Mexico City is a cultural hub upon which MesoAmerica turns, home to more than 20 million people (in the metropolitan area), 100 major art galleries, the third largest number of theaters in the world (after New York and London) and at least 160 museums. Culture lovers could keep busy in a city like this for centuries, but most visitors will only have a few days for a whirlwind tour of the city’s highlights.
Which of these many museums are Mexico City’s best? Well, that’s a subjective list, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who had visited them all anyway. Let your personal interests guide you: College communists won’t want to miss the tiny but evocative Leon Trotsky Museum, where you’ll see the spot where the rabble rouser was murdered with an ice pick; while art lovers will prefer the former home of his alleged lover, now the Frida Kahlo Museum.
Art lovers can find museums dedicated to engravings, watercolors and “The First Print Shop in the Americas.” The intellectually curious could visit the San Pedro y San Pablo Museum of Light, dedicated to the physics of the phenomena; the Interactive Museum of Economics or the Museum of Mexican Medicine. My personal favorite, the National Museum of Interventions, details every foreign incursion into Mexican territory.
It’s a tough choice, but here are a few of the city’s top museums, with wide-ranging appeal.
1) National Museum of Anthropology
Considered one of the most important museums in the world, this must-see collection of artifacts covers every aspect of Mexico’s rich history and culture. It’s conveniently located at lovely Chapultepec Park, along with eight other incredible museums.
2) Rufino Tamayo Museum
Also ensconced in Chapultepec’s greenspace, this museum of modern art is dedicated to Mexico’s second-most-famous painter, and includes not only his wonderful work, but also those of modern masters—Dali, Botero, Marini, Warhol, De Kooning, and many more. A portion of Tamayo’s exquisite personal collection of pre-Columbian pieces (the majority are housed in the eponymous museum in Oaxaca) is inspiring.
3) Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli
Mexico’s most famous painter, of course, is muralist Diego Rivera, whose work can be found all over the world. His most important personal collection is right here, in this bizarre lava-rock edifice not far from the home of his soul mate, now the Frida Kahlo Museum. While the tomb-like galleries are mostly devoted to his collection of pre-Columbian pieces, fans who want to see more of Rivera’s own pieces can find them at the Kahlo Museum, Palacio Nacional, Museum of Modern Art, the National Art Museum, the House-Studio Museum of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the very highly recommended Dolores Olmeda Museum, with 145 Rivera paintings.
4) Soumaya Museum
The newest museum on Mexico City’s cultural scene, founded by the world’s richest man, telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, looks like a cross between a nuclear power plant and an aluminum beehive. Go inside to enjoy a rotating exhibition of Slim’s 65,000 masterpieces collected from around the world. From Rivera and Tamayo to Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Manet, Renoir and many more, this is a world-class art museum and best of all, it’s free.
5) Museo Templo Mayor
Discovered in 1978 after an electrical problem threatened Mexico’s Zocalo, the ancient central plaza that dates back to the city’s founding in 1325 AD, the Templo Mayor is a marvel. Almost hidden beneath the Metropolitan Cathedral, this much more ancient pyramid complex is dedicated to the Mexico gods and goddesses, and was the most important religious site in the sprawling Aztec Empire. Today, it is centered on that massive calendar currently causing so much doomsday handwringing, while the museum offers an incredible view into ancient Mexico City, the Spanish Conquest and the impressive effort modern Mexico is investing in preserving its amazing past.