Since all my trips for 2020 are essentially canceled, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on past trips, and one of my favorites was to Mexico in May 2017. During the course of our long distance relationship, Burhan and I met in multiple countries, including in Canada and Hungary. However, this trip was Burhan’s first time to the Western Hemisphere and my first time in a Latin American country!
We spent four days in Cancun, where we went to the beach and Burhan was able to practice speaking English, and four in Mexico City to visit museums and experience big city life in Mexico. The capital did not disappoint! We walked through different neighborhoods, took the metro, ate everything, and soaked in the vibes of the city.
Rather than making this post a guide of “what to do in Mexico City,” I’m sharing some interesting things I learned while I was there.
1. Diego Rivera had some serious talent.
After landing, Burhan and I dropped our bags off at our Airbnb and headed to the capital’s historic city center. We started in the Zócalo, a huge plaza surrounded by important buildings like the National Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral. But nearby was my favorite building: the Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Completed in 1934, the palace serves as a combined music venue and art museum. It reminded me of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, with its neoclassical elements, but the palace is unique because the building also has Art Nouveau and Art Deco features.
A fun fact about myself is that while I have very little artistic skill, I love art and art history. I’m not sure how I went so long without knowing about Diego Rivera, but he was talented and knew a lot of people in the art world. Inside the palace, we admired his large murals painted on the walls.
I knew that Diego was married to Frida Kahlo. What I didn’t know is that he lived in Paris during the 1910s, where he was friends with artists like Amedeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine and had success as a Cubist painter. When he moved back to Mexico, he used the techniques he learned on works that centered on Mexican history and culture, from the pre-Columbian era to the then present-day. He was also a member of the Mexican Communist Party and hosted Leon Trotsky after his exile from Russia.
2. The public transportation system is fast, easy, and cheap.
I absolutely love using public transportation when I travel. It’s a neat way to learn about a city, and it’s often the cheapest way to get around quickly. After the subway in New York, Mexico City’s metro system is the largest in North America.
3. The Tlatelolco neighborhood has seen it all.
Burhan and I stayed in Tlatelolco, a neighborhood north of the city center. I didn’t know much about the neighborhood and was just looking for a place that was clean, well-reviewed, and affordable for a grad student’s budget. Tlatelolco was nice; it’s not touristy, and we were able to buy fresh fruit from the local markets. However, the more I learned, the more I became convinced that there are ghosts in this neighborhood…
The neighborhood is named after the old Aztec city Tlatelolco, which was founded in 1338 by citizens of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Nowadays you can explore the archeological site, and one section has a mass grave. We didn’t make it to the site this time, but it’s on my list for whenever I go back.
Much like in other Western countries, there was a ton of civil unrest in Mexico in 1968. In October that year, right before the beginning of the summer Olympic Games, thousands of students gathered in a public square in Tlatelolco to protest against actions taken by the government. Things spiraled out of control, and there was a terrible massacre. It took decades before the government opened a full investigation into what happened, and there’s no official consensus on how many people died.
If that’s not enough, in September 1985, there was a major earthquake (over 7.0 on the Richter scale) that damaged the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco public housing complex. With 102 buildings, it was one of the largest public housing complexes in North America, and hundreds of people died (thousands in the city overall). After the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, many of the buildings were completely destroyed or too damaged to be repaired.
4. Mexico’s relationship with Middle Eastern countries goes way back.
It’s basically impossible for me to travel to a new country without looking for (or randomly discovering) something Turkish. In Mexico City, it was an Ottoman clock. In 1910, the Ottoman Empire gifted Mexico with an ornate clock to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Mexico’s War of Independence.
I didn’t realize that there are many Mexicans of Arab descent. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Arabs from present-day Syria, Lebanon, etc. immigrated to Mexico, many of them settling in Mexico City. While walking around the historic area, we saw plenty of restaurants roasting huge spits of pork for tacos al pastor (which happens to be one of my favorite kinds of taco!), and it reminded me of all the doner kebap restaurants in Turkey.
Another fun fact: In Izmir, Turkey, there’s a street called “Meksika Sokagi” (Mexican Street). The Turkish government made this designation in 2010, two hundred years after Mexico’s War of Independence and one hundred years after the Mexican Revolution. There’s even a statue of famed leader Emiliano Zapata.
5. The food is as good as I thought it’d be.
There’s very few cities I’ve gone to where I like the majority of what I eat, and Mexico City is one of them. I don’t remember the names of most places where we ate, but I don’t have any complaints. Unfortunately, I barely took any pictures of the food, which is unusual for me!
6. I’m amazed that Frida Kahlo lived as long and full a life as she did.
Frida Kahlo is one of those artists who I knew by name, and that was all. I didn’t know about her life, her inspiration, or her works. However, Burhan wanted to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum, and I’m so glad we did. Although she passed away at 47, she accomplished so much, especially as someone who suffered from multiple disabilities.
I learned that Frida had polio as a child and was in a horrific bus accident at 18. The accident left her essentially disabled; painting was her outlet for relief. She eventually embraced traditional, colorful Mexican clothing as a way to embrace her heritage and also assist with her physical disabilities: the dresses with full skirts hid her limp, and the roomy bodices allowed her to wear casts and back braces underneath.
I also didn’t know that her marriage to Diego Rivera was so tempestuous. Both Frida and Diego had numerous affairs, including with Leon Trotsky (Frida) and Frida’s sister (Diego). But despite all the obstacles with her health and relationships, Frida became an icon, and I love the surrealist elements of her work.
7. Mexico City has hipster neighborhoods.
After visiting the National Museum of Anthropology (I highly recommend this museum!) and the enormous Chapultepec Park, we strolled through La Condesa. This was probably my favorite area in Mexico City. With wide, tree-lined streets, we passed by so many cool cafes, boutique shops, and parks, stopping at a bakery so I could try a concha (a Mexican sweet roll).
Some of the restaurants also gave me strong bohemian vibes; for example, we stopped at a restaurant for artisanal-looking wraps and fruit smoothies served in mason jars. We also relaxed in the small and charming Parque España and wandered through the larger Parque México.
I thoroughly enjoyed Mexico City, and I hope to return! If you’ve visited, what were some of your experiences? What should I not miss the next time?