The largest city of the state of Quintana Roo (the capital is actually Chetumal), in the Yucatan Peninsula, Cancun is blessed with some of the beautiful beaches of the famous Riviera Maya. With a large airport that connects it to the rest of the country and many other places in North America and Europe, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico.
In Cancun will find plenty of good hotels, restaurants and activities to keep you busy in the city and right nearby. Curious to discover some of the best things to do in Cancun? Continue reading!
Make sure to read my post Where To Stay In Cancun.
25 Fun Things To Do In Cancun
Wander around Downtown Cancun
Cancun is roughly divided into two main areas – Downtown Cancun, also known as Ciudad Cancun, and the Zona Hotelera, the hotel area where all hotels and resorts are located and most tourists hang out.
During my first trip to Cancun I actually opted to stay in the Downtown Area, which is where the locals live. It’s a fun place to explore! The main street there is Avenida Tulum. It’s where you’ll find small local restaurants, taco carts, shops, bars and more.
Watch local life at Parque de Las Palapas
For the chance to simply sit back and people-watch, one of the nicest things to do in Cancun is to hang out in Parque de Las Palapas. This Downtown city park, just a short walk from Tulum Avenue, is Cancun’s central plaza and has historically been the place to meet, socialize, and hangout.
Here, you’ll find El Cristo Rey, the city’s oldest Catholic church. This means that the plaza is particularly busy on a Sunday. Situated around the park there are many food vendors and stalls, with local artisans selling various goods. There’s also a large stage where concerts are often held – it’s where locals go to celebrate New Year’s Eve (and exactly what I did when I was there!).
Families converge here in the afternoons to let their children play as they chat and catch up. The best way to experience it as a visitor is to grab a snack, find a bench, and simply watch everything unfold.
Experience the energy of Lucha Libre
Lucha Libre is basically Mexican pro wrestling, an iconic sport that has become well known across the globe. For fans of Lucha Libre, you can actually go and witness a live match in Downtown Cancun. There are different types of matches you can see – some you can see as part of a tour, so it’s all organized for you.
However, there will be bouts that are less touristed and more about seeing some authentic Lucha Libre throw-downs. You can see the luchadores (wrestlers) strut their stuff at Arena Cancun throughout the week. If you’re staying at a resort, make sure to check the program – some even put on Lucha Libre matches for guests to see what it’s all about.
Visit El Meco Ruins
This is one of the smallest Mayan sites in Mexico. It’s very close to Cancun, so you may as well visit! It once was a port in the Yucatan Peninsula that had a close relationship with Isla Mujeres. The most impressive sight there is the 41-foot pyramid.
For a guided tour that goes to El Meco, click here.
Explore the Zona Hotelera
Cancun Zona Hotelera stretches in the shape of a seven along a 15-mile (24 km) beautiful white-sand beach. This is literally where the vast majority of hotels are, as well as the best restaurants, all along Kulkukan Boulevard. You will find plenty of places for a fun night out too (more about that in a bit).
Visit the Museo Maya
Fora more cultural experience, within the Zona Hotelera make sure to visit the Museo Maya, with a display of more than 3500 artifacts that will help you get a better understanding of the Maya civilization and what it meant for the Yucatan Peninsula. Included in the price of the ticket, and located on the same property, you can also visit San Miguelito Archaeological site.
Go to El Rey
This small Mayan site is actually located in the heart of the Zona Hotelera, so you may as well visit while in Cancun. There is a small temple and some ceremonial platforms, and roaming the site are lots of iguanas.
Party the night away
Alongside its beaches, Cancun is well known for its lively nightlife. Sometimes it seems that the party doesn’t ever stop in this resort town, so if you’re a party animal, you’ll definitely want to see what there is on offer when the sun goes down.
Though it has a reputation for being a spring break destination, it’s actually very possible to party in Cancun all year round. There are numerous nightclubs where you can do that. Coco Bongo is one example – though it is a traditional nightclub, this is a super popular venue for late night drinks. For more dance floor action, there’s also the City and, elsewhere, Mandala.
Dive down into Cancún Underwater Museum
Boasting 500 life-sized sculptures, this museum is unlike any other – mainly because it’s underwater. Located in the waters between Cancun and Isla Mujeres, the underwater museum (also known as MUSA) has been built to promote not only art, but also the conservation of marine life.
You can see these weird and wonderful creations up close and personal on a scuba diving expedition. That way, you really see how the sculptures are becoming part of the reef themselves and are attracting various fish and other marine plants. Don’t worry if you’re not into scuba diving – you can also see this museum by taking a trip on a glass-bottomed boat.
For a snorkeling tour of MUSA, click here.
Kick back at Playa Tortugas
Of course, if you’re in Cancun you’re going to want to spend some time at the beach at some point, and there’s no better in town than Playa Tortugas. This fun-loving beach is the place to go for partying and good times. There are plenty of food stalls and beach clubs for you to find refreshments when you’re not hanging out in the sun or splashing in the sea.
In the daytime, with its warm water and clean sand, Playa Tortugas is actually a fairly family-friendly destination – it’s not until the evening that the party atmosphere starts to kick off. Various beach huts along the sand offer up a plethora of water sports options, so if sleeping in the sun isn’t your thing, you’re covered.
Unwind at Playa Delfines
This long stretch of sand is one of the most beautiful beaches in Cancun and is perfect for those looking for a less crowded option when they’re in town. The public beach is lapped by shallow waters, and there are lifeguards here, making it ideal for families with children. There are plenty of amenities like sunshades and loungers, as well as a handful of food stalls to grab a bite to eat.
It’s not that overdeveloped though, so don’t expect loads of restaurants (like in other parts of Cancun). For a more local, chilled-out kind of beach experience, Playa Delfines is certainly a good option. The bonus is that – true to its name – you can sometimes see dolphins from the shores, thanks to its wide open views of the Caribbean sea.
Play a round of golf
Whether you’re a keen golfer or just like to knock a ball around now and then, one of the best things to do in Cancun is to play golf. Boasting over 15 golf courses, you’ll be pretty much spoilt for choice when it comes to places to enjoy a game or two. In fact, beginners shouldn’t worry – there are courses appropriate for players of every skill level here.
Golf courses range from Pok Ta Pok, which is an 18-hole course in the middle of the Hotel Zone (complete with two practice putting greens and mobile bars). But for something more idyllic, head to Puerto Cancun Golf Course, featuring friendly staff and wide-open views out across the glittering sea as you play. There’s also Moon Palace Golf Course, a challenging, well-maintained course set among natural surroundings.
Climb up Cancun Scenic Tower
For incredible views of Cancun and the Caribbean Coast, climb up the Torre Escenica de Cancun – Cancun Scenic Tower. It takes about 5 minutes to ride up to the top of the 100 meters (300 foot) tall tower. Once you are up, the tower slowly spins 360° so you can admire the views, all the while listening to the history of the city.
Torre Escenica de Cancun is open daily from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. Admission is $20 USD.
Take a boat trip
While you’re in Cancun, why not hit the high seas and explore the coastline on a boat? The glistening water of Cancun and beyond is so tempting that there’s no doubt you’ll want to get out there. One of the most popular ways to do this is on a catamaran. There is a multitude of places that offer up catamaran cruises, each with different tour options and different perks available.
Sailing around on a catamaran is the perfect way to see this part of the Maya Riviera and all its islands. Some tours offer the chance for you to tailor them as much as you want, and stop off at remote snorkeling spots. Alternatively, if a sunset dinner cruise is your thing, that’s also an option.
Spend the day at Isla Contoy
One of the collection of islands studding the turquoise seas off Cancun, Isla Contoy is situated around 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Isla Mujeres. This small, uninhabited island is just 8.5 kilometers (5.2 miles) long and actually makes up the centerpiece for the national park of the same name.
Home to over 150 tropical bird species, as well as four types of endangered sea turtles, the island is a tropical wonder. It’s actually often considered to be the most unique of all the Yucatan Peninsula’s islands. It is located on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, after all.
If you’re looking to get away from crowds and want to relax in some pristine nature, visiting Isla Contoy is one of the best things to do in Cancun.
For information on day trips to Isla Contoy, click here.
Read my post The Best National Parks In Mexico.
Or in Isla Mujeres
One of the best things to do in Cancun is to hop on a ferry and head to Isla Mujeres. A quick boat ride away, albeit being still quite a touristy place, the atmosphere in Isla Mujeres is definitely a bit more local, rustic if you like. Once you get off the ferry, grab a scooter or a golf cart to to around the island. There are Mayan ruins to check, lots of beautiful beaches (my favorite one is Playa Norte), a turtle sanctuary (Tortugranja) and more.
Pay a visit to Coba Ruins
Coba Ruins is a day trip from Cancun, for sure – it’s about a two-hour drive from the city itself. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t carve out some time to see these ancient wonders.
Here is where the ancient Maya city of Coba once thrived. There are multiple important buildings that point back to the importance of the city in its heyday – there’s even a preserved network of Mayan era streets (called sacbe) and other buildings.
The most impressive of these is Coba’s enormous, stepped pyramid – especially impressive considering it was built over 1200 years ago! Make sure you come prepared – it can be hot, and you’ll be out in the blazing sun all day. However, it’s totally worth it for discovering the history of the area.
Or to Tulum
In fact, why pick when you can visit both on the same day? Tulum ruins are among the most impressive Mayan ruins in Mexico. Contrary to Coba, Tulum ruins aren’t immersed in the jungle, but face the gorgeous waters of the Caribbean Sea, and give access to one of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico.
Tulum dates back to the 13th-century. Back then it was called Zama – or City of Dawn, as it faced the rising sun – It used to be a walled Mayan city that served as the main port for Coba, and with its watchtowers right on the cliffs is also had the purpose of protecting from attacks.
For a guided tour of Tulum and Coba are departing from Cancun, check out this tour.
Dine at the old-school La Habichuela
For something a little bit more modern but still definitely part of Cancun’s history, head out for a bite to eat at La Habichuela. This restaurant has been a Cancun classic for over 40 years, and has been serving up delicious food and a homely atmosphere for its customers over the years.
This is the kind of restaurant that people keep coming back to again and again. The food here is a mix of Caribbean and Mexican cuisine, with plenty of seafood and fresh ingredients too. The setting is part of the charm – it’s actually situated in the owners’ garden, with Mayan decorations jostling with kitsch retro furnishings.
Don’t just take my word for it – it’s been featured in many publications as one of the best restaurants in Cancun!
Go shopping at Mercado 28
When you feel a bit restless lazing around in the sun, the sand, or by the pool, it’s time to see some local life. For this, it’s best to head over to Mercado 28. This much-loved flea market features a colorful array of food stalls and souvenir stands, as well as clothes and souvenirs.
Mercado 28 is a must-see when you’re in Cancun. You should definitely make sure you arrive hungry so you can appreciate the array of food vendors and the snacks they serve up. Once you’re full, wandering the market browsing the many stalls for a unique find is a perfect way to grab yourself some gifts and souvenirs.
Have fun at Xcaret Park
This large nature park is actually located close to Playa del Carmen, but it makes for a super fun day trip from Cancun – it only takes around an hour to get there, so you won’t be spending too much of your day on a bus. Spread over 250 acres, Xcaret is a veritable extravaganza, with over 50 natural and cultural attractions – it’s certainly not your run of the mill water park.
If you like architecture, head over to the eye-catching Capilla de Todos Los Angeles to witness this incredible structure (and get some amazing views). For glimpsing some wildlife, you can take one of several trails winding their way through the jungle. Alternatively, you could safely snorkel or just float along one of Xcaret’s pools or underground rivers.
For all inclusive passes to Xcaret Park click here.
Or at Xplor
One of the most fun things to do in Cancun is riding an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) around the jungle, and there’s no better place to do it than Xplor Park, south of Cancun.
It’s not a cheap activity – we’re looking at $130 USD for the admission fee to the park. But once you are in, you can go rafting, cave swimming, ride ATVs, eat and drink whatever you want.
You can get all-inclusive admission tickets to Xplor here.
Go to Xoximilco
Designed after the original Xochimilco of Mexico City, where locals and tourists wander around canals on a colofrul boat known as trajinera, Xoximilco is a where to go for a fun day (or evening) out. Hop on a boat that travels along the canals near Cancun while listening to live music, and admiring people dance. Food and tequila are also part of the experience!
Take a day trip to Chichen Itza
No trip to Cancun is complete without a trip to Chichen Itza. It may be around two hours away by car or bus, but seeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site and actual Wonder of the World is a must when you’re in the area. The ruins are visited by almost three million tourists every year, so make sure to arrive early.
Dominated by the massive step pyramid, the Temple of Kukulcan (also known as El Castillo), this ancient Mayan city was at its peak between 600 and 1200 AD. In its heyday, it was one of the largest of all the Mayan cities, and it is thought to have had one of the most diverse populations in the Mayan world – hence the range of architectural styles around the ancient city.
Swim in the cenotes
Cenotes are natural sinkholes that are filled with reservoirs of underground water and rivers. Once used for rituals by ancient Mayan civilization, these glistening emerald pools are today more of an idyllic way to spend a day on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Being based in Cancun, you’ll have a fair few cenotes practically on your doorstep. Around a 30-minute drive south of Cancun you’ll hit the Ruta de Los Cenotes. Here you’ll find more than 10 cenotes spaced out along a 10 kilometer (around 6 miles) stretch of the road, from Cenote Kin Ha – a cave cenote with deep waters with wooden platforms for diving – all the way to Cenote Siete Bocas (or “Seven Mouths”), known for the seven underground rivers that confluence here.
For a Riviera Maya cenotes tour from Cancun, click here.
For tours of Ik Kil cenote, Chicken Itza and Coba from Cancun, click here.
For tours of Hubiku cenote, Chichen Itza and Valladolid from Cancun, click here.
Final Considerations On The Things To Do In Cancun
I came across various sites commenting that one of the best things to do in Cancun is to swim with whale sharks. I can’t comment on this activity, as I haven’t done it myself. But if you are interested in it, make sure to verify (by reading online reviews) that the operator you are going to do it with runs in a completely responsible manner that is respectful of the animals and the environment. Attracting the animals with food certainly isn’t in their best interest.