Museo Soumaya is home to many works by Auguste Rodin, including a cast of his sculpture “The Thinker.” // © 2014 Mark Chesnut
Mexico City is the kind of place you could visit 50 times without repeating a single activity. That’s especially true when it comes to the city’s cultural offerings.
According to Lonely Planet, Mexico City has at least 150 museums — more than any other city on earth except Paris. And that’s why every time I visit the city I make an effort to see something new.
With so many possibilities, it’s good to have a strategy before going. Here are a few of the cultural attractions that should be on the top of the list, starting with the best options for first-time visitors.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology), located in Chapultepec Park, is a required stop for culture enthusiasts, particularly first-time visitors to Mexico City. It’s the city’s most famous cultural institution and also one of the world’s best anthropology museums, housing thousands of Mesoamerican artifacts and ethnological exhibits that highlight the rich cultures and traditions of the region.
It’s said that you could spend several days wandering the halls here without seeing everything the museum has to offer. That’s true, although half a day will give visitors a good overview and a chance to hit the main spots — including the Piedra del Sol, an Aztec calendar stone that weighs about 24 tons.
Museo Nacional de Historia
To get a handle on Mexico’s more recent history, head to the Museo Nacional de Historia (National Museum of History) housed in the Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), the stately former home of Mexican Emperor Maximilian I.
Built between the late 1700s and 1863, this handsome landmark sits atop a hill in the middle of Chapultepec Park, making for excellent scenic photo opportunities. The exhibits, which include artwork, murals, clothing, furnishings and artifacts, document the nation’s history from the conquest by Spain through the Revolution of 1910.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is located in the historic city center, just a few blocks away from the Zocalo city square. Opened in 1934, this ornate architectural landmark hosts a variety of live performances throughout the year including music, dance and theater. The venue is also the home of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, the famed Mexican folkloric ballet ensemble. Travelers should check performance schedules well ahead of time to make sure they get tickets to the performances they want to see.
Even if there are no performances scheduled, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is worth a visit during the day. One can admire the beautiful facade, which blends Art Nouveau and Neoclassical styles, and the interior, which has murals by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. A well-stocked art bookstore provides noteworthy shopping options.
Mexico City for Art Lovers
The capital has been a creative hub for the nation for centuries, and several Mexico City museums provide ideal opportunities to view original work by local and international artists. These museums are great options for first-time and returning visitors.
Museo de Arte Moderno
If you’re already going to Chapultepec Park to see the National Museum of History, consider visiting the Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art). This museum hosts the work of prominent Mexican and international artists, including a permanent collection with pieces by Jose Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Rufino Tamayo.
Museo Rufino Tamayo
Speaking of Tamayo, his mid-20th-century paintings are a central focus of the nearby Museo Rufino Tamayo (Rufino Tamayo Museum), which is also in the park. In addition to Tamayo’s own work, the collection includes hundreds of paintings and sculptures by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Rene Magritte.
Two attractions offer visitors the chance to delve into the work and the storied personal lives of two of Mexico’s most famous artists — Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Museo Frida Kahlo
The logical first stop on the Kahlo-Rivera trail is the Museo Frida Kahlo (Frida Kahlo Museum) in the peaceful neighborhood of Coyoacan. The museum is also known as La Casa Azul, or The Blue House, thanks to its striking exterior color. Frida Kahlo was born here in 1907 and died here. Artwork, personal furnishings and her creative studio provide a glimpse into her life and work.
A special area that hosts temporary exhibits is showing “Las Apariencias Enganan: Los Vestidos de Frida Kahlo” (“Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe”). It’s billed as the first exhibit focused on the artist’s clothing, including never-before-seen dresses found in 2004 in La Casa Azul. The exhibit will run through September 2014.
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo
The Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo (Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Home Studio Museum) served as their home and workspace between 1930 and 1940. The two tower-like structures served as separate homes for each of the famed artists. Walking around Rivera’s expansive studio is an especially memorable experience. An easel holds his painting of actress Dolores Del Rio and paints sit on a table, creating the sense that this larger-than-life artist could walk in at any moment to continue his work.
For cutting edge art and architecture, head to Mexico City’s two newest large art museums, both in the upscale Nuevo Polanco district.
It’s hard to miss the Museo Soumaya (Soumaya Museum), which is set in an eye-catching building made from 16,000 gleaming hexagonal aluminum plates. The museum’s galleries showcase works from the nearly 70,000-piece personal collection of Carlos Slim, a businessman who by many counts is the world’s richest man.
Just across the street from Museo Soumaya is Museo Jumex (Jumex Museum), which opened in 2013. The museum features rotating exhibits of modern and contemporary art from the Jumex Collection, one of the largest private art collections in Latin America.