A History Lover’s Guide to Mexico City

Mexico City is a thriving metropolis that’s home to ancient pyramids, colonial architecture, and some of the best museums on the planet.

Jun 10, 2024By Matt Dursum, BA Geography and GIS Systems

history lover s guide mexico city


Sitting atop a plateau in the Valley of Mexico is the sprawling capital of Mexico City. Over 20 million people live and work in this vast metropolis. Yet, within this global city are ancient monuments from past empires, Spanish colonial architecture, and dozens of world-renowned museums that beautifully preserve its history for the world to experience. Below are just a few of Mexico City’s must-see destinations for history lovers. These include giant Pre-Columbian pyramids, colonial Spanish churches, and some of the world’s greatest museums.


Visit the Centro Histórico of Mexico City

centro historico mexico city
Torre Latinoamericana. Source: CDMC.gob.mx


For history lovers, Mexico’s capital is like no other city on earth, with so much history preserved and maintained within such a giant urban space. You will want to spend weeks or even months here to truly experience the wealth of historical places that this incredible city contains. Mexico City’s historical landmarks are easy to get to thanks to the city’s large and efficient metro system and access to ride-sharing apps and taxis. Most of its landmarks and historic districts are safe to visit and easy to get around.


Start your visit to Mexico City in its historic Centro Historico. This area was where the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, once existed. Surrounded by canals and the 2,200 square mile Lake Texcoco, the city had a pre-Hispanic population of more than 200,000 people and it was the center of the empire’s government and trade. Today, it’s still the center of Mexico, with government offices and protected cultural landmarks that attract millions of tourists annually. Once you arrive, make sure you visit landmarks such as the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral and the city’s central square, or Zocalo.


Afterward, take a stroll down Avenida Francisco I. Madero. Here, you’ll pass centuries-old buildings with aged facades and plenty of historical significance. Don’t miss landmarks such as the House of Tiles, Palacio Postal, and the Torre Latinoamericana, which was the tallest building in Mexico from 1956 to 1982. While you’re there, don’t miss a visit to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana for the best views of the city.

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As you’re walking, don’t forget to enjoy the timeless, although often out of tune, melodies of the organ grinders, or organilleros. A century ago, these instruments and the people who played them entertained the masses. Now, many people turn a blind eye in favor of modern street performers who often compete with the organilleros for space.


See the Templo Mayor Museum

templo mayor museum
Templo Mayor Museum. Source: CDMX.gob.mx


This is one of the must-see museums in Mexico City and arguably the most important historical monument. The Templo Mayor Museum houses relics and excavations of the Aztec ‘Great Temple’ Teocalli. This was the spiritual and cultural heart of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which officially became Mexico City after the Spanish arrived. Inside, you’ll get to approach the excavated portions of the temple and see carvings of deities and religious symbols. You’ll see carvings of human skulls on one wall and the intricate stone floors of the temple’s walkways. Inside the museum are artifacts and replicas of the ancient city. Jewelry, clothing, and precious items show visitors what life must have been like in Tenochtitlán. One highlight of the museum is the stone of Coyolxauhqui—a giant stone wheel that depicts the murder of the god Coyolxauhqui by her brother Huitzilopochtli.


Spend a Day at the Museo Nacional de Antropología

mexico city anthropology museum
Museo Nacional de Antropología. Source: Unsplash


No visit to Mexico City would be complete without spending a day at the National Anthropology Museum. Here, you’ll see endless pre-Columbian art and artifacts from Mexico’s history. At the entrance to the museum is a mesmerizing water fountain that towers above the modern courtyard, sending tons of water crashing to the courtyard floor. Famous architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez designed the building and it was built between 1963 and 1964. If you look around, you’ll notice that almost every design element is infused with Mexican Indigenous art and mysticism.


Inside you’ll find 23 large rooms, each containing artifacts spanning from the ancient Olmec civilization to almost every Indigenous culture in Mexico. You’ll come face to face with sacred objects such as the Aztec Stone of Tizoc, the Aztec Sun Stone, and the famous jade mask of Palenque Mayan ruler Kʼinich Janaab Pakal I. This beautiful museum is the most visited one in Mexico, and it houses the largest collection of Mexican historical artifacts in the world. Plan to spend at least a few hours here, if not most of the day.


Walk Through Bosque de Chapultepec Park

mexico city bosque chapultepec
Bosque de Chapultepec. Source: ProBosque Chapultepec


Mexico City’s 1,700 acres plus Bosque de Chapultepec is twice the size of New York’s largest green space, the famous Central Park. Within it are museums, ruins, a castle, and monuments to the historical figures who once lived here. Around three miles southwest of the Centro Historico, Bosque de Chapultepec functions like the city’s lungs. Towering trees cover the grounds above endless hiking trails, bike paths, lakes, and must-see sights.


Start your day at the park by visiting Chapultepec Castle. This enormous fortress and mansion was once the home of the Spanish Viceroy. Today, it’s home to the National History Museum Castle Chapultepec, a must-see place for history and unbeatable views of the city’s skyline.


From here, walk down the hill and through the park to learn more about its Indigenous history. For centuries, the park was a sacred space, a summer retreat, and a treasured source of freshwater for the Aztecs and earlier Indigenous people. King Nezahualcoyotl built his summer residence in the park in 1428 and later Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin constructed an animal sanctuary and baths. Today, you can still visit the emperor’s baths and monuments dedicated to the Aztec Rulers.


Spend the Day in Coyoacán

frida kahlo museum
Frida Kahlo Museum Building. Source: Frida Kahlo Museum


Just a half an hour south of the Centro Historico is Coyoacán. This neighborhood was the launching point of Hernán Cortés’ attack on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. As the Aztec capital lay in ruins, Coyoacán became the first capital of the newly declared New Spain. Today, the neighborhood is full of historic buildings and sights that preserve its history. The oldest historic site is La Conchita Chapel, built on top of an existing Indigenous altar between 1525 and 1530. It is one of the first churches in Latin America, built shortly after the fall of the Aztec Empire.


Nearby, in the center of Coyoacan, is another must-see historical building—the San Juan Bautista Church. It was built in the mid-16th century which makes it one of the oldest churches in Mexico. Today, Coyoacán is famous for being the former home of the artist Frida Kahlo. Her bright blue home is now the Frida Kahlo Museum, a must-see destination for any art lover. Her contribution to the art world is undeniable and in her former home, you can see her personal items and other objects from her life.


Experience the Ruins of Teotihuacán

mexico city teotihuacan pyramid
Teotihuacán Pyramid by Ruben Hanssen. Source: Unsplash


Over a thousand years before the Mexica People forged the Aztec Empire, the city of Teotihuacán stood as a center of trade, culture, and power in the region. Its population once rivaled any other city in the ancient world and influenced the development of societies beyond modern Mexico. Not much is known about the people who built the great city. However, through surviving murals and stories passed down to other societies, we can understand a little about their lives. Remnants of faraway cultures, including jewelry and pottery designs, were unearthed here, indicating that Teotihuacán traded with other societies.


You can still visit the site of this ancient city and experience its alleyways, murals, temples, and government buildings. The most impressive structures are by far the imposing Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.


Teotihuacán deserves an entire day to visit. From its pyramids to its murals, each section of this sprawling UNESCO World Heritage Site will enthrall you. Consider visiting with a registered guide or hiring one when you arrive. This is a great way to learn about the site’s secrets and the latest archeological research.


Visit the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City

plaza de las tres culturas
Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Source: CDMX.gob.mx


Mexico City is where cultures have meshed together for centuries and you can truly notice this at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of the Three Cultures). This monument in the neighborhood of Tlatelolco is home to ancient Aztec ruins, a Spanish Cathedral, and more modern Mexican architecture.


The plaza was once the home of the city of Tlatelolco, an ancient Aztec city that became part of Tenochtitlán. For centuries, it was home to one of the largest markets in the empire. Today, you can walk around its ruins and even visit its main temple, Templo Mayor.


In the same square, you’ll find the Templo de Santiago. This 17th-century church was built from the stones of the former Aztec temples. Inside, you can see the stones that were once part of the Aztec buildings that stood on the church grounds.


Next to the Pre-Independence monuments is a more somber remnant of Mexican history, the Museo Memorial del 68. In 1968, student protests near the plaza ended in violence, when the Mexican military opened fire on hundreds of students. The museum’s exhibits take you through this tragic incident as it unfolded.


Although the plaza grounds and monuments are relatively safe to visit during the day, it’s best not to come here at night. The neighborhood of Tlatelolco is close to some of the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods such as Tepito, so it’s best to be cautious.

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By Matt DursumBA Geography and GIS SystemsMatt is a freelance writer and journalist from Michigan who’s currently living in South America. When he’s not writing, Matt is studying languages — so far Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and French — visiting museums, surfing, and traveling.