Mexico City's UNAM Campus Attractions

Buildings at UNAM

TripSavvy / Jorge Castro

Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM) campus in Mexico City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. It may seem strange that a university campus would receive this recognition, but upon learning about the history of the campus and all that it encompasses, the designation makes perfect sense.

History of the UNAM

Mexico's principal university was founded on September 21, 1551, with the name of the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico. It became the National University of Mexico in April 1910, shortly before the Mexican Revolution. Justo Sierra, educator and the university's first rector, presented the Constitutive Act of Higher Education, and then presented the project for the university itself, under the presidency of Porfirio Diaz. The university received its autonomous status in 1929, which gives it the freedom to define its own curriculum and manage its own budget without interference from the government. The UNAM is the largest and most important university in Mexico and Latin America.

The UNAM Campus

The university's present campus, which is known as the C.U. for Ciudad Universitaria (University City), is a large and very special place, with many attractions for visitors and locals to enjoy. The campus contains over 2,000 buildings and covers an area of 2,500 acres.

The campus was designed and built in the late 1940s and early 50s and was a collaborative effort by a variety of different professionals, including architects, artists, and engineers. It is considered to be a singular example of such a disparate group of professionals working together and a symbol of modernity of post-revolutionary Mexico.

The campus design incorporates green spaces and large open-air plazas as well as several museums, a stadium, an ecological reserve and botanical garden, making it a good spot to spend a day. One of the best-known features of the campus is the mosaic on the wall of the library building, which was created by Mexican architect and artist Juan O'Gorman (who also designed Diego Rivera's house studio). The campus also has a mural by prominent Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros and a mosaic by Diego Rivera decorating the exterior of the university's Olympic stadium.

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Nature Reserve and Botanical Garden

UNAM's Botanical Garden
Getty Images / Jordo

Ecological Reserve

The UNAM is the only university that has a full-fledged natural protected area within its campus. The Reserva Ecológica Pedregal San Ángel was declared a natural reserve in 1983 and originally had a territory of 124.5 hectares. Since that time, the extension of the reserve has grown an additional 112 hectares and now encompasses 237.3 hectares. The area is of particular interest because it is made up of large deposits of volcanic rock which harbors a wide variety of plant and animal life that are unique to this special ecosystem.

The Espacio Escultorico is a sculpture garden, the majority of which is made up of huge, abstract pieces, and is set within the ecological reserve. 

The fauna of UNAM's campus is also noteworthy. This interesting ecosystem is home to a variety of species including rabbits, opossums, cacomixles (ring-tailed cats), field rats and gray foxes.

Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden is run by UNAM's Institute of Biology and makes up one section of the ecological reserve. This is the second oldest botanical garden in the country. In addition to maintaining collections of living plants, the garden conducts outreach and education as well as research and conservation of Mexican plant diversity.

The garden is an excellent location to learn about Mexico's biodiversity. It contains more than 1600 species of plants that are representative of Mexico's forests, deserts, and jungles. Among them are over 300 plant species that are threatened or endangered. The garden's educational program teaches how the general public can contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and learn how scientific research is a basis for knowledge and sustainable use of plant resources.

Admission is free, and the garden is open daily from 7 am. Many students and locals come here for a morning run.

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Universum Science Museum

Universum Science Museum in Mexico City
Image courtesy

Also located within the grounds of the UNAM is a  science museum with interactive exhibits that are fun and educational for people of all ages. The museum's mission is to contribute to the formation of a scientific and technological culture and to promote interest in science and technology in society in general. Some of the museum's permanent exhibits include a butterfly pavilion, a medicinal plants display, and a planetarium. There's one area of the museum that is dedicated to children aged from 1 to 6 years of age, although many of the museum's other exhibits will be interesting to them as well. For more ideas about what to do with children in Mexico City.​

Learn more about the UNIVERSUM museum on their website:

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Art Museums and More

UNAM's MUCA Museum

Suzanne Barbezat

The UNAM campus is home to several other museums, including MUCA (Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Artes), the University Museum of Science and Art, which hosts a variety of temporary exhibits, mainly multimedia artwork by Mexican artists.

Another university museum is the MUAC (Museo Universidad de Arte Contemporaneo), a contemporary art museum with a permanent collection that has artwork dating from the year the campus was inaugurated, 1952, to the present day.

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Cuicuilco Archaeological Site

Circular pyramid at Cuicuilco, Mexico City
Getty Images / Sergio Mendoza Hochmann

Located just off the UNAM campus is the archaeological site of Cuicuilco. A stop here can easily be combined with a visit to the university and it gives some insight into the area's ancient history and geology. The archaeological site consists mainly of a large, circular pyramid, one of the very few pyramids with this shape that can be found in Mexico. It is a site that pre-dates Teotihuacan. The inhabitants of Cuicuilco were forced to abandon the site when the volcano Xitle erupted (around the year 300 C.E.), leaving the extensive deposits of volcanic rock that now make up the whole area's geological foundation.

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Visiting the UNAM Campus

Mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros in the UNAM campus, Mexico City
Moment Editorial/Getty Images / Getty Images

The UNAM is a good sight to include on a visit to Mexico City, particularly after getting to know the historical center. Since many of its attractions are open on Mondays, you may want to plan your visit for that day, when the majority of the city's museums are closed. 

UNAM Campus Location:

The UNAM is located southwest of Mexico City's historical center, near the borough of Coyoacan. It is relatively easy to reach via public transportation, however, this mode of transportation can be quite slow.

How to get there:

You can take the metro to Universidad metro station, the southernmost point on line 3, or take the metrobus to the C.U. station. Once inside the campus, you can get around using the university's transportation system

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