Travel Articles
Blog Home All Blogs

Mexico City - Historic Downtown

Posted By Michele Joyce, Sunday, July 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010
When I signed up for a class on Mexican history in my junior year of college, I had no idea that it was going to change my life. But the more I learned about Mexico, the more attracted I was to this culture. I revelled in the sounds of the few Spanish words I understood, the unique shouts of the mariachi singers whose music I bought to practice my Spanish, and the bright yellows, pinks, oranges, and greens in the Mexican dresses that my history professor wore to class.

One day, this same professor, dressed in an ankle length, bright yellow dress and long, cherry-red earrings, presented our class with a photograph of the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, taken around the turn of the 20th century.

The photo was met with a collective gasp from the students who were familiar with the Zocalo. "I can’t believe it ever looked like that!” commented my friend, Elaine. I had never actually seen the plaza, so I was more surprised by how many of the students were familiar with the place than I was by the picture itself. In that moment, I decided I would be sure to visit the Zócalo if I ever got to see Mexico City.

Not long afterward, I’d obtained a scholarship to study in Mexico City, and, at my first opportunity, I took the crowded underground metro to the "Zócalo” stop. The second I surfaced from the underground metro station, I was overcome by the feeling of being in the middle of a place with so much history! I had never seen so many historic buildings in a single space. In my hometown, a two-hundred year old building could be a historic monument and here I was surrounded by buildings that the Spanish began to build in the sixteenth century – on the ruins, and in many cases, with rocks taken from the demolished constructions of an even older society!

A Mexican flag waved in the center of this great cement square plaza, one of the largest plazas in the world, surrounded by the National Palace, the seat of Mexico’s government, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and more. It was quite different from the picture that my history teacher had shown the class: cable buses had been replaced by cars circling the plaza and tree-lined pathways were replaced with cemented-over open spaces.

During my semester abroad, when-ever I had free time, I hopped on an old metro train and headed downtown to explore a little more of the Zócalo and the neighborhood that surrounds it; the whole area is often referred to as the centro histórico, or historic center. When I came back to Mexico City, two years later, I decided to stay. For six years I lived there, and my visits to the Zócalo became even more regular, but the beauty and the history of this place continue to impress me.

It seems only natural to me now that the first time I heard about the Zócalo was in history class. The Zócalo and the whole of the downtown area is one of the most historically significant places not only of this city, but of Mexico. Not only is its rich history still apparent in its art and architecture, but it continues to be a vibrant community center that still makes history. If you want to get to know Mexico, it is one of the best possible places to start.


In the southwest corner of the Zócalo, there is an unassuming statue that relates the story of the Aztec founding of their capital city, Tenochtitlan in 1325. The Aztecs were a wandering group, but according to Aztec legend, one of the gods foretold the Aztec’s arrival in this place, a place where they would not only settle but rise to greatness and create an empire. This god instructed them to settle in the place where they saw an eagle with a snake in its mouth perched on a cactus. According to Aztec legend, the Aztecs established their capital city where they saw this foretold sign, and the statue in the Zócalo depicts the scene: an eagle, holding a snake in its mouth, perched on a cactus — a reminder that Mexico City is built on the ruins of the ancient Aztec capital, and that this was its center.

Templo Mayor

The preserved ruins of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor, located on the northwest corner of the plaza are evidence that the Aztecs not only built their city on the ground where Mexico City stands today, but that today’s Zócalo was also the area at the heart of the Aztec’s capital city.

This was the largest and most important building in the Aztec capital. It was discovered and excavations began in the 1970s. Most of the objects found at the Templo Mayor were offerings to the gods. A variety of these artifacts are on display at the Templo Mayor Museum, just next door.

This temple, dedicated to the Aztec gods of rain and war, this was the center of Aztec religious life – and the site of the famous Aztec human sacrifices.

The National Palace

After conquering the Aztecs in 1521, the Spaniards decided to locate the seat of their government in what had been center of the Aztec’s capital city. The National Palace, on the west side of the plaza, is the center of national government, and was built directly on top of the ruins of palace of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma. The conqueror Cortés began built this building, although it has been modified several times.

The liberty bell that hangs from the center of the palace is the bell that Father Hidalgo rang to call his parishioners to fight for freedom, thus beginning the Independence movement that ended in 1821.

Diego Rivera’s great mural, Epic of the Mexican People..., painted between 1929 and 1945, runs along the staircase and walls of the palace’s second floor. It murals tell the story of the political life of the country from the time of the conquest (which is shown as the destruction of an idealized Aztec way of life) to the future (here, Marx is shown pointing the way toward a better future). These murals are a must-see for any visitor to Mexico City.

The Metropolitan Cathedral

Not only did the Spanish set up their government in the middle of their conquered people’s capital city, but they established religious control here as well. The churrigueresque cathedral that was built on the northern side of the Zócalo is the largest in Latin America. While construction began in the 1573, the building project went on for nearly 300 years, and you can see several artistic styles represented in its structure, paintings, statues, altars, and more.


Parties and Protests

Every year, late in the evening of September 15th, the Zócalo is the place to be for the most popular celebration of Mexico’s Indepen-dence Day. The plaza fills up with party seekers who, looking for a good time, toot noise makers, spray silly string, and randomly smash confetti-filled egg shells on passersby (especially on those who stand out a little – like tourists!). The government provides enter-tainment as well, including popular Mexican singers who often show up in traditional dress to sing time-honored Mexican tunes. The high-light of the evening comes as the president emerges from inside the palace and stands on a central balcony overlooking the plaza. He gives a speech about celebrating independence, national heroes, and the culture and values of the country. While each president adapts the speech to the concerns of his time and his own agendas, he weaves through the speech the several national heroes and values. With the mention of each hero -- ¡Viva Zapata! – or values -- ¡Viva la patria! ¡Viva México! – the president yells and the crowd shouts back ¡Viva! in unison. At the end of his speech, the president rings the bell that was originally rung by Father Hidalgo when he incited the movement for Independence, and fireworks ring out in the plaza as well as other parts of the city.

The Independence Day tradition is a special time to visit the Zócalo, yet you may find crowds gathered here at other times too. It is a favorite location for protests and sit-ins. In June of 2004, some 250,000 locals, most dressed in white, walked silently down the Paseo de la Reforma, one of Mexico City’s principal thoroughfares, toward the Zócalo, eventually filling the plaza.

The plaza also filled after the 2006 presidential elections. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had lost the election, made the plaza inaccessible for travellers as his protesters (in the tradition of Mexican politicians, many, local newspapers reported, were paid for their presence) claimed he was the legitimate president of Mexico.

Art in the Zócalo

More recently, on el 5 de mayo, 2007 the plaza was again filled, but this time it was full of volunteers interested in helping to make art. A crowd that any politician would be proud of assembling – an estimated 20,000 — came out on a chilly May morning to take off their clothes and pose nude for Stephen Tunick’s latest photographs. The photos included scenes of the crowd saluting the great flag in the center of the plaza and laying in fetal positions in front of the cathedral.

For thousands of years, the Zocalo has been the center of community life in Mexico City. Holidays, elections, protests, artmaking — this is the place to be in Mexico City, the place where history continues to be made.

Where to Stay

Hotel Majestic
Ave. Madero 73, Col. Centro,

It doesn’t get any closer to the Zócalo than Hotel Majestic where individual rooms have balconies overlooking the plaza and the restaurant on the hotel’s top floor has some of the best views of the plaza you can find. Rates go up for Independence Day and reservations are booked far in advance. So, if you are planning to be in town in September, call ahead.

Sheraton Centro Histórico
Av. Juarez 70, Col. Centro,
(+52) 555-5130-525

No hotel in the downtown area offers more luxury than this. There are spas, gyms, and a pool. Rooms and hallways are decorated with historic images of the downtown area.

Tags:  Mexico  Mexico City  Templo Mayor  Zócalo 

PermalinkComments (0)

Quick Links

Home About Join Contact