Things to Do in Central Mexico
Known as the City of the Gods, Teotihuacán was the metropolis of a mysterious Mesoamerican civilization that reached its zenith around AD 100. Once the largest city in the region but abandoned centuries before the arrival of the Aztecs, Teotihuacán boasts towering pyramids and stone temples with detailed statues and intricate murals.
The town of Papantla is located deep in the heart of the Totonacapan region about three hours north of Veracruz City. This quiet haven is famous for its impressive views of the majestic Sierra Papanteca range, sweet indigenous vanilla, Totonac people and the popular El Tajin ruins.
Enjoy breakfast at one of the local cafes before taking to the streets in search of the eleven murals painted by Mexican masters like Teodoro Cano Garcia—a student of Diego Rivera. One of the most famous of these is located in the Church of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion. The city is also known for its numerous museums, but travelers agree the unique Museo de las Mascaras, which contains more than 300 masks from around the country, is definitely worth a visit.
Perhaps the most well-preserved pre-Hispanic ruins in the state of Veracruz, El Tajin is rich with Mexican history and mythology from the infamous Totonac people.
Archeologists believe this once thriving town was occupied as early as the year 800. Its fertile grounds are divided into three distinct areas that include open plazas, natural greenery and iconic pyramids, including the famous Pyramid of the Niches. This popular landmark was built at approximately the same time as the well-known Chichen Itza in the Mayan Region. Its rocky steps lead to a peak that’s home to incredible views and a holy temple where Totonacs once worshiped.
El Tajin Ruins are numerous, and while the World Heritage Site is interesting to wander alone, expert guides are available for travelers looking to learn even more about the history, culture and traditions of the Totonac from a resident expert.
With its brightly paintedtrajineras (flat-bottomed boats), traditionalchinampas (floating gardens), and network of flower-perfumed canals, Xochimilco—the “Flower Garden”—is the kind of place that will have you reaching for your camera at every turn.
Known as the Blue House (La Casa Azul) for its bold blue façade, the Frida Kahlo Museum (Museo Frida Kahlo) was the birthplace and childhood home of the well-known Mexican artist. Inside, the fascinating collection of personal items, furnishings, sketches, and paintings offer insight into both the life and art of Frida Kahlo.
Coyoacán, one of Mexico City’s oldest districts, is alive with color and culture. Centered around twin plazas perfect for people watching—Plaza Hidalgo and Jardín Centenario—Coyoacán is characterized by museums, quaint cobblestone streets, and roadside churro vendors.
During early morning hours the Malecon stretching between Veracruz and Boca del Rio fills with local runners jogging along the scenic path that wraps around the ocean’s edge. But by mid-afternoon, it’s travelers that flood the area known for its pre-colonial architecture and fine views of imposing naval ships. Stalls selling handmade crafts and traditional food line the area, and happy couples stroll the promenade eating ice cream cones on hot summer days while listening to musicians perform mariachi music in the streets.
The Malecon’s relaxing daytime vibe comes alive at night, when cool breezes bring locals back outdoors to enjoy refreshing drinks at the crowded tables of nearby cafes as traditional folk dancers and live musicians stage acts in the open air.
San Juan de Ulua is a maze of historic fortresses and prison cells on a shadowy island overlooking the once-busy port of Veracruz. Constructed in 1956, the fort is home to a dark history that includes captured naval fleets, African slave trade and international treasure.
During the nineteenth century the imposing stone walls and deep dungeons of San Juan de Ulua served as a prison for Mexican political activists. The views from the old lookout tower make it a popular attraction, but a hidden chapel on the southwest side of the structure, massive treasure storage rooms and the dungeon of San Juan de Ulua, which housed the legendary bandit Chucho el Roto, are also worth a look.
Wonder at the more than 250 native and international species, spread across 10 exhibitions and ranging from ethereal jellyfish to salt-water sharks and even penguins, at the Veracruz Aquarium (Acuario de Veracruz). Considered one of the largest aquariums in Latin America, it's focused on marine conservation and education.
Catemaco Lake, or Laguna Catemaco, is a natural wonderland for travelers who love the outdoors. Whether it’s joining one of the thousands of fishermen casting lines into the 22-meter-deep waters, or hiring a boat to explore the surrounding sites, Catemaco is a still undeveloped Mecca perfect for spending a sunny afternoon.
This rustic freshwater lake in south central Veracruz was formed by a natural lava flow from the nearby San Marin Tuxtla volcano. Its chilly waters and the fertile foothills that surround it offer plenty of options for outdoor exploring. Travelers can hire a local boat and paddle into the depths of the lake before washing ashore Monkey Island, where playful primates swing freely between towering emerald green trees. Or they can head to nearby Nanciyaga Ecological Reserve for a refreshing swim in the peaceful lagoon, followed by relaxing mud massages and a dip in the hot springs.
More Things to Do in Central Mexico
Each autumn as many as a billion monarch butterflies from across the United States and Canada migrate south to the forests of central Mexico in one of the planet’s most spectacular animal migrations. Piedra Herrada Sanctuary is one of a few areas of the UNESCO-listed Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve open to the public.
Visitors trek into the forest on horseback before continuing on foot to a remote roost where monarchs are known to congregate. During butterfly season, the area’s fir trees are coated in an undulating blanket of orange and black wings, with occasional pockets of butterflies bursting into flight and filling the sky. As one of the biosphere reserve’s newer areas, Piedra Herrada Sanctuary sees fewer visitors, lending the experience a more isolated feel.
Among the most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, the Shrine of Guadalupe atop Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City honors the legendary 16th-century appearance of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego, a local peasant. The shrine, also known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), is devoted to the patron saint of Mexico.
Mexico City’s Plaza de la Constitución, better known as the Zocalo, is the cultural and historic heart of the city. This large open-air square in the Centro Historico is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the city's top attractions, including Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace, and Great Temple archaeological site and museum.
Considered one of the world’s most comprehensive natural history museums, the National Museum of Anthropology (Museo Nacional de Antropología) is Mexico City’s most visited museum. Its collection includes notable historical items such as the Aztec Stone of the Sun, the giant carved heads of the Olmec people, and the Aztec Xochipilli statue.
This popular gathering spot near in the port state of Veracruz is a hot bed for culture, nightlife, entertainment, song and dance. Both travelers and locals gather inside the lively cafes that line the bustling sidewalks of this town center. Musicians playing Cuban-inspired music gather to perform while traditional dancers take to the streets for impromptu performances.
Stalls selling local food and souvenirs, as well as bars serving strong drinks and restaurants dishing Mexican cuisine make this car-free area perfect for curious pedestrians looking to explore. Colonial architecture lines the square, which fills with locals after dusk and on weekends. Travelers love the salsa clubs in close proximity but agree that there’s plenty of dancing in the streets of this Zocala, too.
Built on the site of the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the Centro Histórico is both the historical heart and the modern epicenter of Mexico City. Centered on the grand Zócalo—Plaza de la Constitución—the sprawling district is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is full of historic monuments, museums, parks, and hotels.
The National Palace (Palacio Nacional) has served as the seat of the Mexican federal government since the age of the Aztecs. Although it’s a working building with many offices that are off limits to visitors, there’s still plenty to explore and admire, including Diego Rivera’s famous panoramic mural, The History of Mexico.
As Mexico City’s major cultural center, the Palace of Fine Arts hosts art exhibitions and a range of live events, including music, dance, theater, and opera. The building is a mix of art nouveau, art deco, and baroque architectural styles referred to as Porfiriano, after Mexican President Porfirio Diaz who commissioned the project.
It’s easy to see why Xalapa, the capital city of the state of Veracruz, is fondly referred to as the San Francisco of Mexico. This colorful urban center has the same laid back charm and electric night life, with an equally youthful vibe. College students buzz through Xalapa’s hilly city streets aboard quick moving scooters, while well-heeled business men and women make their way to work through the bustling business district.
Dozens of popular cafes that line the streets of Xalapa, where, students, travelers and the city’s cultural elite brush elbows over steaming cups of strong brew. The country’s second-largest archaeological collection is housed in the city’s Museo de Antropologia and travelers say the grounds of this unique landmark are worth a visit. The collection of exhibits, which outlines the traditions and artwork of the Totonac and Huastec people, provide a comprehensive history for first-time visitors. Nearby Parque Ecologico Macuiltepetl, a tranquil 40-hectare park, is home to plenty of running trials and offers impressive views of the Xalapa skyline from atop an extinct volcano.
The only palace on the continent, Chapultepec Castle sits more than 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) above sea level in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. It has housed royalty, served as a military academy, and was even an observatory. In 1996, the castle was transformed into Capulet Mansion for the movieWilliam Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Built on Aztec temple ruins, no building better exemplifies the history of Mexico City than the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana). The vast stone edifice blends architectural styles and building innovations across four centuries. Highlights include the gilded Altar of Forgiveness and the painted canvases lining the sacristy.
Coatepec, also known as the serpent mountain, is one of the most sacred places in Aztec mythology. It’s believed that the iconic Mexican tribe came upon this mystical town on their way to Central Mexico, and made it their home for more than 30 years.
The Aztecs built an impressive temple on a hilltop here to pay homage to the god Huitzilopochtli. The structure was so loved that when the tribe finally completed their journey to Tenochtitlan, they built a replica of the Coatepec temple at the new site.
In addition to its prominent place is Aztec history, Coatepec has a major role in contemporary culture, too. The town is referred to by some as Mexico’s capital of coffee, because the nation’s most popular brews: Bola de Oro and Le Vereda, come from this municipality.
What remains of the Aztecs’ Great Temple (Templo Mayor) sits right in the middle of Mexico City, but many tourists miss it. In 1978, a massive, 8-ton (7,000-kilogram) stone depicting Coyolxauhqui (the Aztec goddess of the moon) was unearthed, marking the location of the temple, a gathering place sacred for the Aztecs during the 1300s and 1400s.
Chapultepec Park, named for the Aztec word chapoltepec (at the grasshopper’s hill), is one of the world's largest city parks. The green space spans 1,695 acres (686 hectares) and is dissected by walking paths connecting quiet ponds, monumental buildings, and museums, including the Museum of Anthropology and the Rufino Tamayo Museum.
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