Mexico City doesn’t always appear on the list of world’s great cities. People talk about Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Sydney, but not always Mexico City, even though it is the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.
Well I think all that should change. Mexico City has amazing art, architecture, history, nightlife, and let’s not forget the fabulous and inexpensive food. Where else can you see Diego Rivera murals for free, eat a giant pepper that has been stuffed with pomegranates, ride the subway for 25 cents, and watch three grown men in shiny masks jump on each other for fun and profit? Only in the Ciudad de Mexico. Come with me, and I will teach you to appreciate this wondermous place, if you have not already fallen prey to its charms.
Morning: Palacio de Bellas Artes
Address: Avenida Juarez y Eje Central
Hours: 10-5 (Closed Mondays)
Price: 49 Mexican Pesos, Free Sunday
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is a stunning cultural center with an unmistakable golden-orange dome on the top. In the evening, you can find performances here from anything to the Ballet Folklorica of Mexico to a production of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. (Listings are available here.) But if you are going in the morning, you are going for one thing only: to see the famous Mexican murals decorating its lovely art deco walls. Expect to spend about an hour inside enjoying the fascinating architectural features and mindbending paintings.
Travelerette Treasure: The murals on the interior of the Palacio are mostly done by the three most famous Mexican muralists, David Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco, and of course the most celebrated, Diego Rivera. To me the most striking mural was this work by David Siqueiros, entitled “The New Democracy”. A mural can be difficult to look at because it’s so large and full of detail, and this mural is particularly difficult to look at because the woman’s body is contorted in such an uncomfortable looking position. (One of the most recognizable features of Siqueiros’s work is the distorted way in which he paints the female form.) But I think art is supposed to make us uncomfortable, so I was glad to have the experience of being confronted by this painting.
Travelerette Tip: There are a lot of tour groups that go through this building, so don’t accidentally get sucked up into one like I did. It was all in Spanish and I thought it was a free tour provided by the Palacio, but it was not. At a certain point someone will ask you for identification that you belong with the group, you won’t be able to provide it, and then someone will shoo you away in a language you don’t entirely understand.
Early Afternoon: Templo Mayor
Address: Seminario 8
Hours: 9-5 Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.
Price: 64 Mexican Pesos. Free Sunday
The Templo Mayor was the major religious site for the Aztecs who lived in Mexico City before the Spanish arrived. They believed that this place was the center of the universe. And you are so lucky because, though the Spanish covered over the Aztec ruins, they were rediscovered by accident in the 1970s and are now available for all to see. Oh, the 70s! First you give us Travolta, and now you give us these wonders.
Travelerette Tip: The admission fee includes both a walk around the excavated ruins and admission to the Museo del Templo Mayor. I recommend that you pick up an English audioguide and take it for a stroll around the imposing ruins first. Be on the look for random cacti as you explore!
Then once you’ve had enough cacti hunting or sun exposure, head inside the museum for more than…
three fun facts about tenochtitlan
1) The first thing you may be asking yourself is, “What is Tenochtitlan?” Tenochtitlan is quite simply the Aztec name for Mexico City. The same city used to be the Aztec capital before it became the Spanish capital of Mexico. The museum has models inside, like the one above, that show you what this elaborate imperial city must have looked like.
2) One of the most important gods to the Aztecs was this dotty-looking fellow, Tlaloc, who was the rain god. Anyone who has ever experienced scorching Mexican sunshine can probably guess why the Aztecs wanted to keep Tlaloc happy. They made many offerings to him, including the sacrifice of children because the tears of the children were thought to be reminiscent of the rain. That may literally be the saddest thing I have ever heard.
3) On a much lighter note (because it’s not possible to be on a darker note than child sacrifice), the Aztecs only used five colors in their art: red, yellow, blue, white, and black. Those were the only pigments they had access to. I enjoyed trying to see the traces of color on the Aztec artifacts, like the white on this representation of Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead. Perhaps the color is meant to distract you from the fact that you can literally see his internal organs.
Travelerette Treasure: Before you check out tales of child sacrifice and skeleton gods, you’re going to want a snack. In between the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Templo Mayor, I recommend stopping at the Dulceria Celaya on 39 Av. Cinco de Mayo and picking up a gourmet sweet. I opted for a lime peel stuffed with coconut. It was so sweet and sticky and the lime peel added just that perfect touch of acidity to cut the sugar in the coconut. (Are you supposed to eat the lime peel? I don’t know. Did I eat the lime peel? Absolutely.)
Lunch: Hosteria de Santo Domingo
Address: Calle Belisario Dominguez 70 y 72
After boning up on Mexico City’s history, why not chow down at a historic restaurant? Hosteria de Santo Domingo is the oldest restaurant in Mexico City, which must explain why that mummy above is there to greet you when you enter.
I was dying to try the specialty of the house, which is chile en nogada, a large poblano chile filled with ground meat, fruit, and spices, and topped with a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. My only problem is that the portion was so tiny. See:
If you asked me before sitting down to lunch if I wanted to eat a pepper the size of a fat baby ready to be sacrificed to the rain god, swimming in rivers of walnut cream sauce, and inexplicably topped with pomegranates, I would have said, “No thank you, Internet Stranger! Why don’t you get a real job?” But in actuality, this dish is amazing. For some reason the sweetness of the sauce and the spicyness of the meat comes together in perfect harmony, just like the lime and the coconut.
I managed to make myself eat dessert just so I could review it on this blog. (You know, for Science!) I ordered one of my favorites, arroz con leche, which is like a milkier version of rice pudding. I liked that it wasn’t too sweet and tasted of real cinnamon, but after the wonders of Jumbo the Poblano that I ate for lunch, I’m not sure any dessert would have been that exciting.
Late Afternoon: Palacio Nacional
Address: Avenida Pino Suarez, Corregidora esquina Guatemala
Hours: 9-5 Tuesday-Sunday
The Palacio Nacional is where the President of Mexico and the Mexican Treasury have their officers, but that’s not why we are stopping here! The President of Mexico has a lot more on his mind than talking to you, Internet Stranger! We are here for some more of that sweet Mexican mural action. The Palacio Nacional happens to be the location of an amazing collection of Diego Rivera murals depicting Mexican history from pre-Columbian civilization to the arrival of the Spanish to THE PROLETARIAT TRIUMPHANT!!! (Diego Rivera was famously a communist.)
We don’t have time for me to walk you through all of Rivera’s murals, so let me just tempt you with:
the approximately top five best diego rivera murals in the palacio nacional
1) This takes us to the beginning of Mexican history, when the Mesoamericans were ruling enormous empires with an iron fist and an iron mask on their faces. Having seen a couple of the ancient pyramids in person, I think Rivera did a wonderful job depicting their grandeur.
2) But now the Spanish arrive with their smug faces and blond hair and turn the native peoples into slaves. Once again, I love how you need to really examine every aspect of the mural to get the full story. If you just look at the foreground, you’ll miss what’s happening to the Americans in the background.
3) So this is meant to be post-revolutionary Mexico, and the rich are doing the kind of decadent things that the indolent and wealthy do while the working man is preparing for LA REVOLUCION! Before seeing this mural, I had never even once wondered how to say Das Kapital in Spanish.
4) And now I guess everyone who has ever existed in Mexican history, from mythological figures to priests to revolutionaries has come together to sing a big song on the staircase. (The slogan “Tierra y Libertad” was a slogan of the revolutionaries during the Mexican Revolution.)
Travelerette Treasure: So I like Diego Rivera, but I love cats. There were so many cats prowling the grounds of the Palacio Nacional I didn’t know what to do with myself. See!
Why are they there? Do they work for the treasury? I really must know!
Travelerette Tip: You don’t need money to enter this building, but you do need a form of photo ID to leave with the guards. Did I use my work ID, which is in no way, shape, or form a government issued document? Yes. Can I guarantee that they will let you in using a work ID? No.
Evening: Cantinas, Mariachi, and Lucha Libre
I was dying to experience some of Mexico City’s nightlife, but I was a little reluctant to go out by myself. In fact, I usually don’t like going out at night by myself unless it’s to a performance or restaurant. Bars and clubs are just strange and uncomfortable as a solo female traveler, especially since my least favorite thing in the whole world is strangers trying to touch me. That’s why I was so pleased to find Urban Adventures Cantinas, Mariachi, and Lucha Libre tour. I could hit some bars, listen to some music, and see some men in silly costumes smack each other around, and all in the company of friendly strangers who would not try to touch me.
Our first stop was at the Mirador Bar high up on the Torre Latinamerico skyscraper. This was a perfect place to try a popular Mexican beer, like the refreshing Modelo Especial. This beer is widely available in the US, but somehow it just tasted better to me because I was in Mexico. Also I was drinking it while watching this view:
Yup, that’s the roof of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where we were this morning. Your drink can also be accompanied by this sunset:
I think some of us were tempted to spend all night here! But we still had three more stops coming up.
Next we needed dinner, so we went to a little hole in the wall called El Charlatan Torteria. A torta is not a tart, but rather a Mexican sandwich served on a roll. I had the torta with pork and avocado, which was quite tangy and spicy and came with a side of crispy pork cracklings. It was definitely enough for dinner, especially after the World’s Biggest Pepper that I had for lunch.
I also had fun at this restaurant because there was a dish of spicy peppers for the table, and this Australian guy dared me to eat one, so I did. Everyone was so impressed that I didn’t cough or spit it out, but I think they just didn’t notice that my eyes were watering for the next fifteen minutes. I am a mistress of disguise!
Now it was time for the mariachi portion of the evening, so we headed for Plaza Garibaldi. This is the most famous square for listening to mariachi music in the city, but I don’t recommend going alone there at night because you’ll be swamped by people trying to take your money. Even with a group and a guide, we had quite a few people try to talk to us as we made our way to the cantina.
Fun Fact: Our guide said that the word mariachi comes from the French word for “marriage” because they used to play mariachi music at weddings.
Once we got inside, however, our problems were over. We ordered our drinks, and we really had a choice between tequila and mezcal. Our guide recommended mezcal, which has a smokier flavor than tequila, more like whiskey. You drink it with an orange slice and chili salt rather than a lime and salt like you do with tequila. I’d never tried mezcal before, so I decided to give it a shot. As a whiskey lover, I have to say that I love mezcal as much as whiskey now, and since my trip to Mexico I usually order a mezcal drink if I see it on the menu. And it tastes great with the orange slice!
As we drank, the cantina’s band came over and serenaded us with their trumpets, guitars, and singing. I don’t know that I would have ever thought to make a band with just trumpets, strings, and voices, but altogether the mariachi music has a festive vibe you just can’t help but enjoy.
Our last stop was heading on the bus to see the Mexican wrestling, aka lucha libre. This was maybe the craziest thing I have ever seen. The marquee match that evening was Mascara Dorada vs Mephisto. Mascara Dorada means Gold Mask, and I believe Mephisto is a reference to the Devil figure, Mephistopheles, so I was assuming that Mascara Dorado was the “good guy” and Mephisto was meant to be the “bad guy”.
But before the big showdown, there were lots of little fights, including one between a group of ladies. Go feminism? I don’t know anything about lucha libre, but I like to try to figure out the rules of sporting events by watching them and not doing research, so here goes:
Sometimes in lucha libre, guys just pump their fists and cheer to get the crowd going. Then usually their opponent gets up from the floor and attacks them behind their back.
There are girls who work for the lucha libre, but their only job is to walk next to the fighters in bikinis and wiggle. (Sorry for those of you hoping I took a picture of that. I was inspired by the Diego Rivera murals to stop participating in the exploitation of the proletariat.)
Sometimes in lucha libre, you climb up on top of the ropes and scream a lot until the crowd yells, “JUST JUMP ON HIM ALREADY!” and then you try to jump on your opponent. But sometimes that doesn’t work and you fall on your face, which is funny.
Not-So-Fun-Fact: Our guide told us that midgets are really popular in lucha libre which really confused me because I thought midgets were only used as entertainment in Martin Scorcese films or the land of Westeros.
I still have no idea how you win lucha libre. I guess you just get tired and stop getting up after your opponent throws one too many midgets at your head.
Travelerette Treasure: I liked the lucha libre competition, but I LOVED the Pink Power Ranger mask I bought for about 12 bucks from one of the mask shops outside the match. Sometimes I wear it around my apartment for no reason, just when I want to get in touch with my inner 6 year old.
After the match is over, your guide will either put you in a taxi, or take you back to your meeting point, whichever is closer to the hotel.
And That’s How You Have a Perfect Day in Mexico City!
What would you do if you had one day in Mexico City? Do you prefer mezcal, tequila, or Modelo Especial? And how is midget fighting still a thing? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.