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Mexico City’s must-see museums are a treat for art lovers

Mexico City's Palacio de Bellas Artes at twilight.

Mexico City's Palacio de Bellas Artes at twilight. Its Art Deco lobby features murals by Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera. Credit: Getty Images / Osmany Torres Martín

The reasons to visit Mexico City are many: the city’s laid-back, friendly atmosphere; a strong dollar; increased security presence; quiet parks and charming, pedestrian-friendly streets lined with small businesses; and all the tacos you can eat. But the central Distrito Federal — or, D.F., as it’s commonly called — is also a haven for lovers of art, architecture and literature, with fascinating museums, artists’ homes, galleries and libraries. Here are 10 for your itinerary.


Rising like a wedding cake from the city’s historic center, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (lobby free, museum admission about $2.60; corner of Avenida Juárez and Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas) houses Mexico’s national theater; a fine art museum that hosts temporary exhibitions; and a second museum devoted to Mexican architecture. The multitiered Art Deco lobby, a masterwork of Carrara marble, is the perfect place to acquaint yourself with the work of the Mexican Modernists, with a sampling of superb murals by Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Jose Celemente Orozco and others. But you’ll have to catch the lunchtime tour of the theater — or buy a ticket to a performance — to view the building’s hidden gem. The translucent stage curtain, which depicts a stylized Mexican landscape, was made by the Louis Comfort Tiffany company in 1912 from a million pieces of colored crystal.


The hyper-politicized Mexican modernists turned to the country’s long tradition of mural painting to bring their messages of social and economic equality to a broader public. The main headquarters of the Secretariat of Public Education (free; Republica de Argentina 28) may look like just another government building, but behind its stately facade are two grand outdoor courtyards lined on all sides with 235 wall murals painted by Diego Rivera in the 1920s. In these intricate, exuberant works, the country’s proletariat roll up their shirtsleeves and engage in honest work — mining, farming, educating — while the capitalist overlords descend into decadence. Look for the scene of Rivera’s wife, artist Frida Kahlo, handing out guns to revolutionaries.


With its vast interior patio — partially shaded by an immense aluminum umbrella held aloft with a 40-foot carved bronze pillar that emits a continuous waterfall — Pedro Ramírez Vázquez’s 1964 building for the National Museum of Anthropology (about $3.50; Avenida Paseo de la Reforma and Calzada Gandhi, is arguably as stunning as anything inside. The three miles of exhibition halls, which trace the history of Mexico’s pre-Colombian civilizations, are perfect for families — kids will thrill to the statues of spooky deities and the 24-ton Aztec Sun Stone. If you find some of the displays, such as the diorama showing a human sacrifice, hard to stomach, seek refuge in the lush surrounding gardens.


Half of Chapultepec Castle (about $3.50), which is located on a hill in the center of Chapultepec Park, is devoted to Mexico’s history museum. All of the signage is in Spanish, but even if you’re not fluent you can glean the national narrative from the paintings, costumes and artifacts on display. The castle’s showstopping other half is devoted to the palatial rooms that were home to the doomed Habsburg-prince-turned-Mexican-emperor Maximilian I and his wife, Carlota, in the 1860s. Decorated in a culturally incongruous French Empire style — look for the wall of stained glass windows adorned with Greek goddesses — the royal quarters surround a beautiful formal garden, and the terraces that encompass the building provide unparalleled views of the city.


It would seem that everyone who travels to Mexico City visits Casa Azul (about $6.25-$7.50, Londres 247), the house where Frida Kahlo lived and worked for much of her life. If you’ve never been to the museum, you might wonder if it’s overhyped. It’s not. For all the evidence of bodily pain on view — including the painter’s wheelchair — this modest structure, its exterior painted a rich cobalt, is an exuberant tribute to the pleasures of art. A small sampling of Kahlo’s canvasses are on view, but the real rewards here are the extensive assemblage of joyous folk art that she and her husband, Diego Rivera, collected; her studio, where her books, brushes and pigments are still on view; and a carefully cultivated garden populated with native plants. Order tickets in advance to beat the lines that inevitably form outside.


When Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky ran afoul of Stalin in the 1920s, he fled to Mexico City, eventually settling with his wife in a house a few blocks from his friends and fellow Communists, Kahlo and Rivera. If Kahlo’s house celebrates the power of the imagination, Trotsky’s dour domicile is an object lesson in a life lived by the sword of politics. After an assassination attempt, the dissident was required to build a brick wall around his residence, making the rooms dark and gloomy. A second attempt was successful: Trotsky was killed with an ax by one of Stalin’s henchmen. If Museo Casa de León Trotsky (about $2.15, Avenida Rio Churubusco 410, isn’t the cheeriest place to visit, it’s a must for enthusiasts of 20th century history.


Luis Barragán might be called an architect’s architect. All his projects were completed in his native country, and his work is little known in the United States, but his luminous spaces send his devotees into rapture. A visit to his home and studio (about $16, Calle General Francisco Ramirez 12-14, is the best way to experience his magical, intuitive way of organizing light, shade, color and volume. Preserved the way it looked upon his death in 1988, with his furnishings, books, artworks and collection of Mexican crafts still in place, it’s a serene, mystical place with references to both the country’s vernacular architecture and European Modernism. The guided tour includes the thick, verdant garden, and the famous roof terrace, with its painted walls of rust and fuchsia forming a contrast with the open Mexican sky. Reservations are essential.


Located next door to Casa Barragán, Archivo (free, Calle General Francisco Ramirez 4, is a compact gallery devoted to design and architecture, founded by architect Fernando Romero and his wife, Soumaya Slim (who is the daughter of multibillionaire Carlos Slim). It’s housed in a midcentury building that looks inscrutable from the street — follow the long entry tunnel and you’ll find yourself in a luxurious back garden. Inside are rotating exhibitions drawn from a collection of more than 1,500 examples of Mexican and global design, from bicycles to sneakers to soda bottles.


Barragán’s other projects in Mexico City include private homes, a horse farm and a few public sculptures. But his most transcendent creation is undoubtedly the Chapel and Convent of the Capuchinas Sacremantarias in the Tlalpan district (about $10.50, Avenida Miguel Hidalgo 43). Make an appointment in advance. When you arrive a nun will meet you at the modest doorway and, lifting a finger to her lips as an injunction to silence, lead you into one of the most deeply spiritual spaces in the world. The plain white courtyard features a grid-like yellow wall that filters golden light over a trickling fountain; in season bright pink jacarandas flow over the top of the high walls and flood the space with their scent. Inside the chapel, painted deep orange, sun pours through stained glass windows, bathing a spare wooden cross and reflecting off a golden altarpiece comprising three simple squares. No matter your faith, it’s an experience not to be missed.


Adjacent to the labyrinthine Ciudadela Market, where you can stock up on folk art and souvenirs, is City of Books at Jose Vasconcelos Library (free, Calle de Balderas 94), a two-century-old tobacco factory turned public library, is a bibliophile’s dream. Four meticulously designed suites shelter the reassembled personal libraries of some of Mexico’s most eminent men of letters: scholar and diplomat José Luis Martínez, ambassador Antonio Castro Leal and poets Jaime Garcia Terrés and Alí Chumacero. The two-story blond-wood warren of the erudite and multilingual Martínez houses some 70,000 publications, from midcentury editions of classics in a variety of languages, to art monographs and literary journals. You can’t take the books out of the room, but you can peruse them at one of the comfortable seating areas that punctuate the eminently serene space.

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