By Robert Selwitz
Mexico City deserves much more attention than it gets. While most Mexico-bound travelers head for Cancun or other Gulf Coast resorts, there are many reasons to also explore the capital, the world's eighth-largest city.
Extraordinary history, exquisite food, great neighborhoods for walking and shopping, and many fascinating museums are prime draws. Since the peso is now pegged at nearly 20 per dollar, you'll find dining much more affordable than at home. For another example of what that rate means, five-star, centrally located hotel rooms go for less than $120 per night.
Start exploring where the city was actually founded, in the massive Zocalo, originally created by Aztec rulers in 1325 on what was then an island in Lake Texcoco. After the 1521 Spanish conquest (and after they drained the lake), the victors erected the Palacio National over the site of the former palace of Aztec ruler Montezuma. Today it's home to federal offices, plus major Mexican art that includes Diego Rivera murals lining courtyard walls. Steps away is the Metropolitan Cathedral, which replaced an earlier version that, in turn, was built over the site of a major Aztec temple. The church is massive, grand and extraordinarily ornate.
Nearby, workers laying electrical cables in 1978 encountered remnants of the previously undiscovered Templo Mayor, the main Aztec temple, which the Spaniards had destroyed soon after securing their conquest. A new museum opened in 1987, and today you can traverse a walkway that threads through Templo Mayer ruins and foundations. Then explore the museum itself, home to more than 6,000 artifacts uncovered during massive digs.
Another must-see is the world-famous National Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park. Allow a full touring day to sample separate exhibit halls for each of the cultures that shaped Mexico. Filled with extraordinary statues, masks, jewelry and historic documents, this is Mexico's largest and most heavily attended museum.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are Mexico's most famous artists, and their lives, work, turbulent times and marriages are a prime draw. The Museo Mural Diego Rivera, quite close to Reforma (the city's largest thoroughfare), displays "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park." This massive mural depicting a panoply of Mexican historic figures reminds many of George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte."
The mural was originally crafted and installed in the nearby Hotel Prado that was virtually destroyed during a 1985 earthquake. The current museum was built to house the mural and the wall upon which it was originally created. Also explore the Ministry of Public Education, where many Rivera murals are displayed in courtyards. Numerous Rivera and Kahlo works are exhibited at Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino. Kahlo's childhood home, Casa Museo Frida Kahlo, is now filled with her work, and the Museo Casa Studio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo is where the couple lived and worked at varying times.
Definitely also experience the Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli, a modern black-stone pyramid the artist built for his extensive collection of pre-Hispanic art. Another intriguing site is Leon Trotsky's residence, where the Russian revolutionary was assassinated in 1940.He lived here in exile and became close friends with both Kahlo and Rivera.
Rivera's works also are displayed at the Palacio de Belles Artes, arguably Mexico's city's most iconic structure. You'll also want to attend performances here by the impressive Orquestra Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico, as well as thrice-weekly performances by the often-thrilling Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.
Mexico City is vast, and exploring it or searching out some of its best restaurants could, until recently, require hiring expensive hotel-provided taxis. While these were, and are, much safer than hailing a random cab on the street, fares could quickly soar. Now, however, Uber has arrived, and via its website you can reach distant restaurants or attractions by paying a fraction of hotel taxi rates.
WHEN YOU GO
Barcelo Refoma Hotel is a well-maintained and comfortable property in the heart of Mexico City with great rates and service: www.barcelo.com
Azul Historico restaurant serves up cleverly prepared Mexican specialties in a lovingly converted former courtyard: www.azul.rest/azul-historico
Los Danzantes offers superb dining in the heart of the lovely Coyaoacan neighborhood: www.losdanzantes.com/los-danzantes-coyoacan
Robert Selwitz is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com
Diego Rivera's "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park" is on display at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera in Mexico City. Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.