Mexico City, called D.F. (for Distrito Federal; Federal District) or simply Mexico, is the capital, seat of government and the center of commerce, finance and the arts in Mexico; in addition to being the largest city in the world.
Visitors to Mexico City will find a cosmopolitan city struggling with the effects of expansion and growth. Pegged at 2% growth per year, the population of Mexico is continually outpacing the efforts of government to provide services. That said, travelers will still find a pleasant, enjoyable and historic city lying beneath the surface.
Mexico City is a federal district, much like Washington, D.C., and is technically not a state. It is the seat of the federal government. Situated in the Valley of Mexico, Mexico City is surrounded by the State of Mexico. The entire Valley of Mexico (which includes the Federal District, the State of Mexico and the State of Morelos) has about 20 million inhabitants.
Mexico City can be roughly compared to New York City's boroughs - only a little crazier. The city itself is divided into general political zones called "delegaciones"; today, there are 16 of these areas. Each delegation is further subdivided into "colonias," which people tend to use as a geographic orientation. (Be careful, however, since there may be more than one colonia with the same name in Mexico City.)
SAN ANGEL, for example, is an historic colonia that has maintained its charm and atmosphere. COLONIA CUAUHTEMOC is an area that mixes high-rise apartment buildings and offices with single-family homes. (The U.S. and British Embassies, for example, are located in Colonia Cuauhtemoc.)
In the end, Mexico City is a nation unto itself. A visitor never has enough time to explore it all and enjoy it all in one brief trip.
The Historic Center, in the heart of the downtown area, surrounds the Zocalo, the second largest plaza in the world (surpassed only by Red Square in Moscow). At the Zocalo metro station, a display shows the plaza as it was in Aztec days, in the colonial period and early in this century. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was here. It contained palaces and temples, including the 14th-century Templo Mayor, which became the political and religious hub of the Aztec empire (warriors were routinely sacrificed to the sun god, an act imbued with considerable honor in the afterlife, according to Aztec belief).
Overlooking the Zocalo to the north is the Catedral Metropolitano (Metropolitan Cathedral). Its construction was begun in 1567 and completed 250 years later. The largest cathedral in Latin America, it contains many prized works of colonial art and also boasts the largest organ in the world. Concerts are given on special occasions.
The Palacio Nacional (National Palace), on the east side of the Zocalo, was built by Hernan Cortez. It houses the offices of the Mexican president and contains some of Diego Rivera's best-known murals.
West of the cathedral stands a colonial building housing the Monte de Piedad (Mountain of Pity), or National Pawn Shop. A block south is the street named Calle Madero, which used to be called Avenue of the Silversmiths. Many shops selling silver and gold jewelry still flourish on this street. At Madero #4, you'll see the famed House of Tiles, a 1596 construction completely covered in blue and white tiles. It now houses the popular Sanborn's restaurant and store. At the end of Madero Street, turn right on Lazaro Cardenas and you will see two exceptionally beautiful buildings, the Banamex (Bank of Mexico) and the Correo Central (Central Post Office), both built at the turn of the century.
The Torre Latinamericano (Latin American Tower) is also worth seeing -- it's an encroachment of the modern world bordering the Historic Center. On the corner of Madero and Lazaro Cardenas, 43 stories high with a restaurant and observation deck on top, it affords a good view of the city on a clear day.
Madero turns into Avenida Juarez and then leads into the beautiful Paseo de la Reforma, which was modeled after the Champs-Elysees. Unfortunately, the smog has killed some of the trees, but it is still an impressive avenue, flanked by high-rise office buildings, excellent hotels and restaurants and statues depicting Mexico's heroes.
The most beloved of all Mexican monuments, El Monumento de la Independencia, or the Angel, is a statue of a winged Victory standing in her gilded splendor atop a 150-ft/46-m column in a glorieta, or traffic circle, on Paseo de la Reforma. It was a sad day in 1957 when an earthquake toppled her, but she was completely restored, much to the relief of the Mexican people.
All Mexico City museums offer free admission on Sundays and holidays and are usually closed Mondays unless otherwise indicated. In 1978, as telephone workmen were laying a cable, they came upon the ruins of the ancient Aztec capital. Walls of temples and giant sculptures of eagle knights, the goddess of the moon and god of war and thousands of other artifacts suddenly came to light. The Museo de Templo Mayor, which houses all these treasures, was built on the site. The excavation is on view from the street level.
Just a block east of the Zocalo is the Museo de Jose Luis Cuevas, housed in a former convent. It offers a permanent exhibition of Picasso's works as well as those of famed Mexican artist Jose Luis Cuevas.
The Palacio de Iturbide on Madero 17 is worth seeing. It's an 18th-century palace of baroque and Italian styles where the emperor Agustin Iturbide made his home from 1821 to 1823, after Mexico had won its independence from Spain. The building now belongs to Banamex, one of Mexico's largest banks.
Behind Alameda Park, at Avenida Hidalgo 45, is the Museo de Franz Mayer. The building dates back to the 16th century, when it was a hospital. It has been beautifully restored and contains an extraordinary collection of beautiful religious art in gold and silver, as well as rare books and European antiques collected by the German Franz Mayer and donated to the people of Mexico.
Chapultepec Castle is now the Museo Nacional de Historia (National History Museum), filled with hundreds of paintings and murals depicting the colonial era and military history. The rooms once used by Maximilian and Carlotta have been preserved. The Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) is nearby, on the corner of Reforma and Gandhi. It has permanent exhibitions of Mexican contemporary art and is surrounded by a pleasant sculpture garden.
Directly across the avenue, also on the corner of Reforma and Gandhi, is the Museo Rufino Tamayo, an impressive building that contains permanent exhibits by artists from all over the world as well as many of Tamayo's paintings.
The world-renowned Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Museum of Anthropology) is at Reforma and Gandhi, too. Its architecture alone is magnificent, designed in 1964 by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez. Some of the most fascinating exhibits are the Aztec calendar stone, giant stone Olmec heads from the jungles of Tabasco, treasures recovered from a sacred Maya well, a replica of a Maya ruler's tomb from Palenque and ethnological displays of rural Mexican life as it is still lived today. If you have time to see only one museum in Mexico City, this is the one to choose!
Also in Chapultepec Park, in the second section, at Avenida Constituyentes 268 is the Museo del Nino, an interactive science museum where children can move and/or touch all exhibits. An IMAX theater with a giant screen shows special documentaries at an extra charge.
Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park) is 2,100 acres/850 hectares of woods, lakes with paddle boats, hiking trails, playgrounds, botanical gardens, amusement parks, a newly remodeled zoo and excellent museums. Open daily 5 am to 5 pm. Free. Main entrance for the Primera Seccion (first section) is on Reforma two blocks north of the Chapultepec metro station.
The Zoologico de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Zoo) boasts the first panda born in captivity in the world. Free, but crowded on weekends.
Sullivan Park or Jardin del Arte (Garden of Art) is a delightful open-air art show. This is a good place to purchase watercolors of scenes of Mexico. (Artwork is duty free.) The artwork is displayed on Sundays from 11 am to 6 pm. Two blocks from the Reforma-Insurgentes intersection, between downtown and the Pink Zone.
Just beyond the Fine Arts Palace, on Avenida Juarez lies the Alameda Central. It's a lovely green oasis in the heart of the city. Its focal point is the marble monument honoring 19th-century president Benito Juarez. The Alameda is particularly festive during the Christmas season, with many Santas and Wise Men around to have their pictures taken with children, colorful displays of huge helium balloons and myriad gift and food stands.