The heart of Mexico City is the historic Plaza de la Constitución, colloquially called the Zócalo. It’s the second-largest public square in the world after Moscow’s Red Square and the site of festivals, events, protests, and home to some of Mexico’s most cherished sites. Forming the east side of the Zócalo is the Palacio Nacional (National Palace), the seat of the Mexican federal government. The Palacio was built using materials from the original Aztec palace that existed on the site pre-conquest, and features a spectacular mural by the famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera depicting a thousand years of Mexican history. On the north side of the plaza sits the Catedral Metropolitana, an enormous cathedral built over the course of 250 years.
Just off the square is the excavation site of the Templo Mayor (Grand Temple) dedicated to the Aztec gods of rain and war, and destroyed the conquistadors in 1521. The adjoining museum displays artifacts that have been excavated from the site since it was discovered in 1978.
The National Anthropology Museum has the world’s largest collection of Mesoamerican artifacts with exhibits dedicated to each of the region’s major cultures. Some of the key exhibits include the Stone of the Sun, which the Aztecs used as a calendar, and the colossal head statues of the Olmec civilization. You could easily spend an entire day taking in the exhibits at this massive museum.
The national fine arts museum boasts an impressive collection of the heavy-hitters of Mexican art: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo. The stunning neoclassical and art nouveau building also hosts theatrical, music, opera, and dance performances. For a crash course on Mexican culture, take in a performance of the resident Ballet Foklórico de México, which presents Aztec ritual dances, traditional agricultural dances, and modern Mexican fiestas.
For another look at the Mexican art world, visit the Museo Frida Kahlo, the family home of the famous folk painter. Kahlo posthumously became synonymous with Mexican folk art and her work has been trumpeted by feminists around the world as being emblematic of the female experience. She lived here with her husband, the painter Diego Rivera for the last 14 years of her life, and an urn containing her ashes is on display.
About 25 miles northeast of the city is the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Founded around 200 BC and abandoned in the 7th or 8th century, the site is remarkably well preserved. It’s believed that at its peak, it was the center of an empire reaching from Texas to Guatemala. More than 200,000 people lived here, making it among the largest cities in the world at the time. Excavations of the site began in the 17th century and really picked up the pace in the early 1900s. Even today, new discoveries are still being made. Make sure you visit the monumental Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent), walk along the Avenue of the Dead, and climb the massive Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. The Teotihuacanos sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, physics, and architecture is reflected in these pyramids’ precise location relative to solar and lunar cycles.
This romantic borough, approximately 17 miles south of the city centre is famed for its charming canals and the artificial floating islands called chinampas that have been used for agriculture for a thousand years. Today, Mexicans and tourists alike flock to the area to take a ride in a candy-colored trajinera (boat) complete with live mariachi music and food. While you’re here, don’t miss La Isla de las Muñecas (the Island of the Dolls) a small island home that once belonged to a now deceased hermit who collected thousands of dolls for the spirit of a drowned girl who he claimed visited him regularly.