The Top Things to Do on Your First Trip to Merida, Mexico
If you’re planning a trip to Merida, Mexico, you’re bound to see some beautiful, colorful streets and aging – yet stunning – architecture. But there are so many more things to do in Merida than just wandering around the historic city center.
Merida is a crash-course in Yucatecan culture, history, and cuisine. While its 100+ year-old buildings may feel as if they’ve been suspended in time, the city is very much alive and buzzing with events, attractions, and activities that’ll easily fill your itinerary, whether you’re staying in Merida for 3 days or 3 months.
I found Merida to be so much more than charming. The buildings themselves may be old and reminiscent of glory days past, but Merida is a far cry from outdated or quaint.
Here are 12 things to do in Merida during your first visit to get you acquainted with everything this vibrant Yucatecan city has to offer!
RELATED: A 3-Day Guide to Merida, Mexico
The Top Things to Do on Your First Trip to Merida, Mexico
1. Go On a Walking Tour of the City
I usually prefer to explore a new city on more of a self-guided tour, but when I do go on walking tours I always learn way more than I would have if I was wandering around by myself. If you enjoy guided walking tours, Merida is an excellent place to go on one, considering how it’s one of the biggest historic city centers in all of North America.
There are several walking tours you can take, but one that's commonly recommended is the tour provided by the Merida tourism office, located in the Palacio Municipal (next to the Plaza Grande). Their daily walking tour departs every morning at 9:30 am and lasts about an hour and a half. The tour is free, though tips are appreciated, and it’s a great way to get your bearings and start to navigate the cobblestoned, colorful streets.
2. Take in the Sights at the Plaza Grande
Merida’s Plaza Grande is one of the most beautiful, charming zocalos (main plazas) in all of Mexico. It’s well-manicured, with wide promenades and park benches, and there’s several prominent historic buildings surrounding the plaza on all sides, making it a great first stop for first-time visitors to Merida. Plus, the plaza is one of many throughout the entire city that’s equipped with WiFi, so you can check your emails, get directions, or take a call easily!
After you’ve strolled around Plaza Grande and taken a picture with the colorful “Merida” sign, head to the Cathedral of Merida (also known as the San Ildefonso Cathedral). Built on a central site of Mayan ruins from T’ho, the cathedral is the only one in all of the Americas to have been built and completed entirely in the 1500s.
From there, be sure to explore the Governor’s Palace next door. Built in the late 1800s, this rectangular building features gorgeous arches, massive halls, and beautifully ornamented decor that transports you back in time.
3. Stroll, People-Watch, or Bike Ride down Paseo de Montejo
Paseo de Montejo is a gorgeous, 2.3 mile-long boulevard where Merida’s wealthiest residents built their homes at the turn of the 20th century. Reminiscent of the Champs-Elysees in Paris, this grand boulevard is lined with tall trees, lavish mansions, and cute cafes for people-watching.
The history of Merida is actually quite fascinating, and Paseo de Montejo is a prime example of the wealth that flowed into the Yucatán in the late 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to the economic boom caused by the export of henequen. Many of these European-style mansions were proper family homes for Merida’s most elite, with fine china and glassware and marble flooring imported from all over the world.
In addition to mansion-hopping, be sure to also see the Monumento a la Patria, an eye-grabbing monument serving as a symbol of the city’s (and Mexico’s) history. And, once you’ve strolled all the way down Paseo de Montejo, hang out at the Cafeteria Impala for a coffee and some prime people watching.
On Sundays, this boulevard closes from 8 am to 12 pm for La Bici Ruta, a biking and pedestrian event that allows people to experience the grandeur of Paseo de Montejo from a different perspective. Often, you’ll find live music, street vendors, and bicycle rentals lining the streets and the nearby plazas and parks making this truly one of Merida’s must-do experiences!
4. Explore Merida’s Many Markets
Merida is the culture capital of the Yucatán, and for good reason. There’s always something going on here for the local community and visitors to enjoy, and the daily markets are just one example.
Most days, you’ll find live performances and markets at Plaza Grande, Santiago Park, and Santa Lucia Square (just to name a few).
On Saturdays, Paseo de Montejo usually had a big market with live music in the evenings. On Sundays, you might be able to catch Domingo in Merida, a huge market with food, street vendors, performances, and handicrafts.
For a more chill experience akin to a food hall or farmers’ market, check out Lucas de Galvez Market and the Mercado de Santiago and go grocery shopping or pick up a fast bite to eat.
5. Pop Into a Museum For Regional Art, Mayan History, and Anthropology
Because Merida is the cultural capital of the Yucatán, there is a lot of well-preserved history here that is worth your time. Pick one musem, or visit them all!
El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is dedicated to celebrating Mayan history. Here, you’ll find a permanent collection of well-preserved Mayan artifacts. Admission is around $5 - $8 USD for adults.
The Anthropology and History Museum is a museum located inside Palacio Canton on the Paseo de Montejo that features an extensive collection of local Mayan history and anthropology. If you want to explore one of Merida’s iconic century-old mansions and learn more about the history of the area, this is a great place to do it. Admission is around $2 - 4 USD for adults.
The City Museum of Merida is housed in a historic 100-year-old building that was inaugurated by the governor of Merida in the early 1900s. It’s free to enter.
El Museo Fernando Garcia Ponce Macay features permanent exhibitions from Yucatecan artists and visiting exhibits from throughout Mexico. A must-visit if you enjoy contemporary art and local makers! Admission is free here as well.
Quinta Montes Molina, mentioned earlier, is a museum located inside a mansion on Paseo de Montejo. The residence is still owned by the same family and features all the opulence you could possibly imagine – original European furniture, Italian crystal, French art, porcelain sculptures, and more. Guided tours cost around $5 - 8 and are provided in Spanish and English. Or, you can visit on your own after a quick introduction to the residence for about $1 less.
6. Sample All the Yucatecan Food
Yucatecan food is culturally rich and incredibly unique to the region. In fact, if you haven’t been to this part of Mexico, odds are you may not’ve ever encountered some of these dishes before. With notable flavors from regional ingredients like habanero, sour orange, and achiote with cultural influences from the Mexican, Mayan, Spanish, Cuban, and Lebanese, Yucatecan food is truly in a class of its own.
Some foods to try while you’re here:
Salbutes: An easy snack made from crisp fried tortillas topped with shredded meat, lettuce, and tomato.
Cochinita Pibil: Meat (in this case, a whole pig) marinated in regional flavors like achiote and sour orange. The resulting bite is incredibly tender and just melts in your mouth.
Sopa de Lima: Essentially a brothy chicken soup with lots of citrusy lime flavor, typically topped with crunchy tortilla strips (it might sound simple, but this was surprisingly my favorite dish I tried during my time in Merida!)
Poc Chuc: Slices of pork marinated in a sour orange and achiote sauce.
Queso Relleno: A dish made from hollowed-out Edam cheese (usually translated roughly on menus as “ball cheese” from the Spanish “queso de bola”) and stuffed with a mix of pork, peppers, tomatoes, raisins, capers, olives, onions, and spices. I personally did not like this dish at all, but I did try it! Some people I’ve spoken with love it and consider it somewhat like lasagna. I’ll leave that for you to decide!
Marquesitas: A favorite sweet treat in the Yucatan Peninsula, marquesitas are thin, crispy crepes rolled up and stuffed with (most commonly) cheese and a sweet sauce like nutella or canela. It sounds odd, I know, but they are actually super addicting!
Where can you find some of these Yucatecan delicacies? Manjar Blanco is a highly recommended restaurant that’ll help you do just that! La Chaya Maya is also very popular though I wasn’t a fan of the queso relleno here, and I’m not sure whether it was just the restaurant or the dish itself (again, I just wasn’t a fan of stuffed cheese, which is so weird considering how much I love cheese in general). When it comes to marquesitas, just look for a colorful stand or street vendor as you’re walking around and you’ll be in the right place!
7. Enjoy a Game of Pok-Ta-Pok
An ancient Mayan ball game played thousands of years ago, Pok-Ta-Pok is an intense ritual that is still alive and well through reenactment in Merida. In ancient times, this game was part of a sacrificial ceremony in which the winner would be sacrificed to the gods. To the Maya, this was an unmatchable honor.
You may see Pok-Ta-Pok arenas when you visit some of the surrounding ancient ruins, like at Chichen-Itza or Uxmal. The arenas are kind of Harry Potter-esque (like Quidditch!) because the hoops are suspended high up on stone walls on either side of a large grassy court. To score, you have to hit a five-pound, solid rubber ball through one of these hoops using only your forearms or your thighs. From what I’m told, this was both a men’s and a women’s sport back in the day, and it was a big deal in ancient society to be a Pok-Ta-Pok athlete.
While there are fortunately no sacrifices being made today, the sport has been brought back to life in Merida, and can be witnessed at the Plaza Grande on Saturday nights around 8:30 pm. I didn’t get to see one of these myself, but I’ve heard they’re one of the most popular events in the city – so plan to show up early to get a good view!
8. Visit Some of the Mayan Ruins in the Area
If you have the time, you definitely need to visit at least one archaeological site while you’re in town. There are several sites throughout the Yucatán that are open to the public, and near Merida, you’re easily within 1 - 2 hours of Uxmal, Chichen-Itza, and Ek Balam.
Uxmal is my personal favorite, and at just 1 hour away by car it’s the easiest to visit in a half day. You’ll see less crowds and much more to explore, as Uxmal isn’t just a handful of pyramids but an entire city.
As one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, Chichen-Itza is often on everyone’s list when visiting the Yucatán for the first time. It’s less than 2 hours away from Merida and you can easily make a day out of it by visiting some nearby cenotes or spending the afternoon in Valladolid. When you go to Chichen-Itza, hire a local Maya guide for $40 - $60 USD once you arrive to get the best experience out of your visit and learn more about each of the remaining structures than you might’ve if you were walking the grounds by yourself.
Another impressive site, Ek Balam is just as intricate and well-preserved but also a bit more ‘off the beaten path.’ About 2 hours exactly from Merida, Ek Balam is a large settlement that actually spans more than 4 square miles, though only about 1/4 of that is viewable to the public. Unlike the other two sites, the facades at Ek Balam were ornamented with intricate stucco and limestone designs, rather than carved stone.
9. Watch a Live Performance
In addition to street performances which happen nearly every night at different parks and plazas throughout Merida, there are so many opportunities to find entertainment and shows in this city.
For a classical experience, visit the Teatro Peon Contreras which was built in the early 1900s. It is a stunning neo-classical theater with a Carrara marble staircase, Italian frescoes, and works of art throughout. If you enjoy live music performances, the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra performs at this theater weekly. And, you may also see performances brought in from all over the world.
10. Swim in a Cenote Along the Chicxulub Crater
Did you know that the Yucatán Peninsula is actually the impact site of the asteroid that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago? That’s right! Beneath the surface, the remains of this impact site – known as Chicxulub Crater – span a good chunk of the peninsula near Merida. Why does this matter? Well, the perimeter of this crater is actually home to hundreds of cenotes, which means that even if you’re in town to explore the city, you still have tons of opportunities to venture out and go for a swim in one of these unique, freshwater swimming holes. In ancient times, the Maya believed these swimming holes to be the entrance to the underworld, or the passage between this life and the afterlife. The entire peninsula is actually home to thousands of these centotes, which is incredibly unique to the region, so plan on visiting at least one while you’re in town!
Some great places to start include the Cuzama cenotes, the Homun cenotes, cenote Hacienda Mycuyche, and cenote Kankirixche.
11. Day Trip to Other Colonial Cities
While Merida is the cultural capital and the largest city in the entire peninsula, it isn’t the only city in the area with rich ancient Maya and Spanish colonial roots.
A bit far from Merida and worth at least a full-day adventure if not more, Campeche is a bright, colorful port city. It’s generally less visited by tourists because of the distance involved with getting there, but the reward is a fascinating and less crowded place to wander around and take in all the beautiful architecture and history. Campeche is actually a fortified city, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, if you visit you can still see fully intact fortresses here that were used back in the 17th and 18th centuries to prevent pirate attacks!
About an hour outside of Merida, Izamal – one of Mexico’s famed pueblos magicos (magical towns) – is a colonial city famous for its striking color. While some streets in Merida feel like walking through a rainbow, Izamal is comprised entirely of a bold, monochromatic shade of beautiful yellow. It’s well worth at least a half day visit, if not more.
Near Chichen-Itza, Valladolid is another beautiful, colorful colonial town that’s smaller than Merida but offers similar charm.
Espita is even smaller than Valladolid and Izamal but offers all the charm, color, colonial and Maya history, and intrigue as the other cities – just, in miniature form!
12. Head to the Beach
When locals in Merida want to head to the beach, they hop on a bus or pile into the car and head to Progreso, just an hour away from the city. In addition to the massive beach, Progreso is home to the world’s largest pier and is a common stop for travelers visiting Mexico on cruise ships.
There you have it! Which of these things to do in Merida are you most excited about? Is there something I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below!