It is believed that central Mexico has been inhabited for thousands of years, but Mexico City history really begins in 1325 CE. Before 1325 CE, the area was actually covered by a lake, Lake Texcoco. But an incredible transformation took place, launching Mexico City history in a way few would have expected.
The founding of Tenochtitlan
The Mexica people were living as outcasts in central Mexico. Legend says they migrated from a place called Aztlan, but they had failed to find a home in this part of Mexico. But they believed that they would see a sign, an eagle perched on a cactus. They saw such a sign on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, and on the 8th of June 1325 their city was born.
It seemed like an unlikely place for a city. Not only was the island small and difficult to access, the lake itself was salty. But the Mexicas knew how to make the best out of a seemingly bad situation. Soon causeways were built leading to the city, making it accessible to merchants and travellers but easy to defend in case of an attack. Aqueducts were built, providing the city with fresh water. A system of agriculture developed, making the area extremely fruitful and efficient, providing the city with food.
As the city was built, roadways grew up and parts of the lake were filled in. Tenochtitlan was to become the "Venice of the New World", a series of canals, city and farmland, well planned, equal or better than any city in the world.
The Aztec Empire
In this early Mexico City history, Tenochtitlan immediately became the centre of a growing empire. The Aztecs developed alliances with other cities and ruled throughout central Mexico. The city became a major centre for trade, military operations, culture, and political power.
The Spanish arrive
Hernan Cortes from Spain arrived with his army of 800 conquistadores in 1519, and in two years after a 79 day siege had captured Tenochtitan, with its tens of thousands of indigenous warriors. The old Aztec city was mostly destroyed and was rebuilt by 1525. It should be noted, however, that this was not simply a brand new city. Much of the Aztec culture and layout and of course many of the people, remained the same. To understand Mexico City history, it is important to remember that it is not so easy to wipe out an empire. Just as the Aztec way of life had grown from the many cultures before it, so the new Mexico City, even the one we know today, is still in part the ancient city of Tenochtitlan.
Mexico City was still the centre of culture and power in Mexico. It was also where places as far as Cuba, Florida and even the Philippines were administered. No doubt Cortes had recognized the importance of the city, and continued its tradition of power.
Into the modern era
Mexico City Cathedral Mexico City's main Cathedral The Aztec calendar stone was discovered nearby, and was for a time housed in the Western Tower. Mexico City history continues to be a history of power and influence. As the powers in Mexico changed over the years, each left their influence. In 1821 the country gained its independence from Spain, though of course the Spanish influence and many people of Spanish descent remained. French intervention in Mexico left remnants of a French culture in the city. The US invasion in 1847 added its marks of tragedy and heroism.
In 1910 came the Mexican Revolution. The cultural and political currents would last throughout the century. The next few decades would be a time of massive immigration into the city. The influx of people would make Mexico City one of the largest cities in the world, as it is today.
From its hosting of the Olympics in 1968, to the FIFA World Cup in 1986 (after its remarkable recovery from the earthquake of 1985), to its fast growth in the 1990s, Mexico City's history continues to be one of tragedy and triumph.
Mexico City today
As Mexico City history has been coloured with power and influence, so the city today continues to be a cultural and political centre. As one of the world's largest cities, it continues to be blessed and plagued with all the benefits and problems of large cities. Today, Mexico City is known as the Ciudad de los Palacios or City of Palaces. Each era of Mexico City history has left its monuments, palaces and places of worship, and the people of Mexico are quick to remember, to maintain their monuments, restore old architecture, and build new places to be remembered in the future.
With an estimated 20 million people living in the region, Mexico City is one of the world’s largest cities. The origins of this huge city date back to 1325, when the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan was founded. It was later destroyed in 1521 by Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes. On its ruins a new city was founded which served as the capital of the Vice-royalty of New Spain and later as the capital of Mexico.
Mexico City provides a chance to learn about the Aztecs, one of the world’s great early civilizations, as well as their Spanish conquerors. Many colonial buildings still stand among those of more modern architectural styles. The city also affords an opportunity for visitors to see the works of Diego Rivera, one of the world’s greatest muralists.
1. Basilica de Guadalupe
The Basilica de Guadalupe is the result of the Virgin Mary appearing in 1531, asking a poor peasant to tell the bishop a temple should be built there in her honor. The disbelieving bishop asked for proof the man had seen the Virgin. At her request he placed roses under his cloak; when he opened it, the roses, containing an image of the Virgin, fell out. A “New” Basilica de Guadalupe was built between 1974 and 1976, designed by Pedro Ramirez Vasquez, who also designed the National Museum of Anthropology. The immense plaza in front of the basilica has room for 50,000 worshipers; with that many attending every December 12 to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day.
Basilica de Guadalupe
2. Chapultepec Castle
Chapultepec Castle is a palatial site atop Chapultepec Hill, which translates as “grasshopper hill.” It was a sacred site for the Aztecs and is the only North American castle to serve as home for royalty, Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota in the 19th century. In 1847, six teenage military cadets died defending the castle from U.S. military invaders in the Battle of Chapultepec, during the Mexican-American War; they are honored with a mural at the castle’s entrance. Today, the castle houses the National Museum of Mexico.
3. Museo Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo may have been the wife of a famous Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, but she was a prominent artist in her own right. She was born and died in the Casa Azul (Blue House) where she lived all her life. In 1968, Rivera turned the house into a museum in her honor. The museum specializes in their art as well as that of other folk artists, pre-Spanish artifacts and other memorabilia associated with the couple. It is the most visited museum in Coyacan, where it is located, and one of the most visited tourist attraction in Mexico City.
Casa Azul (Blue House) of Frida Kahlo
4. Palacio de Bellas Artes
The Palacio de Bellas Artes, or Palace of Fine Arts, is an opulent white building that is the cultural center of both Mexico City and Mexico. Built on the site of a former convent and the first National Theatre of Mexico, the building’s exterior represents neo-classical and art nouveau style, while the interior is art deco. It is best known for its murals painted by famous Mexican artists such as Siquieros and Diego Rivera. It also is a performing arts center, hosting performances by the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and other groups.
Palace of Fine Arts
5. Palacio Nacional
Palacio Nacional (National Palace) is where Mexico’s president works. But the president is not the first person to rule over a nation here. Much of the palace is made from materials used in building a palace for the Aztec ruler Montezuma II. The palace fills an entire side on the Plaza de la Constitucion. The palace is home to a bell that called troops to action in the War for Mexican Independence; it is rung every September 15 to commemorate the occasion. The ornate palace also contains murals by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico from the pre-Columbian age to the Mexican Revolution. Tours in English are free.
Xochimilco is a suburb of Mexico City that once sat on the shores of Lake Xochimilco before the Spanish arrived. Today it is famous for its canals that, in ancient times, connected the villages around the lake. Visitors can enjoy rides through the 110 mile canal system on trajineras, Mexico’s version of the gondola. Much of Xochimilco is designated an ecological reserve. Xochimilco is a good place to wander about to view historic buildings.
Enjoy a ride on a Trajineras on the canals of Xochimilco
7. Templo Mayor
The Templo Mayor was an Aztec temple in Tenochtitlan. The temple was enlarged over the decades until it became the main center of religious life. Human sacrifices to the gods of war and rain took place here. In 1521, it was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors, who then erected a Cathedral on top of the site. The temple, which consists of a large stone pyramid, remained lost until it was discovered in 1978. Today visitors can see the remains of several older temples that were found underneath the original temple while walking through the archaeological excavation site.
Remains of Temple Mayor
8. Catedral Metropolitana
magnificent is a term that comes easily to mind when viewing Catedral Metropolitana, or Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest and oldest cathedral in the New World. Located on Plaza Zocala, the 16th century cathedral is stunning when it is all lit up at night. Stones from the Aztec’s Templo Mayor were used to build a church, which predated the cathedral on this site. The cathedral, which represents many architectural styles, holds a great collection of paintings and artifacts, many from the colonial era.
Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral)
9. Museo Nacional de Antropologia
The Museo de Antropologia showcases the history of Mexico’s peoples, with space devoted to how its native cultures lived before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century to how their descendants are surviving today. While the museum building is more of a contemporary style, the inside contains ancient artifacts used hundreds of years ago. The most famous artifact is the Aztec Calendar Stone, which was actually not used as a calendar but does contain 20 day signs and the 4 era’s of suns that preceded the current 5th sun.
National Museum of Anthropology
Located in the heart of the historic center, the Zócalo (or Plaza de la Constitución) is one of the largest squares in the world. It is flanked by the Metropolitan Cathedral to the north, and the National Palace to the east, as well as a number of other historic buildings. A huge Mexican flag occupies the center, which is ceremoniously lowered and raised each day. The city square has been a gathering place for Mexicans since Aztec times and today a wide variety of events are hosted here, including concerts, demonstrations and other more typical social gatherings.
Zócalo Square (Plaza de la Constitución)
1. Teotihuacán, State of Mexico
1 hour bus journey from the city center is one of Mexico City’s most famous archaeological landmarks, the ancient city of Teotihuacán. While technically no longer a city, this is still easily one of the best day trips to take from Mexico City. Located in the State of Mexico, the pyramids and ruins that remain from this Mesoamerican settlement are truly magnificent.
It is home to the most famous pyramids of Mexico. The awe inspiring Aztec Teotihuacan Pyramids, located 30 miles outside of Mexico City. Teotihuacán has two famous pyramids known as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. The two gigantic pyramids dominate the landscape. Teotihuacan pyramids, also known as the City of the Gods. Take a guided tour with an archeologist who will explain the UNESCO World Heritage Site and gives you insight into the majestic plazas and murals. A trip to Mexico would not be complete without visiting this world renowned archeological site.
The city covered eight square miles (21 km2) and 80 to 90 percent of the total population of the valley resided in Teotihuacan. Apart from the pyramids, Teotihuacan is also anthropologically significant for its complex, multi-family residential compounds, the Avenue of the Dead, and its vibrant, well preserved murals. Additionally, Teotihuacan exported fine obsidian tools that are found throughout Mesoamerica. The city is thought to have been established around 100 BCE, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 CE. The city may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries CE, but its major monuments were sacked and systematically destroyed around 550 CE. Its collapse might be related to the extreme weather events of 535 –536 CE.
Currently you are not allowed to climb the pyramids, but you can take a Hot Air Balloon trip tour over the pyramids at first sunrise before you go explore it by foot. I would highly recommend this flight as you get the best birds eye view of the pyramids. I recommend using Sky Balloons Mexico. They also include breakfast and coffee afterwards.
The Pyramid of the Sun and of the Moon (Ruins of the Aztec Mesoamerican settlement)
2. Tepotzotlán, State of Mexico
Half an hour drive from the city center is Tepotzotlán. This tongue-twister of a city is often confused with the arguably more popular, hippy-influenced village of Tepoztlán, Morelos. However, Tepotzotlán is just as worthy a day trip and in fact has some incredibly cool sights: the Xalpa Aqueduct, built in the 18th century, is a key one, although the historic center also has some fantastic offerings. The Jesuit church in particular is one of the most striking examples of New World Churrigueresque architecture.
3. Toluca, State of Mexico
50 minute drive away is the state capital of the Estado de México, Toluca de Lerdo. Second only to Mexico City in quantity of museums, this would make a great day trip for culture hounds who want to know more about the history and art of this country. Some particularly excellent museum options here are the Museo de Bellas Artes, Centro Cultural Mexiquense, and the Cosmovitral Botanical Garden, with its stunning stained glass murals. Toluca is also famed for being the chorizo producing hub of Mexico, so take the opportunity to try some while you are there.
(Chorizo is a type of pork sausage. Mexican chorizo is one of the most flavourful sausages you can buy. Typically made from ground pork or a mixture of pork and beef, it is used in many Mexican recipes to add a punch of flavor since it is so highly seasoned!)
4. Cuernavaca, Morelos
One hour’s drive from the center of the city is Cuernavaca, Morelos state’s capital. Full of royal residences, churches, and museums, Cuernavaca is a sleepy town known for an abundance of Spanish language schools. Check out La Casa del Olvido (or Olindo), which housed Emperor Maximilian in 1866 during his attempts to forget his wife Carlota, or visit the nearby Las Estacas, home to the Bahidorá Festival. Now known as the “land of eternal spring,” Cuernavaca has numerous sights that will delight any visitor.
Palace of Cortés
5. Pachuca, Hidalgo
One hour’s drive from Mexico City, or double that time if you take the bus, is the state capital of Hidalgo, Pachuca. Nicknamed la bella airosa for its windy climate, its sights are generally mining related, given that Pachuca was once a hive of mining activity. This mining city therefore has connections with Cornwall in the United Kingdom, and it is also the birthplace of the Mexican paste (pasty), which developed from the iconic Cornish pasty. But the British connection does not end there, the city’s emblematic reloj monumental was built by the same company responsible for Big Ben.
In the center of a small neighborhood located in the city of Pachuca, Hidalgo, is the largest graffiti mural in all of Mexico. The mural was painted onto a canvas of 200 homes on the hillside district of Las Palmitas.
6. Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala
One hour and a quarter’s drive, but longer if you take the bus, is another state capital. It is Mexico’s smallest state, and the smallest state capital to boot, Tlaxcala is often an underrated day trip option, yet it has lots to offer the potential visitor. The majority of the tourist attractions here are pre-Hispanic in nature, so this is the perfect destination for the historically minded or archaeologically intrigued. Xochitécatl, south-west of Tlaxcala City, and Cacaxtla, on the state’s southern border, are perhaps the two best known archaeological ruins.
7. Cholula, Puebla
One hour and a half away from Mexico City is the first state of Puebla offering, Cholula. This sleepy town offers the most outstanding views of the hard to pronounce mountains Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl. One of Mexico’s most important colonial towns, its architecture is colorful and dominated by churches. In fact, there are over 40 churches, incredible, considering the size of this once great city. One of the biggest archaeological draws of Cholula is that it is home to the largest pyramid in the world, not by height but by volume, Pyramid Tepanapa.
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies Church) is a 16th-century Mexican Catholic parish church.
8. Puebla, Puebla
Two hour drive from Mexico City and also located in the state of Puebla is the capital of the same name, Puebla. One of Mexico’s top five colonial cities, it is also one of the most attractive and attracts thousands of day trippers every year from the country’s capital. The 4th largest metropolitan area in Mexico and a buzzing, vibrant university town, Puebla is historic, yet has a modern appeal. One of the most enchanting landmarks in Puebla is the Ex-Hacienda de Chautla. This striking English castle is set in the middle of a lake and even hosts weddings.
Ex-Hacienda de Chautla.
9. Santiago de Querétaro, Querétaro
Two and a half hours outside of Mexico City is Querétaro state’s capital, Santiago de Querétaro, known more commonly as Querétaro. Not only is its historic center recognized by UNESCO, it is widely considered one of the safest cities in Mexico and boasts gorgeous colonial architecture and vibrant buildings. With a wide selection of museums, churches, and former convents to explore, it is the perfect, peaceful day trip. Plus, if architecture is not your thing, keep in mind that Querétaro also has a burgeoning vineyard culture and cultivates excellent wines.
Santiago de Querétaro
10. Taxco, Guerrero
Four hours from the capital is the city of Taxco, just over the border in Guerrero state. Widely recognized for its silver mining industry, some of the best silver products still originate and can be found in Taxco, but keep an eye out for marked-up cheap silver, which is not worth purchasing. One of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos, Taxco also boasts an intriguing cityscape: narrow, winding streets crawl through the city and offer vistas over the red tiled roofs below. Santa Prisca church is arguably the most iconic of Taxco’s buildings.