Is This the World's Most Beautiful City?

(It isn't what you expect)

Read time: 5 minutes

The Art Nouveau glasswork of the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México

In the early 1800s, a German explorer nominated an unlikely contender for the most beautiful city in the world — one he christened “the City of Palaces.”

The explorer was Alexander von Humboldt, and the city was Mexico City.

Despite its distance from the center of the Western world and its relatively modest wealth, Humboldt claimed its beauty put it on the world stage — rivaling the very best of Europe. 

So what made it outshine Florence, Paris, and Prague?

And what can it teach us about the development of true culture?

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The City of Gold

The Pyramid of the Sun

Mexico’s palatial architecture long predates its contact with Europe. Some 1,300 years before the Spanish reached American shores, the Toltec Empire constructed the Pyramid of the Sun: a massive ziggurat-like structure whose size overshadows even some of Egypt’s pyramids.

The Aztec empire reached its zenith in the 15th century. At the same time, across the Atlantic, a royal marriage took place that would lead to the end of the great Mesoamerican civilization.

The wedding of Ferdinand and Isabella began Spain’s golden era, which entailed 200 years of exploration, conquest, and strategic alliances that firmly put Spain on the map as a world power. 

When Spanish explorers first set out for America, all of the gold in the entire continent of Europe could have fit into a box of only 6 square feet. In the Americas, however, rich mines of it awaited. When Spanish conquistadors reached the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, the sheer amount of the precious substance dazzled them.

The 1521 Fall of Tenochtitlan

Spanish conquests in the Americas (specifically those of the Aztec and Incan empires) flooded Spain with gold, making it the richest country in the world. But a good portion of this gold eventually made its way back to Mexico — if not in the form of gold bars, in the form of construction and investment.

In particular, 18th-century nobles and settlers furthered development of Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, constructing palatial new buildings that subsequent generations and art movements would continue to adorn. While they differ in style and era, they’re united by dramatic designs, extravagance, and fusion of styles spanning centuries.

Here’s why Mexico City is aptly named the “City of Palaces”…

The Metropolitan Cathedral

Just as the foundations of Tenochtitlan would be repurposed to build Mexico City, Spanish architects built their new Cathedral on the foundations of an Aztec temple — even sourcing its stone from extant Aztec buildings.

Work on the Cathedral began in 1573, but the it would not be completed until 1813. The 250-year construction imparted a unique character to the building because it incorporates all the architectural styles that emerged during its construction, from Gothic to Baroque to Neoclassical. 

The extra-long building time also made the Cathedral an anchor for the developing nation of Mexico. Everyone, from nobles to laborers, contributed to it. Generation after generation helped it rise, and its construction and religious significance brought together artisans, government officials, religious leaders, and common people.

The Altar of the Kings: a Mexican Baroque portal to heaven

The Cathedral’s most distinctive feature is its Altar of the Kings. Exemplifying the Churrigueresque (also known as Spanish Baroque or “Ultra-Baroque”) style, the arched altar is so expansive that it’s almost its own separate room.

Intricate scrollwork spirals up to the vaulted ceiling, embedded with realistic statues of saints and cherub heads. Florid and massive, the altar captures the cathedral’s cultural uniqueness and intensity. 

Palace of Fine Arts

Beaux-Arts, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco — rolled into one.

This building is a fusion of styles that might not exist anywhere else on Earth. It encapsulates the mix of the modern and the classic that makes Mexico City feel so timeless.

Known as the “cathedral of the arts,” the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes) also underwent a long construction: work started in 1904, but architectural and political problems (including a full-blown revolution) delayed completion until 1934. 

In keeping with its delayed completion, the exterior draws on turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau, adding generous curves and organic elements to a neoclassical framework.

But the interior is a different story entirely. It’s like gazing up in something of an Art Deco cathedral: geometric patterns and sharp lines that point to the future…

Gran Hotel Ciudad de México

With work beginning in 1899, the Gran Hotel bridges the divide between Mexico’s colonial and modern eras. In keeping with the Porfiriato-era government’s attempt to stamp out the floridly religious Baroque style, the building shows a neoclassical facade on the side that faces the main city square. 

Beyond its neoclassical exterior though, other aspects of The Gran Hotel are a riot of modernity. Its glass ceiling blazes with Art Nouveau designs, comprising 20,000 separate pieces of Tiffany glass.

Steel forms soaring arches, intricate banisters, and cage elevators — all meant to evoke the railway, with all the excitement, development, and possibility that it implied. 

The City of Palaces, Past and Future

One more: the Postal Palace of Mexico City (1907)

Mexico City’s palaces are astounding for their size, intricacy, and variety. The most incredible aspect of the city’s construction, though, is its history.

Whether by clever construction or accidents of history, these great buildings bring together old styles and new innovations. As a result, Mexico City stays anchored in its storied past while blooming with ambition for the future. 

If the Porfiriato government of Mexico had been successful in mandating universal neoclassical architecture, the city would have missed out on the breathtaking designs that are now an integral part of Mexico’s heritage.

In other words, culture isn’t about trying to freeze the past

Mexico City is an incredible example of true culture: staying rooted in the traditions of the past — even as far back as the Toltec pyramids and exuberant designs of its pre-colonial empires — to inspire the breathtaking palaces of the modern age…

Art of the Week

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, El Greco (1586)

The height of Spain’s golden age brought intense religiosity combined with the florid Ultra-Baroque or Churrigueresque style. El Greco captured these cultural elements in what might be his finest work, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.

It depicts a religious legend from the Spanish town of Orgaz. When the pious mayor died, townspeople reported that saints appeared to bury the Count and escort his soul to Heaven. 

El Greco renders the painting in his signature blocks and wisps of color against a chalky black background. The color palette feels almost crude, but that was the artist’s intent: El Greco prided himself on manipulating simple colors to create a delicate image. 

Like the architecture of Spanish Mexico, El Greco is a link between classical and modern. Despite the traditionally religious subject matter of his paintings, he avoided classical elements like mathematical proportion.

Instead, he focused on conveying intense emotion through subjectivity, giving his paintings — including Count of Orgaz — a dreamlike fluidity that connects them to modern art.


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