Mexico City

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In what was once Texcoco lake, birthplace of pre-Hispanic civilisations, now lies the "Ciudad de los Palacios" ("City of Palaces"), that is, Mexico City, one of the largest and most populated cities in the world. D.F., as the Mexicans call it, is an excellent place to start your tour of Mexico.

Mexico City offers visitors a great many different interesting sites to visit, from pre-Columbian Mexico to modern and cosmopolitan 21st century Mexico. Any visitor will take back memories of its popular culture, its food, its art, the mariachis, the arts and crafts, the Colonial architecture and its parties. But they will also have the chance to go shopping, go for wonderful walks, experience breathtaking views, visit interesting museums and theatres or spend all night partying non-stop.

A good place to start your tour of Mexico City is the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec woods) and surrounding area. This is a wonderful place to spend the day, walking through the enormous green spaces, the Jardín Botánico (Botanical Gardens) or the Parque Rosario Castellanos. It is also very pleasant to walk by the lakes or even take a rowing boat and row across the lakes. In Chapultepec there are both snack bars and restaurants along the way. There are also several museums, such as the Museo Nacional de Antropología, one of the most famous in the world; the Museo Rufino Tamayo ; the Museo de Arte Moderno; the Museo del Papalote, great fun for both children and adults; the Museo Nacional de Historia; the Museo de Tecnología Moderna; the Museo de la Historia Natural; the Museo Sala de Arte Público David Alfaro Siqueiros or the Museo del Caracol. One of the most interesting things in the area is the Castillo de Chapultepec. Also in the woods area, there is La Feria, which is Mexico City's oldest fun park. Just outside the woods, but still in the area, you can see Los Pinos, the official residence of the President of Mexico, and the Auditorio Nacional, one of the main concert and performance centres in the city.

Very near the Chapultepec area, slightly towards the North, is the Polanco area. For a long time, Polanco was the area where the Jewish community settled, and still today a great part of the community is Jewish. Polanco is one of the most popular shopping and residential areas among the high classes of Mexico City. It is a beautiful place to go walking, shopping or to eat in. There are many restaurants and famous shops in the area.

The Paseo de la Reforma is one of the most attractive avenues in Mexico City. Along this avenue you will come across the Fuente de la Diana Cazadora and the Monumento a la Independencia (El Ángel), which is undoubtedly one of the symbols of Mexico City. In the area close to El Ángel, it is a good idea to leave the Paseo de la Reforma, and go down Calle Florencia, towards the Zona Rosa, one of the main entertainment areas in the city. The Zona Rosa is full of restaurants, bars, cafés and shops, and is an ideal place to have a rest, sit out in the open air and have a drink or a bite to eat. Also in this area, you can visit the Museo de Cera de la Ciudad de México (the Wax Museum) and the Museo Nacional de San Carlos.

Further along the Calle Florencia, which eventually turns into Calle Monterrey, is what is known as the Colonia Roma area. This is a very pleasant please to walk around, with beautiful squares, parks and gardens, such as the Parque España, the Parque San Martín, or the Ramón López Velarde Gardens. Also in the area, is the Exhibemex exhibition centre.

Just to one side of Colonia Roma is La Condesa, a very fashionable area with many different bars, open air cafés, all in a very bohemian setting.

Going back to Paseo de la Reforma, and turning left, you'll come to Avenida Juárez. If you turn right there, you'll get straight to the City Centre. Along the avenues you will come across the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Palace) on one side, and the Torre Latinoamericana (Latin American Tower) on the other. Further along the avenue you eventually get to the Zócalo/Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square), where you will have the chance to see the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) and the Templo Mayor. The City Centre offers visitors the opportunity to see many spectacular buildings, as well as to get to know a little bit about Mexican life, history and culture. You can also see the Academia de San Carlos and the Conjunto San Ildefonso, where so many important Mexican artists came from.

On your way out from the City Centre via Puente de Alvarado, one comes to Avenida Insurgentes, a beautiful walk, with trees on either side, full of shops and restaurants of all sorts. One of the most impressive buildings here is the World Trade Center, where the Polifórum Cultural Siqueiros is also to be found. Not very far away, is the Teatro Insurgentes, with its wonderful mosaic façade.

Following Avenida Insurgentes, you come out to what is known as the San Ángel area. One of the places definitely worth seeing in this area is the Mercado de las Flores (Flower Market), as well as the Jardín de la Bombilla, where the Monumento al General Álvaro Obregón stands. Also in the San Ángel area is the Plaza 17 de Julio (17th July Square), the Templo del Carmen, the Jardín del Arte, Plaza San Jacinto, the Centro Cultural San Ángel Cultural Centre and the Ex-Convento del Carmen, famous for the mommies exhibited there.

From San Ángel, go along Avenida Miguel Ángel de Quevedo and you will come out to Coyoacán, perhaps the most beautiful area in Mexico City. It is a purely colonial area, with many churches, parks, gardens, squares, museums and bookshops. From the 20s to the 50s, Coyoacán was famous for being bohemian and intellectual centre of the city, and many world-famous Mexican artists, such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, lived in the area. Nowadays Coyoacán still has a bohemian feel to its streets, and it's certainly worth spending a day there. Plaza Hidalgo (Hidalgo Square) and the Jardín Centenario (Centenary Gardens) ought to be your first stops. All around this area there are restaurants and cafés and an outdoor market. It is also worth visiting El Parnaso bookshop, stopping for a bite to eat in El Mercado (the market) or have a cold beer in the most typical cantina in the area, La Guadalupana. Slightly further away from the centre of Coyoacán, you mustn't miss the Museo Frida Kahlo, the Museo Estudio Diego Rivera or the Museo Nacional de la Acuarela (Watercolour Museum), as well as Parque Santa Catarina. For literature lovers, there are three excellent bookshops in Coyoacán: Gandhi, El Sótano and Fondo de Cultura Económica. Still in the area, although slightly further away, you can visit the Museo de Invenciones (Museum of Inventions), the former convent Churubusco and the Alberca Olímpica.

Mexico City is undoubtedly a place where you should spend at least a week if you want to actually have the chance to get to know it. There is certainly enough on offer, whatever your tastes and interests.

History of Mexico City

Before Christopher Colombus set off towards America, Mexico Valley was already an important trading centre. The central area of the Mexican plateau had been occupied by different peoples for over 20,000 years (the exact date is very debated in archaeological circles), settled on the shores of its fertile lakes. Such is the case of the Mexicas, who -later- arrived from Aztlán and built an island of one square mile above one of these lakes. They built canals, some of which still exist today in what is now known as Xochimilco, in order to make trading and communication easier.

By the beginning of the 16th century, Tenochtitlán was already built and was the capital of the military empire stretching from Texas to Honduras. Spain conquered the Aztec territory in 1521, and it wasn't until 1810 when Mexico started its battle for Independence, which they finally won in 1921.

Now Mexico City is both the administrative and trading capital of the country, and one of the main sources of income for the whole country. Its streets are witness to many centuries, and it is still perfectly possible to see that today, particularly in areas such as the Zócalo/Plaza de la Constitución, which are both in the city centre. The Zócalo, once the site of ceremonies and celebrations in Gran Tenochitlán, is now the site of symbols of national power, as well as being the main area for public demonstrations, and popular celebrations.

In this area there is also the Catedral Metropolitana, a perfect example of colonial architecture, with its baroque and neo-classical façade, five naves and an invaluable collection of paintings. Next to the cathedral, we come to the Palacio Nacional, with its beautiful patios and murals by Diego Rivera on its walls, where episodes of Mexican History are so exquisitely portrayed.

Close to the city centre in the famous woods, we find the Castillo de Chapultepec, built where the Palacio de Moctezuma once stood. Hernán Cortés took it during the Conquest; it was made the viceroyal residence, and years after, it would become the imperial palace of Maximillian of Hapsburg during the French intervention. However, perhaps its golden age was the Porfiriato. At present it is a museum, and also organises classical music concerts regularly.

Five hundred metres towards the North of the centre, is Tlatelolco, once the main Aztec market and the largest in America. Now it is known as the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (the Square of the Three Cultures), due to its pre-Hispanic history on the one hand, the church from the colonial period which stands there on the other, and lastly, the modern residential area which surround it.

The Museo del Templo Mayor is probably one of the most impressive things in Mexico City centre. One of the most important recent archaeological findings, the Museo del Templo Mayor consists of a double pyramid built as an offering to Tláloc (the god of rain and water) and Huitzilopochtli (the god of war). Other things were also found, and can be seen here, such as a Coyoxautli, symbol of the Fertility Goddess, etched in stone.

In the South of the city, we find the area of Xochimilco, and in Xochimilco one of the most fascinating churches in Mexico, San Bernardino, where one can see the oldest altarpieces in America. Surrounded by canals and springs, it is almost as if time had stood still in this part of the city. At present there are many environmental projects involved in trying to save some of the native animal and plant species which are on verge of extinction.

In Mexico City it is almost possible to breathe its history in every street and corner. This is undoubtedly one of the main reasons it is such a popular destination among not only Mexicans themselves, but foreigners from every corner of the world. The extraordinary combination of its past, on the one hand, and its modern avenues, skyscrapers and shopping centres on the other hand, give Mexico City two different, but both charming, faces.

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