There is plenty to entertain and occupy visitors to Mexico’s capital. It is up to the individual how much money they are willing to spend and what they really want to experience. For those wishing to stretch their pesos you will not be disappointed with what’s on offer.
I’ve compiled a list of free sights that we took in during our stays in D.F. All of these sights are free all of the time, with the exception of Museo Mural Diego Rivera which is only free on Sundays. On this note I want to warn folks to be careful when reading their guidebooks or tourist literature; sometimes sights are listed as free on Sunday but in reality this only holds true if you are a Mexican citizen, extranjeros (foreigners) must still pay full price.
The list is in no particular order. Enjoy!
1. The Heavy Metal/Emo’s Market (Tianguis Cultural del Chopo)
As is typical of most markets, this is a Saturday affair, taking place from 10am-4pm. Take the metro to Buenavista station and follow the hordes of metal, punk, goth, emo, and all manner of social angst folk making their collective way to this weekly common gathering place. Stalls selling c.d.s, t-shirts, doc boots and a mish-mash of sub-culture merchandise populate the area. There is also a temporary stage with a pretty cool backdrop of a power station. This is where, in the early afternoon, local bands showcase their talents. We were treated to a death/black metal ensemble and a DeVotchka-esque type tribe complete with belly-dancers. There was a really good vibe here and the whole scene brought back fond memories to me of how Dublin was in my youth. Jerry, a huge metal fan, was in heaven. This market comes with a strong Drifter’s recommendation.
2. Bazar de la Roma
Antiques, kitsch, retro, bric-a-brac, and enough ephemera to ironically decorate the most discerning hipster’s hovel can be found here. To get to this nirvana of vintage cast-offs take the metro to Cuauhtémoc. The market operates every Saturday and Sunday from 10am-5pm and is set up around the park “Jardín Dr. Chávez”.
3. Museo del Estanquillo
This beautiful, historic building known as “La Esmeralda” was formerly the exclusive address of the elite nineteenth century jeweller La Esmeralda Hauser-Zivy and Company. Located pretty much in the heart of the Centro Histórico at the junction of Isabel la Católica and Madero, pop in here if you have the time, but perhaps not so many pesos. This collection of drawings, caricatures, photography, toys, dioramas and much more, all representative of Mexican culture, were amassed by the journalist Carlos Monsiváis. There are also usually visiting exhibits on display. The rooftop terrace provides excellent views of downtown.
4. Museo de la Medicina
This museum is housed in the Palacío de la Inquisición. The palace is on the corner of República de Brasil and República de Venezuela, on the east side of Plaza Santo Domingo. The exhibition chronicles the development of medicine from pre-Columbian herbalists to modern surgical break-throughs. There is a full-size replica of a nineteenth century chemists (pharmacy), ancient x-ray machines and glass cases displaying all sorts of crude and delicate surgical instruments through the ages, from barber surgeons to precision laser technology of modern-day.
The more fascinating exhibits are the life-like wax figures sliced every which way imaginable in an effort to portray the human body and all of its foibles, maladies and vulnerabilities. The stars of the show are the crotch close-ups graphically warning of the hazards of s.t.d.s and the occasional deformed genitalia.
5. National Palace
Located on the Eastern side of the Zócalo in Mexico City, this is where the presidential offices are. Above the central doorway there hangs the historical and iconic “Campana de Dolores”, the bell rung by Padre Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 heralding the beginning of Mexico’s War of Independence. Every September 15th on the eve of Mexico’s Independence Day, the president delivers “El Grito” – “¡Viva México!” from the balcony of the Palacio Nacional. Bring your I.D. if you plan on visiting, you’ll need it to gain access.
The walls of the National Palace are awash with murals by Diego Rivera, painted between 1929 and 1951. They decorate the main staircase and the north and east walls of the first level above the courtyard. The dominant murals portray a host of who’s who in Mexican lore, representing life in pre-conquest Mexico, the brutality of conquest and it’s wake, pre-revolutionary Mexico and the ideals of post-revolution.
6. Fuente de Tlaloc
This little gem is tucked away in the second section (2A Sección) of Bosque Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park). Take the metro to Constituyentes and from here the best thing to do is ask for directions, it’s a tad complicated to get to, but not impossible or even really difficult. Within this same area you will also find “La Feria”, the amusement park and “Papalote Museo del Niño”, the children’s museum. This general area is also a good spot for a picnic as there are significantly less crowds than in the eastern 1A Sección.
The dominant feature is that of the Aztec rain god “Tláloc”, this massive tiled mosaic inhabits a pool guarding the entrance to The Cárcamo de Dolores. Originally built to channel the flow of water from the Lerma River out to the municipal reservoirs of Mexico City, the site has undergone extensive restoration and was re-opened to the public in 2010.
If you decide to check out the small rotunda (the Cárcamo) behind the fountain there is a fee of 10 pesos (0.50¢). The Cárcamo houses the tank, which is covered in its entirety with murals representing Rivera’s vision of water and all of its life-giving properties. These murals are “El Agua, El Origen de la Vida”. The most symbolic mural is that of two large cupped hands scooping up water. This is directly above the opening into the tank from where the water would have flowed in from the Fuente de Tlaloc. Being that the intended purpose of the tank was to hold and control levels of water in the tank for the reservoirs, naturally over time these life-giving waters were the very antithesis to the murals they washed over. Since the restoration project water is now diverted from Fuente de Tlaloc and the Cárcamo, leaving these icons unscathed for future generations to enjoy.
7. Museo Mural Diego Rivera (Free Sunday Only)
Located at the Western end of the Alameda (the site where victims of the Inquisition were burnt at the stake), this museum is home to various rotating exhibits. The big draw however is “Sueño de una Tarde dominical en la Alameda Central” (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central”). This 15m long mural plays host to a plethora of famous and infamous Mexican figures throughout history strolling through the park. The focal figure of the piece is La Calavera Catrina (the elegant skeleton, which has become synonymous with Mexican culture). Surrounding her, also central and the most “stationary” figures in the piece, are Rivera as a child, Kahlo and José Guadalupe Posada (La Catrina’s creator). Unfortunately like many exhibits and museums there was a separate photographic fee which we did not participate in, hence we have none of our own photos of this one.
8. Estadio Olímpico Universitario
Obviously this one is free if you are here to just check out the mosaic above the entrance, football matches do incur a fee. Above the main façade there is one of Rivera’s final mural-mosaics. The mosaic titled “the University, the Mexican Family, Peace and Youth Sports” was originally intended to wrap around the entire outer circumference of the building but for reasons left unknown this never materialised. The project was begun in the 1950’s with the intention of using the underlying volcanic rock from the lava fields of El Pedregal as building materials. Rivera’s health had deteriorated in his final years and he died in 1957. This is sometimes attributed as to why the mosaic was left incomplete. The 1968 Olympics were hosted here and the embellished entrance with its intended tribute to sports continues to welcome fans to the present day.
9. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM)
If you are already out this way to take in number 8 (Estadio Olímpico) above, cross Avenida Insurgentes and take a stroll through this fascinating campus. The University was founded in 1551 and has resided in its current location since the 1950s. This seat of learning was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. The Biblioteca Central (Central Library), emblazened with Juan O’Gorman’s mosaics is easy enough to spot. Other noteworthy murals include “La Conquista de la Energía” by José Chávez Morado which can be found on the “Auditorio Alfonso Caso” and the “Four Elements” by Francisco Eppens Helguera on the Facultad de Medicina (Medical Faculty).
Both UNAM and Estadio Olímpico Universitario can be reached via Line 3 on the Metro. Get out at Copilco station, this is the handier of the 2 possible stations for these sights. If you get out at Universidad it drops you at the back of the campus, whereby you will have to walk through the entire campus to reach Avenida Insurgentes where the Library and Olympic Stadium are located. Buses can also be taken from the San Ángel neighbourhood, any heading south along Avenida Insurgentes typically stop by the Olympic Stadium. Needless to say ask if you’re unsure.
10. Viveros de Coyoacán
Museum’d and mural’d out?! This little respite of greenery is not too far from “Casa Azul”. It serves as the main nursery for Mexico City’s parks and gardens. It is also a pleasant park utilized by local joggers, dog walkers and what seemed like a make shift running track for some local school kids when we were there. It’s a good spot to sit on a bench with a snack and catch your breath before moving on to the next sight. If you don’t fancy walking, take Line 3 on the Metro to Viveros.
11. Zoológico de Chapultepec
What can I say, it’s a zoo. We visited mid-week during Semana Santa (Easter), and it really was a zoo; seemed like the world and it’s mother headed there that day. This freebie attraction is in the more popular 1A Sección of Bosque Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park). It’s main claim to fame is that it was the first place in the world outside of China where pandas were born in captivity. The pandas are still a huge draw with the crowds here.
12. Santa Muerte
For something a little different, take a trip out to the Tepito neighbourhood – if you dare! This neighbourhood has a reputation as being one of the most dangerous in Mexico City. It is an impoverished area with folks doing what they do to get by. There is a huge market here with bargain rates even by Mexico City market standards. It is often referred to as “thieves market”. Take the B Line of the metro North to Tepito. Beyond the massive market at #12 Alfarería Street is where you will find the encased shrine to Santa Muerte. We had no bother walking through this barrio but you were definitely aware you were way beyond the “tourist zone”.
It is believed the veneration of this skeletal lady has it’s roots in Pre-Columbian beliefs. The Aztecs worshipped the god Mictlantehcutli and his lady, Mictecacihuatl, who presided over the realm of the dead. Mexican culture throughout the ages has maintained, embraced, and celebrated death in a way that is unique to it’s people. Posada’s “La Calvera Catrina” and “Día de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) rituals have become synonomous with Mexico. This maiden of mortality is a little different though, both in her grim reaper physique and in the legions of followers who worship her.
She goes by many names, the Skinny Lady (La Flaquita/La Flaca), the Bony Lady (La Huesuda), Lady of the Shadows (Señora de las Sombras) and the Godmother (La Madrina), to name but a few. It is believed she has been worshipped by individuals who had shrines in the privacy of their own homes for many years. However in 2001 Enriqueta (Doña Queta) Romero built a public shrine to La Flaca and brought her into the light of day for all to see. It is at this shrine on Alfarería Street that on the first day of every month, thousands of devotees line up with offerings of tequila, Coca-Cola, sweets, cigarettes, candles and a myriad of personal tokens of gratitude and affection for their Señora de la Santa Muerte.
Over the years scandal has erupted around this Lady. She has become associated with a nefarious element of society – the cartels. Elaborate shrines to her have been found in busts on cartel property. This association with crime and violence has even made it’s way into pop culture, with Santa Muerte featured in film and television as the object of trafficker’s invocations. She is also prominent in gang culture, prisons, prostitution and just about every aspect of the underbelly of society.
There is also a very human element to her devotees too, that have nothing to do with crime but are often those living on the outer margins of society. Many of her followers are impoverished and their veneration of the Skinny Lady provides solace for them and their families. Her growing popularity is providing anything but solace for the Catholic Church. They refer to her as an idol and her following as a cult. Mexico has been a stronghold of the Catholic Church for centuries with the “Virgin of Guadalupe” their signature icon. Many people purport to revere both of these ladies.
13. Go Walk About
Although Number 13 is not about any one sight in particular, it is really to encourage you to go rambling and you will be amazed at what you can find to fill your day without emptying your pockets. Obviously there is the iconic Palacio de Bellas Artes, which is free to look at from the outside and from the ground level inside. There are displays upstairs including Rivera’s “Man, Controller of the Universe” but it’ll cost you. In a similar vein of grandiose, check out the Central Post Office, designed by Adamo Boari who also designed the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The opulence of the interior is beautiful.
As you walk about taking in the beautiful architecture note how many of these buildings are listing and cracked due to earthquake damage through the years. A great place to actually feel under your feet how askew a structure can be is the Nuestra Señora de Loreto church. Located on the tranquil and pretty Plaza de Loreto three blocks northeast of the Zócalo, this little oasis comes with a strong Drifter’s recommendation.
Hopefully you’ll get lucky and find the Templo de Loreto open if you visit. It took us a few tries but it was worth it, your inner ear will “thank you”. As a result of being built on soft, marshy ground and earthquake damage,- especially the 1985 earthquake with a magnitude of 8.1, this church is slowly sinking into it’s substratum. The floor of the interior is incredibly slopey, even though to just look at the new tiles you’d never guess. However as soon as you begin walking around you find yourself staggering as if drunk or in some “fun-house” sensory trickery. It really is amazing. Like many beautiful old, listing buildings in this city, you’re left wondering how many more earth tremors it can withstand.
If you’d like to see architecture of a more modern, quirky style take the metro out to Buenavista to Biblioteca Vasconcelos. This is a library, so remember library protocol. Here you will see shelves suspended in mid-air, very different to your typical library. It’s near the Tianguis Cultural del Chopo (Heavy Metal/Emo’s Market), Number 1 on this list, so you could pop in here if you were at the market.
My final offering is to take a stroll down Paseo de la Reforma. This grand boulevard originally ran from Chapultepec Park to the junction of Juárez. It has been extended but it is this original stretch with it’s signature glorietas (roundabouts) that is a source of pride for the City’s citizens. It no longer boasts the elegance of the nineteenth century architecture which once lined this major thoroughfare. Today it is a “symbol of progress” flanked with skyscrapers of concrete, glass and steel. Still, it’s a pleasant stroll or bike-ride, especially on Sunday morning when it is closed to traffic. Unfortunately we did not avail of the relaxed Sunday morning vibe and instead took our lives in our hands playing chicken with lanes of cars trying to get snaps of the glorietas!
Honestly, this is just a smidgen of all that Mexico City offers without depleting the coffers of the average backpacker. Go walk about, you won’t be disappointed.