The Aztecs, the massive size, and crime are some of the things people immediately associate with Mexico City. Let’s explore these and other things Mexico City is known for.
Located in Central Mexico, at a high altitude, Mexico City (CDMX) is the capital and largest city in the country and one of the largest metropolis in the world. The city sometimes has a bad reputation, but in fact, it is very diverse, with slums, hip neighborhoods, a historic center, and parks.
Despite being the capital of one of the most visited countries in the world, Mexico city is often overlooked by travelers. However, it is one of the oldest cities in the new world, with surprising architecture, ancient ruins, and some of the most famous landmarks in Mexico.
So, with no more delays, let’s discuss what is Mexico city known for?
13 things Mexico city is known and famous for
One of the things most people associate with Mexico City is its massive population, particularly if we think of the whole metropolitan area. As of 2020, Mexico City had a population of about 9.2 million people, but if we consider the whole metro area, that number climbs up to almost 22 million, making it the 6th largest metro area globally and the second largest in the Americas, only slightly behind São Paulo, Brazil. Naturally, it is also by far the largest Spanish-speaking city.
Mexico City is also the economic powerhouse of Mexico, as it’s responsible for about 16% of the country’s GDP (22% if we are talking about the metro area). If Mexico City was a country, it would have the 5th largest economy in Latin America.
Another well-known feature of Mexico City is the high altitude at where it was founded. Located in the valley of Mexico, Mexico City was built at about 2300 meters of altitude, and it is surrounded by volcanoes that reach well above 5000 meters of altitude. Toluca, which is part of the greater Mexico City area, is about 2600 meters high.
Mexico City isn’t the highest large city in the world, nor the highest capital. That prize goes to La Paz, Bolivia, at an astonishing 3800 meters of altitude. However, La Paz and the few other large cities higher than CDMX are much smaller.
When we combine the size and the altitude, no other city in the world compares to Mexico City. It’s astonishing to have about 22 Million people living at more than 2300 meters of altitude.
As we mentioned above, Mexico city lies in a valley surrounded by high mountains and volcanoes, which is part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. These volcanoes are part of the stunning natural setting where Mexico City was built, and when it’s clear enough, they are perfectly visible from the city.
The most famous of these volcanoes are Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl, which are the second and third highest mountains in Mexico, reaching 5426 and 5230 meters, respectively. They are also active volcanoes and erupt occasionally. Popocatepetl erupted in 2019.
Built on a Lake
Mexico City is famous for having been originally built on a lake. The Mexico valley, where the city was built, doesn’t have natural drainage outlets, so there was a huge lake called lake Texcoco.
Originally, Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city that predated Mexico city, was built on an island of the lake. However, with the city’s growth, drainage was engineered through canals and tunnels from the 17th century. Today, there is no lake water, but the city still lies on the old lake’s soft base, which is why the city is quickly sinking.
The canals of Xochimilco are the only area where one can still see a glimpse of the lakes and the original canals that were built. There it is possible to ride gondolas and enjoy a unique means of transportation. They are colorful and fun to ride, as it’s a festival-like atmosphere. Furthermore, they are the same canals the Aztecs used and a small reminder of the Texcoco and rivers. So it’s also a ride through history.
Mexico City’s history is closely related to the history of the Aztecs. The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that developed in Central Mexico between the 1300s and 1521. They included different groups of Nahuatl people. They are believed to have come from the north and established themselves in the islets of Lake Texcoco.
According to the legend, they saw an eagle holding a rattlesnake on the top of a nopal cactus in the Laked. This vision fulfilled the prophecy that this was their new home, where they should build a town. So they did. They built Tenochtitlan on the same site, creating an artificial island that later became Mexico City.
The Aztecs were ferocious warmongers and built their empire quickly. In about 200 years, they became the dominant force in Central Mexico, sometimes brutally dominating the other tribes of the region. This completely changed with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores led by Hernan Cortés. In 1521, Tenochtitlan fell to Cortés and its allies from other American tribes who despised the Aztecs.
Modern Mexico city was built over the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The heart of México City is its historic center, particularly the central square, the Zócalo. One can still see the ruins of the Aztec Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, close to the Zocalo.
Also known as the “Plaza de la Constitucion,” it is considered Mexico’s political and cultural heart. The Zocalo is surrounded by stunning buildings like the Metropolitan Cathedral (the oldest Cathedral in the Americas), the National Palace, the Federal District Buildings, and a few others.
The Zócalo and surrounding area have played a central role in the city’s political, social, and geography for almost 700 years. Thus, it is a place of gathering and festivities but also where many demonstrations are made. Don’t be surprised if the buildings are protected by high metal barriers. It is naturally one of its most well-known monuments and something Mexico City is known for.
Zocalo is a curious name, meaning plinth or pedestal in Spanish. There were plans to construct a monument to independence, but only the plinth was built. The plans changed, and eventually, the plinth was buried, but the name stayed.
With almost 700 hectares, Chapultepec Park is the second largest city park in Latin America (only Santiago Metropolitan Park in Chile is bigger) and one of the largest and most iconic in the world.
Chapultepec Park is the most important ecological space in the greater Mexico City area and the city’s lungs. Besides its huge size and environmental role, Chapultepec Park is also home to nine museums (including the outstanding Museum of Anthropology), amusement parks, sculptures, lakes, fountains, and a castle – Chapultepec Castle, which serves as the National History Museum.
With more than 15 Million visitors per year, Chapultepec Park is one of the most visited urban parks in the world and stands side by side with Central Park in NY, the Imperial Gardens in Tokyo, and the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
Located only 40 km from the center of modern Mexico City, Teotihuacan is, in some ways, its predecessor. Today, Teotihuacan is famous for its pre-Columbian pyramids – The pyramid of the sun and the Pyramid of the Moon – which is one of the most popular day trips from Mexico City.
The Teotihuacán civilization was one of the most powerful political, military, cultural, and economic centers in the Americas. It influenced the culture and religion of the whole of Mesoamerica for centuries. At its prime, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the Americas and among the world’s top 10 (maybe 5). It had a population estimated at 125 000 and 200 000 people.
Despite its size and importance, there are many things we don’t know about it, mainly because the city collapsed rather quickly for unknown reasons. Some say weather events, other political riots, and other causes. All we have for sure is that it collapsed and it was burned down, making it even more mystical and mysterious.
What is Mexico City famous for? Museums… lots of Museums. With 170+ museums, Mexico City is sometimes touted as the city with the most museums in the world.
Although this isn’t probably true – as Paris and Moscow both have 250+ museums – it’s unquestionable that Mexico City is filled with museums, many of which are of extraordinary quality.
The Museum National of Anthropology, located in Chapultepec Park, is possibly the best Museum in Mexico City and one of the best in the World. It focuses on the Precolumbian civilizations of Mesoamerica, giving us an extraordinary insight into these people and their culture.
Another well-known Mexico Museum is the Blue House, the house where Frida Khalo was born and died, which takes us to the next thing Mexico City is known for: Frida Khalo.
Frida Khalo is possibly the most famous Mexican artist worldwide. She was born, raised, and died 47 years later in Mexico City. She’s naturally a symbol of the city and the country, so any trip to Mexico City isn’t complete without visiting “Casa Azul” or the Blue House.
Born in 1907, Frida Khalo is mostly known for her self-portraits and works inspired by Mexican culture, nature, and artifacts. She died at only 47 years only and had more than a few traumatic events in her life. Most of her paintings are autobiographical, as she is known for painting about her experiences and, most notably, her chronic pain and suffering.
Frida Khalo was married to another famous Mexican painter, Diego Rivera. The Blue House is now a museum dedicated to both and a shrine to Khalo’s talent and life. Frida Khalo is considered one of the most noticeable painters of the 20th century and an iconic figure of post-realism and surrealism movements.
One of the most famous things in Mexico City is street food. The streets of Mexico City are filled with people selling delicious snacks, both savory and sweet.
You can find almost any kind of typical Mexican street food on the streets and corners of Mexico City. Vendors are almost everywhere and are one of the most famous sights in the city. They are mainly located on commercial streets, near metro station entrances, popular bus and colectivos stops.
Street food stalls sell most of the main popular dishes in Mexico, and the food is usually excellent and at amazing prices. There are few cities where we can find a similar quality diversity at such low prices, and they are mostly located in Asia. Bangkok, Thailand, is a good example.
Some of the most popular street foods one can find in Mexico city include:
- and much, much more.
Now, we reach the part of infamous things about Mexico City. The first thing we have to mention is Pollution, air pollution, to be more specific. Mexico City is heavily associated with extreme air pollution levels, and with reason – the city used to be one of the most polluted in the world. In 1992, the UN even named it the most polluted city in the world.
Today things are a bit different, according to IQAir, Mexico City is only the 917th most polluted city globally. The measures taken by the city administration have been working, and bad air days are much more sparse and less extreme. The concentration of polluting air particles is still above recommended by the UN, but the improvement is astonishing.
So, considering Mexico City a highly polluted city is more and more a thing of the past, despite the huge population, altitude, and valley location.
What’s the other thing Mexico City is infamous for? Criminality obviously. The first thing people asked us when we said we were going to Mexico City was: “be careful” or “isn’t it dangerous?”.
Well, yes and no… it’s complicated. Yes, Mexico City (and the whole country) still has high levels of criminality and violent crimes. However, it is improving, and violent crime is steadily decreasing in the last few years.
Mexico City still has high global levels of criminality; however, it has a relatively low rate of crime than the rest of the country, and it even has lower crime rates than many large American cities. While you should always be aware of your surroundings, avoid a few bad areas, and walk alone at night, nice neighborhoods are quite safe and pleasant to visit. Places like La Condessa, Polanco, and Roma could well be in Western Europe.