If ever there were a place you could reduce to a single sight, a word, or a sound, it wasn’t Mexico City. With a population of 25 million according to some estimates — more than every country in Scandinavia combined — even a word as vague or broadly encompassing as “city” doesn’t work; Mexico City in no way feels like just one city. But “cities” is mundane to the point of betraying Mexico City’s diversity of culture that is vivid, persistent, and overwhelming.
The undisputed cultural, financial and political capital of Mexico (and perhaps of all of Latin America), Mexico City sits 2.25 kilometers high, enabling a climate that feels like spring all the time, marked by a rainy season that lasts from June to September. Each of the city’s sixteen delegaciones (or boroughs) has its own customs, aesthetic, and vibe as well as its own mayor and local government. For people who spend their whole lives here, life often exists within a single delegación or two, or maybe even just within a single colonia (or neighborhood), of which Mexico City has more than 1700.
Of all the chilangos I’ve met in or outside of Mexico City, only one — an Uber driver named Eduardo — has ever claimed to “know” all of Mexico City. His job as a printer salesman in his late twenties required him to make home and office calls in every delegación as well as Estado de México, the state which surrounds Mexico City.
For me, no delegación is more emblematic of Mexico City — and somehow at the same time, wholly idiosyncratic from the rest of the place — than Coyoacán. A bohemian and artistic enclave south of the city center full of spacious parks and vibrant plazas, Coyoacán is the part of Mexico City that “feels” the most Mexican. After all, this is where artists and icons Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived and where Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky was murdered with an ice pick.
Like many of the areas within the urban monstrosity that is Mexico City, Coyoacán was its own separate pueblo until it was absorbed and incorporated into the city in 1928. The heart of Coyoacán is Parque Centenario, an expansive plaza full of restaurants, bars, and markets. Fortune tellers and mariachis meander between fountains and park benches offering their services. On most evenings, you can participate in a drum circle, oftentimes more than a hundred people strong.
There is something intoxicating about wandering aimlessly through tree-shaded plaza after tree-shaded plaza down Avenida Francisco Sosa, perhaps popping into a coffee shop or a gallery on occasion. Coyoacán is capable of seducing the short-term visitor to the point of shunning the rest of Mexico City. In fact, it’s easy to see why so people from Coyoacán have never left; it’s everything that makes Mexico great: quaint, welcoming, expressive, and unpretentious.
But to be seduced by Coyoacán is to run the risk of missing the rest of the virtually infinite Mexico City, including the remnants of the original city, Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs established Tenochtitlan at the point they believed to be the exact center of the universe, and they built the city with dutiful care and mathematical precision. Before the Spanish arrived, Tenochtitlan was one of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated cities.
According to legend, after ascending a ridge at the perimeter of the Valley of Mexico and seeing Tenochtitlan for the first time, one of the men in Cortés’ cavalry began to weep, all too aware of the imminent destruction; never before had he seen a city so beautiful, and never again would he. After being welcomed as deities, the Spanish razed Tenochtitlan to the ground and rebuilt the city they called “Ciudad de México” using the stones from the Aztec buildings they destroyed.
The area is still the historic center of Mexico City and nowadays is known as “Zócalo,” which refers to the pedestal (or el zócalo) that was left after Mexicans tore down the statue of Spanish King Carlos IV in the wake of declaring independence. In addition to the Aztec ruins of Templo Mayor, Zócalo is where you’ll find the National Palace of Mexico, the Cathedral of the Assumption, el Museo Nacional de Arte, and the Diego Rivera Mural Museum.
One of Zócalo’s most recognizable landmarks is the gold-domed Palacio de las Bellas Artes. Built during the heyday of art deco, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is at once a zeitgeist of early 20th century Mexican art and a timeless monument of neoclassicism. Major events in ballet, opera, theater, and dance are held in this exquisite structure, which houses many works by major Mexican artists, including Orozco, González Camarena, and Rivera.
Not far from Zócalo, arriving via the grand Paseo de la Reforma, is Chapultepec Forest. Once considered sacred by the Aztecs, Chapultepec Forest is the largest urban green space in all of Latin America. Chapultepec’s many points of interest include a zoo, a modern art museum, an anthropology museum, and the forest’s main attraction, Chapultepec Castle.
The castle is elegant and expansive, sitting atop a rocky plateau toward’s the forest’s eastern entrance. It’s the only castle in the Americas to ever be home to a sovereign ruler, Mexican Emperor Maximilian I and his consort Charlotte. You can still see the royal couple’s luxurious bedrooms and studies, as well as the breathtaking views of the city and the pristinely manicured gardens they enjoyed. These days Chapultepec Castle is also home to an impressive collection of art and artifacts that tell Mexico’s complex and fascinating history — much of which took place, in fact, right at Chapultepec Castle.
The most fascinating site to behold is a bus ride from Mexico City’s northernmost metro stop to a Pre-columbian city that’s home to the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. The construction of the city remains something of an anthropological curiosity. It was discovered (not built) by the Aztecs in the 1300s, who named the place Teotihuacán, “where men become gods.” Teotihuacán is believed to have been built by an early Mesoamerican people a thousand years before the Aztecs ruled the Valley of Mexico. At its peak, it was home to more than 125,000 inhabitants. The city is remarkably well preserved. In addition to the magnificent pyramids, various dwellings and temples — including the Temple of the Jaguar — are open to visitors.
But if art and anthropology don’t get your rocks off, Mexico City offers ample amounts of other kinds of fun — most of which you can’t find anywhere else. For about 200 pesos an hour, you and your friends can rent a trajinera, a colorfully-painted party gondola piloted by a local captain in the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City. Patrons are free to bring their own booze and loud speaker for a cruise along the canals that typically lasts about two hours. To make for a more authentic experience, invite a mariachi band on board to play a few songs.
The highest-octane entertainment in Mexico City has to be Lucha Libre, held on Friday nights in Arena México in the Cuauhtémoc borough. Grand entrances, theatrical plots, and acrobatic takedowns are on display to a raving audience shouting taunts and vulgarisms with giant 40-peso beers in their hands. You may not follow everything that’s going on or follow all the threats the costume-clad warriors exchange with one another, but you can guarantee to have a deliriously good time.
After the spectacle, the best nightlife can be found in colonia Roma, a neighbourhood that’s walkable from Lucha Libre. Avenida Álvaro Obregón offers a variety of social options, including some of the best late night tacos in Mexico City at Tacos Álvaro Obregón. There’s also La Clandestina, a hip and tiny hole-in-the-wall for some exquisite mezcal tasting. If a fancier night on the town is more your speed, then Polanco, with its various clubs and cocktail lounges, is the ticket.
And yet, all of this only scratches the surface when it comes to Mexico City. Volumes could be written about the tacos in Mexico City alone… but tacos are far from the only food that demand your attention in Mexico City. In fact authentic Mexican cuisine from every region available in Mexico City: molés, tortas, tlayuda, cochinita pibil, escaramoles: the list goes on.
As with anything else in Mexico City, if your goal is to try all of it within a single trip, I have just two words for you: Mucha suerte .