The cathedral has four facades which contain portals flanked with columns and statues. The two bell towers contain a total of 25 bells. The tabernacle, adjacent to the cathedral, contains the baptistery and serves to register the parishioners. There are two large, ornate altars, a sacristy, and a choir in the cathedral. Fourteen of the cathedral's sixteen chapels are open to the public. Each chapel is dedicated to a different saint or saints, and each was sponsored by a religious guild. The chapels contain ornate altars, altarpieces, retablos, paintings, furniture and sculptures. The cathedral is home to two of the largest 18th-century organs in the Americas. There is a crypt underneath the cathedral that holds the remains of many former archbishops.
Over the centuries, the cathedral has suffered damage. A fire in 1962 destroyed a significant part of the cathedral's interior. The restoration work that followed uncovered a number of important documents and artwork that had previously been hidden. Although a solid foundation was built for the cathedral, the soft clay soil it is built on has been a threat to its structural integrity. Dropping water tables and accelerated sinking caused the structure to be added to the World Monuments Fund list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. Reconstruction work beginning in the 1990s stabilized the cathedral and it was removed from the endangered list in 2000.
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the conquistadors decided to build their church on the site of the Templo Mayor of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan to consolidate Spanish power over the newly conquered domain. Hernán Cortés and the other conquistadors used the stones from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli, principal deity of the Aztecs, to build the church. Cortés ordered the original church's construction after he returned from exploring what is now Honduras. Architect Martín de Sepúlveda was the first director of this project from 1524 to 1532. Juan de Zumárraga, the first Bishop of the first See of the New World, established in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, promoted this church's completion. Zumárraga's Cathedral was located in the northeast portion of what is now the cathedral. It had three naves separated by three Tuscan columns. The central roof was ridged with intricate carvings done by Juan Salcedo Espinosa and gilded by Francisco de Zumaya and Andrés de la Concha. The main door was probably of Renaissance style. The choir area had 48 seats made of ayacahuite wood crafted by Adrian Suster and Juan Montaño. However, this church was soon considered inadequate for the growing importance of the capital of New Spain.
In 1544, ecclesiastical authorities in Valladolid ordered the creation of new and more sumptuous cathedral. In 1552, an agreement was reached whereby the cost of the new cathedral would be shared by the Spanish crown, encomenderos and the Indians under the direct authority of the archbishop of New Spain. The cathedral was begun by being built around the existing church in 1573. When enough of the cathedral was built to house basic functions, the original church was demolished to enable construction to continue.