Exploring Mexico City’s Historic Center

Filed Under: Travel

Mexico City is gigantic — there are over 21 million people in the greater metropolitan area. There are endless districts and neighborhoods to explore, sprawled across miles of city. The historic center, however, is relatively compact, and easily walkable. There are layers upon layers of history here, as the Spanish built on the site of the Aztec capital, and there’s something interesting to discover pretty much everywhere you look.

The focal point of the historic center is the Zócalo — a large plaza with an even larger flag.

Mexico City center

Mexican flag

Some of the most important buildings flank this plaza, which also features the usual compliment of street performers and tour-bus hawkers.

Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral

The Mexico City cathedral is the largest in the Americas, and flanks one entire side of the zócalo. Construction took place over a period of about 150 years, leading to an interesting mixture of styles. We happened to wander in during Mass, which wasn’t great for photography, but was fantastic for getting to hear all the bells!

Mexico City cathedral

Mexico City cathedral exterior

Mexico City cathedral

Mexico City cathedral

Mexico City cathedral organ

Mexico City cathedral

The cathedral was beautiful, and incredibly disorienting. Mexico City is built on a dry(ish) lakebed. The more groundwater has been removed over the centuries, the more the terrain has shifted. Combine that with a few earthquakes, and I’m sorta amazed the older buildings are still standing!

The camera is level with the floor, the walls are no longer plumb

The National Palace

Just beyond the cathedral is the Palacio Nacional. This is an active government building, but tourists are welcome in many areas. We had to leave our ID and large bags with the security team, but they had no problem with us bringing in cameras and such. There’s no cost to visit.

The palace is expansive. The complex is comprised of buildings from several different architectural periods, interspersed with gardens of native plants.

National Palace gardens

National Palace gardens

National Palace gardens

National Palace gardens

The assortment of buildings means there are some pretty fabulous entrances and hallways too.

National Palace

National Palace

National Palace

Most people seem to come to the palace to see the murals by Diego Rivera, which fill the staircase and colonnade of the main courtyard:

National Palace fountain

National Palace colonnade

National Palace colonnade

Main staircase mural

Some areas of the palace are closed to the public, but the guards were all very friendly in pointing us back to the public areas. Great way to spend an hour or so.

The Post Office

I know. Few people think of a post office as a sightseeing whistle-stop, but look at how cool this is!

Mexico City post office

Mexico City post office

The office was very lightly staffed on the day we were there, so we didn’t see much “post office action,” but the Hogwarts stairs and general art-deco awesomeness made up for it.

Mexico City post office

Mexico City post office

Beautiful streets

Mainly, we spent our time meandering the streets. The center core has tremendous diversity, both in terms of the architecture and the people spending time there. Tourists, business people, families — the city center is bustling.

Mexico City street

Mexico City street

Mexico City street

Mexico City street

Mexico City street

Mexico City street

Mexico City street

The Metro

Hands-down, the Metro system in Mexico City is one of the easiest I’ve ever encountered. This is definitely the way to get through and across town. The cars and stations can be extremely crowded, but are safe.

It’s worth noting to the ladies, however, that groping/general harassment seems to either be considered acceptable or is just reluctantly tolerated, so you’ll want to stay aware.

The various lines are color-coded, and everything related to that line features that color prominently. Each stop has a pictogram in addition to the name, so even if you don’t read Spanish you can still find your way. Look at the “Rosario” station on the far right, as an example. There’s a picture of a rosary (which you’ll see throughout the system), and both the red and orange lines stop there.

Mexico City Metro

Some of the station names are obvious for English-speakers (Rosario and Auditorio aren’t that hard), while others strain the standard vocabulary, so the pictures really come in handy.

Gorge of Death” and “Nest of Cloudy Serpents” would not have been my first pics for names

Andrew was quick to notice that the trains run on rubber wheels, which made them super quiet!

Mexico City Metro

Bottom line

There are so many things to do in Mexico City, and the city itself has a very fun vibe. We really enjoyed moseying around the historic center, and while I’m not sure if I’d want to stay in this neighborhood (not for any bad reasons, just my preference), there’s plenty to see and do.

You guys have been great with suggestions for others — tips for the centro historico?

  1. I can tell you have not traveled the US often. There are many USPS buildings that are amazingly preserved and a sight to see, and most importantly a landmark – each large city has its own piece of historical US Post Office. The one in DC is just as amazing. Dont assume something if you have not visited any USPSes in the US

  2. @ Ivan Y — True, that’s probably my regional bias. The Western US doesn’t have as many of those grand old Post Offices (though we have some built in later periods that have been preserved). The main post office in San Diego is a neat example of California architecture in the late 1930’s, but you’re not going to see tourists going out of their way to go there.

  3. You went to the cathedral, but not to the museum nearby containing excavations of the temple which was destroyed to build the cathedral?

  4. Now I understand why Lucky doesn’t include his sightseeing in his trip reports. The comments on everything you did wrong are ridiculous.

  5. @Stannis As Tiffany is a self-proclaimed traveler-not-tourist any criticism of her quite ordinary itineraries is something she asked for.

  6. The angles of your cathedral photos are great. Did you use a tripod and zoom? My shots of those windows are too high-angle to come out.

    Did you know you can take a 30 minute tour of the cathedral’s bell towers? It’s just $1; ask at the desk near one of the main entrances, there are tours all day. You get to climb the seventeenth century stone spiral stairs and see the view from the roof and there are good stories about each of the bells.

    The National Palace is fantastic. Sometimes they open up the diplomatic rooms and you can see the luxe and plush places foreign dignitaries are entertained. Did you see the Benito Juárez museum that takes up a corner of the palace? Juárez was the only major war hero leader of Mexican history that won his battles, escaped the assassins, governed well enough to stay beloved, and died peacefully in his own bed in Mexico. And the room where he lived his last hours is preserved along with his quarters in the palace.

    I do wonder why the palace hasn’t neutered the stray cats. They stay out of your sight in the day, unless you’re a patient cat person, but they’re around. Maybe the alternative is rats; it is an old building in a seven hundred year old neighborhood.

    Those are pretty shots of Juárez, Moneda, Cinco de Mayo, Francisco I. Madero, and Donceles streets. It’s a real shame they paved Donceles last year; that shot used to be full of beautiful hand laid paving stones.

    Did you get a chance to eat downtown? There are a lot of great options. Mercaderes or Azul Historico are the first places I would send someone. Maybe El Cardenal.

    Did you get to the Palacio de Bellas Artes? You passed by it. The museum and building are beautiful and the National Folkloric Ballet is excellent in the theatre, a great way to finish an evening in the Center.

  7. @ Owen — Thanks! I’ve loved all your insights so far!!

    Husband took the cathedral pics, I asked him about his setup and he said “canon 24-105 f/4L IS @ ISO1600, 1/200s, handheld, no tripod, because I was in a church.” I assume that all makes sense to someone.

  8. What? No restaurant reviews? Or at least recommendations? I already started to salivate, expecting a review of Pujol and places where you can find the most delicious corn fungus. Now, I’m just left with unfulfilled culinary fantasies. But other than that, good review. 🙂

  9. @ Jerry — Mañana 😉

    (Not Pujol though, because try as I might we couldn’t get a table that weekend).

  10. I used to work at the National Palace , it was great; there are still several cantinas around; I dont mean the gritty bar type, though there are those also; rather the restaurant type ones ( also with old west doors ), generally founded by spanish immigrants a century ago; they have great food and ambiance, bueraucrat regulars ( until hipsters start to replace them, thats when a cult cantina gets ruined); I like La Victoria in particular (Victoria st close to Eje Central); glad you liked the city

  11. I was in CDMX last summer (2017). Of course, its an amazing city! I was surprised that you didn’t visit the Templo Mayor and the museum that sits above it while you were in the historic center. It is one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites and the accompanying museum is simply astounding. Thanks for your post of a truly great travel destination!

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