A scenic view of the Mexico City skyline from the Basilica of Guadalupe. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Touring Ancient Mexico City

Expect crazy contrasts, spicy cuisine, and museums galore.

One of Mexico’s most captivating locations is Mexico City, its capital, which is built on the ruins of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. One of the oldest and largest cities in the Americas, it has a metro population of over 22 million. 

It's a place of crazy contrasts. The sprawling landscape runs from modern skyscrapers to neighborhoods of Spanish-style mansions with flowering purple jacaranda trees. Colonial architecture, iconic artwork, spicy cuisine, and a rich cultural heritage offer visitors endless activities. But expect noisy and congested traffic. 

Mexico City is a museum lover’s paradise. Start at Plaza de la Constitución, the enormous central square known as the Zócalo. The Metropolitan Cathedral, the Aztec Templo Mayor, and the National Palace dominate the plaza.

The National Palace showcases Diego Rivera's famous mural, The History of Mexico, which depicts scenes from the Aztec era through conquest to industrial development. Since Mexico's president now lives within the property, admission is often restricted. If it’s open, you’ll need an ID (passport) for entry. 

The ruins of Templo Mayor, a pyramid built in pre-Hispanic times, come next. The structure acted as one of the main places of worship for the ancient inhabitants. 

The Metropolitan Cathedral, one of Latin America's largest and oldest cathedrals, took more than two centuries to build, from 1573 to 1813. Here you’ll see a mix of baroque, neo-classical, and neo-renaissance architecture. Numerous works of art, religious relics, and crypts cram every corner, including those in the 16 chapels. 

Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts. (Photo: Pixabay)

A Performance Hall and Art Museum

The Palace of Fine Arts, a beloved white marble and domed building near Zócalo, serves as the city's top performance hall and an art museum. The building features murals painted by some of Mexico's finest artists, including Rivera, as well as Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Roberto Montenegro. It is also home to the National Museum of Architecture. The gift shop includes a terrific bookstore. 

The Folk Art Museum (Museo de Arte Popular) in the historic district delights visitors with authentic, colorful Mexican handicrafts such as the Tree of Life sculptures, Day of the Dead characters, large parade figures called “alebrijes,” ethnic clothing, toys, and pottery. From bizarre to soulful tributes, the museum surprises at every turn. You’ll find fantastic souvenirs in the gift shop, which also carries many fine artisan wares. 

Chapultepec Park, which is twice as big as New York’s Central Park, is an urban oasis with peaceful nooks. Explore its nine museums, two lakes, the Mexico City Zoo, a castle, a water garden, a botanical garden, and more. Take a bicycle ride, jog, or paddleboat within the scenic grounds. 

Castillo de Chapultepec
El Castillo de Chapultepec. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The Castillo de Chapultepec remains the only authentic castle in North America. It was the residence of royalty, the home of Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota. Tour the interior and bask in its beautiful hilltop view, considered one of the best in the city. 

Take advantage of the most famous museum, the National Museum of Anthropology, also in Chapultepec Park. The building contains the world's most extensive collection of ancient Mexican art and ethnographic exhibits about Mexico's history. You’ll appreciate the large courtyard when you need to sit and take a break. And you likely will need that break, as this museum covers 20 acres and offers 23 permanent exhibit halls. 

Before you leave, you'll learn how the cultures developed. The Aztec exhibit contains large stone heads and sculptures, including the most famous Aztec Calendar, known as the "Sun Stone."

Several rooms have recreations of archeological scenes: murals and tombs in the Oaxaca and Maya rooms give you a chance to experience the pieces in context. 

Xochimilco boats, Mexico City
The boats of Xochimilco. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Another World Heritage Site

Mexico City's Xochimilco (pronounced so-chee-mil-ko) district offers another World Heritage Site. Here lies an intricate network of canals, colorful gondola boats, floating food vendors, and mariachi bands.

If you’re open to a creepy experience, consider a long boat tour that takes you to the Isla de Muñecas or Island of the Dolls. This Mexico dark tourism site is cut straight out of a horror movie, with baby doll parts embedded and hanging from trees throughout the island.

The neighborhoods of San Ángel and Coyoacán lie in the southern part of Mexico City. San Ángel's pace emits a tranquil, artistic vibe, while Coyoacán brings the fervent zeal of La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera's home and galleries. 

Frida, who was born there, created most of her work and died in the Blue House. You can see the bedroom where she convalesced following a near-fatal bus accident. Also displayed are her prized easel, the bedside mirror that allowed her to paint her renowned self-portraits, and even her ashes. The gallery walls showcase Kahlo's most famous works, including Long Live LifeFrida and the Caesarean, and Portrait of My Father. Reservations are necessary for inside tours. 

If time permits, consider a trip to Teotihuacán, just outside Mexico City. The ancient city, last inhabited by the Aztecs, boasts impressive sun and moon temples. For the most memorable experience, take a sunrise hot air balloon ride.

Coming soon: 

In part two of her Mexico report, Debi Lander explores the country’s magical monarch butterfly sanctuaries. 

Zocalo, Mexico City
Zocalo, Mexico City. (Photo: Pixabay)



What It Is: Mexico City, the country’s capital, is more than 9,000 miles south of the U.S. border. It has a population of about 22 million.

Climate: Central Mexico has a subtropical highland climate. The dry season runs from November to May and the remaining months are rainy. The best time to visit is between March and May when average daily temperatures range from 44 to 80 degrees F.

Getting There: Mexico City International Airport serves approximately 40 million passengers per year. Its longest runway is 13,074 feet. Licenciado Adolfo López Mateos International Airport, or simply Toluca International, is 36 miles west of the city. In addition to a terminal for commercial flights, it has private ones for business aviation. The longest runway is 13,779 feet.

What to Know Before You Go: You’ll need a valid passport for entry and exit. Mexico is in the same time zone as the Central U.S. Credit cards are widely accepted. 


Accommodations: Mexico City is home to many well-known five-star hotel chains, including Four SeasonsSt. RegisW, and SofitelThe Gran Hotel (A) offers Old World elegance with a rooftop restaurant overlooking Zocalo plaza. Casa Polanco (A), a boutique hotel that occupies a renovated 1940s mansion, feels like a private residence. 

Cuisine: The renowned chef at Pujol (A+) offers molecular gastronomy and a 10-course taco-tasting menu. Rated No. 9 in World’s Best Restaurants 2021 and Best Restaurant in North America in 2019 and 2021…Quintonil (A+) serves some of Mexico’s best authentic food and features a 10-course seasonal menu…Maximo Bistrot (A) presents Mexican, French, and Italian fare with a great wine list…El Lago Restaurant (A) overlooks one of the lakes in Chapultepec Park and on weekends serves what is considered the best brunch in Mexico City.

The author's trip to Mexico was self-funded.