Merida, also called the white city, is the colorful capital city of the Mexican state of Yucatan.
Rich in historic buildings, cultural events, delicious food and surrounded by the most amazing archeological site and mystical cenotes, there are so many things to do in Merida. In this guide, I will tell you all about it, and more.
So if you are planning to visit Mexico, make sure you include Merida in your itinerary and read this guide to help you find the unmissable things to do in the white city.
Whether you are planning a road trip around Yucatan or are you visiting directly from Cancun I would suggest you stop for at least a couple of days to enjoy Merida to the fullest.
Of course, you could stay a month and never get bored, but if you have a limited time, you can still have a taste of the most important landmarks of Merida in a couple of days.
Either way, you should check out some of the best Airbnb in Merida that I have selected for their gorgeous colonial decor and modern amenities.
Before diving into the best things to do in Merida, you should know that the city, just like the entire Yucatan, has been proclaimed the safest place in Mexico.
Therefore, whether you are a solo traveler or you are traveling with your kids, you can rest assured that you can relax and enjoy the city with little safety concerns. Usually, common sense and the main Mexico safety tips apply when traveling to avoid unpleasant situations.
You will also be happy to know that although Merida is not on the coast, there are many amazing beaches around Merida that you can enjoy. Even if it’s not the Caribbean sea, you will find pretty awesome beach spots. I have checked them all about and I writing a detailed post to share with you.
- A brief history of Merida
- Unmissable things to do in Merida
- Walk around the grand plaza
- Watch Friday night pok-ta-pok game in Plaza Grande
- Take a free walking tour of Merida
- Hang out on the central plaza on a Sunday morning
- Visit the Cathedral of San Ildefonso
- Enjoy the beautiful murals in the Palacio de Gobierno
- Walk along Calle 60
- Enjoy a walk in the elegant Paseo de Montejo
- Visit the local Market Lucas Galvez
- The top Merida museums
- Day trips from Merida
- Tours from Merida
- Where to stay in Merida
- Where to eat in Merida
- How to get to Merida
- How to move around in Merida
- When is the best time to visit Merida?
- Is Merida safe?
A brief history of Merida
Merida was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo junior (or handsome) on the remaining of the ancient Mayan city, called T’hó, which means 5 in the Mayan language.
When Francisco de Montejo arrived he found 5 Mayan temples surrounding a huge plaza and resembling the Roman ruins of the city of Merida in Extremadura, Spain, and therefore he adopted the same name, Merida of Yucatan.
The white stones of the old city have been used to build the new one and you will find some bas-relief mounted on the walls of the new Catholic churches and several other buildings.
You will see the remaining old wall that surrounded the city, built by the criollos to protect themselves from the sporadic revolts of the indigenous Mayans.
In recent times Merida had a huge expansion beyond that wall and you can see the difference in architecture between the old colonial style and its European influences and the modern buildings.
Unmissable things to do in Merida
Walk around the grand plaza
In the pre-hispanic era the main square was the center of the Mayan ceremonies, then of the traditional Spanish bullfights, from which the name Gran plaza and then called “Plaza de la Independencia”.
This is where I would start my visit to Merida.
If you are there during the weekend you will be able to appreciate the local folklore with traditional dance, music, and the so popular Yucatan street food.
Among the most important buildings is the home of Francisco de Montejo, the church, the municipal building with stunning murals, and the Museum of Contemporary art (MACAY), a spectacular example of colonial architecture right beside the church.
Watch Friday night pok-ta-pok game in Plaza Grande
Pok-Ta–Pok, also called Juego de la pelota or ball game, belongs to the ancient Mayan tradition and it was a way of worshipping their gods. You will see the ball game structure in every archeological site you will be visiting (make sure you include one in your Yucatan Itinerary).
The ball game consisted in throwing a ball through a hole that is built in stone on the side of the wall. The ball was a heavy one, made of kauchuk and it was just the size of the hole. Besides, it couldn’t be touched by hand, just tossed by the hips and feet. So, winning was very difficult and at the same time an honor.
In fact, for the Mayan civilization, the ball game was not just entertainment, it was a ritual and a ceremony and the most shocking part is that the winner of the game was the one who was sacrificed as an offering to the gods which was then the highest honor bestowed on a Mayan player.
On some special occasions or for entertaining tourists, the Pok ta Pok is replicated by locals dressed (or undressed) in original Mayan costumes, luckily this time without sacrifice.
And that’s what happens in Merida’s main plaza every Friday night when you can watch the replica of the Pok ta Pok played right in front of the Catedral de Ildefonso.
It’s better if you get there ahead of time to grab the front seat and stay close to the action. It will make you go back in time for a while.
Take a free walking tour of Merida
The free walking tour in Merida is the best way to learn about the most important part of Merida’s history. A local guide will take you around the plaza and the government palace and will also share useful tips on what to visit next.
I find it a great starting point for your visit to Merida.
You don’t need to book. Just show up at the tourist office, located in the municipal building, at 9.30 every day except Sunday.
It only lasts 1 hour but it’s worth it.
The tour is free, therefore a small tip is appreciated. (I would suggest anything from 100 pesos).
Hang out on the central plaza on a Sunday morning
On Sundays, the roads are closed to traffic and the plaza becomes a colorful feast, where young and elderly performers get together and celebrate the day with dances and local music and any kinds of local food is displayed in colorful banquets.
Around the plaza, you will see different interesting buildings, open to the public, and worth a visit as they are all part of the history of the city and the region.
Starting from The Ayuntamiento, previously a one-floor building that served as a slaughterhouse and from 1736 became the palace of “Ayuntamiento” and the second floor was built. You can also have a beautiful view of the plaza and the Catedral de San Ildefonso.
The stairs were made with limestones that contain fossils of shells, and on the first floor, you can see graffiti representing the first “mestizo”.
Looking at the cathedral on the right you will see the opulent entrance of Casa de Montejo, which was the residence of the founder of the city and his family and was sold in 1978 to the national bank of Mexico becoming an art gallery.
Visit the Cathedral of San Ildefonso
The Cathedral of San Ildefonso is considered the oldest cathedral built in Latin America, with a simplistic style typical of the Franciscan order, its walls conserve part of the ancient Mayan stones from the original Mayan temples.
Enjoy the beautiful murals in the Palacio de Gobierno
The Palacio de Gobierno ( Governor palace) is an important piece of history as its wall is painted by the local artist Fernando Pacheco whose art is mainly based on representing Mayan history.
Also from the terrace, you can enjoy great views of the grand plaza and the San Ildefonso Cathedral.
Walk along Calle 60
If you continue to walk along Calle 60 right in front of the Cathedral, you will bump into other interesting historical buildings and little squares, just like the Parque de los hidalgo, the local name of what is officially called Parque Manuel Cepeda from one of the past republican governors.
Here you will see a beautiful luxury boutique hotel, Mansion Merida, which was before the first club of the Yucatan aristocracy, another example of neoclassical architecture.
The restaurant of this hotel is particularly popular for selling “chile (spicy)” ice cream something that doesn’t surprise me as Mexican put “chile” in every kind of meal, even fruit, so why not on ice cream?
Right after, just across the street, you will see the Jesuit Church – El Jesus, also worth a visit, and, if you are passionate about art, at the corner is the Pinacoteca del Estado – Juan Gamboa Guzman.
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Enjoy a walk in the elegant Paseo de Montejo
Paseo Montejo is one of the landmarks in Merida and is named after Francisco de Montejo, the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1542.
The boulevard was built right after the booming henequen period, to mimic the Champs Elysees in Paris and is flanked by trees and several opulent mansions owned by the wealthy Yucatan of the 19th century, some of them now turned into museums and art galleries or offices.
Some houses are on sale, in case you were thinking of moving to the fancy and aristocratic Merida. 🙂
But where all this French fever is coming from? And what provokes such sudden wealth and opulence?
In the 19th century, the Henequen industry had a huge boost by the increasing demand of the so precious and unique natural fiber which caused one side the increasing wealth of the owners of the haciendas where the product was made and on the other side the increasing exploitation of the Mayan peasants treated like slaves, underpaid and subjected to extremely poor living conditions and hard work.
The usual practice, unfortunately… You can check out the full history of the haciendas here.
The new wealthy sent their kids to study in Europe, especially France, and when they returned they brought back with them a new taste and ideas on architecture and style in general.
That’s where the French influence came from.
Also, the French tiles were bought in exchange for the “Palo de Tinte” a local plant that was widely found growing wildly in the nearby jungle and used as a natural dye for fabrics
Those same patrons wouldn’t live in the haciendas, which would be managed by somebody else, while they stayed in their opulent houses newly built in the new stylish Merida, living the life.
I would suggest you should have a walk along the Paseo de Montejo, visit the anthropology museum and maybe have dinner in one of the fancy restaurants or bars.
I also recommend one of the most beautiful boutique hotels in Merida right in the heart of the boulevard, Rosas y Xocholate.
That would be the perfect place for your luxury experience in colonial Merida. If you don’t want to stay there, it would be worth a visit and a lunch or dinner venue.
On Saturday night at the end of Paseo Montejo close to the city center, you will find a lot of stalls selling local art and food and playing music, from 8 pm. It’s a lovely traditional event.
Visit the local Market Lucas Galvez
You didn’t get to know a Mexican city if you haven’t visited the market, the heart, and the soul of a culture. In Merida, there is a great choice of markets for you to enjoy and experience the local life. Lucas Galvez is one of the biggest markets in Merida.
Located just a few blocks from the main plaza, here you can shop for fresh fruit and vegetables but also just observe the local life going by. T
The market has everything you need, from clothing to barbershop, householding tools, handicrafts, and flowers, and of course, the “comedor” cannot be amiss.
That’s an area dedicated completely to street food, where you can find the local authentic Yucatecan food, including the unmissable cochinita pibil.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, you might want to avoid that part as the local cuisine is mainly meat-based. But worry not because nowadays there are more and more vegan options in the city for you and will tell you more about it in a different post.
The market opens early in the morning before 7 and closes around 4 PM.
The top Merida museums
Museum of Contemporary art MACAY
On the same grand plaza, closed to the Cathedral you will find the Museum of modern art MACAY – The interesting building has been constructed to become the archbishop’s palace upon the request of Fray Diego de Landa, at the time Archbishop of Yucatan.
During this time the beautiful palace underwent different refurbishing and changes.
In 1824 was used as the University of secondary teachings and in 1867 it became the College of San Idelfonso.
In 1916 the newly appointed governor Salvador Alvarado demanded the separation from the cathedral and any religious relationship and had it transformed into a neoclassical building with military symbols and European influences.
He was a supporter of liberal ideas and promoter of arts and literature that was accessible to the entire community although he didn’t manage to accomplish his noble purpose and the place went through years of misuse and decadence.
Eventually, the INHA, National Institute of Anthropology and History, took the lead, and finally, with cooperation with private initiatives, it was transformed into a museum of modern art.
Each year, the MACAY Museum in Mérida mounts a new sculpture installation, featuring works from Mexico and one other chosen country. Each exhibit remains for ten months of the year.
Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
If you are interested in the Mayan culture you can’t miss the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. It takes you on an incredible journey through the Mayan civilization, its history, and culture through an interactive digital system of audiovisual and projections.
Location – Calle 60 Norte No. 299 E Unidad Revolución
Entrance fee – 150 MXN / Nationals 100 MXN / Kids 25 MXN
Museo de la ciudad de Mérida
Located in a spectacular historical building the 5 rooms accommodate different pieces related to Merida’s history, culture, and art. It’s an interesting site worth visiting not only for the exposition itself but also for the beautiful architecture of the building.
Calle 56 núm. 529 A Centro Histórico
Las Casas Gemelas
It is also called Montejo 495, which is the actual address of these spectacular homes. Built by a plus awarded french architect Gustave Umbdenstock, they have just opened its door after 110 from their inauguration. You can admire the original building and the elegant architecture and decor.
Open from Thursday through Sunda from 9 am to 5 pm.
Entrance fee 250 MXN / Kids 25 MXN
Museo de la Gastronomia Yucateca
A museum but most of all a restaurant where to try the most authentic dishes of the Ancestral Yucatecan cuisine.
Calle 62 # 466 x 55 y 57 colonia centro 97000 Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico
Day trips from Merida
There is so much to see around Merida that one 2 week vacation is not enough. From Archeological sites to the refreshing cenotes, luxury haciendas, and much more.
Here below are a few suggestions on the places to see around Merida that would make a great day trip if you want to explore further.
- Visit the archaeological site of Uxmal Mayan Ruins, the prettiest archeological site of the Mayan civilization.
- Tour around the Ruta Puuc, with its amazing pre-hispanic sites of the Mayan civilization of the Puuc civilization.
- Drive around the Anillo de los Cenotes (cenote ring) and visit those amazing natural caves and crystalline water lakes in Homun.
- Visit the archaeological site of AKE’ and stop at the Hacienda Ticum for lunch.
- Visit Izamal, the yellow magic town, one of the small towns around Merida that you should visit.
- Spend a day on the beach. Progreso is the closest beach town to Merida at only 1-hour drive. It’s a pretty town with a huge beach and emerald sea. If it’s not too windy it’s ideal for swimming and paddleboarding. If you prefer a more off-the-beaten-path place, you should check out Sisal a newly appointed Pueblo Magico in Yucatan.
Tours from Merida
If you are like me you love doing things by yourself. However, there are some tours that are more valuable than a DYI experience simply because you would need a guide to explain what’s going on and where to go, such as walking tours or cooking classes.
Other times you just don’t want to be bothered and let somebody else do the work. You just sit back and enjoy the ride.
That’s why I have selected some of the tours that are highly rated by the previous guests. So that you can have a great experience as well.
Join a walking food tour around Merida – Read more
Visit the most popular archeological site of Chichen-Itza – Read more
Combine Chichen Itza, a cenote, and the yellow town of Izamal – Read more
Enjoy A cooking class and a market visit with a local guide – Read more
Cuzama Cenote Adventures – Read more
Where to stay in Merida
The city of Merida is brimming with exquisite boutique hotels, hosted in beautiful old colonial homes and offering great options for any budget. Here are some recommendations.
Kuka Y Naranjo
(Mid-range option) – this cute hotel is indeed a cute little gem in the heart of Merida offering great value for money with its nicely decorated modern room in an old colonial building. The staff is lovely and the location is excellent. I stayed there for a couple of nights and I recommend choosing the upstairs suites which are larger and get more light. Read more
La Mission de Fray Diego
(affordable hotel) – La Mission de Fray Diego is a classic in Merida, one of the oldest hotels in a colonial home with high ceilings and vintage furniture. The rooms are situated around a courtyard like the very original mission. Read more
Casa Azul Monumento Historico
If you are willing to splurge why not exaggerate and live in a historical monument. Casa Azul is a luxury hotel a few steps from Paseo Montejo, with spacious opulent rooms decorated in the real colonial style. It may look a little kitsch but it’s a way to revive the old colonial times. Read more
If you are anything like me and you’d rather stay in a home you can check out this list of gorgeous VRBO and Airbnb in Merida, selected for their colonial feel and modern amenities.
Where to eat in Merida
You can find a great variety of culinary options in Merida, and although you may want to try the delicious Yucatan cuisine, if you stay a few days, you will want to change a little and switch to some healthy options or try some international cuisine.
You will find everything in the white city for every taste and diet. Here are some of the best restaurants.
Michaela Mar y Leña – delicious seafood in a cool modern setting. I loved this restaurant!
El Olivo – delicious Italian restaurant
Hacienda Teya – Traditional Mexican cuisine in a beautiful old hacienda
Lo Que Hay cafe- Great healthy food (including vegan options) in the heart of Merida. It has been closed for a while but it’s supposed to open at the end of November 2021.
(more options soon)
How to get to Merida
Getting to Merida is very easy from wherever you are. Being the capital city of the Yucatan state you can get there from any major city and town in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Although I always recommend renting a car in Mexico, especially to explore the Yucatan Peninsula, you can easily get to Merida by bus. ADO connects you either from Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Tulum, or Valladolid, directly to Merida.
How to move around in Merida
If you decided not to rent a car, or even if you did, the best way to move around in Merida is by Uber. Uber drivers are cheaper than taxis and usually kinder and more reliable. Besides, you don’t have to worry about finding a car park which is sometimes time-consuming.
If you decide to drive around Merida, make sure you keep your google map open on your phone and get a local sim card to be able to navigate easily and find your way around.
Also to avoid the hassle of finding a parking space, use one of the parking lots that you find along the way there are a lot, and although they may cost you they spare you the trouble of driving in circles or risking a ticket.
When is the best time to visit Merida?
The best time to visit Merida is winter from December through April when the temperatures are still relatively mild. You can definitely enjoy Merida at any time of the year, but keep in mind that during the summer the heat can be unbearable.
Is Merida safe?
Merida is indeed one of the safest cities in Mexico if not the safest. twice nominated the Latin America cultural Capital is also one of the most friendly cities to travel to, either for solo travelers or families alike. You will also find outstanding Yucatecan hospitality and kindness.