Mexico: Mexico City – The Historic Central District
The energetic heart of this megalopolis has oodles of historical and beautiful places to visit, plus some great eateries and shopping
From our hotel in Mexico City, City Centro Ciudad de Mexico, it was a 15-minute wall to all the main attractions in the Historic District of this great city. The centre of Mexico City is very walkable, and safe – well at least if you avoid getting hit by a car. In fact with the traffic situation in this overpopulated megalopolis walking can be faster than travelling in a car.
All the locations covered here are fairly close. The Palacio de Bellas Artes, Palacio Postal and House of Tiles are five minutes apart – and then it is about ten to fifteen minutes to get to the zócolo and the Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace and Templo Mayor.
Here is a walking Map of how to get from A to B.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Located next to the Almeda Central Park, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), is considered to be one, if not the most beautiful buildings in Mexico City. As well as being a fine building to look at, it a very functional, operating as a major cultural centre in the city. It hosts numerous music, dance, theatrical, opera and literature events. It also has a very impressive permanent exhibition displays of art, sculpture and photography. Consequently, the Palacio de Bellas Artes has been called the “Cathedral of Art in Mexico”
The initial design and construction were undertaken by the Italian architect Adamo Boari in 1904, but complications saw construction stopped in 1913 and did not recommence until 1932. The building was not completed until 1934.
The exterior of the building is primarily Art Nouveau and Neoclassical and the interior is primarily Art Deco.
|Location:||Av. Juárez S/N, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06050 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico|
|Hours:||Tuesday through Sundays: 10 am to 5 pm (closed Mondays)|
|Fees:||$ 70 pesos to enter plus and additional $ 30 pesos to take photographs|
If the outside of the building is stunning the inside is equally beautiful. We are great fans of Art Deco architecture and were blown away by the scale and the detail of the interior design.
We were not here just to admire the architecture but were keen to see the art on display, particularly the murals for which Mexico is famous for.
The top floor of the cultural centre houses some seriously impressive murals painted by Mexico’s most well-known muralists—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Roberto Montenegro. These murals are large and stunning – and on closer inspection, some of them are very disturbing (they would carry some sort of parental control warning in any other circumstance).
In addition to the murals there are sculptures and other several smaller side galleries housing less monumental, but equally interesting and captivating art pieces.
Undoubtedly, the best place for a view of the outside of the Palacio de Bellas Artes is the coffee shop of the Sears department store opposite the Palacio’s main entrance. The coffee shop is located on the 8th floor and has outside seating that looks directly on the Palacio de Bellas Artes. They do expect you to buy something to use the outside balcony but it is a small price to pay for the view. If you are lucky you can get a seat alongside the balcony wall. We went as the sun was going down and got to see the lights coming on that illuminate the building at night – spectacular!
Palacio de Correos de México (Post Office)
Nestled in the centre of Mexico City, close to the Palacio de Bellas Artes is the incredible Palacio Postal. On entering the building it would be easy to think you are stepping into a magnificent royal palace, rather than a rather mundane municipal post office. But it is a true stately masterpiece of unparalleled splendour.
Address: Calle de Tacuba 1, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06000 Ciudad de México
The Palacio Postal was the brain-child of then-President Porfirio Díaz, who worked with the Mexican engineer Gonzalo Garita y Frontera, and Italian architect Adamo Boari (who also designed Palacio de Bellas Artes) to bring this incredible building to life.
The ground was broken on the Palacio Postal (also known as the Correo Mayor – Main Post Office) – on September 14th, 1902. It took around five years to be completed. Since this time the post office has been in continuous use despite the best efforts of Mother Nature to quell its operation with earthquakes.
The architectural style of the Palacio Postal has proven to be hard to classify with its apparent mishmash of themes, including Art Nouveau, Moorish, Venetian Gothic Revival, Baroque, Neoclassical, Spanish Renaissance Revival, and more. It is easier to admire its bold wrought-iron work, gold embellishment, leaded stained-glass windows and sweeping staircase that would stand proudly in the most regal palace than try and pigeon-hole its architectural heritage.
In addition to continuing to provide all the basic, expected functions of a post office on its first floor, Palacio Postal also houses a small museum dedicated to displaying the history of Mexico’s mail service. Its crown jewel is the invaluable, very first stamp Mexico ever issued.
So, it is definitely taking the time to visit this majestic building – you can even buy some stamps here to send your postcards back home! We did!
The Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles)
La Casa de los Azulejos (Tile House) is one of the most beautiful pieces of novo-Spanish baroque civil architecture. It is a work of art framed by Talavera that fully covers its facade. It was said to be a refuge for supporters of the conquistador Hernán Cortés. Its first owner was Hernando Avila, followed by Damian Hernandez. It was the residence of the Valle de Orizaba counts, in fact, one of the descendants decided to coat the exterior with polychromatic mosaics in the eighteenth century.
From 1881 the building became the Jockey Club and later the Casa del Obrero Mundial. At that time the Calle 5, de mayo was the most elegant avenue in Porfiriato.
Today, it is simply a beautiful building to visit and take some photographs. It is located very close to the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Address: Av Francisco I. Madero 4, Centro Histórico de la Cdad. de México, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, 06500 Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City
Address: Plaza de la Constitución S/N, Centro, Cuauhtémoc, Ciudad de México, México, +52 55 5510 0440
At some point in time during a visit to Mexico City, you will end up in the vast expanse of the city’s central square, or zócalo. This square is formally known as La Plaza de la Constitución. The name zócalo means “plinth” and came about as there were plans to erect a column as a monument to Independence, but only the base, (or zócalo) was built. The plinth was buried long ago but the name has lived on. Many other Mexican towns and cities, such as Oaxaca, Mérida and Guadalajara, have adopted the word zócalo to refer to their main plazas. This square is close to the centre of the Aztec ruins, Templo Mayor, the heart of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. It is believed that this area was considered by the Aztecs as the centre of the Universe. Today, it is a popular gathering place for residents and tourists alike and is often used for protests and celebrations.
The most dominant feature of the zócalo is the Metropolitan Cathedral (or to give it its full title, The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven). This is Latin America’s largest and oldest cathedral.
The history of this Cathedral spans three centuries, from 1573 to 1913, which has resulted in it adopting three dominant architectural styles; Baroque, Neo-Classic and Neo-Renaissance. One of the issues facing this large, heavy building is the fact that it is built upon a former lake and its foundations are definitely not built on solid ground – so it is gradually sinking year after year.
Legend has it that there is an underground passage leading from the Cathedral to the neighbouring Templo Mayor. But what cannot be denied is the fact that much of the Cathedral’s stonework originated from the ruing of the Templo Mayor (the Spanish Conquistadors were not very conscious of saving the cultural heritage of the countries they conquered). Rumour has it that the Conquistadors’ leader Hernán Cortes laid the first stone.
The most impressive features of the Cathedral’s façade are its huge bell tower, which house twenty-five bells, the largest of which, Santa Maria de Guadalupe, weighs in at 13,000 kilos.
As impressive as the external architecture is the inside of the Cathedral is equally stunning. We visited on a Sunday, which was interesting as there were services taking place, but it also meant we couldn’t check out all of the nooks and crannies. There are numerous works of art, religious relics and crypts adorn every orifice, including in the sixteen chapels. Gold coats every surface and towering ceilings add to the grandeur of the Altars of Forgiveness and of the Kings. The Altar of Forgiveness was damaged in a 1967 fire along with the Americas’ biggest 18th-century organs.
The Templo Mayor
Next to Metropolitan Cathedral are the ruins of the Templo Mayor or Great Temple (called Hueteocalli by the Aztecs) dominated the central sacred precinct of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.
In front of the Templo Mayor, there is a square in which you’ll find a host of people dressed as Aztecs performing traditional music, dance and ceremonies.
In the heyday of the Aztecs, this area was topped with twin temples dedicated to the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc. It was a focal point of the Aztec religion and very centre of the Aztec world. It was also the scene of state occasions such as coronations and the place of countless human sacrifices where the blood of the victims was thought to feed and appease the two great gods to whom it was dedicated.
After the Spanish Conquistadors defeated the Aztecs the pyramid was raised, but the Aztecs continued to use it as a rallying point. Overtime the pyramid was buried but never forgotten, there was a half-hearted to excavate the ruins in the early 29th-Century but the real work digging did not start until the 1970s. It was then discovered that the pyramid was, in fact, a succession of pyramids each built over a smaller predecessor and even the original primitive platform, dated with the aid of a stone hieroglyph to 1390 AS, was discovered.
Most of the ruins can be easily seen from the paths that run across the site. If you would like to get a more in-depth appreciation of the history the Templo Mayor there is a museum on site.
|Location:||Seminario 8 | Centro Histórico, Mexico City 06060, Mexico|
|Hours:||Tuesday through Sundays: 9 am to 5 pm (closed Mondays)|
|Fees:||$ 70 pesos to enter|
The Presidential / National Palace
When Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico, the Spaniards destroyed Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Cortés then built his own palace in the early 16th century on the ruins of Moctezuma II’s palace, using stones from the Aztec ruler’s palace.
The Spanish crown bought the palace from Hernán Cortés’ family in 1562. It remained the Viceroy Palace until Mexico’s independence in 1821 when Mexican leaders named it the National Palace.
Over time the National Palace has seen a lot of changes and additions to become the huge three-level structure of today. The current Mexico President does not live in the Palace (previous President’s have) – the present Presidential residence is Los Pinos, located in the Bosque de Chapultepec. But it is still an important Federal building being the home of the offices of the Mexican President, the Treasury and National Archives. Inside the grounds of the palace are some exquisite gardens, 14 courtyards, a royal chapel, a national library, and the parliamentary quarters.
It is definitely worth making the effort to visit the National Palace. Its grounds are beautiful and it is one of the best places to see the Murals of Diego Rivera.
Every September 16, the Mexican President rings the Bell of Dolores and re-enacts the cry of Dolores to celebrate Mexico’s independence from Spanish rule.
Getting there and getting in:
The palace is located on the east side of the Zócalo / Plaza de la Constitución in Mexico City’s Historic Center. It takes up the entire block … you won’t be able to miss it!
We walked there from our hotel but it is easy to get to using the Metro system, the blue line will drop you off right in front of the palace. Alternatively, you can get there via Uber or by taxi or as part of a tour.
Entering the palace is free of charge. Be sure to get there early to avoid the crowds – particularly if you want to get unobstructed views of the murals of Diego Rivera.
|Location:||The entrance to the National Palace is on the side street, it looks barricaded, but there is an entrance approximately 100 metres from the Zocalo square….or ask one of the guards.|
|Hours:||Tuesday through Sundays: 9 am to 5 pm (closed Mondays)|
|Fees:||Free to enter|
It’s relatively easy to enter the palace. Make sure to bring a government-issued photo ID, which you’ll need to surrender at the door (and pick up when you leave). If you go as a couple you only need one government-issued ID. I was nervous giving up my passport so I used my US driving license which was okay.
Also, if you’re carrying a large bag, you’ll need to check it once you enter the palace.
The garden and grounds
Close by the bag drop room is a small library. We are always a sucker for a classic library. This is not the biggest of spaces but it is nonetheless quite lovely. We were particularly taken by the curved reading desks.
As you walk into the Palacio Nacional, you’ll enter a large interior courtyard and garden. There is a small cactus garden that’s filled with plants that are typical of the Mexican desert. This is a little oasis of peace, leaving the hustle and bustle outside the gates of the palace.
The garden is surrounded on one side with large columns and you will also find a vibrant red building, the Royal Chapel.
The grand courtyard
The National Palace has 14 courtyards, most of which are closed the public. The main courtyard, where you will want to head for is the grand courtyard. There are three layers of ached colonnades that surround this large space which has a statue of Pegasus at its centre. It is hard to capture the expanse of this courtyard in a single picture – it is big!
The main reason we had come to the National Palace was to see the Diego Rivera murals which are located on the second level. Interestingly and appropriately these murals an on the outside walls of the building, which means they are quite often under restoration – but for our visit, there was not a scaffold or painter in sight!
There are two sections of murals: The History of Mexico, which fills the grand staircase, and a series of panels on the second level depicting the pre-Hispanic era. He painted this set of murals between 1929 and 1935.
After the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican government sponsored a mural project. The project’s goal was to reunify the country under the current government.
The project was headed by three painters—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros—and the murals were painted throughout Mexico City and its surrounding areas.
Artists who took part in the mural project had complete creative control over their artwork, and their murals contained political messages. This idea of murals as a political message has since influenced artists in the US and around the world.
Rivera painted a number of murals through this program, including The History of Mexico which you’ll see in the staircase at the National Palace. The scale of this mural is truly monumental!
It’s divided into three sections with each section depicting a different era of Mexican history.
On the north wall, Rivera painted the Aztec culture. In the centre is a sun, and below it, a pyramid and Aztec leader. The painting contains scenes of everyday Aztec life, as well as religious images and other rituals.
This centre section of the mural depicts the many conflicts Mexico faced throughout its tumultuous history, from Cortez defeating the Aztecs through the end of European rule and the Mexican Revolution.
The south wall represents the future of Mexico. It’s all about progress, prosperity, and a better future.
As you walk around the second floor of the National Palace, you’ll see a series of Rivera murals depicting the pre-Hispanic era.
There are 11 panels, and they show the people of Mexico, as well as the arrival of Hernán Cortés. Rivera did not finished this series of murals.
You can explore a number of other rooms at the palace, most of which we did not see. If you only get time to see one room check out the ornate, gilded parliamentary chamber which is also found on the second level. This stunning 19th-Century room was the seat of Government.