Ancient Tenochtitlan, capital of New Spain in colonial times
The long awaited winter trip finally came to a reality. Not only the excitement of going again on a long holiday, but for going to places in the world never been before and wishing so much for long to go. A tour from Mexico to Panama via Belize and Guatemala. It was the very first time travelling to the once called “New World” and now that I take the chance to make some further updates to this guide 6 years later, aiming for Central and South America is somewhat a priority with another 4 times and more to come.
So coming to stunning Mexico City, or simply DF. The massive place that rivals Tokyo, Seoul and Mumbai as the largest metropolitan areas by population in the world. Only with the approach when landing at the airport is a sight on its own. A continuous and massive net of streets, perfectly defined orthogonal streets and avenues without an end. We got to see the night when landing, but the day when taking off. It is even difficult to believe the infinite expansion of this city.
Now, forget those erroneous stereotypes, negative nicknames and bad reputation you have heard and read about. Mexico City is not as dangerous as such as any other city can be, like for example London, Paris or Barcelona. Yes you read this right. I am in fact more cautious when carrying my camera in other cities in Europe than I have been in Mexico City. Yes, of course the city is enormous, but the areas any tourist is ever going to be are totally safe, day and night. If anyone decides to go where they’re not supposed to be and something happen to them, then acts like this should not really be included on any rating deprecating the city’s reputation as unsafe. Or do you go to any dangerous area in the city you are living in? I take that for a no.
Police are everywhere, also the tourist police ready to help anyone with questions, issues or direction; but to find so many police was due to the time of the year, just days before the New Year’s celebrations. Zocalo area of course was full of people, but in a very populous city, it is difficult is to find a quiet place anyway.
The current city was build on top of the prosperous pre-Columbian Tenochtitlan after the Spanish conquered it and dethroned its leader, Montezuma, out of power. Then and as it was normal back in the conquering times, the stones from the original buildings were used as cantera to rise the new city. Cathedral, churches and palaces all quickly stood in this city following the same urbanism pattern as the former Tenochtitlan, some of which coexisting today and included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list of Historic Center of Mexico City and Xochimilco.
We did our base in the city. Three days for visiting it and then other ones for day trips to Teotihuacan, Puebla and Cholula. You will need at least 3 full days to discover this city. There are too many sights and places to visit, unfortunately some located well far and apart from each other for what time spent in transport will be long. Our original plan ended up in being too short and we could not manage to visit quite important places such as Basilica de Guadalupe or the Chapultepec Castle and gardens. I thought from my plan listed below I could manage everything but that was not the case. The list is perfect for a 4 day stay, therefore plan well ahead and scrap sights if your time is limited as long as you remember there is a place you cannot miss under any circumstance, this is taking a boat (trajinera as they are called) in the canals of Xochimilco.
Talking about food, well you are in the right place. That will be the easiest task because there are plenty of canteens, restaurants and street food vendors everywhere. Tacos originated in pre-Hispanic Mexico City and are vastly available anywhere. Tacos al pastor are the cheapest and the most commonly served. Of course you have quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, enfrijoladas, flautas, tortilla soup… A good note for people afraid of spicy, most of their dishes are not spicy on itself. They serve you the sauces apart, and it is up to you to add to your taste! This was extremely helpful, but if in doubt with any dish, it’s better asking before than suffering the consequences of a burnt mount.
For more information about the city visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Mexico’s currency is the Mexican Peso (MXN, MEX$ or $). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Mexico City
- Zocalo – Plaza de la Constitucion Heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed area, is the second largest square in the world after the Red Square in Moscow. Metro Zocalo on Line 2. For easy navigation of the places and sights, from here you can split into the four big quadrants north, south, east and west.
-Metropolitan Cathedral Built between 1573 and 1813 atop the Aztec Templo Mayor of Teochtitlan. One of the oldest and largest colonial cathedrals in the New World. Free admission.
-Metropolitan Tabernacle Built between 1749 and 1760, located to the right side of to the cathedral on the same plot, houses the archives and vestments of the archbishop.
-National Palace It’s the presidential palace from 1850, has many courts, fountains and gardens inside. Diego Rivera’s mural depicting Mexico’s history is in the main stairwell. . Free admission with ID, closed on Mondays.
-Portal de Mercadores At one of the sides of the square, includes the Hotel Majestic (Best Western) and Gran Hotel Mexico with Art Nouveau interiors.
-Federal District Buildings At the other side of the square those are the two buildings looking almost symmetrical to each other.
-Nacional Monte de Piedad Institution building Great interiors. Open from 8.30am-18.00pm.
-Tenochtitlan Ruins Although remains are visible across the city, in squares, fountains or even metro stations, the ones located behind the cathedral are the largest of the original Aztec city. You can walk along the original paved streets and in between buildings and pyramids, but please do not expect too much of it as in any other Aztec or Maya city you will find. Still this is a great start to familiarise yourself with the pre-Columbian civilizations of mesoamerica if this is your first time.
- North of Zocalo
-Santo Domingo Square By Calle Republica de Brasil, another wonderful space full of colonial architecture.
-Santo Domingo Church Dating from 1736, is the third reincarnation, and what remains from one of the very first monasteries established in New Spain in 1526. In Baroque style with pink stone.
-Old Customs Building Along the east side of the square. Built in 1730 in tezontle stone (volcanic rock); once the main office in charge of the regulation and taxation of imported merchandise into New Spain, hence becoming the largest source of revenue for the government.
-Inquisition Palace Built in 1736, nowadays the Museum of Mexican Medicine.
-Abelardo L. Rodríguez Market Opened in 1934 as one of the newer and main market places in the city. Its main distinction are the enormous murals painted by students of Diego Rivera, nowadays a main tourist landmark.
–Teatro del Pueblo On Calle Republica de Venezuela, was created at the time of the market’s construction, and implemented within a historical building.
-Garibaldi Square This is where you will find many Mariachis singing for just few Pesos tip. On Calle Honduras.
- South of Zocalo
-Supreme Court of Justice Corner of Pino Suárez and Carranza Streets. Built in 1934.
-El Palacio de Hierro Store Located on Carranza and 20 de Noviembre Streets, one of the major upscale department stores in the city. The first building to be made of iron and steel, opened in 1891. After a fire destroyed it, the newer reincarnation was completed in 1920 in art-nouveau style.
-Liverpool Store Carranza and 20 de Noviembre Streets, just the next building after El Palacio de Hierro. Another important upscale department store.
-Church of San Bernardo 20 de Noviembre and Venustiano Carranza Streets. Originally a convent complex, only the church consecrated in 1690 survives.
-Saint Michael Archangel Church Farther down along 20 de Noviembre Street, by Pino Suarez metro station.
-Tlaxcoaque Square A major intersection of roads and transports, nicely landscaped with a small colonial church at its middle.
- West of Zocalo
-Francisco I. Madero Avenue This is the major pedestrian thoroughfare connecting Zocalo with the west of the city, with plenty of shops, restaurants, museums and monuments along its way.
-Palace of Iturbide On Madero Avenue, built in 1785 in Mexican Baroque style. Nowadays a cultural centre, worth to come inside and admire its couryards and works of art,.
-Casa de los Azulejos With its facade entirely covered in Puebla Tiles. Now one of the best restaurants in the city, the Sanborns.
-Torre Latinoamericana Eje Central with Calle Juarez, opposite the Sanborns. Built in 1956 of some resemblance to the Empire State Building in New York City, however covered in glass not stone. A viewing platform on the floor 42 offers the best views of the whole city as far your eyes can see weather or pollution permitting. Open from 09.00am until 22.00pm, 60Mex$.
-Calle de Tacuba Parallel to Madero Avenue, and with Avenida 5 de Mayo in between both, the next major thoroughfare completely full of colonial architecture and monuments.
-Museum of the Army and Air Forces Housed in a former small church by the corner of Tacuba with Filomeno Mata Streets.
-National Museum of Art MUNAL The main museum for the art in the country, housed in an impressive Neoclassical palace.
-Palacio de Mineria Just opposite the MUNAL, another impressive construction, considered one of the masterpieces of Neoclassical architecture in the Americas. Built between 1797 and 1813 by Valencian Spanish sculptor and architect Manuel Tolsá as the Royal School of Mines and Mining of the Royal Court.
–Statue of Spanish King Charles IV Also nicknamed El Caballito, is located right in the centre in between both previous buildings.
-Alameda Central/Plaza de Bellas Artes A large nice park in the heart of the city, break-point between the colonial architecture and the new city farther beyond this point.
-Palacio de Correos This beautiful central post office is not only impressive on the outside, but inside, where you are welcomed to wonder inside and to the main stairwell where the glass dome is.
-Bank of Mexico The next building next to the post office, overlooking the Alameda Central.
-Beaux Arts Palace and National Theatre Built in 1934 as a cultural centre, is been nicknamed as the Cathedral of Art of Mexico.
-Santa Veracruz Church North and behind the Beaux Arts Palace.
- East of Zocalo
-La Santisima Trinidad Church La Santisima y Emiliano Zapata streets, dating from 1783.
-Jose Luis Cuevas Museum & Santa Ines Church Calle de la Moneda, almost next to the Cathedral. The museum is free to enter and has some nice patios full with modern art sculptures and pictures.
-House of the First Print Shop in the Americas From 1539. Corner of Moneda and Licenciado Primo Verdad streets. Almost in Zocalo.
- Paseo de la Reforma One of the main and widest avenues cutting diagonally the entire city. Metro Insurgentes for the location of the principal point, the large roundabout at its centre with the Angel of the Independence, and where the heart of the financial city starts with countless towers ever rising.
-El Angel de la Independencia Completed in 1810. Free to visit and to go up.
-Torre Mayor The tallest skyscraper in Mexico (at the time of writing this guide).
- Chapultepec Castle In Chapultepec Park at the end of Paseo de la Reforma. Metro to Auditorio o Chapultepec. 57 Mex$, free on Sunday. Offers great views from the top over the city and volcano if weather or pollution permits.
- Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe One of the most important catholic pilgrimage places in Mexico. The old Basilica began construction in 1531 and was finished in 1709. Metro La Villa-Basilica, to the north of the city.
- Capilla del Cerrito Behind the Basilica of Guadalupe. Offers nice views from the top.
- Plaza de Cibeles It’s a small replica of the Cibeles fountain in Madrid. Metro Insurgentes, by Avenida Oaxaca. As an information note, Avenida Insurgentes is one of the largest in the world at 34 km long.
- Xochimilco An UNESCO World Heritage Site. No visit to DF can be completed until you come here. Please check Xochimilco post for a full entry on this place.
From the airport, Benito Juarez Airport, you can easily take the metro located in Terminal 1. If landing in T2 you will need to take the free Aerotren or shuttle buses (the white ones) to T1. With the metro then you can connect to anywhere in the network.
The metro system is very efficient, clean and safe. It costs 5Mex$ per trip. No discount if buying more than one tickets. Be aware that some stations can get really crowded specially Zocalo and the nearby stations if there is any event, therefore the queue to buy the tickets can be huge. Don’t loose your time and buy a bunch of tickets at once to use for the following days instead of queuing every time you want to use the metro.
Buses and commuter trains are also 5Mex$ per trip. Make sure you have the right change with you before boarding the bus, they cannot change any money, so anything plus you drop you cannot get it back.
The light rail is only one line but crucial to get to Xochimilco. It also works with exact money as the buses, in this case 3Mex$ per ride. It might be the case where you need to put 5Mex$ coin in the torn if you do not have 3 coins of 1. You will not get the change back, but you will not loose that much either. 5Mex$ is around 0.28£.
Fees at the border
Right, let’s come to the point of this because over the internet all you will find is a mess of nonsense information and honestly, many useless comments of travelers who do not know what they are talking about.
If you have purchased a return flight to/from Mexico, your airfare will have included the exit fee tax. You do not need to do nor pay anything. BUT, it is very clear that if you have purchased a one way ticket in which you land anywhere in Mexico and depart the country not by air but overland, then it is obvious you need to pay the exit fee. These are the main nonsense comments you will find over the internet, where people believe that by getting their one way ticket into Mexico, then their exit tax will be paid in that airfare ticket. Not difficult to understand to be honest, if you are getting a one way to enter Mexico, why would any airline include an exit tax? I hope now you are clear about this.
Now, if you have entered Mexico overland, you do not need to pay any entry fee. You will only pay if you leave the country overland; but if you purchase a flight ticket to leave the country, no matter if from a different airport than you came in, then the airfare will have included this tax.
The exit fee currently stays at 304 Mex$ (as of January 2014).
The choice of hotels is too vast. Any world name and chain is in the city. But you need to know about the location. Anything around Zocalo is absolutely safe day and night plus will save you transport as you can walk from here to anywhere of the historical centre. Another great area is Polanco where you will find the main world chains occupying towers. This is quite trendy area with great choice of restaurants and night life. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
From our experience, we were at the Hotel Majestic Best Western, in Zocalo. I would only recommend it if there is no any festivity going on in the square. For example, Christmas, the time of the year we were there. Two problems, one, it’s not that hot in the city, and in the nights it’s quite cold. The hotel does not have any heating system nor double glazing windows. We were freezing and thankfully managed to get a small electric heater from them. And the other problem, they close every street leading to Zocalo at nights. This can be as early as 19.00pm, meaning they force you to walk on a big loop just to get to few meters from where you are. Not to mention the thousands of people everywhere making your walk as slow as a turtle move.
The property was nice though, don’t take me wrong. And you have the views over the whole square from the restaurant which is on the top floor. Having breakfast with that wonderful views was indeed nice, but definitely not recommended during winter time.