Mexico City (Ciudad de México), capital of the country, lies at an altitude of more than 2,200 meters in the Anáhuac Valley, surrounded by mighty mountain ranges. The city’s location is breathtaking; two magnificent snow-covered volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, tower above it at heights of more than 5,000 meters. The city preserves countless reminders of its past, though pre-Columbian art and architecture exist only in isolated fragments and museum reproductions since the Spanish Conquistadors built their new city on the ruins of the old Aztec metropolis of Tenochtitlán. A number of the splendid Baroque churches and palaces built during this early colonial period survive.
While Mexico City is big, both in terms of population and area, most of the city’s best tourist attractions and popular things to do are in the historic city centre (Centro Histórico de la Ciudad), a 15-square-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage Site containing more than 1,400 important buildings from the 16th to 19th centuries. For travellers, this is one of the best places to visit in Mexico as examples of the city’s Aztec origins and its Spanish colonization can all be enjoyed on foot.
Zócalo: The Birthplace of the Constitution
The beating heart of Mexico City is Zócalo – the Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square) – 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 and was laid out almost immediately after the conquest of the former Aztec city of Tenochtitlán on which it stands. In the early colonial period, the square served a variety of purposes, including as a bullfighting arena and market, while today, it’s used for festivals, parades, and demonstrations. Dominated by three of the city’s most visited tourist attractions – the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Templo Mayor with its Aztec relics – Zócalo is the perfect place to begin exploring this historic city.
The National Museum of Anthropology
One of the most important of its kind in the world, the National Museum of Anthropology lies in Chapultepec Park and is hard to miss due to the huge monolithic figure marking its entrance. Built-in 1964, this strikingly successful example of contemporary architecture is famous for its magnificent displays of old Indian art treasures, most notably in the Central Patio, part of which is roofed by a gigantic stone shelter supported by an 11-meter-tall column with waterfalls symbolizing the eternal cycle of life. As spectacular as the building itself is its vast collection, which includes archaeological finds from extinct Indian cultures along with details of the lifestyles of contemporary Indian inhabitants of Mexico. Other highlights include the National Library of Anthropology, founded by Lucas Alaman in 1831 and developed by Emperor Maximilian, which boasts more than 300,000 rare volumes.
Templo Mayor and the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán
Despite the widespread destruction after the defeat of the Aztecs, a number of their important historic sites have been unearthed and put on display in recent years. The most important site is Templo Mayor, home to remains of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán, including the first relic discovered in 1978, a finely sculpted round disc more than three meters in diameter and weighing eight-and-a-half tons. Further excavations – including the summit platform of an earlier pyramid with well-preserved temple walls, along with the skulls of sacrificial victims – indicate the temple site had been built over by the Aztecs and their predecessors 11 times. A highlight of a visit is a walkway past the precinct of the aristocratic “winged warriors,” where remains of residences decorated with multi-coloured reliefs have been unearthed, along with evidence of the original paintwork. Hot Tip: The vast majority of relics and artefacts 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.
The Palace of Fine Arts
One of Mexico City’s most important cultural landmarks, the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes) is an architectural gem. Towering over the adjacent park, this massive marble building – designed by Italian architect Adamo Boari with Art Nouveau and Art Deco influences – was completed in 1934 and is so heavy that it has sunk more than four meters, despite attempts to lighten it by removing part of its huge dome. The palace serves as an opera house and concert hall hosting a variety of traditional and international dance and operatic productions. But many visitors also come here to view the impressive murals adorning its interior by famous artists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente. On the 4th floor is the Museo Nacional de Arquitectura with rotating exhibits on contemporary architecture. Hot Tip: If you’re able to see a performance here, you’ll also be rewarded with a chance to enjoy the theatre’s stunning interior décor, including its spectacular glass-mosaic curtain, made by Tiffany’s of New York, depicting the Valley of Mexico and its two mighty volcanoes.
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
Dominating Zócalo square, the massive Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María) is one of the oldest and largest churches in the western hemisphere. Built atop part of the old Aztec temple precinct, construction of this massive basalt and grey sandstone structure began in 1525 and extended over 250 years. In spite of the two Neoclassical towers and certain other features, the façade creates a predominantly Baroque impression with its massive twisted columns. Standout features are the bell-towers added in 1793 and the statues of Faith, Hope, and Charity on the clock tower, dating from 1813. The cathedral’s interior also shows a mingling of styles, with particular highlights being the richly carved Altar of the Kings (Altar de Los Reyes) from 1739, with its superb devotional painting of the Assumption (Asunción de María) to which the cathedral is dedicated. Also of interest are a chapel containing the remains of Mexican Emperor Agustin de Iturbide, and the crypt with its tombs of many of the city’s archbishops, among them Juan de Zumárraga, the great teacher of the Indians and the first incumbent of the see.
The National Palace
Occupying the east side of Mexico City’s main square, Zócalo, the immense National Palace (Palacio Nacional), built of reddish tezontle stone and boasting a 200-meter-long façade, is the official residence of the president. Built on top of an Aztec palace, it was the seat of the Spanish viceroys during the colonial period and has been much altered and enlarged over the years. One of the oldest and finest buildings in the city, it includes such notable features as the Freedom Bell, rung on September 15th, 1810, at the start of the War of Independence (it’s rung on the anniversary of this event each year). The palace boasts many handsome rooms laid out around its 14 courtyards, some accessible to visitors, and the most notable being the arcaded Grand Courtyard with its fine frescoes depicting the country’s rich history. Don’t miss The History of Mexico mural by Diego Rivera, which adorns the grand staircase. The English language guided tours explore a museum, a number of large halls, and the parliamentary chamber in which the Reform Constitution of 1857 was drawn up (it and the Constitution of 1917 are on display). Other attractions here are the State Archives, with important historical documents, and the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, one of the country’s largest libraries.
Bosque de Chapultepec is Mexico City’s principal park and covering an area of more than four square kilometres, it is also its largest. Once a stronghold of the Toltecs, it was here in AD 1200 that the Aztecs settled, and according to legend, laid out a park in the early 15th century. Over time, the hill became a summer residence of the Aztec rulers with water from its springs conveyed to the temple precinct in the capital by means of an aqueduct, the remains of which can still be seen in Avenida Chapultepec. Portraits of the Aztec rulers were carved on the slopes of the hill, remnants of which can still be seen.
These days, the park is popular for its lakes, sports facilities, botanic garden, and museums – you’ll find both the National History Museum and the National Museum of Anthropology here – along with numerous fun events, including concerts and theatrical performances. Also of interest are the Museum of Modern Art (Museo de Arte Moderno), opened in 1964 and important for its retrospective look at Mexican art before and during the colonial period and its collection of pictures and sculpture by Mexican artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Chapultepec Zoo is also here with a surprising diversity of animals from around the world.
Paseo de la Reforma and the Angel of Independence
The principal east-west traffic artery of Mexico City, Paseo de la Reforma extends for 15 kilometres from Tlatelolco to the residential district of Las Lomas but is best known for the stretch from Avenida Benito Juárez to Chapultepec Park. Here, this attractive boulevard widens to 60 meters with a pleasant green stripe in the middle containing busts and monuments to numerous national heroes. While now largely known as a busy entertainment and shopping area, this magnificent avenue – laid out during the reign of Emperor Maximilian – is home to a number of important attractions, most notably the massive Independence Monument (Monumento a la Independencia), also known as “El Angel” for the figure of a winged goddess of victory standing atop its tall 36-meter column. In addition to its fine statues of the heroes of the country’s independence movement is the Mausoleum, with its many skulls of some of the country’s most important historical figures.
National History Museum
Another of Mexico City’s world-class attractions is the National History Museum (Museo Nacional de Historia). Housed in the 18th-century Chapultepec Castle (Castillo de Chapultepec), on a site once occupied by Aztec buildings and later by a Spanish hermitage, the museum opened in 1944 and is home to an impressive collection of pre-Columbian material and reproductions of old manuscripts, as well as a vast range of exhibits illustrating the history of Mexico since the Spanish conquest. Highlights include arms and armour, documents, maps, and plans of the Conquest period and its immediate aftermath; ceramics, clothing, jewellery, and coins from three centuries; relics and souvenirs of the struggle for independence and the revolutionary wars; portraits of leading figures in Mexican history; and a number of state carriages, including those used by Benito Juárez and Emperor Maximilian. Also of interest are the apartments occupied by Maximilian and Charlotte, decorated in Neoclassical style and containing furniture brought from Europe. The castle also offers beautiful views over the city.
Coyoacán & the Frida Kahlo Museum
Laced with atmospheric cobblestone streets, Coyoacán is one of Mexico City’s oldest neighborhoods. Take time to stroll around the maze of laneways here and explore the hidden plazas, colonial-style mansions, and art-filled old churches like San Juan Bautista. You can also sample exotic fruits and vegetables at the markets. One of the top tourist attractions in the town is the Frida Kahlo Museum in La Casa Azul (The Blue House), where the famous Mexican artist was born and where she frequently returned throughout her life. Here, you can view some of her most important paintings, as well as works by her famous husband, the mural artist Diego Rivera, and personal items from the couple’s life. Note that it’s best to purchase tickets in advance.
An easy way to see all the highlights of Coyoacán is on the full-day Mexico City Super Saver Tour. This 11-hour excursion begins with a guided tour through the neighbourhood, including a visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum and North America’s oldest university, as well as a boat tour along the canals of the UNESCO-listed ecological reserve, Xochimilco.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Said to have attracted its first pilgrims when it opened in 1531, the Roman Catholic Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe) attracts millions of visitors and worshipers each year, particularly during the Feast Day each December 12th. Built adjacent to the hill where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared, the site consists of a complex of buildings overlooking a broad public square adorned with a number of interesting modern sculptures, including a large concrete cross with a unique clock and chime. Highlights include a splendid altarpiece dedicated to Mary in the 16th-century Old Basilica, and the new Basilica de Guadalupe, built-in 1976, and notable for its distinctive modern curved appearance.
Alameda Central, a shady and beautifully kept park with many splendid fountains and sculptures, was laid out in 1592 on the site of a once busy Aztec market. It remains a bustling location to this day, especially at Christmas, when it is beautifully illuminated and decorated. Next to the park is the stunning Palacio de Bellas Artes, which hosts music and theatrical performances as well as important art exhibitions. Address: Av Hidalgo S/N, Cuauhtémoc, Centro, 06010 Ciudad de México