Last Updated on May 18, 2023
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Although Mexico is a popular destinations among world travelers, especially Americans and Canadians, too many head only for the Caribbean and Pacific beaches and bypass Mexico City where there are world-class places to see.
Follow them, and you’ll miss a lot.
That’s because Mexico City is not only famous for being the capital of Mexico. It’s also the oldest capital in the New World and the former capital of the Aztec Empire.
But it doesn’t end there: Mexico City also has wonderful museums, beautiful architecture, enchanting neighborhoods, and much more. Surprisingly to many, there’s a lot to see and do in the Mexican capital.
Like Mexico itself, Mexico City draws millions of travelers from all over the world. The value of the dollar vs. the peso certainly entices some. But the draw for many is the city’s feast of visual and sensual elements. It’s a never-ending show that continues to delight and intrigue. In addition, there are also many interesting places that you can visit on easy day trips from Mexico City.
Above all else, however, Mexico City is a bouillabaisse of cultures. The city’s architecture is a mix of colonial and modern. Its restaurants serve both Aztec-inspired and contemporary cuisines. Indigenous shamans and blue-suited bankers share the sidewalks. Walk through Mexico City and you’ll be walking a timeline of ancient and modern Mexico.
For the first-time visitor, the sheer vastness of the city can be overwhelming. To make things a bit easier, here are a dozen of the must-see places to visit in Mexico City.
National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropologia)
I had never been to the Museum of Anthropology during previous visits to Mexico City. Then one day, I visited and was astounded by beautiful exhibits of Mexico’s pre-Colombian cultures.
The museum houses an astonishing collection of artifacts from all over the country, things that you won’t see anywhere else. They range from a large statue of a rain deity to a funerary mask covered with jade, turquoise, and shell.
It’s home to the most extensive collection of Aztec treasures worldwide. You’ll likely enjoy it even if you don’t like archeological artifacts. It opens your eyes to the Aztec culture thousands of years ago.
This is also one of the don’t-miss places in Mexico City to visit. Leave yourself at least half a day to wander through it.
Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes and Alameda Central
The Palacio de Bellas Artes is a beautiful Art Nouveau building. It’s in Alameda Central in the historic center of Mexico City. It’s also home to an Art-Deco theater with a glass mosaic curtain from Tiffany Studios of New York. It is one of the focal points of the city and one of the great places to visit in Mexico City..
Alameda Central is a beautiful park whose name comes from the Spanish word for the poplar trees planted there in the 16th century. As you might expect, many statues and monuments are scattered throughout it. In addition, on weekends, families also often come to enjoy everything from mariachis to organ grinders.
A Top Place in Mexico City to Visit: Chapultepec Castle
Chapultepec Castle, above the city’s famous Chapultepec Park, is high on a hill once considered sacred by the Aztecs. During its relatively short life span, it has been a military academy, an observatory, and the only royal castle in North America where a sovereign lived (that would be Mexican Emperor Maximilian I).
Its latest iteration houses Mexico’s National Museum of History, which contains numerous exhibits from the Conquest of Mexico to the Mexican Revolution, including such diverse items as Benito Juárez’s eyeglasses and the rifles used in the execution of Maximilian. Its beautiful salons, murals, and wonderful views out over the city draw most people here. It’s one of the places in Mexico City well worth visiting, if only for its beautiful salons.
The Colonias, Mexico City’s Beautiful Neighborhoods
Whatever you do, visit some of the city’s beautiful neighborhoods or Colonias, such as Polanco, San Ángel, Roma, and Coyoacán, each of which is unique. They are among the very top places in Mexico City to visit.
Although the neighborhoods are primarily residential areas, they are also peppered with numerous restaurants, shops, and the occasional outdoor market. I especially enjoy San Ángel and Coyoacán, two of the most famous, loveliest, and tranquil neighborhoods. They’re both great places to stroll on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
On my last visit to Mexico City, my wife and I and a friend spent an hour or two roaming about an art fair set up in a San Angel neighborhood park before heading off to the San Angel Inn. A notable old restaurant, it’s an excellent place in Mexico City to have a late Sunday lunch or early dinner.
San Ángel was originally a Spanish colonial city, and it still retains its Spanish Colonial feel in its architecture and its neighborhood layout. Diego Rivera, Mexico’s great muralist, and his wife. the celebrated surrealist artist Frida Kahlo, also lived here. Visit, among other places, the Museo Estudio Diego Rivera and the Frida Kahlo Museum.
Frida Kahlo Museum, Home of One of Mexico’s Famous Artists
If you’re an art lover, this should be one of your top places in Mexico City. Join other art lovers and pilgrimage to Colonia Coyoacán to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum, which was also her home. Kahlo is one of Mexico’s most famous artists.
Kahlo was born in the house, lived in it for much of her life (and shared it with her husband, Diego Rivera), and eventually died there. It was here where many of her works were painted.
It’s a beautiful and colorful little museum, both inside and out, that contains both her art and items associated with her life and that of Rivera. Go early, as the line can get long later in the day.
Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe
On the northern side of the city, the famous Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe is the most popular place of worship of Mexico’s patron saint.
It was initially built in the early 18th century on the site of a previous shrine where it was said a poor Indian saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1531. Today it remains one of the most important religious sites for Catholics and a place to visit in Mexico City, regardless of your religious persuasion.
A more modern church, designed by the architect of the Museo Nacional de Antropología and capable of seating more than 40,000 worshipers, was built adjacent to it in the 1970s.
The City’s Paseo de la Reforma
Despite the almost claustrophobic sea of autos and taxis in Mexico City, Paseo de la Reforma remains one of the most beautiful urban thoroughfares in the world. It’s also one of the top places in Mexico City that you’ll cross again and again.
Yet, surprisingly, it is a ribbon of serenity, its calmness nurtured by extensive green areas and the beautiful monuments you find along its length.
The most attractive parts of the boulevard start when it winds out of Chapultepec Park into downtown. Start near Torre Mayor, the tallest skyscraper in Latin America, where the Reforma doglegs northeast and makes a straight run towards the city’s center. This two-mile stretch remains the most famous and beautiful part of the avenue.
Mexico City’s Zocalo
The Zócalo, or the Plaza de la Constitución, as it’s officially known, is one of the most famous places in Mexico and the heart of Mexico City. If you enjoyed the serenity of Alameda Park, however, you might find the Zocalo chaotic.
As you walk through the area between the cathedral and the temple, you’ll see it’s colorful and almost circus-like. There are indigenous peoples dressed in Aztec garb, shamans dancing about performing rituals, and vendors hawking almost everything imaginable. The sound of pounding drums often adds to the cacophony.
In addition to being one of the largest public squares in the world, the Zocalo is also home to two important religious buildings – the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Temple Mayor. (see below)
Museo del Templo Mayor, “Newly” Discovered in Mexico City
In a corner of the crowded Zocalo, you’ll find the Templo Mayor. A great temple from the 14th-15th centuries, it’s a popular place in Mexico City to get a sense of the historic birth of the city. It was the most important religious building of the ancient Aztecs, although it was destroyed by the Spanish following their conquest.
Amazingly, it was discovered only by accident beneath the Plaza in 1978, and today it is still an active archeological site.
Be sure to visit its fascinating museum, which provides insights into the Aztec culture.
Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana)
Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral is the largest church in Latin America. It’s so huge and architecturally diverse it took nearly three centuries to complete, one of the reasons it’s one of the places in Mexico City popular with visitors.
The center of the largest Catholic diocese in the world, its beautiful interior contains five altars and 16 chapels, as well as a wealth of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and religious artifacts. It’s an exceptionally intriguing cathedral since its style incorporates Classical, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Neo-Classical elements in its architecture and decoration. It can get quite crowded on religious holidays, but it’s fascinating at any time.
Visit Xochimilco: A Fun Thing To Do in Mexico City
Located about one hour south of Mexico City, this UNESCO World Heritage Site provides an experience that is uniquely Mexican. The only remaining lake remnant of Mexico’s old Aztec empire, Xochimilco still has the canals and semi-floating gardens built by the Aztecs centuries ago.
When you arrive, rent a colorful little boat with an oarsman to punt you along through the canals. The boats have tables, chairs, and a canopy to protect you from the sun and rain.
All along the way, other small boats drift by. Call them over, and you can buy flowers, food, and handicrafts. You can even enjoy a performance by mariachis. It’s great fun and, yes, it is exceptionally touristy. Nevertheless, Xochimilco remains a place that’s a unique experience in Mexico City. It’s enjoyed by foreign tourists, as well as the Mexicans themselves.
You may also enjoy: 5 Great Day Trips from Mexico City / Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico’s Magical City / The Pleasures of Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende / Mexico: Xochimilco, Mexico City’s Little Venice
Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum
Out near the area of Xochimilco, the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum houses the most extensive private collection of works by famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Rivera’s works, as well as other beautiful exhibits, are housed in a picturesque 17th-century mansion. This alone makes it one of the must-see places in Mexico City.
Making it better, though, is that the grounds outside the building are just as spectacular as the galleries inside. It’s one of those fantastic places where you walk through the front gate and can’t believe your eyes. Dark-green ivy and luscious bougainvillea cascade down high stone walls, and peacocks stroll freely about the beautiful park-like grounds.
Visiting it one weekend, we came across a few rows of chairs facing a small stage. We sat and listened to some great music played by a small group of musicians. Behind them, on the other side of a wrought-iron fence, a peacock slowly swayed to the beat .
If You Go:
Mexico Tourism Board
152 Madison Ave, Suite 1800
New York NY, 10016
Tel: (212) 308-2110