What’s the capital of Mexico? We’ll give you a hint: it’s the oldest capital in the Americas and it’s been continuously inhabited for nearly 700 years.
Of course, it hasn’t been known by the same name for all that time. The same city that once served as the heart of the ancient Aztec civilization now goes by something more contemporary: Mexico City.
With a history extending back to antiquity, this city has witnessed everything from colonization to modernization – and it bears the marks of all these periods in its architecture, demographics, and culture. It’s these unique features that have earned it a deserved place among the world’s must-see metropolises.
But, with so much to see and do, where do you start? With Lokal’s guide to the capital of Mexico, obviously. Keep reading for all the Mexico City basics you should know before you go.
Because the city and country share their name, “what country is Mexico in?” is a fair and common inquiry. Mexico itself is a country, officially known as the United Mexican States, and its capital is also called Mexico.
But Mexico City, (or Ciudad de Mexico in Spanish), is more than just a city. The capital of Mexico is actually a state in and of itself, and there are 32 of these Federal Entities that makeup Mexico as a whole.
The history of Mexico City extends to 1325, when it served as the capital for the Aztec empire. Known then as Teotihuacan, the Aztecs built this city atop a small, swampy island in Lake Texcoco.
The Aztecs chose the site based on a prophecy that foretold of finding an eagle, perched on a cactus, eating a snake. When they witnessed this signal on the island in Lake Texcoco, they took it as fulfillment of that prophecy and began to build their great city.
At its zenith, Teotihuacan covered approximately 8 square miles and housed more than 125,000 people. The largest city in the pre-Colombian Americas, it contained two monumental pyramids (the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon), complex residential facilities, the Avenue of the Dead, as well as a number of murals that have survived the test of time.
Today, Teotihuacan is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. It sits approximately 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, and the well-preserved archeological site is a must-see on any visit to the country’s capital.
In 2018, official statistics placed the population of Mexico City proper at 8.78 million. However, the population including the metropolitan area surrounding the city is well over 21 million people.
At that staggering figure, Mexico City has the largest metropolitan area in the Americas, the second largest in the Western Hemisphere, and is considered the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.
Over the centuries, and more recently as a result of urbanization, people from around the country have flocked to the city seeking work, safety, amenities, and opportunities that are becoming less and less available in the countryside. The city is also home to a large number of expatriates and immigrants. In fact, Mexico City has the largest number of people from the United States living outside their birth country.
Not only has that influx made it hard to calculate the exact population of this sprawling cosmopolitan hub, but it’s also contributed to the wealth of art, culture, and unique neighborhoods that we’ll discuss in more detail coming up.
The rich historical heritage of Mexico sits side by side with modernity in its capital. Evidence of pre-Colombian roots are found among some of the most significant colonial sites. Perhaps the most striking representation of this contrast is the Historic Center, where 1,400 buildings from the 16th and 19th centuries tower above the ancient ruins of the Templo Mayor.
Adding to its historical and cultural depth are world-class examples of modern architecture. The Torre Latinoamericana and the World Trade Center reflect an International Style and serve as cues for remembering that you’re in an important and bustling 21st century city.
And while these cues act as reminders of today, only a short walk away are slow-paced neighborhoods reminiscent of rural towns and still reflective of that lifestyle. You’ll find supermarkets next to traditional mercados, where you can purchase the comforts of home right before haggling for handmade tortillas and live chickens.
For a closer look at the cultural offerings of Mexico City and Mexico as a whole, take your pick of over 151 officially-recognized museums. Only London has more museums than Mexico City, and you have options ranging from Museo Casa Frida Kahlo to the National Museum of Anthropology, the most visited museum in the country.
If you’re looking to fill your days with art, Mexico City has no shortage of art galleries, either. This is the place to see some of the most famous murals of the Mexican muralist movement. In the Palace of Fine Arts, you’ll find some of the most incredible works of David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. But for the lesser-known muralist gems and the history behind them, jump on a guided mural tour.
Mexico City is in the Valley of Mexico, surrounded by mountains that makeup a fragment of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. At an altitude of 7,350 feet, it enjoys average seasonal temperatures of 63F.
The large city is a conglomeration of many former municipalities. Some new and styled with glassy high-rises, others with deeper roots that can be seen in both the homes and the parks surrounding them, most of which can be accessed by the efficient and affordable Metro system running both above and below the city.
No trip to Mexico City is complete without visiting the Historic Center (Centro Historico). Here, the largest main square in Latin America – El Zocalo – is surrounded by two of the cities most important sites.
The Metropolitan Cathedral is among the largest cathedrals in the Western Hemisphere, with 190-foot neoclassical towers housing 18 bells. Beside the cathedral is the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Aztec capital, with pieces restored for an exquisite example of how pre-Colombian history met modernity in this ancient city.
For more history, head to the Castle Chapultepec, built upon a hill of the same name and surrounded by the beautiful Chapultepec Park. Perched on top of the city, this historical building has served as presidential residence, a military academy, and now as a museum with unparalleled views of the city. It’s also a great place to take in more of Mexico’s famous murals.
A night out on the town calls for a visit to one of Mexico City’s more lively neighborhoods. A visit to Parque Mexico by day will take you into Condesa, but it's the boutique shops and colorful restaurants that will keep you there for a night of fun.
If you’re feeling more hipster than classy and upscale, Roma sits right next to Condesa and is quickly gaining a reputation as the cooler place to be. You’ll find art galleries, cafes, and plenty of nightlife in this recently restored neighborhood.
To get a little closer to what life is really like in Mexico City, visit Coyoacan. An amalgamation of almost 100 different, smaller neighborhoods, this a great place to spend a Sunday in the square. This is also where you’ll find the Frida Kahlo Museum and some of the city’s most bohemian vibes.
Xochimilico is another piece of the city’s ancient history. A series of canals built through an ancient lake, tourists and locals alike can spend the day floating on trajineras – gondola-like lanchas decorated in colorful paints and flowers that traverse the canals. Bring your own food and drink, or purchase from one of the many food vendors floating alongside other artisans and even mariachi bands.
If you’re ever asked, “what’s the capital of Mexico?” you can give an answer with some knowledge of its historical roots and its contemporary culture and landscapes. The oldest continuously inhabited capital in the Americas is now the largest metropolitan area in that same geographic region. It boasts a vibrant mix of cultures from within and without Mexico, contemporary and traditional ways of living, and a host of attractions that will keep your every day filled with fun.But, a city this large and ancient can’t be described in a few paragraphs; it’s a place that must be experienced to be truly understood and appreciated. For that, Lokal offers a number of tours both within the city limits and just outside. Explore all available Lokal tours in Mexico to start planning.