El Centro Histórico (the historic center) is one of my favourite areas to explore in Mexico’s capital and always our first destination when we have guests in town.
This area has been the heart of Mexico City since Aztec times when it was the main ceremonial centre of the capital, Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.
We’ve spent a lot of time walking the streets of the Zocalo in Mexico City and now have a tried-and-tested guide to discovering the best of el centro. Here are all the things you can’t miss when visiting the historic centre.
Updated for 2020. Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, please see our disclosure policy.
Some of the places listed below may not be open owing to Covid-19 restrictions. Please check with the venue before travelling.
[author] [author_info]We have lots of other posts on Mexico City to help you make the most of the capital! First, don’t miss these 50 things to do with or without kids in the city. Explore the ancient canals of Xochimilco, visit Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul and take a trip up to the castle in Chapultepec Park.[/author_info] [/author]
El Centro, Mexico City
For first time visitors to Mexico City, I always recommend taking the Turibus to get to the Centro. Alternatively, grab a cab and get them to drop you off in the Zócalo.
One tip, try and visit during the week as the centre gets very busy at weekends.
Start in El Zócalo
Start your tour El Plaza de la Constitución, more commonly called the Zócalo. The plaza used to be known as El Plaza Mayor (Main Square) or Plaza de Armas (Arms Square).This central plaza is one of the largest city squares in the world.
It has witnessed the royal proclamations, military parades, Mexican independence day ceremonies and more. It has also been the setting for celebrations, for protests and, most recently, the opening scene in the James Bond movie, Spectre.
The Catedral Metropolitana, the oldest and largest cathedral in Latin America, sits to the north of the Zócalo, the National Palace (El Palacio Nacional) to the east and El Templo Mayor to the north-east. A handful of other government buildings flank the square.
At 6pm daily the enormous Mexican flag is ceremoniously lowered and taken into the National Palace; watch it happen from the terrace of the Grand Hotel with a hot chocolate!
Explore El Templo Mayor
After you’ve wandered around El Zócalo, walk to the northeast of the square where you’ll find El Templo Mayor, the Great Temple.
Every time that I visit this site, I’m amazed that excavation on this major archaeological site only began in 1978. Since that initial excavation, subsequent digs have revealed 13 levels of construction dating from 1375 to 1519.
It was only in 2011 that a ceremonial platform dating from 1469 was discovered.
El Templo Mayor was where, according to legend, the Aztecs saw an eagle perching on a cactus with a snake in its beak. This is the symbol that you’ll see in the flag of Mexico today.
The Templo Mayor has a gory history and saw many a human sacrifice; the stepped pyramid’s staircase is where the bodies of those sacrificed were thrown once they’d had their heart ripped out. Some kids find the blood and gore fascinating, others might prefer a more PG version.
The accompanying museum showcasing all the objects discovered during the digs is excellent.
Open: Tuesday to Sunday, 9:00am to 5:00pm.
From El Zócalo, walk west along Av. Francisco I. Madero and turn left at Calle Isabel la Catolica where you will find Downtown Hotel.
This boutique hotel is part of the chichi Habita Hotel Group and is housed within a 17th-century palace. In addition to boasting a boutique hotel, it’s a restaurant and retail complex.
It’s worth visiting just to look at how the architects have transformed this ancient building into a modern day hotel.
On the ground floor sits the restaurant Azul, where diners enjoy traditional Mexican cuisine under the canopy of trees, lit by candlelight.
The second floor is where you’ll find the shops; the stores feature Mexican designers, there’s an art gallery and the chance to buy traditional crafts. You can also see the living green wall – complete with bicycle!
On the third floor is the hotel itself and the rooftop pool sits on the terrace. It’s a fun place to simply browse, but it’s also good for a coffee stop (Que Bo!, the chocolatier, also serves coffee). We often stop here for lunch and grab a sandwich or tapas from Las Tapas de San Juan on the second floor.
Address: Isabel La Católica 30, Centro Historico
Buy sweets at Dulcería de Celaya
This incredible sweet shop on Avenue 5 de Mayo is simply divine. Established in 1874, little has changed in the last 126 years and this bustling candy store continues to sell over 150 different types of sweets and desserts.
Even if you don’t come for the dulces, it’s worth stopping by to see the grand Art Nouveau decor, the wonderful tiled floor and the incredible range of goodies on display in glass units.
Address: Av. 5 de Mayo 39, Centro Historico
Take a photo at the House of Tiles
From Dulcería de Celaya, head back to Av. Francisco I. Madero and continue walking west until you’re almost at the junction with Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas. On your right is La Casa de los Azulejos or “House of Tiles”, an 18th-century palace built by the Count del Valle de Orizaba family. It’s a very pretty building covered on three sides by blue and white tiles – it’s a good spot for a photo op!
Get a bird’s-eye-view of Mexico City
Almost opposite the House of Tiles is Torre LatinoAmericana, your best bet for seeing just how vast this capital is. Construction on the building was completed in 1956 and for the longest time it was the tallest tower in Mexico City.
It gained even more recognition when it successfully withstood first the magnitude 7.9 1957 earthquake and then the 8.1 magnitude 1985 earthquake.
Today it’s filled with offices but the 44th floor is a viewing platform and affords spectacular views over this megacity. Elevators go all the way to the top, apart from a final flight of stairs.
Address: Eje Central No.2, Centro
Admire Bellas Artes
If you still have energy then it’s definitely worth stepping inside the beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes (Bellas Artes Palace), one of Mexico City’s most prominent arts venues. You’ll have seen the golden domed cupola from the top if you went up Torre LatinoAmericana.
After a rather tumultuous beginning, the building was finally inaugurated in 1934 and today hosts exhibitions and performances, including the twice-weekly performance by the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.
In addition to being a beautiful building with some fantastic Art Deco architecture (look out for the stylised masks of the rain god, Tlaloc) there are a number of Diego Rivera murals. Look out for El Hombre en Control del Universo (Man in Charge of the Universe).
If you speak Spanish then it’s well worth timing your visit for the free tour of the main theatre (held daily at 1pm) to see the incredible glass curtain. Created by Tiffany in 1912, this stained-glass panel represents the landscape of the Valley of Mexico with its two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztacchihuatl, and was made from a million 2cm crystals. You can only see the main theatre and its curtain on the tour of if you see a performance.
The third floor houses the Museum of Architecture.
Address: Av. Juárez, Centro Histórico
Open: Monday to Saturday from 11am – 7pm, Sunday 8.30am – 7pm. From 7pm onwards it is only open for visitors who have tickets for performances.
Tickets: A visit to the foyer is free, if you wish to see the art on the second and third floors then you need to buy a ticket (cash only).
Churros y Chocolate at El Morro
This is the perfect way to end your tour of the City Centre. And, if you’ve not had churros before, then you simply have to visit El Morro. This characterful churreria is open 24-hours a day selling little more than hot chocolate and piping hot churros – Mexico’s answer to the humble doughnut (but better!).
El Moro was started in 1935 by Francisco Iriarte who arrived in Mexico from a small town in Spain and started selling churros from a cart in the Zócalo. So tasty were his churros that he soon set up shop and named it “El Moro”.
The churreria remains a family-owned business today. Today Churrería el Moro has various other outlets in swankier parts of town, but its the original cafe in the capital’s centre that we like to visit.
Address: Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas 42
Where to stay in the Centro Histórico with Kids
Some of the most popular family hotels in or near the Centro Histórico include the following hotels:
The Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico in the heart of the historic centre (the hotel has an incredible terrace overlooking the Zocalo)
For more ideas on where to stay for families, have a look at these recommendations on Booking.com.