Mexico tourism is mainly focused on the coastal regions and Mexico City is rarely listed as a top travel destination. Whenever it does get attention, the population and high crime rates can be deterring… for all of these reasons, Mexico City, officially known as Ciudad de México (CDMX) had never made it to the top of our list. However, when presented with an opportunity to do a quick 3-day getaway, we didn’t think twice! As we learned about the complex history of the city, which served as a capital to Aztecs, Spanish Empire as well as Mexico, there were no regrets!
The moment we stepped off the airport and took a cab to our hotel, we were overwhelmed the crowds and traffic (it is the most populous city in Northern America). The Historic Center, however, seemed had a very different vibe, with families out to enjoy the weather and streets filled with modern arts. The historic center of Mexico City dates back to the Aztecs. At the time it was an island capital called Tenochtitlan, located in the middle of Lake Texcoco. It stayed that way until the Spanish conquests in the 16th century. Aztec ruins are still being excavated as part of the site of the Templo Mayor Museum in the Zocalo neighborhood. The concept of “mercado” in CDMX is similar to other Latin American countries, where you can find anything from food stalls to gift shops to produce sections. The city has a wide range of food options, ranging from casual curb-side taco stalls to creative fine dining. For something on the latter end of the range, Azul Historico is a fantastic choice, with its pretty inner courtyard setting and its signature squash blossom soup. While in the historic area, make sure to stop by the famous El Moro for their delicious churros! After spending the first day in the historic center, we took the subway to a neighborhood 10 km to the south, Coyoacán, which was once a village on the shore of Lake Texcoco inhabited by Tepanec people. Their dislike of Aztec rule was exploited by Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, who used this as headquarters before eventually conquering Aztecs. Today, Coyoacán is a peaceful artsy neighborhood, filled with single-family townhouses on tree-lined streets. It is especially famous for its former residents Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The famous artist couple’s house is a popular museum. Be ready to wait in line! Tip: purchasing a ticket online reduces the line significantly Inside you’ll get a glimpse into the bohemian life of Frida and Diego, and learn about their amazing life stories. Corn tortillas are the staple of Mexican cuisine today. In fact, we learned it was a staple back in Aztec times (called tlaxcalli), before European settlement. We visited one of the traditional tortilla shops to see how maize (corn) dough was prepared and cooked. How did the island town of Tenochtitlan become a megapolis of over 30 million residents? After the Spaniards forcefully took over the Aztec rule, they used indigenous labor to systemically dry out the lake and expand the city. Eventually the lake completely dried out, connecting the port villages like Coyoacán to the center. The land-filled areas have now completely been integrated into the larger CDMX metropolitan area. Chapultepec, once a retreat for the Aztecs, is now a large city park with a zoo, botanic garden and many museums. The botanic garden within the park is free to browse! A fusion of modern arts and botanics. Connecting the park to the historic center is Avenue Paseo de la Reforma, which is closed to traffic on Sundays and filled with vendors, perfect for a leisurely stroll or bike ride. On our final day, we took a 1-hour bus ride to the ruins of Teotihuacan, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is an ancient city pre-dating the Aztecs and there is little information on who the inhabitants exactly were and the cause of their eventual demise. The influence of Teotihuacan culture can be seen across Aztec cities. The site is home to some of the most significant Mesoamerican pyramids. Climbing up is a feat but gives you a great view of the surrounding structures and landscape.