The Historic Center of Mexico City is a must see on any trip to the vibrant capital city of Mexico! And this a free self-guided walking tour covers everything you need to see on your visit.
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My husband and I took a trip to Mexico City recently, and I have to say that it surpassed all my expectations. Honestly, I fell in love!
I've been to Mexico many times, but never to the interior. Beach destinations like Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, and Chacala are all favorites of mine, but I'm really a city girl at heart. And Mexico City won me over from the moment my feet hit the pavement.
Mexico City is huge and sprawling ... it's one of the largest cities in the world. It feels very European with its grand, opulent buildings, but of course, Mexican culture, history, and food are everywhere.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing my favorite Mexico City destinations. And I had to start with the city's beautiful Historic Center!
No trip to Mexico City is complete without a visit to the Historic Center of Mexico City, so keep reading to join me on a walking tour with all of best sights.
About the Historic Center of Mexico City
The Historic Center of Mexico City (or Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México) is the city's ancient heart, its core, where it all began. It's centered around the expansive Zócalo (main plaza), and the area contains over 9000 buildings. Many of the buildings found here are historically important, and because of this, the Centro Histórico has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the 16th century, they destroyed the Aztec city Tenochtitlan and built what is now Mexico City on top of the ruins. To the north of the Zócalo, you can actually view the archaeological ruins of Templo Mayor. It's truly fascinating to see them ... like a grade school history lesson come to life!
Most of the buildings in the Historic Center were constructed between the 16th and 20th centuries, and you'll find a wide range of architectural styles. The area declined in the 1980's when a number problems (overcrowding, pollution, and a massive 1985 earthquake) led many of the buildings (including some opulent mansions) to be abandoned and fall into disrepair.
The Fundación Centro Histórico was founded in 2000 with the express purpose of reviving Mexico City's historic downtown. Since then, the area has been continuously revitalized and many of the buildings have been restored. Today, it's a beautiful, thriving neighborhood, and the best way to explore it is on foot.
Self-Guided Walking Tour
Ready to start exploring? I've put together a walking tour of the Centro Histórico that will guide you around the city's center and most important sights.
This area is packed with interesting architecture, historic sights, and museums (so many museums), and it's impossible to do everything in one day. There was so much to see here that we actually returned twice during our short trip ... and I still wish we'd had another day or two! So give yourself plenty of time.
Before your visit, make sure to download a copy of my Historic Center walking tour map. It's free, and you can find it at the end of this post.
Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución)
Any tour of the Historic Center of Mexico City needs to start at the Zócalo, a massive public square whose formal name is the Plaza de la Constitución. It's surrounded by the Metropolitan Cathedral on the north, the National Palace on the east, two government buildings on the south, and two buildings containing offices and shops on the west.
The Zócalo is a gathering place for people, events, and demonstrations, and it's one of the largest city squares in the world. So huge in fact, that it was difficult to capture in a photo (you can see the square above). There's a huge Mexican flag located in the center of the square.
If you're looking for the perfect place to begin your Mexico City walking tour, this is it! Head to the center, get your bearings, and enjoy panoramic views of the buildings that circle it.
Federal District Buildings
The Zócalo is surrounded by a number of government buildings. To the south, you'll see a pair of Federal District buildings that look like twins. We visited shortly before Christmas, as you can probably tell from the photo!
The newer building, which you can see above, was built in the 20th century. The Palacio de Ayuntamiento (City Hall Palace) is located to the right of this newer building, and it's been used for city government since the 1520s.
You can see a photo of the two buildings side-by-side later in this post. It was taken at night, and the building were lit with blue lights ... so beautiful!
Walk up to the Palacio de Ayuntamiento to see it up close. The facade is decorated with a series of talavera tile murals commemorating the founding of the city. Hernán Cortés (a Spanish Conquistador who overthrew and destroyed the Aztec empire) is memorialized on the mural above.
I didn't get a photo (and we didn't have time to stop in), but the Supreme Court of Justice Building (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación) is also nearby. It's located just south of the National Palace.
The building is known for its amazing murals. Make sure to check them out if you have time!
National Palace (Palacio Nacional)
You'll find the National Place (Palacio Nacional) to the east of the Zócalo. This building is huge and takes up the entire block. You're only seeing a small portion above.
The Palacio Nacional is home to the offices of the Mexican President, the Federal Treasury, and the National Archives. It was built on the ruins of Moctezuma II's palace starting in 1521 with stone from the Aztec palace.
Look toward the center of photo above, and you'll see the Bell of Delores. The President rings it every year on September 15 to celebrate Mexico's independence.
The National Palace is known for its colorful murals painted by Diego Rivera.
If you only have time for one museum in the Historic Center, I'd visit the National Palace to see the murals. They are breathtaking, as is the palace itself.
I wrote a separate article all about the National Place and its amazing murals. Make sure to check it out!
Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana)
To the north of the Zócalo, you'll find the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana), the oldest and largest cathedral in Latin America.
The cathedral was constructed on the site of Templo Mayor, using stones from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli (the principal deity of the Aztecs).
Make sure to take a peek inside.
One thing I didn't realize before my visit is that Mexico City is sinking. It's interesting and sad, and bad enough to be visible to the naked eye. And like much of the city that surrounds, the Cathedral is also sinking.
As you exit the cathedral on the east side, you'll enter Plaza Seminario.
It's not the most exciting plaza ever, but the colorful buildings are pretty. And you might catch an artist performing if you're lucky.
Need a break from touristing? This plaza is the perfect place to relax before heading to Templo Mayor.
Mexico City was built atop the ruins of Aztec city Tenochtitlan, and Templo Mayor (Major Temple) is the ruins of the Aztec's main temple.
Like the rest of Historic Center of Mexico City, Templo Mayor was built over by the Spaniards, so it was hidden by buildings until fairly recently. That all changed in 1978 when electric company workers struck a prehistoric monolith, and the push to excavate began.
There are a couple ways to view the ruins. First, there's a sidewalk overlook. We spent a lot of time peeking into the excavated site from there.
You can also visit the Templo Mayor Museum to see the ruins and artifacts up close.
One of my chief regrets about our visit to Mexico City's Centro Histórico is that we didn't have time to visit the museum. I wanted to go so badly! But hopefully, you will be able check it out and let me know what you think.
Francisco I. Madero Avenue
Okay, you've explored the area around the Zócalo ... so, what else is there to do in the Historic Center of Mexico City? Plenty!
We're going to check out Francisco I. Madero Avenue, a pedestrianized street on the west side of the Zócalo, next. This busy street is packed with tourists, shops, and historically significant buildings, and it will lead you toward the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Alameda Central.
The street was named after a key figure from the Mexican Revolution. As you walk, you'll pass a number of landmark buildings, including the Iglesia de la Profesa, Palace of Iturbide, Church of San Francisco, Casa de los Azulejos, and the Torre Latinoamericana (the tall building in the background above).
Iglesia de la Profesa (Temple of San Felipe Neri)
The Iglesia de la Profesa (Temple of San Felipe Neri), or simply La Profesa, is a historically significant church. It was established the 16th century, although the current building was constructed in 1720.
A number of important political events have taken place here, and it's home to a large art collection.
Stop in and check it out the beautiful interior.
Palace of Iturbide (Palacio de Cultura Banamex)
The Palace of Iturbide is a palatial mansion that was built by Miguel de Berrio y Saldívar, the Count of San Mateo Valparaíso and Marquis of Jaral de Berrio, who also served as the mayor of Mexico City.
Although the outside of the building is stunning in its own right, the interior is even more gorgeous.
Today, this building is known as the Palacio de Cultura Banamex, and it's home to a variety of art exhibitions and workshops.
Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco)
The Church of San Francisco is hidden behind a beautiful gate near the western end of Francisco I. Madero Avenue.
Although it's shrunk in size, the church and monastery complex once covered 32,224 square meters. And before the Spaniard's conquered Mexico, it was home to Moctezuma II's zoo. A funeral for Hernán Cortés was held here after his death (although he died in Spain).
Like much of Mexico City, the Iglesia de San Francisco is sinking. Stop in to see the beautiful gilded altar.
See that man in the white coat above? Not only did he ruin my photo (ha), but he was also trying to sell me something. You'll run across tons of these guys on this end of Madero Street.
Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles)
Across from the Church of San Francisco is the beautiful Casa de los Azulejos.
This pretty palace is covered in blue and white tile from the Mexican state of Puebla. It was once home to a count and his family, but now it's a Sanborns department store.
Step inside to check out the Sanborns restaurant (it's gorgeous), even if you're not hungry.
Torre Latinoamericana (Latin-American Tower)
At the end of Francisco I. Madero Avenue, you'll find the Torre Latinoamericana. When this skyscraper was built in 1956, it was Mexico City's tallest building, and it held that title until 1984.
Although much of the Historic Center of Mexico City was destroyed in the massive 1985 earthquake, the Torre Latinoamericana escaped without damage.
For an expansive view of Mexico City and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, visit the observation deck on the 44th floor. There is a fee, but you'll get an wristband that allows you to return anytime day or night (over the course of a day).
Thirsty or don't want to pay a fee? Grab a drink at Miralto, a bar with similar views on the 41st floor, instead. Of course, you'll still need to buy a drink!
Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes)
Just past the Torre Lationoamericana, you'll find the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes).
Before the palace was built, it was home to a convent, textile mill, low-income housing, and finally the National Theater. All of this was constructed over Aztec ruins, and a number of archeological items have been found on site, including a sacrificial alter.
The construction of the Palacio de Bellas Artes faced many starts and stops before it was finally completed in 1934. Today, it's known for its Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, murals by some of Mexico's most famous artists (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo), cultural exhibitions, and theatrical performances (including the Ballet Folklórico de México).
For a beautiful bird's eye view of the Palace of Fine Arts, head to the Sears building across the street. Stop into the eighth floor coffee shop to enjoy a drink along with the pretty scenery.
Metro Bellas Artes
Next up ... a subway station! Between the Palace of Fine Arts and Alameda Central, you'll find the Metro Bellas Artes station.
If you've ever been to Paris, this entrance may look familiar. And in fact, it was a gift from France in return for a Huichol mural that is now on display at the Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre station in Paris.
Tired of walking? At this point, you should have reached Alameda Central, the westernmost destination on our walking tour of the Historic Center of Mexico City.
The expansive Alameda Central was created in 1592, making it the oldest public park in the Americas. It was originally an Aztec marketplace.
Alameda Central feels like an urban oasis, especially after walking along crowded Francisco I. Madero Avenue. Enjoy a stroll along the paved paths, take part in one of the many events frequently held here, or just relax under a towering tree.
Although it's lovely now, the park wasn't always so peaceful. According to Wikipedia:
What is now the western section of the park originally was a plain plaza built during the Inquisition in Mexico and known as El Quemadero or The Burning Place. Here witches and others convicted by the Inquisitors were publicly burned at the stake. By the 1760s, the Inquisition had nearly come to an end and in 1770, viceroy Marqués de Croix had this plaza torn up to expand the park.
Yikes. Thankfully, you're much more likely to stumble across one of the five fountains than a witch being burned at the stake these days!
Before leaving, make sure to check out the Hemiciclo a Juarez located on the south side of the park. It's a monument to Benito Juárez, a Mexican politician who rose from his poor, rural origins to become the Mexican President.
Wandering Around the Historic Center of Mexico City
If you've made it this far on the walking tour, I'd recommend doing one of two things:
- Do a little wandering around the Centro Histórico.
- Check out the murals on Calle Regina (more on that in a minute).
There is so much to see in the Centro Histórico, so make sure to give yourself a little time to wander around! The area between the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Zócalo is the perfect place to begin.
These streets are full of people and beautiful, historic buildings that are worth seeking out.
Dulceria de Celaya (located at Calle 5 de Mayo No. 39) is one place that's definitely worth a visit.
This historic candy store has been selling sweet treats since 1874. Inside the pretty shop you'll find a variety of candy, much of it made from recipes that are over 100 years old.
If you're not familiar with the sweets you see on display, my best advice is simply to pick a few things that look interesting and try them out. What have you got to lose? It's candy!
That's exactly what we did, and you can see a couple of our selections below. The treat on the left below was pistachio flavored, and the one on the right was a meringue.
The colorful streets are filled with shops ... and people, so many people!
You'll probably see quite a few of Mexico City's pink taxis, and maybe even a pink pedicab.
Santo Domingo Plaza and Church
As you wander around the Centro Histórico, the church of Santo Domingo (Señor de la Expiración Chapel) is another historic building worth checking out. It was one of the first monasteries to be established in New Spain.
Just south of the church, you'll find the Plaza de Santo Domingo. The outside of the plaza is with lined with stands and shops selling paper goods (invitations, etc.). And apparently, the area is known for its Scribes, who use typewriters and antique printing machines to offer services similar to that of lawyers, counselors, and financial consultants to their illiterate clients.
We stumbled across a festival in the plaza during our visit.
Calle Regina Murals
Calle Regina (Regina Street) is another destination worth exploring in the Centro Histórico.
This lively, pedestrianized street is filled with colorful murals, tempting cafes, and of course, a historic church. It's located south of the Zócalo, between Calle de Bolívar and Avenida 20 de Noviembre.
If you love street art, you have to visit! I enjoyed this area so much, that I wrote a whole post about Calle Regina street art!
Centro Histórico at Night
I hope you've enjoyed exploring the Centro Histórico with me!
There is so much to see that you can definitely make a full day of it. It's best to visit Mexico City's historic downtown during the day, but if you stick around in the evening, you won't be disappointed.
The Zócalo is a fun place to be at night. Just check out that view of twin Federal Buildings all lit up ... so pretty!
For a one of a kind evening experience, head up to the El Mayor restaurant which overlooks Templo Mayor.
It's a little tricky to find the entrance, but the elevator is located inside Librería Porrúa, at the corner of Justo Sierra and Avenida Republic de Argentina (just north of Templo Mayor).
We sat outside at the little cafe, but there's a full service restaurant and bar, too. Grab a drink (I had a chai latte, my husband had a tamarind/mezcal cocktail), then enjoy beautiful views overlooking Templo Mayor, the Zócalo, and the Federal Buildings.
I can't think of a better way to end a day in the Historic Center of Mexico City ... a cheesy selfie was required, of course!
Tips for Visiting the Historic Center of Mexico City
I hope you enjoyed this guide to the Centro Histórico de Mexico City!
There really is so much to see and do. Here are a few tips to help plan your visit:
- Getting There: Mexico City has an extensive Metro system that's cheap and easy to navigate. The blue line will drop you off right at the Zócalo, which is how we got arrived. Feeling intimidated? Here's a great beginner's guide to using Mexico City's Metro. Don't want to take the metro? You can also get there via Uber (recommended!), taxi, or a hop-on, hop-off tourist bus. If you do take a taxi, do not hail one on the street. Instead look for an authorized taxi booth, or better yet, ask your hotel concierge to radio one for you.
- Getting Around Once You Arrive: The historic center is best (and easily) explored on foot. You couldn't pay me to drive around there, as the narrow streets are extremely congested (as they are everywhere in Mexico City)! If you have mobility issues, I'd recommend taking hop-on, hop-off tourist bus or other guided tour instead.
- Safety: Mexico City has reputation for being a dangerous city, and of course, it has neighborhoods that are more safe, as well as those that are less safe (like any major city). We felt safe everywhere we went though and especially in touristy areas like the crowded Historic Center. Your biggest risk is probably being pickpocketed, same as it would be in another large city like NYC. Use common sense precautions, like sticking to well-lit, busy streets, don't flash your cash (duh), and avoid wearing conspicuous jewelry, and you should be fine.
- History of Mexico City and the Centro Histórico: It's impossible to cover Mexico City's diverse history in one short post. Make sure to read up before your trip though, because it will add so much context to your visit. Here are a few articles to get you started: History of Tenochtitlan; biography of Hernán Cortés; and history of Mexico City.
- Printable Walking Tour Map: Scroll to the end of the post for a free map with all of the sights covered here!
More Things to Do in Mexico City
Make sure to check out my other guides with even more things to do in Mexico City!
- Mexico City Travel Guide … this jam-packed guide covers everything you need to know about visiting this amazing city!
- National Palace Mexico City … the best place to see Diego Rivera Murals in Mexico city!
- Calle Regina Street Art … a great street to explore Mexico City’s Murals.
- Parque La Mexicana ... plan a visit to Mexico City's coolest urban park!
Where to Stay in Mexico City
We stayed at the Intercontinental Presidente. It's located in Polanco, one of the fancier neighborhoods in Mexico City. Ask for a room on a high floor for amazing views of the city!
The hotel is located a few blocks from the Metro, which made getting around easy. And the neighborhood is filled with upscale (yet relatively affordable by U.S. standards) restaurants and cafes.
There's a pretty park, too, and you'll find some pricey shops. There aren't a lot of tourist sights. Which can be nice after visiting a super touristy area like the Centro Histórico, right?
My Mexico City Travel Guide has even more ideas on where to stay … neighborhoods, hotels, Airbnb, etc.
Free Walking Tour Map
Ready to take your own self-guided walking tour of Mexico City?
Click anywhere on the image below to download the free printable map of Mexico City's Historic Center.
Have you been to Mexico City? What was your favorite area?