Introduction to Geography of Mexico City

Mexico City (Spanish: Ciudad de México), Mexico, the nation's capital and most populous city. Its popular Mexican name is simply Mexico. The city is coextensive with Mexico's Federal District. It is one of the great metropolises of the world and one of the most rapidly growing.

Mexico City lies in a mountain-rimmed basin, called the Valley of Mexico, some 500 miles (800 km) south of the United States border. It is one of the world's loftiest cities; the heart of the city has an elevation of about 7,350 feet (2,240 m) above sea level. It is built largely on land reclaimed by draining and filling old Lake Texcoco, site of Tenoch-titlán, the island capital of the Aztec Empire and the nucleus of the present city.

Along with the dynamic growth of the past several decades have come multiple urban problems. Among them are extremely high unemployment among the millions of new residents, widespread slums, massive traffic congestion, and severe air pollution. An old problem, still unresolved, is the gradual settling of the old lake bed, on which the city is built, and the steady sinking of many buildings.

General Plan

The downtown section lies between Constitution Square and Chapultepec Park—a span of about three miles (4.8 km) northeast-southwest. Its heart is Constitution Square, better known as the Zócalo, which occupies part of the central site and ceremonial center of the Aztec capital. The main business district lies immediately to the west. The Alameda Central, or Alameda, a park dating from colonial times, is in this area.

From the Alameda southwestward to Chapultepec Park runs a two-mile (3.2-km) section of one of the world's most beautiful boulevards, the Paseo de la Reforma. It is a broad, tree-lined thoroughfare, dotted by monuments at traffic circles. Along the Reforma are modern office buildings, foreign embassies, and fashionable shops, hotels, and restaurants.

The western and southern parts of the city contain the main residential sections, the western part being the wealthiest. Industrial districts, poorer residential areas, and slums make up much of the northern and eastern sections.


Mexico City has a diversified economy. Annual industrial production far surpasses that of any other Mexican city in variety, quantity, and value. About 45 per cent of the nation's industrial work force is in the Mexico City area. The city has petroleum refineries, foundries, cement plants, and factories for making chemicals, machinery, automobiles, home appliances, textiles, clothing, foods, and beverages. Many handicrafts are also produced in Mexico City, including jewelry, leather goods, ceramics, and hand-blown glass.

Mexico City is the chief center of Mexican wholesale and retail trade and is the leader in banking, insurance, publishing, and printing. It is also the country's center of radio and television broadcasting and motion picture production. Tourism is an important part of the economy. Virtually all of Mexico's main roads and railways lead to Mexico City. An international airport is located on the eastern edge of the city.

Prominent Places and Buildings

The National Palace and the Cathedral are the outstanding buildings facing the Zócalo. The National Palace, built on the site of Montezuma's palace, was the home of Spanish viceroys for almost 300 years and of Mexican presidents from 1824 to 1884. It now houses presidential and other government offices and contains Mexico's Liberty Bell, the Benito Juárez Museum, and the National Archives. The Cathedral, begun in 1573 and completed in 1813, combines many architectural styles and is one of the oldest and largest churches in the Western Hemisphere. Also on or near the Zócalo are the Supreme Court; the City Hall; the ruins of the Great Temple, an Aztec structure; and an unusual institution, the National Pawnshop (a pawnshop operated by the government).

Chapultepec Park is one of the prime attractions of Mexico City. It covers more than three square miles (8 km 2)and has widely varying recreational and cultural facilities, including a large zoo, landscaped gardens, woodlands, lakes, fountains, monuments, and several museums. Especially notable are Chapultepec Castle and the National Museum of Anthropology, noted for its exhibits of pre-Columbian artifacts.

Across from the Alameda stands the Palace of Fine Arts, which houses an art museum, the National Theater, the Mexican Symphony Orchestra, and the National Folklore Ballet. Nearby is the 44-story Latin American Tower, tallest building in Mexico City. Several blocks northward is the Plaza of the Three Cultures, honoring Mexico's cultural influences, past and present. It combines Aztec ruins, an early Spanish church, and a large housing project of modern Mexican design.

The National Autonomous University of Mexico, located in the southern part of the city, is the largest university in Mexico and the oldest on the continent (1551). Many of its buildings combine modern architecture with exterior murals by prominent Mexican artists. Also on the campus are the 125,000-seat Olympic Stadium and the Cultural Center, which has an art gallery, library, sculpture garden, and concert hall. Nearby is the suburb of Churubusco, site of the National Center of the Arts, which includes schools for the fine arts, music, film, drama, and dance. There are two bullfight rings in Mexico City, one of which, the Plaza Mexico, is the largest in the world. Soccer, the city's most popular sport, is played in Aztec Stadium. At Xochimilco are the famed floating gardens, a complex of island gardens and canals dating from Aztec times.

At Villa de Guadalupe, in the northeastern part of the city, is the most venerated church in all of Mexico, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was built where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared before an Indian man in 1531. Beyond the city's northeastern limits are the massive Indian pyramids of Teotihuacán.


Mexico City is perhaps the oldest city in the Americas. Aztecs and other Indians lived in the area long before the founding of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, in 1325 on an island in Lake Texcoco. By the time the Spanish arrived in 1519 it was a city of at least several hundred thousand inhabitants clustered around a great ceremonial center with pyramids and temples. Hernando Cortez, conqueror of Mexico, nearly destroyed the city during a three-month-long siege in 1521. What remained was ruthlessly razed, and on the site rose Mexico City.

Mexico, then called New Spain, was made a viceroyalty in 1535, with Mexico City the capital. It soon became a city of wealth and the chief center of Spanish culture in the New World. Palaces and churches were built, the first printing press in the Western Hemisphere was established, a university was founded, and the draining of Lake Texcoco was begun. Periodic floods were among the chief scourges of the city during the 300 years of Spanish rule, when Mexico City was still confined to the island.

An independent Mexico came into existence in 1821 after an army led by Agustín de Iturbide took Mexico City. Nearly a century of anarchy, corruption, and frequent revolution followed. There were also brief periods of foreign domination. In 1847, during the Mexican War, Mexico City was occupied by United States forces. It was under the rule of Austrian-born Emperor Maximilian and the French Army, 1865-67. Major city improvements and expansions were undertaken between the 1860's and the early 20th century. Among them were the construction of the Paseo de la Reforma and the completion of a tunnel system draining Lake Texcoco.

Following years of revolution with much fighting in the city, rapid growth began in the 1930's. Mexico City opened its first expressway in the 1960's and its subway system in the 1970's. It was the site of the 1968 Olympics. The city and the federal district were made coextensive in 1972, more than doubling the city's population. A major earthquake hit the city in 1985, killing more than 8,000 people; minor quakes struck in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

Population: 8,591,309.