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Mexico City Federal District

Mexico City, Federal District

As we noshed on Yucatecan specialties recently in one of his favorite informal restaurants, my friend David, who lives in Mexico City, and I were talking about the best cities for traveling solo. I pronounced that mid-size cities were best for wandering alone safe and sound, and not feeling like too much of a schmuck by eating alone.

I’d finally gotten my butt down to Mexico City---far from the “mid-sized” city I thought best for solo travel. Mexico City has a population of 20 million people, give or take a million or so. No matter how you crunch the numbers, it’s huge and chaotic.

The first thing I asked David---a journalist who has called Mexico City home for many years---was about hailing a cab. Was it still dangerous, would I be “express kidnapped” and my ATM card repeatedly violated? He told me that in his opinion I should follow the same rules of engagement as in any big city. So I hailed cabs on the street throughout my four-day visit, and returned home with both my body and bank account intact.

Besides the fact that I was not kidnapped or robbed, my bank account was intact because Mexico City is a bargain. I took the metro (3 pesos per ride, or roughly US 25 cents); I took street cabs, whose taximeter base price began at 6.25 pesos. One time I got from one outdoor market to the next for 11 pesos: no bargaining or cajoling required. Drivers dispensed change cheerfully and even sometimes rounded down instead of up when it was more convenient. I did take taxis based at taxi stands when possible, as these reduce the risk of getting into a pirate taxi.

Big City, Bright Lights

Because I was traveling alone and also because I’m not much of a bar-scene person, I explored the city during the day and mostly stayed in at night. (I got recommendations for nightlife from friends and concierges; see them at Travel Guide. But I caught up on my movies because Mexico City has dozens of centrally located, multi-screen movie houses.

In exploring, I looked to see museums and markets I’ve missed on previous trips. I considered both the world-class Anthropology Museum and the remarkable site museum of el Templo Mayor, the home and temple (dedicated to the gods of war and of rain) of pre-conquest Aztec royalty. Both are must-sees for first-time visitors, and worth return visits as well.

Instead I headed to the Museum of Mexico City (Museo de la Ciudad de México), in the heart of historic downtown, to see an exhibit of social cartoons and paintings by Abel Quezada, a veteran of Mexico City publishing for more than four decades. Both the presentation and the venue, a 16th-century former residence of Spanish nobility, were impressive. From there I walked around the historic downtown, admiring the somewhat grimy but still striking facades of both colonial and republican-era architecture.

Heading west, I soon came to La Alameda, a 12-block park surrounded by museums, restaurants, churches, and government buildings. Fenced off from the masses during the elitist Porfiro Diaz regime, La Alameda is now a gathering place for locals as well as tourists. Along its east side, beautiful Bellas Artes, the palace of fine arts, houses temporary exhibits and hosts theatrical and dance performances and has a handful of important murals by Rufino Tamayo, José Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siquieros. But as I’ve seen these before, I continued to the Franz Mayer museum. Surrounded by two colonial-era churches, it has a worthwhile collection of paintings, carved wooden chests inlaid with ivory and ebony, statues, and utilitarian objects from old Mexico.

On previous visits to Mexico City I’ve usually stayed in el centro histórico, full of churches, museums, shops, bars, restaurants, and everything else a 500-year-old city has to offer. On this visit I decided to stay in two less congested areas. Upscale Polanco, near Chapultepec Park, is home to high-rise hotels and foreign embassies, while trendy La Condesa is a primarily residential neighborhood where Spanish colonial, 19th-century French, and art deco homes have been converted to galleries, cafés, clubs and good restaurants.

Beyond the Historic Center

After a morning of museums and reconnoitering the bustling downtown, I was ready to return to the relative calm of Colonia Condesa, where locals walk purebred dogs in the neighborhoods leafy urban parks. Facing little Plaza Popocatepetl, I cooled my heels at an outdoor table of Orígenes Orgánicos deli-restaurant, ordering the healthy daily special---soup, salad, curry entrée, excellent bread, and coffee.

Adjacent to La Condesa, Colonia Roma is another of Mexico City’s interesting neighborhoods. Just west of the historic center, it is a mixed residential and business district, with less chic but equally attractive options for eating and drinking and gallery hopping. Although not as trendy as Colonia Condesa, it still sees rents rising as younger and bohemian urbanites flock to this neighborhood developed in the early-20th century.

Like Colonia Condesa, La Roma was originally built for well-to-do defeños (people from Mexico City) fleeing the increasingly congested city center. This is a good place to photograph early 20th-century building facades (especially on Avenida Obregón and Calles Colima, Tonalá, and Orizaba). Avenida Alvaro Obregón connects the more residential Roma Sur (south Col. Roma) with the more business-oriented Roma Norte.

North of Condesa and Roma neighborhoods across busy Avenida Chapultepec lies la Zona Rosa. Formerly Mexico City’s hippest neighborhood, this is now a gay magnet and home to Korean immigrants who have opened shops and restaurants. I revisited the “the Pink Zone” to shop at the crafts market (nice, but underwhelming) and facing it on Calle Londres, the antiques mall, where vendors sell old furniture, books, posters, and other artifacts. Behind the unwelcome signs for go-go girls (and boys) or music CDs, Sanborns and McDonalds, the Zona Rosa’s charming late-19th and early 20th-century architecture is visible. The smaller scale of this neighborhood makes it optimum for strolling, shopping, and bar-hopping.

Sundays a Good Bet for Walking and Cabbing

On my last day in the capital, a Sunday, a helpful concierge from the business-oriented Hotel Nikko gave me a map and helped me plot out which bits would be good for walking, where cabs were more appropriate, and where metro stops recommended that mode of transportation. Heading out from the high-rise (with amazing views of the city from its upper floors), I strolled along Mexico City’s version of Rodeo Drive. Avenida Presidente Masaryk is lined with Hugo Boss, Tiffany, Cartier, and other expensive shops showing off their inventories in luxurious window displays.

After a pit stop at Sanborns for coffee at the counter (and dark chocolate, caramel, and pecan “turtles” from the adjacent sweet shop), I continued along Paseo de la Reforma. Studded with elegant statues in traffic circles, the capital’s best known thoroughfare was designed in the mid-19th century by Maximilian von Habsburg, Mexico’s short-lived emperor. On Sunday mornings through early afternoon the street is closed to vehicular traffic, so I was surrounded by people enjoying the springlike weather on bikes, scooters, rollerblades, and walking with their extended families. This is the perfect way to enjoy the public art without worrying about being run over by a harried business exec or a frantic mother driving her kids to school.

I grabbed a cab to do some shopping. (This turned out to be a wise move since I was walking along Paseo de la Reforma in the wrong direction.) My first stop was the outdoor market at Jardín del Arte, where on Sundays a wide range of paintings in many styles and formats are on sale. Flagging down another cab, I continued to the Mercado de la Ciudadela, a sprawling indoor market (open daily) with a nice selection of merchandise from all over Mexico. A priest said Mass in the middle of the market as I browsed the eclectic inventory. Tired now from walking and shopping, I ended the afternoon on a bar stool at the elegant Bar La Opera, a downtown Mexico City icon whose elegantly draped tables were filled with families enjoying a leisurely weekend meal.

Although I’ve visited a half dozen times over the years, there’s still more to see in Mexico City. Much, much more. I realize that I’ve only scratched the surface of culture and cuisine, art and artifacts. But since I’ve decided that big cities are best for exploring on one’s own, I think I’ll go back sooner rather than later. And if I go with a friend, I’ll carry on after dark as well.

For information about museums, hotels, restaurants, and things to do in Mexico City, see our Travel Guide - Mexico City Travel Guide.

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