Modern Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world by population, is located on the site of the former Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan. When the Spanish arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlan was an island city in the middle of a large lake. Many of the top things to do in Mexico City have some link to the Aztecs. Knowing these links may enhance your visit.

See also: 12 Things to Know Before Traveling to Mexico City

We’ve traveled to Mexico City multiple times as a family and love it. Fortunately, most attractions on this list appeal to all ages.

1. Bosque de Chapultepec (Grasshopper Park)

Chapultepec Park is one of the best things to do in Mexico City

From their island capital, the Aztecs constructed four causeways to the mainland. One of these causeways contained an aqueduct that ran fresh water from a lakeside spring to the city.

The site of that lakeside spring is today part of Chapultepec Park, the Central Park of Mexico City. The name of the park is from the Aztec language, not the Spanish language, and means “Grasshopper Hill.” (That’s why the cartoon mascot of the park today is a grasshopper.)

Ride Paddle Boats on Chapultepec Lake in Mexico City

Today, this park is also one of Mexico City’s top attractions, with its Zoo, lake recreation (including paddle boats), vendor stalls selling everything from tattoos to toys, Chapultepec Castle, and the world-famous National Anthropology Museum.

2. National History Museum Chapultepec Castle

Atop Chapultepec hill in Chapultepec Park is this amazing castle featuring fantastic panoramic views of the city. Formerly a sacred site for the Aztecs, the Spanish Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez ordered its construction in 1785. Much later, it was even more famously the official residence of Emperor Maximiliano I beginning in 1864.

Today, it is the National History Museum with exhibits tracking the amazing, tragic, and sometimes bloody, history of Mexico over the last 500 years from the time of the Aztecs through the 20th Century. Original artifacts, furniture, paintings, and documents bring this history vividly to life.

3. National Museum of Anthropology

Piedra del Sol at National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
El Paraguas water feature at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

You absolutely must visit one of the world’s most famous museums, located within Chapultepec Park. Highlights of the National Museum of Anthropology include:

  • Piedra del Sol, the famous 24-tonne Aztec sunstone, mistakenly called the “Aztec Calendar” for decades
  • A replica of Moctezuma’s Headdress, purportedly worn by Moctezuma II at the time of the Spanish Conquest (the original resides controversially in Vienna)
  • Statue of Xochipilli, a 16th-century Aztec statue, was discovered in the 19th century
  • El Paraguas, located in the central courtyard, is a towering water feature of sorts constructed in 1964
  • Jade mask of the Zapotec Bat God in Oaxaca exhibit room
  • Pakal’s Tomb, a replica of the original, which is still in Palenque in Chiapas, is the tomb of the famed Mayan ruler. The replica features an impressive display which includes his jade funerary mask and many beaded articles
  • Giant stone heads of the Olmec civilization are found in the jungles of Tabasco and Veracruz
  • Mayan treasures recovered from the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza.

See also: The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City with Kids

4. Xochimilco

A Xochimilco boat ride is one of the best things to do in Mexico City

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Xochimilco is one of the last remnants of Lake Texcoco. Visitors typically hire a trajinera (flat-bottomed boat propelled by a boatman with a pole, in a way reminiscent of Venice, Italy) for a few-hour excursion here.

The prices for these rentals are fixed, flat fee per boat per hour. There are multiple different routes the boats can take. Some are ‘traditional,’ while others are ‘ecological.’ This all results in a flat fee per route, each with a designated duration. The photo below is from the Xochimilco boat launches, or embarcaderos, where the various routes were marked on a map. This is adjacent to the parking lot.

Map of trajinera routes in Xochimilco, Mexico City.

There are various routes to take on a trajinera. Some pass by chinampas, another throwback to Aztec times. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, did not have arable land, so the Aztecs created it.

Chinampas are artificial islands formed by woven mats underneath the water’s surface topped with mud from the lake bottom, on which the Aztecs grew various crops.

Today, you may take a route that passes almost entirely by the agrarian, wildlife refuge portion of Xochimilco. But by far the more popular way to experience the area today is to take a ride through other more touristic areas where on weekends visitors may rent mariachi bands and buy beers, sodas, and foods from stands on the islands, as well as those on other, passing boats.

On weekends, this part of Xochimilco can be loud and festive. Before you depart, you may also buy food and drinks at the shops adjacent to the Embarcadero.

One suggestion from personal experience: it will be a big help here if someone in your party speaks Spanish, both to help arrange the hiring of a trajinera (and deciding upon which route to take) and then also when buying food and drinks from vendors along the way.

If you want a quieter experience there, consider visiting on a weekday, when it can be nearly empty.

5. Zócalo (or Plaza de la Constitución)

The Templo Mayor is a top Mexico City attraction

The central square of modern Mexico City, perhaps its primary tourist destination, is today called the Zócalo, or more formally, Plaza de la Constitución. It is located at the center of the Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México.

Many street signs in Mexico City refer to either the Centro Histórico or the Zócalo. For a casual tourist, they are mostly synonyms. The central square itself is enormous and is ringed on all sides by picturesque multi-story buildings. It features a vast Mexican Flag and, in winter, an artificial ice skating rink. The three primary tourist attractions here ring the outside of the square itself.

Five hundred years ago, the Zócalo was the ceremonial center of the Aztec capital. Here, on the top of their grandest temple, the Templo Mayor, Aztec priests sacrificed tens of thousands of human beings over time in ritual ceremonies as elaborate as they were bloody.

Today, visitors may tour the archaeological site of the Templo Mayor and the adjacent, excellent museum, which features artifacts from and about it.

Wall of skulls at the Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City
A disk featuring Coyolxauhqui, Huitzilopochtli's sister, inside Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City

This is also the site of the Metropolitan Cathedral, which was built in sections starting in 1573 and still stands today and can be entered by visitors.

The third and last major tourist attraction in the Zócalo is the Palacio National or National Palace. Today, the home of many important federal government offices, it also features several Diego Rivera murals. These murals depict stages of Mexican history. Admission is free, but be aware that you must show (and leave) a passport or other government-issued ID (not a copy) to enter.

6. Palacio de las Bellas Artes

Located in the Centro Histórico, but not in the Zócalo itself, this Cathedral of Art in Mexico is housed in a beautiful art deco/art nouveau building with equally stunning marble interiors.

Most famous for murals by Diego Rivera and Siqueiros, it hosts various temporary exhibitions of art and literature and dance, theater, and opera performances intended to support and highlight Mexican culture and art.

7. Walk Down Paseo de la Reforma on a Sunday Morning

Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City is closed to cars on Sunday.

One of Mexico City’s significant, broad boulevards, the Paseo de la Reforma is closed to road traffic (except at some intersections) on Sunday mornings from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. (except the last Sunday of each month).

It’s a unique, memorable experience to be one of the throngs of pedestrians and cyclists who walk, jog, cycle, and people-watch in the middle of the picturesque boulevard designed in the European style on a Sunday morning. Several significant and photogenic monuments are also located in the middle of several intersections, including the Angel of Independence.

8. Museo Frida Kahlo

Located in Coyoacan, a leafy suburb of Mexico City, the Museo Frida Kahlo, also known as La Casa Azul (or “The Blue House”) because of its distinctive blue exterior, was once Frida Kahlo’s home.

In addition to walking through her home and viewing the rooms as they were originally furnished and decorated in her lifetime, the museum also exhibits an impressive collection of her works. When we were there, it also exhibited some of her original clothes.

One bit of advice from experience: buy tickets online in advance. The museum is very popular. If you show up without tickets, you will likely end up in a very long line outside on the sidewalk, waiting for more than an hour, if you can get tickets at all.

9. Mexico City Markets

Marionettes at La Ciudadela Market in Mexico City

Mexico City is famous for its colorful, varied local markets, which sell everything from dried chiles from elsewhere in Mexico to a wide variety of prepared foods and home goods, pirated DVDs, and more.

Unfortunately for tourists, several of them are also infamously dangerous, and some are under the control of gangs. Tourists are discouraged from visiting these, sadly including Mexico City’s largest market, La Merced.

Several markets are recommended for tourists. One we visited and suggested by the concierge at Four Seasons Mexico City is La Ciudadela. It is home to over 350 vendors and specializes in handicrafts and folk art. It is also on our list of things to do in Mexico City with kids.

10. Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan is one of the best day trips from Mexico City.

Located about an hour’s drive outside of Mexico City, this fantastic “City of the Gods” is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and features the towering Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. Teotihuacan was built hundreds of years before the Aztecs arrived in Mexico and was already an enigmatic, deserted ruin in Aztec times.

Knowing nothing about the original builders, the Aztecs, not the original builders/residents, named the place Teotihuacan (or “City of the Gods” in the Aztec language).

The impressive site is ringed with countless restaurants and bars catering to the busloads of tourists who arrive every day and walk up the many steps to the summit of the colossal Pyramid of the Sun. These days, it is only possible to climb halfway up the Pyramid of the Moon due to safety precautions.

If you go, consider eating lunch at La Gruta, a longstanding local institution: a restaurant built inside a natural cave.

See also: Why You Must Take Your Kids to Teotihuacan

What are your favorite things to do in Mexico City?

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

Explore More in MEXICO

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.