Visiting Tula in 2021 – the Toltec Capital
About two hours north of Mexico City is the archaeological site of Tula, once the capital city of the Toltec Empire. Four basalt statues of Toltec warriors set on the top of a pyramid are the most striking feature for visitors. And there is so much more to see here, making Tula an enjoyable and highly rated day trip from Mexico City. Easy to achieve yourself, there are also a few options for taking an organised tour.
The archaeological site of Tula is currently closed until 1 June 2021.
The information on this page was last checked and or updated on 16 May 2021.
On top of Pyramid B, the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, four basalt statues of Toltec warriors strike an imposing figure today. These statues were an architectural feature, a carved column, that supported the roof at the top of the pyramid.
What Tula lacks in size and grandeur, as at nearby Teotihuacán, it makes up for in charm and atmosphere. Although a relatively small archaeological site, it is situated on a hill overlooking the Tula Valley and the historic town of Tula de Allende. The views of the archaeological sites and the surrounding area from the top of one of the pyramids, what was the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, are quite something.
But it is standing amongst the huge, dark basalt statues of Toltec warriors, the so-called Atlanteans, that is truly sensational. Making this one of the must visit sites from Mexico City. Many visitors rave about their visit. If there is one negative comment that is repeated, it is that the site is too small to warrant an entire day. And so not the best use of limited time.
There are other attractions in Tula de Allende, these are detailed below. But perhaps the best tip for visiting Tula is to combine it with another site. Either another pre-Hispanic site such as Teotihuacán, or some of the fascinating colonial towns between Mexico City and Tula de Allende. Tepotzotlán and Querétaro are two very obvious choices, with both towns listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A Brief History
Chronologically, Tula sits between the fall of Teotihuacán and the rise of Tenochtitlan. As Teotihuacán was starting to decline around 650 AD Tula was only just getting going. People had been living here since about 400 BC, but it was not until 650 AD that we see evidence for a small settlement, 5 km², with modest public buildings. This is what archaeologists have called Tula Chico, or Small Tula.
Visitors can see some remains of Tula Chico. Not much, however, as the remains of this earlier settlement are overlain by Tula Grande. This later settlement, remains of which are seen in the monumental public architecture, started to develop around 900 AD in the power vacuum left by the collapse of Teotihuacán.
Remnants of the earlier settlement at Tula, known as ‘Chico Tula’. Photograph © AlejandroLinaresGarcia/Wikipedia
Tula reached its peak around 1000 AD, becoming the capital of the Toltec Empire. The city supported a population of an estimated 60,000 people with a further 25,000 in the surrounding area. Tula was the dominant ceremonial centre for an area of at least 1000 km². It was in fact the biggest centre of its time, the city itself measuring some 14 km², but it never reached the size and scale of Teotihuacán.
The history of the site is not well understood, interest in Tula having been overshadowed by other more important and impressive settlements. Early 16th century missionaries found people living here, in a settlement that had already been heavily looted. From what little we do know it seems that Tula was all but abandoned by the mid 12th century. Archaeological evidence suggests the ceremonial centre was destroyed by fire in 1179 AD.
The central, ceremonial plaza as viewed from the top of Pyramid B. To the left of the plaza is the second pyramid, to the right one of the ballcourts. The building with the red roof and white walls is the orientation centre, and the city of Tula de Allende beyond. Photograph © AlejandroLinaresGarcia/Wikimedia
What is There to See at the Archaeological Site of Tula?
Today, visitors to the archaeological site get to see what was the ceremonial centre of Tula Grande, a smaller area of remains relating to the earlier settlement known as Tula Chico, a site museum and the Guadalupe Mastache Orientation Centre.
At the entrance to the site is the Jorge R. Acosta Museum, named after the archaeologist who first excavated here. The exhibits focus specifically on Tula and its history, with a variety of artefacts and objects recovered from the site, such as pottery, metalwork, jewellery, sculpted stone and human remains. The orientation centre also has a few archaeological artefacts, but the focus here is on explaining the site’s importance within the broader history of Mesoamerica.
Although called the ‘Burned Palace’, this was more likely a ceremonial meeting hall.
Visitors are free to wander about the site.
The surviving architectural features of Tula Grande include two pyramids, two ballcourts and several large buildings (one with a series of columns and known as the ‘Burned Palace’), a large, central ceremonial plaza that held an estimated 100,000 people. On three sides of the plaza are the remains of meeting halls with over 1000 meters of benches. It is here you can see beautiful carved stone reliefs depicting warriors and others in procession.
You are able to climb to the top of one of the pyramids, Pyramid B. And it is here that you will find the carved basalt statues. They are called the Atlanteans, recalling the European architectural feature where columns were carved in the form of Atlas. Caryatids being the female precursor of this architectural feature in ancient Greece. This pyramid was the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. The basalt statues at the top were not free standing statues, but rather columns that would have supported a roof.
The four tiered Temple of Quetzalcóatl with the basalt Atlanteans at the top. These columns carved as Toltec warriors would have supported a roof.
One of the Atlanteans at the top of the Temple of Quetzalcóatl.
Where is Tula?
Tula Archaeological Zone is in the town of Tula de Allende, in Hidalgo State of Central Mexico. More specifically, the town is about 75km or 45 miles north of Mexico City. You can see the exact location marked on our interactive map of Mexico that shows the country’s archaeology and history sites and museums.
Of course you will not confuse Mexico’s Tula with the town of the same name in Russia. But Tula is often confused with Tulum in Mexico, a town on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsular with a Mayan archaeological site situated just above the beach.
Visiting Tula Archaeological Zone
The site is open each day of the year: 09h00 – 17h00
Standard entry fee: 75 Mexican Pesos
Children under 13 and adults over 60 do not pay the entry charge.
Visitors who can prove residency in Mexico can enter the site free of charge on Sundays.
Museum, Orientation Centre, Parking
How to Get to Tula?
For those who have a rental car, getting to Tula from Mexico City is an easy journey under two hours (of course depending on where you start in the capital): head north on Highway 57 until you reach the exit for Tula de Allende at the 77 km mark. From the highway the archaeological site is well signposted.
Public Transport to Tula
Taking public transport from Mexico City to Tula is straight forward. There are two regular bus services to Tula from Mexico Terminal Norte bus station. This major bus terminal is at the Autobuses del Norte metro stop on Metro Line 5, the yellow line on maps.
A direct, non-stop service runs every hour. The journey takes an hour and a half and costs about 150 Mexican pesos per person, one way.
For around 20 Mexican pesos less, you have the option of a bus ride that makes a number of stops and takes about 2 hours. This service is much more frequent, every 15 minutes or so.
For the direct service you are able to book a specific date and time of travel. For the cheaper service you can only book a ticket for a specific day/date. Getting on a bus is then subject to availability on that date. As the service runs every 15 minutes, you will not have long to wait. So arrive early at the terminus.
Tickets for both services can be booked online at Ovnibus >>
From the bus station in Tula de Allende you can either walk, take a taxi or a bus to the archaeological site. A taxi will cost you about 40 pesos, a bus a lot cheaper – take a bus that goes in the direction of Actopan, Iturbe or Santa Ana. Walking to the site will only take about 25 minutes. Turn right out of the bus station on Avenida 16 de Septiembre, turn right at Avenida 5 de Mayo and walk north to the bridge crossing the Tula River. Cross the bridge, turn right (the site is signposted ‘Zone Arqueologica’) onto Avenida Xochiquetzal and continue uphill to the ticket office (also signposted – Acceso Peatonal, pedestrian access).
For those who wish to combine a trip to Tula with Tepotzotlán, this is easily done with public transport. Tepotzotlán is only a 25 minute bus ride from México Central Norte bus station.
Day Trips to Tula
For those who would prefer a private, guided tour to Tula, that includes travel to Tula with hotel pick up, there are a few options. As Tula is worth seeing but does not take long to visit, day trip itineraries include other major archaeological and historical sites that are between Mexico City and Tula.
The following day trips can be booked online, in advance with Viator:
Day Trip to Tula and Teotihuacan
Day Trip to Tula and Tepotzotlán
Teotihuacan merits a full day. My choice is Tula and the former 16th century College of San Francisco Javier in Tepotzotlán. One of Mexico’s finest Baroque churches, the college now houses the National Museum of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. More details & book online >>
Day Trip to Tula and Querétaro
Querétaro is one of the most striking colonial cities in Mexico, a UNESCO listed World Heritage site since 1996. The layout and architecture of the city reflects the influence of both Spanish settlers and the local indigenous population. More details & book online >>
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Tips for Visiting Tula
As the site is a bit further from Mexico City than Teotihuacán and with less to see, there are not the crowds of tourists. There is then no need to get here early to avoid the crowds.
There really is no need to worry about buying entry tickets in advance. But having enough cash to pay for your entry is advisable.
An earlier visit is advisable to avoid the heat of the midday sun. The site is situated on top of a hill, and there are few trees. Take water, sun block and a hat.
Comfortable walking shoes are also recommended.
Tula is not a big archaeological site, so 2 hours will be more than enough to see the site and 1 hour for the museum.
What Else Is There to See in Tula de Allende?
Tula de Allende has its origins in a Spanish monastery, established in the 16th century next to the ancient city. Although the modern day town has relied on the archaeological site for tourism, the area has developed significant industrial activities that make it one of Mexico’s fastest growing cities. Because of the pre-Hispanic and colonial history, visitors often choose to stay a night or two and there are a number of highly rated hotels to suit all budgets. Find a hotel in Tula on Booking.com >>
Most visitors start at the archaeological site of Tula. Once you are finished here, you can visit the ruins of Tula’s first church. At the ticket office you turned left up the hill to the Toltec site. Turning right along a dusty path leads you to ruins of the church. Back in town, the Old Railway Station is used to house a history museum. And in the rock shelters of a nearby hill there is a rock art site you can visit. These sites and museums are marked on the interactive map of Mexico.
Catedral de San José de Tula
Originally a convent set up by Franciscans during the Spanish conquest, making this one of the earliest in Mexico. It was elevated from a parish church to a cathedral in 1961. Architecturally with its austere fortress-like appearance, the church is representative of 16th century monasteries in Mexico.
Quetzalcóatl Historical Museum
Across the road from the cathedral and opposite the town’s garden, a building with immense historical significance for locals was turned into a museum in 1998. The museum has both temporary and permanent displays of contemporary art, the archaeology of the Toltecs and local history.
Visiting Mexico? If you are planning a trip to Mexico, check our Mexico Travel Guide for History and Adventure Seekers.