Mexico City — CDMX — is immense. This post sort of feels like writing one post on New York City. As someone who used to work in the city, I’d say that was a fool’s errand. So too should be any singular post on Mexico City. But our weekend was a lot of fun and we want to transcribe some highlights here so forgive the brevity.
Mexico City may be the largest city we’ve ever been to in our travels together (in square miles and population). There was simply no conceivable way to get our arms around Mexico City in just a weekend. Nonetheless, we tried to immerse ourselves. We did a street food eating tour (and one of us got sick), took in mariachi at Plaza Mariachi, viewed Diego Rivera’s murals in the Palacio Nacional, climbed Teotihuacan, meandered in one of the best museum’s in the world (the Museo Nacional de Antropología), dined well, and lodged better. This was our Mexico City. We have to admit being a little intimidated by Mexico City. But getting off the plane and figuring out how to use the city’s taxis to get to our hotel was actually quite easy and felt very safe arriving at night. We chose to stay at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico.
Located in the historic center of Mexico City across from the Zócalo Square, the hotel was originally constructed in 1899 and the home of one of the first department stores in Mexico City – El Centro Mercantil. The “CM” for Centro Mercantil appears throughout the building. While the hotel is stunning itself, three things are worthy of mention: (1) the stunning Tiffany stained glass ceiling, (2) gilded iron elevators, and (3) its Art Nouveau decor. The service feels a bit like stepping back in time, almost like the welcome from The Grand Budapest Hotel of a bygone era. Admittedly, had we been there during the Day of the Dead festivities, we might be looking over our shoulder for Daniel Craig filming the opening long sequence in 007’s Spectre.
The hotel is ideally located on the southwest corner of the Zócalo, which is a great base for our first activities in Mexico City: the Metropolitan Cathedral, Templo Mayor, and National Palace. The Zócalo is the main square in Mexico City and prior to the conquest by the Spanish, was the center of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.
At the northern part of the Zócalo, the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral was constructed on top of the Aztec sacred precinct of the Templo Mayor. It is a beautiful structure, built over a 250-year period, and is sinking into the earth because of the soft clay soil under its reinforced foundation. The Cathedral embraces its precarious position by using a weight dangling from the ceiling to show just how much the foundation has shifted and how uneven the building sits. Throughout the Cathedral, chapels highlight quintessential design elements of Mexican baroque, Mexican art nouveau, and Mexican neo-classicism.
On the northeast corner of the Zócalo is the Plaza Mayor, the main temple of the Aztec people. This archeological site is impressive and the opportunity to see pre-colonial ruins leaves one untethered to time and place. While we have seen Roman ruins, perhaps those ruins are so far removed into history that it is not as impactful. Alternatively, the Roman Empire was conquering and fell; whereas the Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish and overrun. Sometimes it is difficult to place yourself where ancients stood, but Aztec peoples who lived here just over 500 years ago feel so much closer than they do further away.
Nearby, and bordering on the east of the Zócalo, is the Palacio Nacional. The building is a continuation of Montezuma’s palace building, which stood on this same site in the 16th century. In a Baroque style, the Palacio Nacional has a gorgeous center courtyard that feels miles away from the high-energy of the Zócalo, even though its just next door. Hidden within the Palacio Nacional are original murals by Diego Rivera. Stunning in color, these tell the history of Mexico from pre-colonial time through “modern” Mexico (defined as 1930s Mexico when these murals were painted).
Mexico City is a modern city and Uber is recommended to get around as the subway is a sardine-can experience we’ll never forget. Skyscrapers stretch to the sky as neoclassical buildings such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes are dotted within the city center.
Mexico City’s “Central Park” — the Bosque de Chapultepec — is a quiet and fun respite from the city center. The park is also the home to Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología, which is consistently rated as one of the absolute best museums in the world. We could have spent several hours at the Museum exploring the history of pre-Colombian civilizations.
Further afield from Mexico City, we took a day trip to Teotihuacan. The hotel seamlessly set up a private tour for us. Teotihuacan has pre-Colombian pyramids across a vast and flat multi-acre complex. The ruins are well maintained and you can climb the pyramids.
On the way back to the center of Mexico City is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe, which celebrates an 18th century appearance of the Virgin Mary. The complex is massive with old and modern basilicas. The modern basilica has an open floor plan and the original image of the Virgin de Guadelupe can be seen from all corners of the basilica.
Two favorite experiences in CDMX were our lunch at Michelin star restaurant Quintonil and a nighttime street food tour. Both very different, but both very Mexico City. For its part, Quintonil was awesome. The lunch was several beautifully plated courses and a modern take on traditional Mexican flavors. A couple favorite, unique, dishes were charred avocado tartare with “escamoles” (ant eggs) and breaded octopus.
At night, the streets of Mexico City are alive, but we hired a guide to feel a little more at ease with what we were eating. We started with street corn, headed to a taqueria, and ended the night at a mezcal bar. We ended the night listening to Mariachi at the famous Plaza Garibaldi. Our guide was so much fun, the tour was easy, and we really felt like we were getting a true “taste” of Mexico City.
In an amazing update after visiting Mexico City, some of our close friends from the Embassy of Canada in the United States are now stationed in Mexico City. We’d head back to get yet another taste of this amazing city. While we feel like its overlooked by tourists, it shouldn’t be. CDMX is truly an amazing and dynamic city.