Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Soumya
Looking for the best things to do in the Historic Center of Mexico City?
Wondering what are the best attractions of Centro Historico? Is Downtown Mexico City worth all the hype?
Well, I will begin this post by saying that Mexico City Center, also a UNESCO world heritage site, is the throbbing heart of this megalopolis and the best place to immerse yourself in art, history, and culture.
Mexico City’s historic district is concentrated around its main public square, often referred to as El Zocalo.
Around Zocalo, you will find several iconic landmarks including the monumental Metropolitan Cathedral, the ruins of an ancient Aztec Temple, fine art galleries, and an impressive collection of Mexican murals at the National Palace.
Plus, there is some gorgeous food to try (think taquerias with long queues), ballets to watch, and panoramic views to enjoy.
It goes without saying that there are a ton of amazing things to do in the old town of Mexico City.
In this ultimate travel guide for Downtown Mexico City, you will find everything you need to plan your trip to this historic place including a list of the best things to do, where to stay, and what to eat.
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- Mexico City Historic Center Tour – My Top Pick
- About Historic Center of Mexico City – Downtown CDMX
- 20 Best things to do in Mexico City Historic Center
- Spend some time at Zocalo
- Step into Cathedral Metropolitana
- Dig into Aztec history at the ruins of Templo Mayor
- Shop at Ciudadela Handicraft Market
- Take a historic walking tour
- Get wowed by the murals at Palacio Nacional
- Check out more murals at Diego Rivera Mural Museum
- See more murals at the Secretariat of Public Education
- Enjoy a tour of Palacio de Bellas Artes
- Step into the very regal Palacio de Correos
- Visit Museum of National Art
- See the hidden Iturbide Palace Museum
- Have a taco at Los Cocuyos
- Enjoy a contemporary Mexican meal with stunning views
- Or take an authentic Mexican food tour
- Stroll through Alameda Central Park
- Enjoy a Mariachi performance at Plaza Garibaldi
- Dine at Gran Hotel Ciudad de México
- Marvel at the House of Tiles
- Step into the Church of San Francisco
- Get some stunning views from Torre Latinoamericana
- Interactive map of Mexico City Historic Center
- Practical information for visiting historic center of Mexico City
- Mexico City Historic Center FAQ
- Loved our guide to Mexico City Historic Center? Pin it for later!
Mexico City Historic Center Tour – My Top Pick
There are a ton of interesting things to do in the historic district of Mexico City and that can sometimes feel overwhelming. I get it.
Therefore, it is nice to get a guided tour for yourself, especially if it is your first time here.
✔️ History Tour of Mexico City Centro Historico
✔️ 3 – 4 hours, Walking Tour
About Historic Center of Mexico City – Downtown CDMX
- Downtown Mexico City is historic, quirky, and a prime reason to visit Mexico City.
- Spaniards built present-day Mexico City on the remains of what was once the capital of the illustrious Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan. Most buildings that you see here today were constructed during the 300 years of Spanish rule in Mexico.
- When the Aztecs decided to build their capital in Mexico City in 1325 AD, there was a huge lake here. The Aztecs created an artificial island on the lake over which they established the sprawling city of Tenochtitlan. They also built a massive Templo Mayor.
- In 1519, Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes invaded Tenochtitlan and razed all existing buildings to the ground. He then built a new Mexico City over the ruins of Tenochtitlan, often using the same construction material that was used in the Aztec monuments.
As you go through this list of the best things to do in the Historic Center of Mexico City, you will learn of many Spanish monuments that were built on their Aztec counterparts.
Examples include Metropolitan Cathedral on the ruins of Templo Mayor & National Palace on the ruins of the palace of Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma.
20 Best things to do in Mexico City Historic Center
Spend some time at Zocalo
Begin the day at Mexico’s largest public square and one of the largest in the world, the Zocalo.
This is where you will arrive anyway by bus or metro. So, starting at the Zocalo or officially the “Plaza de la Constitucion” is the most convenient.
Located in the eastern end of Mexico City’s Historic District, the Zocalo has been around since the Aztec times.
Initially, it was used as a ceremonial center. Now, it is the place for independence ceremonies, festivals, and parades.
No doubt, Zocalo is the best place to people-watch and feel the true vibe of of Mexico City.
It is also a great spot to soak in multiple layers of architecture that adorn Centro Historico.
✦ Pro Tip: Visiting Mexico City? Confused about what to see and what to miss? Check out our 4-days in Mexico City itinerary to plan an efficient and memorable trip here.
Step into Cathedral Metropolitana
Metropolitan Cathedral which stands right in front of the Zocalo is one of Mexico City’s most impressive monuments.
It is the oldest and biggest cathedral in Latin America complete with an ornate exterior and gilded interiors.
The cathedral’s architecture is a mix of Baroque and Renaissance styles.
Inside, you will find a massive 82-ft high Altar of the Kings built in the lavishly ornamented Spanish Baroque style, also called Churrigueresque.
One of the most interesting facts about Mexico City was the presence of a Black Christ at the Metropolitan Cathedral, which I later found to be a common occurrence in Central America.
There is an interesting legend about how the body of Christ turned black while drawing out poison from one of his sincere devotees.
Consequently, He came to be referred to as the Lord of Poison and is believed to have super healing powers! Be prepared to find huge crowds.
Built on (and sometimes with) the remains of the huge Aztec Temple that once stood here, Cathedral Metropolitana is one the largest representations of Spanish colonial power in this side of the world.
Apparently, it took 3 centuries to finish this massive project: 1573-1813.
No doubt, the Metropolitan Cathedral is one of Mexico’s prized architectural marvels! It is often included in many Mexico City tours of the historic center.
📖 Related Read: Do you love historical landmarks? Then you’ll enjoy reading our guide on the 15 Best Landmarks to visit in Mexico City.
Dig into Aztec history at the ruins of Templo Mayor
Right next to Metropolitan Cathedral in the Mexico City center, lie the ruins of Templo Mayor or the Main Temple of the Aztec Empire in Tenochtitlan.
Templo Mayor was a part of a vast religious complex that was the center of life in the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
The temple was not dedicated to one god but two: Huitzilopochtli (God of War) and Tlaloc (God of Rain & Fertility).
When you see reconstructions of the pyramid, you will notice two shrines on top with two sets of stairs leading up to them. This is one of the rare examples of dual pyramid in Mexico City.
When the Spanish came, they destroyed the temple completely and used its building material for the construction of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
What remains today is a collection of ruins on site and a museum that houses several artifacts from the time – clay pots, masks, skulls, jewelry, knives, and urns.
The area continues to be excavated even today but a large swathe is buried under the colonial version of Mexico City that sprang over a razed Aztec city in the 16th century.
We will probably never discover all about Tenochtitlan. Yet, we can still see snippets of Aztec culture at ruins like these.
Shop at Ciudadela Handicraft Market
We all love to shop for souvenirs on our trips, don’t we? When the souvenirs are as colorful and bright as the ones you can get in Mexico City, then why not?
There are several amazing markets in Mexico City but if you are short on time and need to pick something real quick, I suggest you head to the handicraft stalls right next to the cathedral and the ruins.
They feature all kinds of Mexican curios and knick-knacks.
However, you will find the real deal at the Ciudadela Handicraft Market (8mins from Alameda Central, 25mins from Metropolitan Cathedral).
A traditional Mexican market that features all kinds of local art and crafts, Ciudadela has more than 200 artisan stalls.
Ragdolls, Talavera pottery, blown glass – you will find everything here.
Take a historic walking tour
I love exploring historic centers on my own.
But when I am short on time, I do love a guided tour with a local. I am sure you do too.
Join this small-group walking tour and learn all about Mexico City’s historic downtown with a certified local tour guide.
You will visit all the highlights as well as step into a traditional Mexican bakery and sample some of their delicious sweet breads.
✦ Pro Tip: If you love walking tours as much as I do, then you’ll enjoy scrolling through our guide on the 10 Best Walking Tours in Mexico City and picking the best one for yourself.
Get wowed by the murals at Palacio Nacional
The National Palace of Mexico City which is also the office of the Mexican President & The Treasury, is built on the site of the original Aztec palace of Emperor Moctezuma II.
Palacio Nacional is home to several stunning murals by the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera, husband to Frida Kahlo.
One of his most iconic creations, “The History of Mexico” is housed in the palace’s stairwell.
Catching a view of this amazing mural is definitely one of the best things to do in the Historic Center of Mexico City.
Apart from that, the palace has several other murals, a chapel, a huge library, 14 courtyards including a really grand one, fountains, and gardens to enjoy.
If you are visiting Mexico City on September 16, be sure to catch the President ringing the Bell of Dolores (located on the façade of the building) as he celebrates Mexico’s freedom from Spanish rule.
Plan to spend at least a couple of hours here if you love art and murals. Diego Rivera’s creations are extremely expressive.
Remember to carry a government-issued ID if you wish to enter the palace.
You have to surrender it at the entrance and pick it up when you leave. So, carry something other than the passport so that you have your passport with you while exploring the palace. Not to mention, the mental peace that comes with it.
✦ Pro Tip: You cannot just walk into the National Palace anymore. However, you can still visit for free on a guided tour between Tuesday – Sunday. You’ll need to reserve your spot for the tour in advance though. Find out how to do that in my detailed Visitor’s Guide for Mexico City’s National Palace.
Check out more murals at Diego Rivera Mural Museum
Remember the beautiful murals that we saw at the National Palace?
Well, there’s more of Diego Rivera’s creations in the historic center of Mexico City.
In fact, there’s an entire museum dedicated to this great Mexican painter. It is called Museo Mural Diego Rivera or Diego Rivera Mural Museum.
One of his most famous works, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central, is housed in this museum.
If you are mural/street art enthusiast, then you will enjoy this affordable walking tour on Mexican muralism through the historic center.
See more murals at the Secretariat of Public Education
The Secretariat of Public Education is a sprawling complex of buildings and courtyards located to the southwest of the Zocalo.
Most importantly, the Secretariat is home to over 200 panels of mural art created by none other than the Mural Master himself, Diego Rivera.
The mural panels adorn the walls of the first two courtyards and are spread over 3 floors. They depict every aspect of Mexican life and culture.
Themes such as festivals, crop harvests, education, industry, and workers are frequently touched upon.
This is a great place to visit if you’re interested in Mexican muralism and keen to see Rivera’s work.
The Secretariat is open from 9:00am – 6:00pm, Monday – Friday. They are free to visit but you’ll have to show your ID at the entrance.
Eating is not allowed on the premises. There are toilets that you can use – feel free to ask the janitors for directions.
Enjoy a tour of Palacio de Bellas Artes
With stunning architecture and a unique dome colored orange and yellow, Palacio de Bellas Artes, or the Palace of Fine Arts, is probably the most beautiful building in the historic center of Mexico City.
As the name goes, Palacio de Bellas Artes is one of Mexico City’s most important spaces for showcasing fine arts such as paintings, sculptures, music, dance, and literature.
It is also home to a permanent collection of murals by Mexican mural masters such as Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Ozorco, and Roberto Montenegro.
No doubt, this place is also called the “Cathedral of Art in Mexico”.
The building itself is an architectural delight. While the exterior is a combination of Art-Nouveau and Renaissance styles, the interiors are pure Art Deco.
Do not forget to look up for some of the grandest ceilings.
Have a look at their opening hours, admission, and photography permissions on the official website here. Even though the site is in Spanish, it is not hard to glean some basic information.
Step into the very regal Palacio de Correos
Palacio de Correos or the Postal Palace was a very unlikely addition to my 2 days Mexico City itinerary.
Unlikely because I had not even heard of it before stepping into Mexico let alone add it to my travel plan. But it turned out to be such an interesting and royal addition.
Located right next to Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Postal Palace is a fairly new addition to Mexico City’s skyline.
It was built in the early 20th century by the same Italian architect who designed the Fine Arts Palace. And honestly, it is a sight for sore eyes!
The palace (well actually the main post office of Mexico City) is an eclectic mix of several architectural styles.
You will find elements of Neoclassical, Baroque, Moorish, and Art Deco architecture – all tastefully put together.
If you wish to send a postcard back home, this is the best place to come to.
If not, you will love ambling through the halls and galleries checking out exotic architectural pieces such as gargoyles and marble ornaments.
Do not miss the marble & bronze central stairway that is an absolute delight to see!
Visit Museum of National Art
If you love elaborate stairways, then you will enjoy a visit to Mexico City’s Museum of National Art (MUNAL in short), earlier the Communications and Public Works Palace.
Commissioned by Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, MUNAL is an integral part of Centro Historico’s architectural complex.
The grand double staircase in the lobby is almost similar to the one that you have just seen at the Postal Palace.
Yet, it has its own charm and nuances.
Frescoes and friezes light up MUNAL’s walls and ceilings. The museum has an amazing collection of paintings.
For opening hours, tickets, and guided tours, check the official website of MUNAL here.
See the hidden Iturbide Palace Museum
The Palace of Iturbide (now the Iturbide Museum) is a small but interesting museum in downtown Mexico City.
Built in the 18th century, Iturbide Palace has a fading baroque facade and a sumptuous interior complete with columns and arches.
Nowadays, the palace plays host to several temporary exhibitions on art, culture, and history.
When I went last, they had an engrossing collection of clay toys and collectibles from the Chupicaro cultures, 400 BCE – 200 CE.
Iturbide Palace Museum is free to enter and open 10:00am – 7:00pm, Monday – Sunday.
Have a taco at Los Cocuyos
I am sure all the walking around will make you super hungry.
So, grab a taco at this tiny taco stand-cum-restaurant called Los Cocuyos. They are so good that you will find a crowd here, even at midnight.
I believe they are open round the clock except for a brief two-hour break in the morning (5 am – 7 am).
El Huequito, another street food place nearby, also serves great tacos. And trust me, these places have been vetted by none other than Anthony Bourdain.
Enjoy a contemporary Mexican meal with stunning views
Image courtesy: Balcon del Zocalo Restaurant
Balcon de Zocalo is a renowned restaurant in Mexico City, known for its exceptional culinary experience and its incredible location offering a stunning view of the Zocalo, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Palace (if you get lucky and it’s a clear day, you can also see the volcanoes, too!).
The cuisine at Balcon del Zocalo is a contemporary take on traditional Mexican dishes. The menu is crafted to reflect the rich culinary heritage of Mexico, with a focus on fresh, local ingredients and innovative presentations.
They also offer seasonal themed menus with fantastic wine pairings. Every single menu they craft is different than the last, and aside from the delicious food, the entire experience is designed to please all your senses.
My recommendation? Plan an entire outing out of it, dress up, and order the current seasonal menu! I love the views during the day, especially at sunset when you can see soldiers raising the flag, but they’re also stunning at night when the plaza lights up.
Or take an authentic Mexican food tour
Walk through the historic center of Mexico City and sample authentic Mexican delights on this highly-rated, small-group food tour.
You will taste mouthwatering dishes at local canteens, traditional restaurants, and street food stalls and be guided through the history of it all by a passionate local guide.
Now, that does sound delicious, doesn’t it?
Stroll through Alameda Central Park
Alameda Central is a large public park in Mexico City center that’s been around since 1592.
Apparently, this was a huge marketplace during the times of the Aztecs which was then converted to a park when the Spanish came.
The park is filled with green open spaces, flowering plants, and water fountains.
You will also find several notable statues here. A semicircular monument that is called the Benito Juarez Hemicycle is the most famous one.
If you are looking for the perfect spot to unwind and relax after a hectic day of sightseeing, then Alameda Central is the place to be.
Enjoy a Mariachi performance at Plaza Garibaldi
Head to Garibaldi Plaza for a Mariachi performance.
Mariachi bands can be found here throughout the day and you can enjoy a show of this traditional Mexican music from the countryside.
I have heard Plaza Garibaldi can get a little sketchy in the evenings.
So, it is always good to be a little careful around the area. Doing a guided tour is always the best idea.
Dine at Gran Hotel Ciudad de México
The Gran Hotel in Mexico City center is yet another iconic landmark that you cannot miss in the old town of Mexico City.
Gran Hotel is a historic building, almost a palace, that dates to the early 16th century.
First, it was home to a royal accountant, then became a shopping mall, and finally metamorphosed into the luxury hotel that we see now.
The hotel features an impressive Tiffany-style stained glass window, a panoramic elevator, and a magnificent Louis XV lamp.
The best way to experience the beauty of the Gran Hotel in Mexico City is by staying in a room with a view of the zocalo – click here to check price and availability.
But you can also come here for a drink or sumptuous meal at La Terraza, the rooftop restaurant bar.
Along with your food, you can enjoy stunning views of the Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace that La Terraza offers.
Marvel at the House of Tiles
As you walk towards Torre Latinoamericana from the Zocalo, you’ll come across a beautiful colonial mansion to your right on Madero Street.
This is Casa de los Azulejos or the House of Tiles in downtown Mexico City.
Once home to the royal families of the counts from the Valley of Orizaba, the historic House of Tiles now houses a full-service Sanborns Restaurant.
Food, however, is average here. The highlights are the tiles and the architecture.
With a facade covered in blue, white, and yellow Talavera tiles, the House of Azulejos is one of the prettiest buildings in Mexico City Centro Historico.
It is also home to a majestic wall mural by Jose Clemente Orozco, a notable Mexican artist.
Step into the Church of San Francisco
Downtown Mexico City is also a good place to spot many hidden gems including some quaint historic churches.
One of my favorite churches to visit in the historic district was the inconspicuous Church of San Francisco.
Located right in front of the House of Tiles, the Church of San Francisco is a fine example of colonial baroque architecture. It dates back to the 17th century and has some exquisitely gilded altarpieces.
Apparently, this was one of the most powerful churches in the early colonial period and the site for several celebrations and funerals.
Now, it sees only a trickle of visitors during the day and a major part of it is sinking due to subsidence like the rest of Mexico City.
📖 Related Read: What is subsidence? Read our article on Interesting Facts about Mexico City to find out.
Get some stunning views from Torre Latinoamericana
Head to Torre Latinoamerica, one of the tallest skyscrapers that gives amazing views of downtown Mexico City.
It is 617ft (188m) tall and has 44 floors and is a favorite among tourists who are looking for a great place to spend their evenings.
Interactive map of Mexico City Historic Center
Practical information for visiting historic center of Mexico City
Best time to visit Mexico City center
Mexico City has great weather during spring (March-May) and fall (September-November).
Weather-wise, Mexico City makes for such a great fall/spring-break destination. But remember, this is also when the city is most crowded.
Winters can be chilly and summers are usually accompanied by rains. That said, rains typically happen in the afternoon and early evening.
So, if you are okay with exploring in the mornings and taking the afternoons off, summer can be a good (read quieter) time to explore Mexico City.
If you don’t mind crowds, I highly recommend visiting Mexico City Center during one of these festivals.
The center has a festive vibe to it that is hard to ignore. You will enjoy special celebrations, parades, decorations, and good food.
- Festival of Mexico’s Historic Center (April)
- Gay Pride Parade (June)
- Mexican Independence Day (September)
- Day of the Dead in Mexico (October – November)
Best places to stay in Downtown Mexico City Center
It can easily take you a couple of days to explore all the attractions in around Downtown Mexico.
Staying in the historic center is a good idea if you wish to do that.
Here are some great accommodation options in the city center that caught my eye.
- Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico: One of the best-rated 5-star hotels in the city center, Gran Hotel is also an architectural wonder. Located in a historic Art Nouveau building complete with an exquisite Tiffany stained glass, this hotel is one of the best places to visit in Mexico City’s Historic Center. Imagine what it would feel like to stay here for a night. I would dance with joy. Wouldn’t you?
Reserve your stay at Gran Hotel now.
- Kali Ciudadela Mexico City: A budget hotel in the center of Mexico City, Kali comes with clean, functional rooms and helpful staff. Good value for money and a good night’s sleep make Kali an absolute steal.
Click here to book your stay at Kali Ciudadela Mexico City.
- Hotel Historico Central: Located only a few minutes away from Torre Latinoamericano, this hotel features an amazing breakfast, attentive staff, and old colonial style architecture.
You can book your stay Hotel Historico Central here.
Getting to Mexico City Historic Center
The cheapest and easiest way to get to the Historic Center of Mexico City is by metro which will take you right to the heart of the city at Zocalo Metro Station.
We used the metro all the time we were in Mexico City and it was super convenient for us, a group of 5.
However, do keep in mind that metros are crowded during rush hours. So, be careful with your belongings.
You can also ride the Metrobus, another easy way of getting around the city. It connects the airport with the city center.
However, this may not be the most comfortable option because buses are almost always crowded. I prefer the metro over the bus.
If you need to get to your hotel in Mexico City Center from the airport, I highly recommend getting this reliable airport to hotel private transfer.
You will not only avoid the stress of driving in Mexico City but also steer clear of the hassles that come with dragging your luggage!
Getting around Mexico City Historic Center
The city center of Mexico City is extremely walkable. So, all you need is a pair of good shoes and a hat in summer to get around the place.
An efficient/non-tiring way to see the highlights of Centro Historico is to get on the Hop-on Hop-off Turibus and enjoy a comfortable tour of the city center.
Wifi is available on-board and you can pick an audio guide from 9 different languages.
Mexico City Historic Center FAQ
You can see the Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace, and Palace of Fine Arts in the historic center of Mexico DF. You can also take a tour of the Aztec ruins of Templo Mayor and/or explore numerous Diego Rivera murals in the area.
The center of Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. Tenochtitlan, in turn, was built on an artificial island created on a lake called Texcoco.
At the center of Mexico City, you will find one of the largest public squares in the world called the Zocalo and a collection of several interesting monuments including Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace, Palace of Fine Arts, and the ruins of Templo Mayor.
The main square of Mexico City is called Zocalo or Plaza del Zocalo. Officially known as Plaza de la Constitucion, Zocalo is located at the eastern end of Mexico City’s historic center and is the venue of parades, festivals, and independence day ceremonies.
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