by Luc O Cinnseala
Mexico‘s capital city is a sprawling metropolis that carries an energy that few global cities could try to replicate.
Referred to locally as DF (‘DAY Eh-FAY’) because of its place in the country’s Distrito Federal (Federal District), Mexico City is a dream destination for any backpacker, featuring countless museums, a heaving party scene and, of course, some seriously cool hostels.
By some measurements, it’s the largest city in the western hemisphere, yet it’s not on the top of most travellers’ lists. This is at least partly due to an unwarranted reputation for narco crime much more common in the country’s northern and Pacific states.
Practice standard travelling common sense and your trip to DF is likely to be a highlight of your travels. It’s a place that will constantly surprise you for the best; a place you’ll want to write home about—or just brag about on Instagram.
Whether you’re landing in a plane or coming over the hills in a bus, the first thing that strikes you about Mexico City is its size—and the fact that it’s surrounded by actual (extinct) volcanoes and mountains.
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Downtown, you’re likely to happen across Plaza de la Constitución, known to 99% of people as Zócalo. The plaza contains Mexico’s National Palace. In 1978, it was also discovered that the square was sitting on the ruins of the Templo Mayor, a hugely important Aztec temple whose location had eluded researchers’ for decades, despite literally being under everyone’s feet. Excavations are now taking place in at the north of the square.
The building in the background is the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral. Inside it are two of the largest 18th-century pipe organs in the Americas. They’re pretty impressive:
Not too far away is DF’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. The building, which hosts, among other arts, ballet and opera, is really something to admire from inside and outside, merging neoclassical, art nouveau and art deco architecture. Inside is a treasure trove of murals by the likes of Diego Rivera, master muralist and husband of Frida Kahlo.
Speaking of which…You can visit the house that Kahlo, one of the most influential female artists of all time, lived in with Rivera. She was born in the house in Colonia del Carmen, south of downtown. Today, The Blue House (La Casa Azul) retains an almost identical interior decor to the days when it was inhabited by the artistic power couple, from Frida’s art supplies to the pots and utensils in the kitchen.
But you don’t need museums to see art in Mexico city. The city has some great examples of street art, from the grand and impressive to modern and fun…
…to the small and giftable:
Then there’s the fabulous tiled buildings…Casa de los Azulejos (The House of Tiles) is an 18th-century palace on the city’s busy pedestrianised shopping street, Calle Madero. Currently it’s the flagship premises of department store/restaurant chain Sanborns.
If your sightseeing is making you hungry, remember that virtually every street in Mexico City has some form of taqueria, either in a building or a street stand. You never forget your first real Mexican taco!
So, remember Templo Mayo, the Aztec Temple in Zócalo? Well, they’re not the only ruins in the city. Teotihuacan is an entire ruined city over 2,000 years old, and it’s less than an hour from downtown Mexico City. No trip to DF is complete without paying this archaeological gem lip service. Especially the 65.5 metre tall Temple of the Sun.
But it doesn’t stop there for history nerds…Closer to town is the Anthropology Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropología). The museum, both the largest and most visited in the country, celebrates the myriad civilisations and cultures that make up the Mexico’s history. One feature is its massive concrete canopy, held up by a pillar/fountain, which is impressive enough on its own to warrant a visit.
Spending any time in Mexico City will make you realise that some areas can feel like a completely different country. Xochimilco, DF’s own Venice, is one of the city’s best kept secrets. Step back from the city, hop aboard a colourful trajinera boat and explore some of the 170 kilometres of waterways, watching traditional life drift by on the banks.
Other times in the city you’ll feel like you’re on a movie set. Mexico City’s been used as a filming location nearly as long as Hollywood has. Baz Luhrmann used the Immaculate Heart of Mary church, in the swanky Del Valle neighbourhood, in his 1996 adaption of Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Channel your inner Leo and get a mate to snap a photo of you running up its steps.
Finally, whether you’re in town to sightsee or party, or simply just to take it all in, Mexico City will leave you in sensory overload… oh, and it will give you some killer sunsets to remember.
Where to stay?
Massiosaire el Hostal
This is an exceptional little hostel in the city’s historic quarter, a short walk from the airy Alameda Central park, close to Zócalo. It has just two dorms and one private double room, all painted in vibrant colours, along with a sixth-floor terrace.
For people who like their accommodation with a side of history, the former apartment that this hostel occupies was once the home of Antonio del Conde, the man who supplied arms to Fidel Castro and his band of rebels, as well as the yacht, Granma, with which they took Cuba.
Hostel Amigo Centro
This downtown hostel is one of an established and much-loved chain in the city, offering something for everyone. The hostel boasts a huge amount of private rooms and dorms, its own bar and numerous common areas to mingle, and all in a really central location.
Casa San Ildefonso
This hostel’s staff want you to treat it as your own home while you submerge yourself in the cultural richness of Mexico City. Located in a 19th century building, complete with two sunny courtyards, this hostel merges clean and modern with classic Mexican styles.