Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mexico City (Paul McDaniel)

Mexico City (also known as la Ciudad de Mexico, Distrito Federal, D.F., or simply Mexico) is one of the most populous cities in the world, with a 2008 city population of 8.84 million and a 2008 metropolitan population of over 19 million. I've been able to travel to Mexico City several times over the past few years, and its always an exciting experience! The view from the plane window during the descent into the city is quite spectacular as the city stretches out over the Valley of Mexico surrounded by volcanic peaks. Mexico City is one of the largest cities and metropolitan areas in the world. It sits in the Valley of Mexico (at over 7,000 ft. elevation) surrounded by mountains and volcanic peaks (the two most prominent are Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl).
Most great cities are great because of many different factors. Mexico City is no exception. As the old historic center (el Centro Historico) of Mexico City sits on the same site as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the city is abundant with history (both pre-Columbian as well as colonial), and archaeological sites. Mexico City, due to its long history and large size, contains many sites from different time periods that are accessible to visitors. Because of its vast size, tourists may have a hard time deciding on what sites to visit. This article will describe what many consider to be the top 10 attractions (listed in no particular order) in and around Mexico City. There is an excellent and efficient subway/metro system (“Servicio de Transportes Eléctricos del D.F.”) to get around the city, making it easy to use this system to explore various parts of this vast metropolis. For those of you reading in Charlotte, you’ll be interested to know that U.S. Airways offers non-stop service between Charlotte Douglas International Airport and Mexico City Benito Juarez International Airport. Upon arrival at the Mexico City Airport, ground transportation options include bus service, radio taxi, and Metro (from Terminal Aérea Station on Line 5).
Top places to visit in Mexico City (at the end of the description for each place, the nearest Metro/Subway stations are listed):

Plaza de la Constitucion (Zocalo) - This is literally the heart of the city and the heart of the nation's capital. Located in el Centro Historico (Historic Center), this plaza is the second largest public square in the world (Moscow's Red Square is the largest, and Beijing's Tiananmen Square is third largest). At the center of the plaza is a tall pole with a huge national flag of Mexico. As this is the heart of the city, there is always something going on here. From indigenous dances and cultural events, to music concerts and political protests. There are always souvenirs being sold as well. The Plaza, located on a Metro stop (Zocalo), is also surrounded by several other of the city's top ten sights: the Catedral Metropolitana, Palacio Nacional, and Templo Mayor. It is also within walking distance of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, el Torre Latinoamericana, and Alameda Park. Metro Station: Zocalo (Line 2).

Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) - This is one of the largest cathedrals in the city and contains several architectural styles as it was built over a period of around 250 years. It is located on the north side of the Plaza de la Constitucion. Many of the materials used to construct the cathedral came from the destroyed Aztec temple that stood on the same site. Due to the nature of Mexico City's soil, the cathedral is slowly sinking (as are many historic structures). If you take a stroll through the cathedral's vast interior, you will see many religious displays and examples of architecture. If you are lucky you may also here the massive pipe organ or the cathedral bells. Metro Station: Zocalo (Line 2).

Palacio Nacional (National Palace) - Located on the entire east side of the main plaza, this government building is most famous for housing several Diego Rivera murals. Metro Station: Zocalo (Line 2).

Templo Mayor (Great Temple) - These are the archaeological ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor, which was dedicated to the Aztec gods of Tlaloc (god of rain) and Huitzilopochtli (god of war). This was the primary temple and focal point of the great center of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which at the time was located in the same location but on a series of islands on Lake Texcoco. Many of the temple's materials were used by the Spanish to construct the adjacent Catedral Metropolitana. Metro Station: Zocalo (Line 2).

Palacio de las Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), Torre Latinoamericana (Latin American Tower), and Alameda Park - The Palacio de las Bellas Artes was completed in 1934 and is one of the city's finest theaters and performance venues. The interior contains several murals by Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Tamayo. Visitors to Mexico City often enjoy a performance of the Ballet Folklorico at this venue. Adjacent to the Fine Arts Palace is the Torre Latinoamericana, completed in 1956 with 44 floors. At the time it was built this was the tallest building in Latin America. Visitors may pay to ride an elevator to an upper level observation deck (with an interior and exterior) for 360 degree views of sprawling Mexico City, the Valley of Mexico, and the surrounding mountains and volcanoes on clear days). Look directly down to the east to see the Plaza de la Constitucion, Metropolitan Cathedral, and National Palace. Look to the southwest to see Chapultepec Park. Nearby the Tower and the Fine Arts Palace is Alameda Park, which was the city's first park, dating to the 1500s. Mexico City’s Chinatown is also in this neighborhood. Metro Stations: Bellas Artes (Line 2), Allende (Line 2), and Hidalgo (Line 2).

Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park) - Located at the southwestern end of Paseo de la Reforma, this is the city's largest and most sprawling park (1,600 acres). Many pathways lead visitors through acres and acres of forests and lakes. Chapultepec Castle is located on a hill in the park and was once the home of Maximilian I and Empress Carlota, and is now open to visitors and home to the National History Museum. There are excellent views of Paseo de la Reforma and the Park from the Castle's various balconies. Also located in the park is a zoo, a lake with boat rentals, an amusement park, Los Pinos (the official residence and offices of the President of Mexico), the National Auditorium, and several other museums, including the Modern Art Museum, Natural History Museum, Children's Museum, and the excellent and massive National Museum of Anthropology. Metro Stations: Chapultepec (Line 1), Auditorio (Line 7), Constituyentes (Line 7).

Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology) - Considered to be one of the great museums of the world, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia contains perhaps the world's largest collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and art. The museum is massive and is arranged according to each of the particular pre-Columbian cultures, with entire halls and galleries dedicated to each. The central courtyard is famous for its vast square concrete umbrella. Popular exhibit halls include those dedicated to the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. Metro Station: Auditorio (Line 7).

Xochimilco - Located in the southern part of the city, these are the last remnants of the series of lakes that once were here in the time of the Aztecs. The area now contains a series of canals, where visitors may take rides on brightly colored gondolas. The canals are all that is left of the Chinampas (floating gardens) type of agriculture developed by the Aztecs. Tren Ligero (Light Rail) Station: Xochimilco (Note, take Metro Line 2 to the southern end station of Taxqueña, and then transfer to the Tren Ligero/Light Rail and ride all the way to the end at Xochimilco Station).

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe) - Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico. The image of Guadalupe that appeared to Juan Diego on the very hill (Tepeyac Hill) where the Basilica is constructed is an important and easily recognizable national symbol. There are actually two basilicas on this hill, an old and a new (more modern) one. Construction of the old basilica began in 1531, and of the new in 1976. The apron of Juan Diego, with the image of Guadalupe is displayed for all to see in the new Basilica. It is most likely the most important religious building in Mexico and possibly in all of Latin America. The site is particularly important in Catholicism as it is the second most visited religious site after Vatican City. Metro Station: La Villa Basilica (Line 6).

Teotihuacan - This pre-Aztec archaeological site is a nice day trip from Mexico City (about 25 miles out from the city). It is one of the largest archaeological sites in the country and at its cultural height (150 to 450 AD) was the largest city in the world with a population of over 200,000. The site contains two large pyramids - Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon - and many smaller pyramids flanking the Avenida de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead). The Temple of Quetzalcoatl is also worth seeing. Visitors may climb to the top of the two large pyramids for spectacular views of the entire site and the surrounding countryside and mountains. Transportation Options: bus service, tour bus, or car. For public bus (very inexpensive option), take Metro Line 3 to Indios Verdes station in the north and transfer to a bus bound for Teotihuacan. Additionally, many tour companies lead tours of various lengths – from several hours to all day – out to Teotihuacan (such tour companies will pick you up from your hotel with comfortable tour bus service and drop you back at your hotel at the end of the tour day).

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