Though I’ve visited Mexico City quite a few times, I always seem to gravitate back to the Centro Histórico. While this has been for a number of different reasons, one of the big ones is that there are seemingly endless things to do and see in this neighborhood. As a bonus, they’re all within walking distance of one another!
I’ve heard people describe Mexico City as “impenetrable,” and I guess in a sense it is, but I would argue that this is partly because there’s simply SO MUCH to see and do that you can easily get caught up in just one tiny area.
You can come to Mexico City for a week and spend the entire time exploring within a 2 mile radius (which I have now done numerous times!). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but considering it’s a city of 25 million people… that’s not exactly a large sample size, if you want to get scientific.
For the sake of expanding my horizons, I have vowed to base myself in a different neighborhood on my next trip. However, if you are visiting Mexico City for the first time, your horizons are fine right where they are, and the Centro Histórico is a great place to begin your exploration!
On this trip, Héctor and I were exploring the city with my mom and a friend, who were both visiting Mexico City for the first time. We actually managed to explore A LOT of the city, considering we only had 5 days, but we based ourselves in the Centro Histórico. The main reason for this was because I figured when you’re exploring a new city, where better to start than where it began?!
Mexico City, or Tenochtitlán, as it was known back in the day, was founded in what is now the Centro Histórico. It was here that the Mexica people saw an Eagle sitting atop a cactus, which they took as a sign that this is where they should settle. If this image sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve seen it on the Mexican flag.
This neighborhood is an absolute mecca for history nerds (which is apparently what I am becoming!). I’ve highlighted a few of my favorite spots to help you get started, but I highly encourage you to poke around beyond these (and to visit other neighborhoods as well)— there are plenty more gems to uncover… possibly literally.
The Palacio Nacional (or National Palace) is where Mexico’s federal government works. This grand building fills the entire block east of the Zócalo, right in the heart of the Centro Histórico.
What appears to be a domineering building from the outside opens up into a vibrant, welcoming courtyard (after a quick security screening, that is).
You will have to pass through a metal detector and leave a piece of ID in exchange for a visitor’s pass. If you’re carrying a backpack you’ll have to check it at the paquetería, so keep this in mind when planning your visit.
Inside the Palacio Nacional you can view incredible murals painted by Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s most noteworthy artists. The murals are absolutely stunning in their depiction of the history of Mexico. It’s eerie how effective they are at conveying the emotions of the people in the face of the Spanish conquest.
If you visit these murals, take the time to really look at them. You can learn an impressive amount about the history of Mexico just by looking at them.
Past the Rivera murals, inside the building you will find a museum which has rotating exhibits related to Mexican history and culture. When we were there, they had a compelling installation about the culture of the Mixtec indigenous group from Oaxaca.
In the past, the Palace was also the residence of the President, but no longer. He now lives on a different property within the Bosque de Chapultepec. That means you can tour the former presidential living quarters in the Palacio Nacional! I’m a total nerd for this type of exhibit (especially the library rooms — I always check to see if I’ve read any of the books they have 😜).
Adjacent to the Palacio Nacional, on the Zócalo, sits the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City (Catedral metropolitana). There’s a church on nearly every corner of this city, but this one is particularly interesting.
First of all, it is massive and impossible to miss.
Secondly, its appearance definitely demands a second look. It was built in stages throughout many periods, you can see how the style of architecture has evolved, which is intriguing. And also something that shouldn’t come as a surprise when we consider that it was first built in the 1500s!
The fact that it was constructed 500 years ago would be really incredible if it weren’t sitting directly on top of a pyramid (Templo Mayor), which dates back to the 1300s.
When you walk around the outside of the cathedral you’ll notice that none of the facades seem to be quite straight — you see, the entire center of the city is sinking because it was built on a lake bed. The crooked walls, and ornate details of the cathedral’s architecture make it seem kind of eerie, reminding you that it has been privy to a lot of history, on both sides of its walls.
We didn’t have time to peek inside on this trip, but I’m certain that it’s worth a look. I’ve also read that you can take a tour to the rooftop of the cathedral (excellent view opportunity!), but due to the recent earthquake which damaged one of the bell towers, tours may be on hold.
Museo de Templo Mayor
Mexico City as we know it today was built right on top of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which basically means the Centro Histórico was built on top of a pyramid (and in the middle of a lake). Is it any wonder the city is sinking?
The Museo de Templo Mayor is an archaeological site and museum combo that will thrill anyone who likes to be hands on with their history! This ruin is nothing as objectively impressive as the ones found at Teotihuacan, but it is pretty cool to realize that if you peer through plexiglass windows built into the sidewalks you can see remnants of an ancient civilization!
Much more of the ruin has been excavated since my first visit to Templo Mayor in 2010. It’s amazing what 8 years can do!
Isn’t it mind boggling to know that there is still so much of the ancient world left to uncover?! It makes me wonder what’s buried under the other cities I’ve visited — I mean, they didn’t discover Temploy Mayor until 1978! What are they going to dig up next?!
Palacio de Bellas Artes
You’ll likely recognize the building from Instagram posts (or any other blog post) concerning Mexico City. But the stunning, ornate exterior of the Palacio de Bellas Artes is just the beginning.
Inside, you’ll find murals and paintings from Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and other important Mexican painters, as well as rotating art installations.
To be honest, it’s worth visiting just to see the murals alone. I don’t consider myself knowledgeable, or at all informed about art (at art shows I’m always the person saying “look at the pretty colors!”), but the murals inside this building left a lasting impression on me.
If art just isn’t your thing, check out the National Architecture Museum, which is also housed within the building!
The Original Sanborns
I’m not sure exactly when I first became aware of Sanborns (I mean, it’s everywhere in Mexico), but one morning back in Playa del Carmen, I asked Héctor about it. He explained to me that it’s a department store/restaurant combo that sells basically everything you could ever need or want, (including chilaquiles). Naturally, we found ourselves eating brunch there later that day.
Through some exhaustive googling I soon educated myself about the history of the store. (In the interest of keeping this article under 10,000 words, I’ll let you read more on that here.)
Needless to say, when we began planning our trip to Mexico City I was adamant that we visit the original Sanborns location.
I wouldn’t say Sanborns is a “can’t miss” attraction, but I am pretty enamoured with the architecture of the building. The blue and white tile facade is just as beautiful and intriguing as the ornate trimmings on the building. Inside it opens up into a courtyard restaurant with a covered ceiling.
I mean, you have to eat sometime, so why not do it in a stunning, historical building?! There’s not a minute to be wasted soaking up the culture in the centro histórico.
If you visit the restroom you’ll notice the artwork around the doorway was painted by none other than José Clemente Orozco, so it’s probably one of the most pretentious bathroom entrances in the world. I mean that in the best way possible of course 😉
Head up the stairs to the second level. Here you can read about the history of the famous blue and white china patterns on the Sanborns dishes, and enjoy a new perspective as you look down over the dining room.
You’ll notice that the floor and stairway is severely slanted — don’t worry, it’s not earthquake damage; the city is just sinking.
In the case that you arrive in Mexico City and somehow can’t quite conceptualize how big it really is, your reality check is waiting on the observation deck of the Torre Latinoamericana.
The view is quite impressive, and it’s a great opportunity to spot famous landmarks (including most of the ones on this list!). On a clear day you can see from one end of the Valley of Mexico to the other. The city sprawls throughout the entire area, and is bordered by mountains on all sides.
Be sure to visit on a clear day. Despite recent efforts to reduce the problem, Mexico City is still commonly plagued with a thick layer of smog that will more than likely impede your view. I bring this up because in 2010 a young, bright-eyed Janine set out to enjoy the view of the city from the revolving restaurant in Mexico City’s World Trade Center, and was deeply disappointed when she couldn’t see a dang thing through the thick curtain of brown smog that engulfed the building.
Despite my excitement and enthusiasm over the amazing view of the Valley of Mexico, I was trembling with fear when we were on the upper observation deck. Heights are not something I enjoy. Logically, this was ridiculous, since the deck is completely fenced in and there is no way for even the klutziest person to fall over, but I still couldn’t handle it.
You see, the building kind of sways a little in the breeze. I mean, maybe it was my imagination… but I had to retreat to the indoor observation deck after a few minutes. The caged in upper deck was as much thrill-seeking adventure as I could handle that day.
Fun fact: Construction on this tower was completed in 1956, and it has since survived at least 3 major earthquakes!
The Alameda Central is a park that extends from the Palacio de Bellas Artes, almost all the way to Paseo de la Reforma (one of Mexico City’s most well-known streets).
Personally I always find it refreshing to find green spaces in urban areas, especially in those as massive as Mexico City. The tree lined pathways make it a peaceful place to take a walk, or pause for a minute on a bench. You’ll see birds, squirrels, and a range of different trees and plants.
Paseo de la Reforma
This is one of Mexico City’s main boulevards. It only cuts through a tiny corner of the centro histórico, near the Palacio de Bellas Artes, but it’s worth including in your exploration of this area.
It’s a beautiful, wide boulevard lined with trees and towering high-rise buildings. There’s a fascinating contrast between 21st Century and 19th Century architecture along the way.
There are a few monuments along Reforma that are of note, including the Angel of Independence (a famous statue of an Angel that France gifted to Mexico), which you’ve undoubtedly seen on postcards.
Reforma stretches all the way past the Bosque de Chapultepec and the Castillo de Chapultepec, which is another must-visit spot for museum-obsessed history nerds. Or just people who are a big fan of glossy palaces. Just go there, it’s beautiful.
Have you visited Mexico City? Share your favorite spots in the comments!
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