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Mexico City, Part 2: There's So Much To See, Save Some For 'Next Time' (but watch the mescal)

In my last blog post and podcast, I talked about safety initiatives in Mexico City and the neighbourhoods to visit as travellers (Mexico City, Part 1: Safety - "They're Really Trying"). If you'd like, please read that post or listen to my last podcast for some general thoughts on what I described as a vibrant, cultural, colourful, historic, and cosmopolitan city. Now, it's time to discuss some of those popular neighbourhoods. (Oh, and if you are a dog lover, I've also got a podcast and blog for that - A Dog's Tale in Mexico City.)

Chances are pretty high that if you are from far away, you would arrive in Mexico City at the Mexico City International Airport (also known as Benito Juarez International). We arrived in the early evening and were thankful that we had pre-arranged a private driver with the hotel. The traffic around the airport, especially to a country girl or even if you are from a lower-density city, is mind-boggling. Mexico City is known to be one of the most congested cities in the world; but certified drivers maneuver that traffic like a Nascar driver - that experience, alone, is worth the price.

Your first question might be in which of the neighborhoods to stay. All the big hotel chains are available, especially along the Av Paseo de la Reforma which cuts through the centre of the city, Centro Historico, and Polanco, as well as local chains and independents. We chose to stay in a small independent hotel and were more than satisfied (I'll give it a shout-out - Armonik Suites where we had a large room and a beautiful roof top patio and received personal care from kind and helpful staff) in Colonial Cuauhtemoc, a small area tucked between the famed Av Paseo de la Reforma and the equally famed Polanco/Chapultepec Park. This area is known to be safe, borders the business district, has many coffee shops and restaurants, is not as congested, and is easy walking distance to all the main areas and/or metro stations. Colonial Condesa or Roma Norte would also be super locations.

Some funky architecture in the Colonial Cuauhtemoc neighbourhood.

Exploring Mexico City, we found a detailed hardcopy (yes, good old hardcopy) street map invaluable. We used vanDam’s Mexico City Streetsmart map. It highlights the main, safe neighborhoods with a detailed walking route in each that not only covers the major points of interest but also gives you a feel for the neighbourhood. It really helped us keep our bearings.

We chose one main district a day to explore, starting with gentrified Polanco, arguably the most well-off district of Mexico City bordering Chapultepec Park. It has tree lined streets, mansions, parks, upscale restaurants, embassies, culture (such as theatres), and the most expensive shopping street in Mexico City, Av Presidente Masaryk. You’ll see all the designer fashions - just like any major city in the world. One of the major designer shopping malls looked like an art museum. A walk right through the middle of the neighbourhood took us to the Soumaya Museum, an architectural wonder - it's made of 28 steel columns covered with hexagonal tiles (Museo Soumaya, - which was built and owned by an independent businessman and houses his own private art collection. Admittance was free. The art collection was immense (some 60,000 pieces covering the 15th to 20th centuries), and the structure itself was breathtaking. It's worth reading about. There are three main parks in the Polanco district: Parque America, Parque Lincoln, and Bosque de Chapultepec.

An upscale boutique and a walking boulevard on Av Horacio in Polanco. Note the perfectly trimmed hedges.

The San Augustine Parrish at Parque America, the El Palacio de Hierro Polanco high-end shopping mall (also a work of art), and the amazing Soumaya Museum exterior.

Architecture near the Soumaya Museum and two statues from Parque Lincoln, the first relating to the Nelson Mandela Cultural Space.

On our first evening, we joined Mexican nationals and watched the sun go down from the Angel of Independence statue in the middle of the Av Paseo de la Reforma. There is no sidewalk to the statue - you wait for a break in about four lanes of traffic and then run with everyone else to the statue. The process is more or less monitored by a police person. You just sit with the young lovers and watch the sun go down. I highly, highly recommend this fun adventure. You feel just a little bit 'bad'.

The evening view is incredible - and romantic, if you are so-inclined.

On our second day, we walked the length of the Av Paseo de la Reforma, alongside big businesses and banks and sky scrapers, and explored the Centro Historico District. This is home to some key sites and museums if you are interested - the Parque Alameda Central, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Museo Nacional de Art, Catedral Metropolitana, Palacio Nacional, Zocalo (Plaza de la Constitucion), Templo Mayor ruins, and the Palacio Postal (the main post office). Beware - this area is, as they say, historic and traditional. The streets and sidewalks are narrow and crowded and bordered by shop after shop. Outside, the locals are selling any type of craft or food or act or trinket you can think of. It’s colourful, hot, and loud and assaults your senses - but it’s real, and there are pictures just waiting to be taken. You’ll be especially reminded to guard against pickpockets here, just as in any congested area in any major city.

The architecture along the Av Paseo de la Reforma is stunning.

The Alameda Central Parque's main entrance into the Centro Historico District, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and the Palacio Postal (or the main past office, known for it's design).

The Catedral Metropolitana and the Palacio Nacional at Zocalo (the Main Square or Constitution Plaza), and the 'snake' at the Temple Mayor ruins..

Colorful street scenes in Centro Historico District.

Day three took us to exploring the Colonial Condesa and Roma Norte neighbourhoods. In either of these neighborhoods, you might just say, “I could live here“ - maybe because they feel most like home. Colonial Condesa is popular with young professionals and students. There are tree lined boulevards (including a long oval that used to be a race track, now Avenida Amsterdam), parks, lots of dog walkers, nouveau architecture, and any kind of coffee house or restaurant you could request. The main parks are Parque Mexico and Parque Espana. We loved the calmness of this area, especially the random sign reminding us to "inhala" and "exhala".

Park and walkway pictures from Condesa. It's calm - 'Inhala/Exhala".

We discovered that a foodie tour is a great way to enjoy local food safely and to peruse a neighbourhood. Our tour (Charming Colonia Roma Food Tour by Sabores) took us through the neighbouring Roma Norte area. Sabores tours pride themselves on fresh, quality food from local experts in small businesses and in giving back to the community. As our foodie guide (also a chef, himself) told us on our tour of six food and drink establishments, Roma Norte is the leading edge or 'incubator' for ‘new’ Mexican cuisine. (The nouveau tamales, tacos, and risotto were amazing, but I could not handle the 'lethality' of the pineapple mescal or tequila combined with hot chili pepper liqueur!) This area is full of bars, high-end restaurants, colourful houses, history, wide streets, foliage, artisans, street art, and architecture - and dog walkers. If you'd like a look at 'new' Mexican food, here is a slideshow of our tasty tour. Click the faint arrow on the right.

On day four, we joined what seemed to be all 22,000,000 Mexican nationals in the famous Chapultepec Park. It was Sunday, a hot Sunday, and this is apparently a Sunday thing to do - and we barely touched the surface. We saw just one little corner. Chapultepec Park is more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park, at 1, 695 acres. It has lots of green space, trees, lakes, a castle, museums, gardens, a zoo, and an amusement park area. It borders Camp Marte which is a National Defence facility used for events and is the base for the presidential guards. We entered the park through the Gate of the Lions. We toured the impressive Chapultepec Castle (free because we are old) and the equally impressive Museum of Modern Art (free because it was Sunday). We also walked through the zoo (also free). The streets of the park were lined, again, with kiosk after kiosk of food and trinkets, each kiosk operator trying to out-yell the neighbour. Thankfully, just as if someone knew the whole thing was a bit overwhelming, we chanced upon The Garden For Persons Over 60 Years. It was a delightful respite with only a handful of people over 60 years, walking, visiting, eating, and dancing to live music. The park had rules outlined, including no political soliciting and no sales of anything. The sculptures in this garden were emotional and sensuous.

The entrance to Chapultepec Park and pictures from the Chapultepec Castle which is now the National History Museum. Magnificent.

The Museo de Arte Moderno in Chapultepec Park.

Chapultepec Park's botanical garden.

These are some of the sensuous statues in the Garden for People Over 60 Years. Just click the faint arrows to see the slide show.

Day five saw us navigating the metro system to the Coyoacan area. If you’ve used one world-class metro, you’ve used them all, so to speak. The Mexico City metro transports up to five million people a day , often body to body (avoid between 6 and 9, both am and pm). A one-ride ticket allows you to ride the metro all day, if you want, as long as you just keep connecting the trains and don't exit a station. For five pesos ( or about 38 cents), that's a good deal. Even if you have to pay for several solo trips in one day, that's still cheap transportation. There is a rechargeable card, but we could not decipher where to buy one, or even if we, as travellers, were allowed to use them. And the women-only or women-and-children-only cars is brilliant, as is the fact that the train lines are colour-coded and each station is identifiable by a picture, in case there are language or literacy difficulties. These pictures are the women-only lane and some station art bordering a horticulture park.

The Coyoacan neighbourhood is a much less-congested, tree lined, painted-house kind of neighbourhood with a culture centre for arts development, the beautiful San Juan Bautista Church, and the traditional Plaza Hidalgo. Coyoacan is another suburban neighbourhood known to be a bit bohemian, full of leafy parks, colonial buildings, and young people. We saw schools where hundreds of parents were standing, lined in a row for blocks, waiting to retrieve their uniformed kids at the end of the school day. They say this might be the prettiest, most 'instagramable' neighbourhood in Mexico City, if that's your thing. We ate chia pudding lunch at a yoga studio which pretty much describes the neighbourhood.

Colorful houses, tile art, and the Casa Culture centre.

The San Juan Bautista Church

Frida Kahlo Museum, statue in a civic building, and a lone geranium looking street side.

On our final day, we hopped the metro once again to the Universitaria (UNAM) and San Angel areas. We hoped to see the old Olympic Stadium and some famous murals at the university, but we underestimated the size of the university grounds - enrolment is apparently over 300,000 and there are over 1,000 buildings and 100 libraries. So, we walked around a small portion of the campus for a feel of student life in Mexico City. There were busses, if we had chosen, to connect parts of the campus, but this is a full day trip in itself. There is just too much to see in Mexico City.

A very, very small example of UNAM university street art.

We finished the day in San Angel, arguably also one of the nicest neighbourhoods we explored. San Angel used to be a rural hamlet but is now a desirable little neighbourhood within Mexico City, famous for art and culture. Again, it is full of colourful houses and restaurants. Here, there are cobblestone streets and beautiful flowering bougainvillea, many small artisan shops and boutiques and town squares and gated communities and craftsmen refurbishing buildings. One highlight was touring the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo workshop. They are two famous artists in Mexico history.

San Angel residences.

Some pictures from the workshop museum of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Although we are lacking in art knowledge, we could just imagine sitting in one of these bright studios and painting or forming pottery or sculpting in the early 1900's.

And that wrapped up our trip to Mexico City. It was a busy week, but we feel we just touched the surface of what this surprising city has to offer. It has such a long history and culture worth in-depth exploration.

But we have a saying that you don't want to see everything during one visit because you need to save something for next time. Our 'next time' includes: seeing more of the over 150 museums (the most of any city in the world), searching out (or taking a walking tour of) the best street art and murals, riding the metro to check out the different metro station art (one of my favourite things to do in any city), checking out a few local markets, visiting the Basilica Guadalupe (one of the most visited religious sites in the world), spending way more time in Chapultepec Park, visiting the UNAM (University City) in more depth, and exploring other parts of the neighbourhoods we have already visited. We know there will be a 'next time' because isn't Mexico City a perfect stopping-over point for travels to Central and South America?

All of this does not even consider the numerous day trips from Mexico City that we chose not to take - this time. Two of the most popular and accessible are the Teotihuacan pyramids/ruins and the Zochimilco boats.

I'll end with some final reminders. Credit cards are generally used, but carry some pesos for the metro, tips, some public toilets, and street stands. Also, some form of 'wet wipes' always come in handy for something. And you might need some over-the-counter medication to calm your stomach with all that great food. Finally, you will need to buy filtered water (readily accessible and affordable as everyone uses it), but we carried a water filter bottle, regardless, which just might tag along on all of our future travels.

I hope this post has given you a taste for the culture, colour, history, and modernity of Mexico City. As you can see, despite six full days, there's plenty for next time - but no mescal for us.


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