Mexico offers a whole lot more than amazing Aztec ruins and a swathe of Spanish colonial churches. Consider, heading off the beaten track to the 7th century Mayan city of Palenque where you can roam the ancient ruins and admire the puzzling hieroglyphic inscriptions. Here are our favourite places to visit in Mexico, some familiar, some new. We hope you'll love them too.
World class museums, numerous archaeological treasures, international cuisine and restaurants, amazing shopping centres, diverse nightlife, charming colonial neighbourhoods, and beautiful gardens and parks – Mexico’s capital really has it all. The city combines years of history with a fast-growing modern urban centre to provide visitors with days of possible activities and sights. Mexico City was originally built by the Aztecs in 1325 on an island in Lake Texococo. Zocalo, the city’s town square and historic heart, stands on the same spot as Montezuma’s palace once stood. The floating gardens of Xochimilco, which have been around for 700 years, still operate today as they did in the Aztec times. But Mexico City is not all about history – today, you can check out a bullfight at Plaza Mexico, a rodeo at Rancho del Charro, an evening of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s famous form of free wrestling, or perhaps a late night Mariachi performance at Garibaldi Plaza. One thing’s for certain – Mexico’s capital will keep you entertained.
Teotihuacan is an enormous UNESCO World Heritage site just outside of Mexico City. Containing some of the largest pyramids built in pre-Columbian Americas, including the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the third largest pyramid in the world, Teotihuacan is rightfully one of Mexico’s most visited sites. The site is known for its large residential complexes, well-preserved colourful murals and the Avenue of the Dead, which was originally 4km long and flanked by temples and palaces. Once a religious and economic centre, Teotihuacan was established in 100BCE. At its zenith, it had a population of 200,000 inhabitants and was the largest city in the world with wide reaching influence throughout the Maya region. No trip to Mexico would be complete without a visit to these spectacular ruins.
This large pre-Columbian archaeological site was built by the Maya civilisation and lies in the Yucatan peninsula. In the Maya language, Chichen Itza means ‘at the mouth of the well of Itza’ and the site features numerous cenotes, a type of well that was the only source of fresh water in the Yucatan jungle. These openings were considered sacred as the Mayans believed them to be the entrance to the underworld. It is believed that human sacrifices were sometimes made to these wells, those who survived thought to be seers. The site also contains the Kukulkan Pyramid, which served as a temple to the god Kukulkan and also as a calendar with as many steps as there are days of the year. In 2007 this pyramid was elected one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The sites origins remain unclear but it is thought that a large Mayan community thrived here between 700AD and 900AD. Chichen Itza was the principal ceremonial centre of Yucatan and the spectacular remains include artistic works and stone monuments that reveal the Maya and Toltec vision of the world and universe. Inside the site, visitors will find the largest ball court in the Maya world where games were once played, temples, plazas and an observatory with an impressive curved inner stairway that resembles a snail.
Surrounded by volcanoes and snow capped mountains, the city of Puebla was founded by the Spanish conquistadors during the 16th century. It was the first city in central Mexico that was not built upon the ruins of a conquered Amerindian settlement, which explains its European appearance. The historic downtown remains a Spanish colonial treasures filled with elegant 17th and 18th century European architecture and art, and baroque edifices. The city is well known for its splendid architecture, including the spectacular cathedral with the tallest towers in Mexico. During the colonial period, Puebla was a principal city due to its strategic location halfway between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City. Nowadays, Puebla offers an excellent blend of pre-Hispanic, Arabic, French and Spanish culture and cuisine, and traditional markets where local artisans sell pottery, bark paper paintings and unique onyx and marble sculptures.
Located in the south west of Mexico, Oaxaca is well known for its native cultures and large number of colonial-era buildings. A world heritage site since 1987, the notable attractions of the city include the main plaza, known as the Zocalo, the state government and federal palace and its imposing cathedral built in 1535. The city also boasts a number of churches and museums, and a large, colourful market that is known for its regional dishes. Oaxaca is considered Mexico’s culinary capital and has a large variety of moles, a complex type of sauce that always contains chilli pepper and on average, over 20 other ingredients. Other attractions would be the verdant mountain landscapes of the Oaxaca valleys, ideal for a range of outdoor activities. The beautiful, vibrant city of Oaxaca is the heart of the region. Its people are highly creative, producing Mexico’s finest range of crafts and art. Surrounded by colourful traditional villages, the city has deep rooted indigenous customs and is characterised by lively fiestas, street performances and spirited street parties.
Located in the central highlands of Mexico, San Cristobal is considered the cultural capital of the state of Chiapas. Situated in a small valley surrounded by hills, the city is a wonderful place to wile away a few days. The centre of the city is still rich in Spanish colonial architecture, highlights including the cathedral, the Santo Domingo church and the large open-air markets where visitors can find an exotic collection of crafts and locally made items. A number of archaeological sites lie nearby and natural attractions include caves, rivers and waterfalls. Mayan villages surround the city and the Mayan influence is strong. Its blend of a peaceful and welcoming atmosphere combined with an artistic and bohemian flair, makes San Cristobal a popular inclusion on any visit to Mexico.
During the 7th century, Palenque was a flourishing Mayan city. Today, its ruins are some of the most impressive examples of Mayan architecture in Central America. Located in southern Mexico, the site contains some of the finest sculpture and bas-relief carvings the Mayans produced. The creative genius of the Mayan civilisation can be seen in the elegance and craftsmanship of Palenque’s expanded interior spaces, multiple openings and use of galleries. Temple summits offer breathtaking views of the flat plains to the north and lush, misty green mountain backdrop to the south. The site’s monuments and the many hieroglyphic inscriptions have provided historians with a long sequence of the ruling dynasty during the 7th century, and extensive knowledge of the city’s rivalry with neighbouring states. The city’s downfall and abandonment happened towards the end of the 10th century with the invasion of coastal people. With a mere 10% of the entire site excavated and more than a thousand structures still covered in jungle, the mystery and intrigue of Palenque will continue to hold strong.