Historic Center Walking Tour, Mexico City

Historic Center Walking Tour (Self Guided), Mexico City

Mexico City is both the oldest capital in the Americas and one of the two founded by indigenous people. Originally known as Mexico Tenochtitlan, it was built by the Mexica (Azteca) people in 1325. According to legend, the Mexicas' principal god, Huitzilopochtli, indicated the site for the future settlement by presenting a golden eagle perched on a prickly pear devouring a rattlesnake.

After the Spanish conquest, in the early 1500s, Spaniards began to build what is now modern Mexico City on the ruins of the conquered Tenochtitlan, in many cases using the stones from the fallen Mexica temples to construct their own churches and palaces. The original layout was retained largely intact. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the conquistadors accumulated great fortunes, mostly through mining and commerce. This wealth is reflected in the various mansions scattered throughout the downtown, such as the Casa de Azulejos (House of Tiles).

Five centuries later, the historic center of today's capital (Spanish: Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México), roughly correlates with the ancient Tenochtitlan, with pre-Colombian heritage embedded in the tapestry – grid, toponyms, and, quite literally, the architecture.

The area contains most of the city's historic sites from both eras, plus a large number of museums, owing to which it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. Local landmarks are numerous and include, among others, the Baroque-style Catedral Metropolitana and the Palacio Nacional, home to the historic murals by Diego Rivera depicting pre-Hispanic life and the history of the Mexican nation after the Conquest. These are found in and near the Zócalo, the city's main square.

Formally known as Plaza de la Constitución, this plaza is the largest in Latin America, capable of holding up to 100,000 people at a time. From here, the Historic Center extends in all directions for several blocks, reaching as far as the Alameda Central Park in the west.

Needless to say that the neighborhood, centered around this massive plaza, draws tourists in their numbers. Here you will find many iconic buildings, such as the art nouveau Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Templo Mayor archaeological site with the adjoining museum. Street vendors and basic taquerías coexist harmoniously with high-end restaurants along the bustling pedestrian Calle Madero.

The Palace of Iturbide, a large 18th-century palatial home at #17 Madero Street, owes its name to Agustín de Iturbide, Mexico's first emperor after its independence from Spain, who used to live here.

The Torre Latinoamericana, one of the best-known skyscrapers in Latin America, is a more modern addition to the cityscape, and was completed in 1956.

To explore these and other attractions in the ancient, yet vibrant historic heart of Mexico City, follow this self-guided tour!
How it works: Download the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" from iTunes App Store or Google Play to your mobile phone or tablet. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and its built-in GPS navigation functions guide you from one tour stop to next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Historic Center Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historic Center Walking Tour
Guide Location: Mexico » Mexico City (See other walking tours in Mexico City)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.7 Km or 1.7 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Zocalo (Constitution Square)
  • Palacio Nacional (National Palace)
  • Sagrario Metropolitano
  • Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral)
  • Templo Mayor (The Great Temple)
  • Madero Street
  • Palacio de Iturbide
  • Iglesia de San Francisco (Church of San Francisco)
  • Torre Latinoamericana (Latin-American Tower)
  • Casa de Azulejos (House of Tiles) / Sanborns Cafe
  • Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Palace)
  • Alameda Central Park
  • Museo Mural de Diego Rivera
Zocalo (Constitution Square)

1) Zocalo (Constitution Square) (must see)

One of the world's largest public squares, Plaza de la Constitución, also known as Zócalo, was one of the city's main market areas from the days of Tenochtitlán (circa 14th century), in addition to being a place of ritual and celebration. In the 1860s, Emperor Maximilian I banned merchants and created a Parisian-style park, with tree-lined walkways and benches.

Later on, following the Mexican Revolution, the plaza was cleared of all its trees, grass, and ornamentation. A giant Mexican flag (ceremoniously lowered every evening at 6pm), now has pride of place in the center of the plaza, and in the heat of the day you can see crowds of people taking shelter in the flagpole's shade. Concerts, performance art, large assemblies, and, every December, a massive ice-skating rink, are other things to watch for.

Take a moment to feel the energy and history of this grand plaza, then proceed to exploring the blocks surrounding it – dense with impressive architecture, fascinating museums, and some of the best traditional restaurants in the city (El Cardenal), as well as many must-see landmarks, including the pre-Colombian ruins of the Templo Mayor, the National Museum of Art, and the Casa de los Azulejos (or "House of Tiles").

Why You Should Visit:
No trip to Mexico City would be complete without a wander around this amazing array of diversity/eclecticism. In the Zócalo and its surroundings, one can appreciate the Mexican history written on the walls of each surrounding building, can enjoy good cuisine, and can witness an entertainment event of national significance.

There is not much shade in this square and the area really traps in the heat, so consider opting for a cooler part of the day for maximum enjoyment. Alternatively, go up to the Hotel Gran Ciudad de México's terrace for a great photo, or have lunch at Balcón del Zócalo, a rooftop restaurant in the Zócalo Central Hotel, which has gorgeous views of the cathedral and plaza.
Palacio Nacional (National Palace)

2) Palacio Nacional (National Palace) (must see)

The deep-red facade of the Palacio Nacional stretches grandly across the Zócalo's eastern edge. After the destruction of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the palace was constructed for Hernán Cortés, though it later became the official home for Spanish viceroys governing the colonies. After independence, it became the seat of government, and the bell from the church in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, was hung over the presidential balcony. It was this bell that the Roman Catholic priest, Miguel Hidalgo rang while issuing his famous battle cry, or “Grito de Dolores”, which heralded the start of the War of Independence from Spain. On Independence Day, September 15th, crowds of Mexicans and foreigners gather at the Zócalo to hear the president of Mexico repeat the “Grito de Dolores” from the balcony before the national anthem is sung.

The show-stoppers here are Diego Rivera's spectacular epic murals in the north plaza and stairwell. A monumental work of composition and color, Rivera executed this chronicle of Mexico's history between 1929-51. The panel entitled “The Great City of Tenochtitlán” provides a detailed rendering of the Mexica city, viewed from the market in Tlatelolco, while other panels illustrate the period of the Spanish conquest and subsequent centuries of exploitation/industrialization.

Why You Should Visit:
An oasis of quiet and beauty just off the main plaza which is always brimming with people. Great little bookstore on site, as well as a branch of Fonart.

Since this is a government building, security is strict: you have to give up either your driver's license or passport to gain entry (easily retrieved on exiting). Bags, bottled water, hats and sunglasses are prohibited. On the plus side, guards are polite and entry (free) is fairly quick.
Follow the signs across the courtyard, and see the vast murals depicting the history of Mexico, which are considered Diego Rivera's greatest work. You will either need to give them a cursory quick-over, or much better – hire a guide or use a detailed guide book to not only understand the magnitude of Rivera's work but the undertaking of centuries of history.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 9am–5pm
Sagrario Metropolitano

3) Sagrario Metropolitano

Attached to the larger Metropolitan Cathedral flanking Mexico City's Zocalo, you will find the Sagrario, considered a masterpiece of Churrigueresque Baroque architecture in Latin America. Built in the 18th century to keep the archives and vestments of the archbishop, it has been declared a UNESCO landmark and is impressive in its own way.

With geometric designs in the form of pilasters, the altarpiece pattern in the facade has a unique resemblance to the main altarpiece inside the church, which in turn, resembles the Altar of the Kings inside the neighboring cathedral. The high altar has twelve stained glass windows in the neoclassical architectural style, but is not made of wood or gold like those in other churches – instead, it uses white stone in the shape of a Greek cross, surrounded by walls of 'tenzontle' (a reddish porous volcanic rock) which may be the church's most distinguishing feature.

The Sagrario Metropolitan stands on a drained lake and its foundations are slowly sinking because of the instability of the soil beneath. Efforts are underway to stabilize the building and other nearby structures.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 8am–8pm
Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral)

4) Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) (must see)

Dominating the Zócalo to the north, the Metropolitan Cathedral is a mortar-and-stone representation of the central role of the Catholic Church in Mexico's past and present. A modest church was built on this site in 1524, over the location of the destroyed Aztec palace of Moctezuma. Shortly thereafter, New Spain's governors commissioned the construction of a bigger, grander church to fit their vision for the City of Palaces. The first stone of the new cathedral – now the oldest and largest in the Western Hemisphere – was laid in 1553, but it wasn't completed for 240 long years. Over the centuries, different architects have left their mark on both the interior and exterior, which boast a dazzling array of Baroque (façade), Neo-Classical (dome), Renaissance and even Chugeressco styles.

Within the cathedral's two bell towers, 25 multi-ton bells are still rung by hand. During the earthquake of September 19, 2017, a cross known as La Esperanza, which topped the eastern tower, toppled and fell to the ground. Tours of the bell towers have since been suspended indefinitely. An exceptional collection of paintings, colored statues, and glittering altarpieces adorn the interior, which also houses the largest 18th-century organs in the Americas – hence the frequent concerts with a focus on organ and choral music.

It's a functioning cathedral so be mindful of that, and try to avoid mass. Walk down the sloping floor from the alter towards the back of the church, and look for the large pendulum suspended from the ceiling which tracks how much the building has sunk by marking a record on the floor. Look also at doorways and columns to see how the church – and many of the other heavy old buildings – are leaning and sinking; don't miss the Black Jesus, or "Lord of Poison" statue in the chapel at the back (but do read in advance the story for which it is famous); seek out the chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a chapel on the quiet side of the church, and see the depiction of when Saint Juan Diego opened his cloak before archbishop Zumárraga (again, read the story in advance – anecdotally, Mexicans seem to believe that their Saint takes precedence over Jesus); and, finally, go outside to see where one of the crosses fell from the roof during the 2017 earthquake.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 8am–8pm
Templo Mayor (The Great Temple)

5) Templo Mayor (The Great Temple) (must see)

A massive temple-pyramid in the heart of the Tenochtitlán empire, Templo Mayor was the crown jewel and the absolute center of the Mexica world until the Spanish conquest. First built around 1325, the structure was enlarged by successive Mexica rulers, eventually reaching around 60 meters high. Dual staircases led up its face to two crowning temples, one dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war, and the other to Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture.

After the Spanish siege on Tenochtitlán, the Templo Mayor was razed, but not all its traces could be erased. On February 21, 1978, electric company workers digging near the cathedral uncovered an 8-ton monolith adorned with carvings of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. The discovery prompted a major excavation of the site. After demolishing four city blocks, archaeologists uncovered the base of the Templo Mayor, along with a multitude of artifacts. In 2017, the space was expanded to reveal the partial remains of a round temple dedicated to the god Ehécatl, now open to the public.

The archaeological site is accompanied by a fascinating 8-room museum which holds an extensive collection of pre-Colombian pieces, the majority recovered during the Temple's major excavation, including the Coyolxauhqui stone. Among other artifacts detailing Aztec religion, culture, social structure, agriculture, trading, politics and symbolism, the museum contains a four-meter-long carved monolith dedicated to the goddess Tlaltecuhtli, sometimes referred to as the "earth monster" or "source of all living things", discovered in 2006. The Cuahxicalli Eagle, a representation of a golden eagle with a bowl in its back for receiving the hearts of human sacrifices, is also on display, its level of detail as fixating as ever.

Why You Should Visit:
One of the only places – if not the only place – displaying significant Aztec ruins. You can follow the construction of the seven successive pyramids, as well as the excavation of the Eagle Warrior Temple. The museum is also very worthwhile, well laid out with some impressive artifacts and exhibits, and worth 2-4 hours, depending on your level of interest.

The outside part can get very hot. Make sure to wear a hat and stay hydrated, or try to avoid the midday sun. If wishing to climb the Pyramid of the Sun, head there first because long lines can form early.
If you are not Spanish speaking, then check to see if audio guides are available because aside for some signage, most of the museum's text content is not translated in other languages.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 9am–5pm; free Sun for MX citizens/residents
Visitors can make reservations for a guided tour in English
Madero Street

6) Madero Street

A major thoroughfare of the historic city center and one of its most vibrant pedestrian streets, Madero Street houses some of the oldest and most distinguished buildings in Mexico City, many incongruously occupied by fast-fashion retailers and convenience stores. Among the standouts here are the 18th-century Palace of Iturbide – vestige of the brief reign of Agustín de Iturbide as self-proclaimed emperor, now a venue for art exhibitions; the 16th-century Church of San Francisco – once part of the largest convent in New Spain, now closely joined by the Torre Latinoamericana right beside it – the only skyscraper downtown; and the unmistakably iconic, blue-and-white-tiled Casa de Azulejos.

The street itself was one of the first to be drawn of the new Spanish city on the ruins of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, and has since been one of the capital's most popular roads – a people-watching heaven. It was named in honor of one of the most important figures in the Mexican Revolution – Francisco I. Madero, whose ideology focused on the search of democracy (free right to vote, no re-election) and who briefly served as President of Mexico before his assassination in 1913.

For incredible original gifts, clothing and accessories – all designed in Mexico and at a fair price for the quality – don't miss the hip HAPPENING store at #10C (Mon-Fri: 12–8pm; Sat: 11–8pm; Sun: 11–6pm).
Palacio de Iturbide

7) Palacio de Iturbide

A massive baroque mansion with elaborate sandstone carvings surrounding the windows and door frames, the Antiguo Palacio de Iturbide was constructed between 1779-85 for the family of Count San Mateo de Valparaíso, a descendant of one of the original conquistadors, as part of his daughter's dowry. However, the palace is best known as the home of Emperor Agustín de Iturbide, who lived here briefly during his short reign during the tumultuous post-Independence era.

Banamex, the National Bank of Mexico, purchased the palace in 1964, and after a decade-long renovation project, it became the home of the Fomento Cultural Banamex, a foundation dedicated to the promotion and exhibition of Mexican art and handcraft; it was officially inaugurated as the Palacio de Cultura Banamex in 2004. The foundation now hosts high-quality exhibitions of painting, folk art, and exceptional craft in the palace's impressive courtyard; recent shows have included a review of Mexica's ancient mythological traditions, 16th-century architecture, and a selection of amazing Mazahua textiles.

Browse at the small but well appointed book/art shop (some art pieces may be high-priced, but are great to look at).

Opening Hours:
[Free general admission] Tue-Sat: 10am–7pm; Sun: 10am–6pm
[Free general guided tours] Tue-Sun: 11am/1pm/4pm
Iglesia de San Francisco (Church of San Francisco)

8) Iglesia de San Francisco (Church of San Francisco)

The Templo y Convento de San Francisco was once part of the largest convent in New Spain, whose chapels, monastery, hospital, and orchards covered 30,000 square meters. Destroyed during the 19th-century Reformation, only this church remains; apparently, the third to be built on the site in the 1710s, after the two sunk into the soft soil underneath Mexico City and had to be torn down.

Although, the entire building is known as the San Francisco Church, the entrance on Madero Street is actually the entrance to what was a side chapel in the once enormous complex, as the main facade is walled in and cannot be seen. Nonetheless, you can still witness a glimpse of the San Francisco's past glory: in front of the chapel is an atrium with several sets of stairs leading down to the church below (because it, too, is sinking). Inside there is an 18th-century gold-covered altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe as well as the entrance to what was once the Chapel of the Second Station.

As you explore Centro Histórico, make sure you mark this on your map for an important milestone of Mexican faith.
Torre Latinoamericana (Latin-American Tower)

9) Torre Latinoamericana (Latin-American Tower)

The iconic Torre Latinoamericana was the capital's tallest building at its inauguration in the 1950s. Though it long ago lost that distinction, the old New York-type building is still the only skyscraper downtown, giving its top floors one of the most privileged vantage points in the city – worth the time (and vertigo) to visit.

On the building's 44th floor, an open-air observation deck affords tremendous, panoramic views of the city in every direction. On clear days, the snow-capped volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl may even be visible to the southeast. If you're feeling a little vertigo, take heart: The tower was specially designed to withstand Mexico City's seismic instability and soft topsoil, with a foundation reaching deep into the earth and a flexible structure that sways with ground movement. Indeed, the Torre Latinoamericana survived the 1957 (7.9), 1985 (8.1), and 2017 (7.1) earthquakes.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am–10pm
Casa de Azulejos (House of Tiles) / Sanborns Cafe

10) Casa de Azulejos (House of Tiles) / Sanborns Cafe

It's impossible not to spot this lavish colonial-era palace with its striking three sides completely covered in blue and white tiles. After extensive restoration, the property was converted into a a café-restaurant for the Sanborns chain (owned by Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest men), where locals linger over coffee.

There are two conflicting explanations of how the building got its current appearance. The more reliable version states that a countess who resided in Puebla decided to return to the capital after her husband's death and remodeled the house with Puebla tile in 1737, to show the family's immense wealth. The other version is more colorful and tells of a son whose lifestyle caused his father to state that if he didn't change his ways he would "never build his house of tiles", i.e. he would never amount to anything. As an act of defiance, the young man had the tiles put on when he inherited the house.

Inside, the main courtyard contains a graceful fountain surrounded by highly decorated columns and topped with mosaics and porcelain crowns, as well as a stained glass roof that was added in the 20th century. The overall look to the courtyard is generally Baroque, but also somewhat Oriental or Mudéjar.

Food is reasonable and affordable, but the building is the star of the show, with the grandest toilet entrance you'll have ever seen! The upstairs balcony is an ideal spot to take in the atmosphere and grandeur of the house as you eat.

Opening Hours:
[Sanborns] Daily: 7am–1am
Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Palace)

11) Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Palace) (must see)

The majestic Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of the city's finest buildings and a highly respected cultural institution that hosts live performances and art exhibitions overseen by the Mexican Institute of Fine Arts. Directed by Italian architect Adamo Boari, construction on the palace began in 1904 but halted when the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910. Twenty years later, architect Federico Mariscal took over the project, completing the rooftop cupola and the building's interiors in Art Deco style. In the opulent main auditorium, a stunning Tiffany glass curtain, stretching up 200 feet or more, was designed by Mexican artist Dr. Atl. Even if you don't see a show, you can tour the auditorium.

On the 2nd and 3rd floors, the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes has hosted some of the most important art shows of the past decade, including a 2007 Frida Kahlo retrospective. Admission includes access to the Palacio's many murals, which features David Alfaro Siqueiros' "Nueva Democracia" on the 2nd level. On another wall, Diego Rivera's 1934 "El Hombre Contralor del Universo" (known as "Man at the Crossroads" in English) was originally commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, though, famously, the business magnate canceled the project when Rivera included a likeness of Lenin in the piece.

Why You Should Visit:
A wondrous building / concert hall – great for exploring the murals, art exhibitions, or watching the famed Ballet Folklórico which performs in the theater every Tuesday and Sunday, and showcases traditional dances and music from across Mexico.

If you want to see the Tiffany "glass curtain", you can join a tour provided for free every Friday at 1:30pm.
If you want a great picture, go up the Latin-American Tower across the street and find your way to the observation deck.
If you want free admission, visit on a Sunday, but it will be very busy, and you'll still need to queue at the box office inside.

Opening Hours:
Mon: 11am–7pm; Tue-Sun: 10am–7pm
Alameda Central Park

12) Alameda Central Park

Adjacent to Palacio de Bellas Artes, Alameda Central is the largest oasis of greenery in downtown Mexico City and the oldest public park in the Americas. Although flanked by major avenues on all sides, this tree-filled garden offers a quiet respite from the bustle of the Centro Histórico and frequently hosts civic events.

Centuries ago, the area served as an Aztec marketplace. The park was created in 1592, when Viceroy Luis de Velasco II ordered the creation of a public green space for the city's residents as part of gentrification plan for what was, back then, the western edge of the city. Its name comes from the Spanish word álamo, which means poplar tree (planted here in abundance).

The original park was less than a half of its current size, reaching only from where the Palacio de Bellas Artes is today to the location of the Hemiciclo de Juárez. What is now the western section of the park originally was a plain plaza built during the Inquisition in Mexico and known as El Quemadero (The Burning Place). Here, witches and those convicted of heresy were publicly burned at the stake. By the 1760s, the Inquisition had nearly come to an end, and in 1770, viceroy Marqués de Croix had this plaza torn up to expand the park.

The latter was expanded further in 1791, when the Count of Revillagigedo built a wooden fence around it to make it exclusive for the nobility. However, when Mexican Independence won in 1821, the Alameda became the center of popular celebrations. In 1846, when President Santa Anna rode triumphantly into Mexico City, he ordered the fountains in the park to be filled with alcohol.

On the south side of the park, facing toward the street is the Hemiciclo a Juárez, a large white semi-circular monument of 8 marble columns dedicated to Benito Juárez, one of Mexico's most beloved presidents.

There are also five classical fountains, of French design, inspired by Greco-Roman mythology. Much of the park's current layout, with its starburst pattern of paths around fountains and the central kiosk, dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The park's statues include Désespoire and Malgré Tout, by Jesús Fructuoso Contreras, and a monument to Beethoven donated by the German community in commemoration of the centenary of his 9th Symphony.

Alameda's popular spirit has been celebrated by Diego Rivera in his famous work "Sundays on the Alameda Central", located in the Museo Mural Diego Rivera on the park's west end.
Museo Mural de Diego Rivera

13) Museo Mural de Diego Rivera (must see)

Diego Rivera painted a famous mural that takes viewers down the history of Mexico on the wall of the Hotel Prado in 1947. The hotel was badly damaged by the earthquake that shook Mexico City in 1985. The mural called 'Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park' was saved and shifted to its present location, the Museo Mural de Diego Rivera in 1986.

It is a large mural, 15 meters long and 4 meters high, that shows the history of Alameda Park from the time of Cortes to the times of the murder of democratically elected president Franciso Madero and the ensuing years of civil unrest. Many important people who helped shape the history of Mexico are shown in the mural, though not in chronological order.

Visitors to the museum can sit in comfortable chairs and marvel at the vast mural that stretches before them. English and Spanish guides help visitors recognize the figures in the mural and explain the role they played in shaping Mexico’s history.

Why You Should Visit:
The one single mural here makes the place unforgettable – not only for its size but also for its complexity.
Great way to start an exploration of Rivera's murals!

You also can walk on the back of the mural to see the special structure built to support it in case of another earthquake.
If you're lucky enough to visit on a Saturday or a Sunday and it's a nice day, you will see much activity in the square next-door...

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 10am-5:30pm; closed on Mondays
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

Walking Tours in Mexico City, Mexico

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Famous Religious Edifices Walking Tour

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Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.9 Km or 1.2 Miles
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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.8 Km or 2.4 Miles
Zona Rosa Walking Tour

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.7 Km or 2.3 Miles
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Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.8 Km or 1.1 Miles

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