Mexico City is enormous. The city is home to nearly 9 million people, with 21 million in the metro area. There are cultural activities, historical landmarks, and everything else a city of that size would be expected to have. It is, therefore, impossible to see everything on a visit here. So I, like most, have chosen to pursue the greatest hits.

The historical center of Mexico City (Centro Historico) is the old colonial part of the city. It is very walkable, and safe. Cobblestone streets are lined with stores, cafes, hotels, and churches. The facades of the buildings, where original, are beautiful.

Even in the Centro Historico, it is impossible to visit the dozens of museums and historic sites, so one needs to prioritize. I walked through the Alameda Central, the oldest park in North America, and home to the city’s incredible fine arts museum, the Palacio de la Bellas Artes.

The park is also home to a beautiful monument to Benito Juarez, former President of Mexico and founder of modern Mexican democracy.

Take some time and walk around, but make sure to devote a full day to the Zocalo, or Plaza de la Constitucion, the main square of Mexico City. The Zocalo is home to the top three sights in the city: the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace, and the Templo Mayor.

The Cathedral (pictured above) is the most iconic structure in the city, and dominates the square. Built in sections from 1573 to 1813, it is a huge stone building, with two bell towers offering melodies on the hour. It is a functioning church in a very Catholic nation, so don’t be surprised if a service is taking place in at least one chapel during your visit. 

The main sanctuary is cavernous and richly decorated, as to be expected.

Admission to the Metropolitan Cathedral is free, with a 35 peso fee to go to the top of the towers.

While the cathedral is on the north side of the square, the entire eastern side is home to the massive facade of the Palacio Nacional, or National Palace. Entrance is free, but as it is still a working governmental building (with a ceremonial set of Presidential offices – the main ones moved from here in the late part of the 20th century), you will need your passport, which you’ll exchange for a pass. 

Free tour guides are around, offering rapid 30-45 minute guides through the highlights of the building. There is a museum dedicated to the 1917 constitution, and other exhibits, but the gem of the palace is the murals of Diego Rivera.

No photos can do them justice. This mural, which Rivera painted from 1929-1935, contains the entire history of Mexico. Others are dedicated to some of the native tribes that existed here prior to the Spanish conquest.

They are incredible works, and while there are other Diego Rivera murals around the city, these are the most plentiful and – in my opinion – the best. I am grateful for my tour guide, Jorge, who pointed out features I missed on my earlier walk-through. The tour was free, and the tip was money well spent.

Just to the northeast of the Zocalo, between the National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral, lies the Templo Mayor. When Hernan Cortes conquered the area in 1521, this area was home to the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan, a city of more than 200,000 inhabitants. Cortes burned it to the ground, and Mexico City was built on top of the ruins, which lie under early every part of the Centro Historico.

In 1917, when installing power lines, an electric company found these ruins. It was not until 1978, though, that the Templo Mayor was realized to be the central temple of Tenochtitlan, and excavations began.

The site is now half archeological park and half museum, with one 70 peso entrance fee. Give yourself at least an hour for each.

The Templo Mayor was built around 1400, and dedicated to two gods, the deities of rain and of war. Subsequent rulers each enlarged the central pyramid and built other buildings. You can see those enlargements as you walk around.

The main altars are still relatively intact.

Most of the artifacts discovered in the excavation are located in the Museum, a beautifully laid out collection explaining much of the culture of the Aztec people. 

It is truly phenomenal to walk through both the temple and the museum, experiencing a bit of this incredible culture right in the middle of Mexico City.

No matter what you do in Mexico City, or how much time you have, the Centro Historico is a must-see, and a day spent at the Zocalo allows for the top three sights in a single place.

4 thoughts on “Mexico City: The Historical Center

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