Think of castles and it’s most likely that you’ll think of Europe, or maybe even Asia. The opulence of Versailles in France of the Forbidden City in Beijing. You don’t immediately think that there would be a castle in Mexico City.
And yet at the heart of one of the largest cities in the world stands El Castillo de Chapultepec, Chapultepec Castle. It’s the only castle in North America that has actually been a royal home. If you’re looking for something fun and different to do in Mexico City then this is a great place to start.
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El Castillo is located in the Bosques de Chapultepec, Chapultepec Park, a vast green space that covers some 1,695 acres and is otherwise known as Mexico City’s “lungs”.
The castle’s location, at the top of el Cerro de Chapulin (Hill of the Grasshoppers) has played an important role since pre-Hispanic times; below the castle you’ll see the remains of aqueducts that once carried water to the capital Tenochtitlan.
There are also, reportedly, some Aztec-era stone carvings at the base of the hill but we have yet to find them.
[author] [author_info]Once you’ve ticked the castle off your list, take a look at these things to do in Mexico City with kids. Don’t miss La Casa Azul, the former home of Frida Kahlo, and the ancient canals of Xochimilco. [/author_info] [/author]
The castle in Mexico City
Over the years the castle has played various roles; official residence for royalty, military academy, presidential residence and its current incarnation as Mexico’s National Museum of History.
El Castillo was originally constructed in 1785 on the orders of Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez, the commander-in-chief of ‘New Spain’, who fancied a manor house for himself. It was later abandoned during the Mexican War of Independence (1810 – 1821), and remained that way for several decades, until 1833 when it was turned into a military academy.
[author] [author_info]Don’t miss these great museums to visit in Mexico City![/author_info] [/author]
On September 13, 1847 the Niños Héroes (“Young Heroes”) died defending the castle during the Battle of Chapultepec of the Mexican-American War. A large mural dedicated to the young cadets can be seen on the ceiling of the main entrance to the castle. In the middle of the painting is Juan Escutia, who, according to legend, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and threw himself from the castle walls in order to prevent the flag falling into US hands.
In 1864, Maximilian of Austria became Emperor of Mexico. Although he spoke no Spanish, he was approached by Mexican and French agents who believed that a stable monarchy would benefit Mexico. However, many foreign governments refused to recognise his rule, believing him to be a puppet of France.
Emperor Maximilian I and his wife, Empress Carlota, took residence in the castle and set about renovating it in the neo-classical style that was popular at the time.
Many of the rooms they inhabited are on show today, including Carlota’s bedroom and bathroom that’s home to an impressive marble bathtub but not, as my daughter pointed out, a toilet!
They were also responsible for creating a wide avenue through the city from Chapultepec to the city centre. Originally called Paseo de la Emperatriz, it is today known as Paseo de la Reforma (Reforma Avenue).
Maximilian’s rule lasted for three years, when he was captured by forces loyal to President Benito Juárez and shot by a firing squad.
With the fall of the Second Mexican Empire in 1867, the castle was abandoned once more. In 1939, President Lazaro Cardenas del Rio declared that the castle would henceforth be the home of el Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico’s National History Museum, and it has been so ever since.
It’s a very fun place to visit with kids; there’s lots of space to roam, some fantastic views over the city (particularly on clear days!) and the exhibitions are interesting.
Rooms are dedicated to different periods in Mexican history as well as the history of the castle. On display are some pre-Colombian artefacts, old costumes and weaponry, Maximilian’s ornate carriage as well as jewellery, official stamps and seals and an enormous pair of doors constructed entirely from jade.
[author]Fact! Chapultepec Castle was the setting for scenes in Baz Luhrmann’s film, Romeo & Juliet![/author]
Visiting the castle, what you need to know
- The Castle is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9am-5pm
- Admission: those over 60 years or under 13 years are free.
- On Sundays entrance is free for Mexican residents.
- If you want to avoid crowds, then time your visit for during the week (weekends and public holidays are busy).
- The best time to visit is when the castle first opens at 9am. Mexico City residents tend to get going a little later in the day.
- Unlike some museums, you don’t have to pay if you want to take photos (flash, however, is not allowed).
Visiting Chapultepec Castle with kids
Chapultepec Castle is great with kids! Things to be aware of:
- The walk to the castle takes around 10-15 minutes uphill. There is a train (the green one, not the white one that scuttles around the park itself) that departs from the bottom of the road leading up to the castle. It takes visitors up and down the hill but there is often a queue, particularly at weekends or on holidays.
- At the castle entrance there’s an area where you can leave your pushchair / stroller. You can not take a stroller around the castle so if you’re visiting with an infant then bring a baby sling / carrier with you.
- My kids scooted their scooters up and down the hill and left them in the pushchair parking. Scooters are a wonderful way to get around Chapultepec Park.
- You’re not allowed any food or drink within the castle walls and the only snack stalls you’ll find are at the base of the hill.
- The museum organises activities for children during the holidays.