Mexico City is the capital of Mexico, officially known as Ciudad de México. Mexico City is the capital and the most populous city in the country.
Mexico City is a significant economic hub, hosting numerous multinational corporations and industries. It is also renowned for its intense artistic and intellectual life. Mexico City has several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and numerous museums, galleries, and theaters.
Where is Mexico City?
Mexico City is located in the southeastern part of Mexico, in the Valley of Mexico. This valley, also known as the Basin of Mexico, is significant in the high plateaus in the center of Mexico, at an altitude of 2,240 meters (7,350 feet).
Mountains and volcanoes surround Mexico City. The city is approximately in the middle of Mexico and roughly equidistant from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The city is geographically divided into 16 boroughs, and the State of Mexico surrounds it to the west, north, and east, and by the state of Morelos to the south.
History of Mexico City
Mexico City has a long, rich, and complex history dating back to the 14th century.
The area where Mexico City now stands has been populated for thousands of years. However, the city’s story begins in 1325 when the Aztecs, also known as the Mexica, established their capital, Tenochtitlan, on an island in Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs chose this location because they saw an eagle perched on a nopal cactus, eating a snake – a sight that fulfilled an ancient prophecy. This image is now depicted on Mexico’s national flag.
Tenochtitlan quickly became one of the world’s largest and most influential cities. A series of canals and causeways interconnected the city, and its Templo Mayor (or “Great Temple”) was a central religious site for the Aztecs.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519, and by 1521, after a brutal siege, the Spanish had conquered Tenochtitlan. They razed much of the city and built a new one, Mexico City, atop its ruins, according to Spanish urban standards.
The city became the capital of New Spain and the most crucial city in the Spanish Empire in the Americas. It was a center of culture, education, and religion, and many colonial-era buildings from this time, such as the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, still stand today.
After the Mexican War of Independence, which ended in 1821, Mexico City became the capital of the newly independent Mexico. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the city expanded rapidly beyond the old colonial city center.
The 20th century was a time of incredible growth and change for the city. The Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) significantly impacted the city’s development. In the mid-20th century, the city began to modernize and grow dramatically, fueled by rural-to-urban migration.
A devastating earthquake in 1985 led to extensive damage and loss of life but also prompted improvements in building codes and emergency response services.
In the 21st century, Mexico City has solidified its role as a global city, known for its history, arts, cuisine, and leading economic and cultural hub in Latin America. In 2016, the Federal District was reformed, and Mexico City became a fully autonomous entity within Mexico, similar to a state, with its constitution and congress.
Despite challenges such as pollution, high population density, and social inequality, Mexico City remains an influential city on the global stage, with a rich cultural heritage that blends Indigenous, colonial, and modern influences.
Features of Mexico City
Mexico City is a vibrant metropolis that offers a unique blend of ancient history and modern lifestyle. One of the most notable aspects of Mexico City is its rich history, which is visibly echoed in the city’s architecture and cultural institutions.
Geography and Climate
Mexico City lies on a plateau surrounded by lofty mountain ranges. The land on which it stands is built over a filled portion of the Mexican segment of the North American Plate, with soft soil underneath, a factor that makes the city vulnerable to earthquakes.
The city’s climate is classified as subtropical highland due to its tropical location but high elevation. Despite being located within the tropics, Mexico City’s elevation moderates its temperatures, giving it mild, pleasant weather much of the year. It generally has a mild, rainy summer season from June to October and a cooler, drier season from November to May.
The warmest month is May, just before the onset of the rainy season. Average daily highs and lows can vary considerably due to the city’s high altitude. Winter nights can get quite chilly, and frost is not unheard of.
The estimated population of Mexico City is over 21 within the metropolitan area, making it one of the most populated cities in the world.
Mexico City is quite diverse, with people from many different ethnic and national backgrounds. Most of the population is Mestizo (a mix of indigenous and Spanish ancestry), but there are also communities of indigenous peoples and people of European, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent.
Spanish is the dominant language, although some residents also speak indigenous languages like Nahuatl. The city is primarily Roman Catholic, although other Christian denominations, other religions, and secular individuals are also represented.
Mexico City has the largest economy in Mexico, contributing a large portion of the country’s GDP. It is the country’s economic hub, with most large domestic and international businesses headquartered in the city.
The city has a diverse economy with many industries, including manufacturing, services, and finance. Its financial sector is significant, with the Mexican Stock Exchange headquartered there. Mexico City is the country’s largest industrial center, with industries ranging from textiles and clothing to electronics and automobiles.
The service sector in Mexico City is also highly developed and contributes a significant portion of the city’s GDP. This includes everything from retail and restaurants to education and healthcare. Tourism also plays a key role in the city’s economy, with many domestic and international tourists visiting annually.
Despite the city’s economic strength, it struggles with significant income inequality and has extreme wealth and poverty areas. This continues to be a key challenge for the city.
Things to Do and Places to See in Mexico City
Mexico City offers an expansive array of activities and sights to explore. Allow me to guide you through some of this vibrant city’s most renowned and cherished attractions.
1. Explore the Zócalo
The Zócalo, also known as the Plaza de la Constitución, is the main square in central Mexico City. The Zócalo has been a gathering place for Mexicans since Aztec times, having been the site of Mexica ceremonies, the swearing-in of viceroys, royal proclamations, military parades, Independence ceremonies, and modern religious events such as the festivals of Holy Week and Corpus Christi.
The Zócalo is often the site of major protests, cultural events, and public gatherings. It’s a vibrant place where you can see a slice of Mexican life, full of historical significance and present-day importance.
2. National Museum of Anthropology
The National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropología) is a renowned museum in Mexico City. It was established in 1964, considered one of the finest of its kind in the world. It holds the world’s most extensive collection of ancient Mexican art and ethnographic exhibits about Mexico’s present-day indigenous groups. It has 23 permanent exhibit halls.
The museum is located in Chapultepec Park, one of the largest city parks in the world. It is organized into two main areas – one dedicated to anthropology and one to archaeology. Each site contains rooms organized chronologically and by cultural region, making it a journey through time and across the diverse cultures of Mexico. The museum’s architecture, particularly its central courtyard with a large concrete umbrella structure, is also noteworthy.
3. Wander through Chapultepec Park
The Bosque de Chapultepec is steeped in history and rich with cultural attractions. It was once a retreat for Aztec rulers, and the park’s name translates to “Hill of the Grasshopper” in the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs.
Chapultepec Park has numerous walking paths, picnic areas, food vendors, and recreational areas. It’s a vibrant, green space amid one of the world’s busiest cities and serves as an important recreational and cultural space for residents and visitors.
4. Visit the Frida Kahlo Museum
The Frida Kahlo Museum, also known as Casa Azul (the Blue House) due to its cobalt-blue walls, is housed in the building where Frida Kahlo was born, lived with her husband, Diego Rivera, for several years, and where she died.
The museum contains a collection of her artwork and artifacts from her personal life, including her bed, personal items, dresses, and a corset she wore to support her back, which was seriously injured in a bus accident when she was young.
5. Explore the Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes) is one of Mexico City’s most prominent cultural institutions. This stunning marble edifice is a hub for the performing and visual arts and one of the city’s architectural landmarks.
Construction of the palace began in 1904 but was delayed due to political turmoil and issues with the building’s foundation. It was finally completed in 1934. The building showcases a mix of architectural styles, with Art Nouveau elements on the exterior and Art Deco elements inside.
6. Tour the Templo Mayor
The Templo Mayor was a double pyramid structure dedicated to two deities: Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture. It was a centerpiece of the religious and political life in the Aztec Empire. Here, priests performed ceremonies and made sacrifices to the gods.
The Templo Mayor was expanded several times during its history, with each new Aztec ruler adding to the building to leave their mark on the city.
The Templo Mayor was primarily destroyed in 1521 when the Spanish Conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, captured Tenochtitlán. The Spanish razed many of the city’s buildings, using their stones to construct them. The location of the Templo Mayor was lost over time, and it was only rediscovered in the 20th century.
7. Stroll along Paseo de la Reforma
Paseo de la Reforma is one of the most famous and essential avenues in Mexico City. It was designed in the 19th century by Ferdinand von Rosenzweig, under the orders of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, inspired by grand European boulevards like the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
The avenue runs diagonally across the heart of Mexico City from the center toward Chapultepec Park, cutting through various districts. Paseo de la Reforma is known for its numerous monuments, landmarks, and architectural wonders.
8. Experience Xochimilco
Xochimilco is a borough of Mexico City famous for its extensive system of canals and artificial islands, known as “chinampas.” These chinampas, also called “floating gardens,” were built by the Aztecs for agricultural purposes and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the main attractions of Xochimilco is a boat ride through these canals on a traditional “trajinera,” a brightly colored, flat-bottomed boat. As you traverse the channels, you’ll see a variety of flora and fauna, as well as other trajineras, some of which are full of musicians playing traditional Mexican music.
9. Alameda Central
Alameda Central is a public urban park in downtown Mexico City established in 1592. The park was once part of the marketplace of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Its name comes from the Spanish word “álamo,” meaning poplar tree—the tree species initially planted in the park.
Covering approximately 9.9 acres, Alameda Central is a green refuge amidst the bustling city. It is home to many statues and fountains, beautiful paths for walking, benches for resting, and many trees and flower beds. A notable feature is the “Hemiciclo a Juárez,” a large, semi-circular monument dedicated to Benito Juárez, one of Mexico’s most beloved presidents.
10. Visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe commemorates the reported apparition of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego, an indigenous man, in December 1531. As the story goes, the Virgin Mary asked Juan Diego to build a church in her honor on the apparition site, Tepeyac Hill.
The Basilica complex includes several buildings, the most notable of which are the Old Basilica and the New Basilica.
- The Old Basilica: Completed in 1709, it has suffered structural damage due to sinking foundations (a common problem in Mexico City due to its location on a former lake). While still occasionally used for services, it’s largely been replaced by the New Basilica.
- The New Basilica: Inaugurated in 1976, the New Basilica was designed by Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez. It has a circular design, ensuring the image of the Virgin can be seen from any point within the building. This modern structure can accommodate up to 10,000 people.
11. Memory and Tolerance Museum
The Memory and Tolerance Museum is a powerful and important institution that aims to promote understanding, reflection, and social consciousness among its visitors. Opened in 2010, the museum is dedicated to memorializing victims of genocide and crimes against humanity while fostering an appreciation for diversity, non-violence, and human rights.
A Memory and Tolerance Museum visit is likely to be emotionally powerful and thought-provoking. It’s a place that encourages visitors to confront the darker aspects of human history while also inspiring them to work towards a future marked by peace, respect, and understanding.
12. Explore Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan, often called the “City of the Gods,” is an ancient archaeological site about 40 kilometers northeast of Mexico City. It’s one of Mexico’s most essential and visited archaeological sites and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Dating back to around 100 B.C., Teotihuacan was once one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of perhaps 100,000 at its peak. While it’s unclear who built the city, it was a significant cultural, religious, and economic center for centuries.
13. Visit Museo Soumaya
The Museo Soumaya is a private museum home to a vast art collection of over 66,000 works from 30 centuries of art. Named after Soumaya Domit, the late wife of the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, the museum is part of the Carlos Slim Foundation and opened to the public in 2011.
The museum’s collection is incredibly diverse, with works spanning a range of periods and styles, including Mexican art, religious relics, historical documents and coins, and one of the largest collections of pre-Hispanic and colonial-era coins.
It is renowned for holding the most extensive collection of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures outside France. It also includes works by European masters such as Salvador Dalí, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Vincent Van Gogh.
14. Lucha Libre Match at Arena Coliseo
Lucha Libre has become a significant part of the country’s culture. Attending a Lucha Libre match is a highly recommended experience in Mexico, and the Arena Coliseo in Mexico City is one of the best places to witness the action.
Also known as the “Cathedral of Lucha Libre,” Arena Coliseo has hosted Lucha Libre matches since 1943. These events are not just about the wrestling—they’re a spectacular show featuring high-flying maneuvers, colorful masks, theatrical performances, and passionate fans.
15. Wander around the Revolution Monument area
The Monument to the Revolution is located in Plaza de la República. It’s an iconic symbol of the city and a must-visit place for its history, architecture, and stunning views from the top.
This monument was initially intended to be a legislative palace, a project initiated by President Porfirio Díaz at the beginning of the 20th century. However, the Mexican Revolution halted its construction, and it wasn’t until 1938 that the incomplete structure was repurposed and turned into a monument commemorating the revolution.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best time to visit Mexico City?
The best time to visit Mexico City is from March to May, although the city is enjoyable year-round. During these months, temperatures are comfortable, and the city is filled with vibrant colors as flowers bloom.
Is it safe to visit Mexico City?
Like any large city, Mexico City has areas that are safe and others that are less so. It’s generally safe for tourists, especially in places that tourists frequent. However, as always, it’s essential to be aware of your surroundings, avoid less safe areas, and keep your belongings secure.
What is traditional food and cuisine like in Mexico City?
Mexican cuisine combines indigenous Mesoamerican and European (mainly Spanish) cuisines. In Mexico City, you can find everything from street food like tacos and tamales to high-end dining. Traditional dishes often include corn, beans, chili peppers, and meats.
What’s a must-try dish/food in Mexico City?
Tacos al pastor, a taco made with spit-grilled pork, is a must-try dish in Mexico City. Also, don’t miss out on tasting chiles en Nogada, a stuffed pepper dish particularly popular in late summer.
What souvenirs can I bring home from Mexico City?
Popular souvenirs include handicrafts (such as pottery or textiles), silver jewelry, Mexican coffee or chocolate, and local spirits like tequila or mezcal.
How can I get around in Mexico City?
Mexico City has an extensive public transportation network, including the Metro, buses, and a bike-sharing system. Taxis and ride-sharing services like Uber are also readily available.
Is it expensive to visit Mexico City?
The cost of visiting Mexico City can vary depending on your travel style. It’s generally less expensive than many U.S. or European cities, but prices can be higher in more touristy areas. You can find budget-friendly and luxury accommodations, dining, and activities options.
Which currencies are accepted in Mexico City?
The official currency of Mexico is the Mexican peso, which is accepted everywhere. Credit cards are also widely accepted in many places.
Which cultural customs should I be aware of when visiting Mexico City?
Mexicans tend to be quite polite and might avoid confrontation or criticism. Also, punctuality can be slightly more flexible than in some cultures. Greeting people, even strangers, in shops or on the street is polite.
Mexico City undoubtedly makes it a worthwhile destination for any traveler. From the ancient ruins of the Templo Mayor to the modern skyscrapers, it’s a city where past and present intersect in fascinating ways.
Whether you’re an art or food lover, a history enthusiast, or someone who loves exploring new places and experiences, Mexico City offers something for everyone. It can leave you with a broader perspective and an appreciation for its unique blend of cultures and traditions.