Chapultepec Castle and Mexico’s National History Museum

A Must-see for History Buffs in Mexico City

Chapultepec Castle. Photo by Christopher Minster

Located in the heart of Mexico City, Chapultepec Castle is a historic site and local landmark. Inhabited since the days of the Aztec Empire, Chapultepec Hill offers a commanding view of the sprawling city. The fortress was the home of legendary Mexican leaders including Emperor Maximilian and Porfirio Diaz and played an important role in the Mexican-American War. Nowadays, the castle is home to the first-rate National Museum of History.

Chapultepec Hill

Chapultepec means “Hill of the Grasshoppers” in Nahuatl and it was an important landmark to the Aztecs who inhabited Tenochtitlan, the ancient city which would one day become the Mexico City of today. The hill was located on an island in Lake Texcoco where the Mexica people made their home: according to legend, the other people of the region did not care for the Mexica and sent them to the island, then known for dangerous insects and animals, but the Mexica ate these pests and made the island their own. There are still some Aztec-era stonecarvings at the base of the hill in the park: if you have a guide, he or she can point them out or you can look for them near the Niños Heroes monument.

Chapultepec Castle

After the fall of the Aztec Empire and the taking of the city by the Spanish, the hill was largely left alone for a long time. One of the Spanish Viceroys, Bernardo de Gálvez, ordered a home built there, but he left and the place was eventually auctioned off.

The hill and assorted structures upon it eventually became the property of the municipality of Mexico City. In 1833, the new nation of Mexico decided to create a military academy there. Many of the older structures of the castle date from this time.

The Mexican-American War and the Hero Children

In 1846, the Mexican-American War broke out.

In 1847, the Americans approached Mexico City from the east, and they needed to take the castle to proceed. Chapultepec was fortified and placed under the command of General Nicolas Bravo, one of Mexico’s better generals. On September 13, 1847, the Americans attacked and secured the fortress. According to legend, six young cadets remained at their posts to fight off the invaders. One of them, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leaped to his death from the castle walls, denying the invaders the honor of removing the flag from the castle. These six young men are immortalized as the Niños Heroes or “Hero Children” of the war. According to modern historians, the story is likely untrue or at least heavily embellished, but the fact is that Mexican cadets did defend the castle bravely during the Siege of Chapultepec.

The Age of Maximilian

In 1864, Maximilian of Austria, a young European Prince of the Habsburg line, became Emperor of Mexico. Although he spoke no Spanish, he was approached by Mexican and French agents who believed that a stable monarchy would be the best thing for Mexico. Maximilian’s rule lasted for three years, when he was captured and executed by forces loyal to Benito Juarez.

During his brief reign, Maximilian resided at Chapultepec Castle, which he had modernized and rebuilt according the European standards of luxury at the time: marble floors, fine furniture, etc. Maximilian also ordered the construction of Paseo de la Reforma, which connects Chapultepec to the National Palace in the center of town.

Other Presidents

In 1876, Porfirio Diaz came to power in Mexico. He, too, took Chapultepec as his official residence. Like Maximilian before him, Porfirio Diaz ordered changes and additions to the castle. Many items from his time are still in the castle, including his bed and the desk on which he signed his resignation as President in 1911. During the Mexican Revolution, various presidents used the castle as an official residence for brief periods, including Francisco I. Madero, Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón.

After the war, other presidents including Plutarco Elias Calles and Abelardo Rodriguez resided there.

Chapultepec Today

In 1939, President Lazaro Cardenas del Rio declared that Chapultepec would henceforth be the home of Mexico’s National History Museum, and it has been so ever since. The museum and castle are very interesting and a popular tourist destination. The museum has several interesting sections. Many of the upper floors and gardens have been restored and are meant to look as they did during the age of Emperor Maximilian or Porfirio Diaz. You will find original beds, furniture, paintings and more, including Maximilian’s fancy coach. The exterior is also renovated: look for the busts of Charlemagne and Napoleon ordered by Maximilian.

Near the entrance to the castle you’ll walk past a massive white monument to the fallen during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. On the grounds near the castle, you’ll find some ancient glyphs carved into the stone during the reign of the Aztecs: one of the rulers mentioned is Montezuma II. Nearby, there is a monument to the 201st Air Squadron, a Mexican air unit which fought on the side of the Allies during World War Two. In the same general area, you’ll find some old water cisterns (Chapultepec was once an important source of fresh water) and a monument to the Hero Children of 1847.

The Museum has several interesting sections, including some pre-Colombian artifacts and displays about ancient cultures of Mexico. Other sections detail important parts of Mexican History, such as independence and the Mexican Revolution. Surprisingly, there is little information about the 1847 Siege of Chapultepec.

There are numerous paintings in the museum, including famous portraits of historical figures such as Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos. The best paintings, however, are the murals: legendary muralists including Juan O’Gorman, Jorge González Camarena, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros created masterpieces here.

Getting to Chapultepec Castle is easy.

Anyone in Mexico City can direct you there, and it’s a major stop on public transportation lines. It’s open daily (except Monday) from 9 to 5. Guides are usually available outside the main entrance: look for the official ones (they have clearly visible credentials hanging around their necks or pinned to their vests) and negotiate a price.