A UNESCO World Heritage City
The colonial city. “Mexico” is the center of Mexico’s cultural, historical and commercial life. In spite of the recent stories of crime, pollution and overcrowding, Mexico (the oldest capital in the New World) is still as impressive a tourism destination as ever. Among its special pleasures are its spacious parks and plazas; lovely colonial mansions and palaces; stylish modern architecture decorated with the works of Mexico’s notable artists; great, gleaming skyscrapers; and the ultra-modern subway system, the Metro.
All tours should include a visit to the Zocalo, officially called Constitution Square. Before Cortes it was the main ceremonial ground for the Aztecs. For over four centuries this has remained the religious and political center of Mexico. Three landmarks highlight the ancient site today: the National Palace, housing the presidential offices and the epic murals of Diego Rivera; the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest in Latin America, with 14 chapels and grand alters of prized works of religious art; and the Museo del Templo Mayor, built on the ruins of the Aztec Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, unearthed in 1978.
Chapultepec Park is another urban quarter that should be visited, especially on Sundays. The 2,000 acre park is home many attractions including the Rufino Tamayo Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. An uphill climb brings one to Chapultepec Castle. Built in 1783 this was once the imperial residence of Maximilian and Charlota von Hapsburg, whose memorabilia, as well as the National Museum of History, fill the premises.
Above all, within the park, and alone worth a trip to Mexico City, is the National Museum of Anthropology. This museum is world renowned for its beautiful architecture and brilliant collection of ancient relics and priceless pre-Colombian art, such as the original Aztec calendar stone and Maya tomb treasures.
The Museum of Popular Arts is crammed with the best of handicrafts from all over Mexico. In addition to the exhibits there are shops where regional ware is sold and the widest range of arts and crafts is available in the government-run Fonart stores. More fashionable wares are on sale in the neighborhood of San Angel at the bustling Bazaar del Sabado, a Saturday only market held in the 17th-century convent. Around the facing plaza local artists display their paintings along the paths and under the trees.
The Zona Rosa and Polanco are fashionable neighborhoods just off Avenida Reforms and a few blocks from Chapultepec Park known for the concentration of shops, are galleries and fine restaurants serving Mexican regional specialties in lovely colonial settings.
The foremost cultural event in Mexico City is the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. Scheduled on Wednesdays and Sundays the Ballet is a two-hour presentation of ancient and contemporary folk dancing from all over the country.
Mexico City is not entirely safe, but with caution and on tour, there is very little likelihood of problems. But, venturing out alone in remote or unknown neighborhoods is definitely not advised.
Side trips from Mexico City include: Teotihuacán - Thirty miles from Mexico, this ancient city is famous for its archaeological treasures: the magnificent pre-Aztec Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the grand Avenue of the Dead and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl with its enormous ornamental snake heads. By day those who are sure of foot will find climbing to the top of the pyramids a memorable experience. Afternoon tours extend into the evening for the drama of the sound and light show (mid-October through mid-May). Xochimilco - Reminiscent of Mexico City prior to the arrival of Cortes, this trip to the floating gardens is a joy. Via a flower-bedecked barge-like boat (trajinera), visitors float through the canals while flower and souvenir vendors and musicians float alongside. The scene is most colorful on Sundays. Cuernavaca - Sixty miles from Mexico City, Cuernavaca is a popular weekend getaway destination. Fine, year-round climate brought conquistador Hernan Cortes here in the 16th century and North Americans in the 20th. On Sundays a small open market is held beside the Cortes Palace Museum. The Borda Gardens and Las Mananitas, a garden restaurant that enjoys nationwide fame, are two additional attractions. Tepotzotlan, a tiny town a one hour drive east from Mexico City, is an exquisite colonial treasure. The St. Francis Xavier Convent shows off the country’s finest architectural examples of churriqueresque, Mexico’s novel brand of baroque.
Another archaeological side-trip is Tula. Once a militaristic Toltec city which heavily influenced the Aztecs when the Toltecs dominated most of northern and central Mexico from 900 to 1200 B.C., this site reveals the Toltec's rich artistic past. The site is also rich with legend. It as from here that the human-god Quetzalcoatl was banished in 987 A.D. He headed east, settling at Chichén Itza, promising to return one day. By one of history’s most remarkable coincidences, Hernan Cortes and his ships appeared off Mexico’s coast on the exact year and day of the ruler’s prophesied return. This gave Cortes and enormous advantage against the Aztecs, as he was accepted as the long-awaited god returning to reclaim his empire.
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