Since getting used to small town beach life in California I have become less enchanted with traveling to big cities. But when in Mexico, there was no way I was going to miss out on visiting bustling Mexico City. A city of 9 million, there is no respite from the constant flux of people. Sprawled upon 1,485 square kilometers of land, the city is cradled by a mountain range of volcanoes reaching elevations of 5,000 meters. Once the location of Lake Texoco, the valley is now awash with a sea of urban buildings as far as the eye can see. Informal settlements perch on the mountain sides, while some of the wealthiest people in the world make the downtown core their home.
Saved from having to drive ourselves into the chaotic fray of stop and go traffic, we used our time wisely in the city to fill our days with cultural sights. The city is steeped in its historic past, with Spanish colonial era architecture brushing up against 15th century Aztec ruins, all together juxtaposed with modern glass towers reaching to the sky.
Dizzying to the senses, Mexico City is both grand while also containing a dark underbelly of poverty. While we did not venture forth to the informal settlements, you would almost not know they existed among the shop lined streets of Centro Histórico.
What follows is a selection of cultural and historical experiences for a fully packed two day visit to Mexico City. This by all means does not encapsulate the multitude of things to do and see in a city with over 150 museums and hundreds of neighborhoods.
After a drive down the picturesque Avenue Paseo de la Reforma, lined by seasonally landscaped gardens, opulent mansions, and the outer edges of Chapultepec Park, begin your day at the National Museum of Anthropology. Make sure to get an early start as this museum could easily take all day, but if you structure your time well it can be covered in four hours. This expansive museum covers the history of Mexico from the ancient Neanderthals to the Aztecs and Mayans. Carefully curated collections of art, pottery, jewelry, textiles, weapons, and statues are displayed in different rooms separated by time period and civilization.
If you are not experiencing museum fatigue then make sure to visit Soumaya Museum, created to house millionaire Carlos Slim’s personal art collection. Opened in 1994, the avant garde style building offers several floors of unique pieces. The exhibit of intricately carved ivory from China and India is a must see. Other exhibits include collections of 15th to 18th century European masters, 19th century Mexican artists, sculptures by Rodin, and coins from Mexico’s colonial past.
End the day with a stroll through Chapultepec Park where a bevy of diversions await. If you so choose there is a Museum of Natural History, Zoo, Museum of Fine Art, and Chapultepec Castle. Or to end the day lightly, meander the trails of the park to take in the views of the lakes, while stopping for a keepsake at one of the hundreds of stalls selling brightly colored woven backpacks and jewelry.
Start your second day at Palacio de Belles Artes, originally a 19th century national theater before being rebuilt in the 1930s in the Art Nouveau style. The land below holds such historical wonders as a 17th century convent and an Aztec plumed serpent altar. The interior features murals by renowned Mexican artists including Sigueiros and Diego Rivera. There are a few art and photography collections, but the remainder of the space is used by the National Opera, National Theater, and National Dance Company.
Next stop is Centro Histórico, encompassing Avenue 5 de Mayo and the surrounding streets. This pedestrian only avenue is lined with shops and restaurants. Continue down to the National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral located along Plaza de la Constitucion. Take in the grand structures before entering a tour of Templo Mayor, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Templo Mayor is a Postclassic period Aztec temple first built in the 1300s dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.
Treat yourself to a meal at Restaurante El Cardinal located in a building reminiscent of French architecture. Dine on the second or third floor of the building overlooking Centro Histórico. The menu offers a variety of traditional Mexican dishes including moles and tacos. Make sure to start with a Pre-Columbian delicacy, fried maggots served with homemade tortillas and guacamole.
Finally, end the day atop Torre Latinoamericana, now the second tallest building in Mexico City at 188 meters. Take an elevator up to the 44th floor to watch the sun set over the city. Completed in 1972, the building offers stunning 360 views of Mexico City, a satisfying finish to two full days.