The Best Things to Do in the City of Mérida, Mexico

The Mayan pyramid of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán is a must-visit
The Mayan pyramid of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán is a must-visit | © Bisual Photo / Alamy
Photo of Leon Beckenham
21 September 2021

Dive into a cenote, shop at local markets, and join the fiesta during one of the ebullient annual events in the Yucatán capital.

As well as being the ideal base for exploring the many ancient Mayan sites on the Yucatán peninsula, the city of Mérida itself warrants a closer look. From soaring neoclassical residences to colorful colonial buildings lining grid-like streets, there are eye-pleasing delights around every corner. The region’s cultural and culinary capital lays on fascinating museums and world-class cuisine, too. Add buzzing cantinas and regular festivals, and you’ll always find something to do in the White City – here are our recommendations.

Marvel at extravagant colonial architecture

Building, Museum
Map View
Palacio Canton the Archaeology Museum. Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
© Stefano Paterna / Alamy
Mérida earned its nickname as La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) due to the prevalence of limestone, but most of its buildings today are, in fact, finished in a vibrant palette of pastels and primary colors. Take a stroll down the broad, tree-lined Paseo de Montejo to spy spectacular styles of architecture, from fairytale French Renaissance to flamboyant former art nouveau residences. The Palacio Cantón is a particularly fine example – now home to an anthropology museum.

Sample the heady flavors of the local dining scene

Restaurant, Mexican, $$$
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Lonely tourist in front of a restaurant: in a mostly empty downtown Merida during the Covid19 Pandemic, November 2020 - Many shops being closed and many businesses went out of business because of the Coronavirus restrictions. Merida, Yucatan, Mexico
© Megapress / Alamy
When it comes to Mexican food, many of its distinctive flavors originate from the recipes of the ancient Maya – cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) is a favorite all over the world. So it’s no wonder that Mérida boasts a particularly rich gastronomic heritage and a fabulous dining scene to explore. La Chaya Maya is the place to go for authentic regional cuisine, now with two outposts on Calle 55 and downtown on Calle 62. For a more elevated experience, Kuuk has taken local flavors to dizzy gastronomic heights.

Dance to live music in buzzing cantinas

Bar, Mexican, $$$
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Interior of a Cantina in Merida, Mexico, called La Negrita.
© Adriana Rosas / Alamy
While most party seekers fly into the vacay hotspot of Cancún for the fiesta, Mérida more than holds its own when it comes to after-hours fun. Head downtown, and you’ll find lively cantinas, where the mezcal flows and people dance into the early hours (we especially love the vibe at La Negrita). You can often expect live music at these venues, pumping out everything from rock to reggaeton.

Go shopping at the bustling markets

Market
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Marktstand, Obst und Fruchte, "Mercado Lucas de Galvez", Merida, Yucatan, Mexiko
© Schoening / Alamy
Mérida has long been an important crossroads for trade, reflected most vividly in its markets. Lucas de Galvéz is the must-visit hub, with over 2,000 stalls selling everything from traditional Mayan clothing and curios to the weird and wonderful ingredients that go into Yucatecan cooking. Its cacophonous riot of color and aromas is the best way to fully experience the essence of Yucatán all in one place. For a less overwhelming experience, head to the more orderly Mercado Miguel Alemán. The Mercado Santa Ana is the spot for sizzling street food.

Join the fiesta at one of the annual events

Concert Hall, Museum, Music Venue
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Mexican women dress as a Catrina during Paseo de las Animas (Walk of the souls).
© Sipa US / Alamy
Mexicans like a good party, and Yucatecos are no different. The city kicks off the year in style with Mérida Fest, celebrating the anniversary of its founding through 165 shows, dedicated to dance, theater and music. February sees the Mérida Carnival, one of the biggest street festivals in the country, full of color and costumes, followed by the rather more solemn but still spectacular Semana Santa around Easter. Not to be missed in November is Hanal Pixán, or Food for the Souls, the Mayan version of the Day of the Dead.

Learn about Mayan history at excellent museums

Museum, Ruins
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Gallery with archaeological artifacts and replica of royal  Mayan tomb at Ek Balam, Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, Merida, Yucatan
© John Mitchell / Alamy
With a history as rich as this part of the world, it’s no wonder Mérida has some superb museums. Housed in a rather striking piece of modern architecture, Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is a world-class venue (and an absolute must) dedicated to the history, culture and achievements of the Mayan culture. The city also boasts the Palacio de la Música, with interactive exhibits, where visitors explore Mexico’s musical heritage, while train buffs will love the old engines at the Railway Museum.

Soak up modern art

Art Gallery, Museum
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Ateneo Peninsular, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. Contemporary Art Museum. Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
© Stefano Paterna / Alamy
Right on the zócalo (main square) in the city, you can stroll into the state government palace and gawp at an incredible collection of murals depicting the Mayan civilization, history and conquest. Art lovers should also visit MACAY (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ateneo de Yucatán) – the only museum dedicated to modern art on the Yucatán peninsula. For further insight into Mérida’s contemporary art scene, SoHo Galleries holds exhibitions of established international artists and emerging local talent.

Visit impressive Mayan ruins nearby

Archaeological site
Map View
Temple of Warriors in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
© Valerii Shanin / Alamy
With the Mayan sites of Uxmal and Chichén-Itzá both a few hours away, Mérida is a handy jumping-off point for visiting these archeological gems. But there are some great places even closer worth exploring, too. Just 30 minutes away, Dzibilchaltún is an excellent ancient site with over 8,000 structures and a great little museum. You’ll find the Cenote Xlacah here, too – a natural limestone pool filled with limpid waters and a lovely spot for a refreshing dip.
These recommendations were updated on September 21, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh. This article is an updated version of a story created by Leon Beckenham

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