Merida Travel Guide: the best things to do – plus where to eat, sleep and play – in Yucatan’s vibrant, culture-rich capital.
Last updated: October 2023
While many tourists flock to the white sand beaches and glistening turquoise waters of Mexico’s popular Riviera Maya, those in-the-know are heading past the coast and further inland to a fabled gem tucked into the Yucatan jungle: Merida, the vibrant, culture-rich capital of Yucatan state. Consistently ranked as one of the Best Cities in the World among Condé Nast Traveler’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards – landing at #4 in 2022 – it’s safe to say that word is out and growing on this authentic Yucatecan enclave.
At its peak in the late 1800s during the city’s henequen, or “green gold” textile boom, the later faded opulence of Merida is currently in the midst of a robust renaissance. A new wave of bohemian business owners, creatives and visionaries are now restoring dilapidated buildings, setting up shop and otherwise reviving this cultural hotbed – once one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
In and around Merida’s Historic Center, this reawakening was evident during my first visit in 2019; positively ubiquitous upon my latest return in 2023. Think: bustling cobblestone streets lined with colorful colonial architecture, a thriving arts and design scene, to-die-for regional cuisine and let’s not forget the many reimagined cantinas (salud!). Beyond the city – a further myriad of awe-inspiring encounters begging a day trip, if not overnight.
Here, our ultimate guide to enjoying the best of Merida, Mexico.
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Merida Travel Guide: How to Arrive
Your best bet is to fly into Merida’s own international airport, Manuel Crescencio Rejón International Airport (MID), then catch a taxi into or around the city’s Historic Center (known as Centro). Note while Ubers are plentiful throughout Merida, and they can indeed drop you at the airport, it is illegal to call one from the airport. You can technically walk about 5-7 minutes to the main road and legally call one from there, or you can save yourself the trouble (read: hauling luggage in Merida’s notorious heat) and prebook this affordable, private shuttle.
If you’re unable to book a flight directly into Merida, you can also fly into Cancun International Airport (CUN). From here, you can rent a car or take the very comfortable ADO Bus (equipped with luggage storage, A/C, an on-board bathroom and spacious, reclining seats) for the 4 hour journey. The bus will leave you in one of two bus terminals (this one in Centro or this one just outside of Centro) where you can easily take a taxi or Uber to your accommodation. If you’re already in the Riviera Maya, you also have the option of taking the ADO Bus out of Playa Del Carmen instead of Cancun.
Soon, those traveling to Merida from Cancun International Airport or other locations throughout the peninsula will be able to take the forthcoming Tren Maya (Mayan Train). Watch this space.
Merida Travel Guide: How to Get Around
One of things I love about Merida is how compact and easy to navigate the city is. Almost everything you’ll want to see and do is conveniently located in historic Centro, easily covered on foot, local taxi or Uber.
Cobblestone streets and busy sidewalks make riding bikes around town a tricky (if not perilous) endeavor. Nonetheless – if pedaling is your preferred mode of transport, you’ll want to take advantage of the city’s popular Bici-Ruta held every Sunday morning. This free event lets you ride a dedicated, traffic-free route combining Merida’s famed Paseo de Montejo with the colorful streets of Centro.
Merida Travel Guide: Where to Stay / Best Hotels
Best Hotels in Merida, Mexico: Rosas & Xocolate
With a name as alluring as Rosas & Xocolate, it’s not hard to imagine why this beautiful boutique hotel ended up on our list. Set in two Spanish Colonial-style mansions located on famed Paseo de Montejo, this romantic luxury hotel boasts an on-site restaurant and tequila bar, chocolate shop complete with an in-house chocolatier, plus a pool, gym and spa – where you can indulge in one of their signature cacao treatments. Seventeen double-walled rooms (read: sanctuaries) all feature polished cedar finishes, private jacuzzi tubs, handmade chocolate soaps and lofty, thirteen-foot high ceilings.
Book your stay at Rosas & Xocolate.
Best Hotels in Merida, Mexico: Hotel CIGNO
A fifteen minute walk south of Plaza Grande (read: the beating heart of Merida) brings you to the quiet neighborhood of La Ermita and here, the adults-only refuge of Hotel CIGNO. The design-driven stay takes shape in a meticulously restored 19th-century residence, now housing ten generously-appointed guest rooms. Featuring such luxuries as four-poster king beds, rainfall showers and plush bathrobes, some offer walk-out access to the hotel’s blue-tiled swimming pool and jacuzzi; others open to private terraces accented by glimmering plunge pools and tassled hammocks. Don’t miss the on-site restaurant, Cocina, for contemporary takes on regional Yucatecan fare as led by Puebla-born Chef Ángel Peláez.
Book your stay at Hotel CIGNO.
Best Hotels in Merida, Mexico: Mansión Merida
Upon arriving to this beautifully restored belle epoque mansion in the heart of Merida’s Historic Center – once a single-family residence belonging to an industrious Yucatan family – one is immediately transported to the city’s opulent heyday. The evocative stay is located along romantic Parque de los Hidalgos just steps from Plaza Grande, counting fourteen elegant suites (including the crown jewel Master Suite, pictured here) a lounger-lined swimming pool, gym, spa and on-site restaurant spilling onto the palm-shaded terrace.
Book your stay at Mansión Merida.
Best Hotels in Merida, Mexico: Künük Boutique Hotel
This gorgeous boutique hotel may as well be the definition of a hidden gem in Merida. Tucked away from the city’s hustle and bustle on a quiet stretch of residential Santiago (a leisurely twenty minute stroll brings you to the heart of Centro), you’ll feel worlds away from it all in this 1905 mansion-turned-elegant escape. A sense of calm permeates thirteen rooms, where neutral hues and wood accents meet thoughtful touches like an in-room Nespresso machine, organic bath amenities and handmade palm slippers. In the tree-shaded central courtyard, guests can take excellent included breakfast or go for a dip in the lovely swimming pool – loungers and fringed hammocks beckon for poolside lazing. At night, you won’t want to miss grabbing a nightcap from the sophisticated cocktail bar.
Book your stay at Kunuk Boutique Hotel.
Best Hotels in Merida: Hacienda Xcanatun, Angsana Heritage Collection
Tucked into the lush Yucatán jungle a mere fifteen minutes north of Merida is quite possibly the region’s best-kept secret: Hacienda Xcanatun, newly expanded under Banyan Tree’s culture-rooted Angsana Heritage Collection. Experiencing this enchanting enclave is, in a word, a journey. Here, Yucatán roots seamlessly blend with Asia-inspired sensibilities, like 18 original, hacienda-style quarters paired with 36 new, contemporary suites – some boasting private plunge pools. Or the brand new spa (read: luxurious sanctuary) centered around a tranquil lily pond topped by an open-air yoga and meditation deck. Plus, luxuriant flora at every turn, responsibly sourced heritage cuisine and three swimming pools for blissful lazing – one happens to be Olympic size with canopied daybeds and a full-service pool bar.
Book your stay at Hacienda Xcanatun, Angsana Heritage Collection.
Best Hotels in Merida: There’s more!
See all of our top picks here:
Merida Travel Guide: Where to Eat & Drink / Best Restaurants & Bars
Best Breakfast Restaurants in Merida: Casa T’HO
Casa T´HŌ Concept House (picture above middle, left) resides in a beautifully transformed 19th-century mansion along Paseo de Montejo. An airy, palm-flecked courtyard anchors the stylish space, where healthy breakfast fare (read: perfectly plated toasts, eggs and bowls) later transforms into a buzzing scene of pre-dinner bites and cocktails. Don’t miss perusing the collection of encircling designer boutiques, perfumeries and art galleries, exclusively dedicated to made-in-Mexico talent.
Best Traditional Restaurants in Merida: La Chaya Maya
Offering a deep dive into traditional Yucatecan cuisine, there’s a reason why both tourists and locals alike flock to venerable La Chaya Maya at all hours of the day. There are two locations in Centro, though I prefer the more atmospheric La Chaya Maya Casona with its verdant courtyard seating. Expect mouthwatering regional cuisine served up by wait staff in traditional Yucatán dress, while handmade tortillas are pressed to perfection right on the restaurant floor. In addition to savory plates like queso relleno, sopa de lima and relleno negro, be sure to try the region’s legendary cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork dish braised in achiote paste, sour orange and lime.
Best Lunch Restaurants in Merida: Ramiro Cocina
For an elevated daytime take on Mexican cuisine, reserve a table at newcomer Ramiro Cocina. From 12noon – 6:30pm Tuesday – Sunday, Chef Aleli Vicencio serves up artisanal spins on traditional antojitos (light bites) like quesadillas, tamales and molotes, plus larger plates like mole verde and pulpo en tinta, from an open kitchen. Order a la carte or opt for the seasonal, 6-course tasting menu, perhaps best enjoyed in the leafy back patio.
Best Fine-Dining Restaurants in Merida: K’u’uk
Raved as one of the best restaurants in Merida, K’u’uk (pictured above middle, right) is worth the hype – and then some. Located off Paseo de Montejo in a beautifully restored Spanish Colonial mansion, head here for a fabulous imagining of traditional Yucatecan staples from the palate of award-winning Chef Pedro Evia. Haute takes on cochinita pibil, esquites, longaniza, tamales and more are cooked in a one-of-its-kind “Pibinal” oven designed to mimic the traditional Maya pibil (an underground oven covered with earth), while no detail is spared in each dish’s presentation. Order a la carte or go all in with the tasting menu – a veritable feast of 21 imaginative courses.
An impressive selection of wine and champagne, plus smoky mezcal cocktails and more craft libations, complement the experience – sip tableside or in the elegant bar and lounge. TIP: Pre or post-dinner, ask for the tour to get a guided visit of the mansion as well as the restaurant’s on-site food innovation lab. Here, you can peruse a giant map of the Yucatan Peninsula outlining where K’u’uk sources its ingredients.
Best Fine-Dining Restaurants in Merida: Huniik
If you watched the Yucatán episode of CNN’s Eva Longoria: Searching for Mexico, you saw her step into the gastronomic enclave of Huniik: a love letter to Maya origin cuisine from Merida-born chef and culinary wunderkind Roberto Solís. Textured stone walls, traditional pasta tiled floors and moody lighting set the stage for the tasting menu-only experience, where an open kitchen serves nine artful courses rooted in ancestral flavors and region-sourced ingredients. The eight-table eatery is the only Relais & Chateaux culinary concept in the Yucatan Peninsula; one of five in all of Mexico.
Best Rooftops in Merida: Restaurante Picheta
For sundowners with (arguably) the best view in town, reserve a table on the rooftop terrace of Restaurante Picheta. The stylish spot boasts a privileged location along Plaza Grande, where – within the storied facade of a 350-year old colonial building – expertly prepared tipples pair with artful interpretations on regional cuisine. Plus: views of Merida’s grand Cathedral San Ildefonso, which lights up in spectacular fashion as sunset turns to dusk.
Best Rooftops in Merida: El Remate
Heralding the entrance to Paseo de Montejo, El Remate is part elegant indoor eatery, part fashionable rooftop – yielding the only elevated views in town of the grand boulevard – and part dapper cocktail den. Best to reserve a table here too – see and be-seen crowds start to arrive at sunset; by nightfall the candlelit terrace becomes a buzzing affair. Expect fabulous cocktails, an innovative menu pairing contemporary Mexican cuisine with coastal sea fare and dare I say among the best and most welcoming service in town.
Pre or post-dinner, consider a stop into the site’s covert cocktail den, El Gato. Stepping into the intimate space transports you to a debonair, 70s-era living room, where sophisticated libations are served against a wafting soundtrack of retro beats.
Best Bars in Merida: La Negrita Cantina
No trip to Merida is complete without a stop at La Negrita. Open daily 12noon – 10pm, you’ll find locals and tourists alike flocking to this lively Merida institution all days of the week. It’s easy to see why, as an endless flow of cerveza, mezcal and cocktails – the latter served in kitschy mason jars – are complemented with rounds of gratis botanas (bar snacks). If you’re looking for more than snacks, a full menu is also available serving up standard cantina fare.
TIP: If you want to be where all of the action is, head to the back where you’ll find festive live music keeping the party going every night. If you prefer a more intimate experience, sidle up to the quieter, candlelit bar by the main entrance.
Best Bars in Merida: Dos Diez Mezcalería
Textured stone walls, colonnaded hallways and hanging chandeliers set the scene at Dos Diez Mezcalería: Merida’s buzziest new arrival. The focus is on mezcal to be sure – an impressive list of artisanal offerings at that – in addition to other wild agave distillates and interesting made-in-Mexico spirits (think: Mexico-born gin, whiskey and rum, all available by the pour or cocktail). Snag a seat at the bar, grab a table amidst moody interiors or head outside to the palm-fringed patio. Whichever you choose, smoky sips are best complemented by Oaxaca-leaning bar bites like stuffed tlayudas or chapulines (crispy, seasoned grasshoppers – don’t knock em til you try ’em).
Best Restaurants & Bars in Merida: There’s more!
See our full edit of Merida’s best dining and drinking spaces – coffee shops and cafés to casual eats and fine-dining destinations, plus rooftops, cantinas and cocktail dens – here:
Merida Travel Guide: Best Things to Do
Best Things to Do in Merida: Historic Center (Centro)
Merida’s Historic Center, known as Centro, is made for walking. Between the city’s cobblestone streets, colorful colonial architecture and beautifully manicured parks – not to mention hidden gems around every corner – there’s plenty to explore.
A good starting base is Parque de Santa Ana, where you’ll want to head south on Calle 60: a vibrant stretch lined with shops, cafés, restaurants, bars, parks and more. Stop and wander around Parque de Santa Lucia, where you won’t be able to resist taking a photo in the giant Merida kissing chair. Now, keep heading down Calle 60 until you reach the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatan. Pass through the entrance to cool off in the shade, have a sit or simply admire the university’s serene, Moorish-inspired courtyard.
Nearby are two lovely parks: Parque de la Madre and Parque Hidalgo, either (or both) of which you can pass en route to the wave-like architecture of Palacio de la Música. Here, you can head into the recently constructed concert hall’s interactive museum to learn about the history of Mexican music, or peruse the roster of upcoming concerts to see if there’s anything you’d like to catch. Finally, a few more steps south along Calle 60 brings you to Plaza Grande: Merida’s picturesque main square.
Best Things to Do in Merida: Plaza Grande
There’s plenty to do in Plaza Grande – the beating heart of Merida – to keep one occupied for at least a few hours. Starting in the beautifully manicured square, you’ll first want to grab a seat in one of the emblematic sets of kissing chairs to watch Merida life go by. Next, it’s time to explore the perimeter. Start with the grand Catedral de San Ildefonso, a 1500s renaissance-style cathedral partially built using reclaimed stones from Maya temples. Next door, contemporary art museum MACAY is worth the nominal fee to marvel at sculptures, paintings, photographs, mixed media installations and more from Mexican artists.
Continue around the plaza until you reach Casa Montejo: former home of Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo, the founder of Merida. Step inside the 16-century residence to tour several beautifully preserved rooms, each replete with original furnishings, artwork and interiors spanning Victorian, neo-rococo and neo-renaissance styles. Plus, rotating installations by modern & contemporary Mexican artists. Entry is free.
As you exit Casa Montejo, look northwest and you’ll spot a pink-hued building with a clocktower. This is Merida’s 18th-century Palacio Municipal, your next stop. Ask nicely to the police guarding the entrance and you might be granted access to the second floor. Here, you can walk through the city council’s historic meeting hall until you emerge onto a spacious balcony offering bird’s eye views of Plaza Grande – a perfect place for some photos, and a quick rest. (Editor’s note: access to the Palacio Municipal has gotten more restricted post-pandemic, but still worth the ask.)
Lastly, keep winding around the plaza until you reach the mint-green Palacio de Gobierno del Estado de Yucatan (Governor’s Palace). Wander through the courtyard and up the stairs to marvel at beautiful murals by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. These depict the history of the Maya people and their struggles as they first encounter, and are ultimately conquered by, the Spanish. Don’t miss the stunning ballroom where you’ll find even more murals in addition to views of Plaza Grande. Entry is free (plus, bathrooms).
In town on a weekend? You won’t want to miss the massive weekly market that descends on Plaza Grande every Sunday, offering drool-worthy Yucatecan street fare alongside numerous vendor stalls peddling everything from hats to hammocks to handicrafts.
Best Things to Do in Merida: Paseo de Montejo
Any visit to Merida isn’t complete without a leisurely stroll down Paseo de Montejo: the city’s grand, tree-framed boulevard named in homage to Merida founder Francisco de Montejo. If it looks familiar, that’s because the picturesque stretch was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Stately beaux-arts style mansions stand sentry along either side, interwoven with stylish hotels, eateries and boutiques.
A great place to start your Paseo de Montejo amble is at Montejo 495. Also known as Casas Gemelas (twin houses), this pair of nearly identical mansions features ornate, French-inspired architecture dating to the early 1900s. Marvel from the outside or opt for a guided tour of the lavish interiors – beautifully preserved with original furnishings and decór. A block away, Palacio Cantón (officially, Museo Regional de Antropología de Yucatan, or Regional Museum of Yucatan Anthropology) houses rotating exhibits on the region’s cultural heritage, pre-Hispanic times to present.
A little further, you can step into Quinta Montes Molina: a 1902 beaux-arts beauty offering guided tours of its opulent interiors (think: Carrara marble floors, Baccarat crystal chandeliers and porcelain sculptures), plus several terraces and gardens. Keep going until you reach the imposing Monumento a la Patria, featuring 300 hand-carved figures telling the story of Mexico – indigenous times to the mid-20th century.
Best Things to Do in Merida: Mundo Maya Museum
To give you more context on your visit to Merida and the surrounding Yucatan region, head to the sprawling Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (the Great Museum of the Mayan World). It’s located just outside of the Historic Center and worth the quick Uber ride for an immersive look at Maya culture – pre-Hispanic times to present. As you arrive you won’t be able to miss the contemporary exterior, designed in homage to the sacred ceiba tree: believed by the Maya to connect the heavens to the earth and underworld. Once inside, plan to spend around two hours wandering through expertly curated halls and interactive exhibits housing 1000+ artifacts.
Best Things to Do in Merida: Free Cultural Performances
Every night of the week, the city of Merida hosts completely free cultural shows ranging from traditional Yucatecan dance to romantic serenades to immersive video projections lighting up such historical facades as Casa Montejo. Plus: an action-packed reenactment of the pre-Hispanic Maya ballgame, pok ta pok. Shows typically start at either 8 or 9pm and fair warning – are bound to be packed. Plan to arrive at least one hour ahead of time to secure a good view.
Best Things to Do in Merida: Mercados & Guayaberas
You’re not in a Mexican town until you’ve hit the local mercado, and in Merida, that means wandering through the labyrinth halls of Mercado Lucas de Gálvez or the nearby Bazar de Artesanías García Rejón. Both, veritable meccas for street food, souvenir stalls and 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.
Merida Travel Guide: Best Day Trips & Nearby Sights
Best Day Trips & Sights From Merida: Izamal
Izamal is an absurdly cute, culture-rich pueblo mágico (magical town) tucked into the Yucatan jungle about 90 minutes outside of Merida. Aptly known as the “Yellow City” due to its abundance of cheery facades, Izamal is also known as “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.
Given Izamal’s Maya roots, Spanish colonization and modern day Yucatecan culture, it’s fitting the town carries yet another nickname: “The City of Three Cultures.” 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.
You can visit Izamal from Merida on a day trip or better yet, spend the night (or two). Either way, I’ve got everything you need to know in Your Definitive Travel Guide to Izamal: Yucatán’s Sun-Kissed Yellow City.
Best Day Trips & Sights From Merida: Hacienda Yaxcopoil
A 45-minute drive outside of Merida’s Historic Center, this transportive colonial-era hacienda may appear faded now – but was a different scene entirely during the region’s henequen boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Henequen: a native agave plant producing a prized textile fiber, sisal, from its sword-shaped leaves. So prized, in fact, the henequen industry became known as “green gold” and once-solidified the Yucatan Peninsula as one of the wealthiest destinations in the world.
Pass through the grand arch to wander through the main house (featuring original furnishings and decór) and stroll through the sprawling grounds, gardens and factory halls complete with old machinery once used to process the henequen plant. Flying a bit under the radar with little to no crowds, Hacienda Yaxcopoil is absolutely worth a visit to imagine what life was like back in the region’s glory days.
Visit DIY style or on this guided adventure combining the hacienda with a visit to Uxmal archaeological site, plus an otherworldly cenote, from Merida.
Best Day Trips & Sights From Merida: Santa Barbara Cenotes
Cenotes (pronounced “seh-notay”) are naturally formed swimming holes you can find all across the Yucatan Peninsula. These otherworldly sites are formed over hundreds of thousands of years by the gradual erosion, and eventual collapse, of limestone bedrock. There are literally thousands in the region and no two are exactly alike. Some cenotes are subterranean and enclosed, some open to the sky and some a mix of both. Held sacred by the ancient Maya, these ethereal sinkholes were thought to be portals to the underworld.
With several options located within an hour’s drive of Merida, a visit to at least one cenote is a must during your time in the region. Better yet, maximize your visit at Santa Barbara Cenotes: a collective of not just one but four cenotes, plus an on-site restaurant, in the tiny Maya town of Homun. After paying the entrance fee, you’ll have the option of grabbing complimentary bicycles or riding about 5 minutes in a horse-drawn cart to reach the cenotes. From here all four are in close proximity to each other, which you can easily reach by walking or pedaling. Each is uniquely beautiful and unforgettable – make sure to visit with enough time to experience them all.
Visit on your own or elevate the adventure: this guided excursion combines Santa Barbara Cenotes with a set of under-the-radar Maya ruins boasting climbable pyramids.
Best Day Trips & Sights From Merida: Uxmal
You are spoilt for choice with numerous Maya archaeological sites in the region, however the one bound to blow you away? Uxmal. First settled in 500 B.C., it wasn’t until the 9th – 12th centuries A.D. that this major Maya power came into prominence. It’s estimated that a peak population of 25,000 inhabitants once lived throughout the territory, stretching a whopping 14 1/2 square miles.
Uxmal is just over an hour’s drive outside of Merida, boasting off-the-beaten-path adventure and authenticity – with a fraction of the crowds of Chichen Itza. I arrived at 8:30am on a weekday (half an hour past opening time) and had the UNESCO World Heritage site nearly to myself for the first hour. The experience here can be described as peaceful and immersive, boasting remarkably preserved stucco-carved facades, spectacular viewpoints and several structures that you can wander through and into. Though the Great Pyramid is no longer climbable, its soaring grandeur is no less impressive.
Visit Uxmal on your own or with this highly rated excursion including Hacienda Yaxcopoil, plus a cenote, from Merida’s Historic Center.