Mexico City is made up of numerous neighborhoods, each of them with their own distinctive charm: Condesa has its beautiful parks and hip cafes, Coyoacán its countrified atmosphere, Polanco its posh restaurants and expensive shops, just to name a few. It would be hard to choose one over another as each of them has great things to offer.
With such a massive metropolis, you really need a solid Mexico City itinerary to get a feel for the different boroughs.
But one of these neighborhoods is definitely something else: el Centro Histórico or the Historic Center. This area is no ordinary place. Why? Well, I’ll answer this question with a list of five things you need to know about this unique neighborhood.
1. It’s the heir to the capital of the Aztec Empire.
Most of what is now the Historic Center used to be Mexico – Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire. This is why we continue to find the remains of this fallen civilization. Here you can see the remnants of the buildings that once housed the main institutions of the Aztec civilization. The best example being the Huey Teocalli or Main Temple which was, as its name suggests, the most important religious architectural complex. Other neighborhoods of Mexico City are themselves heirs to other prehispanic cities, such as Tlatelolco with its own archeological site, and Tacuba.
2. It was the entire city for the majority of our history.
From its foundation in 1521 by the Spanish conquerors until the second half of the 19th century, Mexico City only covered the area that is now the Historic Center. Beyond these borders, there were only ranches.
Places like Coyoacan or Tepeyac that are now part of the city already existed but were separate towns. This makes the Historic Center a great place to track every historical period of the city. We can retrace the Spanish conquest by looking at the demystified Aztec stones used as regular bricks to build colonial houses and we can still listen to the echo of the nineteenth-century European immigrants in the now out of tune street organs.
Before it started expanding beyond these limits, the city covered an area of six square miles. Now, one hundred and fifty years later, it has expanded to 922 square miles, not counting the metropolitan area.
3. It houses loads of amazing architectonic pieces.
Being the heart of the city, it’s no wonder the Historic Center is riddled with breathtaking buildings of all sorts. There is nothing like standing at the terrace of the Fine Arts Palace, from where we can contemplate not only this marvelous building, but also many others just as beautiful, such as the luxurious Postal Palace, the lovely House of Tiles, the emblematic Latin-American Tower, and, my personal favorite, La Nacional, the very first skyscraper in the city and one of the best examples we have of Art Decó. Beyond these magnificent buildings, there are also the less astonishing, more discreet structures that can really reveal Mexican culture, such as the vecindades (traditional co-living buildings) or the street stands.
4. It’s diverse like no other.
Unlike the rest of the neighborhoods of Mexico City where most people we see there share a common ground, the Historic Center is visited by radically different kinds of people.
High officials and important businessmen have lunch at El Cardenal or at Casino Español, while more middle-class people have tacos and quesadillas from the street stands. We listen to the Lebanese discussing the fabric business in Arabic at República del Salvador street and also Chinese spoken by the owners of the restaurants at what we still call Chinatown (even though it isn’t technically Chinatown anymore). At night, gay clubs at República de Cuba street are jam-packed, just like the anarchist club at República de Chile street and the traditional cantinas of Bolivar street where mariachis play every single day.
5. It’s not dangerous.
More than once, I’ve met travelers who were told to avoid the Historic District because it isn’t safe. Frankly, I don’t share this opinion. I believe that if you are planning on visiting this area, you should be aware of the fact that you’ll be exposed to pickpockets and beggars and homeless that can sometimes be rude, so do take precautions. However, I don’t think this should talk you out of coming to this neighborhood, as by skipping the Historic Center on your visit to Mexico City, you’d be missing one of the most authentic experiences the city has to offer.
Busy, loud, and messy as it is, the Historic Center is not everybody’s cup of tea. Still, I am sure there is not one chilango (person from Mexico City) who wouldn’t agree that be it for its history, its architecture or its people, Mexico City’s Historic Center is the jewel of the city.
Join us on a Spanish Immersion Retreat in Mexico City and get to know it firsthand!