Mexico City, the sprawling capital of Mexico and one of the largest cities in the world, is built over the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which stood on a island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. After the conquest of the city by Hernan Cortes in 1519, it was destroyed, the lake filled in and a Spanish city was begun on the site. Its greatest temple, Templo Mayor, is currently being excavated about a block away from the center of Mexico City’s main square, Plaza de la Constitucion, better known as the Zocalo.
The excavation and associated museum is now a major attraction in the city because of its historical significance. Probably the most important artifact discovered in the ruins is the Coyolxauhqui, a carved, round stone which depicts the Moon Goddess, dismembered. Also of interest are two statues, called the Eagle Knights because of their feathered costumes.
This historic heart of modern Mexico City is surrounded by some of its most famous and important structures. The Palacio Nacional is certainly an imposing edifice, but it is best known for its murals, painted by one of Mexico’s most famous muralists, Diego Rivera. They illustrate his impressions of Mexico’s turbulent (to say the least) history. They are found above the main stairway and along the walls of the courtyard.
The Catedral Metropolitana, the largest cathedral in all of Latin America, is a treasure of art and architecture. Because it took close to three centuries to complete, it is a mixture of architectural styles. Of particularly note are the Altar de los Reyes and the Choir, with its intricate wood-carving and two beautiful organs.
Outside the historic center of the city are several sights which are also must-sees for any visitor. In the Alameda District, just west of the Zocalo, the Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes are both architectural gems.
Further to the west, connected to the city center by the Paseo de la Reforma with its elegant statues, is the famous Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park), one of the oldest parks in the Americas, whose 2100 acres are a favorite gathering place for locals and tourists alike, especially on Sundays. Within the park, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia has a world-famous collection of relics from the ancient cultures of the Americas.
The Zona Rosa, the area immediately south of the Paseo de la Reforma is popular because of its many restaurants, shops and markets.
Another noteworthy attraction, found in the northern part of the city, is the Basilica de Guadalupe, probably the most important pilgrimage site in the Americas. This entire complex of several churches and chapels is a shrine to commemorate the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego in 1531. The anniversary of this event, December 12th, draws thousands of people, both here and to churches throughout Mexico, to celebrate and perform other acts of veneration.
Approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of the city lie the ruins of probably the most famous and most visited reminder of pre-Columbian culture in the Americas. Teotihuacan was a city which was probably founded in 200 BC, by a culture which archaeologists know very little about. The civilization here lasted till about 650 AD when it was mysteriously abandoned. It was later given its Aztec name and venerated by that culture, although they allowed the area to be taken over by vegetation and effectively buried.
Excavations of the site began in 1864 and still continue. What visitors see today is probably only about 10% of the original city. To appreciate the scale and grandeur of the ruins requires considerable walking and climbing.
The highlight of any visit should include a stroll down the regal Avenue of the Dead, the main street of the complex. At one end of the avenue is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, a shrine to the most important god of Mesoamerica, a plumed serpent who may have also been a ruler, depicted with white skin and beard, a lover of science and the arts.
At the other end of the avenue is the Pyramid of the Moon, which provides the best view of the entire complex for those willing to climb its stairs.
Near this pyramid is the Quetzalcoatl Palace Complex, a large group of buildings which exhibit interesting murals and carvings. It includes the Palace of the Jaguars.
The most imposing structure at Teotihuacan is undoubtedly the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world, which sits about halfway up the main avenue. Visitors may climb its 240+ stairs.
1. A great excursion is a short 20 kilometers (14 miles) south of Mexico City in the town of Xochimilco. Here are the last remaining Floating Gardens (Chinampas), which used to be quite common in the lakes around the city. Chinampas are rectangular floats, similar to barges, which are covered with a compost-like soil and planted with various crops or other plants. Natives used to steer these contraptions to the market to sell their produce. Now they are basically a curiosity designed to attract both locals and tourists to the area. Weekends are the best time to visit. The ideal way to participate is to rent a Trajinera, a flower-painted boat, and take part in the Floating Garden experience directly.
2. Another worthwhile excursion is a visit to the beautiful Colonial town of Puebla, 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Mexico City. This city is noted for the use of glazed tiles (Talavera) to decorate its buildings. They can be found on the domes of the churches and on the walls of the houses.
Puebla’s Cathedral, one of Mexico’s oldest, has the highest towers in the country at 69 meters (226 feet). Check out the Church of Santo Domingo whose Rosary Chapel is a gold-leaf masterpiece. The main square (Zocalo) of the city has beautiful gardens and is lined with arcades. It also contains the interesting Fuente de San Miguel (St Michael’s Fountain).