Five Sides of Distrito Federal

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Welcome to one of the most fascinating urban landscapes on the planet: Mexico City. How do you even begin to know a place that has so many different personalities? By visiting its impressive cultural institutions.

You could spend a lifetime exploring the nearly 200 museums, not to mention scores of galleries and archaeological sites, in the federal capital. But if you’re only in town for a short while, here are five sides to the storied city and where you can get an entry-level glimpse at them:

1. Ancient History: If you only have time to visit one museum while you’re in town, make it the National Museum of Anthropology, renowned for its incredible collection of pre-colonial artifacts. The museum’s Maya and Aztec galleries are especially captivating. Don’t miss the  massive basalt “Stone of the Sun” or the large-scale model of what Mexico City looked like at the height of the Aztec era. Plus, you will gain a much better understanding of how the city was constructed on five lakes after exploring this museum. I recommend hiring a guide, especially if you don’t speak Spanish (nothing is translated).

Side Trip: If you’re interested in learning more about the city’s post-Columbian history, periods not covered at the anthropology museum, visit the National Museum of History in Chapultepec Castle.

2. Artistic Heritage: Mexico City’s recent past and current culture are on display at a number of museums. Check out the Modern Art Museum for a primer on a broad range of Mexican artists — long-time darlings and relative unknowns alike, then head to the Rufino Tamayo Museum to get a taste of the eponymous artist. If you’re not familiar with Tamayo, visit this museum for an unparalleled introduction to the surrealist’s contributions to modern art. Added bonus? The interactive exhibits will bring out the six-year-old in you.

Latest Newcomer: The biggest news on the Mexican art scene? The long-awaited opening of the new location of the Jumex Museum, the largest private collection of contemporary art in Latin America, in November. It will be located in Polanco, next to Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya.

3. Gallery Chic: For an inside look at the city’s vibrant art scene, head to Galeria Hilario Galguera, a trend-setting gallery showcasing established and emerging artists in up-and-coming San Rafael (it reminded me of NYC’s SoHo before the sky-high rents hit). Amidst the colonia‘s European-style architecture, you’d never guess that an unmarked door on a classic gray home leads to some of the best contemporary art in the city, including pieces by Englishman Damien Hirst who had his first exhibition in Mexico here.

More Must-Visit Galleries: Galeria OMR and Casa Lamm

4. Endless Love: I didn’t know much about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera before my trip to Mexico City, but their larger-than-life love story in all its (sometimes sordid) glory captivated me while I was there. Visit the Museo de Frida Kahlo, housed in Kahlo’s childhood home (she also died here), and the home and studio Rivera and Kahlo shared, to get a glimpse at the couple’s volatile relationship and how it influenced their contributions to Mexican art and culture in the first half of the twentieth century.

Insider Intel: At the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, notice that there are two separate structures connected by a bridge, built that way because, as my guide explained: “Frida and Diego could not live together, but could not be apart.”

5. Architectural Vision: In-the-know locals I met spoke excitedly about Luis Barragán, a masterful Mexican architect who combined traditional elements with a more modern aesthetic. Head to the west side of Mexico City to explore the colorful circa 1948 home, now called Casa Luis Barragán, that he built and resided in until his death in 1988. It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for being “an outstanding example of the artist’s creative work in the post-Second World War period.”

Practical Tip: Tours are by appointment only, but are simple to secure.

Annie Fitzsimmons is on the beat in Mexico. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, on Twitter @anniefitz, and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

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