Things to Do in Central Mexico
Just north of Mexico City are the mysterious Teotihuacán Pyramids, built beginning around 300 BC as the centerpiece of an enormous city, often compared to ancient Rome. They were inexplicably abandoned centuries before the arrival of the Aztecs, who called the ancient architectural marvel the "Birthplace of the Gods."
Neither they, nor modern archaeologists, have been able to unravel the secrets of these massive ruins, presided over by the third-largest pyramid in the world. Constructed according to precise astronomical measurements, and filled with the bodies of sacrificial victims, it was perhaps a place where bloody rituals were performed to keep the end of the world at bay. But no one really knows.
Thus, this mystic spot is one of the most enigmatic, as well as impressive, archaeological sites in North America. Its vast stone expanse of humbling temples are still covered with rich and detailed stone statues, even faded paintings.
Perfumed with flowers and plied by trajineras, a sort of gondola cheerfully painted to reflect the canals' lush beauty, the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco were once the agricultural breadbasket of Mexico City. Today, these last lovely remnants of ancient Lake Texcoco are more a destination for young lovers and enchanted tourists in search of a romantic afternoon.
Though most of the Aztecs' massive system of canals have long since been drained, the suburb of Xochimilco ("Place of Flowers") offers a glimpse into the ancient beauty of of Tenochtitlán. The "floating gardens" that once fed the great nation are smaller, but still here; the trajineras may now come equipped with engines, but they are still festively decorated, and many carry troupes of mariachis and offer relaxed "restaurant" service.
Catemaco Lake is a natural wonderland for travelers who love the outdoors. Whether it’s joining one of the thousands of fishermen casting lines into the 22-meter-deep waters, or hiring a boat to explore the surrounding sites, Catemaco is a still undeveloped Mecca perfect for spending a sunny afternoon.
This rustic freshwater lake in south central Veracruz was formed by a natural lava flow from the nearby San Marin Tuxtla volcano. Its chilly waters and the fertile foothills that surround it offer plenty of options for outdoor exploring. Travelers can hire a local boat and paddle into the depths of Catemaco Lake before washing ashore Monkey Island, where playful primates swing freely between towering emerald green trees. Or they can head to nearby Nanciyaga Ecological Reserve for a refreshing swim in the peaceful lagoon, followed by relaxing mud massages and a dip in the hot springs.
La Casa Azul, or the Blue House, was the birthplace of iconic artist Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954), whose beautifully tortured self portraits and passionate, tumultuous life with muralist Diego Rivera have elevated her to the status of legend.
Her home, today one of Mexico City's most popular museums, doesn't have an outstanding collection of her own work, though there are several sketches and less famous pieces to see. Instead, the rooms and gardens - still in much the same state as she left them - offer insight into her life as a wife, lover, artist, and hub of the city's (and Latin America's) socialist intellectual scene during the 1920s and 1930s. The tender details, from her brushes and canvasses, the pre-Columbian art collected by her husband, and even the prosthetic leg she wore in the months before her untimely death, will touch even casual visitors to the Museo Frida Kahlo.
Villa Coyoacan is 29 blocks of one of Mexico City’s most charming districts. Also one of the area’s oldest districts, the area is filled with cobblestone streets, counterculture museums, and small park plazas that date back to Spanish colonial times and have an absolutely charming feel. Independently ranked as one of the best urban places to live, Coyoacan is where Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky all chose to reside, and museums dedicated to them now fill their old houses. Tranquil on the weekdays, filled with culture and music come the weekend, Coyoacan is more than simply a nice neighborhood – it’s a hotbed of culture and a must-see if in Mexico City.
During early morning hours the Malecon stretching between Veracruz and Boca del Rio fills with local runners jogging along the scenic path that wraps around the ocean’s edge. But by mid-afternoon, it’s travelers that flood the area known for its pre-colonial architecture and fine views of imposing naval ships. Stalls selling handmade crafts and traditional food line the area, and happy couples stroll the promenade eating ice cream cones on hot summer days while listening to musicians perform mariachi music in the streets. The Malecon’s relaxing daytime vibe comes alive at night, when cool breezes bring locals back outdoors to enjoy refreshing drinks at the crowded tables of nearby cafes as traditional folk dancers and live musicians stage acts in the open air.
More Things to Do in Central Mexico
The Patron Saint of Mexico, and of all the Americas, is the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to legend, she appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on December 9, 1531. In his vision, she was a teenage girl of indigenous complexion, and spoke to the recently baptized Aztec in his native Nahuatl. There, atop Tepeyac Hill, she asked him to build a shrine in her honor. When the Spanish priests refused to believe Juan Diego's tale, she gave him a sign: Roses in December, and the miraculous painting, echoed all over the world, and still revered today.
Today, the Shrine of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic religious site on Earth, and pilgrims attribute to her image all manner of miracles. They pack the enormous basilica, designed to offer a fine view of her image from anywhere within, asking her help with everything from relationship woes to healing terminal cancer.
Located at the heart of Mexico City in the center of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, Plaza de la Constitucion—better known as Zocalo—is where old and new Mexico meet. Pre-Hispanic ruins exist side-by-side with impressive colonial structures, and white-collar workers stroll among cultural performers and traditional art vendors. This city-block square is also a gathering place for political protest and cultural celebration—and it’s an ideal spot to savor the flavor of real Mexico City.
Tour nearby Palacio Nacional, just east of Zocalo, where massive murals by Diego Rivera depict the nation’s vibrant history. Next, pass through the doors of Catedral Matropolitana for a look at religious colonial art and impressive golden altars. When it’s time for a break head to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, where incredible views and strong drinks from the terrace bar round out the perfect day.
It’s easy to spend an entire day exploring the nearly 20 acres that make up Mexico City’s most-visited museum. Opened in 1964, the National Museum of Anthropology houses the largest collection of traditional Mexican art in the world—including the famous Aztec Stone of the Sun (Although the giant carved heads from the Olmec people, uncovered deep in the jungles of Tabasco and Veracruz, are equally impressive).
Each of the museum’s 23 permanent exhibit halls is dedicated to a different cultural region or indigenous group, making it an ideal place to learn about the country’s rich history and the traditions of its diverse capital city.
Considered one of the world's most beautiful buildings, the Mexico City Palace of Fine Arts - or Palacio de Bellas Artes - is a harmonious synthesis of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Baroque styles, a style sometimes called "Porfiriano," after architecture-obsessed Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who commissioned the project.
The exterior, surrounded with gardens, rises in elegant columns and domes above the cool, green Alameda Central. Inside, it is an exceptional art exhibition, filled with a permanent collection of statues, murals, and other outstanding ornamentation. In addition, there are regular world-class art exhibitions open to the public.
In addition to its daytime attractions, you can appreciate the building's acoustic excellence by enjoying a performance at its National Theater. International artists appear regularly, but try to catch Mexico City's own Ballet Folklórico de México Compania Nacional or National Symphonic Orchestra.
The seat of Mexico's federal government since the age of the Aztecs (at least), the National Palace - or Palacio Nacional - is a working building, and many offices are off limits to visitors. You can, however, pass through the enormous baroque facade dominating the eastern side of the Zócalo and enjoy some of its ample interior.
Though the arcaded courtyards and fountains are fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture, you're here to see artist Diego Rivera's triptych of murals, "Epic of the Mexican People." From the creation of humankind by Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent god, and subsequent rise of the Aztecs, Rivera plunges you into the horrors of the Spanish Conquest - rape, murder, slavery, and finally, mercy to the defeated survivors. In the final piece, Mexico's resistance to invasions by France, the United States, and corporate robber barons including Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, are depicted.
North America may not be known for its regal royalty or holding court, but Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City—the only palace on the continent—is definitely the real deal. Located more than 7,000 feet above sea level, Chapultepec has housed sovereigns, served as a military academy and was even an observatory. In 1996 the castle was transformed into Capulet Mansion for the movie Romeo and Juliet, too.
Until 1939, Chapultepec Castle served as the presidential residence. Then a new law moved it elsewhere and the castle became home to both the National Museum of History and the National Museum of Cultures instead. A stroll through these halls, followed by a tour of lush castle grounds is a perfect way to spend a Mexico City afternoon.
At the historic heart of one of the world's most populous cities, is the first and largest cathedral in the Americas, seat of the Archdiocese of Mexico, and a wonder to behold. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral - or Catedral Metropolitana - is a symphony in stone, composed over 4 centuries into manifold facades, displaying textbook Neoclassical, Renaissance, and wedding-cake ornate Mexican Baroque (Churrigueresque) styles.
Within its fantastic bulk are sheltered some 16 chapels, several alters and retablos, a fine parish church, and a choir, each an inspired work of art replete with gold gilt, fine paintings, and sculptural details. Above it all, 25 bells - measured in tons - ring and sing to the city all around.
Considered by many to be the first true Spanish town in all of Mexico, La Antigua is the home of Hernan Cortes, who led the expedition that ended the Aztec Empire. His house, which was built in 1523, draws travelers from across the globe who seek a window into Mexico’s incredible—and sometimes bloody—past. Today, Cortes’s home, built of coral and stone, is wrapped thick with vines and overgrown with tree roots.
In addition to Cortes’s family home, the oldest church in the Americas, as well as Edificio del Cabildo—which held the first city council—are both located in La Antigua. Travelers can walk through what remains of the Cavalry Lancers’ garrison, where ready troops were once stationed to defend the town, or explore the Spanish colonial architecture hidden in the landscape of this sleepy town.
The Mexican flag refers to a vision dating to the 13th century, telling Aztec seers to seek an eagle on a cactus, devouring a snake, and build their temples there. The wandering tribe finally found their sign atop an island in Lake Texcoco, and built the mighty city of Tenochtitlán upon it.
Fast forward 7 centuries, to a 1978 electrical problem close to the Zócalo, Spanish Colonial heart of Mexico City. Workers, digging into the soft earth, uncovered a massive, eight-ton stone depicting Coyolxauhqui, Aztec goddess of the moon. Archaeologists who had long suspected that the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple lay beneath this neighborhood, were vindicated. Throughout the 1980s, Spanish buildings were cleared away as excavation revealed an unprecedented wealth of treasures from every corner of the Aztec Empire. The old pyramid was decapitated by the Spanish advance, but much remains: walls of stuccoed skulls and enormous carvings dedicated to Tlaloc, god of storms.
Coatepec, also known as the serpent mountain, is one of the most sacred places in Aztec mythology. It’s believed that the iconic Mexican tribe came upon this mystical town on their way to Central Mexico, and made it their home for more than 30 years. The Aztecs built an impressive temple on a hilltop here to pay homage to the god Huitzilopochtli. The structure was so loved that when the tribe finally completed their journey to Tenochtitlan, they built a replica of the Coatepec temple at the new site. In addition to its prominent place is Aztec history, Coatepec has a major role in contemporary culture, too. The town is referred to by some as Mexico’s capital of coffee, because the nation’s most popular brews: Bola de Oro and Le Vereda, come from this municipality.
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