You could easily spend days wandering the streets admiring the tapestry of colorful facades, but if you’re looking for a little more to add to your itinerary, here are my recommendations for the best things to do in Mérida, Mexico.
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Free Things to do in Mérida Mexico
1. A Walking Tour
You can start your visit to the city with a free walking tour of the downtown (centro) which will give you a good idea of the significant areas and help you get your bearings.
There is a municipal tourism office that offers daily walking tours at 10am, or there are other tours that you can book online like GuruWalk. Just be sure to tip your guide at the end.
2. Visit Plaza Grande, the Heart of Mérida
Start your day visiting the heart of Mérida, which is Plaza Grande where you will find the massive cathedral (Catedral de San Ildefonso).
The renaissance-style facade is not only something to marvel at, it is highly significant. It was the first Spanish cathedral built on the mainland Americas.
This park and plaza is the heartbeat of the city and the energy here will get you excited about exploring the best of Mérida.
In the middle of the Plaza, you will find the colorful giant letters that spell out Mérida. This is a popular spot for photos, so here is a travel pro tip: instead of waiting in line, just snap a pic on the backside of the letters.
It will be backwards, but then you can just flip it on your phone or in editing, and no one will be in your photo!
3. Catch Dramatic Views of the Cathedral
While you’re at the Plaza Grande, find some secret spots to catch dramatic views of the cathedral from above. I recommend heading to the second floor balcony of the building called Palacio de Municipal, and you can view the spires of the cathedral, the main square and the colorful Mérida sign below.
And no one goes up there! It’s open Monday to Friday and the walls and corridors are covered in incredible paintings and murals that tell the story of the area.
Plus, on the main floor of the building there is a tourist information office and the staff are very helpful.
4. Learn About the History of Merida at the Governor’s Palace
Another view of the square is at the Palacio de Gobierno building where you can also go up to the second floor balcony. Most of the entrance ways are guarded by municipal police who look a little intimidating but they quickly move aside to let you in.
Upstairs is a massive hall, decorated with historical paintings and gold plated decor that reminds you of a room out of Versailles. Here, there are many plaques where you can learn about the history of Mérida and the Yucatan state.
For instance, the story goes that Commander Francisco de Montejo of Spain initiated the conquest of the Yucatan, but became ill and left it to his son of the same name to finish his business.
He died in Spain, poor and alone while his son completed the conquest and founded the city of Mérida in 1542.
Finally, the Commander’s nephew, Franciso de Montejo who helped with the conquest, now has the most beautiful street named after him, Paseo de Montejo.
Want More Hidden Gems in Mexico? Check out Huatulco, Mexico
5. Visit the Kissing Chairs
Take a break in one of the kissing chairs. Now synoymous with Mérida and many colonial towns in the Yucatan, these white chairs are scattered around parks all over the community.
It’s hard to find the exact origin, but we’ve heard other names for them, including the confidante chairs or a ‘chair for you and me.’
Some tales say they were for young couples in love who were not allowed to snuggle on a bench, as that would be too physically close. But, in these chairs they could look at each other and enjoy a moment, without physically touching.
Others say young lovers would sneak away from their families to sit in the chairs and sneak a kiss as the position of the chairs made it easy to do so.
Either way, whether you’re with your partner, a loved one or a great friend, these white chairs encourage you to slow down and share a moment together.
Santa Lucia Park also has giant versions of these chairs on display. After your photo op, stay for a beverage at one of the restaurants and bars that line the square.
Some evenings they also offer a showcase of the traditional Vaqueria Yucateca, where the men and women dress in traditional flower-adorned white Mayan clothing and dance to a mix of Mayan and Spanish influenced music.
6. Art, Music and Theater
Something you will immediately notice wandering around the downtown are the many theaters located here. From music concerts to live theater, there is no shortage of culture! You can visit the Peon Contreras Theatre (Teatro) for free.
For the largest collection of contemporary art in southeastern Mexico, visit the Museo de Art Contemporaneo (free admission).
On Tuesday nights, head to the Santiago Park for free big band and swing music!
The church in this square is also more unique than the typical cathedrals found around Mérida, as this area was once the nicest neighborhood before the mansions on Montejo street were built.
If you love artsy cities that love showcasing its culture, you will find no shortage of things to do in the capital city of the Yucatan, Mérida.
7. Get Lost, Wander and Find Your Favorite Building
Next, you could spend a whole afternoon or an entire day wandering the streets and admiring and photographing the incredibly colorful buildings and Spanish architecture that envelops the entire city center (Centro).
For the most part, you can pick any street to walk down and there will be a beautiful mix of freshly painted buildings. Each one unique and vibrant. For a few noteworthy (and Instagrammable) areas, check out:
The Blue House, located at Calle 59 and 54
The Pink Barbie Doll Mansion known as El Pinar
Any of the mansions located on Paseo de Montejo
Fun staircases to make you feel like a princess!
P.S. – Want to know how to take better travel photos? Grab a copy of the Lonely Planet’s guide to travel photography and use their insider and practical tips to get amazing shots of the city.
If you’re someone who loves to wander and travel slowly, you could spend days meandering through the streets of Mérida and never get bored.
8. Visit the Golden Yellow Cathedral at Parque San Juan
This park is at the very south end of the Centro area and we found that there are way more locals who hang out here compared to the other squares.
So, if you want an authentic Merida experience, spend some time in this park.
Plus, there’s a local Cantina right across the street where you will be the only tourists, a fun experience!
The main attraction of this square is the cathedral, which can’t be missed.
I know I’ve mentioned this a lot by now, but visiting the parks and plazas and taking a break in the park to people watch was one of my favorite things to do in Mérida, Mexico.
9. See How the Wealthy Used to Live on Paseo de Montejo
This is the street of the once rich and famous of Mérida, as noted by the incredible mansions that line this wide street. It is one of the most beautiful boulevards in Mexico, and rivals the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
And if you’re in town on a Sunday, they close down one side of the street from 8am to Noon to allow bicyclists and pedestrians to enjoy the street up close with out vehicle traffic.
While renting a bike isn’t a free activity, it’s low cost and there are bike rental shops along the boulevard.
10. Shop at the Luca de Galvez Market
If you’re wondering what to buy in Mérida, this place will give you a clue!
From small replicas of the white kissing chairs, to Huipil (the traditional cotton-embroidered tunic), to bejeweled beetles, you will find everything at this market.
For one of the best authentic Mexican markets, you have to spend some time at the Luca de Galvez market. Come hungry, bring your camera, shop for souvenirs and people watch!
While tourists are very much welcome and a big part of the audience of this market, it’s still a huge market tailored to locals, so you can find some really unique items here.
It’s massive and it’s busy, so just let yourself get lost and soak up the energy!
Free Things to Do at Night in Merida Mexico
For free things to do at night in Mérida, basically you just have to head back to any of the park squares and be a part of the energy!
11. Experience a Light Show
On Friday nights, the main Plaza Grande displays a videomapping light and sound show projected against the cathedral at 8:30pm every night.
And when we were in the square on a Friday night, there was a local car show after the light show.
12. Watch Pok Ta Pok
On Saturday nights at 8:30, in front of the cathedral, Pok Ta Pok, a traditional Mayan ball game ceremony takes place (free of charge but tips are recommended after the show).
Be sure to arrive by 8pm to get seats! And when we were in the square on a Friday night, there was a local car show!
13. Outdoor Night Markets
I also recommend visiting Parque de la Madre, one block north on Calle 60, for one of the best outdoor markets we visited in the city. It’s a small square, but it was packed with people and mariachi music!
We loved Caranegra which is a restaurant and bar and turns into a low key nightclub later on in the evening. We went twice and the live DJ was awesome each time! And if you really want to dance the night away, head to La Fundacion Mezcaleria.
Other Essential Things to Do in Merida Mexico
15. Take a Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride Through Downtown!
It will cost you 500 pesos for a 45 minute tour, but it was so much fun! You can try to find an English-speaking guide which is a little more difficult, so we were fine with a Spanish guide as we’re trying to learn the language.
It was a great way to see the city at the beginning of our trip and give our feet a break.
16. Mayan World Museum of Mérida (Gran Museo del Mundo Maya)
If you’re interested in Mayan history, this is an incredible museum, worth a couple hours of your day (plus it’s air conditioned and out of the sun, so it’s a nice break when it gets too hot).
It costs 150 pesos for adults and has thousands of traditional artifacts.
Travel tip: I would recommend avoiding a visit on Sundays, as Yucatan residents receive free admission.
It takes you through the entire history of this complex culture. There are enough English displays, but plenty more in Spanish. Still worth it if you don’t speak Spanish though!
17. Visit the Mansions That Have Now Been Turned into Museums
After walking by any of the old world mansions on Paseo de Montejo, you’ll be dying to know what they are like inside.
My favorite (and if you can only visit one) is to check out the Qunita Montes Molina which was built in the early 1900s by a rich Spanish business man who married a young woman from a wealthy Mayan family.
Visitors can walk in and appreciate the neoclassical design and furniture that is completely original.
The best part is that the house is still owned by descendants of the original family, and they still visit the house from time to time.
They now host weddings in the large courtyard outside as a way to maintain the costs of the house, as all the electrical, plumbing and kitchen is fully functional.
And if you don’t have time to visit the National Mayan Museum, I would recommend stopping in at Palacio Canton, which is now home to the Regional Museum of Anthropology and hosts a wide collection of Mayan artifacts.
18. Take a Traditional Yucatean Cooking Class
After your first meal in Mérida you will be transported to flavor town and will want to eat non stop! After trying a few different regional dishes (and likely some of the best food you have ever tasted), take a cooking class so you can recreate your favorites at home!
In this half day tour you will be brought to a local market (with few tourists) to purchase fresh ingredients for your class.
Then, you will be brought into your hosts’ home, where you prepare a few dishes and learn about the Yucatean and Mayan cuisine, and you get to take the recipes home with you.
Best Things to Eat and Food to try in Merida Mexico
In Mérida, not only will you find tasty authentic Mexican food, they take it one step further and have traditional Yucatean cuisine. It is some of the most flavorful, fresh food I’ve ever enjoyed.
On my next trip to Mérida I will definitely be eating my way through this city!
19. Indulge in Local Yucatean Cuisine
Sopa de Lima (Lime Soup)
This is a must try dish. I recommend ordering it early on in your trip, because you will probably want it with every meal after you try it!
We had delcious Sopa de Lima at El Trapiche and Chaya Maya. I could hazard a guess that it’s tasty and flavorful anywhere you order it. I’ve also heard it’s good at Manjar Blanco.
A simple turkey broth with a twist of lime, shredded turkey, peppers and tortilla chips. Amazing!
This is the most famous Yucatean dish you will see on menus and for good reason. It is pork that is flattened out and then marinated in a soured orange or citrus juice and then grilled on an open fire.
Then it is served with refried beans, picked vegetables, rice, grilled tomatoes, avocado and fresh tortillas.
I had the Poc Chuc at the Chaya Maya, which you will probably read on other blogs is the place to eat in Mérida (that’s why we went there). While it was tasty and they have a cute outdoor courtyard, we had to wait over 30 minutes for a table.
If you’re not a pork fan though, most places will serve chicken as well.
The next night, we stumbled upon Espaciales Maya, only 2 blocks away and it was incredible. Pretty much the same food at the Chaya Maya, no wait to get in and it was cheaper.
We even got to sit in the courtyard this time, as at the CM, there are only a few tables outside, so you only get one if you’re lucky. We had our favorite dinner of the trip at this restaurant.
You will always find gelato in Mexico, and Mérida is no different. Visit Pola Gelato for some of the most unique flavors!
I had cardamom gelato and it was great. Should have went back the next day and tried the blue cheese and apple or the red wine with chocolate and chili (yes these were some of the flavors)!
These are found on street food carts, and Chris and I dubbed them the best ‘drunk people snack’ in the Yucatan.
When everyone leaves the restaurants and the squares around 10 or 11pm, there are dozens of marquesitas carts that come out to feed everyone!
It’s basically a thin, crunchy crepe (thin, flat pancake) that you can fill with different types of spreads or sauces. I had a mix of cream cheese and Nutella and Chris had straight queso (cheese)!
20. Experience a Cantina
One of the coolest parts about visiting Mérida, Mexico is for happy hour at one of the local cantinas! They are everywhere in the centro, but one of the most popular ones is La Negrita.
Complete with entering via saloon swing doors, they serve all kinds of beverages and light fare.
However, part of the cantina experience is that as long as you’re ordering drinks, they bring you free food to snack on! Popcorn with hot sauce, grilled tortillas and sauce, etc.
Eladios is supposed to be another good cantina but we didn’t get a chance to make it there on this trip.
Day Trips From Mérida
Mérida, Mexico is a great hub for day trips to see and experience some of the best attractions of the Yucatan.
However, if you are staying in the downtown, it will likely take a minimum of one-hour to get to attractions outside of the city.
If you are planning any excursions or day trips, just know they will be a full day or at least an entire afternoon to accommodate for travel time.
21. Visit the Best Cenotes of Mexico
While there are defintely some great cenotes close to Cancún and Tulum, Mérida is closer to the highest concentration of cenotes in Mexico.
If you grab a map from any of the tourist information offices, you will notice that Mérida is surrounded by the Cenote Zone, or a half-moon formation that surrounds the area full of cenotes.
This is the perimeter of the crater caused by the massive meteorite that crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula that is believed to have killed the dinosaurs.
Cenotes are freshwater pools located hundreds of feet underground and are all connected through the subterranean river system.
These natural phenomenon are found nowhere else in the world and were considered the entrance to the underworld to the Indigenous Mayan people thousands of years ago.
Each cenote is unique – some appear to be massive sinkholes, others are more cave-like where you enter through a narrow hole in the ground.
Our favorite cenotes to visit near Mérida were in the town of Homún. You can take a bus from Centro, but we missed it, so we took a 45 minute taxi which cost 450 pesos.
From there, you find a moto-taxi and you can ask them to take you to as many cenotes as you want. Try to look for a moto-taxi that is considered a tour guide.
We had time to vist 3 cenotes and we specifically asked to visit some that were less busy and a little more off the beaten path.
As you tour through the area you will notice that there are signs for cenotes everywhere, most of them located on private property and owned by families.
We then took a collectivo back to Mérida, which took about an hour. A collectivo is a 15-passenger van that many locals use as transportation.
Or you could head to the town of Cuzama (1 mile from Homún) and do a 3-cenote tour that takes you by horse and cart to some interesting cenote formations.
This tour includes an authentic homemade lunch and picks you up from your hotel in Mérida so you don’t have to worry about navigating public transport.
(We’re a little more on the adventurous side when we travel, so if you’re not sure about using public transport or which cenotes to visit, there are tons of great tours that make it super easy).
If you plan to visit any cenote, be sure to only wear biodegradeable sunscreen to protect the delicate water, as it is still used as the main source of drinking water in the region.
22. Explore Mayan Ruins
A must on your Merida Mexico to do list is a visit to the ruins.
The Yucatan was one of the most densely populated areas in Mexico with thriving cities everywhere, which we now know by the large amount of ruins in this region.
As the closest ruins, located about an hour south of Mérida, the Uxmal (oosh-mahl) ruins are one of the largest and most significant of the Yucatan. At over 3000 years old, you can wander around not only a cluster of pyramids, but the remnants of entire ancient city.
And if you’re going to visit any Mayan ruins in the area, Uxmal will be a much better experience than Chichén Itzá.
At Uxmal, you will find fewer people and you can still climb the majority of the structures at Uxmal (whereas you cannot do this at Chichén Itzá anymore).
The best way to visit the Uxmal Ruins from Mérida is by tour, as they will pick you up either from your hotel or a meeting point in Centro Mérida.
We also came across another unique tour to Uxmal where you get to cruise around in a vintage Land Rover and see some hard-to-get-to landscapes of the Yucatan!
23. Chocolate Museum
As a bonus, near the entrance to the ruins is the Choco-Story Museum. Not only do you learn everything about how Mayan chocolate is made (and get to make your own), it’s also an open air museum with botanical gardens and a rescue animal sanctuary on site as well.
The Uxmal Ruins and the Choco-Story museum will fill an entire day, but is a great day day trip option from Mérida.
24. Visit the Flamingos at Celestún
About 3 hours west of Mérida is the beach community of Celestún. It is famous for its sunsets and the Flamingo biosphere reserve.
Between December and March is the best time to visit to see the Flamingos that migrate here.
The flamingos here are some of the most vibrant pink and peach in the world because of the high concentration of carotene and minerals found in the water in the Celestún area.
As this is a full day experience, the best way to see flamingos near Mérida is to book a tour, which will include hotel pick up and drop off.
25. Visit Small Colorful Towns Nearby
If you haven’t had your fill of the colorful towns of Mexico, there are a couple worth visiting less than an hour outside of Mérida. The most popular town to visit is called Izamal, also known as the yellow city.
In the mid-90s the entire town was given a fresh coat of yellow paint before the arrival of the Pope.
Today, the yellow is still vibrant throughout town. Plan to spend a couple of hours wandering around and be sure to visit the central square, the convento and to climb the pyramid in the middle of town for the best views.
Or, plan a visit to Acanceh, which is a smaller version of Izamal. And while not all yellow, it’s just as colorful and a little less busy and a slower pace if you want an escape from the sounds of Mérida.
It is small, so you will likely only need about 30 minutes to look around, and you can combine it with your trip to Cuzama or Homun as it is on the way.
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26. Visit the Fortified City of Campeche
Campeche is unique because of its fortified walls built in the 17th century to keep pirates out! Wander around the narrow cobblestone streets and admire more colorful facades!
Where to Stay in Merida Mexico
You will want to pick a hotel or an Airbnb somewhere in the Centro of Mérida (city center). We stayed at Hotel Casa Carmita, which we loved!
It was less than $100 per night (over the Christmas holidays) and included a hot cooked breakfast each morning. There’s an adorable courtyard and it was only about a 7 minute walk to the Plaza Grande (central square).
My other choices about where to stay in Mérida would be: Piedra de Agua for the location, pool and old world colonial charm.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Merida Mexico
Be sure to check out my next post about Mérida, for everything you need to know about visiting this beautiful city.
I talk about where to stay (including Airbnbs), how long you should visit, safety, transportation and getting around and a few other tips to help you decide on your trip.
P.S. Be Sure to Read My 26 Practical Tips for Mexico That I Guarantee You Will Use (at least a few, anyway)!
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