Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is one of the hottest travel destinations on the planet. Yet most visitors entirely ignore one of the coolest places to visit in the Yucatan: its cultural capital city of Merida.
But that’s great news for you because it means you’ll get to experience the many amazing things to do in Merida without having to fight for space with thousands of other visitors!
From exploring colonial Spanish architecture to trying traditional Mayan cuisine, to cooling off in underground swimming holes, there are so many fun things to do in Merida that you may just never want to leave!
There are too many places to visit in Merida to cover them all in a single post but, after three months of living in this amazing city, I put together this quick guide to the 10 best things to do in Merida, Mexico:
#1 Wander the City’s Historic Center
Probably the most popular thing to do in Merida is to explore the city’s enormous historical center, the epicenter of which is the aptly-named Plaza Grande (where you can snap a photo for Instagram with the sign bearing the city’s name).
Further north, you’ll find Parque de Santa Lucia, which in the evening fills with tables and chairs for a smattering of tourist-targeted restaurants.
Both those places are great, but for a more authentic and less touristy experience, don’t be afraid to wander a bit! Just a few blocks away from the tourist center you can visit the churches and plazas at Parque de Santa Ana, Parque de Santiago, and Parque de San Juan — all of which are usually blissfully free of the crowds.
And if you want a bit of color commentary for your trip through the city, be sure to sign up for a free walking tour through Pink Cactus Walking Tours!
*When looking for the best price and biggest selection of hotels check prices on Booking.com, we’ve found they are the best option and have a great cancelation policy.*
#2 Cool Off in a Cenote
Merida is an awesome place to visit, but it’s one downside is that it can get incredibly hot. Fortunately, the city happens to be one of the best places on the planet for exploring cenotes: openings in the area’s limestone bedrock that lead to fresh and inviting pools of groundwater. Perfect for cooling off on a warm day!
There are thousands of these natural swimming pools in an around the city. They can be even be found in the basements of schools or the parking lot at the city’s Costco store. And the best part is that each one is unique: some are exposed to the open air while others are in underground cave complexes.
There are several cenote tours that visit some of the best cenotes near Merida, click here to book.
The collection of cenotes near Cuzama is especially popular with visitors, although in my opinion, you can’t beat the incredible blue colors of the San Antonio Mulix Cenotes (pictured above).
You can explore the cenotes as part of numerous package tours on offer in the city center, but to really get away from the crowds the best way is to rent your own car and drive yourself (just be sure you have travel insurance that covers Mexico!).
#3 Explore Mayan Ruins at Uxmal
The ruins at Chichen Itza get all the attention, but most locals will tell you that the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula are actually an hour southwest of Merida at Uxmal.
The 40 meter-high Pyramid of the Magician is the main attraction here, towering over the many other ruins at this important Mayan site. And, unlike at Chichen Itza, you’ll actually be able to climb on some of the ruins here! Best of all, the entire site is wildly under-touristed (owing to its relatively remote location away from the beach resorts) meaning you won’t have to fight back any crowds.
You can get to Uxmal by driving, by taking a bus from the city center, or by taking any one of the numerous tours on offer. Book now online for only $39.
#4 Chill Out on Progreso Beach
If you get tired of city life, hop on a bus and head 50 minutes north to the quiet fishing town of Progresso, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Sure, the water here isn’t quite as clear as you’ll find in Cancun, Xpu Ha, Tulum, Isla Holbox, Bacalar, or Playa del Carmen – but the sand is incredibly white and powdery. Plus, a beach lounger, beer, or lunch will cost you a fraction of what you would pay at the Yucatan peninsula’s more famous beach destinations. Oh, and be sure to come hungry because Progreso is famed for its seafood!
#5 Try Some Unique Flavors at Pola
Red beans and rice, anyone? Blue cheese and apple?
No, we’re not talking about side dishes here. We’re talking about gelato! Situated in the middle of the historic center, Pola Gelato Shop serves up some of the most creative flavors you’ll find this side of Italy.
Don’t feel like something unusual? That’s cool too. The many chocolate and fruit-flavored gelatos are to die for as well. And they make a perfect way to beat Merida’s heat!
#6 Dance the Night Away at La Fundacion Mezcaleria
If giant nightclubs pumping out top 40 hits to thousand-person crowds is your scene, well …. you probably shouldn’t come to Merida.
But don’t let the city’s relaxed vibe fool you into thinking there isn’t fun to be had here! A night at La Fundacion Mezcaleria is never a bad idea for those looking to get their groove on. Picture a cozy interior with a small dance floor filled with locals and visitors alike grooving to live Latin music until the wee hours. Just be sure you don’t have an early bus out the next morning 😉
#7 Sip Some Spirits at Casa Chica
If moving and grooving isn’t your thing, try this classy establishment along Merida’s Paseo Montejo. Casa Chica was recently brought to the city by the same folks behind Mezcaleria and La Negrita (another famous spot you should definitely check out as well). But it has an entirely different, much more stylish and modern, feel than its sister bars.
Casa Chica’s terrace and lounge is the new place to see and be seen in Merida. So grab a seat with some friends, order some cocktails (mezcal is never bad a choice … except the next morning!), and enjoy the ambiance. Just don’t come too early! Merida’s on a late schedule, so things don’t really get popping until 10 pm or later.
#8 Take a Day Trip to Celestun
One of the best day trips from Merida is a visit to the quiet beachside town of Celestun. The beach here is worth a visit in its own right, especially because it is westward facing and thus one of the few places on the Yucatan where you can actually watch the sunset from the beach.
But the real highlight of any visit to Celestun is a boat tour through its lush mangroves. You’ll see plenty of wildlife along the way and, if you come during the first few months of the year, you’ll be treated to a visit with hundreds or even thousands of pink flamingos! Book online for only $89.
#9 Experience a Festival
While other cities have long lists of “must-see” landmarks and points of interest, the true highlight of a visit to Merida isn’t any tangible object or physical place: its the city’s dynamic culture that makes it so special.
And if you want to really soak in Merida’s culture, the best way to do it is by visiting during a festival or special event. And you won’t have to try hard to find one, because there seems to be a festival just about every other week here (see here for a list of upcoming events).
Crowd favorites include Merida Fest (January), Carnaval in Progresso (February), and Xmatkuil, the Yucatan State Fair (December).
#10 Take Your Taste Buds on a Tour
To understand why people love Merida so much, you really just have to take a few bites of the local food. Meals are a part of life here: they start late (10 pm is a perfectly normal supper time) and go long.
And to really experience Mayan cuisine, you’ll need to step away from the tourist traps and seek out a street cart, a tiny unassuming cantina (try El Cardenal), or any of the city’s many high-quality restaurants (Manjar Blanco in Santa Ana is a personal favorite).
Some local dishes you should try include papadzules (kind of like enchiladas, but with eggs), chilaquiles (think breakfast nachos!), and marquesitas (Nutella and cheese crepes you can find from street vendors).
Recommended Places to Stay in Merida
One of the best things about traveling to Merida is that there are unique and affordable guesthouses, hotels, and hostels to stay at. Some of the best places to stay in Merida include:
- Nomadas Hostel – If you are the backpacker type, you’ll be in heaven here. Daily activities include salsa lessons and cooking classes. Or you can just chill over a hammock at the enormous pool (trust me, you’ll want it during the hot months!).
- Luz en Yucatan – For the mid-range traveler, you’ll love this intimate guesthouse nicely situated just steps away from Santa Lucia park.
- Casa Azul – Far enough away from the crowds for some peace and quiet, but close enough to walk, Casa Azul is a tranquil oasis for the traveler who prefers to shell out for style.
In addition to hotels and hostels, Merida has a ton of excellent Vrbos on offer!
Places in Mexico to Visit Before or After Merida
If you’ve got more time to explore Mexico there are some amazing places nearby you should check out. If you can’t on this trip consider them on your next trip. Make sure to check out some of our other Mexico articles to fuel your wanderlust.
We hope you enjoy the many amazing things to do in Merida, Mexico! Oh, and be sure to pin this post below!
About the Author: Nate blogs at Travel Lemming, where he writes about exploring the world’s emerging travel destinations. He recently completed a year-long trip to 43 countries across 6 continents, which he followed up by spending 5 months living in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.