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Mexico City - where old world meets modern day
by Reneé Huang

Mexico City, Mexico - Where the World Meets Modern Day

Mexico City

Mexico City has an unfortunate long-standing reputation as the Latin American city of superlatives: most crowded, most polluted, most dangerous. But hidden beneath the layers of frenetic activity lies one of the most intriguing world capitals that is also the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere.

Hovering on the crux between old world and new, this bustling city of 22 million people exudes a multiple of personalities, both ancient and modern that showcase the development of human cultural achievements over an event-filled, tumultuous 3,000 years. From the glittering streets of the main Avenida Paseo de la Reforma and the tree-lined cobblestone neighborhoods steeped in art to the south, the federal district (or D.F. as it’s known in Mexico) reveals an intense, rich and intricate tapestry of eras spanning pre-Colombian, Spanish to the modern present. Ringed by three volcanic peaks at an altitude of 2,239 meters (7,394 feet), it’s best to view the sprawling metropolis as a compilation of several smaller more manageable cities.

When I first landed in Mexico City, like most tourists, I headed straight for the zocalo, or main square, one of the largest squares in the world (second only to Moscow’s Red Square) and guarded by a massive flapping Mexican flag. The zocalo buzzes with vendors selling bright balloons, candies and tacos, and Azetec dancers dressed up in full-feathered costumes twirling to drum beats. To the north end is the Metropolitan Cathedral, the biggest Catholic cathedral in Latin America that was constructed painstakingly over 250 years beginning in 1567. It recently underwent a massive restoration designed to help save it from sinking into the swampy soil that results from the city being built on an enormous dry lake bed. Next door are the ruins of the Templo Mayor, an Aztec temple that once was the seat of the ancient capital, Tenochtitlan. (For more encounters with Aztec ruins, take a 3-hour bus trip outside the city to see the lost city and pyramids of Teotihuacan that were once a well-developed urban center during the 4th century but now sits surrounded by dusty and dismal farmland)

To the east of the square is the Presidential Palace, built on commission by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in the 16th century and now is a great place to see some of Diego Rivera’s most-famed murals.

Palacio Naciona

I would spend hours wandering around the zocalo into Mexico City’s historic center, 500 blocks of colonial façade buildings packed with every kind of store imaginable – from stores selling jewelry, clothes, shoes, electronics, and appliances to antique book shops, restaurants and even a McDonald’s or two. Just about everything under the sun, from kitchen gadgets to nail clippers, blender parts and alarm clocks are hawked on blankets lining the streets.

Toward the west is Palacio de Bella Artes, the old performing arts venue that’s full of art deco and topped by an imposing dome, where I once had the pleasure of attending a rare salsa concert by Omara Portuondo, the spunky singer from Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club. Further west are the wide green spaces and fountains of the Alameda Central, Mexico City’s downtown park, where you almost always find a group of elderly men bent over their chess boards.

In the heart of Mexico City, everywhere you turn is a reminder of the country’s colorful past. The main financial corridor, Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, which just underwent a massive overhaul, was modeled after Paris’ Champs Elysee and ordered in 1867 by Emperor Maximilian who wanted a direct path from the Centro Historico to his gilded castle in Chapultapec Park (the city’s largest park and home to marvelous museums and a well-kept modern zoo).

Volkswagen bugs fly by the roundabout at El Monumento del Angel, a gold, winged Victory adorning an ionic column remains one of the city’s most photographed monuments.

One of the many quaint pleasantries of the city is the way food stalls seep into daily life. On practically every street corner, you’ll see huddles of people tucking into their favorite street food: beef tacos, sandwiches, stewy pozole, and flautas. Juice stalls are also plentiful, and for just $2, you can get a liter of freshly squeezed orange juice or a creamy strawberry and banana milkshake.

To the north of downtown is ritzy Polanco, the upscale neighborhood which houses major shopping malls, trendy clubs and dining establishments, and five star hotels such as Four Seasons, Intercontinental, Marquis Reforma and newly minted Sheraton and W Hotel properties. Presidente Masaryk — the Rodeo Drive of the city — is home to top designer emporiums including Chanel, Hermés, Cartier, Armani, Fendi and Louis Vuitton.

A funkier, laidback vibe is found south of the tourist-filled Zona Rosa in suburbs La Roma and Condesa, which are lined with sidewalk cafés, restaurants and bars and surrounded by several green spaces. Condesa has a sizzling energy and an edgy vibe that attract many of the city’s coolest beautiful people. Filled with a younger and hipper crowd, lounges and clubs tend to spring up and linger for several months before moving on or fizzling out. My last visit, we hung out in a dimly lit space with hanging beaded lamps and kitschy faux velvet couches while a jazz funk band wailed into the smoky air.

During the day, a plethora of markets scattered around the city afford the bargain-hunter lots of great finds, from fresh fruits and veggies at the sprawling La Merced to Sonora Market, which sells herbal remedies, and La Lagunilla to the north, which sells just about everything to the artisan market, La Cuidadela, which features the best hodge-podge of handicrafts and traditional artisan work from across the country.

To the south, a perfect weekend afternoon is spent wandering the cobblestone streets of Coyocan and visiting the various outdoor markets which pack full of vendors hawking clothes, jewelry, artisan items. Coyocan is the old haunting grounds of famed Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; visitors can explore the Museo Frida Kahlo which was also their home and still houses many of their works of art. Inspired by such a historically artistic neighborhood, musicians will often set up on a street corner offering up impromptu performances to passersby.

Spend a Sunday afternoon on the famed floating gardens of Xochimilco and hire a colorful trajinera, a flat bottomed boat, to cruise around the ancient canals that date back to the 12th century. Take in the marketplace on water – with vendors on boats selling souvenirs, food, beers – and listen to Mariachis who serenade riders from their own trajineras for a Venice-like experience with a Mexican twist.



When in any big city, you must take extra precautions to avoid vulnerable situations. The extensive underground train, “el metro”, is a safe and economical way of getting around town. If you take taxis, for a few dollars more always call a “sitio” taxi, a registered safe taxi instead of hailing a street cab. Also, check out U.S. Department of State Consular Information Sheets on Mexico for more safety information.


W Hotel
The sleek and sassy W Hotel’s flagship property in Latin America opened last fall in chic Polanco.
Campos Eliseos 252, Col. Polanco
Mexico City, 11560 :
Phone: (52)(55) 91381800
Web: Go to “Explore a W” and click on W Mexico City

La Casona
Delightful and cozy, this boutique hotel offers a quiet, peaceful escape in a turn-of-the-century block in La Roma.
Durango #280 Esq. Cozumel Col. Roma
México, D.F. 06700
Phone: 1-877-278-8018 (US toll free)

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