Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Guest-blogger Jim Johnston on Mexico City’s Centro Histórico: Five things to see with your feet off the ground

Born in New York City, Jim Johnston grew up in the woods of New Hampshire. After studying architecture at the University of Virginia and graphic design at the School of Visual Arts, he worked as a professional artist and potter in New York City for 27 years. He moved to Mexico in 1997, where he continues working as an artist and writer. A few years ago, I was fortunate to make his acquaintance through our mutual friend, the writer Janice Eidus, and I've been a fan ever since.
I follow and warmly recommend his blog, Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide, which has the same title as his book. If you're going to visit Mexico City or, especially, if you happen to live here, get your copy from

Mexico City Centro Histórico:
Five things to see with your feet off the ground

By Jim Johnston

My first visit in 1989 to Mexico City's Centro Histórico was scary. Teeming with manic energy in the daytime, the streets became eerily empty at night. Scars from the 1985 earthquake were evident: tall buildings stood abandoned, gaping holes in the pavement defied you to pass. There were rumors of thieves lurking in doorways and kidnappers prowling in taxis. But as a rule, I like any town that's more than 700 years old and still cookin’. So, of course, I fell for Mexico City, hook, line and molcajete.

Mexico is a city that wears its age well. It’s got Aztec splendor and ruin, Spanish majesty and bombast, 50’s modernism, quirky time-warp shops, smoke tinged cantinas, excellent museums, and street life that never stops.

In the past five years, the Centro Histórico of Mexico City (A UNESCO World Heritage Site) has been transformed. It's busy night and day, and looking better than ever. There are increased security measures, new paving and lighting; hundreds of old buildings have been plastered and painted (gracias a Carlos Slim). New museums, hotels, restaurants, outdoor cafés and shops have opened. Several streets are now traffic-free pedestrian zones (check out 5 de Mayo, Motolinia, and Regina). You can now ride your eco-bici to the centro. New bars and dance clubs are drawing young crowds on weekend nights. It seems like every time I visit (about once a week) I see something new. But one thing hasn't changed-- the intense level of energy on the street, which can excite and exhaust in equal measure.

What to do? I like to take my feet off the ground.

Here are a few tips for keeping above the fray--5 places in the Centro Histórico that are above street level, semi-hidden places I’ve discovered over the years that you are sure to enjoy.

1. Sears Cafe
Go up to the 8th floor of the Sears store, just across from the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The coffee is good and the view is great.

2. Museum of Architecture
Take the elevator to the very top of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (separate ticket required). The changing exhibits on Mexican architecture are OK, but the real treat here is the surprising view you get of the building itself.

3. Pasteleria Ideal (16 de Septiembre #18)
Upstairs, this ‘world of cakes’ is one of the city’s great surreal spots.

4. Shoe Museum
Bolivar #27) Above the venerable Borcegui shoe store is this entertaining mini-museum.

5. Studio of Joaquin Clausell
(Museo de la Ciudad, Pino Suarez #30 at El Salvador). Tucked away on the second floor of this exquisite colonial mansion is the former studio of Joaquin Clausell (1866-1935), a Mexican impressionist painter. For years he used the walls of his studio as a sketchbook, and the result is a delightful mural of overlapping paintings and sketches.

Above and beyond the Centro Histórico you can tour the major attractions in Mexico City on the Turibus. The open top deck affords great views and a wonderful feeling of being above all the hustle and bustle. Click here for information.

-- Jim Johnston

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