Mexico’s history is as long and wide-ranging as the country itself. Its pre-Hispanic civilisations built some of the world’s greatest archaeological monuments, such as staggering pyramids and Mayan temples. Architecture of the Spanish colonial era is characterised by a number of beautiful towns, tree-shaded plazas, and richly-sculpted stone churches and mansions. Modern Mexico is home to a number of galleries and museums which are heavily influenced by defining artists such as Frida Kahlo.
Here’s our pick of 10 historical sites in Mexico that make for a fantastic visit.
1. Chichen Itza
Stunningly well-preserved and imposingly beautiful, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most impressive historical sites. A UNESCO World Heritage site based in the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is actually made up of two cities built by two peoples, the Mayas and the Toltecs.
The site is made up of several surviving buildings including a circular observatory known as El Caracol, the Warriors’ Temple and El Castillo. Accounts vary as to the date of the first settlement at Chichen Itza, placing it between the 6th and 9th century AD when the Mayas built the original city including “The Building of the Nuns” and a church.
Teotihuacan was a holy Mesoamerican city built in around 400 BC in what is now Mexico and forms one of the country’s oldest archeological sites. Characterised by looming stepped pyramids, one of the most impressive aspects of Teotihuacan is the sheer size of these monuments, including the Pyramid of the Sun, which measures 225 by 222 metres at its base, rising 75 metres high.
Visitors to Teotihuacan can maneuver their way through the city via its original streets, such as Avenue of the Dead, which divided the city into quarters, although take note that the site is absolutely enormous. Today, Teotihuacan is one of the most popular tourist sites in Mexico and includes numerous museums, including the Museo del Sitio where visitors can see various artefacts from the site.
Tulum is a Maya site in Mexico’s Quintana Roo region dating back to between the 13th and 16th centuries. At its peak, Tulum was quite a thriving walled city.
Whilst relatively modest in comparison to, say Chichen Itza, Tulum does feature some interesting and quite well preserved ruins, including its castle, city walls and temples. One of the highlights at Tulum is its Temple of the Frescoes, with some original frescoes inside it. However, the real beauty of Tulum is its shimmering beachside location.
Tenochtitlan was established on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325 AD as the capital city of the Aztecs and, in its final and most prosperous days, was ruled by Motecuhzoma II, also known as Montezuma. The remnants of Tenochtitlan are hard to find as they have been consumed by the development of modern Mexico City.
Those sites which have been excavated, including five temples of which Templo Mayor is one, are protected on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, however there is no single Aztec site to visit. One of the most popular Tenochtitlan sites is Xochimilco. This is more of a beautiful park rather than an archaeological ruin, but features waterways that ran from the Aztec era as well as some flower gardens from that time. Alternatively, see the Templo Mayor entry for a more traditional site.
5. Castillo de Chapultepec
Chapultepec Castle is an eighteenth century building in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park now containing Mexico’s National History Museum.
Within its twelve halls, Mexico’s National History Museum charts the country’s diverse history, from the Pre-Hispanic era through to Spanish colonialism, Mexico’s revolution and its independence. Some of the National History Museum’s most significant exhibitions include the sword wielded by independence fighter José María Morelos in the Siege of Cuautla in 1812 as well as several murals depicting famous battles.
6. Templo Mayor
Templo Mayor was a temple in the capital city of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, in what is now Mexico City. In fact, much of Mexico City was built over Tenochtitlan, but some original sites remain, including the Great Temple, known as Templo Mayor, which was the most important building in the city.
Now a popular tourist site, the site contains a museum filled with Aztec artefacts uncovered during the excavation.
7. San Augustin
The Temple of Saint Augustin, known as Templo y Ex-Convento de San Agustin, is a sixteenth century historic church in the village of Acolman in Mexico.
Now a museum featuring paintings and artefacts, this is a good excursion if you’re visiting the nearby site of Teotihuacan.
Uxmal is an archaeological site in Mexico which houses the ruins of a Maya town thought to have been inhabited as early as 800BC. Having said this, most of the buildings and structures seen at Uxmal today were constructed in between around 700AD to 1000AD.
Uxmal has a series of ceremonial pyramids the most celebrated of which is the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, an impressive 100-foot high monument dating back to the Late Classic Period. Beyond this well-known monument, Uxmal has several other impressive structures and also has a small museum. Organised tours from Merida can last a whole day and include sites such as Kabah. Audio guides are available in several languages for an added fee.
9. El Tepozteco
El Tepozteco is an ancient Aztec temple hidden deep in the western part of Tepoztlan National Park, Mexico. El Tepozteco is a hilltop shrine to the Aztec deity Tepoztecatl made up of two rooms.
Whilst not the most impressive site in Mexico by a long haul, it is a great stop on a hike through the park. Getting to El Tepozteco can be tricky and involves some hiking, although the scenery is beautiful.
10. Mexico National Museum of Anthropology
The Mexico National Museum of Anthropology is a world renowned museum with a large array of archaeological and ethnographic exhibitions, mostly relating to the pre-Hispanic era.
The Museum of Anthropology takes visitors through Mexico’s historic cultures, including the Toltecs, the Maya and the Aztecs. The museum is quite large and too much to take in during the course of a single visit, but it is well organized, allowing history enthusiasts to explore it according to eras. Guided tours also offer a great way to explore the museum and are offered in Spanish, English and French.