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In January 2020, I found myself in Mexico City with a few days alone. And every afternoon, I discovered that you can barely walk a block in the mega-city without running into a museum. The exact number is elusive, but according to some estimates Mexico City has more museums than any city in the world. One count has Mexico City at 150, with Paris at 130.

Whatever the number, Mexico City has embraced the museum like no other, with collections of everything from carvings to cultures to acts of cruelty. Here are a few of the museums I saw. Needless to say, there are plenty left for my next trip.

National Museum of Anthropology

The gem in Mexico's museum crown, this is a massive building in Chapultepec Park, with almost 20 acres of exhibits filled with some 600,000 objects. But calling it an "anthropology" museum is selling it short. It's a history museum, a time capsule, with rooms devoted to civilizations from across Mexico: Aztec, Mayan, Zapotec and Olmec. There are huge dioramas of the Teotihuacan pyramids which, if you have time, you can visit in real life 30 miles outside the city.

Chapultepec Castle atop a hill dazzles visitors with its architecture and also the views of the city below.
Chapultepec Castle atop a hill dazzles visitors with its architecture and also the views of the city below.

Kavita Kumar, Star Tribune

Castillo de Chapultepec

Across the road lies this towering castle, built between 1785 and 1864 on a hill sacred to the Aztecs. As the official residence of the president, it was a de facto seat of power. In 1939, it was made the seat of the National Museum of History. It's a clear window into the country's past. As home to Mexico's aristocracy, it smacks of nostalgia for Europe. But the history section also has a fascinating alternative (to us) take on Mexico's war with the United States in 1846, during which the American flag was actually raised over the castle.

Museum of Folk Art

Once you've finished at Chapultepec Park (where there are also two major art museums) head over to the city's Centro Historico, where the museum density becomes much thicker. Among others, you'll find the Museo de Arte Popular, filled with color and light and the creations of people across Mexico. It's one of the most vibrant art museums I've ever been in, with a Volkswagen Beetle covered in beads ("El Vochol"), and an entire room of lively skeleton dioramas acting out their days of the dead.

Biblioteca Vasconcelos

Technically, this is a library. But as someone who loves books, I was told I had to go to this modern temple to the printed word. From the outside it looks like a brutalist pyramid. Inside, it feels like heaven for the bookish. Rows and rows of books are suspended overhead, flanked by glass walkways. The whole thing seems to hang weightlessly above the floor. As noted by Atlas Obscura, the mega-library "resembles something from a short story by the Argentinian magical realist author Jorge Luis Borges."

Mundo Chocolate Museum

I didn't actually go to the Chocolate Museum, but my daughters did. They enjoyed it, but I think they were expecting to eat chocolate more than learn about it. The small museum consists of about five rooms that follow the journey of chocolate from the plant to the mouth. At least now when they eat their Halloween candy, they'll have a better appreciation for the long tradition they're taking part in.

Many of Diego Rivera’s breathtaking murals can be seen at the National Palace in the heart of Mexico City.
Many of Diego Rivera’s breathtaking murals can be seen at the National Palace in the heart of Mexico City.

Kavita Kumar, Star Tribune

The National Palace

The National Palace is an obligatory stop. It's free. It's historic. It's gorgeous. Inside, you'll find a huge array of frescos painted by Diego Rivera and his assistants over some 25 years. They are colorful and packed with detail. They contain images of pre-Columbian life, the conquest, various wars and, of course, the Mexican Revolution.

Secretaría de Educación Pública

You wouldn't think of the Education Ministry as a place to see world-class art, but the building itself is more of a gallery than a museum, lined with some 120 murals painted by Rivera in the 1920s. They are simple, beautiful, symmetrical and more powerful (I thought) than those at the National Palace. But that may have been because I had the whole place to myself. Also, it's free.

Museum of Tequila and Mezcal

This is not the best museum in Mexico City, but it is good to see how these crops, so integral to Mexico's history, are made. One redeeming quality is that you get a small sample of both tequila and mezcal at the end or your visit. Another is that it's located in Plaza Garibaldi, the city's center for mariachi music, which I learned at the museum results from a blend of Mexican, African and European traditions.

Photography Archive Museum

If you weren't looking for this free museum, you would certainly miss it. Just off the main Zócalo square, it's dedicated to preserving photographic moments from Mexico's history. An exhibit featured photos from the 1960s excavation of the subway right through the heart of Mexico City. It was strange to see the futuristic vision of the subway architecture surrounded by a city with such a weight of history.

The Templo Mayor archaeological site in Mexico City.
The Templo Mayor archaeological site in Mexico City.

Eduardo Verdugo, Associated Press

Templo Mayor

The "Main Temple" was discovered in 1978 when electrical workers dug up an 8-ton stone disk with the relief image of the goddess Coyolxauhqui. Archaeologists soon realized that it was the site of the main temple of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, destroyed in 1521 for the construction of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Wander through the ruins and the museum, where you'll find information on the deities, offerings left at the temple (including human lives) and overviews of Aztec life and society.

Museum of Torture

Not to be confused with the Inquisition Museum down the street, the Museum of Torture features some of the same implements, but with a broader range. The Goat's Tongue, the Head Crusher, the Cat's Paw, the Iron Maiden: I'll leave these to your imagination. Suffice it to say that our ability to inflict suffering on each other does not lack creativity. One display contains what are thought to be the chains that shackled Christopher Columbus when he was sent back to Europe to be tried for cruelty and mismanagement.