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For historic, chic and on-the-cheap, try Mexico City

MEXICO CITY

Move over greasy tacos and tacky trinkets: Mexico City is home to a vast network of chic museums, top-notch restaurants and trendy night clubs. There's even an Icebar.

What's more, the city remains one of the globe's best budget stops.

With just a few pesos — preferably hidden deep inside one's clothing in case of mugging — visitors can view world-renowned art inside centuries-old buildings, wander through Aztec ruins in the heart of the city, and sip tequila at rooftop bars where DJs spin the latest international beats.

Amid the chaos of its more than 20-million people, the western hemisphere's largest city also has plenty of breathing space.

On weekends, you can take free salsa lessons in leafy plazas throughout town. You can try tango classes in the foreigner-friendly La Condesa neighborhood's Parque Espana around midday. You can ride a bike every Sunday to the city's sprawling main plaza, the Zocalo, when Reforma Avenue is shut to traffic. No bike? No worries — the city will lend you one for free if you leave an ID.

If the high-altitude, smog-choked air has you huffing and puffing, there are other ways to get around to the plethora of sights. And despite Mexico City's reputation for crime, your personal safety can be greatly improved by taking a few precautions.

GETTING AROUND: Hop aboard the Turibus, a double-decker bus that gives you a bird's-eye view while taking you to all the top attractions for between 100 and 115 pesos (about $12), depending on when you go. For 2 pesos, the subway can't be beat and is relatively safe. During rush hour, women can head to the front for the all-female cars. If you want a taxi, make sure it is from an official stand called a sitio. (This will keep you from falling prey to criminals who pose as cab drivers, take passengers to ATMs and force them to empty their accounts.)

MUST-SEES: With dozens of museums, you can easily overdose on art. Topping the list are the awe-inspiring murals by Diego Rivera and other Mexican legends in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, which also has temporary contemporary exhibits and a stunning performance called the Ballet Folklorico showcasing the country's traditional dances.

Then walk down Francisco Madero Street to the Zocalo, strolling past the colonial buildings — including a count's tile-covered 1596 mansion. Today the home is a two-story coffee shop and drugstore called Sanborns.

Off the Zocalo is the Palacio Nacional, or National Palace, where Rivera painted the entire history of Mexico on its walls. It's free, and English-speaking guides are on hand to explain the details of the intricate work. Behind the main courtyard, the cactus and maguey gardens are a great place to take a break. On the other side of the Zocalo is the Metropolitan Cathedral, the oldest in the Americas.

Behind the cathedral, the Centro Cultural de Espana, funded by the Spanish Embassy, has extensive contemporary art exhibits and a rooftop cafe with mouthwatering tapas, most for under $5. On Thursday nights, top DJs spin their tunes.

PREHISPANIC RUINS: The city is teeming with ruins. Archaeologists are still finding buried treasures under plazas and buildings. One of the best is the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, a site squashed between businesses and government buildings off the Zocalo. Workers discovered the Aztec religious center in the mid 1970s. The Aztecs are believed to have built the temple in the 1300s. The ruins include a wall of stone skulls representing the human heads the Aztecs used to put on display after sacrificing people to the gods. The entrance fee is less than $3. Better yet, on Sundays the museum is free. If you're craving more history, hit the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park, one of the world's best. Its entrance fee is less than $4.

NEIGHBORHOODS: La Roma and La Condesa are hubs of hipness and worth a day of strolling, stopping for Chiapas-grown coffee and people-watching in one of the funky cafes, or checking out the many art galleries. There are also plenty of boutiques of young designers who mesh colorful embroidered Indian fabrics into chic dresses, skirts and shirts. Start at Galeria OMR off the Rio de Janeiro plaza and wander down Orizaba street to Alvaro Obregon. Then head to Parque Mexico. Check this bilingual list of galleries: www. arte-mexico.com/galeries.htm.

SURVIVING THE MADNESS: If you're overwhelmed by the earsplitting noise of honking cars and shouting vendors, you can find respite wandering through the 550-acre Chapultepec Park — and the sprawling zoo is free. Or visit the free Jardin Botanico, or Botanical Gardens, of Mexico's National Autonomous University. The cactus- and maguey-studded gardens are set among lava outcroppings.

NIGHTLIFE: Mama Rumba in La Roma is a sure bet to boogie away the night. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the $4 cover charge also includes free salsa lessons before 10 p.m., when the Cuban band kicks in. Traditional cantinas throw in sizable appetizers, almost a meal in themselves, with $3 beers. Try the 1928 Cantina La Guadalupana in Coyoacan, where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo drank tequila.

For the cutting-edge side of Coyoacan visit La Bipolar. Owned by actor Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien), the bar offers marlin tostadas and walls covered in plastic crates. In Condesa, you can grab a ski jacket and cool down with your tequila-based drink on the ice-made love seats at the Icebar, the latest one to open worldwide.

Lucha Libre, Mexico's masked wrestling spectacular, is a must for lovers of kitsch. On Tuesdays, hit the small, traditional Arena Coliseo for the best two-hour show $2.50 can buy, or go for the glitzy televised productions at Arena Mexico, where tickets run between $4 to $13. Be sure to pick up a cheap mask of your favorite hero outside.

BEYOND TACOS: Tacos are amazing here, but so is the vast variety of other kinds of dishes. There's no better place than the capital to get a sampling of Mexico's diverse food. La Tecla in La Roma is one of the most affordable places to try Nouveau Mexican food, such as duck enchiladas with mango sauce. Also don't miss the squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and bathed in chipotle sauce. Most meals are under $10.

For amazing corn-flour tamales for breakfast, lunch or late-night munchies try Flor de Lis in La Condesa. Two tamales cost less than $3. They are wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with chicken or pork with green or red sauce. Other fillings include chicken in mole and poblano chile strips.

If you want to spot a Mexican celebrity but stay on budget, stop by Frutos Prohibidos y Otros Placeres, an outdoor corner cafe with a long list of fresh-fruit smoothies, salads and wraps in La Condesa.

MARKETS: The Ciudadela market in the city's center has the best prices and most variety for traditional crafts. It's open daily. For more upscale art, try Bazaar Sabado on — you got it, Saturdays — in San Angel.

If you read Spanish, pick up a copy of Chilango or Donde Ir magazines for articles and reviews of the city's happenings. If not, you can probably muddle through Tiempo Libre, which lists restaurants, movies, plays and other events.

For historic, chic and on-the-cheap, try Mexico City 01/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 9:02am]

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