Situated in the Valley of Mexico at over 7,000 feet, Mexico City is the 5th most populated city in the world with over 17 million people. The city is overwhelming to say the least. The noise. The smells. The crowds. As a first timer I struggled with the city. It was massive. I got strange stares and hissed at by old men. But it was also colorful and lively. From it’s dangerous drug and gang past to its up-and-coming foodie scene, Mexico City is certainly an interesting city to visit.
Most travelers, myself included, flock to the Centro Historico, the central and oldest part of the city dating back to the 16th century. While most people think that the Spanish discovered the city, it was actually the Aztecs who built the first city in the current spot. Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 and parts of its remains can still be seen today. The Spanish came later in the 16th century and built over the Aztec ruins.
It’s important to note that Mexico City is a safe city. Of course, just like any big city around the world, especially in a still developing country, there are parts of the city you just shouldn’t go in. Mexico City is no exception. Thankfully most of the things you’ll want to see in Mexico City are located in the Centro Historico and Chapultepec Park neighborhoods of the city.
You could easily spend weeks or months exploring everything Mexico City has to offer, but if you’re short on time then you’ll want to hit up the highlights. Mexico City is easy to get around with public transportation, cheap taxis (only used the metered ones), and just by walking if you’re in the Centro area.
5 Things You Must See in Mexico City
Templo Mayor, located near Zocalo, is the only remaining part of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The Great Temple was dedicated to two gods: Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture. First constructed in 1325, the temple was rebuilt 6 times over the years until Cortes and his men sacked the city in 1519.
The Spanish built over the ruins of the temple and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the temple was rediscovered. Today you can visit the ruins and the Templo Mayor museum. The museum contains many artifacts and offerings found during excavation of the temple. The museum is small, but for $64 MEX you can visit both the ruins and the museum to learn a little bit about the Aztec empire.
- Location: 8 Seminario St., Downtown, Cuauhtemoc, D.F. (Just outside the Cathedral)
- Price: $64 MEX
- Closed Monday
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
One of the most incredible sites of Zocalo is the Cathedral. You can’t miss it. It’s massive. It’s actually the largest cathedral in the Americas. The cathedral was built in multiple sections between 1573 and 1813. Over the course of two centuries that facade has morphed from Renaissance to Baroque to Neo-Classical architecture.
While the outside of the Cathedral is impressive, it’s the inside that steals the show. Make sure you visit both the main cathedral and the attached Tabernacle. Within the cathedral there is also 16 different chapels so you’ll always find a quiet spot to pray. The Cathedral is free to visit and is definitely worth checking out.
- Location: Zolaco, Centro Historico
- Price: Free
- Open everyday
National Museum of Anthropology
The Museo Nacional de Antropologia is the largest and most visited museum in all of Mexico. The museum contains significant anthropological and archaeological artifacts from across Mexico dating back to pre-Columbian times. The museum is huge and definitely worth a visit. Bring your walking shoes!
The museum contains artifacts from the Aztec and Maya up through modern day Mexico City. Most of the displays have English descriptions, but not all of them do. I visited the museum on a Sunday, which is free entry for all residents. I wouldn’t recommend going as the place is crazy. But, if it’s the only day you can go (it’s closed on Mondays), then go!
- Location: Av Paseo de la Reforma & Calzada Gandhi S/N
- Price: $65 MEX
- Closed on Mondays
Okay, so Teotihuacan is not quite within Mexico City, but it’s a must see place. Situated just 48 km northeast of the city, it’s an easy bus ride to the site. No one knows exactly who built the ancient city as it pre-dates even the Aztecs and Mayans. At its height of civilization in the early 1st millennium AD, the city was home to over 125,000 people making it the largest city in the Americas.
The highlight of the site is definitely the two pyramids. The Pyramid of the Sun is the 3rd largest pyramid in the world at 75 m tall. You can climb to the top, which I definitely recommend. Just be prepared to be out of breath due to the altitude and watch your step as the stairs are narrow and steep. The Pyramid of the Moon is slightly smaller, but still worth the climb. If you feel like freezing your butt off, take an early morning sunrise hot air balloon ride like Ashley Abroad did. Looks epic, right?
Most people, like myself, will join a tour. I went with Urban Adventures and loved it. However you can visit on your own like Becky from Girl and the Globe. She has a great overview on how to do Teotihuacan on your own.
- Location: 48 km northeast of Mexico City
- Price: $64 MEX entrance fee
- Open everyday (Sundays are free to residents so it will be busy)
Did you know you could escape to Venice through Mexico City? Okay, while you won’t find gelato and copious amounts of wine, you will find a canal system in the southern borough go Xochimilco. Modern day Mexico City is extremely different than what the Aztecs saw centuries ago. The landmass of Mexico City actually used to be a massive lake and canal system. The Aztecs and Spanish just moved earth and built on top of the lake, hence why you won’t find an even sidewalk in the city. Xochimilco is the only remaining area containing parts of the old canal system.
Xochimilco is a popular destination to explore the canal system by gondola-like boats called trajineras. Hire a boat (don’t forget to haggle on the price) and just spend the morning floating down the canal system. Make sure you look for the Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls)! Raphael from Journey of Wonders has a great write up on Xochimilco and how to get a good deal on a boat.
- Location: Xochimilco, southern borough of Mexico City
- Price: About $350 per boat
- Opened daily
Of course, there are numerous other places to see in Mexico City. Definitely see the Palacio de Bellas Artes (near Zocalo) and Chapultepec Park. Mexico City has a lot of layers. Chances are you only have a short time in the city so focus on the main highlights for an overview of the city’s past, present, and future.