The Best Things to do in Cancun, Mexico

The 15 Best Things to do in Cancun, Mexico

With high-rise hotels overlooking the Caribbean Sea and all-inclusive resorts opening out onto white sand beaches, Cancun is a rare tropical paradise. This is a classic vacation destination, and if you’re looking for sun, sea, sand, and some raucous entertainment, there’s no better place to be.

Cancun’s Hotel Zone didn’t even exist until the 1970s, but in a few short decades, it ballooned into Mexico’s go-to beach destination. You can literally do nothing if you want. Just book a resort, hang out at the bar ordering margaritas, and enjoy your hotel’s fine-dining restaurants and evening entertainment.

With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. That’s why we’ve compiled our list of the best things to do in Cancun for you. Stick to these fun and unique Cancun bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an exceptional time exploring this gorgeous corner of Mexico! 

The Top 15 Things to do in Cancun, Mexico

1. Live the All-Inclusive Life

Best Things to do in Cancun, Mexico: Cancun's Hotel Zone

Lining a long, sandy spit of land that stretches along the Caribbean Coastline, living that classic all-inclusive resort life in the Hotel Zone is the best thing to do in Cancun. Sure, it’s touristy, but these big resorts and grand hotels are what Cancun was made for, and in our opinion, there’s no better way to spend your vacation!

Located on Isla Cancun, the Hotel Zone is several miles long, with the lagoon on one side (do watch out for the alligators) and the resorts on the other. This is classic Cancun at its biggest and best, and all the big-name brands – from the Hard Rock Hotel to the Marriott – have a presence here. 

The best way to experience Cancun is with an all-inclusive, and we highly recommend going for one that includes a drinks package. That’s fairly standard, though, so you shouldn’t have to worry about how many margaritas you order or how many cervezas you drink during your stay. 

Different hotels typically have different restaurants and styles of cuisine. There’s usually a buffet restaurant with an ever-changing menu of international options, while the best hotels also have fine dining a la carte menus.

2. Lounge on the Best Beaches

Cancun, Mexico Bucket List: Best Beaches in Cancun

If you’re here for the beaches, then Cancun won’t disappoint. This is the heart of the Riviera Maya, and you’ve got endless stretches of bright white sands to explore during your stay. We say “explore,” but more likely, you’ll want to pull up a sun lounger, order an ice-cold refresco, and maybe take a dip in the Caribbean Sea. 

You don’t even need to stray far from your hotel, because the best beaches in Cancun are located in the Hotel Zone. One of our all-time favorites is Playa Delfines, a classic, but an excellent choice for vacationers. Located toward the southern end of the Hotel Zone, this long stretch of golden sand is named for the dolphins that are often spotted off-shore.

In the north, Playa Gaviota Azul offers sheltered shores framed by hotels, while Playa Forum and Playa Chacmool are known for their azure seas. Playa Tortugas offers a more local feel, while Playa Marlin, with its soft sand, is always an unbeatable place to spend the day. 

3. Explore Hidden Maya Ruins 

Best Things to do in Cancun, Mexico: Hidden Maya Ruins 

When you’re staying in a plush all-inclusive overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it’s all too easy to forget that Cancun wasn’t always this way. In fact, long before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Maya had populated the coastline here with small ports and harbors. 

While they were never built on the same scale as the mighty temples of Chichen Itza or Ek Balam, which are all found inland, these small coastal cities were important hubs for trade and cultural exchanges. The Maya even built a small city right where the Hotel Zone is today, and thankfully the ruins have been preserved rather than bulldozed to make way for new hotels. 

On the southern end of the Hotel Zone, you can visit the iguana-strewn ruins of El Rey Archaeological, a series of ruined temples thought to have been built as far back as 250 AD. The name El Rey (The King) comes from a human-shaped statue thought to have represented a local Maya ruler or king. 

To the north of Downtown Cancun, you can visit a larger stepped temple at the El Meco Archaeological Site, where crumbling ruins are baked by the hot sun. Then back in the Hotel Zone spit, there are the Yamil Lu’um Ruins and the small ruins at Punta Cancun. 

4. Visit the Maya Museum of Cancun

If you’d love to learn more about the local history, then a visit to the Maya Museum of Cancun is a must on your Cancun bucket list. This is one of the top things to do in Cancun, and it makes a worthy change from lounging on the beach or ordering cocktails around the pool.

You don’t even need to go far, because the Maya Museum of Cancun is located in the Hotel Zone. You’ll find the museum in a purpose-built facility right by Captain’s Cove, and you’ll love browsing through galleries packed full of Maya statues, relics, and archaeological finds. 

The museum tells the story of the Maya people from their earliest origins to the modern era, and it’s a great opportunity to learn more if you’re intending to visit famous sites like Chichen Itza. 

The Maya Museum of Cancun is also attached to a set of Maya ruins of its own, though. The museum backs onto the San Miguelito Archaeological Site, where you’ll find crumbling temples and palaces that speak of a Maya community of old. 

5. Join the Floating Fiesta at Xochimilco 

Best Things to do in Cancun, Mexico: Xochimilco

If you’ve ever visited Mexico City, then you’ll know all about the Xochimilco Canals. This beautiful network of waterways dates back to the Aztec era, and riding a traditional trajinera boat through the canals has become one of Mexico’s must-do things.

But now, you don’t need to visit Mexico City to experience the canals; you can do it all in Cancun! Designed as a tribute to the original Xochimilco, Xochimilco Cancun offers the chance for a floating fiesta. Run by Xcaret, the same company that manages Cancun’s many theme parks, this is an admittedly over-the-top representation of Xochimilco, but it’s perfect if you’re looking for a night of fun, games, and feasting.

You’ll get to ride a trajinera boat around the purpose-built canals, all the time being serenaded and entertained by the ever-present mariachi bands. You’ll gorge on classic Mexican dishes (tacos, anyone?), enjoy dancing and singing, and, best of all, your ticket provides access to the all-you-can-drink bar all night long (who’s ready for tequila?). 

6. Explore the Colonial Streets of Valladolid 

Fun Things to do in Cancun, Mexico: Valladolid 

Head inland to escape the Cancun crowds with a laid-back day trip to Valladolid. This small city is a 2.5-hour bus ride from Downtown Cancun, but it’s well worth the ride to see a side of Mexico far removed from the Hotel Zone.

There are no big resorts or all-inclusive hotels in Valladolid. Instead, cobbled streets are overlooked by colorful colonial buildings that give the city a ramshackle feel. Throw in a few rowdy tavernas and sumptuous street food stands, and you’ve got yourself a winning day out. 

Valladolid was founded by the Spanish in 1543, and you can visit the dated remains of the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena to learn more about its early Franciscan history. You can pop into boutique shops, explore art galleries and small museums, and if the heat starts to get you, cool off with a dip in Cenote Zaci, a freshwater sinkhole located in the center of the city. 

Valladolid is the jumping-off point to visit Chichen Itza (stay the night here if you want to get into the famous ruins before the crowds arrive), and many tour operators include a stop in Valladolid and the surrounding cenotes on day trips from Cancun. 

7. Head into Downtown Cancun

Cancun, Mexico Bucket List: Downtown Cancun

For a taste of the other side, head into Downtown Cancun to see how things are done the local way. Downtown Cancun is just a 15-minute car ride away from the Hotel Zone, but it often feels like you’re worlds away. 

Start by taking a stroll along the Malecon Tajamar, where you’ve got fantastic views over the lagoon and across to the hotels. Next, head down Avenida Tulum, where the big resorts and brand-name restaurants are replaced by more local taquerias and street food stands. Dig a little deeper into Downtown Cancun by joining a food tour, where you’ll be guided to the best taco joints in the city. 

Must do things in Cancun, Mexico: Downtown Cancun

You can grab yourself a cold beer in one of Downtown Cancun’s many bars to freshen up, then take a wander around Parque de las Palapas, where you’ll often catch street performers or live music, especially once the sun has set. 

At the Plaza San Miguel, you can shop for souvenirs at Mercado 28, a popular market that’s packed with artisanal goods from across the Yucatan Peninsula. You’ll see street art and murals, be tempted by the street vendors serving up sweet treats, and you can even visit the local planetarium (a great choice if you’re with the kids!) in Downtown Cancun.

8. Dive into Cancun’s Underwater Museum

Cancun, Mexico Things to do: Underwater Museum

This is a destination that’s always full of surprises, including an underwater museum packed with sculptures and artwork that are awaiting you beneath the waves.

The Cancun Underwater Museum, or MUSA for short, is home to around 500 different sculptures, all of which have been handmade by a number of different local and international artists. The sculptures depict everything from automobiles to abstract underwater human figures, and they’re found at depths ranging between 3 and 6 meters (9.8 to 19.7 feet).

The shallow-ish depth means that there are a few ways to explore MUSA, which is spread across three major sites (or underwater galleries) in the Cancun area. This is one of the most unique Cancun sightseeing attractions, and if you’re qualified, we highly recommend joining a scuba diving tour to see them up close. 

If you’re not qualified, then you can join a snorkeling trip instead, or you could take a more relaxed approach and sign up for a sightseeing tour on a glass-bottomed boat. 

9. Have a Wild Day Out at Xcaret Park

Cool Things to do in Cancun, Mexico: Xcaret Park

If you’re on vacation, then you’ll love spending the day at Xcaret Park, an amusement/water park that’s easily one of the best things to do in Cancun. Xcaret Park is quite unlike any theme park you’ll have visited elsewhere in the world, though, because the focus here is as much on Mexican culture and local nature as it is on the rides.

Strap in for an incredible day out, because Xcaret Park is built around the preserved remains of Maya ruins that were excavated from the jungles. This part of Mexico is littered with cenotes, natural sinkholes that have filled with fresh water, and Xcaret Park has incorporated these natural attractions into its design. 

That means you can snorkel your way around the park, jump into cenotes, and float along lazy rivers. You can explore the park’s aquariums, head down to the beach for a swim in the sea, or just chill out with a margarita. 

There’s much more to Xcaret Park, too, and you’ll learn all about local culture in the Maya village, where extravagant shows (including dances and demonstrations of the Maya ball game) are held throughout the day. There are restaurants serving up Yucatec cuisine, a butterfly garden, informative trails that take you through the rainforest, and so, so much more at Xcaret Park. 

10. Slow Down on Isla Mujeres 

Must do things in Cancun, Mexico: Isla Mujeres

A 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun can take you to paradise. Leave the high-rise hotels behind as you cross the Bahia de Mujeres to set foot on the white sands of Isla Mujeres. This beautiful Caribbean island is only 5 miles long, developments are limited (at the moment), and everyone gets around on foot, by bicycle, or on electric golf buggies!

In English, the name means the “Island of Women,” because it’s thought that Isla Mujeres was dedicated to Ixchel, the Maya god of the moon, who was also responsible for fertility. You can see the ruins of a Maya temple on the south side of Isla Mujeres today, where it’s thought that Maya women would make offerings to Ixchel in order to conceive children.

You can visit the ruins of Hacienda Mundaca, which was built by a 19th-century pirate. Dive down into the underwater museum (a branch of MUSA), snorkel the coral reefs, lounge on white sand beaches (Playa Norte is the best), or see the sterling work being undertaken at the turtle sanctuary.

11. Go Bird-Watching on Isla Contoy

What to do in Cancun, Mexico: Isla Contoy

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in pristine nature for the day, then Isla Contoy is one of the best things to see in Cancun. Located to the northeast of Quintana Roo, this tiny island marks the spot where the Caribbean Sea meets the open Atlantic Ocean, and visitor numbers are limited to just 200 per day. 

Isla Contoy is just 5 miles long and no more than one or two miles at its widest extent. The island is uninhabited (aside from rangers and scientists) and protected as a national park, making it a haven for birdlife. Estimates range, but there are anywhere between 150-200 unique species of tropical birdlife that call Isla Contoy home, with numbers soaring during the winter months when migratory birds arrive from the north. 

Cancun, Mexico Things to do: Isla Contoy

The island sits on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, too, and so the surrounding waters are alive with bright coral and rare marine species. Breeding turtles nest on the sheltered beaches, and you might even spot a whale shark feeding off the coast. Given the limited visitor numbers, you’ll need to book your day trip from Cancun well in advance for a chance to explore Isla Contoy!

12. Swim with Whale Sharks

Must do things in Cancun, Mexico: Whale Sharks in the Caribbean Sea

Swimming with whale sharks is one of the must-do things in Cancun, but you need to be visiting in the right season. From around May until November the waters of the Caribbean Sea are at their warmest, attracting large numbers of whale sharks to feeding grounds around the Yucatan Peninsula. 

The whale shark is the world’s largest fish (they’re not technically a whale!), and they visit the area for the fish and plankton. You can join a boat tour from Cancun when the whale sharks are in town, and you’ll have the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. 

What to do in Cancun, Mexico: Whale Sharks in the Caribbean Sea

The whale sharks tend to be spotted off the coast, often around small islands in the Caribbean Sea like Isla Mujeres or Isla Contoy. You’re allowed to snorkel with the whale sharks, but just ensure you follow the rules given by the boat captains in order to avoid disrupting them (the time you can spend with the whale sharks is limited, and of course, no touching). 

13. Go to the Top of the Scenic Tower 

For the best view of Cancun, head to the top of the Scenic Tower. Rising 262 feet above the city, this towering observation deck offers blistering panoramas of the coastline. You’ll first board the viewing capsule at ground level. Settle in, then enjoy the ride as you’re slowly elevated to the top of the tower. The capsule revolves constantly on the way up, and once you reach the summit, you continue to revolve 360 degrees.

This gives you a lovely opportunity to do some serious Cancun sightseeing! To the south, you can admire the glistening colors of the lagoon before picking out your resort in the Hotel Zone. 

Look to the west, and past the rooftops of Downtown Cancun, you’ll see the endless forests of Quintana Roo. You’ll see the less developed coastline extending to the north, while out to sea, you might catch a glimpse of Isla Mujeres in the distance. 

14. Take a Day Trip to Chichen Itza 

Cancun, Mexico Things to do: Chichen Itza 

A day trip to Chichen Itza is one of the top things to do in Cancun. These impressive Maya ruins are the lasting remnants of a civilization that built towering temples to its gods, and you’ll be awestruck by the iconic sight of the Temple of Kukulcan the moment you walk through the gates.

Chichen Itza was once the capital of a thriving Maya kingdom whose rulers held sway over much of the Yucatan Peninsula. Chichen Itza began its rise to power around 600 AD, and the temples, palaces, observatories, and ball courts you see today generally date between 700 AD to 1000 AD. 

But empires rise and fall, and so Chichen Itza’s glory days were numbered. After 1000 AD, the city went into decline as other Maya kingdoms rose up. By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, much of Chichen Itza had been reclaimed by the jungle, and it wouldn’t be excavated until the late 19th century. 

You can sign up for day tours departing from the Hotel Zone (including pick-ups), or you can take the direct ADO bus from Downtown Cancun’s bus station. Travel time from Cancun to Chichen Itza is around 2.5 hours each way, so be prepared for an early start and a late finish.

15. Attend a Boozy Thematic Show

Unique Things to do in Cancun, Mexico: Coco Bongo Nightclub

No trip to Cancun is complete without a wild night out, and we’ve got plenty of recommendations to keep you going (Señor Frog’s is legendary!). Cancun is all about thematic shows (sure they’re cheesy, but you’re on vacation!), and given these shows almost always involve dinner and unlimited drinks, they’re a great way to start the evening.

Seafaring partiers can board a ship for the Jolly Roger Pirate Night Show, which involves pirate-themed theatrics and plenty of rum as you cruise along the Caribbean coast on a replica Spanish galleon. Cirque du Soleil, and their Cancun show JOYÀ, offers a more refined occasion of dinner, drinks, and spectacular artistry, while a Lobster Dinner Cruise on the lagoon is a romantic way to spend the evening.

The ultimate in Cancun entertainment is to be found at the Coco Bongo Nightclub, where all-you-can-drink bars fuel a night of rowdy shows, dancing, and impersonations at a club like no other.

There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Cancun. What’s your favorite thing to do in Cancun?



  • Richard Collett

    Richard is an award-winning travel writer based in Southwest England who’s addicted to traveling off the beaten track. He’s traveled to 75 countries and counting in search of intriguing stories, unusual destinations, and cultural curiosities.

    Richard loves traveling the long way round over land and sea, and you’ll find him visiting quirky micronations and breakaway territories as often as he’s found lounging on a beach (which is a lot).

    When he’s not writing for BBC Travel, National Geographic, or Lonely Planet, you can find Richard writing for the Wandering Wheatleys or updating his off-beat travel blog, Travel Tramp.

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