In 1978, local electric company workers digging near Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral made a discovery that would change the city’s urban landscape forever. It was a massive stone disk depicting the dismembered body of the goddess Coyolxauhqui. According to ancient mythology, she was killed and turned into the moon by her brother Huitzilopochtli, the patron deity of the Aztecs.
The finding was incredibly significant because it finally revealed the location of Templo Mayor, the Aztecs’ most important temple, which had long been believed to be buried directly under the Cathedral itself.
Modern-day Mexico City sits upon what was once Lake Texcoco. And on an island within that lake, the Aztecs established their capital city Tenochtitlan, by far the largest and most powerful city in the New World when the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century.
But after defeating the Aztecs in battle, Hernán Cortés and his men razed the city and its temples, while the lake would gradually be drained and filled in over the next several centuries.
Nearly 500 years since being buried and built over by Hernán Cortés and his Conquistadors, remnants of the Aztec Empire continue to defiantly emerge from beneath Mexico City’s surface. To this day, more and more artifacts, monoliths and even temples are being found on a regular basis.
Even without leaving the city limits, visitors to Mexico’s capital can conduct their own archaeological adventure to get closer to the heart of Mesoamerica’s last great native civilization.
All of the locations featured in the following guide are easily accessible using the city’s highly efficient public transport system (see more at the end of the article).
2023 UPDATE: This article was originally published in 2018 based on a 2017 visit. It’s since been updated in 2023 based on another visit to Mexico City in 2022.
The current version of the article not only features revised information and new photos, but it also includes several brand new sites that weren’t featured before.
The Aztecs & Their Rise to Power
The Early Days
The Aztecs’ path to become the most dominant force in Mesoamerica was a long and difficult journey. What came to be known as the Aztec civilization was originally a tribe of people called the Mexicas. The modern name for Mexico was derived from this term.
History and mythology have become too intertwined to accurately trace the true origins of the Mexicas. One place they likely did reside in their earlier years, though, was a place known as Aztlán. This is where we get the term ‘Aztec’ from. While nobody knows Aztlan’s exact location, it was likely somewhere in the northern part of modern-day Mexico, though some speculate it could be as distant as the Southwest United States.
As the legend goes, the Mexica lived under oppressive conditions. Their patron deity Huitzilopochtli told them to wander the land in search of a new home, which would be shown to them in the form of a sign. When the Mexicas arrived near Lake Texcoco sometime in the 11th century, they were far from the most dominant group. In their earlier years they were forced to make tributes to their more powerful neighbors.
One of the earliest places the Mexicas settled is the top of Chapultepec Hill. And sometime at the end of the 13th century, for reasons unknown, they were driven out and resettled at a place called Tizapan, where they honed their agricultural skills. The Mexicas were again driven out from their land after supposedly sacrificing the princess of the Culhua!
After brief stays in places like Chapultepec and Tizapan, the tribe spent some more time as nomads before finally discovering their permanent home – the island of Tenochtitlan. Situated in the middle of Lake Texcoco, the island city was divided up into four sections, likely a mirror of the Mexicas’ cosmological vision. In the center of town they established the Templo Mayor, which grew in size over the centuries as their civilization expanded in power and influence.
Even after establishing their capital, it was still a while before the Mexicas would become the most dominant power in the region. They first gained the favor of more powerful groups through intermarriage and by providing vital military aid, especially to the powerful Tepanec king Tezozomoc.
But after the death of this aged king, relations between the Tepanec and Mexicas began to deteriorate. In the 1420’s, together with the nearby city-state of Texcoco, the Mexicas would wage an all-out war against the Tepanec, coming out victorious. What’s known as the ‘Triple Alliance’ soon formed thereafter, with Tenochtitlan allying itself with two other city states, Texcoco and Tlacopan.
The Aztec ruler known as Itzcoatl then began to aggressively expand his territory, with the Mexicas soon controlling most of central Mexico. His nephew and advisor Tlacaelel would prove to be highly influential in the establishment and expansion of the Aztec Empire. Tlacaelel would go on to advise subsequent kings like Moctezuma I, Tizoc and Ahuitzotl. And by the time of his death in 1487, the Aztec Empire’s territory even stretched as far as the Pacific and Gulf coasts.
Under rulers like Ahuitzotl and Moctezuma II, the empire would reach even greater heights. It was the strongest it had ever been when the Spanish arrived in 1519.
The Sudden Downfall
Though Hernán Cortés and his men were greatly outnumbered, the Mexicas had made countless enemies over the years, and the Spanish were able to garner a lot of help and support from other native tribes. A number of other events, such as taking Moctezuma II hostage in his own palace, and inadvertently introducing smallpox to the native population, also greatly helped the Conquistadors.
Though it had been brewing for a couple of years, an all out war between the Spanish and Aztecs finally erupted in the year 1521. It was a close war, but the superior technology of the Spaniards, combined with an Aztec population greatly weakened by the smallpox epidemic, eventually resulted in a Spanish victory. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, most of the prominent Aztec buildings were toppled and built over, disappearing from the landscape for good. Or did they?
Confusingly, the term ‘Aztec’ is often incorrectly used a blanket term to refer to any of the ancient civilizations that existed in Central Mexico.
The mysterious culture that built the massive pyramids at Teotihuacan, it should be noted, were not the Aztecs. In fact, they built their massive pyramids over a thousand years before the Mexicas rose to prominence.
The Mexicas were apparently just as mystified by these pyramids, along with the Toltec pyramids at Tula, as we are today. These earlier civilizations greatly influenced Aztec culture, religion and of course, architecture.
The site of what we now known as Templo Mayor started off as a small shrine erected in 1390 AD. But as the Mexicas grew in power and as the Aztec Empire expanded its territory, the temple complex and its central pyramid gradually increased in size.
Looking at the site now, it can be hard to believe that the central pyramid of Templo Mayor once stood at nearly 60 meters, or 200 feet high. That’s nearly as high as Teotihuacan’s mammoth Pyramid of the Sun!
The main pyramid is said to have been constructed over the original shrine during the reign of Itzcoatl (1427-1440). Subsequent rulers then continued to build larger pyramids over the existing bases all the way up until the early 16th century.
In total there are seven layers to the main pyramid, although much of its final incarnation was destroyed by the Spanish. Walking around the archaeological site today, it can be rather confusing trying to decipher what you’re really looking at. But thankfully, helpful informational plaques can be found around the area.
Furthermore, the excellent Templo Mayor Museum, located just next to the archaeological site itself, helps visitors decode the structure and symbolism of the temple. And it also houses all sorts of artifacts and offerings discovered at the site and around the former island capital of Tenochtitlan.
From the 1970’s, up until today, more and more artifacts continue to be discovered: figurines, urns, jewelry, ritual offerings and yes, even human sacrificial remains.
In fact, a small additional museum has recently been added to the entrance area, where one can see both new findings and even additional building foundations that have recently been uncovered.
Templo Mayor's notable Features
The central feature of the Templo Mayor was, without a doubt, its central pyramid. Based on the design of earlier Chichimeca pyramids like Tenayuca, the structure was divided into two halves, each with its own towering staircase. One was dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc, and the other to Huitzilopochtli, the Mexicas’ patron diety.
It was on and around this double-pyramid that important religious rites, coronation ceremonies and even human sacrifices took place. Furthermore, the pyramids were placed in such a way that the sun would rise directly between the two top shrines at every equinox.
The Skull Rack
The skull rack, or tzompantli, was where the local rulers display the skulls of their sacrificial victims and war captives. The Aztecs weren’t the first society to use these, as the practice had already been common in Mesoamerica for centuries.
The skulls had holes drilled in them and were connected horizontally to one another with wooden sticks. They were then divided into rows, forming a large wall of skulls. It’s estimated that there were once tens of thousands of skulls on display in Tenochtitlan!
(Note: This picture was taken in 2017, but the skull rack area wasn’t accessible during my recent visit in 2022.)
The Serpent Wall
The center of Tenochtitlan, the Sacred Precinct, was surrounded on all sides by a wall, on top of which was a carving of a large snake. Serpents have long been important symbols in Mesoamerica, not to mention a number of Asian cultures.
Serpent symbology can be attributed to a lot of different things, but in Aztec mythology they’re primarily associated with the earth and fertility. Some serpents at Templo Mayor are also believed to represent the birthplace of Huitzilopochtli, while frog sculptures represent Tlaloc.
Casa de las Aguilas
Known as ‘the House of Eagles’ in English, this enclosed structure is known for its painted reliefs and impressive sculptures. Apparently, this was a place where special rituals took place away from the public eye, in contrast to the open-air pyramid area.
Some of the notable sculptures found here include the underworld god Mictlantecutli (pictured further below) as well as a man dressed in an eagle costume – a representation of Huitzilopochtli, who’s often associated with eagles.
(This area could not be viewed during my recent 2022 visit.)
Prominent Aztec Deities
Huitzilopochtli was the Mexicas’ patron god, and they believed it was he who led to them to their promised land of Tenochtitlan. As the legend goes, the sign they were given was an eagle on a cactus with a serpent in its mouth. Today, this symbol is used on the flag of Mexico.
Huitzilopochtli was the Aztecs’ main god of war and he was also considered to be a solar deity. His mother was the goddess Coatlicue, a deity commonly associated with earth and nature.
As the story goes, Coatlicue suddenly became pregnant after a bundle of feathers fell down on her. Her hundreds of children, which included Coyolxauhqui, were embarrassed and enraged, and plotted to kill their mother.
But Huitzilopochtli emerged from his mother’s womb, already fully grown, and dismembered his sister before she could carry out the plan. He then threw her head into the sky, which became the moon. Meanwhile, the hundreds of other siblings turned into stars.
Tlaloc is the Aztec god of rain. As a corn-growing agricultural society, the Mexicas worshipped Tlaloc in hopes of abundant rain and bountiful crops. But on the other hand, this deity was feared for his ability to bring lightning and floods. It was imperative, then, that Tlaloc be regularly ‘fed’ in the form of offerings.
Tlaloc’s shrine occupied the north, or right half of Templo Mayor’s main pyramid. This half of the pyramid is said to have been painted blue, a color commonly associated with the rain god.
Aside from the main pyramid, various depictions of Tlaloc were found all over the Templo Mayor complex. A number of Tlaloc braziers have been kept in place on site, while a great many more are now in the Templo Mayor Museum.
One disturbing aspect of Tlaloc worship is the use of children as sacrificial victims to appease him. It was likely believed that the spilling of their tears, another symbol of the deity, pleased Tlaloc during rituals. The brazier in the image above was found in the Casa de las Aguilas, and is a somewhat rare depiction of the god himself crying.
Much like in Eastern religions such as Hinduism, the Aztecs were keen on depicting the dualities of nature in their art and myths. The story above about Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui, for instance, represents the interplay between the male and female sides of nature (solar and lunar).
The Aztecs, however, took things way further than mere symbols or stories. The disk pictured to the left was found nearby the Huitzilopochtli pyramid among a number of female skeletons.
This implies that in reenactments of the myth, the female ‘actors’ were likely killed and dismembered in real life before being thrown off the pyramid and onto the disk below.
A similar duality concept is also represented by the deity Tlaltecuhtli, although in this case, in the form of a single god. Among other things, Tlaltecuhtli is representative of both earth and sky as well as night and day. Furthermore, the deity is considered to be both male and female.
The monolith pictured to the right was discovered as recently as 2006, and is believed to date back to the year 1502. It was perhaps used to mark the death of Ahuitzotl, one of the Aztec Empire’s most feared rulers.
Mictecacihuatl / Mictlantecuhtli
The Aztec creation myth details how at the beginning our current era (the fifth sun), Quetzalcoatl and his brother Tezcatlipoca needed to recreate human beings to inhabit the earth once again. But to do so, they needed to descend down into the underworld to retrieve the old bones of humans from eras past.
The bones, however, were tightly guarded by Mictecacihuatl, the queen of the underworld. She only allowed the brothers to take the bones on the condition that all future humans would live mortal lives and eventually come back to her.
After the two gods fulfilled her other strict requirements and managed to take the bones, more deception and trickery ensued, causing the bones to fall and break.
But this was all Quetzalcoatl had to work with. He had no choice but to bring these imperfect bones up from the underworld in order to recreate civilization.
The deities above could be considered the main ones represented around the Templo Mayor complex. But the Aztecs worshipped a great many more. Quetzalcoatl was an important god to the Aztecs and played a major role in their creation myths. The ‘Plumed Serpent’ was also revered by the Mayans, Toltecs and the builders of Teotihuacan.
Coatlicue, the mother of both Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui, is considered to be the main earth goddess. She was evoked in rituals related to agriculture or fertility.
Tezcatlipoca, meanwhile, was the main god worshipped in the Aztecs’ annual Toxcatl ceremony. He was the god of night, magic and obsidian. And Tonatiuh was considered to be the acting sun of our current era, also known as the ‘fifth sun.’
The Templo Mayor Museum
As mentioned and pictured above, the Templo Mayor Museum is located just next to the archaeological ruins. This is where you’ll find many of the important discoveries made during excavations around the area.
And it’s also a great place to learn about Aztec history and religion. Together with the ruins, you can expect to spend at least half a day at Templo Mayor. You may also want to consider a guided tour.
GETTING TO TEMPLO MAYOR: The Templo Mayor complex and museum, along with the Zócalo, National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral, are all located within Mexico City’s Centro Histórico District. The easiest way to get there would be to get off at the Zócalo subway station on Line 2. Of course, depending on where you’re staying, it might be possible to just walk.
More Around Centro Histórico
As one might expect, there are plenty more Aztec remnants throughout Mexico City’s Centro Histórico, the former location of Tenochtitlan. Many of them, however, are far from obvious.
When visiting Templo Mayor, you’ll inevitably encounter the huge Zócalo, or central square of Mexico City – and arguably the nation as a whole.
While there aren’t currently any Aztec monuments in the square itself, it was right here that the most famous Aztec artifact of all was unearthed back in 1790.
The Mystery of the Sun Stone
Ever since its discovery, the enigmatic Sun Stone has become the de facto symbol of the Aztec civilization. You’ll find it depicted on mugs and t-shirts at gift shops all around the country, and it’s even featured on Mexico’s paper currency. There’s still much debate, though, over its original purpose.
As mentioned, the Sun Stone was discovered in the area of the Zócalo, Mexico City’s central square. The Zócalo is situated just next to the Municipal Cathedral, where it was first displayed after its unearthing. It’s now a major highlight of the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park (more below).
The disk was discovered all the way back in the year 1790. That’s nearly two centuries before the Coyolxauhqui disk was found in 1978!
Like the Mayans, the Aztecs had a calendar system which was both very precise and very complex. Parts of the Sun Stone feature aspects of the Aztec calendar, hence its other nickname, the ‘Aztec Calendar Stone.’ But some scholars argue that the disk meant much more, as the Aztec calendar alone could’ve been carved over a much smaller area.
It’s likely that the central message of the disk is to remind people of the mythological story of the ‘four suns,’ or four previous incarnations of the world before our current one.
In each era, various gods took turns being the sun, but for different reasons, humanity faced some kind of calamity and got destroyed. Belief in the story is likely one reason why Aztec rulers were so intent on human sacrifice in order to appease the gods and prevent another calamity.
Though nobody knows for sure, the intimidating face in the center could possibly be Tonatiuh, the current sun of our era. The present and fifth sun, by the way, is prophesied to eventually come to an end at the hand of cataclysmic earthquakes. This is a chilling prophecy, especially considering the string of powerful earthquakes that have struck Mexico City not so long ago.
The size of the Sun Stone is massive, measuring nearly 12 feet in diameter and weighing about 24 tons. Its size has led some to speculate that its original purpose was not to be displayed vertically, but to be placed flat on the ground. Potentially even as a platform for human sacrifice!
The Metropolitan Cathedral
Just next to and visible from the Templo Mayor ruins is the Metropolitan Cathedral. One of the most important landmarks of the city, its history will forever be intertwined with the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, as stones from the pyramid were used in its construction.
The current cathedral is not the original, though, as it was rebuilt starting in the year 1573 after the first one began to sink. For many years, the cathedral was the home of the Aztec Sun Stone which is now kept in the National Museum of Anthropology (more below).
The Ehécatl Temple
The original Templo Mayor complex expanded far beyond what we see at the official archaeological site. And just behind the Metropolitan Cathedral is an unassuming building at which a staircase leads you down into an underground room containing the Temple of Ehécatl.
Ehécatl is another form of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. But as Ehécatl he plays the role of the wind deity. This temple platform stretches out to an impressive 36 m long. And characteristic of Ehécatl temples, one end of the platform is circular.
What’s more, is that there are even remnants of a Mesoamerican ball court nearby!
This is one of several mini sites that the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has dubbed an ‘archaeological window.’
At the time of my visit, entry was free with a Templo Mayor ticket, though the Ehécatl Temple was only open on weekends. This may have already changed, so it’s best to confirm before planning out your visit.
Palacio del Marqués del Apatado
Around the corner is yet another ‘archaeological window’ situated in a building known as the Palacio del Marqués del Apatado.Stepping inside, you’ll find a similar jaguar sculpture to the one situated in the National Museum of Anthropology.
Continuing further, look down and you’ll see the base of an ancient Aztec staircase. Discovered in 1901, archaeologists still aren’t entirely sure what it led to.
Further inside, the building is even home to a small exhibition dedicated to the various ‘archaeological windows’ one can find throughout central Mexico City!
The Gran Basamento of Republica Argentina Street
Just down the street, in the middle of a pedestrian avenue, the next ‘archaeological window’ in the area is quite literally a window. Looking through a layer of protective glass, you’ll see remnants of a large building foundation stretching out to 40 m long.
The National Palace
Moctezuma II, the last independent Aztec ruler, lived in an extravagant palace from where he also carried out administrative duties. But that wasn’t all. The neighboring structures contained opulent private gardens and even a zoo! The premises were said to house ocelots, bears, mountain lions and possibly crocodiles.
Even more odd was the ‘human zoo.’ This portion of the complex was home to albinos and people born with various birth deformities, quite similar to the circus ‘freak shows’ once popular throughout Europe and the United States.
The entire palace complex together was referred to by the Spanish as the ‘New Houses.’ And it was somewhere within the New House complex that Hernán Cortés was invited to stay by Moctezuma II upon his arrival in the city.
It was also here that Cortés and his men held the Aztec ruler hostage, forcing him to rule according to Cortés‘s orders.
Later, after the Spanish succeeded in conquering and razing Tenochtitlan, the rubble of the New Houses were used to construct a brand new palace for Cortés.
The palace as we know it today was largely rebuilt in the 17th century, however. And later on, the Spanish monarchy purchased the palace from the Cortés family, keeping ownership of it until Mexican independence in 1820.
Today, the National Palace is the home of the Federal Treasury as well as Mexico’s president.
Nowadays, the National Palace is perhaps best known by visitors for its large and colorful murals by Diego Rivera. Regardless of your opinions on his political views or personal life, there’s no denying that Rivera played a large part in promoting Mexican indigenous pride at a time when it was largely taboo.
Painted between 1929 and 1951, the murals depict different pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexico. The Aztecs and Tenochtitlan, of course, are also included. The Aztec painting offers an fascinating glimpse of how the city probably would’ve looked from afar.
Off to the side on the ground floor, meanwhile, don’t miss the chance for a peak into the building’s ancient past. Part of an Aztec-era staircase has been found during excavation work near the building.
A number of ritual offerings and ceramics have also been found underneath the National Palace. And the base of the column from the building’s time as the Spanish Viceroy Palace is still clearly evident.
Moctezuma II’s palace complex was very large, though, and most remnants of those buildings have been found elsewhere in the neighborhood. One of the most notable discoveries is part of Moctezuma’s old meditation room which was painted completely black.
Museum of the City of Mexico
Among the Centro Histórico’s many museums is the Museum of the City of Mexico. Contrary to its name, however, the museum doesn’t deal with the history of the city and its Aztec past, but is instead a modern art museum.
The building was originally a palace constructed shortly after the conquest, and largely looks like most colonial buildings from the time period. But with one major exception.
Peculiarly, the corner of the building utilizes a serpent sculpture taken from Templo Mayor! It was perhaps a way for the Spanish elite to celebrate their dominance over the once-mighty Aztecs.
Subway Station Findings
When traversing Mexico City, you may occasionally encounter archaeological findings when you least expect it, like when going to ride the subway. In the Pino Suárez Metro Station, for example, is the fascinating round Pyramid of Ehécatl, dedicated to Quetzalcoatl in his Wind God form.
Today, new discoveries are being made all the time in the subterranean underworld below Mexico City’s surface. From stone disks to ritual offerings to the broken bones of sacrificial victims, remnants of the city’s Aztec past continue to emerge.
Quite appropriately, you can come across all sorts of ancient artifacts on display at many of the city’s subway stations. While not everything on display is necessarily an Aztec relic from the Tenochtitlan region, it’s still a nice touch.
Chapultepec Park, in the western part of the city, acts as a vital lung for such a congested metropolis. Today it’s mainly known for its myriad of museums. Chief among them is the National Museum of Anthropology, which, in addition to the Templo Mayor museum, is one of the best places to learn about the Aztecs.
But Chapultepec Park itself is significant to Aztec history for another reason, as it was one of the original homes of the Mexicas upon their arrival in the region.
Sometime in the 13th century, the Mexicas settled on top of the hill, which today is occupied by the ornate Chapultepec Castle.
One of the reasons for this was the abundance of fresh spring water accessible from the hill. That meant that they could live peacefully at the top without worrying about their water supply getting cut off by rival tribes.
And the hill had also been previously occupied by the Toltecs and Teotihuacanos – two cultures which the Mexicas idolized. While the Mexicas would later be expelled, they would naturally retake the area after asserting their dominance over the Lake Texcoco area and Mesoamerica as a whole.
The Moctezuma Baths
It was at Chapultepec that the Mexica would utilize the brilliant engineering ideas of King Nezahualcóyotl of Texcoco, who managed to build elaborate aqueducts to transport water to his pleasure gardens of Texcotzingo.
Today, visitors to Chapultepec park can see remnants of royal baths established during the reign of Moctezuma I, and later utilized by the final Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II.
The bath was remodeled in modern times, though the stone is said to be completely original. While the gates were locked at the time of my visit, the historical site was still easily visible from the outside.
The National Museum of Anthropolgy
If the 686 hectare Chapultepec Park is known for any one thing, it’s the National Museum of Anthropology. This museum covers not just the Aztecs, but tribes and ancient civilizations from all over Mexico, including the Mayans, Toltecs, Zapotecs and Olmecs.
While the summary of Aztec history covers most of the bases already gone over by the Templo Mayor museum, the Museum of Anthropology is home to some of the most fascinating and important Aztec sculptures, making it a must-visit.
As mentioned above, the most famous among them is the Aztec Sun Stone, but these are of some other notable pieces (You can also learn more in our dedicated guide to the museum):
One significant (and startling) highlight is the statue of the goddess Coatlicue, which was actually found a couple of months before the Sun Stone in the same area.
Standing at 2.7 meters high, the towering statue depicts Coatlicue in one of her fiercer forms as a serpent. Even her skirt is made of snakes!
Another incredible piece is a large stone named after the emperor Tizoc (1481-86) that was found in 1791. It’s a round and very thick disc with a hole in the middle, probably to capture the blood of sacrificial victims. The top section has a design roughly similar to that of the Sun Stone, although much simpler.
GETTING THERE: The most straightforward way to reach the park and its museums would be to take subway line 1 to Chapultepec Station. But you can also take either a subway (line 7) or a bus to Auditorio Station, which is slightly closer to the Anthropology Museum.
The Metrobús is another option, with line 7 taking you to the Antropología stop.
Probably the most obscure destination on this list, El Exconvento de Churubusco is situated in Mexico City’s southern Coyoacán district. As the name suggests, this was originally built as a Catholic convent. So what does it have to do with the Aztecs?
While not obvious just by looking at it, the convent was primarily built using material from a destroyed Aztec temple that once sat on the same site. The temple was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the patron deity of the Aztecs who we covered above. Nowadays, the convent is instead dedicated to Mary.
Supposedly, there are some Aztec relics on display on the first floor, but this section seemed to be blocked off during my visit due to earthquake damage.
Presently, the ex-convent is home to the Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones, or the Interventions Museum, which is dedicated to the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848. During the war, the convent itself was the site of a bloody battle in which the Mexican troops were able to fend off the American forces.
The building is a reminder of how some remnants of the country’s Aztec past might sometimes be hiding right in plain view.
The museum is most easily reachable via General Anaya Station on subway line 2.
When discussing Aztec history, the former capital city of Tenochtitlan gets most of the attention. But Tenochtitlan had a nearby sister city which was fundamental to the rise of the empire.
While Tenochtitlan was the religious and political heart of Aztec society, Tlatelolco long functioned as the main commercial center. It was mainly known for its large market where all sorts of goods, from crops to cacao beans to jade, were traded.
For those with an interest in Aztec history, Tlatelolco is easily the most impressive site on this list after the Templo Mayor ruins themselves.
The relationship between Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, interestingly enough, was not always amicable. Though the city was Mexica, both ethnically and culturally, Tlatelolco also functioned as a semi-autonomous city-state for much of its history. For reasons still unknown, Tenochtitlan waged a war against Tlatelolco in 1473, ending its autonomy once and for all. It’s speculated that the city’s king could’ve at one point staged a rebellion.
Surprisingly, Tlatelolco hardly receives any visitors. But not only is the archaeological site roughly the same size as Templo Mayor, but the ruins of Tlatelolco have a much cleaner look to them. It’s a mystery, then, why these fantastic ruins get so little attention.
After encountering the archaeological site closed during my initial 2017 visit, I managed to make inside in 2022. The impressive site is probably worthy of its own dedicated guide, but what follows is a brief summary.
A tour of the ruins begins with a modest yet informative on-site museum. Heading into the site, visitors will walk along a predesignated route that takes one to all of the main landmarks.
Passing by an ancient temazcal, or steam bath, along with numerous temple platforms, you’ll eventually come around to the southwest corner of the city, home to structures like an Ehécatl temple and the remarkable Calendar Temple.
The Calendar Temple is named as such because its entire perimeter features carved glyphs representing different days of the Aztec calendar. In total there are thirteen – one for each day of the week of the 260-day sacred calendar.
Appropriately, some of the glyphs indicate when the structure was constructed: 1468 AD. And while missing now, archaeologists also discovered an original mural painting depicting Cipactonal and Oxomoco, the mythological inventors of the calendar system.
As at Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco revolved around a main central pyramid. Also featuring twin temples dedicated to the same deities (Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc), visitors will also find numerous broken staircases that indicate the structure’s multiple construction phases (as many as eleven).
Tlatelolco’s main pyramid, in fact, is said to have reached a height of 42 m. That’s somewhat smaller than Templo Mayor but very impressive nonetheless.
The end of your tour will take you to the Convent of Santiago Tlatelolco, a 16th-century church that was very obviously built of stone from the adjacent ruins.
Today, the area is also commonly known as Plaza de las Tres Culturas, as it’s where you can find Aztec, Spanish colonial and post-colonial Mexican architecture.
In modern times, the fascinating history of the ruins is largely overshadowed by a more recent tragedy. In 1968, just weeks before Mexico City hosted the Olympic games, the government and military violently cracked down on a large protest taking place at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Hundreds were killed, and the incident has since been known as the ‘Tlatelolco Massacre.’
Note: Not far from the main ruins, underneath the Plaza Tlatelolco shopping center, is yet another ‘archaeological window’ through which you can see an Ehécatl Temple, much like the one in the historical center.
GETTING THERE: The ruins can be reached by taking subway line 3 to the appropriately named Tlatelolco Station. It’s roughly a 5 – 10 minute walk from the station, but you can use the map at the top of the article to avoid getting lost. Tlatelolco is also a common stop on many public bus routes.
In the southern part of the city, yet still relatively central, is yet another urban archaeological site. While relatively small and largely unknown, the Mixcoac Archaeological Zone was once home to a prominent temple dedicated to the god Mixcóatl.
Mixcóatl was originally a god of the Chichimecas, a semi-nomadic people who came from the north. In Aztec times, he was associated with the Milky Way and was also a protective deity of hunters.
The site was discovered in 1916 under what was thought to have been a manmade hill, and it was first excavated in the 1920s. It’s currently free to enter.
Around the site, you’ll find remnants of a small pyramid, various temple platforms and a ceremonial plaza.
The Mixcoac ruins also feature an on-site museum. While in Spanish only, the information details the history of not just Mixcoac itself, but a summary of the history of urban archaeology in Mexico City.
GETTING THERE: The area is home to a subway station simply known as Mixcoac. The station, however, is about twenty minutes on foot from the ruins. Therefore, Uber may be a better option.
Tenayuca & Santa Cecilia Acatitlan
Situated within the suburb of the same name, Tenayuca is considered to be the best-preserved Aztec temple, as it was one of the few that the Spanish never touched.
Originally established by a Chichimeca tribe in the 12th century, the Aztecs would encounter it upon their arrival in Central Mexico.
It was Tenayuca’s dual temple design, in fact, that would inspire the great pyramids of Tenochtitlan and Tenayuca. And after asserting their dominance over the region, the Aztecs would eventually take over Tenayuca, gradually expanding the pyramid over the years.
Just nearby, meanwhile, is yet another Aztec pyramid known as Santa Cecilia Acatitlan. While we know little about its early history, it was rebuilt decades ago and serves as yet another rare example of intact Aztec architecture.
Both sites are technically just outside the federal district of Mexico City, lying in Mexico state. Tenayuca is, however, accessible via Mexico City’s public transport system, as it’s the northernmost stop on Line 3 of the Metrobús.
Look out for our dedicated guide to learn more about each site in much greater detail.
Mexico City’s public transportation system is excellent, and is arguably the best in all of North America. There are three main ways to get around: subway, regular public bus and metrobus.
You can get nearly everywhere, including all the places mentioned in this article, using the subway alone. Regardless of how far you go, tickets cost a flat fee of 5 pesos.
The Metrobús is a red-colored bus line which runs along its own dedicated lanes on certain parts of the city. If your destination is serviced by these buses, it can be a quick way to get around. The buses require buying their own special card, however, so they’re not the best value if you’re riding once or twice.
Normal public buses are everywhere in Mexico City, and a quick Google search will direct you to the nearest bus stop you need. The buses are somewhat unreliable, though, and sometimes simply won’t come to your stop with zero explanation given.
Uber also works very well in the city, and is a great way to reach the airport.
If you base yourself somewhere in the Centro district, many significant historical sites will likely be within walking distance.
Considering how many Aztec sites there are to see throughout Mexico City, you’re unlikely to find a tour that will cover them all.
To get started, however, you might want to consider a guided tour to Templo Mayor like this one, during which a local expert can explain the various structures and their significance, as well as a history of the Aztec Empire.
Mexico City is an incredibly massive city of nearly 10 million people. And its various tourist attractions are scattered throughout, making choosing where to stay a challenge. But here are a few suggestions to help you decide:
As the name suggests, this is the historical part of the city built by the Spanish. But they constructed it over the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, even filling in the lake around it. As such, it’s the district where you’re going to find most the significant landmarks from both the colonial and pre-Hispanic era.
Just keep in mind that at the time of writing, Line 1 of the subway which runs through this area is down for maintenance.
Those on a stricter budget, meanwhile should consider Hotel Sonno Plaza Allende. Another good budget option is Hotel Costazul, a no-frills hotel which is a fairly easy walk to the Zocalo and Templo Mayor.
The Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, which are adjacent to one another, are widely considered Mexico City’s hippest districts. They’re also hugely popular with foreigners, so it may be a good place to stay if you’re not comfortable speaking Spanish.
On the higher end, Roso Guest House is conveniently located and includes free breakfast.
Other popular neighborhoods include Coyoacán, home to the Frida Kahlo Museum, and just an interesting place to wander around in general. But while worth visiting, it’s not a very convenient base from which to explore the rest of the city.
If you plan on taking a lot of day trips, another good option is to stay near one of the city’s main bus stations. The problem is, however, that the city has no less than FOUR main stations – to the west, north, east and south of the center.
While there’s no perfect option, you could get a head start on visiting Teotihuacan by staying somewhere near the northern station (Autobuses del Norte).
The best way to get to Mexico City from abroad would be to fly. The main Benito Juarez International Airport services flights from all around the world.
Coming from within Mexico, many budget airlines service Toluca International Airport instead. Some cheaper flights from abroad also go to the nearby city of Puebla.
Of course, the capital is reachable from just about everywhere in the country by bus. Just be sure to choose the correct bus terminal (of which there are four) when buying your ticket.