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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 lies 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 Teotihuacan, visitors will discover one of the most impressive and mysterious archaeological sites in Mexico, constructed by an ancient, long forgotten culture.
Mexico City 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. But there's also overcrowding and traffic congestion, along with a constant cacophony of people and noise. It's exhilarating, frenetic and fascinating, overflowing with all that's good about big city 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 continues to charm and astound.
San Miguel de Allende has retained its historical charm with beautiful 17th- and 18-century Baroque buildings. Narrow cobbled lanes are framed by yellow, orange and ochre buildings covered with bougainvillea vines. The city has a number of beautiful buildings including the pink Gothic parish church of La Parroquia, the magnificent Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramiez and the richly-decorated Oratorio de San Felipe Neri Church. A centre of Bohemian creativity in the 20th century, San Miguel de Allende is very popular with foreign expats and tourists in Mexico, having been noted as a desirable retirement destination for Americans. San Miguel de Allende also has a lively arts community, with productions hosted regularly at the Angela Peralta Theatre and the Otra Cara de México. The city is a three and a half hour drive from Mexico City.
The enormous paved Plaza de la Constitución, 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, buskers and informal performances and passing tourists. Every evening the presidential guards 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 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 bloody sacrifice of captured warriors to rededicate the sacred area. Within the site is the excellent Museo del Templo Mayor, displaying artefacts from the original site including a great wheel-like stone carving of the Aztec goddess of the moon, Coyilxauhqui.
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's 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 and others, and the lovely El Carmen complex consisting of a triple-domed church, a former monastery 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, 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, 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 the country's largest ancient city, dating from around 300 to 600 BC. Legend has it the Aztecs found the abandoned city, recognising signs of its previous magnificence and naming it 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 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 altar 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 lead processions through the narrow winding alleyways, strumming, singing and telling stories to following crowds.
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.
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.
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, Candlemas Day 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. 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 with great gusto, particularly in Mexico City where the main plaza fills with throngs of people from early morning awaiting 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 was pronounced in the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato, marking the beginning of the War of Independence. Most towns, villages and cities have similar gatherings, 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 and ends at the Angel Monument.
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican custom with Aztec roots, celebrating the memory of the dead with prayers, parties and visits to graves. In most regions, 1 November honours lost children and infants, whereas 2 November honours dead adults. The Mexican celebrations coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, with markets and stores in Mexico City liberally stocking up on 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.
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 3,100 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 flooding 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, continuing to baffle biologists and nature lovers worldwide.
On every Fifth of May in the state of Puebla, the famous Battle of Puebla is commemorated with traditional music, dancing and festivities. The battle saw an outnumbered Mexican army defeat a larger 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 4,500 Mexican troops unexpectedly defeating the 8,000-strong French force. 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. The battle is still commemorated enthusiastically, mainly with street fiestas and parades, but the epicentre of the festivities is in Puebla.
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 vacation 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 photo 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.
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