A stroll through buzzing downtown Mexico City reveals the capital’s chequered history, from pre-Hispanic beginnings to colonial splendour intermingled with today’s contemporary edge. Organised chaos rules but rest assured that the city offers plenty of ways to escape the commotion: one of them is to explore its multitude of intriguing museums. Here’s our pick of some of the best:
Museo Nacional de Antropología
You’ll need plenty of time to make the most of this, the largest and most visited museum in all of Mexico. The vast museum with its 23 exhibition halls holds several significant archaeological and anthropological items, including thousands of artefacts from Mexico’s pre-Hispanic times. These include the Aztecs’ calendar stone, the Stone of the Sun; the Olmecs’ giant stone heads; and a large model of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. Considered to be a national treasure and a symbol of Mexican identity, this is one not to miss.
Museo Nacional de Historia: Castillo de Chapultepec
Head for Chapultepec Park and you can’t miss the gorgeous Chapultepec Castle perched atop Chapultepec Hill. Originally built as a summer house for Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez, it was later the official residence of emperor Maximiliano I who lived there with his wife, Empress Carlota of Mexico.
These days, twelve showrooms display objects from various key stages in Mexican history, such as the foundation of the Spanish Empire, the Mexican War of Independence, the Reform movement and the 1910 Mexican Revolution. On the top floor you can view recreations of the castle rooms reflecting the lives of its past residents.
Museo Nacional de Arte: MUNAL
This breath-taking neoclassical building sits in the centre of downtown Mexico City. Housed in the old Public Work Palace designed by Silvio Contri, it hosts an impressive collection of national works of art, spanning the 16th century to the 1950s. An iconic exhibit is the Manuel Tolsa statue of Charles IV of Spain, monarch in the run-up to Mexico gaining its independence. You can also marvel at paintings from masters like Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Atl), Manuel Ocaranza and José María Velasco.
Museo Franz Mayer
This downtown museum is dedicated to decorative arts and design, featuring textiles, pottery, silverware and furniture dating back to the 16th through to the 19th century in addition to in excess of 10,000 folk art objects and photographic archives. The museum also hosts interesting temporary exhibitions, which include the winners of the World Press Photo competition each autumn.
Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC)
This amazing, futuristic-looking building sits on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). It was designed by the by renowned architect, Teodoro González de León and holds the largest public collection of contemporary art in the nation. Exhibitions encompass everything from paintings to photos, sculptures and graphic arts by respected artists like Gabriel Orozco and Jan Hendrix, as well as other, more emerging talents. The museum also hosts concerts and art workshops which you might want to include in your holiday fun.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
This spectacular white-marble art-deco palace is a concert hall and arts centre and is widely considered to be the most important cultural centre in Mexico City. Immense murals by world-famous Mexican artists dominate the top floors along with important works by Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro and José Clemente Orozco, while on the fourth floor, the Museo Nacional de Arquitectura (National Architectural Museum) features temporary exhibits depicting Mexico City’s contemporary architecture.
The recently renovated Bellas Artes theatre is also a masterpiece (to be viewed only during performances), with its stained-glass curtain put together by Tiffany & Co and composed of almost a million pieces of coloured glass.
Museo de Arte Popular
A major showcase for crafts and folk art, the Museo de Arte Popular displays crafts from all over Mexico, including traditional furniture, textiles, pottery, carnival masks from Chiapas, animal figures (alebrijes) from Oaxaca and trees of life from Puebla. The museum is housed in the former fire department headquarters which is itself of interest as an outstanding example of 1920s art deco.
The museum is perhaps best known for sponsoring the annual Night of the Alebrijes (Noche de Alebrijes) parade, a competition in which carnival creatures are made in great numbers and paraded from the main plaza to the Angel of Independence monument.
Museo Frida Kahlo
The famous Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, was born in, lived and died in Casa Azul (Blue House), now the Frida Kahlo Museum. This is a very popular tourist haunt and features everyday items, jewellery, photos and other objects from the artist’s life. Kahlo’s art expresses the anguish of her life and her interest in socialist policies and icons: portraits of Mao and Lenin hang around her bed and it is here that she often entertained a leftist intellectual circle of friends with her husband, Diego Rivera.
Museo Casa de León Trotsky
Losing to Stalin in their Soviet Union power struggle, Trotsky was expelled in 1929 and condemned to death in absentia. He and his wife took refuge in Mexico City, staying with Frida Kahlo’s at the Blue House until they fell out with Kahlo and Rivera and moved to their own home a few streets away. Now a museum, the Trotsky home remains largely untouched (note the bullet holes in the bedroom) from the day that one of Stalin’s agents caught up with Trotsky in his study. Memorabilia is displayed within the buildings off the patio where a tomb engraved with a hammer and sickle holds Trotsky’s ashes. Free guided tours are available in English at the entrance.