Pyramids hidden throughout the city, amazing colorful buildings from the colonial era, splendid Art Nouveau buildings, huge parks, delicious tacos at every street corner, sun and blue sky: we have just arrived in Mexico City!
When I first came to Mexico City, I did not really know what to expect about this huge capital and I have to say that I had a wonderful surprise! Even though Mexico is one of the biggest cities in the world with more than 20 millions of inhabitants, it has many green corners where you can easily escape the agitation of the city. What’s more, it is a city full of surprises: you will find many beautiful colonial buildings where you least expect them!
But to get a first glimpse of the Cuidad de México, let me take you to a trip around its historic center, a great place to start if you want to find out more about the incredible past of this country. While walking around the “Plaza de la Constitución”, more generally called “Zócalo”, you will contemplate no less than three different types of architectural styles: Aztec ruins, colonial churches and buildings and an Art Nouveau hôtel. Let’s go!
1. Walk around “el Zocalo”, one of the biggest square in the world!
We will get off the metro at the Zócalo station to start our exploration of the historic center of the Mexican capital!
We have arrived on one of the biggest square of the world. With its incredible dimensions (240 meters x 240 meters), the amazing buildings around it and the huge flag of Mexico in its center, the plaza de la Constitución is pretty impressive!
Let’s go back to the Zócalo. We will take a few steps back to admire the beautiful Catedral Metropolitana. This is what it looks like:
You are facing Latine America’s biggest church. How about that? Three hundred years were necessary to build it (from 1525 to 1813), which explains the different architectural styles. When the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortéz, arrived in 1521, they destroyed the Aztcs’ constructions and used most of the stones to build their churches. We can still see the ruins of the ancient Aztec temple, underneath the catedral! You might find the cathedral to be leaning… That’s because the city was building on an island in the middle of a lake in the Aztec times. The lake has long disappeared but the soil remains spongy and the many earthquakes that the city has endured have not helped… With its beautiful golden decorations, the cathedral as beautiful from inside as it is from outside!
Why there is an eagle on the Mexican flag?
One of the first stories I was told when I arrived in Mexico was the story of the eagle and the snake, the emblem of the Mexican flag.
We have to go back in times, to the time of pyramid-builders. The Aztecs, who used to be nomads, were told by a prophecy to settle down where they would find an eagle eating a snake on a cactus on a lake. What were the chances to find such a combination of elements at the same time, right?
Well they did find an eagle eating its jucy snake on a cactus on a lake, in what was to become the capital of the Aztec empire: Tenochtitlán (as you can see the “Nahuatl” names, the language spoken by the Aztecs back then, are not easy to pronounce…) – today’s Mexico City.
Look at the beautiful colonial buidlings around the zocalo.
2. Go on the footsteps of the Aztecs at the Templo Mayor
The ruins that we visit today are all that is left of the imposing pyramid that used to stand during the time of the Aztecs. Spanish conquistadors didn’t think twice when they destroyed this main religious center to build their own constructions.
There is not much left today but we can still see the base of the various pyramids that were built one on top of the other by the Aztecs. An impressive museum exhibits the different objects that were found on this site by archeologists.
Even if you will need to use your imagination to visit the site and try to picture it as it appeared to the Aztecs, it is still worth a visit to understand the impact of the Spanish conquista.
There seems to be two worlds in opposition on the site of El Templo Mayor. The Catedral Metropolitana seems to be proudly standing where the imposing Aztec pyramid used to stand.
3. Admire the colors of el Templo de Santa Inés
When stepping out of the Templo Mayor, we will take Moneda street on our left and enjoy the view on the colorful dome of the Templo de Santa Inés.
4. Admire Diego Rivera’s paintings at the Palacio Nacional
We will then visit the Palacio Nacional. This huge building which occupies the entire East side of the Zócalo, is the office of the Mexican president. We can enter for free (we just need our ID).
We have entred an oasis of calm, compared to the agitation of the Zócalo. We can take some time to walk around the cactus garden and under the arches of the gallery.
We will then go to the main court.
And we will then start climbing the stairs to the upper levels. Like in many buildings in the Mexican capital, we will be able to admire breathtaking “murals” by Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican painter and husband of Frida Kahlo. In this fresco in front of us, Rivera magnificently depicted the key moments of Mexico’s history.
5. Visit Mexico City’s most beautiful building: Bellas Artes
I am then taking you to the Mexico City’s most beautiful building (as far as I am concerned at least): El Palacio de Bellas Artes (the Fine Arts Palace). From the Zocalo, we will take an animated pedestrian street: Avenida Francisco Madero.
I personally love the colors of the dome of this palace! The style of the building reminded me a lot of Parisian buildings. I learnt that Porfirio Diaz, one of Mexico’s presidents, was a great admirer of Paris and had several buildings built in the Parisian style! He loved Paris so much that he was even burried in Paris, in the Montparnasse cemetary!
6. Send a postcard from the fabulous Palacio de Correos
On the other side from the street from Bellas Artes, we will discover another little gem: el Palacio de Correos (Postal Palace). This place is incredibly beautiful. It looks more like a museum than a place to send a post-card, but I can assure you that you can do it! I also love the details on the outside of the building like this little dragon!
7. Take a stroll on the Alameda Central
We can then take a stroll on this lovely park located right next to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. With its quiet alleys, its fountains and statues it is a very nice place to escape the agitation of the center. My favorite part is the Parisian Metro station! It is exactly the same as the metro entrances we have in Paris!
8. Have a cup of coffee at the terrace of the Sears Building and enjoy an amazing view on Bellas Artes
We will then have a cup of coffee in an amazing place: the Sears Tower! The tower in itself does not have anything spectacular but what makes it so special is the view it offers on Bellas Artes. We will take the elevator to the 7th floor and look for the cafeteria. There might be a line to enter, but we really have to wait because it is absolutely worth it! This is basically what you will see while taking your four o’clock coffee break:
9. Visit el Museo nacional de arte
El Museo Nacional de Arte is worth a visit, as much for the collection of Mexican art it exhibits as for the beauty of the building.
10. Enjoy the patio of the du museo Franz Mayer
El Museo Franz Mayer is another little gem that should not be missed. Its patio is a real haven of peace in the heart of the Mexican capital.
Good addresses in Mexico City’s historic center
Mexican food is truly amazing. I used to be a sweet tooth when I lived in Paris but I am becoming the biggest fan of Mexican food (I almost forgot what an eclair tastes like…) The good thing about Mexico is that no matter the price you pay, you will always eat something great, whether a taco on the street or a refined meal in a trendy restaurants.
Here are some of my favorite places to eat in Mexico City’s historic center.
1. La Casa de los Azulejos
- Av Francisco I. Madero 4, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06500 Ciudad de México, D.F.
The Casa de los Azulejos or “House of Tiles” is located very close to the Palacio de Correos. This 18th-century building is distinguished by its facade covered by blue and white tiles from the state of Puebla. This amazing building houses a Sanborns store as well as an amazing restaurant.
2. Grand Hotel de México
- Av. 16 de Septiembre No. 82, Centro, 06000 Ciudad de México, D.F
- More info on the hotel’s website here
As soon as you step inside the magnificent Grand Hotel de México, you will be taken to a different era. The Art Nouveau style of the main hall and its astonishing ceiling will plunge you into a refined universe.
We will then take the elevator to the last floor and go to the terrace for a refined lunch and the best view on the Zócalo. You don’t need to be a guest of the hotel to go to the upper level restaurant. The courses are a bit expensive (about 300 pesos, which is about 18 euros) but delicious! You can have lunch or just order a drink and enjoy this view.
3. El Azul historico
- Calle Isabel la Católica #30, Cuauhtémoc, Centro Histórico, 06000 Ciudad de México, D.F.
- More info on the restaurant’s website here
The Azul Historico is a little gem at the heart of the Mexican capital. The setting is incredible. The restaurant is set in an inner court of a colonial building with trees reaching out to the ceiling. The service is refined, the food is delicious and the prices are reasonable for such a place! Every detail counts at Historico Azul and I loved the little box in which they gave us the bill!
4. The terrace of the Porrua library
- Donceles 104 Centro (Área 3) México D.F. 06020
Go to the last floor of the Porrua library and have lunch at the terrace of the cafeteria. You will enjoy a great view on the Aztec ruins of the Templo Mayor.
5. La Opera
This beautiful “cantina” where Pancho Villa used to come should definitely be on your list during your next visit of the Mexican capital.