The Art of Mexico City, On and Off the Beaten Path

ZONAMACO kicks off tomorrow, but there's so much more to experience in this global arts destination.

Avenida Paseo de la Reforma is the backbone of Mexico City, its tallest skyscrapers lining the boulevard like a great set of vertebrae, a spine occasionally punctuated by the chakras of enormous roundabouts at the center of which stand statues of Diana the Huntress, the Angel of Independence, las Mujeres Que Luchan (The Women Who Fight) and others.

As you make your way down the street’s pleasantly bustling arterial promenades you come upon something of mottled bronze that emerges from the steel and glass of contemporary Mexico City like a monster in an old dream. It’s an absurd, almost primitively rendered reptile of some kind, upon the back of which rides a troop of crude lizards. This is How Doth the Little Crocodile by renowned surrealist Leonora Carrington, one of countless illustrious artists to have called the city home.

Mexico City, Mexico, Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, public artwork Little Crocodile surrealist sculpture by Lenora Carrington
Lenora Carrington’s Surrealist sculpture. Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Imag

Here is as good a place as any to start an exploration of Mexico City’s artistic offerings. Consider it more or less the center while Reforma will serve as a vague east-to-west compass.

Heading east from the weird serpents will bring you directly to the grand park of Chapultepec. One of the most significant locations in Mexican history, it encompasses abundant green spaces, a castle, a zoo, a lagoon and an impressive botanical garden, not to mention three of Mexico City’s most prominent art museums and cultural institutions.

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Museo de Arte Moderno has only recently reopened in its entirety after closing in 2020, and I’m happy to say that it has regained its pre-pandemic excellence. With its delightful abstract statue garden, boldly curated visiting exhibitions and a permanent collection boasting masterpieces like Frida Kahlo’s Los dos Fridas, it’s one of the continent’s preeminent contemporary art institutions. Just down and across Reforma is Museo Tamayo—the brutalist structure of which is an artwork unto itself—which is home to an impressive collection spanning the likes of Magritte, Ernst and of course Tamayo, along with consistently first-rate avant-garde exhibitions. Deeper into the park you’ll find the expansive Museo Nacional de Antropologia, which displays a wealth of anthropological artifacts as rich as any I’ve seen anywhere in the world. It’s easy to spend several solid hours wandering its vast halls.

These are among the most renowned and frequented museums in Mexico City, but there are two in the Chapultepec area that typically go overlooked and are well worth a bit of extra legwork. Just behind the anthropology museum in the upscale neighborhood of Polanco is Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros, a gallery dedicated to experimentation with “public art” where you can see expansive murals by the esteemed social realist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, including his Homage to Vietnam. Then in the uncrowded southwestern section of Chapultepec where few ever venture is Fuente de Tlaloc—a sprawling tiled fountain by artist Diego Rivera that portrays the Aztec water god of Tlaloc, adjacent to which is a small museum containing an empty water tank muraled by Rivera in honor of the city’s 1952 project to modernize its water system.

‘Fuente de Tlaloc.’ Nick Hilden

Now we’re following Reforma back to the east, past street vendors selling handicrafts, back by Carrington’s outlandish crocodile, on into the imperious colonial buildings of the Zocalo, which is centered around la Plaza de la Constitution. This square was once the heart of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan, and today it is hewn in by the National Palace, a handful of massive governmental and commercial buildings and the 400-year-old Metropolitan Cathedral—which not only stands atop the former Aztec’s Templo Mayor, but was built of the previous temple’s stone in an act of colonial domination. In the plaza you can watch indigenous dancers in elaborate traditional dress, visit the splendid Museo Nacional de Arte or attend one of the frequent fiestas or protests.

Next, we go back northwest toward Reforma—past the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the city’s golden-domed art nouveau centerpiece where you can and should check out enormous murals by Rivera and other greats—on up toward the district of Guerrero. Along the way, aim to cross the unique street of Calle Violeta where all the buildings are painted violet and you may notice openly cartel-operated cantinas. You’ll also see a very heavy police presence, for this street and the wider Guerrero area have a history of trouble. But you’re perfectly safe during the day, and the enormous, stunningly vibrant murals you’ll find along the neighborhood’s charming arterial street Mosqueta warrant straying into the city’s more notorious regions.

And now we’re going to head way down south, forty-five minutes by metro or taxi—note: in traffic, all bets are off—to the historically artistic, tree-lined colonia of Coyoacán, perhaps the most famed resident of which was Frida Kahlo. For the majority of visitors, the main draw is Casa Azul—the home in which Kahlo was born, lived on and off throughout her life and then died. While it is certainly worthy of inclusion on any art lover’s itinerary—the house itself is beautiful, and the vestiges of Frida’s life and work, inspiring—but it is obnoxiously popular. You must buy tickets several days in advance, as it is always full.

The Museo de Arte Moderno. Nick Hilden

When I asked Coyoacán-raised Alvaro Enrigue (author of the recently released You Dreamed of Empires, a work of kaleidoscopic historical fiction set in Aztec-era Mexico City) about his thoughts on the matter, he shared a bit of insider history.

“I’m the kind of person who would more emphatically recommend a visit to Trotsky’s home than to the Blue House of the Kahlo’s,” he said. “When I grew up they were tiny local museums which no one visited, guarded by one guy and his family. You would pay him, he would give you a very unprofessional ticket back, and you could stay all the time you wanted in the empty houses. The guy who took care of the Casa Azul was nicer than the very convinced communist that guarded the Trotsky Museum, so the patios of the Kahlo family house were a perfect safe spot to smoke an occasional joint after a soccer match.”

The Trotsky Museum is located a few blocks away from Casa Azul. This is the home where the Marxist revolutionary lived in exile following the Russian Revolution and survived several assassination attempts, including one involving the previously mentioned Siqueiros and the one that was ultimately successful.

In any case, Coyoacán is a pleasant place to while away the evening exploring the cobblestone streets for food and handicrafts but to complete our relentless itinerary, we must move on.

Mexico City, Mexico, National Autonomous University of Mexico, University Museum of Contemporary Art,
The Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo. Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Imag

Further south we arrive at the contemporary art museum at UNAM—one of the country’s largest universities—with its imposing brutalism and reliably excellent exhibitions. After this, slingshot back north to the central campus (which happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to explore an array of architectural and artistic delights. The Central Library stares over the green like a gargantuan, tattooed owl. Looming even taller is the Rectory Tower, which bears a trio of three-dimensional “sculpture-murals” by Siqueiros. And so on.

It was here that in 1968 the school rector Javier Barros Sierra famously marched in support of student groups attacked by police during protests against the ’68 Olympics being held on the campus. Days later, as many as 400 students and other protesters were killed in the Tlatelolco Massacre at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Located just north of the previously discussed district of Guerrero, today the plaza is home to Memorial 68—a museum and monument to the tragedy.

General Views Of Mexico 2019
People lined up outsided the Casa Azu. Photo by Andrew Hasson/Getty Images

After all of that, you might need a drink. Retrace your steps toward the city center and turn east at Reforma. We’re heading back to Bellas Artes where there is a trinity of bars decorated and featuring large-scale artworks by local artist Fabian Chairez: La Purisima, Soberbia and Marrakech Salon.

I recommend you spend the night in one of two Mexico City hotels. Conveniently near the aforementioned bars is Umbral: an arts-forward hotel with art deco design, gothic vibes and artworks throughout—including the freakish pianos in the hotel bar. Another great option located just down Reforma and overlooking the statue of Diana is the St. Regis. This is a particularly good pick if you want to hit the spa and follow that up with a massage.

And my final suggestion is to go fully local by participating in one of the many community arts classes offered by Mexico City’s many cultural centers. For example, you might sign up for a live nude drawing session led by Victoria Moctezuma, who is part of the Guadalajaran visual and performance art duo Gemelxs VS. She speaks both Spanish and English, and her classes are the perfect opportunity to connect with the Mexican artists of today.

The Art of Mexico City, On and Off the Beaten Path