Up till recently, Merida didn’t get much love. With the nearest beach being a full 25 miles away, it didn’t quite hit the spot for the sun, sea, and surf crowd. But then Conde Nast Traveler voted it the best small city in the world in 2014 and suddenly, everyone woke up to its attractions. Sure, it’s not got the sea, but what it’s got instead (ancient Mayan ruins, tempting Yucatecan cuisine, breathtaking plazas, and some of the best examples of colonial architecture in the Americas) more than compensates. If you’re planning a visit, these are the 20 best things to do in Merida, Mexico.
20. Take the Carnivalito Bus City Tour
If your feet can’t face another day of sightseeing, take the pressure off by hopping aboard the Carnivalito Bus City Tour. Recommended by hippie-inheels.com as one of the best things to do in Merida, the tours are a great way to pack in a bunch of the city’s top attractions without giving yourself a foot full of blisters in the process. Tours cost just 75 pesos and leave from Santa Lucia at 10 am, 1 pm, 4 pm, and 7 pm daily.
19. Hit the beach at Progreso
If there’s one thing Merida lacks, it’s beaches. But beach-bums needn’t worry too much. Progreso, a cruise ship port with some gorgeous beaches, is just a short hop, skip, and a jump away. It’s a little bit touristy, but there’s enough on offer to make the crowds bearable, including a pristine sweep of white sand, plenty of beachside vendors offering cerveza and ceviche, and picture-perfect views over the ocean. The best way to get there is by bus from Merida’s central station – each way should cost no more than around $1.
18. Explore Zocalo
If you want to soak up some traditional local culture, Merida’s main square is the place to do it. Described by Travel By Mexico as a perfect mixture of present and past, Zocalo sits right in the heart of the city, framed on each side by some of Merida’s most notable buildings, including the San Ildefonso Cathedral, Casa de Montejo, and the Governor’s Palace, all of which are free to visit and worth a few hours of anyone’s time. Once you’ve finished exploring the buildings, grab a picture in front of the famously colorful Merida sign before finding a bench and spending a couple of enjoyable hours people watching.
17. Take a free walking tour
If you want a fabulous (and budget-friendly) introduction to Merida, take the advice of bucketlistbri.com and jump on a free walking tour. The tours leave every morning from the Plaza Grande. Along the way, you’ll be introduced to many of the key sites and attractions around Merida’s center. The guides are full of fascinating facts about the city’s history and culture, so be sure to pump them for information while you get the chance.
16. Visit a hacienda
Haciendas used to be country estates and agricultural centers. Now, they’ve been carefully remodeled into boutique hotels, spas, and restaurants, giving you plenty of opportunities to enjoy their unique beauty during your stay in Merida. The best way to experience their full splendor is to book an overnight stay in one. You’ll not be short of options, but those in the know recommend Hacienda Teya as one of the best. Located around 20 minutes from the center of Merida, it’s one of the oldest in the region, dating all the way back to 1683. Originally a cattle ranch, it now offers guests the chance to stay the night in one of its beautiful baroque buildings. Amenities include a pool, a very luxurious spa, and incredibly lush gardens.
15. Tour the Casa de Montejo
Located on the south side of the Plaza Grande is Casa de Montejo. It was originally intended as barracks for soldiers, but after a while, the soldiers moved out and the Montejo family moved in. Today, it’s home to a bank and a museum, the latter of which houses an exquisite display of Victorian, neo-rococo and neo-renaissance furnishings left over by the Montejos.
14. Ride a bike along Paseo de Montejo
In fairness, you don’t have to tackle Paseo de Montejo on two wheels to enjoy what’s often described as the Mexican equivalent of the Champs-Élysées. If you prefer, you can stroll it, but given how much fun everyone seems to have cycling up and down its length, you may as well rent a bike from one of the two rental shops located just off the Paseo and join in. Studded with historic buildings, chic boutiques, fancy restaurants, and five-star hotels, there’s something to look at every which way you turn.
13. Enjoy a cup of joe at Manifesto
If you’re no good to anyone until you’ve had your morning caffeine fix, head to Manifesto for a cup of something hot, dark, and perfectly smooth. Run by a couple of Italians (which in itself should give you confidence – if there’s one nation that knows a fine espresso when it smells it, it’s Italy), it combines Italian preparation methods with the finest Mexican beans. Just as good as the coffee is the sleek premises, so be sure to order your coffee to stay.
12. Check out the flamingoes at Ria Celestun
If you’re looking to escape the city for a day, hop on a bus to Ria Celestun, a glorious biosphere reserve packed with mangroves, tropical jungle, and pristine beaches. If you’re visiting in winter, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the flocks of pink flamingoes who over-winter there. Although you can arrange to visit the reserve independently, the best way to experience it is on a full-day tour, which usually includes a boat ride through the mangroves, a complimentary lunch, and transportation to and from Merida.
11. Sample some Yucatecan cuisine
While you’re in Merida, it’d be a shame not to fill up on some authentic Yucatecan cuisine. Highlights include Cochinita al pibil, a regional specialty made from slow-cooked pork prepared in a citrus and achiote marinade, and panuchos and salbutes, fried tortillas topped with cheese, beans, and other goodies. If you plan on making a day trip to one of the coastal towns not far from Merida, prepare to enjoy some seafood shack specialties like fried whole fish served with salsa and tortillas.
10. Step into the past
Recommended by the Lonely Planet as one of the best things to do in Merida, Quinta Montes Molina is a living history museum that offers visitors an intriguing window into the opulence of the ‘Oro Verde’ (Green Gold) henequén era. Tours can be arranged from the Casa Museo Montes Molin by appointment. As the only original house of its kind to offer public viewings, it’s an absolute must-visit.
9. Explore the markets
If you want to try re-creating one of the glorious meals you’ve enjoyed at one of Merida’s many fine restaurants, stop by a local food market. They’re packed with goodies to sample and take away, from homemade tortillas to chilies and spices. If you’d rather leave the cooking to someone else, you’ll find plenty of vendors offering cooked dishes like panuchos, elote, and sopa de lima for you to enjoy as you browse the stalls.
8. Go on a shop-a-thon
Merida does retail therapy exceptionally well. Whether you want something luxurious or something fun, something traditional or something tacky, someone, somewhere will be selling it. Casa Tho is the place for chic fashion. For gorgeous homeware items and gifts, head for Casa de Las Artesanias. While you’re browsing, be sure to keep an eye out for some traditional guayabera shirts, which make either a fine gift for family and friends back home or a fine addition to your own wardrobe.
7. Go on a cantina hop
Merida is literally packed with cantinas. If a street doesn’t have at least two to its name, it’s not a street worth knowing about. Obviously, not are all worth visiting, but those that are should be considered a mandatory part of your Mexican adventure. La Negrita Cantina is one of the busiest and most buzzing venues to sample some mezcal, but you shouldn’t miss the 100-year-old El Cardenal Cantina or old-school La Perdida Cantina either.
6. Cool off in the cenotes
Come summer, Merida’s streets are hot enough to fry an egg. It’s not exactly chilly in winter either. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to beat the heat. As Goats on the Road notes, the Yucatan Peninsula is scattered with thousands of cenotes, a kind of natural sinkhole that’s perfect for splashing around in and escaping the blazing sun. You’ll have no trouble finding a watering hole close to the city, with Cascabel, Chaksikin and Pool Cocom being some of the top picks.
5. Admire the architecture
The first group of Spanish conquistadors descended on Yucatan in the 16th century. It didn’t take them long to start making their presence felt. Today, their influence can be seen in many of Merida’s most notable buildings. The Mérida Cathedral, which was built on top of a pile of Mayan ruins, is one of the very first cathedrals to have been built in the Americas. Just around the corner is the former home of one of the first conquistadors of the Yucatán, Francisco de Montejo, which now serves as a living history museum. While those are two of the most significant examples of colonial architecture, the city is literally packed with architectural wonders, giving you plenty of opportunities to check out the period’s impressive facades and glorious use of color.
4. Tour the plazas
As Fodors writes, the heart of each Merida neighborhood is its plaza. Boasting parks, shops, restaurants, markets, live music events, and street performances, they’re the perfect place to soak up some local culture. Plaza Grande is the obvious one, but smaller squares like Plaza Santa Lucia and Santa Ana are equally appealing. Each comes with its own unique vibes, so be sure to pack in as many as your schedule will allow.
3. Explore the ruins of Ruta Puuc
If ruins are your bag, don’t miss checking out the five Mayan ruin sites along the Ruta Puuc. The ruins start at Uxmal before continuing on to Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labna. Most of them are in surprisingly good condition and even include palaces that are still intact enough for you to climb inside and investigate. Tours are easy enough to book from Merida, but it’s also an easy trip to make if you’d rather hire a car and venture out on your own.
2. Tour Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
Merida isn’t short of museums, but if you’re on a tight schedule and can only visit one, make it Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. Home to over 1100 perfectly preserved artifacts (including an extremely funky underground figure with a skull belt and reptile headdress uncovered at Ek’ Balam), it offers a fascinating insight into the history of the region. The building itself is just as impressive as the exhibits: built in 2012, it’s designed in the shape of a ceiba, a sacred tree in Mayan mythology that’s said to connect the living with the underworld below and the heavens above. If you’re around come evening, be sure to check out the free light and sound show held each night.
1. Explore Chichén Itzá
Merida offers more than enough to keep you entertained, but it’d be remiss to overlook the ancient ruins on its outskirts. Yucatan State boasts some of the most well preserved and significant Mayan ruins in Mexico, many of which can be easily reached on a day trip from Merida. One of the most important in the area is the sacred city of Chichén Itzá. The hugely impressive pyramid temple of Kukulcan is the stand-out attraction, but there’s so much to see and explore, you’ll be more than happy you took the 1-hour bus ride to get there.