Home to over 21 million people, Mexico City is a glorious, sprawling, beautiful, and endlessly captivating capital. As the city with the largest number of museums in the world, it is packed with archaeological and architectural treasures that showcase an astounding cultural history.

In 1519, Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in the region and witnessed a complex system of large lakes. On an island in Lake Texcoco lay the capital city of Tenochtitlán, the political and religious heart of the mighty Aztec Empire. A series of causeways connected Tenochtitlán  to locations along the shore, and an awestruck Cortés noted ‘the city itself is as big as Seville or Córdoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight; some of these are on the land, but the rest and all the smaller ones are half on land, half canals where they paddle their canoes… There are, in all districts of this great city, many temples or houses for their idols.’

Tenochtitlán  fell to Cortés in 1521 following a bloody siege, and the magnificent urban centre was all but razed to the ground. Mexico City was built over these Aztec ruins, and the island’s canals were filled in and converted into avenues. Centuries of building have transformed the settlement into the ‘City of Palaces’, but a surprising amount of pre-Hispanic culture has survived, and it is possible to visit the capital’s finest heritage attractions on a short itinerary.

DAY ONE: Exploring the city

An exciting introduction to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilisations is the Museo Nacional de AntropologÌa, one of the great archaeological museums in the world. Opened in 1964 and designed by celebrated architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, this gigantic museum contains 21 exhibition rooms filled with archaeological treasures: massive stone sculptures, jade masks, intricate gold artefacts, feathered headdresses, and a reconstruction of King Pakal’s stunning 7th-century Maya tomb from Palenque.

Each hall on the ground floor is devoted to a particular pre-Columbian culture, including Teotihuacan, Toltec, Oaxaca, Zapotec, and Maya. The Sala Mexica gives a dazzling overview of life in Tenochtitlán , and a highlight is the famed 24-ton basalt Aztec Sun Stone (discovered at the site of Templo Mayor in 1790). The top floor is dedicated to ethnography halls, documenting modern Mexican cultures.

After the museum, stroll through the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park), which is 1,600 peaceful acres of lakes and greenery. When the nomadic Aztecs (or Mexica as they called themselves) arrived here in AD 1245, they took refuge in the Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec means Grasshopper Hill), which later became a sacred place for their rulers. Overlooking the enormous park is the Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), formerly an imperial palace and presidential residence dating from the late 18th century, with fabulous views of the city.

In the afternoon, travel across Mexico City to the Plaza de la Constitución, known to locals as the Zócalo. As one of the world’s largest squares, it is a vast space buzzing with colourful modern life, and in the centre billows a gigantic, proud flag of Mexico.

Facing the square is the grand Catedral Metropolitana. After the subjugation of the Aztec Empire and destruction of their temples, the Spanish built this monumental cathedral to consolidate their power. Construction began in 1573, and continued for centuries. Inside is a beautiful series of naves, 16 side-chapels, and the magnificent gilded Altar of the Kings.

Keep an eye out for cracks in the stone fabric – the cathedral is slowly subsiding due to construction on soft ground. This echoes a city-wide structural problem. Much of Mexico City rests on an ancient lakebed, and some areas of the capital are sinking up to one inch per month due to serious ground-water depletion. One can see the city’s ancient churches lean, palace buildings curve, and old plazas contort.

A short distance from the Catedral Metropolitana is the haunting Templo Mayor (Great Temple). Dating from AD 1325, Templo Mayor was the most important sacred space in Tenochtitlán, located in the exact spot where the Aztecs saw an eagle perching on a cactus with a snake in its beak – now the enduring symbol of modern Mexico. The temple was the Aztec’s centre of the universe, where the sky, earth, and underworld met.

Originally a huge double pyramid, Templo Mayor went through seven major construction phases and, during the inauguration of each phase, war captives were sacrificed to the gods. The temple was almost completely destroyed by the Spanish, but major excavations from 1978 to 1982 revealed great sections of the site, allowing visitors to explore the ruins through a series of walkways. The entrance fee also includes a large museum with an impressive collection of Tenochtitlán era artefacts.

DAY TWO: Where gods were created

Get an early start to beat the heat, and travel one hour (50km) out of Mexico City to Teotihuacan. The first great city of the pre-Columbian era, Teotihuacan flourished during the 1st millennium AD, and is famous for the Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon). This metropolis grew between the 1st and 7th centuries AD, and covered an area of 20km², supporting an estimated population of 100,000 people. Teotihuacan (Place where Gods were Created) was named by the Aztecs, who discovered the revered ancient city hundreds of years after it was abandoned.

As the largest archaeological site in Mexico, Teotihuacan is suitably epic in scale. City-builders laid out the settlement on a grid system, and the central axis, known as the Avenue of the Dead, provides visitors with a clear route through the site. Starting at the large plaza in front of the Pirámide de la Luna, the avenue runs 2km past platforms, palace complexes, colourful bas-reliefs, and compounds to a large enclosure called the Citadel, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent). Current archaeological excavations at this pyramid – the third largest in Teotihuacan – have caused great excitement (see Charles Higham’s article in CWA 75), uncovering new evidence of a possible king’s tomb or ritual chamber at the end of a tunnel beneath the 1,800-year-old structure.

Despite decades of scientific study, little is known about this ancient city, and the main draw for tourists today is the impressive Pirámide del Sol. Standing over 66m and measuring 220m in width at the base, the pyramid is one of the largest in the world, and has spectacular views over the ancient city. The site also contains several interesting museums on Teotihuacan culture and mural paintings.

Travel back to Mexico City and head for the ruins of Tlatelolco. Once a rival Aztec city, Tlatelolco was conquered and absorbed into Tenochtitlán in 1473. This site offers visitors the perfect opportunity to view the dynamic convergence of Mexico City’s past and its present. Known as the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, one can identify three key periods of Mexican history surrounding the square: pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary.

The Iglesia de Santiago Tlatelolco, the third incarnation of a church at this site, was inaugurated in 1609, and it overshadows the main archaeological zone. At its height of influence, Tlatelolco was one of the most important commercial centres in Mesoamerica. Spanish captain Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who arrived with Cortés in 1519, vividly describes Tlatelolco’s sprawling market: ‘We were astonished at the multitude of people and quantity of merchandise, and at the good order and control they had everywhere… the merchants of gold, silver, precious stones, featherworks, cloths, embroidered goods, and male and female slaves who are also sold there.’ Tlatelolco was the site of the last battle between the Aztecs and the Spanish, and the city was destroyed in August 1521. Today, the ruins evoke feelings of a mighty culture humbled, with the church sitting imperiously on top of the remains of this ancient sacred precinct.

Take a half-hour walk from Tlatelolco to Alameda Central, a popular municipal park that bustles with city life against a backdrop of statues and water fountains. Once the site of an Aztec marketplace, this park was used during the blood-soaked Spanish Inquisition to burn victims at the stake.

Situated to the west of the park is the Museo Mural Diego Rivera. This small museum contains the artist Diego Rivera’s famous 15m-long mural, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central) featuring major events and people from Mexico’s history, starting with Hernán Cortés on the far left. At the other end of the park is one of Mexico’s storied cultural landmarks: the Palacio de Bellas Artes. This marble architectural masterpiece contains world-famous murals by Mexican artists, along with a museum and beautiful concert hall, where watching the famed Ballet Folklórico de México is a perfect way to end your visit.

by Tom St John Gray

All images © Tom St John Gray