If you are looking for a fun, up-and-coming, and dare we say Instagramable destination in Mexico – you’ve found it in Izamal, Mexico, which is also known as the Yellow City!
When you think of traveling to Mexico, the first cities that you’ll probably think of will be tourist hotspots like Cancún, Tulum, and Puerto Vallarta. While these cities are beautiful, with world-class beaches and enviable nightlife, there is so much more to see in Mexico than just the resort cities.
Mexico has a rich and fascinating history that touches every corner of the country, and it’s not limited to the coastlines. Izamal, a city just east of Mérida in the Yucatan, is a place you should make a note of. Not only does it have an incredible history dating back all the way to antiquity, but it also has beautiful architecture, ancient ruins to explore, and some of the best Yucatan food you’ll ever taste that goes beyond the standard tacos.
Despite everything it has to offer, Izamal can still be considered a “best-kept secret” since it remains largely unknown to international travelers despite being so close to Mérida, the Yucatan’s capital city. For starters, Izamal’s beautiful ancient Mayan pyramids have earned it a place on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, but it’s not crowded with tourists like Chichen Itza.
History of Izamal
Modern-day Izamal grew out of a settlement originating over 2000 years ago. It was founded by a priest of the Mayan god Itzamná and, in its time, was a city of splendor on a similar level to the iconic city of Chichen Itza.
The city has a unique mix of ancient Mayan structures, colonial architecture following Spanish occupation, and modern-day buildings. What makes it most unique compared to many other historical cities in the Yucatan, however, is that many of the buildings are painted a bright yellow color. It’s partly functional to reflect the strong sun rays and partly due to the city’s worshiping of the sun god Kinichkakmo.
When the Spanish conquered the Yucatan in the 16th century, they founded a colonial city right in the middle of the existing Mayan settlement. They had planned to construct everything from scratch but decided it was too much work to tear down the ancient structures that were already there.
Instead, they build a Catholic church on top of the pyramid and a Franciscan convent on the Acropolis. That’s why there’s such a tangible mix of Christianity and antiquity. A fun fact: the atrium of the convent is the second largest in the world, after that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
The town began growing in the mid-1800s and was granted city status twice due to changing population numbers, most recently in 1981. Today, it’s still an important city for religious pilgrims. It has many statues of religious figures in Christianity, but you’ll hear the Mayan language spoken just as much as Spanish, proving that Izamal maintains ties to its Mayan ancestry.
Izamal Mexico FAQ
What is Izamal known for?
Izamal is known as the “Hill City” due to the several archaeological ruin suites located on the hillsides and the urban residential zone. Recently though, Izamal is known for being the yellow city in Mexico. So if you’ve seen pretty pictures of a ton of yellow colonial buildings in Mexico, it most likely was Izamal.
Why is Izamal all yellow?
Izamal is painted yellow because yellow reflects the dazzling sun. You will notice the monastery and colonial buildings in Izamal are all painted yellow.
Is Izamal worth visiting?
If you are looking for a day trip from Merida or even a day trip from Tulum or Playa del Carmen – yes, Izamal is worth it. We would suggest arriving early in the morning. It gets hot in Izamal. After your first visit to Izamal, you will wish you stayed longer, and you’ll be planning a return trip to spend a few nights.
Best Restaurants in Izamal
1. Restaurante Los Arcos
When even the locals say it’s good, you know you’ve got to try it. Restaurante Los Arcos is situated right next door to Muul, right across from the main plaza (‘arcos’ means arches, indicating the white arches of the building structure).
Since things tend to close early in Izamal, many locals enjoy coming here since it closes at 10 pm — perfect for a late-night drink before the bar closes. Los Arcos is similar to many restaurants nearby that serve traditional Yucatan food, but they set themselves apart by offering most dishes with a vegetarian and vegan alternative.
- Address: C. 28 292, Centro, 97540
Related: Best Restaurants in Tulum
2. Kinich Izamal
With almost 5,000 Google reviews and a 4.7-star rating, we couldn’t leave Kinich Izamal off the list of best restaurants in Izamal. They’ve been around for over thirty years and are still one of the most popular places to eat.
They have a great menu full of delicious options for fresh, flavorful Yucatan cuisine. Many of their dishes are cooked the traditional way, that is to say: underground, with hot coals. They also employ Mayan cooks who make the tortillas fresh to order.
And, of course, you can’t miss out on their most popular dessert at the end of your meal: coconut ice cream.
- Address: Calle 27.299y 28y 30, Centro
Look out for the large, yellow building just a few streets west of the main plaza, and you’ve arrived at Zamna Restaurant (if you see canons, you’re in the right place). They serve traditional Mexican-Yucatan cuisine and are vegetarian-friendly, so if you don’t eat meat, there will still be plenty of menu options for you.
The menu is extensive, with many choices, and prices are low to moderate, so it’s a comparatively affordable place to eat. Zamna also has quite an extensive wine selection, so be sure to ask for a wine list.
Related: Best Restaurants in Playa del Carmen
4. Restaurant Muul
Across from the main square in Izamal, Restaurant Muul is one of the best restaurants in Izamal. They have a long outdoor terrace that’s perfectly placed for people-watching in a bustling area.
The food here is classic Yucatean, like burritos, enchiladas (the chicken enchiladas are popular), panuchos, and cochinita pibil. Expect big servings of everything. House-made chips are complimentary and served with freshly homemade hot sauces and dips.
And, of course, no meal in Mexico is complete without an ice-cold beer, so be sure to ask for their drinks menu. They do beers, wines, and house cocktails.
The Best Things to Do in Izamal
Izamal is a very small city, which makes it easily walkable. And even if you’re only planning to stay a few days, you’ll be able to cover pretty much everything without getting bored, and you’ll still want to come back.
Izamal may not have the kind of nightlife that major tourist cities do, but it has a different kind of evening charm: because it gets so hot, it tends to be quiet during the day. But when the sun goes down, the locals come out, and the city comes alive: restaurant patios lit up with lights, softly-playing guitar music floating down from who-knows-where, and the chatter of friends and family enjoying each other’s company while taking an evening stroll.
If you’re not convinced yet, here are some of the best things to do in Izamal that will convince you this small town is a hidden gem in Mexico’s Yucatan province.
1. Take a carriage ride around town
One of the best ways to see a lot of the city in a shorter period of time is to take a carriage ride that will show you some of the top sights, including many of the Mayan historical sites. Tours generally run for about an hour and a half and cost somewhere around 500 pesos.
Find the horses lined up like taxis at the main square, with brightly-colored carriages attached and ready to go. Generally, you don’t need to book anything in advance unless you don’t speak any Spanish and there are specific sights you want to see, in which case ask about them at your hotel.
2. Visit the Convento de San Antonio
This is the convent that was built by the Franciscans during the Spanish occupation. Painted the same egg-yolk-yellow as many of the buildings in the city below, the convent still functions as such today but can also be visited by travelers and pilgrims.
Many religious festivals happen in Izamal, which make it a busy time to visit the convent: mid-June, mid-August, and December 1-12, when the Virgin of Guadalupe is celebrated nationally.
If you want to get a dazzling view of the convent from afar, you can climb the nearby Kinich Kakmó pyramid, which gives an amazing view of the convent and its atrium. (More on that below!)
3. Climb the Kinich Kakmo pyramid
Just three blocks north of the convent are what appears to be an overgrown, partial pyramid. This is one of the 12 original Maya pyramids from ancient times, the largest in Izamal and the third-largest in the Yucatan.
It’s been partially restored with artificial limestone, but part of the pyramid now rests underground. What’s left today stands at just over 34 meters, and for those willing to undertake the ascent, you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful views of the other pyramid ruins and of the convent with its glass atrium.
4. Take a stroll around the Plaza Izamal & shop local
Plaza Izamal is considered by many to mark the center of the city. It’s also just across from the convent, so there are many important landmarks around this area.
Another thing that makes it a sort of city center is all the amenities just a stone’s throw away: boutiques, hotels, restaurants, and cafés are tucked in the yellow buildings. This is also a great place to do some shopping, as many local artisans sell their crafts either in nearby shops or at regular markets that take place in the square. This is also where you’ll find the giant colorful letters (found in most major Mexican cities) that spell out Izamal.
5. Wander through the colonial buildings
Part of the reason that Izamal is so unique is the mix of antiquity and colonial architecture. So while you’re traveling through Izamal, be sure to take yourself on a walk to see some of the beautiful 16th-century colonial buildings yourself.
See how many you can identify while you wander. Classic Spanish colonial architecture is marked by stucco, corrugated terracotta rooftops, and open arches that are worked into the walls.
6. Centro Cultural y Artesanal Izamal
This small museum is a great way to soak in the craftsmanship of Mexican artists. It’s located just across the square from the convent, perfect if you’re already in the area. It showcases art from around the country and has a gift shop that sells top-quality fair-trade crafts by local and national artisans, including many from indigenous communities.
Exhibits are labeled in Spanish and English, so you don’t need to speak the language to appreciate and learn about the art. If you want to leave with any souvenirs, you’ll find pottery, handwoven rugs, jewelry, musical instruments, and so much more.
7. Explore the ruins of the Itzamatul pyramid
The most important thing to do when visiting Izamal is to see its ancient Mayan ruins firsthand. It’s very close to the Kinich Kakmó Pyramid, so you can easily visit them back-to-back.
It’s free to explore, and if you’re up for a bit of a climb, you’ll get some amazing views of the surrounding landscape, including views of several other pyramids.
When you come back to the bottom, snag a bottle of agua fresca. There are usually carts selling sweet, fruity, and refreshing drinks.
Related: Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico
8. Try some traditional Yucatan food
You can’t visit Mexico without sampling some of the national cuisines, and the flavors of the Yucatan make for an unforgettable culinary experience.
We mentioned some of the best restaurants in Izamal above, but to get specific, there are several dishes unique to this region that you will want to try:
- Huevos Motuleños (fried tortillas topped with eggs, red onion, habanero peppers, refried beans, green beans, cheese, plantains, turkey ham, and spicy salsa)
- Papadzules (an older version of the modern enchilada, filled with hard-boiled eggs and sat in a pumpkin seed sauce)
- Dulce de Papaya (papaya that is slow-cooked in water mixed with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla)
9. Visit Parque de los Cánones
Also known as Santa Cruz Square, you’ll know you’ve arrived at the right place when you see the three 17th-century cannons that were used in artillery warfare during the Spanish conquest and the large archway, which is made in the classic colonial style.
The park is small and relatively quiet, with a little chapel on the grounds (it even has a traditional bell tower). The square is often used for national holidays in May (notably, May 1st and 5th, Labor Day, and Cinco de Mayo, respectively). There are places to sit and relax, though it doesn’t get much shade, so you may want to save your visit for morning or night.