Mérida is the buzzing hub of the Yucatán Peninsula. With its vibrant indigenous culture, fantastic craft beer scene, and fascinating history, this is one Mexican city that we can’t get enough of! This is the capital and largest city in Yucatán, and trust us when we say it won’t disappoint.
If you think you know Mexico, then think again. Mérida has a life of its own. One of the safest cities to visit in the country, you’ll hear Mayan spoken alongside Spanish as you lose yourself in colorful markets and grand plazas.
Indigenous history is all around Mérida. The Catedral de San Ildefonso – the oldest cathedral in Mexico – was built using the stones from destroyed Mayan temples. Ancient Mayan ruins like Uxmal await you on the Ruta Puuc, and modern Mayan culture can be found on the Camino del Mayab, a new multi-day hiking and biking route near Mérida.
Take a stroll through shaded parks and the tantalizing aroma of tortas will follow you through sun-drenched streets flanked by colonial mansions. Immerse yourself in craft breweries, boutique cafes, and foodie tours, or take a trip to the nearby beaches at Progreso or Celestun.
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 absolute best things to do in Mérida for you. Try these fun and unique Mérida bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an exceptional time exploring this wonderful Mexican city!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Mérida, Mexico
1. Take a Free Walking Tour of Mérida
The best things in life aren’t free, goes the old saying – except for walking tours. When you first arrive in the city, one of the top things to do in Mérida is a free walking tour. You’ll take a stroll past the city’s best streets, plazas, and attractions alongside a local guide, giving you a fantastic introduction to Mérida.
The original free walking tour in Mérida is organized by the tourism office. They offer a genuinely free walk around the main sights most days at 9:30 am. The tour departs from the tourism office in the Plaza Grande, on the opposite side of the square from the Catedral de San Ildefonso.
But with increasing demand for walking tours in Mérida, there are many more options available, several times a day. Estacion Mexico has walking tours at 10 am and 5:30 pm daily in English and Spanish. Meet the guides outside Casa Montejo in the Plaza Grande.
Free Tour Mérida has departures at 10 am and 5 pm daily, meeting at the giant chairs in Parque de Santa Lucia. Both of these take in the main Mérida attractions in the Centro Histórico – including the cathedral, the Plaza Grande, and much more – and are tips-based (so you only pay what you feel the tour was worth at the end).
2. Explore the Sights in the Plaza Grande
Mérida is arranged in a classic grid system that’s focused on the Plaza Grande, the central public square that’s so iconic of Mexican cities. But Mérida’s Plaza Grande has more history than most.
While the public buildings and old mansions that line the square are notably colonial in design, they’re all built on the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of T’ho. The city’s founding date is 1542, but in reality, the Spanish conquistadors knocked down an already thriving center of commerce, religion, and public life when they founded Mérida.
Today you’ll see the surreptitious evidence of this in the very stones found in the cathedral’s walls, while a mural in El Palacio de Gobierno (the Governor’s Palace) depicts Spanish conquistadors asserting their power over the Maya. You can visit the Casa de Montejo (the family home of the Montejos, the leading conquistadors) to learn more.
But as it always has, the Plaza Grande remains the center of public life in Mérida. It’s always busy and bustling, with street food vendors and musicians feeding and playing to crowds. And a visit to the Plaza Grande on a Sunday is one of the must-do things in Mérida when the square is turned over to a tantalizing food market serving Yucatec classics like cochinita pibil and sopa de lima all day long.
3. Visit the Catedral de San Ildefonso
One of the most important things to see in Mérida is the Catedral de San Ildefonso. Construction of this towering stone cathedral began in 1562, a few years after the conquistadors had conquered the local Mayan kingdom.
This was the first cathedral to be completed by the Spanish in Mexico, and it was built using the stones of Mayan temples, which had been torn down. Today, the cathedral remains a mighty testament to the conquistador’s rule. It’s also the focus of religious life in Mérida, and it’s always busy with church services and religious events (particularly on Sundays, as you’d imagine!).
Visit the cathedral at night, though, for a fantastic view of the light show which dances across the centuries-old stones.
4. Learn about Indigenous History at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida
A visit to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida is one of the best things to do in Mérida. This is the largest museum in the world dedicated to Mayan history, and it’s a fantastic place to learn more about the region’s indigenous culture.
You’ll start with prehistory. Before humans, the Yucatán was populated by dinosaurs, but they were wiped out by a meteor strike that’s thought to have scored a direct hit on the peninsula (that’s right, you’re on the site of the dinosaur extinction).
You’ll then learn about the origins of Mayan civilization going back thousands of years, explore the rise of grand cities like Chichen Itza, and delve into the stories, writing systems, and day-to-day lives of the Maya.
Then you’ll see the destruction wrought by the Spanish conquistadors, learn how the Yucatán’s indigenous peoples were forced into slavery on henequen plantations, and see how Mayan culture and language are now making a steady resurgence in Mérida.
5. Delve into the City’s History at the Museo de la Ciudad de Mérida
There’s no doubt that Mérida is a fascinating city. This is a place where layer upon layer of history is waiting to be uncovered, and you can learn more at the Museo de la Ciudad de Mérida.
The Museum of the City of Mérida is located next to Mercado Lucas de Galvez, just a few blocks away from the Plaza Grande. Set inside the old “Federal Palace” – a grand building built in 1908 – you’ll be able to explore the history of the city from its early days until the present.
The museum doesn’t begin with the “official” founding date of 1542, though. It starts in a time before the Conquistadors, as you learn of the Mayan foundations of modern Mérida. Move through time as you see how the city grew and expanded in the modern era, as you browse through galleries packed with excavated archeological finds and more.
6. Shop, Eat, and Drink Until you Drop at the Mercado Lucas de Galvez
You’ll be tempted into the Mercado Lucas de Galvez by the smell of freshly made tortillas and sizzling tacos as soon as you leave the Museo de la Ciudad de Mérida. Daily life in Mérida is always loud and colorful, and you’ll love exploring more as you lose your way inside this sprawling undercover market in central Mérida.
Watch your step as you’re distracted by the sight of shredded pork being shoved into giant tortas covered in spicy sauce. Let yourself be tempted by the delights of cochinita pibil served simply on plastic plates at the back end of the market. Wash it down with a jumbo-sized refresco (our favorite is Agua de Jamaica – hibiscus water), or pull up a seat and order a few cervezas as you watch the world walk by.
One of the top Mérida attractions, Mercado Lucas de Galvez is also a practical place to pick up a few supplies. You can buy almost anything here, and the market is roughly divided into different sections for fruit, vegetables, toys, electronics, clothes, hardware, and much, much more. If you’re self-catering while in Mérida, then this is the perfect place to pick up a few fresh ingredients for dinner!
7. Admire the Grand Architecture of the Paseo de Montejo
Mérida’s most prestigious boulevard is named after Francisco de Montejo, the conquistador who defeated the Maya and claimed the Yucatán Peninsula for Spain. This long avenue was built later, though, by wealthy citizens of a city that boomed through the wealth of the 19th-century henequen trade.
While Mérida’s elite made their money off rural haciendas – where henequen (known as Green Gold) was grown to meet the demand of ropemakers and shipbuilders – they often preferred to live in the city.
Paseo de Montejo became the site of an extravagant building spree as wealth was funneled into grander and grander mansions. The finest materials – like Yucatán marble and stones – were used to construct lavish houses in European styles, while even loftier statues of Mérida’s historical heroes were raised along the same avenue.
You can still see all this today, although many of the houses have since been abandoned or turned into hotels (as with all things, the henequen trade eventually withered as cheaper substitutes were discovered).
Visit the interesting Quinta Montes Molina House on the Paseo de Montejo to learn more. Built for the Molina family in the 1900s, this beautiful villa is now a superb museum.
8. Visit a Hacienda to Learn about ‘Green Gold’
You can’t escape Mérida’s henequen history when you’re in the city. Mérida owes much of its architecture to the wealth made by “Green Gold” as the trade boomed in the 19th century. You can learn more by visiting one of the many haciendas that are found outside Mérida.
Haciendas were vast estates run by Mérida’s wealthiest citizens, with fields of henequen growing around lavish country homes. Many haciendas have been restored to their former glory or turned into boutique hotels. Many more lie in ruins – when the henequen trade died, so too did the haciendas sustained by their wealth.
But there’s a darker side to this story, too. While the rich profited greatly from Green Gold, the indigenous workers were typically forced into a type of servitude that was no better than slavery. Indebted to hacienda owners, many spent their lives slaving away in abject conditions on the farms.
There are several haciendas to visit near Mérida, including Hacienda Yaxcopoil, Hacienda Santa Cruz, and Hacienda Xcanatun.
9. Eat Your Way Around Mérida on a Street Food Tour
Let’s be honest, the real reason we love Mexico is for the food, and Mérida has a delightful smorgasbord of dishes for you to try. This is the heart and soul of Yucatec cuisine, which merges indigenous recipes and ingredients with Spanish and other European influences.
Yes, you’ll find tacos and tortas all over town, while classic breakfast dishes like chilaquiles or huevos rancheros are always on the menu. But you’ll want to try some serious Yucatec favorites, including slow-cooked cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork) and sopa de lima (a wonderful lime-based soup).
The best way to explore the food scene is on a dedicated street food walking tour, which is easily one of the most fun things to do in Mérida. If that’s not for you, then why not visit a few great local restaurants, including Kuuk, the Museum of Yucateca Gastronomy, or La Chaya Maya?
10. Catch a Game of Pok-ta-Pok in the Plaza Grande
Head to the Plaza Grande on Saturday evenings for a fiery event like no other. You’ll find the square filled with a crowd of people as they await the 8 pm start of the weekly pok-ta-pok show.
Pok-ta-pok is the ancient Mayan ball game. Once played in the dedicated ball courts that you’ll still see today in ruined cities like Chichen Itza or Mayapan, pok-ta-pok was played for the glory of the gods.
The exact rules of the game have been lost, but in Mérida, they recreate a modern version of this sacred tradition that embellishes pok-ta-pok with liberal use of fire (yes, toward the end of the game, the ball gets set on fire).
Local ball players are dressed up in Mayan costumes as they battle it out in front of the cathedral. Watching a game of pok-ta-pok is one of the coolest things to do in Mérida, but it’s more of a spectacle than a sporting event. No one cares who wins or what the rules really are, because it’s really just a celebration of the Mayan past!
11. Travel with a Difference on the Long-Distance Camino del Mayab Trail
If you’d love to experience more of the Yucatán’s indigenous culture, then you’ll want to join a tour of the Camino del Mayab. One of the most interesting Mérida attractions, this long-distance hiking and mountain biking trail weaves its way through the rural communities outside of Mérida, where a network of homestays, community-run cenotes, and local restaurants and haciendas cater to intrepid hikers and bikers getting off the beaten track.
Established by a local social enterprise as a way to provide work for Mérida’s disadvantaged Mayan communities, you’ll be giving back to the local economy while also learning more about the region’s past and present.
As you hike or cycle your way along dusty trails that cut through the jungle, you’ll encounter crumbling haciendas where the Maya were forced to work in slave-like conditions growing henequen (the Green Gold that brought riches to Mérida’s elite).
You’ll also stop at beautiful cenotes to cool off, see the Mayan ruins of Mayapan, meet with community leaders starting businesses in an effort to combat unemployment, and see a side of Mérida that’s a world away from the city.
You can join a fully supported three-day biking tour or a five-day hiking tour of the Camino del Mayab led by local guides. You’ll be given a Camino del Mayab “passport” to get stamped at stops along the way, with tours starting and ending in Mérida.
12. Escape the City with a Day at Progreso Beach
We love Mérida, but as you’re in Mexico, it won’t be long before you’re craving the feel of soft sand between your toes. With ridiculously good weather all year round, you’ll be looking for the nearest beach before the week’s out!
You don’t need to go far (and forget about heading over to Cancún!) because a 35-minute drive north of the Centro Histórico brings you to the white sands of Playa Progreso, one of the top Mérida attractions. Overlooking the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this sheltered coastal location is a dream for beach lovers.
The cruise ship crowds love it here too, and you’ll often see huge ships bringing passengers into the port here. Luckily, there’s plenty of space for everyone here, and you can rent a sun lounger and laze the day away as you order up micheladas and margaritas.
There are a few all-inclusive beach clubs if you’re looking for a more refined setting, but despite the cruise ships, the real appeal of Progreso is that local beach feel that’s far removed from the resorts in neighboring Quintana Roo.
13. See the Pink Flamingos at Celestun
An hour-and-a-half drive west of Mérida brings you to Celestun, a beautiful beach town lined by white sands on one side and dense mangroves on the other. The beach is gorgeous, and you can easily spend a day soaking up the sun outside a beach bar, ordering freshly-grilled snapper, plates of fried calamari, and buckets of Corona.
But before you do that, stop off at the boat launch on the way into town. This is the jumping-off point for the spectacular Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve, a unique wetland habitat that’s home to large flocks of pink flamingos.
This is one of the most unique Mérida activities. You’ll need to get here early to see the flamingos in large numbers in the morning, but you can rent boats from the quay all through the day. Take a boat tour and be guided through the mangroves as you look out for birds, crocodiles, and flamingos.
14. Explore Mayan Ruins along the Ruta Puuc
All too often, it’s Chichen Itza that steals the limelight on the Yucatán Peninsula. But Chichen Itza was just one of many, many cities built across the region during the heyday of the Maya civilization.
If you’d love to explore fascinating ruins and delve into Mayan history, then you’ll love the Ruta Puuc. This great tourist trail has none of the crowds you’ll find at Chichen Itza, and you’ll have the chance to visit as many as five different sets of ruins on a day trip from Mérida.
Rent a car or join a dedicated Ruta Puuc tour to head into the countryside. You’ll stop off at Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labna, all of which date back hundreds if not thousands of years. The highlight, though, is Uxmal, where you’ll see the distinctive “Puuc” style of architecture that results in rounded walls in all its glory.
Uxmal was the capital of a great Mayan kingdom around 900 AD before falling into ruin in later centuries. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you’ll appreciate the preservation work that’s gone into excavating entire palaces and temples from the forest.
15. Have a Drink in Mérida
Are you wondering what to do in Mérida now that you’ve seen all the sights? Might we suggest popping into one of the city’s many bars, breweries, pubs, or cafes?
We love Mérida for its food and drink scene as much as we love it for the traditional attractions, and across the Centro Histórico and north toward the Paseo de Montejo and Avenida Colon, you’ll find everything from speakeasies to boutique coffee roasters (try Marago Coffee, Latte Quattro Sette, or Bengala Kaffeehaus for expert brews and perfect roasts!).
Mérida is all about the old-school cantinas, and you’ll love spending the night in a courtyard bar or an old-fashioned pub. With a huge selection of cocktails (served by the jug) and a fantastic array of beers, La Negrita is one of the most popular cantinas in Mérida.
The Mayan Pub is super touristy, but sometimes that’s just great, Malahat is a super hidden speakeasy, and Mezcaleria La Fundacion is perfect for mezcal lovers. Mérida has a huge craft beer scene, too. Try La Hermana Republica for great stouts and Cerveza Patito for tastings straight from the brewery.
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Mérida. What’s your favorite thing to do in Mérida?
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