There are many great things to do in Merida, Mexico. The largest city of the Yucatan Peninsula, often nicknamed Ciudad Blanca (White City), Merida is a gorgeous colonial city with massive squares, colorful streets, beautiful churches, gorgeous buildings and inspiring museums, more than a market to get lost, lots of delicious restaurants and a unique, lively atmosphere that will make you fall in love with it.
Merida is also a great base to visit the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, the famous Yucatan cenotes, and other nearby cities.
With so much to offer, you really should include Merida in your Mexico itinerary, and plan on spending a few days to explore the city and its surroundings. Curious to discover the things to do in Merida that you should not miss? Continue reading!
The Best Things To Do In Merida, Mexico
Explore the city with a free walking tour
The perfect way to get an introduction to the city of Merida is by taking a walking tour. Luckily, there’s a free walking tour of the city’s historic center available every day.
While walking around the city by yourself is all well and good, what you lack is facts about culture and history that come with this walking tour. It’s a good way to kick start your trip to Merida as you’ll also be able to get your bearings as you stroll around.
Head to the Plaza Grande by 9:30 am and join in the hour-and-a-half-long tour. They’re led by friendly guides and organized by the city’s tourism office.
Pay a visit to Catedral de San Ildefonso
The Catedral de San Ildefonso is one of the oldest cathedrals not only in Mexico but in the whole of the Americas. Built on the site of a former Maya temple, construction on this sizeable cathedral began in 1561 (and was completed in 1598). It’s a stark Renaissance style structure that was built using stones from the Mayan city that was once here.
Inside, the interiors are simple. Any ornate decorations that once adorned the walls were looted by peasants during the Mexican Revolution. However, what remains is a huge crucifix displaying the Christ of Unity set behind the altar as a symbol of reconciliation. There’s also a painting of the former indigenous chief of the town.
Take a day trip to the world wonder of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is the most famous ancient Maya site in Mexico. It’s a wonder of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it’s not surprising that this iconic site is considered a must-see when you’re in Merida. In fact, visiting Chichen Itza from Merida is an easy day trip – it’s just 122 kilometers (75.8 miles) away and takes an hour and 30 minutes to drive.
You could opt to drive yourself by hiring a car, but there’s also a wealth of tours offering up the service of driving you by bus. Leave early, arrive when it opens (8:00 am) and spend the next few hours exploring this magnificent wonder.
You can book your day trip to Chichen Itza from Merida here.
Check out my posts The Best Guide To Visiting Chichen Itza and The Most Impressive Mayan Ruins In Mexico.
Another site you can easily visit from Merida is Uxmal, one of the sites of the Ruta Pu’uc, located about 84 km (52 miles) from the city. Researchers suggest that in its heyday Uxmal was home to more than 15,000 people.
It’s a gorgeous site, completely different from Chichen Itza, and has some of the most impressive pyramids in the region.
If you have a car, it’s an easy drive to Uxmal and you can also add the other sites of the Ruta Pu’uc as it’s right nearby. Otherwise, join one of the excellent guided tours departing from the city.
For a guided tour of Uxmal from Merida, click here.
Check out my posts A Guide To Visiting Uxmal Ruins.
Visit the sites of the Ruta Pu’uc
Other than Uxmal, the sites of the Ruta Pu’uc are Labna, Xlapak and Sayil, Kabah. These are much less visited compared to Chichen Itza and Uxmal and chances are that if you go, you’ll have the site to yourself.
As I said before, this is quite the perfect spot for a road trip. But guided tours are an excellent alternative.
For a guided tour of Uxmal and Kabah from Merida, click here.
Refresh yourself with a swim at a cenote
Of course, a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula wouldn’t be complete without dipping your toes into one of the famous cenotes. In fact, there’s a whole variety of these natural swimming spots dotted around Merida. This is thanks to the Chicxulub Crater – all that’s left of the impact site of a meteor that struck earth over 65 million years ago wiping out 75% of life on earth.
The outskirts of the crater, known as the Anillo de Cenotes or Ring of Cenotes, is a hotspot for these glimmering freshwater sinkholes. There are honestly countless cenotes nearby, but some of the most famous (and developed) include the Cuzama Cenotes, Cenote Xkeken, and the Homun Cenotes.
For a guided tour of the Cuzama Cenotes departing from Merida, click here.
Make sure to read my post The Best Cenotes Near Merida.
Shop ‘til you drop at the colorful Lucas Galvez Market Merida
Easily one of the best things to do in Merida is visiting a local market, and Lucas Galvez Market Merida is the main market of the city. This historic marketplace dates back to the late 1800s and is the place to go for color and culture in Merida. In 1884, Lucas Galvez Market started life as a shed with simple stalls selling basic goods.
Today it’s grown to become a sprawling hotspot for food shopping. Here you can find all the ingredients you’ll need for Yucatan cuisine, from fresh fruit to spices. There are also food vendors selling tacos and other tasty morsels here just in case you get hungry as you explore this maze-like market.
It’s open every day from 6:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Experience the vibrant Merida Fest
If you want to see a festival, then you should make sure that you’re in town in January to see the Merida Fest. This cultural event celebrates the anniversary of the founding of Merida back in 1542.
The first day starts with a bang as fireworks light up the Plaza Grande. Consisting of a collection of international artists, live music, and folk performances, the festival sees multiple venues across the city come alive with dance, music and theatrical events.
Not in Merida for January? Then you could time your visit for November and the now world-famous Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos).
Learn about Mayan culture at Gran Museo de Mundo Maya Merida
This impressive, world-class museum is the place to go to learn all about Mayan culture in Merida. Housing a permanent collection of over 1,000 artefacts, the Gran Museo de Mundo Maya Merida tells the story of Mayan culture through items ranging from crafts to ancient sculptures.
Inaugurated in 2012, the building has actually been designed to look like a ceiba – a tree sacred in Mayan culture and religion. It’s great to pair a visit to a historic ruin (such as Chichen Itza) so you can get more context to the ancient sites you visit. In the evening, the museum’s exterior wall comes alive with a free light and sound show adding to the spectacle of this building.
The museum is open every day but Tuesday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is MXN150 ($7.50 USD).
See some art at Museo Fernando García Ponce-Macay
For free things to do in Merida, look no further than the Museo Fernando García Ponce-Macay. This is a former colonial palace – the former archbishop’s palace, to be precise – that now features modern and contemporary artwork from Mexican artists.
The permanent collection holds pieces by some of the most prominent names in Yucatan’s Realist and Ruptura period of art. These include Fernando Castro Pacheco, Fernando García Ponce, and Gabriel Ramírez Aznar.
The museum is open Monday to Friday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and on Saturdays from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm.
Visit Merida Palacio del Gobierno
For more free things to do in Merida, check out the Palacio de Gobierno – the Government Palace. It was built in the late 1800s and it’s beautifully decorated with murals.
The Palace is open Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
Admire the interiors at Casa Museo Montes Molina
Casa Museo Montes Molina is an elegant early 1900s mansion that gives you an opportunity to see what life would have been like for the wealthy inhabitants of Merida over a century ago. Luckily, it’s not just the outside you can see but the beautiful interiors are actually open to the public to enjoy.
Open throughout the week, it’s possible to take a 45-minute tour through the sophisticated rooms of the Casa Museo Montes Molina and out into the garden. You’ll get to marvel at the European furnishings, the marble floors, the Murano crystal chandeliers, and fabulous Art Deco pieces throughout. Everything from the manicured gardens to the sparkling bathrooms, and even the old cellar and utility rooms, offer an interesting glimpse into the Yucatan’s golden age.
See an ancient Mayan ball game
On your travels throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, there’s no doubt that you’ll eventually come across some Mayan ruins that display an ancient ball court. The game in question is actually called Pok Ta Pok and, surprisingly, this very old sport has been kept alive to this day – and seeing it is one of the most fun things to do in Merida.
To see it in action, head to the Plaza Grande on Saturday nights at 8:30 pm when a recreation of the game is held each week (around 30 minutes long and for free). The spectacle may be a re-enactment, but the atmosphere and teams playing give you a very good insight into the excitement and adrenaline involved in Pok Ta Pok.
Go for a Sunday cycle along the La Biciruta
Unfortunately for any cycling enthusiasts out there, Merida’s busy city streets are not particularly well adapted for use by bike. Thankfully, however, every Sunday many of Merida’s attractive streets are actually closed off to vehicular traffic to create a cyclists’ paradise.
Called La Biciruta or “the bike route”, this two-wheeled event is a popular pastime for locals who come out to cruise around in the sunshine on a Sunday morning. There’s free water and bike maintenance offered up for free along the route!
Finding a bicycle to rent isn’t too difficult either – head up the Paseo de Montejo and you’ll find a wide choice of bicycle rental businesses (just make sure you go with a well-reviewed, reputable establishment).
Stroll along the Paseo de Montejo
The Paseo de Montejo is a six-kilometer-long (that’s 3.7 miles) boulevard that cuts through Merida as its main thoroughfare. Named after the founder of Merida, Francisco de Montejo, this is where you can find some of the most elegant and iconic buildings in the entire city such as the Palacio Canton, a mansion built int he 1900s in neo-Baroque and Neoclassical style.
Inspired by the late 19th century redesign of Paris, this grand boulevard is lined with trees and dotted with stately roundabouts along its course. If you come to Merida, you simply cannot miss this Yucatan Champs-Élysées. As well as high-end boutiques, there are multiple coffee shops and museums to explore along the avenue. Take a break on a shaded bench along the way and watch the world go by.
Spend Friday evening at Plaza Grande
Plaza Grande or the Zocalo is the main square of Merida. Some have claimed that it’s the most beautiful city plaza in all of Mexico, and it’s not hard to see why. If you have a spare few hours in the afternoon, why not take a wander to this square and spend some time hanging out and unwinding with the locals.
There are plenty of shady spots to sit and people-watch, and as the sun starts to set, the square comes alive with food vendors (particularly on Sundays). Grab a bite, and refreshing drink, and sit at one of the iconic Yucatan love seats. There’s even Wi-Fi in this square, so you can catch up on your social media!
Eat Yucatan cuisine at La Chaya Maya
La Chaya Maya is arguably the most famous restaurant in Merida and is the perfect place to start your journey into Yucatan and Mayan cuisine. With now two locations in the city (the original is just off Parque Santa Lucia), not only is this joint popular with visitors but it’s also busy with locals which is always a good sign.
Dishes here include cochinita pibil and relleno negro (black turkey stew) among other things. You can wash it all down with a good selection of beers and cocktails. All in all, it’s an amazing experience – choose to sit in the courtyard or inside, or maybe it’ll be so busy that you won’t have any choice at all!
For more Mexican specialties, read this post.
Take a cooking class
One of the best souvenirs of your time in Merida that you could take back with you is the ability to whip up some incredible Mexican cuisine. Taking a cooking class means you’ll be able to learn some delicious Yucatan dishes for yourself.
You could learn how to make cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork), huevos motulenos (a breakfast dish with beans and eggs), or supa de lima (chicken and lime soup). There are numerous places where you can enroll in a cooking class with many haciendas and boutique hotels providing such services. Take your pick!
You can book your cooking class in Merida here.
Enjoy a cocktail or two
Merida has no shortage of excellent venues to grab a drink in the evening (or in the daytime). For example, La Negrita is a cool, modern cantina serving margaritas and mezcals alongside live music. Another great spot is Pipiripau Bar – an historic spot to enjoy a long drink. It’s got grand rooms, great atmosphere, and even a garden with live music at the weekend.
For a different sort of drinking experience, head to Mercado 60. This fun, down-to-earth marketplace is where you can enjoy international eats paired with a margarita or a beer to the beat of live salsa music. Later on, there’s even dancing.
Hit the beach at Progreso
If you want to take a break from the city and spend the day relaxing, then you should make a beeline for Progreso. A port city in its own right, Progreso is only a 20-minute drive from central Merida and is easy to reach via car, bus, or Uber.
Here you’ll find a long stretch of beach which is a favorite among locals – particularly in the summer months when people leave the city behind in favor of cooler days at the coast. It’s also in Progreso that you’ll find the world’s longest pier (6.5 kilometers or 4 miles to be exact). This is for the cruise ships, the occupants of which are bused to Merida or archaeological sites.
Trust me on the beach – it’s nice to swim, chill out on the sand, and unwind for the day.
Read my post The Best Beaches In Mexico.
Take a day trip to a nearby city
While you won’t have shortage of things to do in Merida, you may want to take advantage of its central position in the Yucatan Peninsula to explore other beautiful colonial cities. Campeche, Valladolid and Izamal are all within easy (between one and two hours) reach from Merida and the perfect destination for a day trip.
Campeche is a gorgeous colonial town with colorful buildings, walls (well, whatever remains of them) surrounding the historic center of town, and a malecon (waterfront) that is perfect for a walk. It’s easy to reach by car and there are regular ADO buses going there; alternatively, you can join a guided tour from Merida.
For information on guided tours of Campeche from Merida, click here.
Izamal is actually on the way to Valladolid, so you can visit both on the same day. Izamal is known as the Ciudad Amarilla – the Yellow City – and it won’t take you long upon visiting to understand how it got its name. Valladolid is actually quite close to Chichen Itza, and a colonial city that is similar to Merida though smaller in size and much quieter. The zocalo is truly gorgeous there!
If you have your own car, visiting Izamal and Valladolid on the same day is extremely easy. Otherwise, join a guided tour departing from Merida. You can book it here.