Image: Pyramid of the Sun
Henry Romero  /  Reuters
People watch the sunrise of the spring equinox in Teotihuacan. Hundreds of Mexicans and tourists gather at Teotihuacan every year to welcome spring equinox at the Pyramid of the Sun.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 5/7/2007 1:15:57 PM ET 2007-05-07T17:15:57

The numbers tell much of the story. With about 20 million inhabitants, greater Mexico City is one of the most crowded metropolises on the planet (and has the traffic jams and polluted air to prove it). On the up side, between 700 and 2,000 years of history, depending on which expert you listen to, gives this former Aztec capital (once known as Mexico-Tenochtitlan) a richness of heritage few cities in the Americas, or anywhere else, can match. Twenty-plus major museums, works of architecture and archeological sights — from majestic pyramids to important art collections to the home where Trotsky was assassinated with an ice-pick — provide a dizzying, exhilarating cultural feast for visitors. The number that doesn’t add up is 24 hours: with just one day here you’ll have just enough time to cherry pick some sights, sample the sophisticated cuisine and fervently vow that next time you’re going to give this important destination the time it deserves.

9 a.m. - 1 p.m.: Peel back the layers of Mexican history. Start at the epic Catedral Metropolitana , built between 1567 and 1803 and incorporating the popular styles of those eras — baroque, neo-classic, Mexican Churrigueresque (basically an even more baroque style of baroque, with architectural flourishes and ornamentation galore). It’s the second largest Cathedral in the Americas, after the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Step out of the Cathedral onto the Zocalo, the city’s graceful central plaza, flanked by 17th century buildings. As they were disposed to do, the Spanish conquistadores built this plaza and their church (precursor to the Cathedral) right on top of the Aztec’s most important buildings (often using the very same stones), and so the city’s most important archeological site is also here: the Templo Mayor . Wandering the walkways that honeycomb the ruins of this Great Temple and visiting the attached museum (housing 6,000-plus objects removed from this site), you’ll get a sense of the complexity, vast scale and wealth of the city under the Aztecs. Barrel back into the future, and our fairly recent past, with a tour through the Palacio Nacional , notable for its murals by Diego Rivera, depicting the history of Mexico.

Morning alternative
While the Templo Mayor (see above) is essentially a dig site, an hour outside Distrito Federal (what locals call Mexico City proper), three grand pyramids still tower. Take the morning for a side trip to Teotihuacan , the mysterious city that was the capital of this region at the time of the Ancient Romans, with more than 200,000 inhabitants. Nobody knows what happened to Teotihuacan (the city was abandoned by AD 700), but you may come up with some theories as you gaze awestruck at the Pyramid of the Sun (third largest pyramid in the world), and traipse through painted palaces and past small temples.

1 p.m. - 2 p.m.: Grab a sandwich, er, torta at La Texcocana . In business since 1936, it’s the perfect stand-up spot for a quick, tasty meal (the barbecued pork could win blue ribbons in Memphis).

2 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Get the whole picture at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia , one of the world’s great museums. The sweeping tale of Mexico’s cultural history is told here, with dozens of state-of-the-art interactive exhibits, priceless artifacts and dioramas. Don’t miss the upstairs galleries exploring how Mexicans live today.

Afternoon alternative
Go to Frida’s house. The Museo Frida Kahlo is literally that — the house where this iconic painter was born and lived with husband Diego Rivera until 1954. Movingly untouched (curators even leave an unfinished work on an easel in the studio), filled with both her art and the pre-Columbian art she and Rivera collected, it offers a telling peep-hole into her life and times.  

6 p.m. - 8 p.m.: Head to Garibaldi Square for some early evening people watching and mariachi music. Yes, it’s touristy and a haunt for pickpockets (so guard your purse), but the pure joy of listening to these terrific musicians and seeing their traditional outfits keeps the experience from feeling hokey.

8:30 - 9:30 p.m.: Pay tribute to Jack Black and all his pugilistic cohorts in glittery masks with an evening of Lucha Libre . The Mexican version of wrestlemania, down to the silly costumes and overwrought dramatics, this wildly popular sport originated in the D.F. (Distrito Federal) in the 1930’s. Don’t feel you have to stay for the entire show, as it gets repetitive.

9:30 - 11 p.m.: Tuck into classic Mexican cuisine at Fonda el Refugio , which has been the dining spot for celebrities and those who simply have something to celebrate, for the past 40 years. Cozy, friendly and with a large fireplace, it serves up all the Mexican standards, but done with great attention to detail, only the freshest of ingredients and a dash of originality in the spicing.

11:30 p.m.  - on …Take a taxi to the Condesa neighborhood to bar and club hop at such sizzling nightspots as Cinna Bar or Rexo .

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommerguides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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Catedral Metropolitana, in the Centro Historico, right on the Zocalo. Open daily 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., free admission.

The Templo Mayor and Museo Templo Mayor are located off the zocalo; phone 55/5542-0606;www.conaculta.gob.mx/templomayor. Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 a.m. - 5:50 p.m. (last ticket sold at 5 p.m.). Admission for both is about $4. 

The Palacio Nacionalis located on Av. Pino Suárez, facing the zócalo. Admission is free, and it’s open Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.

Teotihuacanis an hours drive from the Centro Storico. The fastest way to drive there is on Highway H5D. You can also hop a bus from the Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte. They depart every half hour. The ruins themselves are open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; admission is about $3.80.

La Texcocana, 87 Avenida de Independencia; phone 55/5521-7871.

The Museo Nacional de Antropologiais set in Chapultepec Park, phone 55/5553-6266; www.mna.inah.gob.mx. It’s open Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.; admission is about $2.50.  

The Museo Frida Kahlo, Londres 247 in Coyoacán, phone 55/5554-5999. Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Admission is $2.

Garibaldi Square is 5 blocks north of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, up Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas, at Avenida República de Honduras. It’s recommended that you take a taxi there and back as this is a higher crime area. If you’d like to entice the Mariachi players, offer a tip: the going rate is $1.50 to $3.25 per song.

The best place to watch Lucha Libre is at the Arena Mexico at 189 Calle Dr. Lavista; phone 55/5588-0385. If there’s no match the night you’re there at the Arena, check the local paper for other venues.

Fonda El Refugio, Liverpool 166  between Florencia and Amberes in the Zona Rosa area, phone 55/5207-2732.

Cinna Bar, Nuevo León 67-1 located on the ground floor of the Cine Plaza building, Col. Condesa, phone 55/5286-8456. 

Rexo, Saltillo 1 on the Corner of Nuevo León, Col. Condesa, phone 55/5553-5337

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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