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June 11, 2019

Mexico City and a Milestone Birthday

by Todd Sturm
Entrance to Chapultepec Park with the castle on the hill

Mexico City – it’s like no other city in the world – certainly unlike any other north of the Rio Grande.

It’s what every capital should be – vibrant, cultured, inspiring, and above all, a reflection of the country it represents. This Mexican looking glass is at once modern, and mysterious. Ancient Aztec ruins stand proudly alongside colonial era cathedrals. A short drive outside the capital, the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon stand like desert ornaments, reminding us of the great pre-Columbian civilization of Teotihuacan.

Having explored the city for the first time as a high school student, and again four year later when I was in college, I found the city exhilarating.

I became enamored with Mexican culture and the stories of its tumultuous past. The language, with its punchy, staccato delivery, seemed to compliment the fresh and zesty Mexican foods. Over the course of my life, I would devour both.

Re-visiting the Pyramids of Teotihuacan

Re-visiting the Pyramids of Teotihuacan

A place so rich in experiences, I found it strange that more Americans weren’t savoring all there was to offer south of the border.

With my birthday fast approaching, I knew that I wanted to spend it in Mexico City.

My plan was to simply walk the city streets, see as much as I could, and at some point, relax with a Dos Equis in one hand, and a carnitas taco or pork, onion and cilantro filled gordita in the other.

I decided to kick the trip off in style. Anxious to renew my acquaintance with the Mexican capital, I booked seats on AeroMexico’s gorgeous new 787 Dreamliner, in their Premier business class cabin.

Pre-dinner wine and cheese plate onboard AeroMexico's 787-9 Dreamliner

Pre-dinner wine and cheese plate onboard AeroMexico’s 787-9 Dreamliner

Featuring mini-suites with lie flat beds in a herringbone layout, the cabin felt spacious, yet private. With a personal 18-inch touch screen for entertainment, a stand-up bar (with a Nespresso style coffee machine I might add), and first-class meal service, the nearly 6-hour flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Mexico City passed quickly. From my wine with dinner, to my espresso style coffee with dessert, it was a wonderful flight in all respects. I even had the chance to practice my Spanish with the crew, and they were nice enough to indulge me.

The self-serve bar in Premier Class offered snacks and drinks, including wine and specialty coffees.

The self-serve bar in Premier Class offered snacks and drinks, including wine and specialty coffees.

Upon arrival, we caught our transportation to the hotel, which was in the bustling neighborhood known as the Zona Rosa. Nearby, stood the towering Angel of Independence memorial, a well-known landmark that sits in the middle of a bustling round-a-bout on the city’s most famous thoroughfare, the Paseo de la Reforma. Brightly lit, the statue was like a beacon in the night.

The Zona Rosa is the perfect place to begin a Mexico City sojourn.

An area known for its shopping, bars, clubs, and quaint little taquerias, you’ll find hotels in every price range. It has a youthful vibe and offers an LGBT friendly atmosphere too, making it a favorite destination for international tourists and locals alike.

Just one of many favorite meals we had, this plate came with enchiladas con salsa verde y salsa roja

Just one of many favorite meals we had, this plate came with enchiladas con salsa verde y salsa roja

From well-known chain restaurants, to local eateries, you don’t have to travel far when staying in Zona Rosa. Just a three-minute walk from the Angel de la Independencia, you’ll find one of the most popular taquerias in Mexico City. Known for their simple, but delicious tacos, Mexican craft beers and tortas, Taquería El Califa, is at Avenue Paseo de la Reforma 382.

Also near the Angel de la Independencia, is the welcoming café and restaurant called ‘niddo’. Located at Dresde 2, Juárez, you’ll find great coffee, delicious deserts and pastries, and a cozy setting with indoor and outdoor seating.

Paseo de la Reforma extends through the very heart of Mexico City, with its wide, tree lined boulevard, it incorporates a mix of old world magnificence with a 21stcentury buzz. It truly is one of the world’s great thoroughfares.

Mexico City skyline and Paseo de la Reforma

Views of the Paseo de la Reforma from Castillo de Chapultepec

Just a short walk down the Paseo de la Reforma, skyscrapers stand like glittering sentries, as though guarding Mexico’s natural jewel, the castle crowned park, Bosque de Chapultepec (Forest of Chapultepec). Perched on a hill in the park stands the imposing and elegant Castillo de Chapultepec (Castle of Chapultepec).

Built in the first half of the 19th century, the former imperial and presidential residence is the only castle in North America. The grand rooms are meticulously restored, while outside, visitors will find breezy terraces, lush gardens, and lovely views overlooking the park and Mexico City skyline. It’s a side of Mexico that first time visitors might not expect.

Entrance to Chapultepec Park with the castle on the hill

Entrance to Chapultepec Park with the castle on the hill

Below the castle lies Chapultepec Park. With over 1,000 acres of recreational space, it is massive. With all that space, it’s the perfect escape from a city throbbing with activity. It’s a lovely spot to go for a stroll, and if you’re feeling a bit romantic, there’s an artificial lake where you can rent a two-person paddle boat.

Open seven days a week, there’s never a bad time to visit Chapultepec Park. Weekends though can get busy as it’s a popular destination with locals. The Chapultepec Zoo is yet another attraction, and like the park itself, offers free admission.

Still in the park, but on the other side of the Paseo de la Reforma, the Museum of Anthropology is perhaps one of North America’s, if not the world’s, most renowned museums. It contains must-see pre-Columbian artifacts and Aztec exhibits of immense importance not only to Mexico, but to human civilisation as a whole.

On the north-west side of Chapultepec Park, just past the zoo, the neighbourhood of Polanco attracts the hip and trendy with upscale shops, cafes and luxury hotels. Home to many of the city’s wealthy, Polanco is the place to ‘see and be seen.’ Some might even say, it’s the Beverley Hills of Mexico City.

Polanco can feel a bit touristy however, as many of the upscale hotels are located here. But with its attractive, leafy streets and great selection of shops and restaurants, it’s definitely worth a visit. One Polanco green space of interest is Parque Lincoln (Lincoln Park). Named for Abraham Lincoln, the park features a lovely statue of the 16th US president, as well as gardens and reflecting pools.

Parque Lincoln in Polanco

Parque Lincoln in Polanco

If you’re hungry, the Hyatt Regency in Polanco features a great Japanese restaurant, named Yoshimi. We sat at the window, overlooking the lovely zen terrace garden as we devoured our soba noodles, gyoza and agedashi tofu. This is after all, an international city, so it’s perfectly ok to stray from the Mexican menu on occasion.

On the opposite (south) side of Chapultapec Park, La Condesa attracts a more diverse, bohemian crowd. In many ways, this was my favourite Mexico City neighbourhood.

The centrepiece of the neighbourhood is Parque México, an attractive green space that beckons with quiet footpaths, ponds and picnic areas. There’s plenty to admire outside the park too, as the surrounding streets are filled with Art Deco buildings and heritage listed landmarks. Parque Espana is another beautiful green space surrounded by cafes and eateries.

Parque España in La Condesa

Parque España in La Condesa

If you want to interact with the locals, La Condesa is the place to do it. Like in any big city, the locals can be seen hanging out in cafés with their coffees and laptops. Friendly and willing to talk, the locals I spoke with were eager to point out area attractions and give directions.

Walk the streets, and you’re met with trendy bars and stylish, yet unpretentious cafés and restaurants. If you’re not careful, you could walk right by the best of them, as they may be hidden within a flowering courtyard, or behind a stately wooden doorway.

Offering a pleasing menu, Rococó Café, is the perfect place to satisfy your coffee craving. Located just across the street from Parque Espańa and frequented by the local hipsters, the café’s patio and cosy rooms provide an enjoyable atmosphere in which to relax and pass the time.

In a city as immense as the Mexican capital, one could spend months exploring the various barrios (neighbourhoods) and colonias. There is little doubt however, that the wonders of Centro Histórico and the Zócalo (city square) are a must see for any visitor.

A bar near the Zócalo

A bar near the Zócalo

As the historical district, many of Mexico City’s top cultural attractions can be found here, including the National Palace, the Mexico City Cathedral, the Aztec ruins within Templo Mayor Museum, and many other significant museums and landmarks. Just a short walk away from the Zócalo sits the Palacio de Bellas Artes, or Palace of Fine Arts. Resembling a true palace, the historic arts building is home to the well-known Ballet Folklórico de México, a colourful performance featuring traditional Mexican music and dance.

If you have the time, and the energy, a walk down Avenue Paseo de la Reforma from La Condesa or Zona Rosa, to the Centro Histórico is well worth the effort. There are historic buildings, landmark statues and parks and markets to enjoy along the way. If you need to rest your feet, stop at Alameda Central, Mexico City’s oldest park, where you can peruse the markets and sample some Mexican street food. There are plenty of small restaurants around the park too – even the beautiful Hilton Mexico City Reforma, if you’re looking for something more flash and upscale.

The markets at Alameda Central

The markets at Alameda Central

Like in any major capital city, you can be as adventurous, or as low key as you’d like. There’s plenty to occupy travellers of every kind. After all these years, Mexico City was as exciting as I remembered it to be, only now, I’ll be sure to visit more often.

Safety

Like in any big city around the world, standard precautions should be taken. While not a major problem, pickpocketing does happen, so be mindful of your belongings. If you need to walk at night, stick to the major streets. Overall however, central Mexico City, especially the areas within walking distance of Paseo de la Reforma are safe. You’ll find locals and tourists alike, going about their normal daily business, as you would in any American city. If in doubt, talk to your hotel concierge or tour guide for advice on local precautions.

Getting Around

When I travel, I like to walk as much as possible. For those times when you need a ride, Uber is a popular way to get around the city. Due to the recorded nature of the app, and the cashless benefits, locals are seeing it as a safer, more pleasurable option when compared to taxis. With this too, standard precautions should be taken. Travel with a friend, and always make sure the driver and the car, match the name and description on the app. Hotels may be able to arrange a private car, or reputable taxi driver as well.

You may be surprised to know, that Mexico City has a vast subway network. The metro system rivals that of most major cities, in that its reliable, with frequent services to points all over the metropolitan area. The network gets very busy during weekday rush hour periods, but on weekends and off-peak times, the metro is a fast, cheap, and reliable way to get around the city.

City Street near the Zócalo

City Street near the Zócalo

Todd Sturm is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN and Brisbane, Australia

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