Mexico City is a fascinating capital that offers its visitors with endless options. One of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, with 16 boroughs and more than 300 neighborhoods, it might seem a bit overwhelming to the first-time visitor. However, many of the most visited tourist attractions in Mexico City are concentrated in the historic center.
Once the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City was originally constructed in the Valley of Mexico over the ancient Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs built an intricate network of canals to navigate the city. After the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, most of the Aztec structures and canals were destroyed and replaced with modern roads and buildings. History buffs will find the best remaining examples of ancient Aztec city planning at the Teotihuacán archaeological site. You can plan a day trip to the ancient Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán, located just 31 miles northeast of the city. There is plenty to see and do on your visit to the city.
What to See and Do
Historic Center & Zocalo
The beating heart of Mexico City is Zócalo and the historic center. The Plaza de la Constitución, Constitution Square, is where the country’s first constitution was proclaimed in 1813. Measuring some 240 meters in each direction, it’s one of the world’s largest squares. The Zocalo has been the center of Mexico City even before the Spanish arrived. Calling it a town square would be like calling Times Square a wide spot in the road. The square is dominated by three of the city’s most visited tourist attractions – the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Templo Mayor. Zócalo is the perfect place from which to begin exploring this historic city.
The enormous cathedral on the North side of the Zocalo was built over a period of 250 years and has a mixture of architectural styles. Like many buildings in Mexico City’s historical center, it is slowly sinking into the ground. An extensive engineering project was undertaken in the 1990s to rescue the building, not to stop the sinking, but to ensure that the cathedral would sink uniformly. Take a tour to the bell tower, offered several times each day, to enjoy the view of the plaza and rooftops from above.
Amid the greenery of Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico’s Central Park, rises one of the city’s gems, the Castillo de Chapultec. This is where presidents and emperors lived with pretensions of the French and Spanish courts. Sweeping marble staircases, gilded rooms, bejeweled personal effects, Versailles-like carriages and sprawling terraces with views all around speak to the ostentatious lifestyle that helped spark a peasant revolution.
The National Museum of Anthropology is one of the world’s great museums, housing the most significant collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts. Sculptures, stellae and frescoes of Aztec, Toltec, Olmec and Maya artists crackle with a vital energy. It’s chilling to be in their presence. The singular vision of these lost civilizations, a panoply of plumed serpents, shamans and skulls, has inspired artists ancient and modern. The Aztec sun disk, the museum’s breathtaking centerpiece, served as a gladiator’s ring and sacrificial altar in the Templo Mayor.
Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán and Templo Mayor
The most important site from the Atzecs can be found at Templo Mayor, home to remains of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán. In 1978, electric company workers digging beside the cathedral unearthed a large round stone depicting the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauqui, which spurred the excavation of he main Aztec temple. A highlight of a visit is a walkway past the precinct of the aristocratic “winged warriors” where remains of residences decorated with multi-colored reliefs have been unearthed, along with evidence of the original paintwork. The vast majority of relics and artifacts uncovered are housed in two museums: the Museum of the Templo Mayor built on the temple site, and the nearby National Museum of Anthropology, widely regarded as the most important museum in Mexico.
Frida Kahlo Museum
The Casa Azul or Blue House in Coyoacán was the family home of the famous artist and wife of painter Diego Rivera. They lived here during the last 14 years of her life. Their home, decorated with Mexican arts and crafts, allows visitors a glimpse into the private life of these eccentric artists.
Square of the Three Cultures
Another of Mexico City’s important historic squares is the Square of the Three Cultures. Occupying the site of the main square of the pre-Columbian town of Tlatelolco the square takes its name from its interesting mix of buildings from three different periods: Aztec, Spanish, and Modern. In addition to the principal pyramid, other Aztec remains include a number of smaller pyramids, platforms, staircases, walls, and altars, as well as a “tzompantli,” a wall of skulls and fine reliefs of Aztec calendar signs.