a stroll around, enjoy the warm, lazy atmosphere and people watch as some of the locals meet for dates with their sweethearts.
Nearby is the Museo de Arte Popular, a great museum which promotes and preserves Mexican handcrafts and folk art. The work is exactly what you’d expect: fun, vibrant and leaves you wanting to take some home! Luckily they have an incredible shop onsite, which is brilliant for taking gifts and crafty souvenirs away.
If shopping and folk art is your thing, you may want to continue walking a little further on to the Plaza de la Ciudadela, a traditional style Mexican crafts market. The market area is set in an old tobacco factory and features around 350 market stalls, so be prepared to set an hour or two out of your day trip for this.
If you’re looking for more serious art then head slightly north of the opera house and you will find the Museo Nacional de Arte. This focuses mostly on Mexican and International art from the 16th century to the first half of the 20th century and offers several beautiful pieces. Budding James Bond fans may even spot that the building and square outside is featured in part of the opening scenes of the movie Spectre.
Ready for a stroll there are a number of cultural highlights to make sure you see, including the Palacio de Correos, the postal palace of Mexico. A palace it is, which is exactly why it’s worth looking inside, you can even buy a stamp and send a postcard for the full authentic experience!
Nearby is the Casa de los Azulejos or ‘house of tiles’, it is an 18th century palace covered on three sides with blue and white tiles of the Puebla state. The palace, which was once a private home, now serves as the flagship restaurant of one of the best-recognized restaurant chains in Mexico.
Hungry? By now you will probably be ready for a Mexican style lunch, usually served around 2pm onwards in local Mexico. There are obviously many food and drink options, but we recommend three of the absolute best being the grand old cantina La Opera for drinks, and Café de Tacuba and El Cardenal for food.
Onto the famous Zocalo, the main square in Mexico City surrounded by the Cathedral and the National Palace. It has been a place of gathering since Aztec times, and is steeped in ancient history and ceremonies. Prior to the colonial period, it was the main ceremonial center in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
To delve further into the existence of the Aztecs, the Templo Mayor is just around the corner. A fantastic excavated temple to visit, it was according to Aztec legend and mythology considered the center of the universe.
For beautiful views of the Zocalo, National Palace and Cathedral, it’s worth paying a visit to the Gran Hotel, on the other side of the square. This famous hotel was originally a department store and features most of its original Art Nouveau décor. Its wonderful iron cage lift and stained glass ceiling all still exist, making the journey up to the top floor bar truly spectacular. Once in the bar upstairs, order a coffee or a little mezcal and take in the stunning views of the Zocalo. Rain or shine it is a wonderful way to end the day.
There are so many more things to see in the historic downtown, but this is a curated list to help you pick out some of the wonderful things on offer. With this in mind, we absolutely must mention the National Museum of Anthropology. While not situated in the downtown area, it is a short car journey away and an easy trip to include to your day. Situated in the Chapultepec Park, the museum contains significant archaeological and anthropological artifacts from the Mexico’s pre-Columbian heritage, such as the Stone of the Sun (or the Aztec calendar stone) and the 16th century Aztec Xochipilli statue. A trip to this incredible museum could take up your entire day, however if you arrive early in the morning it will allow you a little time to take in its highlights and then onto see whatever has excited your curiosity in the historic downtown.
Pencils down, we hope you enjoyed your bite-sized literary trip around must-see Mexico City.