By Carole Reedy
Many travelers feel intimidated and confused by the size of the megalopolis known as Mexico City, or D.F. (Distrito Federal), the center both literally and figuratively of the Republic of Mexico. For North Americans the “DF” reference is familiar, the concept similar to that of Washington, DC.
Within DF are 16 delegaciones, or boroughs, which have significant autonomy. However, given that Mexico City is organized entirely as a federal district, most city services are provided or organized by the DF government, not by the boroughs themselves. Within the 16 boroughs are as many as 2,000 colonias, or neighborhoods, that have no jurisdictional autonomy or representation. Each colonia is unique despite how close it is to adjacent ones, much like the neighborhoods in Chicago and New York. Understanding the location and characteristics of the colonias is the first step to appreciating the culture and diversity of this grand city.
Every colonia has a name, and if you’re in a taxi it’s helpful to refer to the colonia as well as the street name of your destination. For example, there are several streets named “Juarez” in the city, so knowing the colonia will be immediately helpful to your driver.
The colonias of most interest to tourists are Centro, Condesa, Roma, Coyoacan, Polanco, San Angel, and Júarez (Zona Rosa). A friend notes that each colonia could be an article in itself, but below we’ll simply whet your appetite for exploring those that fit your travel style and interests.
With this in mind, here are some city highlights and the colonias where your wanderings will find fulfillment.
Mercados are favorite haunts for travelers and residents alike. Whether you’re looking for food items, car parts, flowers, plants, or souvenirs, check out these bustling trade centers:
Mercado de San Juan (Colonia Centro/Ernesto Pugibet, número 21) At first glance, this looks like any other market, but as you roam the aisles your senses are assaulted by exotic aromas, colors, and textures. This international market has been described as a “lost paradise for lovers of good food and gastronomy professionals.” You may find buffalo, ostrich, and pheasant meat, as well as crocodile eggs, fruits you didn’t know existed or know by name only, and gourmet cheese. The market is celebrating its 58th birthday this year.
Mercado de Jamaica (Av. Morelos Esquina con Congreso de la Unión, Colonia Juárez) Known as the “mercado de las flores,” more than 1,150 booths sell 5,000 varieties of flowers and plants native to Mexico as well as to other parts of the world. It’s one of the largest markets in the city with a variety of groceries, meats, and other food products.
Mercado de Sonora (Av. Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, Numero 419, Colonia Merced Balbuena) Called the “witches” market, 400+ booths sell everything from traditional and herbal medicines to religious, esoteric, and sorcery articles. There are also exotic animals. If nothing else, take the opportunity to see this world-famous market.
Mercado de 100 (Plaza Rio de Janeiro o Plaza Luis Cabrera, Colonia Roma) Tucked between two lovely plazas, everything sold in this organic market comes directly from producers located in DF, Estado de Mexico, Hidalgo, and Querétaro.
Sadly, the largest and most popular market, La Merced, was destroyed by fire a few months ago, but it’s currently being rebuilt.
CAFES and RESTAURANTS
Looking for a few minutes, or even hours, to relax and sip a cappuccino or enjoy a light lunch European style? Head to Colonia Condesa, where you may feel like you’re in Paris. There’s an abundance of French architecture in many parts of the city due to ex-President Porfirio Diaz’s preference for anything foreign during his 30-year reign (which resulted in the Mexican Revolution of 1910). Condesa is located between Centro and Chapultepec Park.
“Magical” is a word often used to describe two colonias further south in DF, Coyoacán and San Angel. Easily accessible via the Metro or Metrobus, both are packed with well-known cafes as well as Mexican and ethnic restaurants. Coyoacán’s charming downtown area houses a lovely park-type area near the cathedral with dining al fresco in a variety of eateries.
Scattered around the perimeter of Abraham Lincoln Park in Polanco are a plethora of outdoor cafes, taco stands, and restaurants. The prices here are higher than in other colonias, because this is a very wealthy area of the city. You’ll also find some delis here, not the wonderful Jewish delis of New York, but smaller stores selling unique products like gefilte fish, pickles, and kosher items.
Though there are numerous museums scattered throughout the city, three colonias stand out as offering several within walking distance of each other. Here’s a short list of the most popular:
Colonia Centro The National Museum of Art (known as MUNAL) is located one block from Bellas Artes (which also has a fine art collection as well as special exhibits) on Calle Tacuba. There’s always a special exhibit, but the permanent collection itself is worth the visit. And just across the street is the interactive Museum of Economy, especially fun and instructive for children. Also in the vicinity is the small peaceful Franz Mayer Museum (on Avenida Hidalgo).
Colonia Polanco (specifically in Chapultepec Park) The granddaddy of all museums in Mexico is the Museum of Archeology, situated on Avenida Paseo de Reforma across the street from the zoo. Just down the street is the newly renovated art museum Rafael Tamayo, and across the street from that is my personal favorite, the Museum of Modern Art.
In addition to these colonias, a trip to Coyoacán is a must for any visitor. Frida Kahlo’s house, which actually is a small museum, is located here, and the very historically informative and educational Trotsky Museum is a peaceful short walk from Frida’s. In neighboring San Ángel, you can visit Frida and Diego’s two homes, joined by a bridge (thought by some to be the ideal marriage arrangement).
The grandest antique and flea market is located in Colonia La Lagunilla and the best day to go is Sunday. Put on your walking shoes and be prepared to spend hours there. It’s very close to and within walking distance of Centro Histórico.
The best bazaar in the city is Bazaar Sábado (as the name implies, it’s open only on Saturdays, 10 am to 7 pm), located in Colonia San Ángel. Here you’ll find the finest artisans selling their own creations, everything from unique jewelry to ceramics, shoes, and huipiles. Easel artists display their fine work in the park areas surrounding the bazaar, while other vendors sell food items. For browsers and people-watchers alike, this is a truly relaxing way to spend a Saturday in the city.
Deluxe shops and boutiques are located in Colonia Polanco on Calle Presidente Mazuryk, where you’ll find Cartier, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, and Mont Blanc, to name a few.
Street vendors in all colonias provide some of the most interesting and enjoyable shopping at good prices. You can bargain with street vendors and in the markets, but it’s not advisable to do so in stores. A gringa friend from San Miguel de Allende recently gave us this hint for bargaining: stand behind a Mexican, see what price they pay, and then ask for that price. Good advice!
From March through August, baseball fans can see the city’s team, Diablos Rojos, playing at Foro Sol stadium, located in Colonia Granjas close to the airport.
Soccer (fútbol) fans will be amazed at the 105,000-seat Estadio Azteca, located in Colonia Santa Ursula, south of the city, past UNAM (Mexico City’s impressive university). It’s the third largest soccer stadium in the world, after those in India and North Korea.
Another conveniently located stadium accessible by public transport is Estadio Azul, in Colonia Nochebuena, right next to the Plaza Mexico de Toros (both are just two blocks from the Metrobus stop Ciudad de los Deportes).
Chapultepec Park in Colonia Polanco, right on Avenida Reforma, is a wonder for the whole family. Whether you’re a walker, runner, sightseer, or nature enthusiast, there’s something here for you. Take in the zoo, botanical gardens, walking and running paths, children’s interactive museum, amusement park with rides, theater, and the impressive Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle). You’ll need more than a day to see it all.
A Colonias Primer
- Centro- Known as centro histórico, the city’s center and home to the Zocálo, Cathedral, National Palace, Bellas Artes, Alemeda Park, and many museums.
- Condesa- Artistic, trendy, Art Deco architecture, cafes.
- Roma- One of the oldest neighborhoods, adjacent to Condesa, a nice place to roam with many parks.
- Colonia Juarez- Very touristy, including the Zona Rosa area with bars.
- Coyoacán- One of the most beautiful and cultural areas of the city, home to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
- Cuidad Universitaria- Home to UNAM, DF’s prestigious university, and several museums and concert halls, such as Sala Neza.
- San Ángel- Adjacent to Coyoacán, another lovely historic area, home of Bazaar Sábado.
- San Rafael- Many theaters and the Sunday Art Market in Sullivan Park.
- Polanco- Upscale shopping and tourist area.
- Tepito- Popular flea market, home of many boxers and street gangs. Not really for tourists; neither is Ixtapalapa, the largest and most populated colonia, where a million people come to see the Resurrection of Christ re-enacted every Easter.
- Tlalpan- A colonial neighborhood south in the city, full of plazas.
- Tlatelolco- Home of the Plaza de Tres Culturas.
- Xochimilco- Far south in the city, where you can board the trajineras (gondola-type boats) to traverse the canals and view the gardens. Also home to the Dolores Olmeda Museum, a grand home full of Frida and Diego’s works of art.
- Zona Rosa- Tourist and gay-friendly area, a colonia targeted by the city for major renovation. Many discos and bars.