Most people are aware that the largest city in the United States is New York City, a cultural and economic behemoth of the Western world. But there is a still bigger beast to hold the title of largest city in North America: Mexico City, the continent’s biggest metropolis, a bustling, chaotic, and ancient agglomeration that buzzes, full time, south of the border.
Mexico City had its start as Tenochtitlan, founded on an island in Lake Texcoco by the wandering Mexicas, better known as the Aztecs. The Aztecs built a highly organized urban center to match their tightly calibrated class system. From its founding in the 1300s, Tenochtitlan grew to become what was then one of the largest cities in the world, with a population surpassing that of most of Europe’s largest cities. As the center of this advanced imperial civilization, with far-reaching trade relationships throughout the continent, Tenochtitlan laid the foundation for the incomprehensibly large population center we know today.
In November 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first laid eyes upon the Aztecs’ stunning capital. The events that followed comprise a significant and oft-told tale, representative of the first encounters between the Americas’ indigenous peoples and the Spanish newcomers. Having subdued and then allied himself with the Tlaxcalans, another indigenous group in the region, Cortés entered Tenochtitlan to a friendly reception. Cortés met Moctezuma, ruler of the Aztecs, and before long decided to take him captive in hopes of controlling the Aztec Empire through him. Within months, the Aztec people planned to revolt against the Spanish, who, it had become evident, were trying to take hold of and mold Aztec society through a puppet ruler. Over a year of bloodshed followed, in which the Aztec civilization was decimated and Tenochtitlan almost completely destroyed. Mexico City, the capital of New Spain, was eventually founded on these ruins.
Mexico City’s early history alone would be enough to make it a significant attraction. The culturally distinct, economically stratified colonial society that arose in its place only adds to the city’s unique flavor. And for anyone who underestimates Mexico’s broad, diverse appeal, Mexico City is the place to go. Cultural, artistic, and culinary innovation hum through its traffic-clogged streets, weaving in and out of signs of ancient and colonial life. Shopping and nightlife opportunities are unmatched, with high-end options to compete with those of any major world metropolis. Mexico City’s stunning range of retail options extends from sprawling street markets with a wide variety of clothing, media, and electronics, to shops with traditional Mexican pottery and knick knacks, to upscale shopping malls and American retail outlets, to boutiques run and stocked by local designers with a wide variety of truly unique garments and accessories.
Praise for the Mexican nation’s plethora of beaches and high-end resorts, with pleasant and expensive vacation towns to match, could run on endlessly. But there’s plenty more to Mexico than sun and sand. For an exploration of a vibrant culture with ancient roots, Mexico City is the place to start.