Recently, I was talking to a couple of German tourists about their experience in Mexico City. I asked what they had seen in the historic center, and one replied, “We walked though the historic center one day. We didn’t really like it.” My husband Brad was similarly unimpressed the first time I took him to the Zócalo, the main plaza in Mexico City (and the second largest in the world after Red Square in Moscow). He complained of too much pavement and traffic, and it’s true: traffic circles through the Zócalo (though many of the streets that surround it are pedestrian-only). In First Stop in the New World, David Lida, clearly a big fan of the historic center, describes the Zócalo as “an austere, thirteen-acre concrete plaza.”
I admit to having been intimidated by the historic center the first few times I visited it. The crowds can be overwhelming. According to Lida, only 200,000 people live there, but an additional 1,200,000 make a daily commute to the historic center for work, and then of course there are the many visitors who come to see the Mexican capital’s most famous tourist attractions. But the historic center has grown on me over time, and it also seems to me that the local government has recently spent some money sprucing the place up. The Alameda Central, the oldest park in the city (dating from 1592), has been given a makeover, for instance. But more importantly, on this visit to Mexico City, I’ve had the great good fortune to have some locals act as tour guides in the historic center. I have thus seen some lovely places that I would not have seen had I just relied on guidebooks.
The historic center covers about three-and-a-half square miles, occupying the space that was once the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. There’s much more to it than the Zócalo, though I happen to think that the Zócalo, despite all the concrete, has a certain grandeur, and there always seems to be something interesting happening there. Because of its odd mix of architectural styles, the whole neighborhood is wonderfully atmospheric. Lida describes it thus: “The buildings in the Zócalo were built between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. As such, the architecture is something of a hodgepodge; within a block or two you might find facades with Corinthian columns, Moorish arches, Gothic spires, lion gargoyles, placid statues of Minerva and Pan, or Art Deco curves and angles. Some structures are in great shape, while others look like they would fall down if someone sneezed in their direction. Yet even in the decadent sections it is impossible to walk through the neighborhood without sensing its majesty.” Along Calle Moneda, to the northeast of the Zócalo, a half dozen church domes are visible on the horizon, leaning this way or that as the churches sink into the soft soil of a city built on a lake. Organ grinders and their assistants hold out their hats to passersby, hoping for a tip. Vendores ambulantes (literally walking sellers, or street vendors) loudly and illegally hawk their wares, displayed on blankets in the streets. The corners of these blankets have been tied in just such a way as to facilitate a quick escape should the police show up.
Though some fairly affluent people have been moving into the area recently, it remains largely a working class neighborhood, not nearly as hip and gentrified as Roma Norte or Condesa. If you wander away from the tourist sites, you’ll observe ordinary people leading ordinary lives in a rather extraordinary environment. In parts of the historic center, entire blocks are devoted to the same kind of merchandise: jewelry, bridal gowns, stationery. When I was looking for a small bag to take on a weekend trip to visit my friends Ceci and Pilar, my Spanish teacher Ernesto recommended that I go to Calle Corregidora, the luggage street.
It’s thanks to Ernesto, and some other people I’ve met here, that I’ve gotten to know this neighborhood better. Here’s my guide to places worth visiting in the historic center. (Most of the places I mention here are tourist attractions, though as I’ve already said, it’s also a good experience to leave the tourist attractions behind and get lost in the neighborhood.)
Around the Zócalo:
What is now the Zócalo was once the heart of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, but the only place you’ll find any real evidence of this fact is the Museo del Templo Mayor. The Spaniards destroyed and built over Tenochtitlan, but in 1978, a lineman laying cables discovered remnants of the Templo Mayor, the main religious site and largest pyramid in the Aztec capital. In the 80s, the site was turned into a museum. The museum contains not just the ruins of the Templo Mayor but also Aztec artifacts that have been discovered all over the historic center. One of the pleasures of the museum is walking through it and seeing these pre-Hispanic ruins juxtaposed with the Spanish colonial buildings rising in the background. One truly feels a sense of the two cultures that have merged in modern Mexico.
It’s no coincidence that this museum is located next to the Catedral Municipal. The Spaniards always built churches and cathedrals atop indigenous religious sites in order to establish the superiority of their religion. But these churches also contain evidence of the syncretization of Catholicism and traditional indigenous beliefs. As Ernesto pointed out to me, there are snake motifs in the Cathedral’s baroque exterior (and in many other buildings in the historic center as well), a reference to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. I’m not entirely sure whether these motifs were intended by Catholics to help ease the natives into Catholicism or whether they are subversive attempts of indigenous builders to insert their beliefs into Catholicism.
Across from the cathedral is the Palacio Nacional, a building worth a couple of hours of your time. It contains some magnificent Diego Rivera murals and the living quarters of Benito Juarez, Mexico’s most beloved president (described to me by my friend Mauricio as the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico).
There are many restaurants offering lovely views of the Zócalo. I’ve eaten several times at the always crowded El Balcón, where the views are stunning, the food is not bad, and the service is spotty at best. But it’s worth putting up with the bad service to enjoy the views.
West of the Zocalo
There are several pedestrian streets surrounding the Zócalo. The most crowded is always Avenida Madero, which leads to the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Alameda Central. It’s a chaotic place, packed with costumed street performers and overflowing with touts trying to get you into the many optometry shops on the street. (Sometimes there are touts in costume. During Day of the Dead celebrations, a drag queen dressed as Frida Kahlo tried to lure passersby into a restaurant on Madero.) But despite the chaos, Madero’s churches and other historic buildings make it worth exploring.
At the corner of Madero and Isabel La Catolica is El Templo San Felipe Neri “La Profesa,” built by Jesuits in the 16th century. As I learned from Ernesto, the statue of the Virgin to the left of the main alter is a portrait of an important figure in Mexican history, La Güera Rodriguez (which roughly translates as the White Lady Rodriguez, or perhaps more accurately, the Fair Skinned Rodriguez). Considered one of the great beauties of her day, she had an affair with Agustin de Iturbide, a general loyal at the time to the Spanish crown, and convinced him to support Mexican independence. He went on to become one of the great heroes of the Mexican War of Independence (and was briefly, after independence was achieved, named Emperor of Mexico). La Güera Rodriguez lived in a house just across Madero from this church.
Catty-corner from the church is the Museo del Estanquillo, which houses photos and letters collected by the openly gay writer and intellectual Carlos Monsiváis.
A little farther up Madero is the Palacio de Cultura Banamex, a beautiful colonial mansion that has been turned into a private art museum by one of Mexico’s biggest banks. Admission is free. When I was there with my friend Mauricio, we saw an exhibit of modern sculpture that was surprisingly erotic, but the real draw was the house itself.
A little further up is the Casa de Azulejos (House of Tiles), another colonial mansion, this one famous for the blue tile work of its exterior. It’s now a Sanborns–a department store with a restaurant. It makes for a lovely lunch spot.
At the end of Madero is the Torre Latinoamericana, one of the most reviled buildings in Mexico City. Though it was once the tallest building in the country, every Mexican I have talked to hates it. The reason, perhaps, is that its construction involved the partial destruction of the Church of San Francisco, one of the oldest and most beloved churches in the city, the remnants of which are located right next to the tower. You can pay a few pesos to take an elevator to the top floor of la Torre, where the views of the city and surrounding mountains, on a clear day, are spectacular.
If you cross Eje Central from Madero, you’ll find yourself in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, one of the most iconic structures in Mexico City. Built during the Porfiriato, the thirty-five year reign of President Porfirio Diaz, this neoclassical theatre also features decorative details that link it to indigenous Mexican culture, as Ernesto informed me one afternoon while we drank coffee at the 8th floor terrace cafe in the Sears building across the street. He urged me to go examine the building’s arches more carefully in order to see both the snake and dog motifs that Mexicanize this otherwise very European-looking structure.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is primarily a theater, but its upper floors have been turned into a museum dedicated to Mexico’s most famous muralists, including Siqueiros, Orozco, Tamayo and Rivera. Its most famous work is Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads, originally intended for Rockefeller Center in New York, but torn down because it featured a sympathetic portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Later, Rivera reconstructed the mural here. On one of my visits to this building, I saw an elementary school teacher explaining the painting to a group of rapt students.
To see another of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals, you can simply walk through the Alameda Central to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, a museum that houses only one mural, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park). This mural could not be in a more perfect location, for it gives us a peek at the history of the park that lies just outside the museum’s doors. In the mural, you can see wealthy white Mexicans (and foreigners) enjoying the park while police officers prevent poor and indigenous people from entering. This park eventually became a popular cruising ground for closeted gay men, though today, among the crowds enjoying the newly renovated park, you will see many hand-holding same-sex couples.
Across the Eje Central from the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a couple of blocks to the north, is the Palacio de Correos (palace of mail), sometimes simply called the Edificio de Correos (the mail building). Also built during the Porfiriato, this building still functions as a post office. It was heavily damaged in the 1985 earthquake but has since been restored. It’s a magnificent (and beloved) building, definitely worth a few minutes of your time. It’s still a post office, so there’s not much to see here other than the building itself, though there is a small art gallery on the first floor.
Across Calle de Tacuba from the Palacio de Correos is the Museo Nacional de Arte (National Museum of Art), located in another glorious building from the Porfiriato, this one originally intended to be the Palace of Communications. The museum houses many treasures of Mexican art, and also features temporary exhibits, such as the current exhibit giving an overview of modern art during the 20th century.
A few steps away is a wonderful place to have lunch, Café de Tacuba. Located in a house built in the early 17th century, the restaurant serves traditional Mexican cuisine which you will eat while being serenaded by mariachis. The house has quite a history. Diego Rivera married his first wife there; in 1936, a politician who had just been elected governor of Veracruz was assassinated there. Its walls are adorned with some masterpieces of Mexican art (including an excellent portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz).
Looking west from Avenida Madero, you can see the Monumento a la Revolución (Monument to the Revolution). It lies outside of the historic center, across Paseo de la Reforma, but it’s well worth the walk. This building, begun during the Porfiato, was intended to be a new Congress for Mexico, but its construction was halted by the revolution and never resumed. It was just a skeletal dome for several decades until an architect presented the government with a plan to turn it into a monument to the Mexican Revolution. Underneath the monument, there is a fascinating museum that tells the story of the revolution, Museo Nacional de la Revolución (though it might be somewhat less interesting to those who don’t read Spanish).
North of the Zócalo
A few blocks north of the Zócalo is Plaza Santo Domingo, which is lined with print shops. Under its porticoes, men known as escritores publicos (public writers) sit at desks and type on electric typewriters. They write letters and fill out forms for people who are either illiterate or have no computer or typewriter.
Right off of the Plaza Santo Domingo, on Calle República de Cuba, is the Secretaria de Educación Publica (SEP), where Diego Rivera painted his very first murals. The building is open to the public on weekdays, and it’s well worth a look.
I’m told that Calle República de Cuba is the site of Mexico City’s hippest gay bars, the ones frequented by queers who are too cool for the Zona Rosa. I’m a little too old for nightlife these days, but I’m curious about these places. Time Out Mexico recently published an article about these bars. Perhaps I’ll check some of them out before leaving town.
Not far from the SEP building is the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, another grand colonial building filled with murals. The most famous ones in this building are by Jose Clemente Orozco.
Several blocks north of the Zócalo on Calle Republica de Bolivia is the Museo de la Mujer (the Women’s Museum), which tells the story of Mexican history from the perspective of women. I went there one afternoon to see a documentary about the Brontë sisters that was playing as part of MICGenero, an annual Mexico City film festival with a gender focus. After the film, I wandered around the museum for a while, and it seemed like a fascinating place. I keep meaning to go back and spend more time there.
South of the Zócalo:
One afternoon after our class, Ernesto suggested that I check out the Calle de Regina, a pedestrian street several blocks south of the Zócalo. This street was officially designated a “corridor peatonal cultural” (cultural pedestrian corridor) in 2008. Lined with cafes, bars and restaurants, Calle de Regina is also known for its murals, vertical gardens, and cultural activities, including the exhibit of traditional and contemporary Day of the Day altars I saw here in November. It’s not a touristy place. It draws crowds, but they’re Mexican crowds, and its inexpensive restaurants tend to serve tacos, pizza, and beer.
Around the block from Calle de Regina, on San Jeronimo, another pedestrian street, is a funky bar/restaurant called Hosteria La Bota. It’s located near the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, and it seems mainly to attract university students. This is another place I visited on Ernesto’s recommendation, and I’m so glad I did. Its eccentric ambiance was described by Chilango magazine as follows: “Parece taberna española y al mismo tiempo el desván de tus abuelos” (“It seems like a Spanish tavern and at the same time your grandparents’ attic”). Its décor could be characterized as curated clutter. Every inch of the walls is covered with some kind of odd object: animal heads, old posters, vinyl records, curios, knick-knacks, hanging bicycles. Both times I ate there, I had the torta de pulpo (octopus sandwich), and it was surprisingly delicious.
There’s so much of the historic center that I have yet to see, despite having spent several months this year in Mexico City. It contains dozens and dozens of museums, for instance, and I’ve only visited a fraction of them. In fact, there’s so much in the city as a whole that I haven’t seen. It’s such a vast place that I’m beginning to think I could spend the rest of my life here without taking advantage of all it has to offer. I guess it’s good to know that there will be plenty of new things for me to see on my next visit.