Although Mexico City is renowned for its massive size and excessive pollution, crime and traffic, travelers who venture to the capital of Mexico will be rewarded with some impressive sights and sounds. As one of the largest cities in the world, there is an abundance of museums, archaeological sites, historical buildings and bustling markets to occupy a visitor for months on end. The choices can be overwhelming! To make the best use of your time, here are our top ten Mexico City sights to include in your visit.
Plaza de la Constitución
This is Mexico City's main square, located in the historic center. Its official name is Plaza de la Constitución, but it is usually referred to as el Zócalo. At 830 x 500 feet, it's one of the largest public squares in the world. The great expanse of paved space is decorated with a single huge Mexican flag in the center. This is the heart of the city, the site of events, festivals and protests, and a good place to start your explorations.
The enormous cathedral on the North side of the Zocalo was built over a period of 250 years and has a mixture of architectural styles. Like many buildings in Mexico City’s historical center, it is slowly sinking into the ground. An extensive engineering project was undertaken in the 1990s to rescue the building, not to stop the sinking, but to ensure that the cathedral would sink uniformly. Take a tour to the bell tower (offered several times each day) to enjoy the view of the plaza and rooftops from above.
The government building takes up the East side of the Zocalo and houses the federal treasury and national archives. The main attraction here is Diego Rivera's murals depicting thousands of years of Mexican history.
In 1978, electric company workers digging beside the cathedral unearthed a large round stone depicting the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauqui, which spurred the excavation of this, the main Aztec temple, dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. In the museum, you can see the stone sculpture which instigated the archaeological project, as well as an interesting scale model of the city in ancient times and many artifacts found on the site.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
Mexico City's grandiose Fine Arts Theater was planned to commemorate the centenary of Mexican independence in 1910 but was not completed until 1934. It contains murals by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia
Located in Chapultepec Park, the National Anthropology Museum contains the most impressive collection of Mesoamerican artifacts in the world. There is a hall dedicated to each of the cultural regions of Mesoamerica and the upstairs rooms have ethnological exhibits. You could spend a full day, but dedicate at least a few hours, and don’t miss the Aztec exhibit with the famous Sun Stone or “Aztec Calendar.”
Museo Frida Kahlo
The chinampas or “floating gardens” of the Aztecs were an ingenious agricultural technique to create arable land on the lake. Now you can ride brightly colored boats along the canals and buy from vendors on barges or hire a mariachi band to serenade you.
About 25 miles outside of Mexico City, this archeological site is worth a day trip. The "city of the gods" was a huge urban center with a population of about 200,000, occupied from 200 BC to 800 AD. At its peak, it was one of the largest cities in the world, and its influence was felt all over Mesoamerica. See the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, walk along the Avenue of the Dead, climb the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon.
Basilica de Guadalupe
The hill where the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego is now one of the most visited religious sites in the world. Guadalupe is the patroness of Mexico and a very important national symbol. In the basilica, you can see the original mantle of Juan Diego with her miraculous image on it.
Bonus: Chapultepec Park
It's hard to narrow down the choices in such a large city that has so much to offer, but these are the most iconic attractions that a first-time visitor should see. If you've visited the other sites on this list and you still have some time, take a day to explore Chapultepec Park. You can tour the National History Museum that's located in the Chapultepec Castle, hire a pedal boat for a spin around the artificial lake, or visit the zoo.