Mexico City is a fascinating capital that beguiles 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, though it doesn't have to be. Many of the most visited tourist attractions in Mexico City are concentrated in the historic center, including the Plaza de la Constitucion or Zocalo, the National Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral, Templo Mayor, Palace of Fine Arts and Alameda Park. A few blocks north of the Palace of Fine Arts, Plaza Garibaldi is one of the best places in Mexico City to hear live mariachi music.
Located west of the historic center, the Plaza de la Republica is home to the newly refurbished Revolution Monument and National Museum. Chapultepec Park, the largest in Mexico City, is divided into three sections and home to several of capital's top tourist attractions, including Chapultepec Castle, the Modern Art Museum and the National Museum of Anthropology. Keep in mind that, with a few exceptions, most museums and archaeological sites in Mexico City are closed on Mondays.
You'll also want to explore the neighborhoods of Zona Rosa, Roma, Condesa, Coyoacan and San Angel. Home to lovely parks, plazas, shops, markets, cafes and some of the top tourist attractions in Mexico City, these artsy neighborhoods are especially popular among visitors to the city and foreign residents. Nearby, in the trendy posh neighborhood of Polanco you'll find some of Mexico City's top nightspots and chic restaurants.
Further south, the University City campus of Mexico's National Autonomous University is known for its modern architecture and impressive murals that are the work of some of Mexico's top artists. The University Cultural Center hosts a variety of events and performances.
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 in the southern Xochimilco borough of Mexico City and north of the city at the Teotihuacán archaeological site. In Xochimilco you can hire a colorful trajinera (wooden boat) to tour the canals and gardens.
Plan a day trip to the ancient Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán, located 50km (31 miles) northeast of the city.
See & Do
• Templo Mayor, Mexico's Great Aztec Empire
Under the hustle and bustle of modern Mexico City lie the ruins of the pre-Hispanic Aztec capital, once known as Tenochtitlan. At the center of this ancient empire was the Templo Mayor, the most important religious area for the Aztecs. Archaeologists discovered it under the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, located in the Zocalo, in the mid-1900s and excavated in the 1970s. When the Spanish Conquerors arrived, they destroyed the temples and built over the Aztec empire and the great temple of Tenochtitlan. Still an active site, archeologists are continuously unearthing artifacts and structures.
Visitors can view sections of the two main religious temples (dedicated to the god of war and rain god), pyramids, serpent carvings, and shrines. Archeologists also recently discovered a ceremonial platform that they hope will provide deeper insight into Aztec culture and rituals. Templo Mayor was built of stone and covered with stucco and polychrome paint, some of which remains today.
Today the unearthed structures are open to the public along with the Templo Mayor Museum that houses many of the era's artifacts. When archeologists first started excavating the ruins they found thousands of objects that they understood were used as offerings. These relics housed in the Templo Mayor Museum include clay pots, coral, figurines, urns, masks, skulls, obsidian knives and a giant sculpture of the goddess of the moon along with a large monolith dedicated to her.
The historic complex of the Templo Mayor and its museum, part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site, are definitely two of Mexico City's main attractions.
• Teotihuacan, Place of the Gods
The ruins of Teotihuacan archaeological site are among the most remarkable in Mexico. The Aztecs believed that the gods created the universe in this ancient city that once flourished as the epicenter of culture and commerce during Mesoamerica's Classic period. Located about 50 km (30 miles) north of Mexico City makes an ideal day trip for history and anthropology buffs.
The site was inhabited from around 200 B.C. until its collapse almost one thousand years later. Teotihuacan is thought to have had a population of about 200 thousand inhabitants at its peak.
This ancient site is enveloped in mysteries that add to its intrigue and appeal. Experts do not know to what ethnic group the people of Teotihuacan belonged, nor what language they spoke. For this reason they are called Teotihuacanos. The name of the site, which means "place of the gods," comes from the Aztecs. By the time of the Aztec civilization, Teotihuacan had already been abandoned for hundreds of years, but the Aztecs considered it a sacred place full of myths and legends.
The principal road running through the center of Teotihuacan, called the Avenue of the Dead, is almost a mile and a half long, and about 130 feet wide. Many buildings surround the Avenue of the Dead. The Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan's most impressive structure towering more than 200 feet in height, presents a challenging but worthwhile climb. From the top you can appreciate the full extent of the site and the view is breathtaking.
More remarkable structures at Teotihuacan include The Pyramid of the Moon, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl.
There are several entrances. If you have a full day and wish to visit the whole site, it is best to go through the first entrance (Puerta 1). Begin at the site museum, then visit the Citadel, Temple of Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc. Now continue along the Avenue of the Dead to the pyramids. If your time is limited, you may wish to use the second or third entrances (Puerta 2 or Puerta 3) and just visit the more imposing structures: the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.
Refuel at Las Piramides restaurant on the second floor by the main entrance to the site and enjoy the panoramic view.
Teotihuacan is one of Mexico's largest and most impressive archaeological sites. This is a Mexico City day trip that you shouldn't miss.
• Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology
Mexico City, a teeming metropolis of intensity and innovation, has at its heart one of the most important museums in Mexico, Museo Nacional de Antropologia (The National Museum of Anthropology).
The Museum contains one of the world's largest collections of archaeological and anthropological artifacts from prehispanic Mayan civilizations to the Spanish conquest.
Located within Chapultepec Park, the Museum is one of the most comprehensive and impressive (almost 20 acres) facilities in the world. The modern architecture, designed by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, is characterized by its iconic umbrella roof supported by a single column, which represents a mythological tree and depicts eagles and jaguars—all important symbols to the prehispanic natives.
Each of the salons displays artifacts from a particular geographic region or culture. The Mesoamerican cultures displayed include: Teotihuacan, Toltec, Aztec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Olmec, and Maya. Be sure to see the Aztec Calendar, Piedra del Sol (Stone of the Sun), which shares similar aspects to the Mayan Calendar. The 12-foot, 25-ton, carved basalt slab, dating to the late 1400s, was discovered buried beneath the Zócalo. Other highlights include the reconstruction of an eighth century Mayan tomb and perfectly preserved skeleton, a replica model of the Templo Mayor, a copy of Aztec ruler Moctezuma's feathered headdress and massive Olmec heads.
Not all of the explanations are translated in English so you may want to hire a guide or rent an English audio guide. The museum is closed on Mondays.
• Three Days in Mexico City
A kaleidoscope of eras and mementos, of new experiences and splendors from past centuries, that is Mexico City. Here you can jump from on era to the next by just walking across the street. From the mysterious remains of the pre-Hispanic towns found right in the city's heart, such as the Templo Mayor, you can go to the colonial era with its endless temples and beautiful houses built of red volcanic rock, and patios with arches and water fountains. At sunset, the best option is to get pampered at a restaurant or bar on the Condesa district, a neighborhood with a captivating Art Noveau style; or at Coyoacan, a peaceful colonial neighborhood nestled along gardens and avenues that help you forget about the hectic life of such as a large city.
• Palace of Fine Arts
You won't want to miss Mexico City's imposing Palacio de Bellas Artes (Bellas Artes Palace), located about seven blocks the west of the Zócalo, next to the Alameda Central Park. Immediately you will see why this grandiose domed Palace is among the most important of the city's myriad sites and attractions.
Commissioned by President Porfirio Diaz to replace the previous National Theater that was demolished in 1901, Italian architect Adamo Boari began the project in 1904. The original plan was to finish the construction in time to celebrate the centenary of Mexican Independence in 1910, however work on the building was stalled initially due to construction issues and then the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. At the end of the Revolution, Mexican architect, Francisco Mariscal, continued the project, and the landmark was finally inaugurated in 1934.
The Palace hosts exhibitions and theatrical performances and is the main venue of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico. Beyond theater, the Palace also promotes visual arts, dance, music, architecture and literature. There are two museums housed within the building: the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes (Bellas Artes Palace Museum) that hosts temporary exhibits; and the Museo Nacional de Arquitectura (National Architecture Museum) that occupies the top floor of the building. There are epic murals on interior walls on the first and second floors by some of Mexico's greatest artists, including Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo. On the ground floor you will find a restaurant and bookstore.
One of the highlights of the Palace is the glass curtain in the main theater. Designed by Mexican artist, Dr. Atl, aka Gerardo Murillo, and built by Tiffany of New York, this impressive stage curtain is a stained-glass foldable panel representing the landscape of the Valley of Mexico with its two great volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztacchihuatl.
Get a bird's-eye view of the Palacio de Bellas Artes and other popular Mexico City attractions from lookout terrace located on the 44th floor of the Torre Latinoamericana, across the street
• Chapultepec Park Stroll
Covering an area of more than 1,600 acres, Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park) is Mexico City's largest oasis and one of the loveliest places to visit. Chapultepec Park, divided into three sections, is home to forests, lakes and several important sights and attractions, most of which are located in the first section near the Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City's main thoroughfare.
Situated at the end of a long paved path near the main entrance to the park, the Monumento a los Niños Heroes (Monument of Young Heroes) is one of Mexico City's most important monuments. Built in 1952, it honors six young cadets who refused to surrender to American troops during the Battle of Chapultepec in 1847.
From the monument, follow the road leading to the top of Chapultepec Hill and you'll arrive to the Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), formerly an imperial palace and presidential residence. Today, Chapultepec Castle houses the country's National History Museum. Outside you'll have marvelous panoramic views overlooking Mexico City.
More attractions located within this first section of Chapultepec Park include the Chapultepec Zoo, Botanical Gardens and several interesting museums such as the Modern Art Museum, Tamayo Museum and National Museum of Anthropology. The greatest museum in Mexico—and arguably one of the finest archaeology museums on the planet—the National Museum of Anthropology is so vast that it's often difficult to tour all of the exhibits during a single visit. Plan accordingly.
Another of the top tourist attractions is a cultural performance known as the rite of the voladores (flyers). This ancient ritual, believed to have originated in the state of Veracruz, is performed daily just outside the main entrance to the National Museum of Anthropology. It involves four men wearing traditional costumes and playing instruments while "flying" from the top of a tall pole to which they are attached by ropes. A fifth man remains at the top of the pole playing a flute and drum.
After visiting Chapultepec Park, enjoy a leisurely stroll along the Paseo de la Reforma. Several interesting Mexico City sights and attractions are located along this main boulevard including the Monumento a la Independencia, La Diana Cazadora and El Caballito, as well as numerous high-rise buildings, luxury hotels, shopping centers and the U.S. Embassy. A wide pedestrian promenade extends along the middle of the boulevard, making it easy to explore this area of the city on foot. On Sunday mornings the Paseo de la Reforma is closed to traffic to accommodate the city's cyclists.
• Go Bohemian in Roma and Condesa
The artsy, bohemian neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa make up a mostly residential area of Mexico City located southwest of the Centro Historico (Historic Center). They are separated from one another by Av. Insurgentes; Condesa is located to the west of the avenue and Roma to the east.
Roma and Condesa offer a pleasant change of pace from Mexico City's busy downtown. Spend the day wandering around the neighborhoods, taking in the tranquil atmosphere and admiring the beautifully restored Art Deco architecture, wide parks and welcoming plazas.
Situated just two blocks from where Roma and Condesa meet at Av. Insurgentes, Parque Mexico (Mexico Park), the centerpiece of the neighborhood, was originally built in the 1920's and incorporates many European features including fountains, ponds and walkways and an open-air theater.
Head one block in any direction and you'll arrive at Av. Amsterdam, a pleasant tree-lined street that circles the park. Grab a seat at one of the many sidewalk cafes and sip a coffee while taking in the scenery, or enjoy a glass of wine at El Encrucijada (Atlixco 168), a romantic little wine bar in Condesa that offers a good selection of quality vintages from Mexico's top wine producing regions.
This area is also great for browsing the local art galleries, shops and markets. The Mercado Medellín (Medellin Market) in Roma is famous for its attractive food displays and tasty fare. On weekends, the art market along Av. Álvaro Obregón is a local gathering spot.
The neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa are also known for having some of Mexico City's best shopping, dining and nightlife. Condesa offers a slightly more upscale experience with the addition of designer shops, high-end boutiques and luxury hotels. Many of the best places to eat in Mexico City are located along Av. Michoacan.
• A Cultural Tour of Mexico City
Thanks to the great number of museums, monuments, traditional neighborhoods, historical buildings and cultural centers, the Mexican capital is the city where there is no space for boredom. For those who like history and plastic arts, you just need to walk along the Historic Downtown and discover, practically at every corner, a museum with interesting exhibitions. Music lovers will not want to miss the shows at the Bellas Artes Museum. Chapultepec Park, with the National History Museum at the Chapultepec Castle, and the National Anthropology Museum, require a full day of your vacation agenda. Something no one should miss on this lively city is the Casa Azul, the home where the famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo lived, on the cozy Coyoacan neighborhood.