In this self-attested Izamal Travel Guide, we give you the best things to do, where to eat and where to sleep in Yucatán’s storied and sun-kissed Yellow City.
Last updated: July 2023
Izamal Travel Guide: The Yellow City
Have you heard of Izamal? It’s an absurdly cute, culture-rich pueblo mágico (magical town) tucked into Mexico’s lush Yucatán jungle. I breezed through here in a matter of hours a few years ago en route to larger Mérida; this time, I spent three days.
Izamal is aptly known as the “Yellow City” due to its abundance of cheery facades, but also “The Hill City,” as the entire town is built atop and around ancient Maya pyramids. Including its landmark yellow convent – sitting on the base of a major Maya temple that the Spaniards leveled off and built atop in the mid-16th century upon the founding of the town.
Why yellow? There are a few theories, though brightening up Izamal in honor of Pope John Paul II’s 1993 visit seems to be the leading conjecture. An alternate theory of paying homage to the Maya sun god is plausible; another stating that the color yellow repels mosquitos, I can personally assure, is not.
Izamal, Yucatán: The City of Three Cultures
Given Izamal’s layered history it’s fitting the town carries yet another nickname: “The City of Three Cultures,” in reference to its Maya roots, Spanish colonization and modern day Yucatecan culture. A title that is ever-present as you stroll past ochre-hued Spanish colonial architecture standing side-by-side with the mottled stone remains of once-grand Maya temples. Sprinkled throughout, a growing crop of contemporary cafés, galleries and boutiques from bohemian visionaries breathing newfound life into the sleepy town.
Izamal, Yucatán: More than a Day Trip.
Izamal: unhurried yet vibrant; casual yet captivating. Penciled in by many as a quick stop or day trip while exploring nearby Mérida or Valladolid, my recent multi-night stay argues that this surprising enclave is worth much more of your attention – and your itinerary. With a dedicated stop arriving here next year from the forthcoming Tren Maya, it’s safe to say this Yucatán gem is on track to shine even brighter.
In this self-attested Izamal travel guide, we’ve got your insider intel on the best of Yucatán’s sun-kissed Yellow City: best things to do to where to eat (and drink) to the town’s best boutique hotels so you too can stay the night – or longer.
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Disclosure: This guide contains affiliate links. This means if you click on one such link and make a purchase through it, we may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.
Izamal Travel Guide: Fast Facts
Closest international airports: Mérida (90 minutes), Cancun (4 hours)
How to get around: Car rental (from Mérida), walk, bike rental, local taxi (you won’t find Uber in Izamal).
Banks or ATMS? Several in Izamal, including HSBC, BBVA and Banco Azteca.
Izamal Travel Guide: Where to Stay // Best Boutique Hotels
Izamal’s hotel scene is small yet growing, anchored by casual boutique hotels, beautifully restored haciendas and a lavish one-suite stay.
Best Hotels in Izamal: Hotel Izama Plaza and Hotel San Miguel Arcángel
In town, Hotel Izamal Plaza and Hotel San Miguel Arcángel offer casual boutique accommodations at under $100.00 USD/night. The former boasts spacious rooms, a swimming pool and rooftop with convent views; the latter an idyllic courtyard, on-site coffee shop and select rooms with plaza-view balconies.
Both are located in the heart of Izamal just steps from San Antonio de Padua Convent, Kinich Kakmó Pyramid and the town’s best restaurants, galleries and shops.
Best Hotels in Izamal: Casa de los Santos by Coqui Coqui
On a quiet street one block behind the convent, you can check-in as the only guest of Casa de los Santos. This exclusive one-suite stay comes from cult-following hotelier and apothecary Coqui Coqui, counting double clawfoot bathtubs, a private pool and spacious terrace overlooking the faded stone walls of the convent’s posterior. Luxurious details abound, like antique tapestries, ornate floor tiles and a beautifully arched open kitchen.
Plus: an on-site spa where you can book such restorative rituals as the Under the Yucatán Sun Facial or Healing Stone Massage. All treatments infuse Coqui Coqui’s artisanal line of transportive scents and botanicals.
Best Hotels in Izamal: Hacienda Sacnicte
A 10 minute drive from town, Hacienda Sacnicte (meaning “white flower” in Maya) exudes enchantment in a gracefully restored 17th-century Spanish hacienda. Leafy grounds count a picturesque swimming pool with umbrella-shaded loungers, porticoed terraces housing tables from the on-site restaurant and a flower petal-scattered pond framed by original stone walls.
Ten gorgeous rooms and suites feature such details as original wood-beamed ceilings, distressed ochre walls, king beds and organic bath amenities, plus contemporary mod-cons like A/C and wifi – all at under $100.00 USD/night.
Best Hotels in Izamal: There’s more!
See all of our top picks in: Best Hotels in Izamal: Boutique Stays to Restored Haciendas to a Lavish One-Suite Residence
Izamal Travel Guide: Best Things to See & Do
Best Things to Do in Izamal: Marvel at Convento de San Antonio de Padua
A visit to the town’s landmark San Antonio de Padua Convent is both obvious and awe-inspiring when visiting Izamal. If it appears the 16th-century convent is perched atop a large hill, that’s because it is. When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, they promptly leveled off the top of the grand Maya temple that originally stood here – then built upon it usurping several of said leveled-off stones in the process. The convent finished construction in 1561.
The sprawling Atrium – second in size only to that of the Vatican – is ringed with seemingly endless arcades under which you can still spot the original Maya stones. A statue honoring Pope John Paul II leads the way to the entrance of the primary church, Santuario de la Virgen de Izamal. Next to this entrance, you can view original 16th-century frescoes that were only discovered in recent years by a maintenance worker – at some point they had been painted over.
The Franciscan convent remains active today and is an important pilgrimage site for Yucatán catholics, due to a statue of Our Lady of Izamal brought by controversial Friar Diego de Landa from Guatemala (the centre of religious art in the New World) in 1558. Notorious for the burning of indigenous Maya codices, the friar was later overcome with such remorse that he spent the rest of his life putting in writing all he could of Maya culture. You can see a statue of him in the middle of a roundabout to the right of the convent’s main entrance, if you please.
San Antonio de Padua Convent is free to visit, where the inside of the church – boasting a baroque-style altar piece covered with laminated gold – may or may not be open to visitors. A small on-site museum costs a mere $5.00 pesos to enter (roughly $0.30 USD) commemorating Pope John Paul II’s 1993 visit.
Monday through Saturday, a nightly Light of the Mayas multimedia show brings the convent’s Atrium to life at 8:30pm. Colorful projections light up the soaring yellow walls and arches, set to music, incense and strolling monks. The show is free.
Best Things to Do in Izamal: Climb Pyramid Kinich Kakmó
What makes Izamal particularly fascinating is the coexistence of ancient Maya pyramids, looming side-by-side, within the heart of a modern day town. There are several in Izamal, though most remain largely unexcavated and don’t offer visitor access. The exception? Pyramid Kinich Kakmó, located just steps (under 10 minutes walking) from Izamal’s main plaza.
This massive Maya pyramid is the tallest in Yucatán – beating out Chichen Itzá’s El Castillo – and even ranks as the third largest in all of Mexico by volume. The terraced temple counts ten levels, dates to 400 AD and was built to honor Kinich Kakmó, the Maya sun god. Legend has it the deity – whose name translates to “the fire macaw with the sun face” – would swoop down from the heavens in the form of a blazing macaw to collect daily offerings like flowers, fruit, incense and animal sacrifices.
Now adorned with foliage and overgrowth, you can imagine this temple’s former grandeur when it would have been covered in intricate stucco carvings and grand Maya masks. A relatively easy amble to the top yields panoramic views stretching all the way to the convent. Entry is free.
TIP: If you’re spending the night in Izamal, visit in the morning at opening time (8am) to beat the busloads of day-trippers arriving from nearby Mérida. You’ll probably have the entire site to yourself.
Best Things to Do in Izamal: Find More Ancient Maya Pyramids
For intrepid explorers interested in finding Izamal’s lesser-known archaeological sites, I’ve got you. Just two blocks off the main plaza you can get a great view of Pyramid Itzamatul from the street. This large structure was built in honor of Itzamná, the Maya god of creation, and dates to 400 AD. In the courtyard and coffee shop of Hotel San Miguel Arcángel, you can see a partial base of Pyramid Hun Pik Tok.
Just south of the convent the official gate to Pyramid Habuk remains locked, but rumor has it there’s a side entrance you can wander through to explore what remains of this once-residential Maya construction. Nearby, look for the yellow columns embellished with rabbit-carved crests to mark your arrival to Pyramid Tu’ul, more commonly known as El Conejo (“the rabbit” in Spanish). The iron gate here is likely to be locked as well – and there’s no secret side entrance – but perhaps worth a try to see if the site has reopened. It’s unknown for sure but believed that an important Maya official once resided here, where several artifacts from daily life were unearthed like spindles, flint points and obsidian-carved tools.
Best Things to Do in Izamal: Visit Parque de los Cañones & Capilla de la Santa Cruz
A leisurely five block stroll west of the convent brings you to the El Gallito (“little rooster”) neighborhood and here, a quaint square highlighted by antique canons and a charming chapel. The three canons on display at suitably named Parque de los Cañones (Canon Park) apparently saw warfare over the last century. The small Capilla de la Santa Cruz (Chapel of the Holy Cross) may or may not be open to peek inside, but its thick, barrel vaulted roof and simple bell tower – plus its surrounding seating, the region’s famed “kissing chairs” – make it a picturesque stop nonetheless.
Next to the plaza, you can stop for a pick-me-up drink and bite in the palapa-covered dining room of Restaurante Zamna. Perhaps best known for catering to tourists by the coachload, I wouldn’t fault you for stopping in post-Parque de los Cañones. If nothing else, it’s a welcome escape from the Yucatán heat. Open daily 12noon – 8pm.
Best Things to Do in Izamal: Explore the Town on Foot or Bike
One of the best things to do in Izamal? Simply wander through the town’s charming streets, alleys and plazas, all lined with endless yellow facades – some shining bright, some in nostalgic disrepair. Start in the main plaza (where you can snap an obligatory photo with Izamal’s colorful letters), stroll over to neighboring Parque 5 de Mayo, then work your way outwards. Izamal’s compact center can be easily covered on foot, with plenty of shops, cafés and galleries to duck into for inevitable Yucatán reprieves.
For expedited exploration – and to venture further into Izamal’s outskirts – look for the teal, basket-equipped bicycles parked on the corner of 31st and 32nd streets off Parque 5 de Mayo. The adjacent tourist shop rents the sweet rides for $50.00 pesos (about $3.00 USD) per hour.
Best Things to Do in Izamal: Gallery Hop
Izamal’s growing gallery scenes counts Centro Cultural y Artesanal, located adjacent to the convent off Parque 5 de Mayo. Housed in a restored Spanish colonial home, the building is free to enter – it also houses artisanal shop Taller Maya. To wander through the small yet nicely curated gallery of whimsical Mexican folk art, you’ll need to pay a nominal donation of $25.00 pesos (that’s about $1.50 USD).
Just two blocks from Izamal’s main plaza, step into Galería Wayak to view rotating exhibits from contemporary Mexican artists. The owners speak Spanish, English and French and will be more than happy to chat with you about the current exhibition, as well as Izamal life. Plus: take advantage of the on-site coffee shop to refuel.
Best Things to Do in Izamal: Shop Artisanal Goods
The Yucatán Peninsula is one of the best places in Mexico to stock up on artisanal souvenirs, and Izamal is no exception. At Taller Maya, fair trade wares like woven textiles, handstitched conejos (rabbits) and fringed handbags, plus gourmet region-to-table goods like sea salt from nearby Celestún and rare melipona bee honey, all come tagged with the complete name, technique/material used and community of the item’s Yucatecan craftswoman.
Hecho a Mano (literally, “made by hand”) is your go-to for fanciful handmade frocks, whimsical trinkets and artful decór inside Hotel San Miguel Arcángel. A few blocks away, La Casona de Izamal has a nicely curated selection of woven handbags and home wares. At Coqui Coqui, ring the buzzer to enter a transportive world of fine fragrances, diffusers and luxury goods all made in, and paying homage to, the Yucatán Peninsula.
It’s hard to resist the colorful whirlwind of vendors lining the outside of Izamal’s Mercado Municipal. Here, you can find just about anything: leather shoes and jewelry, vibrant hammocks and hats, handcrafted home goods like pottery, baskets and dreamcatchers, even leather-accented tote bags woven from 100% henequén – the prized agave fiber that made Yucatán one of the wealthiest places in the world in the late 19th century. At just $300.00 pesos (roughly $18.00 USD) a piece, I should have purchased two.
Just outside of Izamal, it’s worth the 20 minute drive to reach Kimbilá: a tiny Maya town famed for its dapper guayaberas (men’s dress shirts) and colorful huipiles (women’s blouses and dresses). Designed to withstand the region’s infamous heat and humidity, guayaberas and huipiles are typically made from lightweight (read: mercifully breathable) cotton or linen. The distinctly Yucatecan style is marked by intricate hand-embroidery and for the ladies – embellishments like ribbon and lace. Don’t forget to top off your look with a stylish Panama hat.
Browse through the several guayabera shops you’ll see lining Kimbilá’s quaint plaza, or head straight to our pick: MUUM. This airy (and A/C powered) store offers traditional and contemporary takes alike on the signature Yucatecan style, plus beautifully embroidered scarves, handbags and hats.
Izamal Travel Guide: Where to Eat & Drink // Best Restaurants & Cafés
Where to Eat & Drink in Izamal: Best Coffee Shops & Cafés
While walking to or from Pyramid Kinich Kakmó, look for the simple white sign with a palm outline hanging off the freshly painted yellow frontage at the corner of 27th and 28th streets. This is newly opened Tropicana Coffee Bar, offering a much needed refuge pre or post-pyramid climb. Alongside excellent espresso, ice’d americanos and smoothies, the cute café also offers a selection of light bites like baguettes, smoothie bowls and pastries (the fresh-baked cinnamon rolls are divine).
Pair your morning (or anytime) cup with idyllic courtyard views at Cafetería Hun Pik Tok, on-site coffee shop of Hotel San Miguel Arcángel. Cure cravings with Mexican staples like huevos rancheros, chilaquiles and quesadillas, or unfussy international faves like waffles with bacon or a ham and cheese croissant. The stone wall you see framing the back of the courtyard? Part of eponymous Pyramid Hun Pik Tok.
On the other side of town, climb the staircase at El Andén to arrive to an airy rooftop setting with convent views. An homage to Yucatán’s storied rail culture – past and forthcoming – “el andén” is the Spanish word to describe the train platform from which travelers embark on, and disembark from, a journey. It’s impossible not to find something you’ll want to sip here, from excellent espresso and cold brew to cappuccinos and lattes, cortados to flat whites and caffeine-free frappes to smoothies. Plus: waffles, baguettes and pastries.
If you’ve stepped into Galería Wayak to peruse the current exhibition from rotating contemporary Mexican artists, you’ll want to stay to refuel. The on-site café serves expertly brewed cups of single origin, Mexico-grown coffee beans, hot or ice’d. Sip while browsing the gallery or at a table on the shaded outdoor patio.
If you’re in town on a weekend, heading to La Siempreviva for breakfast is an easy must. The family-run café churns out slow food made with love in a charming setting marked by painted archways, mosaic tiled tables and exposed wood beams. If not opting for their famed, freshly prepared breakfast buffet spread, you can order a la carte dishes like savory enchiladas suizas, heaping baguette sandwiches and fruit-topped crepes. La Siempreviva is open Saturdays and Sundays only from 9am – 3:30pm.
Those venturing further away from the convent will be rewarded at El Jardín de Edith, an idyllic oasis in an otherwise quiet part of town. A verdant garden setting is punctuated by palm print-cushioned wooden tables, friendly (though leisurely) service and a menu of savory omelettes, sandwiches and waffles to fresh fruit plates and yogurt with local honey. Plus: smoothies, tea, espresso and café de olla – Mexico’s traditional spiced coffee as prepared in a clay pot.
Where to Eat & Drink in Izamal: Mercado Municipal
Are you even in a Mexican town if you’re not stopping into the local mercado? Before, or after, stocking up on artisanal goods from the surrounding vendor stalls at Izamal’s Mercado Municipal, head inside to get a true taste of local flavors from the bustling food hall.
This is a great place to try such Yucatán specialties as cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork marinated in achiote and sour orange), relleno negro (slow-roasted turkey in a spicy black sauce) and hyper-local to Izamal: tzic de venado (shredded venison, served chilled with onions, radish and cilantro). Order any of the above by the taco or torta (sandwich).
Where to Eat & Drink in Izamal: Best Cantina
You’re not in a tiny Mexican town until you’ve found the local cantina, and in Izamal, it’s Bar Roger’s. Head up the stairs at this unassuming spot to sling back a cold cerveza, sip a tequila and ponder Izamal wanderings – all while grazing on complimentary botanas (light bites that accompany each round of drinks). At Bar Roger’s these come in the form of such delights as tajin-sprinkled jicama slices, crispy chicharrón with pico de gallo, even falafel patties. The vibe here is modest, authentic and friendly – you may be the only tourist here, but you’ll be welcomed.
Where to Eat & Drink in Izamal: Best Restaurants
Don’t be fooled into thinking the popularity of Restaurante Kinich Izamal makes it a tourist trap. Are there a lot of tourists here? Yes. But is the cuisine marvelously authentic? Yes – resoundingly so. In fact, this place has held the title of Izamal’s undisputed gastronomic leader since it’s 1993 opening, frequented by locals, tourists and even celebrities alike. Eva Longoria recently dined here while filming her Yucatán episode of CNN’s Searching for Mexico.
Come here for lunch or an early dinner (open 12pm – 7pm daily) to try authentically honored Yucatecan staples like poc chuc, sopa de lima, papadzules, tzic de venado and of course, the region’s famed cochinita pibil. The latter, slow cooked in centuries-old Maya style: underneath the ground in a traditional pib (underground oven).
Don’t skimp on the cocktails either. The bar proudly pours an impressive range of Mexico-distilled spirits like mezcal, raicilla and sotol, even made-in-Yucatán Katún gin, Yatzil habanero chile liqueur and Casa Izamal: a hyper-local agave distillate from the region’s prized henequen plant. Plus, a generous list of mexican wines by the glass or bottle and Yucatán-brewed craft beer.
After passing through the entrance-meets-artisan boutique of La Casona de Izamal – where you’re bound to stop and browse the shop’s colorful handbags and home wares – choose to dine in the airy, palapa-covered dining room or stone wall-encircled back garden. Either way, except savory takes on regional comfort food like longaniza de valladolid, panuchos and salbutes, chaya-stuffed empanadas and relleno negro.
International options like salads, burgers, pastas and ceviches add variety to the menu, while perfectly shaken craft cocktails give special attention to made-in-Mexico spirits. Or, opt for a non-alcoholic agua fresca like chaya and pineapple or lemonade with fresh mint. The stylish eatery is open daily from 9am – 10pm and an excellent option any time of day.
Located in Izamal’s main plaza, grab a terrace-side table at Restaurante Los Arcos to watch Yucatecan life go by during the day, or pass through the front dining room to the enchanting back garden for dinner. An intimate setting of flickering candles, stone walls and climbing tropical vines – plus an uplit fountain in the final dining space – make this a hot ticket for dinner. Hint: make a reservation in advance.
It should come as no surprise that regional cuisine is also the star here, where I’m still dreaming about the queso relleno. Translating to “stuffed cheese,” this savory dish takes the form of a baked Edam cheese ball stuffed with seasoned ground beef, olives, raisins and spices, all drowned in a decadent gravy. It’s just as indulgent as it sounds. For those looking for a change from traditional – Los Arcos has you covered with tex-mex style bites like burritos, guacamole and a heaping plate of nachos, plus vegetarian options.
A newcomer to the scene, Restaurante Otoch (meaning “home” in Maya) resides on a quiet corner two blocks from Izamal’s main plaza. You won’t find tour groups here, rather a boutique dining approach serving elevated takes on regional staples like perfectly grilled poc chuc, brothy sopa de lima and savory queso relleno. Fresh seafood from the nearby Yucatán coast counts garlic shrimp, fish tacos and ceviche; a handful of international options like burgers, salads and wings round out the menu.
Double wooden doors open up to the airy indoor dining room, or enjoy the canopied back garden ringed with textured stone walls, lush greenery and hanging lights. Don’t forget to wash everything down with a margarita, clericot (red wine spritzer) or carajillo (double espresso shaken over ice with a shot of Licor 43). Open Thursday – Sunday from 1pm – 10pm.