Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor: A Must-See Mexico City Attraction

Artist's depiction of Templo Mayor
An artist’s depiction of Templo Mayor as it would have appeared when the Spanish arrived in Tenochtitlan

The Ruins of a Great Civilization

Located in the heart of Mexico City, Templo Mayor is something of a hidden gem. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors much of Mexico was under the control of the Aztec Empire. The city of Tenochtitlan was at the heart of this massive empire, and with an estimated population of a quarter of a million inhabitants Tenochtitlan would have been one of the largest cities in the world when the Spanish arrived. Today all that remains visible of this vibrant metropolis are the ruins of the city’s great temple – El Templo Mayor.

Model of Templo Mayor within the greater context of Tenochtitlan
A model located outside Templo Mayor depicting the city of Tenochtitlan at the peak of Aztec power.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Just steps from the Mexico City’s Zocalo, the Templo Mayor is extremely accessible. Despite its central location in the heart of Mexico’s capital, Temple Mayor remains almost unknown in comparison to world-renown sites like Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan. For reference Templo Mayor receives about 80 thousand visitors a year compared with Teotihuacan’s 4 million annual visitors.

Templo Mayor’s relative obscurity could be attributed to a of factors:

  • Unearthing the ruins only began in earnest in the 1980s
  • The existing urban landscape that has been built up on top of the ruins has caused considerable delays and opposition to the archeological efforts to uncover more of the site.
  • The partially unearthed ruins don’t have the same wow factor as the iconic pyramids of other sites.
  • The ruins are partially obscured and often overshadowed by other nearby attractions such as the National Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral and the Zocalo itself.
  • The ruins have sunk deep into the former lake-bed upon which the city was constructed, and now lie well below the street level of the modern city
What remains of Templo Mayor today.
What remains of Templo Mayor. Photograph by Mike Peel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Templo Mayor Is A Sight To Be Seen

Although often overlooked by tourists the ruins of the Templo Mayor and the adjoining museum provide a fascinating glimpse into Mexico’s culture, and history – particularly the period immediately preceding the arrival of Hernan Cortes and the resulting fall of the Aztec empire. The temple is positively massive, but because it has sunk below street level and is now surrounded by modern buildings it can be difficult to appreciate the scale. If you pay the fee to enter the museum you will also be permitted to wander the complex, which is the best way to get a sense of the scale. Inside the museum you will be greeted by a large number of artifacts that have been recovered from the site, including an enormous stone disk depicting Coyolxāuhqui, a significant figure in Aztec religion.

Stone disk in the Templo Mayor museum.
A stone disk depicting the dismembered body of Coyolxāuhqui which can be viewed in the museum. Credit: miguelão, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

How To Experience Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor is probably the most accessible archaeological site in Mexico. If you’re staying near the city center take a walk to the Zocalo and follow signs to Templo Mayor, otherwise hop in a cab or take a blue line train to the Zocalo and follow the signs.

The museum is open from 9- 5 Tuesday through Sunday and entrance costs just 80 pesos (about 4 US dollars). Even if you aren’t willing to pay the $4 to get into the museum, much of the excavation is visible from outside, and worth a visit, however the entrance fee is $4 well spent.

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