Built on the ruins of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City is one of the oldest and largest cities in the Americas. Colonial architecture, iconic artwork, spicy cuisine, and a rich cultural heritage offer visitors an endless array of activities that will satisfy any appetite.
Centro Histórico: City of Palaces
The Aztecs built their empire on Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico—a great island city connected by canals and protected by fortresses. When Spanish conquerors arrived in Tenochtitlan in the 16th century, they destroyed the island, drained the lake, and constructed a “city of palaces” over the ruins. Past and present blend together in the 10-acre Historic Center of Mexico City—its museums, cathedrals, and temples reveal a storied past. The Zócalo, the city’s main public square, is second largest in the world after Moscow’s Red Square and within a short distance of several significant sites. Highlights include the Palacio Nacional, home to the president’s offices. The colonial building is located at the site where the palace of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma once stood, and it’s decorated with murals by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, built over a period of more than 200 years, is the largest in the Americas and combines Renaissance, baroque, and neoclassical architectural styles.
Xochimilco: Where the Flowers Grow
In the south of Mexico City, a network of canals weaves through a series of man-made islands in Xochimilco, the so-called “Venice of the New World.” Xochimilco, meaning “where the flowers grow,” is aptly named for its chinampas, or floating gardens. Farmers constructed reed rafts on the lake, slathered them with mud, and cultivated fruits, vegetables, and flowers right on the water. Over time, the gardens rooted and became islands. On weekends, trajineras, brightly decorated flat-bottom boats, carry passengers through the canals. Small boats also navigate the waterways, delivering drinks and snacks to lively passengers. The floating city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987—the only remaining example of traditional pre-Hispanic land use of the lagoons in the Mexico City basin.
Teotihuacan: City of the Gods
Mexico boasts more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country in the Americas, like the ancient archaeological site of Teotihuacan, located 45 minutes northeast of Mexico City. Lining the Avenue of the Dead, the monumental Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon stretch across the valley in geometric patterns—a model of urbanization and city planning that guided subsequent cultures. The towering structures represent only 10 percent of the total surface, a testament to one of the largest and most powerful cultural and artistic centers in Mesoamerica. In fact, this site is so awe-inspiring, some people believe it was built by aliens.
Art: Mesoamerica to Modern Mexico
Mexico City has more than 150 museums and galleries. The Soumaya Museum was designed by the Mexican architect Fernando Romero and is one of the most visited in Mexico City. It hosts a collection of more than 66,000 works spanning 3,000 years, including pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, 19th- and 20th-century Mexican art, and works by European masters such as Auguste Rodin, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. Palacio de Bellas Artes is a stunning work of early 20th-century architecture located in the Centro Histórico. The palace hosts temporary art exhibits and features permanent murals by some of Mexico’s most celebrated artists, including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Rufino Tamayo. The Dolores Olmedo Musuem’s beautiful five-building complex features a collection of pre-Hispanic, colonial, folk, and contemporary art, including a large collection of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
Bosque de Chapultepec: An Outdoor Oasis
At more than 1,600 acres, Chapultepec is Mexico City’s largest park and home to several significant historical sites. Near the park’s main entrance stands the Monument of Young Heroes, which honors six young cadets who refused to surrender at the Battle of Chapultepec in 1847 during the Mexican-American War. Follow the road to the top of the hill overlooking Mexico City, where Chapultepec Castle houses the National History Museum. Other attractions in the sprawling park include botanical gardens, a modern art museum, Tamayo Museum, and National Museum of Anthropology. Outside the main entrance of the anthropology museum, costumed entertainers perform the ancient rite of the voladores (fliers), in which four instrument-wielding men swing around a tall pole as if they were flying.
Coyoacán: Place of Coyotes
One of Mexico City’s “magical neighborhoods,” Coyoacán has vibrant cobblestone streets, colonial churches, and bustling markets that transport visitors back in time. The main plaza, Jardín Centenario (Centenario Garden), showcases a fountain honoring the coyote—the animal that gave Coyoacán, “the place of coyotes,” its name. Across from the plaza, the early 16th-century San Juan Bautista Cathedral towers into the sky, while vendors peddle toys and snacks outside. Sit down for some classic Mexican cuisine at Los Danzantes, and enjoy the scene. A 15-minute walk from the plaza leads to La Casa Azul (the Blue House), the former home of Mexican icon Frida Kahlo, which was converted into a museum after her death. If you’re feeling inspired, all sorts of Frida Kahlo-shaped earrings, T-shirts, and purses can be found in the Bazar Artesanal Mexicano, along with a multitude of other traditional handicrafts.
Cuisine: Spice Things Up
Fifty regional cuisines from across the country can be found in Mexico City. When you’re not savoring the vibrant street-food scene, the city offers fine-dining options at modest prices. At Guzina Oaxaca, chef Alejandro Ruíz uses fresh, organic ingredients to craft traditional dishes that transport diners to the southern state of Oaxaca. Adventurous eaters should order the delicacy, chapulines, or dried grasshoppers. Venture to Blanco Colima in the heart of Mexico City’s Roma Norte neighborhood. Operating out of a decadent 20th-century mansion, a blend of modern art with classical touches makes the atmosphere as exquisite as the cuisine. Looking to taste a little bit of everything? Mexican Food Tours offers a range of gastronomy tours and cooking classes.
Día de los Muertos: An Ancient Tradition
Each year from late October to early November, people throughout Mexico celebrate the pre-Hispanic traditions of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. In Mexico City, neon alebrijes—sculptures of fantastical beasts—line the streets in a splash of color. Ofrendas, or offerings, to dead loved ones can also be viewed throughout homes, cemeteries, and public spaces across the city. These altars are often draped in bright marigolds, sugar skulls, photos, food, and drink—gifts to welcome the dead back to the realm of the living. In 2016, Mexico City held its first ever Day of the Dead parade. Giant floats, colorfully costumed entertainers, and beautifully painted skeleton ladies (Catrinas) danced through the streets while thousands of joyful spectators lined sidewalks and balconies stretching from the Angel of Independence to the city’s main square. Día de los Muertos earned a spot on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.
Templo Mayor: Aztec Ruins
Beneath Mexico City lie the ruins of the pre-Hispanic Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, and its center was the Templo Mayor. In the mid-20th century, the religious site was discovered under the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral and excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s. Visitors can view pyramids, ceremonial platforms, and the complex’s main temples dedicated to the gods of war and rain. The Templo Mayor Museum showcases many of the era’s artifacts—which continue to be unearthed—such as obsidian knives, clay pots, masks, skulls, and urns.
Puebla: Must-Do Day Trip
Just two hours south of Mexico City, the colonial city of Puebla sits at the foot of the snowcapped Popocatépetl volcano. The enchanting historic center of Puebla—a UNESCO World Heritage site—has preserved baroque cathedrals, palaces, and azulejos (tiled houses) dating back to the 16th century. In the evening, the lively Zócalo buzzes with life, music, and food, and the charming pastel buildings and intricately designed churches light up against the night sky. A few blocks from the Zócalo, a large artisanal market sells textiles, tchotchkes, artwork, and more. Just a few miles away, the small town of Cholula is home to hundreds of beautiful churches, as well as the largest pyramid in the world. If you have more time to spend in Puebla, consider exploring the towns of Tochimilco, Atlixco, and Cuetzalan.