With its towering mountain ranges, lush jungles, and white sand beaches, Mexico is a country full of natural beauty. It’s also boasts more than 126 million people with a rich history, and its ten largest cities by population tell of famous civilizations and changes wrought by conquistadors.
On your next trip to this wonderful North American country, be sure to include time for ones of its beautiful beaches or natural hot springs. There’s nothing like a refreshing soak after a long journey and to unwind from these bustling cities.
Here are the ten biggest cities in Mexico, in order of the highest to lowest populations:
Ciudad de México, MX
Mexico City is the most populated city in North America with about 9.2 million residents as of 2020. The population is continuously growing, given the ever-strengthening economy and warm weather throughout the year. The delicious cuisine is another perk of living in Mexico City, as are cultural traditions such as Día de los Muertos.
Prior to being named Ciudad de México, it was Tenochtitlan, the capital of the great Aztec Empire. It was established in the early 1300s on an island in the now-nonexistent Lake Texcoco. As is the case with most of the cities on this list, Tenochtitlan’s history changed course with the arrival of Spanish explorers. 1521 saw the downfall of the Aztec Empire when the Spanish, under the command of Hernán Cortés, captured Tenochtitlan.
As of 2023, Mexico City is considered a safe and exciting tourist destination with tons to do, including El Palacio de Bellas Artes, a famous art museum and performance hall. Zócalo, the main square of the city—and the former main ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan—is the stage for cultural performances surrounded by grand, historic buildings. The borough of Xochimilco is a World Heritage Site due to remnants of Tenochtitlan.
Tijuana, less than twenty miles from the United States border, has a reputation of being a city for partying and vice. They’ve tried in recent years to portray a more family-friendly image, but this has been hindered by drug trafficking operations. While more than 1.9 million people call Tijuana home, its high homicide rate has resulted in many countries discouraging its citizens from traveling there.
The city lies in a valley surrounded by mountains and bordering the Pacific Ocean. In pre-colonial times, the area was inhabited by the Kumeyaay Indigenous tribe. Spanish explorers arrived in 1542.
The end of the Mexican-American war in 1848 established Tijuana as a border city. It became a tourist destination in the late 1800s, mainly by Californians. Tijuana’s population boomed in the 20th century, mostly from those looking to build factories there.
Ecatepec de Morelos, MX
Located just north of Mexico City in the state of Mexico, in 2020, Ecatepec had a population of 1.64 million. While the state is considered acceptable for visiting, Ecatepec is not. The city’s population increased rapidly, much faster than the infrastructure needed to support it. As a result, poverty and crime are rampant.
The region was populated by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, including the Otomis, Toltecs, and Chichimecas. It eventually fell to the Aztec Empire, before then falling to the Spanish Empire. Ecatepec de Morelos was partially named after José María Morelos, who became a national hero during the Mexican War of Independence for being a leader of the insurgency.
Landmarks of note in Ecatepec are many Catholic churches and cathedrals, including some from colonial times.
León de los Aldama, GJ
León is the largest city in the state of Guanajuato, with a population of 1.72 million in 2020. It’s a city of industry, the predominant of which being its leather that sells to an international market. As of 2023, travel to Guanajuato is not recommended due to crime and kidnappings.
There are many archaeological sites in the region dating back to Mesoamerican times. The Purepecha tribe moved into present-day León in 1530. The Spanish moved in a few years later, creating homesteads that introduced farming and cattle-raising to the area. León suffered through several epidemics, droughts, and floods from the early 17th century to the early 19th century.
A civil war broke out in the mid 1800s between political parties. The losing party called upon the French to intervene and help establish a monarchy in order to replace the winning party’s government. This resulted in the Second Franco-Mexican War.
Puebla de Zaragoza, PU
Typically referred to as simply “Puebla“, this city is the capital of the state of Puebla. It’s home to over 1.6 million people. The annual celebration of Cinco de Mayo originates here, as it was the site of Mexico’s victory over the French in the 1862 Battle of Puebla.
The land that would become Puebla was surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, and the Tlaxcala and Cholula Indigenous settlements. It’s believed that this land was used for the “flower wars,” conflicts initiated by the Aztecs in order to attain human sacrifices. Puebla was founded by the Spanish in 1531 as a connection between Mexico City and Veracruz. It became one of New Spain’s most popular cities due to its location and favorable climate.
The Spaniards were expelled from Puebla during the War of Independence. The city was named a World Heritage Site in 1987 due to its history and architectural styles ranging from Renaissance to Mexican Baroque.
Ciudad Juárez, CI
The Mexican state of Chihuahua borders the U.S. states of Texas and New Mexico. Juárez is Chihuahua’s most populous city, with over 1.5 million residents. It’s a major point of passage between Mexico and the United States, but visiting there is discouraged due to high levels of cartel violence.
Juárez was first known as El Paso Del Norte (the North Pass) when it was founded by Spanish explorers in the 1600s as a passage through the Rocky Mountains. The area’s first inhabitants were the Spanish and the Indigenous peoples they’d brought with them from other parts of Mexico. The late 17th century saw the establishment of missions in Juárez for Indigenous refuges.
After the Mexican-American War, the Rio Grande was established as the border between countries. El Paso del Norte was later renamed after one of Mexico’s most revered presidents, Benito Juárez. The city became a major player in Mexican drug cartels in the 1930s, and as of 2023, Juárez has one of the top homicide rates in the world.
Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, was one of the most important population centers in New Spain. It’s still considered a culturally significant city in the 21st century, and it has over 1.4 million residents. Guadalajara is widely associated with two Mexican icons created in Jalisco: mariachi music and tequila.
The Spanish established the first settlement in Guadalajara when they arrived in the early 1500s. The city was the site of the Mixtón War in the 1540s, a fight between the natives and the Spanish over the latter’s poor treatment of the Indigenous people. Guadalajara was granted cityhood soon after.
The discovery of silver caused the rapid growth of both wealth and population. This boom continued due to colonial migrations and the Industrial Revolution. It was the Mexican Revolution that ultimately slowed Guadalajara’s growth, but only temporarily. Many buildings from the city’s long history are still standing, including Hospicio Cabañas, which was once a large orphanage and hospital.
Part of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area, the city of Zapopan borders Guadalajara city proper. Zapopan had 1.26 million residents as of 2020. While travel to Jalisco state is discouraged due to crime, Zapopan and the surrounding metro area are generally considered safe when sticking to tourist areas and exercising precaution.
Many peoples migrated here from southern Mexico from the 12th to 14th centuries, including Mayans, Zapotecs, and Nahuas. The interaction of these groups and the Aztecs created the Teco people.
During the Mixtón War, a priest carried around a statue of the Virgin Mary, and Catholics say that the statue is what ended the war. Now called the Virgin of Zapopan, the statue was said to have performed many miracles, and Mexican Catholics make the pilgrimage to see the statue annually.
Monterrey is the capital of Nuevo León. Over 1.1 million live in the city proper, and millions more in the metropolitan. It’s one of the most developed cities in Mexico, and is generally considered safe. Those who live in Monterrey cite the rich culture and breathtaking natural environment as top reasons.
The arrival of the Spaniards saw the first permanent settlements established in present-day Monterrey, though cave drawings confirmed it had been previously inhabited by semi-nomadic peoples. The region remained sparsely populated throughout Spanish rule, only becoming an economic center after the War of Independence due to its ties to Mexico, Europe, and the United States.
Monterrey’s population and industry boom came in the 20th century with the introduction of railroads and a steel factory. Much of Monterrey’s allure centers around exploring the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains through hikes, rock climbing, and cave tours. The city also has several museums, including El Museo de Arte Contemporaneo and El Museo de Historia Mexican.
Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, MX
Commonly referred to as “Neza” for short, Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl is about an hour’s drive east of Mexico City, also in the state of Mexico. Its population as of 2020 was 1.07 million.
The land that is now Neza was previously under Lake Texcoco. The drainage of the lake began in the 1500s to help with persistent flooding in Mexico City. The government decided to drain the lake completely after the Mexican-American War, and the process didn’t finish until the 1940s.
The timing coincided with the influx of people to the Mexico City metro area after World War II. Thousands of families began to build homes in Neza before there was any access to electricity or running water. The result is one of the world’s largest shanty towns, unfortunately riddled with high rates of poverty and crime.
Mexico’s history is speckled with misfortune, from numerous wars to the rise of the drug cartels. Still, its fight for independence and to retain its culture should not be forgotten. Hopefully, Mexico’s future allows for the safety of its citizens and more opportunities for outsiders to experience the beauty of the country.