One of the world’s mega-cities, with over 25 million people occupying a shallow mountain bowl at over 2400m above sea level, Mexico City has to be seen to be believed. Bursting beyond the official federal district, the sprawling city is edgy, yet laid-back and cosmopolitan. Around the city lie the chief relics of the pre-Hispanic cultures of central Mexico. Here you'll find the massive pyramids of Teotihuacán and the main Toltec site at Tula. Read our Mexico City travel guide for everything you need to know before you go.
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A brief history of Mexico City
The Aztecs founded their capital of Tenochtitlán in 1325 on an island in the middle of a lake. From here their empire grew to cover the whole of central Mexico. Hernán Cortés and his troops arrived in 1519, taking the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II, prisoner and attacking Aztec temples. Growing unrest led to rebellion, and in 1520, Moctezuma was killed – according to the Spanish, by his own people. The Spaniards fled but returned, stronger, a year later to lay siege to Tenochtitlán.
The Spanish systematically destroyed Aztec culture and created a new, bigger city. A turbulent period of disease and sinking buildings followed, and by the 1850s, the city comprised little more than the area around the Zócalo and Alameda.
From late 1870 to 1911, however, the dictator Porfirio Díaz presided over an aggressive building programme that fuelled growth. By the 1910 Revolution, Mexico City’s residents numbered over 400,000, regaining for the first time in four centuries the pre-Conquest population.
During the Revolution, thousands fled to rapidly industrializing Mexico City for work. By the mid-1940s the city’s population quadrupled, and shantytowns began springing up and then mushrooming. This expansion strained the transport system, resulting in the construction of a Metro system in the late 1960s.
Urban growth continues today, spilling out beyond the limits of the Distrito Federal. Despite the spread, Mexico City remains one of the world’s most densely populated cities. It has an long list of social and physical problems, including a vulnerability to earthquakes. The last big one, in 1985, killed over 9,000 people, made 100,000 homeless and skewed many of the city’s buildings.
Top things to do and see in Mexico City
- The Zócalo
The eternal heart of the city, the capital’s main plaza is surrounded by its cathedral and the ruins of Aztec Tenochtitlán. The excellent Museo del Templo Mayor helps set the temples in context.
- Palacio de Bellas Artes
Not only an architectural masterpiece in its own right, with a smashing Art Deco interior, the Palacio de Bellas Artes is also home to some of the city‘s most impressive murals.
- Museo Mural Diego Rivera
Museo Mural Diego Rivera is the home of Rivera's most famous Mexican mural, depicting just about everybody from Mexican history, all out on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the Alameda.
- Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
The Basílica is in fact a whole series of churches, chapels and shrines set around an enormous stone-flagged plaza. It's little wonder that it can take a 5-hour tour to see the lot!
- Museo Nacional de Antropología
The Museo Nacional de Antropología is the country’s finest museum, with displays on all of Mexico’s major pre-Columbian cultures.
You’ll find mariachi played the length and breadth of the country but most notably in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi.
Visit the houses where Frida Kahlo and León Trotsky lived, spend an evening checking out the local bars, then come back for the colourful Sunday market. You can book onto tours that take in the major sites.
- Great pyramids of Teotihuacán
Teotihuacán is the largest pre-Hispanic site in the country, dominated by the huge Pirámide de Sol and only slightly less huge Pirámide de la Luna. If you're feeling flush, splash out on a hot-air balloon flight over the pyramids.
Once a silver-mining centre, now a silver-buying centre, this whitewashed hillside town makes a welcome stop on the road to Acapulco. You can go on a tour and admire its silver jewellery, which is made in hundreds of workshops here.
- Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño
A huge collection of works by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Rent a boat and soak up the carnival atmosphere, flowers and traditional floating gardens at the Mexico City suburb of Xochimilco.
- Plaza Garibaldi
The frenetic site of massed mariachi bands competing for your attention.
- La Merced
Explore Mexico City’s largest and most vibrant market.
Places to visit in Mexico City
Mexico’s crazy, high-octane capital may initially seem to lack the colour and charm of some of the country’s smaller towns, but it can be pretty too, and there’s certainly no denying its dynamism. Visit Mexico City and you’ll be rewarded with museums, murals and markets galore, while beyond the bustling colonial core lies a cluster of upmarket districts and leafy neighbourhoods.
Here are some of the best places to visit in Mexico City.
The Zócalo and around
The heart of Mexico City is the Zócalo, built by the Spanish right over the devastated ceremonial centre of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. Extraordinary uncovered ruins provide the Zócalo’s most compelling attraction, chief of which is the Templo Mayor. There’s also a wealth of great colonial buildings, among them the huge cathedral and the Palacio Nacional with its striking Diego Rivera murals. West of the Zócalo the centro histórico stretches through the main commercial district past the Museo Nacional de Arte to the sky-scraping Torre Latinoamericana and the Palacio de Bellas Artes with its gorgeous Art Deco interior.
Around the Alameda
Originally an Aztec market and later the site where the Inquisition burned its victims at the stake, the formal Alameda parkland you see now dates from the nineteenth century. Around the Alameda is a clutch of museums, including Museo de Tequila y Mezcal, which tells the story of Mexico’s best-known liquors, and the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, with the artist’s famed Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda.
The Monumento a la Revolución heralds the more upmarket central suburbs, chiefly the Zona Rosa. You’ll know you’re there as the streets are all named after famous cities. Packed into this tiny area are hundreds of bars, restaurants, hotels and shops, all teeming with a vast number of tourists and a cross-section of Mexico City’s aspiring middle classes. Mexico City’s gay village can be found around the northern end of Amberes.
Roma and Condesa
South of the Zona Rosa lie the leafy residential districts of Roma and Condesa. Both suburbs were developed in the 1930s and 1940s, but as the city expanded they became unfashionable and run-down. That all changed in the 1990s when artists and the bohemian fringe were drawn here by low rents, decent housing and proximity to the city centre. Small-time galleries sprang up and the first of the bars and cafés opened. Condesa, in particular, is now one of the best areas for good eating in the city, brimming with pavement cafés and bistro-style restaurants.
Accommodation in Mexico City
Accommodation in Mexico City ranges from budget hostels to some of the swankiest hotels in the country. Book ahead, as the best-value places can fill up quickly. Most places have 24hr reception desks and are geared for late arrivals and early departures. With reasonably cheap taxi fares into the Zócalo or Zona Rosa, it seldom makes financial sense to stay near the bus stations or airport. If you arrive especially late, there are places to stay that are very handy for the airport and Terminal del Norte.
Where to eat in Mexico City
There are reasonably priced restaurants, cafés, taquerías and juice stands on every block. The choice of where to eat in Mexico City ranges from traditional coffee houses to on-the-go lunch counters, taking in expensive international and rock-bottom Mexican cooking along the way. Food stalls can be found in markets throughout the city; Merced is the biggest, but not a terribly pleasant place to eat. At the back of Plaza Garibaldi, there’s a whole market hall given over to nothing but food stands, each vociferously competing with its neighbours.
Nightlife and entertainment in Mexico City
Club-oriented nightlife starts late in Mexico City. Live acts often hit the stage after 11pm and few places really getting going before midnight. Cuban music is particularly popular, and with Cuba just a short flight away, Mexico City hosts a lot of the island’s emerging talent. Bars range from dirt-cheap pulquerías and cantinas to upscale lounges and hotel bars. As elsewhere in the country, cantinas and pulquerías are still largely a male preserve. The Zona Rosa (pink zone) is Mexico City’s gay zone, and in particular the northernmost section of Amberes between Hamburgo and Reforma, where you’ll find a slew of gay and lesbian bars.
Shopping in Mexico City
An odd hangover from Aztec times is the practice of devoting a whole street to one particular trade, which occurs to some extent throughout the city. There are blocks where you can buy nothing but stationery, while other areas are packed exclusively with shoe shops and still others only sell musical instruments. To buy crafts, there is no need to visit the place of origin – shops in Mexico City and all the big resorts gather the best and most popular items from around the country. For bargain hunters, the mercado (market) is the place to head; La Merced is Mexico City’s largest and most vibrant market.
Activities in Mexico City
This section of the Mexico City travel guide will look at some of the best activities in the capital.
Though its popularity has waned in recent years, lucha libre, or wrestling, remains one of Mexico’s most avidly followed spectator sports. Mexican wrestling is generally faster, with more complex moves, and more combatants in the ring at any one time than you would normally see in an American or British bout. More important, however, is the maintenance of stage personas, most of whom, heroes or villains, wear masks. Catch a 3.5-hour show if you can.
There is no event more quintessentially Mexican than the bullfight. Rooted in Spanish machismo and imbued with multiple layers of symbolism and interpretation, it transcends a mere battle of man against animal. If you don’t mind the inherent cruelty of the spectacle, it’s worth attending a corrida de toros to see this integral part of the Mexican experience. Plaza México, a giant 48,000-seat arena in Mexico City, is the largest bullring in the world.
Ask any local what to see in Mexico City and they’ll say fútbol, which is undoubtedly Mexico’s most popular sport. The capital is one of the best places to see a football match. The biggest game in the domestic league, “El Clásico”, between Chivas from Guadalajara and América from Mexico City, fills the city’s 150,000-seater Aztec stadium to capacity. There are usually at least two games every Sunday afternoon from January to June and August to November.
Fiestas in Mexico City
Taking part in a local fiesta is one of the most exuberant things to do in Mexico City, and the following is just a teaser of the country’s jam-packed event programme:
- Día de los Santos Reyes (Jan 6). Celebrations include a fiesta with dancing at Nativitas, a suburb near Xochimilco.
- Bendicíon de los Animales (Jan 17). Children’s pets and peasants’ farm animals are taken to the cathedral to be blessed.
- Día de San Pedro (June 29). Marked by traditional dancing in San Pedro Actopan, on the southern outskirts of the DF.
- Día de Santa Marta (July 25). Celebrated in Milpa Alta, near Xochimilco, with Aztec dances and mock fights between Moors and Christians.
- Independence Day (Sept 15). The president of the republic proclaims the famous Grito at 11pm in the Zócalo, followed by the ringing of the Campana de Dolores and a huge firework display.
- Día de Santa Cecilia (Nov 22). Santa Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians, and her fiesta attracts orchestras and mariachi bands from all over to Santa Cecilia Tepetlapa, near Xochimilco.
- Día de la Señora de Guadalupe (Dec 12). The saint’s day of Mexico’s favourite Virgin heralds a massive pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe, running for several days, with a more secular celebration of music and dancing.
Tips and safety advice for Mexico City
The capital is where the Mexican extremes of wealth and poverty are most apparent. Such financial disparity fuels theft, but just take the same precautions you would in any large city. Keep your valuables – especially credit or debit cards – in the hotel safe. Don’t flash large wads of money around and keep an eye on your camera and other valuables in busy market areas.
At night, avoid the barrio known as Doctores and the area around Lagunilla market - both centres of the street drug trade, and therefore opportunist crime.
Note that mugging is not the only danger – abduction for ransom is increasingly common too.
Taxis have a bad reputation and, though drivers are mostly helpful and courteous, it is best not to hail one off the street. Read our Mexico City Guide for more safety advice.
Around Mexico City
Look beyond the capital’s frenetic, high-octane core, and you’ll discover a raft of enticing places to visit around Mexico City. Spreading itself furthest to the south, the urban sprawl has swallowed up a series of old villages. These harbour the colonial suburbs of Coyoacán and San Ángel, the archaeological site of Cuicuilco and the canals of Xochimilco. The area north of the city centre has less to offer, but two sites of compelling interest are the emotive Plaza de las Tres Culturas and the great Basílica de Guadalupe. Further out, you’ll find the pyramids of Tenayuca and Santa Cecilia Acatitlán, the city’s two most dramatically preserved remains of Aztec architecture.
With its markets, ancient mansions and high-priced shops around flower-draped patios, San Ángel is a very exclusive place to live. It is also one of the most inviting places to visit around Mexico City, packed with little restaurants and cafés where you can sit outside and watch the crowds go by.
Around 3km east of San Ángel lies Coyoacán, another colonial township that has been absorbed by the city. Cortés based himself in Coyoacán during the siege of Tenochtitlán, and continued to live here while the old city was torn down. While the Plaza Central is the focus of the town, no visit to Mexico is complete without strolling out to the northern reaches to the Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky museums.
The floating gardens adjoining the suburb of Xochimilco offer an intense carnival atmosphere every weekend. Renting a colourful boat is one of the top things to do in Mexico City, as you’ll be ferried around the picturesque canals while marimba players and market stallholders compete for your attention.
The Plaza de las Tres Culturas is the site of the ancient city of Tlatelolco, located to the north of Tenochtitlán. Today, a lovely colonial church rises in the midst of the city’s excavated ruins, exemplifying the second of the three cultures from which the plaza takes its name.
The 20m-high pyramid in the main square at Tenayuca, a suburb just outside the city limits, is another site that predates Tenochtitlán by a long chalk. Indeed, there are those who claim it was the capital of the tribe that destroyed Tula. The pyramid that survives dates from the period of Aztec dominance and is an almost perfect miniature replica of the great temples of Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlán.
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Top image: Palacio de Bellas Artes or Palace of Fine Arts, a famous theater,museum and music venue in Mexico City © Kamira/Shutterstock