Mexico City is North America's highest city, and one of the world's most densely populated. It sprawls across a valley encircled by ice-capped volcanoes and mountains, atop an ancient Aztec civilisation. With a long and fascinating history that runs from ancient native civilisations through to the invasion of the Conquistadors and subsequent colonial rule, Mexico City has a vast number of fascinating sights and attractions.
In the city centre, constructed out of the stones of the ancient palaces and temples, is the vast open space of the Zocalo - the main city square - said to be the second largest in the world after Moscow's Red Square. At La Merced you'll discover the city's biggest and most vibrant market, with a vast array of bizarre and exciting stalls. The huge expanse of the Bosque de Chapultepec park houses the National Museum of Anthropology, with a fascinating collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts. At Teotihuac visitors will discover one of the most impressive and mysterious archaeological sites in Mexico, constructed by an ancient, long forgotten culture.
The sprawling capital of Mexico has some world-class museums and galleries, and a remarkable architectural legacy with elegant buildings, palaces and cathedrals, colonial suburbs, historical ruins and modern skyscrapers. It also has poverty, overcrowding and slums, pollution, traffic congestion, crime, unemployment, and a constant cacophony of people and noise. It is exhilarating, frenetic and fascinating, overflowing with all that is good and bad about urban life.
Despite its problems and somewhat bewildering energy Mexico City is a magnet for Mexicans and tourists alike: a modern, cosmopolitan and ever growing city that is attractive in many ways. Despite its renown for the appalling, throat-rasping levels of pollution, Mexico City's skies often remain remarkably clear, and the smog does make for incredible sunsets.
The enormous paved Plaza de la Constitucion, or Zocalo, is the second largest city square in the world. Dominated on one side by the magnificent colonial Presidential Palace, and on the other by the great Metropolitan Cathedral with its ornate interior, the square is Mexico City's centre of government and religion. The square itself is always filled with activity, with vendors and buskers, informal traditional Aztec dance performances, family groups, workers on lunch break and passing tourists. Every evening the presidential guards, in a show of great ceremony, lower the national flag from the central flagpole. The square is constantly encircled by the city's ubiquitous green Volkswagen taxis, and is a good starting point for those wanting to explore the city.
Templo Mayor (Great Temple) was the principal temple of the Aztecs, believed to mark the centre of the universe. It was part of the sacred complex of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, and today it has been excavated to show the multiple layers of construction. The temple was first built in 1375, and enlarged several times, each rebuilding accompanied by a frenzied bloody sacrifice of captured warriors to rededicate the sacred area. Within the site is the excellent Museo del Templo Mayor, displaying artifacts from the original site including a great wheel-like stone carving of the Aztec goddess of the moon, Coyilxauhqui. The entrance fee covers admission to both the museum and the archaeological site.
Formerly a separate village, San Angel is one of the more charming of Mexico's suburbs, an exclusive neighbourhood with ancient mansions and colonial houses along cobbled streets. It is famed for its Saturday craft market in the pretty Plaza San Jacinto, which brings colour, crowds and a festive atmosphere to the area, and has excellent art and handicrafts for sale. The suburb is crammed with little restaurants and cafes, several museums exhibiting the works of Frida Kahlo among others, and the lovely El Carmen complex consisting of a triple-domed church, a former monastery, school buildings, and a museum. San Angel is surrounded by a volcanic rock bed called the Pedregal. Parts of this unusual landscape have been declared protected areas where visitors can see the endemic flora and fauna.
The Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) is Mexico City's major dining, nightlife and shopping district. It is a compact area crammed with bars, shops, boutiques, restaurants and hotels. The district has subtly shifted in its appeal recently. Once a fashionable hub for youth and the upper classes, the Zona Rosa is now also frequented by the city's gay community and tourists. The symbol of Mexico City, a gilded statue of Winged Victory which is the Independence Monument, looms above the district and is one of the city's most photographic features. There is accomodation available in the area, but visitors are advised that it can be noisy at night.
Situated 31 miles (50km) from Mexico City, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Teotihuacan is Mexico's largest ancient city, dating from around 300-600 BC. Legend has it the Aztecs found the abandoned city and, recognising signs of its previous magnificence, they named it what it is today: Teotihuacan, 'place of the gods'. The central thoroughfare of Teotihuacan is the Avenue of the Dead, a 1.3 mile (2km) stretch connecting the three main attractions. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world, a huge red painted structure over a cave with spectacular views from the top. The smaller, more graceful Pyramid of the Moon contains an alter believed to have been used for religious dancing. The Citadel is a large square complex that was once the residence of the city's ruler. Within the walls is its main feature, the Templo de Quetzalcoatl.
Guanajuato is a colonial gem, founded around the rich silver deposits discovered by the Spanish in 1558. The city has an unusual layout, crammed into a narrow valley, with houses and streets forced into irregular positions due to the naturally hilly topography. Brightly painted houses perch on slopes reached by narrow cobbled alleyways, hidden plazas, steep stairways and underground tunnels. The most narrow, and most visited, alley is the Callejón del Beso (Alley of the Kiss) where the balconies of the leaning houses on either side almost touch each other, a feature in the local romantic legend about furtive lovers exchanging kisses. Every weekend the famous strolling musicians, or callejoneadas, in traditional dress, lead processions through the narrow winding alleyways, strumming, singing and telling stories to the crowds that follow.
Bosque de Chapultepec is a truly immense urban park. Mexico's answer to Central Park spans over 686 hectares (1,695 acres), and on any given day is brimming with people. The park is home to boating lakes, monuments, a zoo, playing fields, and Chapultepec Castle. The castle stands on a hill in the centre of the park, housing the Natural History Museum and offering incredible views of the city. There's plenty to see and do in the park, but most people come to relax on lunch breaks or weekends. Kick back, grab a taco and indulge in some people-watching.
Mexico City has a subtropical highland climate, with warm summers and mild winters, and an annual average temperature of 64°F (18°C). Seasonal variations in temperature are small, but May is the warmest month of the year, and January the coldest, when night frosts are possible. The average maximum temperatures of late spring and summer may reach up to 77°F (25°C), and the average low winter temperatures reach 45°F (7°C). Mexico City has a high average annual rainfall, with the wettest month being July, and the driest month February. Even during the summer rainy season, travellers are likely to get plenty of sunshine between showers. Mexico City suffers from terrible air pollution and the city is often smoggy, with poor visibility. This air pollution is at its worst during winter. The city is a year-round travel destination, but the best time to visit Mexico City is in the spring months of April and May.
Mexican fare is by far one of the world's most popular and colourful cuisines, and is one of the most distinctive styles of food. With plenty of spice and flavour it packs a real punch. What westerners know as 'Mexican food' includes dishes such as and and but there is plenty more on offer when dining out in Mexico City.
Food varies greatly by region in Mexico and this is largely due to the difference in Spanish influence on the indigenous inhabitants. The north of Mexico is known for its beef, goat and ostrich dishes, the Yucatan for its penchant for natural sweetness, the Oaxacan for its savoury tamales, and the west for its dishes like goat (goat in a spicy tomato-based sauce). Mexico City is a wonderful melting pot for these culinary traditions and the best place to sample the variety of Mexican food.
For an authentic Mexican dining experience, look no further than one of the old converted Haciendas, such as Hacienda de los Morales or Antigua Hacienda de Tlalpan on the outskirts of Mexico City, which are actual ranches that have been converted into restaurants. With charming décor, historic architecture and mouth-watering cuisine, these kinds of restaurants attract travellers from far and wide.
Street food is perhaps the most ubiquitous type of food in Mexico City where fast food outlets and (street side food vendors) pepper the streets selling all the usual favourites for very reasonable prices. However, the Central Market, La Merced and the are the best places to go to indulge on really good, really cheap Mexican fare.
In the capital city there are, of course, hundreds of restaurants to choose from, with everything from Indian and French to Japanese and Irish cuisine. Foodies should head for the districts of Polanco, Condesa, Centro, Zona Rosa and Sante Fe to gorge themselves at some of the country's finest restaurants on regional cuisines or just a good old taco.
Tipping in restaurants is the norm, with 10 percent of the bill being a good rule of thumb. Lunches are generally long and lazy and much cheaper than dinners. Travellers should note that most restaurants offer a (set menu) and this is a great way of getting a good hearty meal at a reasonable price.
Angelopolitano is a very popular restaurant which serves classic Mexican dishes with a modern gourmet twist. The setting is trendy and intimate and the portions are generous and extremely tasty. Downstairs there is a restaurant store selling traditional Mexican preserves and sauces of high quality. They serve lunch and dinner daily. the restaurants open between 10am and 10pm, and stays open a little later on weekends.
Café Tacuba has a very colonial atmosphere, dating back to 1912. Its décor features brass lamps, oil paintings and a mural of nuns working in a kitchen. The authentic Mexican menu offers traditional dishes including tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and pozole, and their pastries and hot chocolate are legendary. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner; reservations recommended.
La Opera is a luxurious dining venue with dark wood booths and linen-covered tables. The décor features gilded baroque ceilings and beautiful oil paintings, and an added feature is the bullet hole which revolutionary general, Pancho Villa, supposedly put in the ceiling when he galloped into the restaurant on horseback. The menu offers an array of sumptuous cuisine including Spanish tapas and red snapper with olives and tomatoes. It's open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, and Sunday for lunch. Reservations are recommended.
Open since 1936, many celebrity diners have frequented the classic-European dining room of Restaurant Danubio, in the Centro Histórico. The restaurant's menu offers superb Spanish cuisine prepared on an ancient coal and firewood stove. The seafood at Restaurant Danubio is excellent - be sure to try the (baby crayfish). It's open daily for lunch and dinner, and reservations are recommended.
Marking the end of the festive season, 40 days after Christmas, Candlemas Day (Candelaria) is a nationwide traditional celebration, partly a Catholic tradition and partly a pre-Hispanic ritual. The day is primarily a family celebration and a time of reunions and religious worship; often a chosen member of each family hosts a party, offering tasty tamales and atole (a beverage made from corn). There are numerous street parades with groups carrying representations of Baby Jesus to church where special masses are held. This aspect of the festival is clearly a nod to the Jewish tradition of waiting 40 days to present a newborn baby at the temple, which is the origin of the Catholic celebration. The 2nd of February is also the mid-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is therefore a date celebrated in many cultures as a marker of seasonal change (for instance, Groundhog Day). The festival is celebrated all over Mexico but places like Mexico City, Veracruz and Tlacotalpan host the biggest markets, street parties, and bullfights, turning the religious celebration into a festive, public affair; whereas the smaller towns and villages often restrict their celebrations to the church and home.
Mexicans celebrate the anniversary of their independence from Spain with great gusto, particularly in Mexico City where the Zocalo (main plaza) fills with throngs of people from early morning the day before the event, as spectators await the appearance of the president on the balcony of the National Palace. The president duly appears to shout 'the Cry', a re-enactment of the 1810 call to independence by Father Hidalgo. The original Cry or Grito was pronounced in the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato, and marked the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. Mexico only became officially independent after more than a decade of war, in 1821. The emotional crowd replies with 'Viva!' to the president's re-enactment and the city erupts with excitement, abuzz with street parties and fireworks.
Most towns, villages and cities have similar gatherings in their central squares, with lots of festive paraphernalia like confetti and whistles in the Mexican colours of green, white and red. The following day a three-hour military parade begins at the Zocalo in Mexico City and ends at the Angel monument on the Paseo de la Reforma. Independence Day is one of Mexico's biggest celebrations, if not the biggest, and it is a wonderful time to be in the country!
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican custom with Aztec roots, which honours the departed with traditions closely resembling Halloween celebrations to the north. The main function of the holiday is to celebrate the memory of the dead with prayers, parties, and visits to graves.
In most regions of Mexico, 1 November honours lost children and infants, whereas 2 November honours dead adults. For this region, the first day is named Dia de los Inocentes, or 'Day of the Innocents'.
The Mexican celebrations coincide aptly with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. In Mexico City, markets and stores liberally stock up with flowers, candy skulls, paper skeletons, and candles.
Processions head towards cemeteries, where vigils or even parties occur and the favourite foods and possessions of dead relatives are often left at graves. Visitors to Mexico City should head for Mixquic, a mountain pueblo south of the city. It hosts an elaborate street fair and solemn processions to the town cemetery
Travellers should note that although the Day of the Dead looks similar to Halloween and does often involve parties and happy celebrations, it is essentially a sombre holiday which has deep meaning for participants and shouldn't be taken lightly by foreigners.
In Autumn each year the Monarch butterflies gather in southern Canada and begin a journey across North America to Mexico. The insects that begin the journey in Canada will never see Mexico, but their great-great-grandchildren will eventually make it to the small town of Angangueo in Michoacan province some 3100 miles (5000km) from the start of this epic journey. Like the butterflies, tourists flock to the small town of Angangueo to see the millions of bright orange butterflies obscuring the sky and some say you can literally hear their wings beating. The annual migration of the Monarch butterflies is one of nature's great mysteries and continues to baffle biologists and nature lovers worldwide. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Only some areas within the reserve are open to the public and tours can be organised to see the incredible spectacle from the city of Morelia (visit the Tourism Office for information). Getting to the right area in the reserve takes about 45 minutes on foot or shorter on horseback. The best time to see the butterflies is between January and March each year. Don't forget your camera!
On every Fifth of May (Cinco de Mayo) in the state of Puebla, the famous Battle of Puebla is commemorated with traditional music, dancing and general festivities. The battle saw a far outnumbered Mexican army defeat a large and better equipped French army on 5 May 1862. The French invading force, then considered the strongest army in the world, encountered fierce resistance from Mexican defenders at the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, with the 4,500 Mexican troops unexpectedly defeating the 8,000-strong French force.
Ironically, the day is probably more celebrated in the United States than it is in Mexico, in a similar fashion to the celebrations of St. Patrick's Day. Even the name Cinco de Mayo is used more by the US, as the Mexicans often call the festival El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla. For the US, the battle came to symbolise the fight for freedom and democracy and was an inspiration during the American Civil War; today, in the US, Cinco de Mayo is a general celebration of Mexican heritage and pride, when Mexican food, music and folk traditions are embraced. In Mexico the battle is still commemorated enthusiastically, mainly with street fiestas and parades, but the epicentre of the festivities is in Puebla.
Nightlife options in Mexico City are vast and varied, ranging from piano bars, music lounges and traditional Mexican bars to salsa and jazz clubs or trendy nightclubs. San Angel, Polanco, Condesa and La Zona Rosa are popular nightlife areas in the city, and there are many late night venues that are open till the early hours. There is a weekend entertainment guide in The News, available at local newsagents, which can be useful.
Popular nightlife areas in Mexico City include the Condesa district, as well as Polanco. Here you can find anything from English and Irish pubs, to sophisticated clubs with great jazz music and authentic Mariachi venues scattered everywhere in between. Some of the best nightclubs in Mexico City are all located in the Roma district, while many of the top hotels in Mexico City offer live entertainment at their in-house discos and lobby bars. It is safest not to walk around alone at night in the city and only official, pre-ordered taxi cabs should be used.
There is never a dull moment when shopping in Mexico City. Visitors can discover everything from authentic local crafts to the major brands and stores found in any big capital. The best Mexican souvenirs tend to be Talavera tiles and ceramics, embroidered garments, sterling silver jewellery and accessories, and hand-woven rugs and blankets.
One of the most popular shopping areas in Mexico City is the Centro Historico, home to most of the city's original stores, while La Zona Rosa is also well established and the popular shopping centre Reforma 222 can be found there. Avenida Insurgentes and Avenida Jaurez also offer a wealth of shopping opportunities. Most recently, the La Condesa and Polanco areas have developed as strong retail centres. Centro Santa Fe, in the western part of the city, is the largest shopping centre in Latin America, and the upscale Perisur shopping mall to the south is also a good stop.
Nobody goes to Mexico for the malls, though: the city's markets are where tourists get into the groove of the place. There is the San Juan Market of Mexican Curiosities and the Mercado la Ciudadela in Centro Historico, as well as the Bazar Sabado (Saturday Bazaar) in San Angel. Fonart outlets throughout the city also sell local crafts such as hand-painted crockery and blown glass.
Most shops in Mexico City are open from 9am to 8pm, with smaller shops taking a break between 2pm and 4pm. The 15 percent VAT charged on goods can be reclaimed at the airport on purchases exceeding MXN 1200. Travellers must present a completed reimbursement request form, banking information, passport, immigration form (visa, tourist card), plane ticket, purchase receipts and goods purchased.
The efficient and very cheap public transport system makes Mexico City surprisingly easy to get around. It consists of the metro, buses, trolley buses and minibuses (peseros). The metro is the best method of travel, being fast and easy to use (6am to midnight), but bus routes are also very extensive and the buses are generally reliable, although more complicated for non-Spanish speakers to use. Peseros are smaller, more comfortable, and faster than buses, but slightly more expensive, and can be stopped anywhere along their set routes.
All forms of public transport are heavily crowded during peak hours and are best avoided at this time. Visitors should also be aware that crime levels are high on all buses and the metro, particularly when crowded. Visitors should avoid travel on public transport at night and should take care of their possessions. Visitors should not hail taxis on the streets. Most hotels have official taxi drivers assigned to them or hotels and restaurants can call radio taxis, both of which are more expensive but safer and more reliable. Driving in the city is a nightmare and cars should be left in secure parking; renting is expensive and lone drivers are vulnerable to criminal assaults at night.
The culturally colourful and historically fascinating Mexico City has plenty to see and do for visitors from all walks of life. The city is well worth exploring en route to the resorts, a great place for a lively weekend away, or even a holiday destination in its own right. Mexico City is also reputed to be the city with the most museums in the world and is sure to appeal to history buffs and art lovers.
With ancient ruins just a stone's throw from the city, tourists will want to visit the Templo Mayor, the principal temple of the Aztecs and part of Tenochtitlán, as well as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Teotihuacan, the site of Mexico's largest ancient city, which dates back to around 300 to 600 BC. For a more colonial flavour, visit the beautiful nearby town of Guanajuato, discovered by the Spanish in 1558 for its silver deposits.
Downtown Mexico City is a great place to soak up the architecture and atmosphere of the stately buildings. The Zócalo is the main gathering point in the city and is surrounded by historic buildings. The Plaza Garibaldi-Mariachi is surrounded by cafés and restaurants and is also a favourite spot for tourists. To see the city at its most picturesque, stroll along the cobbled streets of San Angel where ancient mansions and colonial houses make for wonderful photographic opportunities.
Art lovers will enjoy the Palacio de Bellas Artes which features the works of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, as well as 6,000 other works of art, while one of Mexico City's most popular attractions is undoubtedly the Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City's largest park, covering an enormous area containing lakes, a zoo, and several museums, including the Museo Nacional de Antropología.