The city now known as Mexico City was founded as Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs in 1325 and a century later became the dominant city-state of the Aztec Triple Alliance, formed in 1430 and composed of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. At its height, Tenochtitlan had enormous temples and palaces, a huge ceremonial center, residences of political, religious, military, and merchants. Its population was estimated at least 100,000 and perhaps as high as 200,000 in 1519 when the Spaniards first saw it.
The state religion of the Mexica civilization awaited the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: that the wandering tribes would find the destined site for a great city whose location would be signaled by an Eagle eating a snake while perched atop a cactus.
The Aztecs saw this vision on what was then a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco, a vision that is now immortalized in Mexico’s coat of arms and on the Mexican flag. Not deterred by the unfavourable terrain, they set about building their city, using the chinampa system (misnamed as “floating gardens”) for agriculture and to dry and expand the island.
A thriving culture developed, and the Mexica civilization came to dominate other tribes all around Mexico. The small natural island was perpetually enlarged as Tenochtitlan grew to become the largest and most powerful city in Mesoamerica. Commercial routes were developed that brought goods from places as far as the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and perhaps even the Inca Empire.
Cortés first saw Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519. Upon viewing it for the first time, Cortés and his men were stunned by its beauty and size. Although Moctezuma came out from the center of Tenochtitlán to greet them and exchange gifts, the camaraderie did not last long. Cortés put Moctezuma under house arrest, hoping to rule through him. Tensions increased until, on the night of June 30, 1520 – during a struggle commonly known as “La Noche Triste” – the Aztec revolted against the Spanish intrusion and managed to capture or drive out the Europeans and their Tlaxcalan allies.
Cortés regrouped at Tlaxcala. The Aztecs thought the Spaniards were permanently gone. They elected a new king, Cuitláhuac, but he died after a few months due to smallpox; the next king was Cuauhtémoc. Cortés decided to lay siege to Tenochtitlán in May 1521. For three months, the city suffered from the lack of food and water as well as the spread of smallpox brought by the Europeans. Cortés and his allies landed their forces in the south of the island and fought their way through the city, street by street, and house by house. Cuauhtémoc had to surrender in August 1521.
The historic center of Mexico City (Spanish: Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México), also known as the Centro or Centro Histórico, is the central neighborhood in Mexico City, focused on the Zócalo or main plaza and extending in all directions for a number of blocks, with its farthest extent being west to the Alameda Central. The modern Zócalo in Mexico City is 57,600 m2 (240m × 240 m), making it one of the largest city squares in the world. It can hold up to nearly 100,000 people. The Centro Histórico has over nine square km and occupies 668 blocks. It contains 9,000 buildings, 1,550 of which have been declared of historical importance. Most of these historic buildings were constructed between the 16th and 20th centuries. This is where the Spaniards began to build what is now modern Mexico City in the 16th century on the ruins of the conquered Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire. After razing Tenochtitlán to the ground, they set about establishing their own capital, Mexico City. The Centro Historico contains most of the city’s historic sites from both eras as well as a large number of museums. This has made it an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Around the Zocalo
The Palacio Nacional borders the entire east side of the Zocalo and contains the offices of the President of Mexico, the Federal Treasury, the National Archives as wells as murals depicting pre-Hispanic life and a large mural filling the central stairway depicting the entire history of the Mexican nation from the Conquest on. This palace was built on the ruins of Moctezuma II’s palace, beginning in 1521, using the same tezontle stone used to build the Aztec palace.
The Metropolitan Cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, occupies the north end of the Zócalo. The site originally was part of the Aztec Sacred Precinct (called the Teocalli) and contained the main tzompantli, or rack for the skulls of sacrifice victims. The first church was erected between 1524 and 1532 and was elevated to the rank of cathedral on the 2nd of September of 1530 by Pope Clement VII. The foundations for a new cathedral were begun in 1562 and the foundation stone was laid in 1573 in the time of Archbishop Pedro Moya de Contreras and of the 4th Viceroy. Although the works had not been concluded, the cathedral received its first dedication on 2 February 1656. The completion in 1813 of the neo-classical additions designed by Manuel Tolsa was celebrated on 15 August 2013.
The Nacional Monte de Piedad building is the national pawn shop, founded in 1775 and one of the largest second-hand shops in the world. On this site where houses that belonged to the last Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II, which Hernán Cortés took for his own after the Conquest.
North / South /East of the Zocalo
Santo Domingo in Mexico City refers to the Church of Santo Domingo and its Plaza, also called Santo Domingo. Officially known as the Señor de la Expiración Chapel, the church is located on the north side of Belisario Dominguez and faces the plaza. It is all that is left from the first monastery that was established in the New Spain.
The Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation is located just off the main plaza of Mexico City on the corners of Pino Suárez and Carranza Streets. It was built between 1935 and 1941 by Antonio Muñoz Garcia. Prior to the Conquest, this site was reserved for the ritual known as “Dance of the Flyers” which is still practice today in Papantla.
La Santisima Church is located the corner of La Santisima and Emiliano Zapata streets. Its full name is Temple and Hospital of the Most Holy Trinity (Templo y Antiguo Hospital de la Santisíma Trinidad). The church was built between 1755 and 1783 as a temple for the adjoining hospital/hospice for priests.
West of the Zocalo
Palacio de Correos de Mexico (Postal Palace of Mexico City) also known as the “Correo Mayor” (Main Post Office) is located in the historic center of Mexico City, on the Eje Central (Lazaro Cardenas) near the Palacio de Bellas Artes. It is an early 20th-century building built in the style of an Italian Renaissance palace.
The Torre Latinoamericana is one of the best-known skyscrapers in Latin America. It was begun in 1948 and completed in 1956 and is 182 meters tall, antennae included. It was the tallest tower in Mexico prior to the construction of Torre Pemex. The building has survived 3 major earthquakes since it was built, in 1957, in 1985 and in 2017.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is the most important cultural center in Mexico City as well as the rest of the country of Mexico. It is located next to the Alameda Central park.
The Alameda Central park is a green garden with paved paths and decorative fountains and statues, and is frequently the center of civic events. The area used to be an Aztec marketplace. The park was created in 1592, when Viceroy Luis de Velasco decided to create a green space here as a public park.
Walking tour historic City center with Aztec Explorers: highlights
During this walking tour, we show you the highlights of the Mexico City Center, and our certified guide will explain the history and give information about each place; such as Templo Mayor, the Cathedral, Palacio Nacional, Zocalo, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Alameda park, the churches of San Juan de Díos and Santa Veracruz, the Palacio de Correos, Casa de Azulejos, Torre Latina America, the church of San Francisco, the Garden of the Triple Alliance and Cafe Tacuba, Note: we will NOT enter the museums and places where we have to pay entrances, you can visit them optionally after the walking tour. Available as small group tour or as private trip, with certified bilingual guide. See options in our latest Newsletter.
Walking tour historic City center with Aztec Explorers: hidden jewels
On this walking tour, we take you off the beaten track, and show you some of the hidden jewels of the Mexico City Center, and our certified guide will explain the history and give information about each place; such as Congreso de la Ciudad, Plaza Santa Domingo, Edificio de la Antigua Aduana, the church and square of Santa Catarina, the Museum of Light, the Abelardo L. Rodriguez market with incredible murals of students of Diego Rivera, the church and square of Loreto, the church of La Santisima, the monastery of Jesus de Maria, the Museum de la Ciudad and the church and hospital of Jesus Nazareno. Plus we show you the most authentic place to taste and buy coffee in Mexico City. Note: we will NOT enter the museums and places where we have to pay entrances, you can visit them optionally after the walking tour. Available as small group tour or as private trip, with certified bilingual guide. See options in our latest Newsletter.
Download here 3 free digital guides of Mexico City in PDF.
Courtesy of Aztec Explorers and Azteca Travel Tours Art.
Aztec Explorers organizes every week day trips and longer trips to the most beautiful places in and around Mexico City. To both highlights as off the beaten track places. Here can find their latest calendars, newsletters and contact information. They can also help you with private walking tours and private trips.