Last Updated on February 3, 2023
Mexico City is having a moment. As the capital and largest city of Mexico, it has surged into popularity as a must-see destination due to its historic architecture, booming gastronomy and vibrant arts scene. Mexico City museum offerings are also second to none. Once synonymous with crime and pollution, Mexico City has become ‘the’ place to visit along with headliners like Paris, London, Tokyo and New York.
The diversity of its attractions is born from its complex history. From bustling mercados – markets – to museums filled with artistic masterpieces and historic treasures, Mexico City reflects layer upon layer of cultural richness just begging to be explored.
Though you’ll run out of time before running out of things to do here, we want to walk you through the absolute most important not-to-be-missed jewels on your first or next exciting adventure in Mexico City.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia
It’s important to note that Mexico City has more museums than either New York or Paris. Let’s start with the one it’s most renowned for: The National Museum of Anthropology.
Occupying over 44,000 square feet within 10 buildings, this Mexico city museum is regarding as one of the best in the world. It offers a mesmerizing and encyclopedic introduction to the culture of Mexico.
The museum could take days to explore, however, if you’re short on time, stick to the Aztec and Mayan halls as they contain world-famous pieces from Mexico’s pre-Hispanic period, such as replicas of the murals that once adorned Teotihuacan (the famed pyramids on the outskirts of the city), the Piedra del Sol—the Aztec Calendar Stone—and the sixteenth-century statue of Xochipilli (the Aztec god of art, as well as games, beauty, dance, and maize). Guided tours are available to assure you hit the high points.
Museo Frida Kahlo
Known as La Casa Azul, this was the iconic artist’s home (a vibrant colored-blue you can’t miss) and now shares her life story and artworks.
Kahlo spent most of her life in this house, first with her family and years later with the then-more-famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera whom she married, divorced and remarried. Frida and Diego wanted to leave their historic home as a museum for Mexicans and visitors to enjoy. The house and garden exhibits include personal objects and paintings by both artists, pre-Columbian sculptures, photographs, documents, books and furniture that formed the environment in which Frida was inspired to create.
Mexico’s Zocalo, or main square, is home to some of the city’s richest history. This is actually the location of the original Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, and if you’re fascinated with this part of ancient history, you can still see remnants of this ancient indigenous civilization at Templo Mayor.
The seat of power in Mexico for over 500 years, the Palacio Nacional in the Zocalo is where the Aztec kings had their homes, followed by Hernán Cortés who conquered the Aztecs and claimed Mexico for Spain, then later the colonial viceroys. The structure you see today is the Mexican equivalent of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
The palace has many ceremonial rooms to explore, so hiring a guide on arrival is the best way to explore and better understand the history. The palace is best known for Diego Rivera’s masterful murals located in the stairwell and on the second floor.
One of Mexico City’s most iconic structures, the towering Metropolitan Cathedral is a monumental edifice, 109 meters long, 59 meters wide and 65 meters high.
Started in 1573, the cathedral remained a work in progress during the entire colonial period, thus showing many different architectural styles. The elaborately carved and gilded Altar de ltar de Perdón (Altar of Forgiveness) is stunning.
Visitors will also note a line of worshippers at the foot of the Señor del Veneno (Lord of the Poison), the dusky Christ figure on the right. Legend has it that the figure attained its color when it miraculously absorbed a dose of poison through its feet from the lips of a clergyman to whom an enemy had administered the lethal substance. True story or not, the cathedral is awe-inspiring.
Templo Mayor and Museo del Templo Mayor
In 1978, workmen digging on the east side of the Metropolitan Cathedral next to the Palacio Nacional unearthed an exquisite Aztec stone of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. Major excavations by Mexican archaeologists followed uncovering interior remains of the Pyramid of Huitzilopochtli, also called the Templo Mayor (Great Temple), the most important religious structure in the Aztec capital.
What visitors see today are the remains of pyramids covered by the great pyramid the Spaniards saw upon their arrival in the 16th century. No other Mexico city museum illustrates the splendor of the Aztec Empire the way this one does. All 6,000 pieces came from the relatively small plot of excavated ruins just in front of the museum. Exhibits include magnificent masks, figurines, tools, jewelry, and many other artifacts including the huge stone wheel of Coyolxauhqui.
Castillo de Chapultepec
If you’re headed to the Museo del Caracol, you’ll likely pass by this massive castle located on top of Chapultepec Hill in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. It’s worth a visit if you have the time as the castlehas unparalleled views and terraces that explorer James F. Elton once said, “cannot be surpassed in beauty in any part of the world.”
This is the only castle in Mexico, once home to the Spanish viceroys and Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg. Later it was also the Presidential House until 1940. Housing a wide collection of paintings, photographs, documents and objects, this Mexico City museum’s exhibits pay homage to the country’s historical evolution from pre-colonization to the present day.
Museo del Caracol
If you can handle another Mexico City museum add this one to your must-visit list. Named for the building’s shell shape, the museum spirals its way through the history of Mexico and its struggle for independence. The story is told through dioramas and models created by Mexican artists with accompanying audio narrations.
The museum also features two sculptures by Mexican artist Chavez Morado. The first is located near the entrance representing the fusion of the European and Mesoamerican cultures. The second, housed near the entrance to the Mexican Constitution exhibit, is a large altar honoring the pre-Hispanic cultures and the birth of independent Mexico. Its red volcanic stone walls and green and white marble reflect the colors of the Mexican flag.
Ancient Ruins of Teotihuacan
This ancient Mesoamerican city is the number one reason many travelers come to Mexico City. Located just 25 miles from Mexico City, Teotihuacan was one of the first great cities of the Western Hemisphere with 25,000 inhabitants, thousands of residential compounds and scores of pyramid temples comparable to the largest found in Egypt.
Built between the 1st and 7th centuries AD, its origins remain a mystery. Today, the square mile around this center is preserved as the Zona Arqueológica de Teotihuacan. Because of its vast size and fascinating history, it’s best to schedule a guided tour to best experience the grandeur of this remarkable site.
Mercado de la Cuidella
This colorful market gives locals and visitors alike the opportunity to explore bits and pieces of culture from across the nation. Here, you’ll find a selection of the finest arts, crafts, and homemade apparel shipped in from artistic communities all across Mexico.
It’s fascinating to browse through aisles of exquisite Talavera pottery, silverware, sombreros, antiques, and more. Prices are reasonable, even more so if you haggle (which is expected). If you visit the market on a Saturday, you’ll see performances of danzon (traditional dances) just outside the covered market.
Dia de Los Muertos
We can’t talk about Mexico City without mentioning one of the biggest Mexican festivals – Dia de Los Muertos – Day of the Dead.
In Mexico City, the festivities begin the night of October 31st kicking off a three-day string of parades, parties and religious events. The tradition dates back almost 3,000 years and features costumes, face-painting, sculptures, art and music with traditional food and drink all centered around Plaza de la Constitución, the massive public square also known as the Zócalo.
If you’re going to celebrate this holiday anywhere in the world, Mexico City is THE place to do so!
Where to Stay in Mexico City
A city of 22 million people and a global tourism destination, Mexico City has all of the hotel options you’d expect. Use the map below to find the location and price range best for your visit.architecturearthistoryIndigenous cultureMexico City