The heart of Mexico City is the Zócalo, built by the Spanish right over the devastated ceremonial centre of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. Extraordinary uncovered ruins – chief of which is the Templo Mayor – provide the Zócalo’s most compelling attraction, but there’s also a wealth of great colonial buildings, among them the huge cathedral and the Palacio Nacional with its striking Diego Rivera murals. You could easily spend a couple of days in the tightly packed blocks hereabouts, investigating their dense concentration of museums and galleries, especially notable for works by Rivera and his “Big Three” companions, David Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.
West of the Zócalo the centro histórico stretches through the main commercial district past the Museo Nacional de Arte to the sky-scraping Torre Latinoamericana and the Palacio de Bellas Artes with its gorgeous Art Deco interior. Both overlook the formal parkland of the Alameda, next to which you’ll find a number of museums, principally the Museo Franz Mayer, which houses an excellent Alameda-related arts and crafts collection, and the Museo Mural Rivera, with the artist’s famed Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda. Further west, the Revolution Monument heralds the more upmarket central suburbs, chiefly the Zona Rosa, long known as the spot for plush shops and restaurants, though that title has largely been usurped by swanky Polanco and hipper Condesa.Read More
The vast paved open space of the Zócalo (Metro Zócalo) – properly known as the Plaza de la Constitución – was once the heart of Aztec Tenochtitlán, and is today one of the largest city squares in the world after Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and Moscow’s Red Square. The city’s political and religious centre, it takes its name from part of a monument to Independence that was planned in the 1840s for the square by General Santa Anna. Like most of his other plans, this went astray, and only the statue’s base (now gone) was ever erected: el zócalo literally means “the plinth”. By extension, every other town square in Mexico has adopted the same name. It’s constantly animated, with pre-Hispanic revivalist groups dancing and pounding drums throughout the day and street stalls and buskers in the evening. Stages are set up here for major national holidays and, of course, this is the place to hold demonstrations. Over 100,000 people massed here in March 2001 to support the Zapatistas after their march from Chiapas in support of indigenous people’s rights; in July 2006 the square proved too small to contain the millions of demonstrators who gathered to challenge the result of that year’s presidential election, a contest widely believed – especially in the left-leaning DF – to have been fixed. Spreading out from the Zócalo, the crowds reached as far as Reforma.
Though you’re not guaranteed to see any protests, among the Zócalo’s more certain entertainments is the ceremonial lowering of the national flag from its giant pole in the centre of the plaza each evening at sundown (typically 6pm). A troop of presidential guards march out from the palace, strike the enormous flag and perform a complex routine at the end of which the flag is left, neatly folded, in the hands of one of their number. With far less pomp, the flag is quietly raised again around half an hour later. You get a great view of this, and of everything else happening in the Zócalo, from the rooftop La Terraza restaurant/bar in the Hotel Majestic at the corner of Madero.
The Zócalo does, of course, have its less glorious aspects. Mexico City’s unemployment rate is tellingly reflected by the people who line up on the west side of the cathedral seeking work, each holding a little sign indicating their trade.
West to the Alameda
West to the Alameda
The streets that lead down from the Zócalo towards the Alameda – Tacuba, 5 de Mayo, Madero, 16 de Septiembre and the lanes that cross them – are the most elegant and least affected by modern development in the city, lined with ancient buildings, traditional cafés and shops and mansions converted into offices, banks or restaurants. When you reach the end of Madero, you’ve come to the outer edge of the colonial city centre, and should find yourself standing between two of the most striking modern buildings in the capital: the Torre Latinoamericana and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Though it seems incredible to compare them, they were completed within barely 25 years of each other.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Diagonally across the street there’s an equally impressive and substantially more beautiful engineering achievement in the form of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (wwww.bellasartes.gob.mx; Metro Bellas Artes). It was designed in 1901, at the height of the Díaz dictatorship, by the Italian architect Adamo Boari and built, in a grandiose Art Nouveau style, of white marble imported from Italy. The construction wasn’t actually completed, however, until 1934, with the Revolution and several new planners come and gone. Some find the whole exterior overblown, but whatever your initial impressions, nothing will prepare you for the magnificent interior – an Art Deco extravaganza incorporating spectacular lighting, chevron friezes and stylized masks of the rain god, Chac.
Much of the interior splendour can be seen any time by wandering into the foyer (free) and simply gazing around the lower floor, where there is a good arts bookshop and the Café del Palacio restaurant. If you want to see more of the building, you might consider visiting the art museum on the middle two floors, the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; M$35, free Sun or when there is no special exhibition on; M$30 to take photos, even with a phone). In the galleries here you’ll find a series of exhibitions, permanent displays of Mexican art and temporary shows of anything from local art-school graduates’ work to that of major international names. Of constant and abiding interest, however, are the great murals surrounding the museum’s central space. On the first floor are Birth of Our Nationality and Mexico Today – dreamy, almost abstract works by Rufino Tamayo. Going up a level you’re confronted by the unique sight of murals by Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros gathered in the same place. Rivera’s Man in Control of the Universe (or Man at the Crossroads), celebrating the liberating power of technology, was originally painted for Rockefeller Center in New York City, but destroyed for being too leftist – arch-capitalist Nelson Rockefeller objected to Rivera’s inclusion of Karl Marx, even though he was well aware of Rivera’s views when he commissioned the work. This is Rivera’s own copy, painted in 1934, just a year after the original. It’s worth studying the explanatory panel, which reveals some of the theory behind this complex work.
Several smaller panels by Rivera are also displayed; these, too, were intended to be seen elsewhere (in this case on the walls of the Hotel Reforma, downtown) but for years were covered up, presumably because of their unflattering depiction of tourists. The works include Mexican Folklore and Tourism, Dictatorship, the Dance of the Huichilobos and, perhaps the best of them, Agustín Lorenzo, a portrayal of a guerrilla fighter against the French. None of them was designed to be seen so close up, and you’ll find yourself wanting to step back to get the big picture. Catharsis, a huge, vicious work by Orozco, occupies almost an entire wall, and there are also some particularly fine examples of Siqueiros’s work: three powerful and original panels on the theme of Democracy and a bloody depiction of The Torture of Cuauhtémoc and his resurrection. The uppermost floor is devoted to the Museo de la Arquitectura (same ticket and hours), which has no permanent collection, but frequently has interesting exhibits.
Some of the finest interior decor in the building is generally hidden from view in the main theatre, an important venue for classical music, opera and dance; this is under renovation until at least 2010, but when it reopens, there should be free tours (previously Mon–Fri 1pm & 1.30pm) to see the amazing Tiffany glass curtain depicting the Valley of México and the volcanoes, as well as the detailed proscenium mosaic and the stained-glass ceiling.
From behind Bellas Artes, Lázaro Cárdenas runs north towards the Plaza Garibaldi through an area crowded with seedy cantinas and eating places, theatres and burlesque shows. West of the Palacio de Bellas Artes lies the Alameda, first laid out as a park in 1592, and taking its name from the alamos (poplars) then planted. The Alameda had originally been an Aztec market and later became the site where the Inquisition burned its victims at the stake. Most of what you see now – formally laid-out paths and flowerbeds, ornamental statuary and fountains – dates from the nineteenth century, when it was the fashionable place to stroll. It’s still popular, always full of people, particularly at weekends, but it’s mostly a transient population – office workers taking lunch, shoppers resting their feet, messengers taking a short cut and street vendors selling T-shirts.
Laboratorio Arte Alameda and Museo Mural Diego Rivera
Almost at the western end of the Alameda, duck down Calle Dr Mora to the Laboratorio Arte Alameda, at no. 7 (wwww.artealameda.bellasartes.gob.mx), an art museum built into the glorious seventeenth-century monastery of San Diego. The cool, white interior is filled with temporary exhibitions of challenging contemporary art. They’re all superbly displayed around the church, chapel and cloister of the old monastery, a space also occasionally used for evening concerts – mostly chamber music or piano recitals.
One of the buildings worst hit by the 1985 earthquake was the Hotel del Prado, which contained the Rivera mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda. The mural survived the quake, and was subsequently picked up in its entirety and transported around the Alameda – it can now be seen in the Museo Mural Diego Rivera (wwww.museomuraldiegorivera.bellasartes.gob.mx), at the western end of the Alameda, at the corner of Balderas and Colón. It’s an impressive work – showing almost every famous Mexican character out for a stroll in the park – but one suspects that its popularity with tour groups is as much to do with its relatively apolitical nature as with any superiority to Rivera’s other works. Originally it included a placard with the words “God does not exist”, which caused a huge furore, and Rivera was forced to paint it out before the mural was first displayed to the public.
A leaflet (available at the entrance; M$10) explains every character in the scene: Cortés is depicted with his hands stained red with blood; José Guadalupe Posada stands bowler-hatted next to his trademark skeleton, La Calavera Catrina, who holds the hand of Rivera himself, portrayed as a 9-year-old boy; Frida Kahlo stands in motherly fashion, just behind him.
Reforma, Zona Rosa, Roma, Condesa and Polanco
Reforma, Zona Rosa, Roma, Condesa and Polanco
West of the Alameda and Revolution monument the tenor of the city changes again, particularly along the grand avenue of Reforma, lined by tall buildings, including Mexico’s stock exchange. South of here is the tight knot of streets that make up the Zona Rosa, one of the city’s densest concentrations of hotels, restaurants and shops. The residential districts of Roma and Condesa warrant attention for their numerous small-time art galleries and, particularly in Condesa, the restaurants. The Paseo de la Reforma runs direct to Chapultepec Park, on the north edge of which lies Polanco, home to wealthy socialites and yuppies.
To the south of Reforma lies the Zona Rosa (Metro Insurgentes), a triangular area bordered by Reforma, Avenida Chapultepec and, to the west, Chapultepec Park. You’ll know you’re there as the streets are all named after famous cities. Packed into this tiny area are hundreds of bars, restaurants, hotels and shops, all teeming with a vast number of tourists and a cross-section of Mexico City’s aspiring middle classes. Until the 1980s this was the city’s swankiest commercial neighbourhood, but the classiest shops have moved to Polanco and many of the big international chains have relocated to the out-of-town malls that have sprung up around the Periférico. Though there’s no shortage of good shopping, and the selection of restaurants, cafés, clubs and bars in the Zona Rosa is respectable (see Coyoacán & Zona Rosa, Condesa and Roma), it has lost its exclusive feel. You’re as likely to spend your time here buying cheap knick-knacks at market stalls and watching street entertainers as admiring the remaining fancy store windows. You might visit during the day to eat well, then return at night for the clubs, and may choose to stay here, but you certainly wouldn’t make a special journey for the sights. The zone in general, and particularly the block of Amberes between Estrasburgo and Reforma – has become something of a centre for the city’s gay scene, but otherwise, the only real attraction is the Museo de Cera (Wax Museum; daily 11am–7pm; M$60; Metro Cuauhtémoc), on the fringes of the Zona, at Londres 6. Thoroughly tacky, with a basement chamber of horrors that includes Aztec human sacrifices, it shares its site with the Museo de lo Increíble (same hours and prices; joint ticket for the two museums M$100), a Mexican Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, which displays such marvels as flea costumes and hair sculpture.
Roma and Condesa
South of the Zona Rosa lie the residential districts of Roma and Condesa, full of quiet leafy streets once you get away from the main avenues that cut through. Both suburbs were developed in the 1930s and 1940s, but as the city expanded they became unfashionable and run-down. That all changed in the 1990s when artists and the bohemian fringe were drawn here by low rents, decent housing and proximity to the centre of the city. Small-time galleries sprang up and the first of the bars and cafés opened. Condesa, in particular, is now one of the best areas for good eating in the city, and definitely the place to come for lounging in pavement cafés or dining in bistro-style restaurants (see Zona Rosa). The greatest concentration is around the junction of Michoacán, Atlixco and Vicente Suárez, but establishments spread out into the surrounding streets, where you’ll often find quiet neighbourhood places with tables spilling out onto the pavement. Sights in the usual sense are virtually nonexistent, but you can pass a few hours just walking the streets keeping an eye out for interesting art galleries, which seem to spring up all the time. A good starting point is Parque México, officially Parque San Martín, a large green space virtually in the heart of Condesa that was set aside when the owners of the horse track sold it to developers back in 1924. The streets around the park, especially Avenida México, are rich in buildings constructed in Mexico’s own distinctive version of Art Deco.
The Metro system gives Condesa a wide berth, with line 1 skirting the north and west while line 9 runs along the south side. Nonetheless, it is easy enough to walk to Condesa south from the Zona Rosa (Metro Insurgentes, Sevilla or Chapultepec); for more direct access to Condesa’s main restaurant district take line 1 to Juanacatlán, and cross the Circuito Interior using the nearby footbridge. This brings you onto Francisco Marquez, which leads to the restaurants – ten minutes’ walk in all.
High-priced high-rise hotels line the northern edge of Chapultepec Park, casting their shadow over the smart suburb of Colonia Polanco. Unless you’ve got brand-name shopping in mind or need to visit one of the district’s embassies, there’s not much reason to come out this way, though it is instructive to stroll along Presidente Masaryk, the main drag, watching the beautiful people drive by in their Porsches and Lexus SUVs on their way to the Fendi or Ferragamo stores. Polanco also has great dining and we’ve recommended a few places, but bad restaurants don’t last long here and you can do just as well strolling along and picking any place you fancy.
The only specific destination is the Sala de Arte Público David Siqueiros, Tres Picos 29 (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; M$10, free Sun; Metro Polanco), a small but interesting collection of the great muralist’s later work, including sketches he made for the Polyforum murals. They’re all displayed in his former residence and studio, donated (along with everything in it) to the people of Mexico just 25 days before his death in 1973. If it is not already playing, ask to see the hour-long video (in English) on his life and work made just before his death, and watch it surrounded by his murals, which cover just about every piece of wall space.
Palacio Nacional and the Rivera murals
Palacio Nacional and the Rivera murals
The other dominant structure on the Zócalo is the Palacio Nacional (Metro Zócalo), its more than two-hundred-metres-long facade taking up a full side of the plaza. The so-called New Palace of Moctezuma stood here and Cortés made it his first residence. From 1562 the building was the official residence of the Spanish viceroy, and later of presidents of the republic. The present building, for all its apparent unity, is the result of centuries of agglomeration and rebuilding – the most recent addition was the third storey, in 1927. It still holds the office of the president, who makes his most important pronouncements from the balcony – especially on September 15, when the Grito de la Independencia signals the start of the country’s Independence celebrations.
The building’s chief attraction is the series of Diego Rivera murals that decorate the stairwell and middle storey of the main courtyard. Begun in 1929, the murals are classic Rivera, ranking with the best of his work. The great panorama of Mexican history, México a Través de los Siglos, around the main staircase, combines an unbelievable wealth of detail with savage imagery and a masterly use of space. On the right-hand wall Quetzalcoatl sits in majesty amid the golden age of the Valley of México, surrounded by an idealized vision of life in Teotihuacán, Tula and Tenochtitlán. The main section depicts the Conquest, oppression, war, Inquisition, invasion, Independence and eventually Revolution. Almost every major personage and event of Mexican history is here, from the grotesquely twisted features of the conquistadors to the national heroes: balding, white-haired Hidalgo with the banner of Independence; squat, dark Benito Juárez with his Constitution and laws for the reform of the Church; Zapata, with a placard proclaiming his cry of “Tierra y Libertad”; and Pancho Villa, moustachioed and swaggering. On the left are post-Revolutionary Mexico and the future (as Rivera envisaged it), with Karl Marx pointing the way to adoring workers. Businessmen stand clustered over their tickertape in front of a somewhat ironic depiction of the metropolis with its skyscrapers and grim industrial wastes. Rivera’s wife, the artist Frida Kahlo, is depicted, too, behind her sister Cristina (with whom Rivera was having an affair at the time) in a red blouse with an open copy of the Communist Manifesto.
A series of smaller panels was intended to go all the way round the upper (now middle) storey, an over-ambitious and unfinished project. The uncoloured first panel lists the products that the world owes to Mexico, including maize, beans, chocolate, tobacco, cotton, tomatoes, peanuts, prickly pears and chicle (the source of chewing gum). The remainder of the completed paintings reach halfway around and mostly depict the idyll of aspects of life before the Conquest – market day, dyeing cloth, hunting scenes and so on. The last (completed in 1951) shows the arrival of the Spanish, complete with an image of La Malinche (the Indian woman widely perceived to have betrayed native Mexicans) bearing the blue-eyed baby sired by Cortés – the first Mexican mestizo.
Also on the middle storey is the chamber used by the Mexican Legislature from 1845 to 1872, when it was presided over by Benito Juárez, who lived in the palace until his death. The room houses the original copy of the 1857 Constitution, which was drawn up there, but is frequently closed for renovations.
Before leaving, take a moment to wander around some of the other courtyards (there are fourteen in all), and through the small floral and cactus gardens.
Diego Rivera (c.1886–1957), husband of Frida Kahlo, was arguably the greatest of Los Tres Grandes, the “Big Three” Mexican artists who interpreted the Revolution and Mexican history through the medium of enormous murals, and put the nation’s art onto an international footing in the first half of the twentieth century. His works (along with those of José Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros) remain among the country’s most striking sights.
Rivera studied from the age of 10 at the San Carlos Academy in the capital, immediately showing immense ability. He later moved to Paris, where he flirted with many of the new artistic trends, in particular Cubism. More importantly, though, he and Siqueiros planned, in exile, a popular, native art to express the new society in Mexico. In 1921 Rivera returned from Europe to the aftermath of the Revolution, and right away began work for the Ministry of Education at the behest of the socialist Education Minister, poet and presidential hopeful José Vasconcelos. Informed by his own Communist beliefs, and encouraged by the leftist sympathies of the times, Rivera embarked on the first of his massive, consciousness-raising murals, whose themes – Mexican history, the oppression of the natives, post-Revolutionary resurgence – were initially more important than their techniques. Many of his early murals are deceptively simple, naive even, but in fact Rivera’s style remained close to major trends and, following the lead of Siqueiros, he took a scientific approach to his work, looking to industrial advances for new techniques, better materials and fresh inspiration. The view of industrial growth as a panacea (particularly in the earlier works of both Rivera and Siqueiros) may have been simplistic, but the artists’ use of technology and experimentation with new methods and original approaches often have startling results.
Communism continued to be a major source of motivation and inspiration for Rivera, who was a long-standing member of the Mexican Communist Party. When ideological differences caused a rift in Soviet politics, Rivera supported Trotsky’s “revolutionary internationalism”, and in 1936, after Trotsky had spent seven years in exile from the Soviet Union on the run from Stalin’s henchmen and was running out of countries that would accept him, Rivera used his influence over Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to get permission for Trotsky and his wife Natalia to enter the country. They stayed with Diego and Frida rent-free at their Coyoacán house before Trotsky moved down the road to what is now the Museo Casa de León Trotsky. The passionate and often violent differences between orthodox Stalinists and Trotskyites spilled over into the art world, creating a great rift between Rivera and ardent Stalinist Siqueiros, who was later jailed for his involvement in an assassination attempt on Trotsky. Though Rivera later broke with Trotsky and was eventually readmitted to the Communist Party, Trotsky continued to admire Rivera’s murals, finding them “not simply a ‘painting’, an object of passive contemplation, but a living part of the class struggle”.
Following the Rivera trail
There is a huge amount of Rivera’s work accessible to the public, much of it in Mexico City, but also elsewhere around the country. The following is a rundown of the major Rivera sites organized by region and approximately ordered in accordance with their importance within that area.
Near the Zócalo, the Alameda and Chapultepec
Major murals right in the heart of the capital.
There are many of Rivera’s early murals around the courtyards of the Ministry of Education.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Rivera’s monumental Man in Control of the Universe (and others), as well as murals by his contemporaries.
Museo Mural Diega Rivera
One of Rivera’s most famous murals, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda, is on display here.
Museo de Arte Moderno
Several quality canvases by Rivera and his contemporaries.
Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso (ENP)
One relatively minor Rivera mural.
Museo Nacional de Arte
A handful of minor canvases.
The southern suburbs
Mosaic relief depicting the relationship between sport and the family.
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño
A massive collection of Rivera works from almost every artistic period.
Museo Frida Kahlo
Just a couple of Diego’s works displayed in the house where he and Frida spent some of their married life.
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo
Diego’s and Frida’s pair of houses designed by Juan O’Gorman.
Large Maya-style house built by Rivera and housing his collection of pre-Columbian sculpture.
Museo de Arte Carrillo-Gil
A couple of paintings from Rivera’s Cubist period.
Teatro de los Insurgentes
Mural depicting the history of Mexican theatre.
Outside the capital
Palacio de Cortés
Cuernavaca. Early murals on a grand scale.
Museo Robert Brady
Cuernavaca. A few paintings by both Frida and Diego.
Museo Casa Diego Rivera
Guanajuato. Relatively minor works and sketches in the house where Diego was born.