Good for: sightseeing, cultural discovery, National Historic Landmark
Lonely Planet review for Zócalo
The heart of Mexico City is the Plaza de la Constitución, more widely known as the Zócalo, meaning ‘base.’ City residents gave it this nickname in the 19th century, when plans for a major monument to independence went unrealized, leaving only the pedestal. Measuring more than 220m from north to south and 240m from east to west, the Zócalo is one of the world’s largest city squares.
The ceremonial center of Aztec Tenochtitlán, known as the Teocalli, lay immediately northeast of the Zócalo. In the 1520s Cortés paved the plaza with stones from the ruined Teocalli and other Aztec buildings. The Inquisition performed its first auto-da-fe here in 1574. In the 18th century, the Zócalo was given over to a maze of market stalls until it was dismantled by Santa Anna who placed the unfinished independence monument in its center. Under Emperor Maximilian’s reign, the square was redesigned as a European-style garden with tree-lined paths and a gazebo for military-band recitals, but these items were removed in the next century to leave it in its current open state.
Today, the Zócalo is home to Mexico City’s powers-that-be. On its east side is the Palacio Nacional, on the north the Catedral Metropolitana, and on the south the offices of the Distrito Federal government. Jewelry shops and extravagant hotels line the arcade known as the Portal de Mercaderes on the plaza’s west side, once the domain of silversmiths.
The huge Mexican flag flying in the middle of the Zócalo is ceremonially removed from the Palacio Nacional and raised at 8am by soldiers of the Mexican army, then lowered at 6pm.