With an estimated 20 million people living in the region, Mexico City is one of the world’s largest cities. The origins of this huge city date back to 1325, when the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan was founded. It was later destroyed in 1521 by Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes. On its ruins a new city was founded which served as the capital of the Vice-royalty of New Spain and later as the capital of Mexico.
Mexico City provides a chance to learn about the Aztecs, one of the world’s great early civilizations, as well as their Spanish conquerors. Many colonial buildings still stand among those of more modern architectural styles. The city also affords an opportunity for visitors to see the works of Diego Rivera, one of the world’s greatest muralists. Here’s a look at some of the top tourist attractions in Mexico City:
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The Basilica de Guadalupe is the result of the Virgin Mary appearing in 1531, asking a poor peasant to tell the bishop a temple should be built there in her honor. The disbelieving bishop asked for proof the man had seen the Virgin. At her request he placed roses under his cloak; when he opened it, the roses, containing an image of the Virgin, fell out. A “New” Basilica de Guadalupe was built between 1974 and 1976, designed by Pedro Ramirez Vasquez (who also designed the National Museum of Anthropology. The immense plaza in front of the basilica has room for 50,000 worshipers; with that many attending every December 12 to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day.
Chapultepec Castle is a regal site atop Chapultepec Hill, which translates as “grasshopper hill.” It was a sacred site for the Aztecs and is the only North American castle to serve as home for royalty, Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota in the 19th century. In 1847, six teenage military cadets died defending the castle from U.S. military invaders in the Battle of Chapultepec, during the Mexican-American War; they are honored with a mural at the castle’s entrance. Today, the castle houses the Museo Nacional de Historia.
Frida Kahlo may have been the wife of a famous Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, but she was a prominent artist in her own right. She was born and died in the Casa Azul (Blue House) where she lived all her life. In 1968, Rivera turned the house into a museum in her honor. The museum specializes in their art as well as that of other folk artists, pre-Spanish artifacts and other memorabilia associated with the couple. It is the most visited museum in Coyacan, where it is located, and one of the most visited tourist attraction in Mexico City.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes, or Palace of Fine Arts, is an opulent white building that is the cultural center of both Mexico City and Mexico. Built on the site of a former convent and the first National Theatre of Mexico, the building’s exterior represents neo-classical and art nouveau style, while the interior is art deco. It’s best known for its murals painted by famous Mexican artists such as Siquieros and Diego Rivera. It also is a performing arts center, hosting performances by the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and other groups.
Palacio Nacional (National Palace) is where Mexico’s president works. But the president isn’t the first person to rule over a nation here. Much of the palace is made from materials used in building a palace for the Aztec ruler Montezuma II. The palace fills an entire side on the Plaza de la Constitucion. The palace is home to a bell that called troops to action in the War for Mexican Independence; it is rung every September 15 to commemorate the occasion. The ornate palace also contains murals by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico from the pre-Columbian age to the Mexican Revolution. Tours in English are free.
Xochimilco is a suburb of Mexico City that once sat the shores of Lake Xochimilco before the Spanish arrived. Today it is most famous for its canals that, in ancient times, connected the villages around the lake. Visitors may enjoy rides through the 110-mile canal system in trajineras, Mexico’s version of the gondola. Much of Xochimilco is designated an ecological reserve. Xochimilco is a good place to wander about to view historic buildings.
The Templo Mayor was an Aztec temple in Tenochtitlan. The temple was enlarged over the decades until it became the main center of religious life. Human sacrifices to the gods of war and rain took place here. Then, in 1521, it was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors, who then promptly erected the Cathedral roughly over it – but not quite. The temple, which consists of a large stone pyramid, remained lost until it was discovered in 1978. Today visitors can see the remains of several older temples that were found underneath the original temple while walking through the dig site.
Awesome is a term that comes easily to mind when viewing Catedral Metropolitana, or Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest and oldest cathedral in the New World. Located on Plaza Zocala, the 16th century cathedral is stunning when it’s lit up at night. Stones from the Aztec’s Templo Mayor were used to build a church, which predated the cathedral on this site. The cathedral, which represents many architectural styles, holds a great collection of paintings and artifacts, many from the colonial era.
The Museo de Antropologia showcases the history of Mexico’s peoples, with space devoted to how its native cultures lived before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century to how their descendants are surviving today. While the museum building is more of a contemporary style, the inside contains ancient artifacts used hundreds of years ago. The most famous artifact is the Aztec Calendar Stone, which was actually not used as a calendar but does contain 20 day signs and the 4 era’s of suns that preceded the current 5th sun.
Located in the heart of the historic center, the Zócalo (or Plaza de la Constitución) is one of the largest squares in the world. It is flanked by the Metropolitan Cathedral to the north, and the National Palace to the east, as well as a number of other historic buildings. A huge Mexican flag occupies the center, which is ceremoniously lowered and raised each day. The city square has been a gathering place for Mexicans since Aztec times and today a wide variety of events are hosted here, including concerts, demonstrations and other more typical social gatherings.