Veracruz has been a hub for more than 3,000 years. The Olmec thrived here between 1,200 BC and AD 900, though there are few surviving examples of Olmec architecture. Instead, they're best remembered for the massive carved stone heads, a few of which are in the archaeological museum in Xalapa.
The Olmec were replaced by the Totonac, whose last legacy is the city of El Tajín in the northern part of the state, near present-day Papantla. Although you'll see architectural influences from other cultures—notably the Maya—El Tajín is unlike anywhere else. The style is typified by the hundreds of indentations in the Pyramid of the Niches. This city remained powerful until about AD 1200, when it was abandoned. Archaeologists speculate that it had grown too large to support its population.
Later Totonac cities include Cempoala, which was occupied at the time of the Spanish conquest. Its residents, who had been forced to pay tribute to the more powerful Aztecs, formed an alliance with the Spanish and helped them establish their first town in the New World, called La Villa Rica del la Vera Cruz. It was near present-day Veracruz. The Totonac also embraced Catholicism, and by 1523 the Franciscans were preaching to the population.
During the colonial period, which lasted until the early 19th century, Veracruz was the most important port in the New World. Invaders laid siege to the city time and time again. Veracruz is known as the "city four times heroic" because it repeatedly resisted invasion—first the French during the "Pastry War" in 1838, then the Americans during the Mexican-American War in 1847, the French again in 1866, then the Americans again in 1914.