Mexico City’s mammoth cathedral was built across three centuries (1573–1813)—starting soon after Cortés and his allies vanquished the Aztec Empire—using stones taken from a destroyed indigenous temple. Today’s sanctuary serves up contrasts between unadorned neoclassical walls alongside exuberant gilt chapels and altarpieces as well as a massive pipe organ, with some baroque elements, that’s still dusted off and played from time to time. Be sure not to miss the high altar, and consider shelling out for a visit to the sacristy, with its glistening dome, grand canvases, and massive cabinets, fit to hold an archbishop’s entire stock of holy utensils. And for a queasy view of how much the ground beneath the city is sinking, note how chandeliers appear to list in comparison to the chapel’s vertical lines.
See Evidence of the Sinking City
All the buildings ringing the Zócalo are worth your time if you love architecture, but if you have to choose just one site among the many here, the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) may prove to be the most interesting. Located right next to the Templo Mayor, an active archaeological site, the Baroque-style cathedral is among the oldest and largest in the Americas, and took nearly 240 years to build. In the late 20th-century, it was added to the World Monuments Fund’s list of 100 most endangered sites in the world, as the foundation of the cathedral was sinking noticeably each year. Though it has since received engineering intervention, it’s evident that the sinking has not been stemmed entirely; just stand in front of the cathedral and you’ll see how it bows and groans beneath its own weight. It’s certainly not the only building in Mexico City that suffers from a shaky foundation; between the city’s dangerously low water table, soft soil, and its considerable seismic activity, sinking is a problem that affects many historical buildings in the capital.
Practice Your Spanish at Mass
You don’t have to be Catholic to sit in on Mass at Mexico City‘s Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral), but if you are, the language-learning opportunities might be easier to take advantage of and might hold more meaning for you. Don’t hesitate to join in on the “Padre Nuestro” (“Lord’s Prayer”) or to offer your hand to your pew mate during the signo de la paz (sign of peace). Be sure to pick up a church bulletin on your way out the door; it will provide additional opportunities for you to test your spiritual vocabulary.
Private Moments of Prayer
You can stop by Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) to admire the architecture (and the fact that the church is even still standing after surviving centuries of earthquakes and unstable ground beneath it) or to attend Mass, but you can also slip into the church and quietly observe how devoted Catholics go about their private offerings of prayer in a fairly public way. Watch the faithful pin milagros on bulletin boards to ask or give thanks for improved health, light candles in front of saints’ statues, leave notes or flowers with requests or praise, or have semi-private confessions in open confessional booths. Others walk the Stations of the Cross or kneel quietly to pray the rosary wherever they can find space in this massive but always busy church. The scene is a moving and memorable one even if you’re not Catholic–or even religious.
Stunning Cathedral in Mexico City
Dominating the Zocalo in Mexico City is the famous Catedral Metropolitana. An overwhelming piece of architecture, collection of paintings, altarpieces, and statues including 14 chapels. Wandering through we noticed the floor was not level and because Mexico is built on an old lake bed we discover the cathedral and the Sagrario (chapel) next to it have sunk into the soft lake bottom. The base of the facade is far from level and straight. Ok - I don’t want to be in there in an earthquake!
Set atop an ancient Aztec site, the spires of the Metropolitan Cathedral can be seen from miles around. Construction began in the 1500’s and it took around two centuries to build. While the building is impressive from any vantage point, it is the overwhelming detail that makes a lasting impression. Admission is free and a guided tour will just scratch the surface of the long history of the place. It still functions as one of the most important Catholic churches so tours are only given after mass each day and no flash photography is allowed.
You could spend days at the Cathedral and still not see all there is to this amazing feat of Colonial architecture. Head to the main altar, check the main altarpiece and the paintings of Baroque master Juan Rodríguez Juárez, and on your way out don’t forget to see the recently restored pipe organs from 1739. In 2013, the Cathedral celebrated its 200-year anniversary.
Oldest and Largest Cathedral in Latin America
Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral is the oldest and largest cathedral in all of Latin America. Begun in the late 16th century, the cathedral is a medley of styles and dominates the city’s huge plaza, the Zócalo.
Exploring Mexico City
You can still enjoy the city and immerse yourself in a little history and culture even if you’re just here for a layover. This was inside the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana). Fun fact: The cathedral is sinking a few inched every year and to counter balance the slant in the architecture, there’s a giant weighted pendulum hanging from the ceiling!