When you think of big-city life in Mexico, what comes to mind? Mexico City? Tijuana? Ever hear of Merida? If not, add it to your list. This vibrant city located in the state of Yucatan is home to nearly 1 million people, has a rich history full of culture, and is packed to the brim with things to do in Merida and outside of the city.
Things to do in Merida are countless. Want to enjoy a lovely plaza with great food and regular celebrations? You have nearly plenty to choose from.
Interested in visiting museums and learning more about the heritage of southern Mexico, with everything from indigenous Maya influences to the conquering by the Spanish? There’s no short supply here. Or maybe taking in shows at the theater is more of your liking? How about going for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico or in one of the countless cenotes scattered all over the Yucatan Peninsula? And you can’t forget to visit some of the best-preserved archeological ruin sites in the country!
Sound a bit overwhelming? It is. And that’s the biggest downfall to Merida. You won’t be able to squeeze everything into one short vacation, but you can always come back.
So get away from the tourist crowds in Cancun, forget about the terrible traffic in Mexico City, and instead make your way down to this intensely-rich and lovely city in the south of Mexico: Merida.
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A Brief History of Merida
Before this area was called Merida, it was known as T’hó – an ancient Maya city that served as the capital of the Yucatan Peninsula for centuries. Some historians consider this to be the oldest continually-occupied city in the Americas.
The Spanish came in the 16th century, eventually conquering the indigenous population and founding the city of Merida directly on top of T’hó in 1542. In fact, the stones used to build the oldest and largest church in Merida, Cathedral de San Idelfonso, were taken from the Maya sacred site that used to reside in its location.
Francisco de Montejo is the name of three individuals related to the founding of the city (father, son, and nephew) and you will find Montejo dedications throughout the city, including a museum in the Plaza Grande which used to serve as the family’s residence, one of the many things to do in Merida.
Over the years, Merida thrived due to the vast production of henequén – or as it’s known there, “green gold.” This agave plant was widely produced to create fiber and twine useful in a variety of ways: clothing, rope, twine, and much more.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Merida became extremely wealthy due to its henequén production, heavily aided by the enslaved native population. Large plantations, known as haciendas, started to pop up all over town and in the surrounding areas. Many of these plantations now serve as one of the many things to do around Merida for tourists.
The climate of Merida is fairly warm. In fact, during our visit in January/February, people were bundled up in jackets and scarfs when it was about 72°F (22°C). We laughed pretty hard when one of the event hosts thanked everyone for coming out on “such a cold evening.”
Merida has average highs near 85°F (30°C) in the winter, and some summer months can get over 100°F (37°C). The winters are quite dry, while the summers attract significant rainfall. Don’t forget to bring a nice rain jacket if you’re going then!
Merida is known as the White City. Conflicting reports are abundant about why it is called this; some say it is due to the traditional dress worn here which was typically white; others say it is because the city is kept clean and the sidewalks are washed regularly; and yet others say – which I seem to think as the most likely – that it is called the White City because of the abundant, white limestone which serves as the main building blocks for much of the city.
Whatever the case may be, it is a beautiful city that is kept clean and is a pleasure to visit. Merida, Mexico things to do includes just walking around and taking in the wonderful architecture.
Things To Do in Merida, Mexico: City Life
Timing and Merida Events Resources
First, a bit on the culture of Merida to make sure you get the best experience possible. Merida comes alive at night. If you are thinking about going out for dinner around 6 or 7 pm, you can – but a lot of people choose to go out a bit later.
It’s more common to go out for dinner at around 9 pm. So, as we usually recommend, do as the locals do: Take a nap instead of going out early and join the rest of the crowd at 9 pm. That is when the city starts to come to life and you’ll have the most fun.
Next, Merida’s events never stop. Whenever you visit, make sure to check one of the many directories that are readily available. We’ve found a great resource for things to do in Merida is the Yucatan Living website.
Another excellent resource, as always, is the tourist information booth which is located in the Government Palace located at the north side of the Plaza Grande. And if you want to find Merida events specific for expats, check out the calendar on Yucatan Expat for more information.
Merida Plazas and Parks: Plaza Grande, Parque de Santa Lucía, & Parque de Santa Ana
If you’ve never been to Merida, the thing to start off with is to explore the city’s many plazas. Merida events are so common that if you simply make your way into the central part of town, you aren’t going to have trouble finding something to entertain you.
Or, if you’re more of the planning type, you can always check the schedule to make sure you attend the best things to do in Merida.
One aspect you’ll notice again and again in the plaza in Merida are the lovely white chairs. Two chairs sit side-by-side, facing opposite directions so that they are essentially facing one another.
These are known as “sillas tú y yo” (you and me chairs). Regardless of which plaza you visit, make sure to take a breather and spend some time relaxing in one of the iconic chairs of this city.
The main plaza in Merida is called Plaza Grande. It is located at the intersection of Calle 60 and Calle 61, which is the exact location of the oldest and largest church in the city: Cathedral of San Idelfonso.
Museo Casa Montejo is also located here, along with Palacio del Gobierno (Government Palace). This plaza is where the biggest Merida events usually take place, with everything from large concerts to regular food vendors. If you’re looking for the place to be and free things to do in Merida, this is it. Especially on Sundays.
The Merida events held in Plaza Grande are incredible. After going to some ruins sites – like the nearby Chichen Itza or Ek Balam – your curiosity about Maya ball games might be sparked. Here in Plaza Grande, you can see a live recreation of the game on Saturday nights.
Take Calle 60 three blocks north and you’ll find Parque de Santa Lucía, located at the intersection of Calle 60 and Calle 55. This is a slightly smaller plaza, but still rich with events and pastime. On Thursday nights, the plaza comes alive with live music, dancing, and plenty of food vendors.
This tradition has been occurring for over 40 years and no trip to Merida would be complete without stopping by to take part in this wonderful event. Your dance moves may not be quite as smooth as the town regulars, but they will be happy to see another smiling face regardless.
Sunday mornings at Parque de Santa Lucía are met with a lively market, starting around 11 am. Sabrina is famous for her tacos, but don’t be afraid to venture out and try whatever looks good – it probably will be!
Santa Lucia holds other events regularly as well, so check to local schedules to check for other Merida, Mexico things to do. And grab a photo in the oversized sillas tú y yo (you and me chairs) here!
Maybe Plaza Grande and Parque de Santa Lucía don’t provide enough Merida events for you… Just keeping going north then! Parque de Santa Ana is another three blocks north from Santa Lucía, at the intersection of Calle 60 & Calle 47. Here, you will find plenty of food vendors which are essentially permanent residents.
There are a few other plazas in town that have other things to do in Merida. Parque San Juan doesn’t have as many events going on, but it does serve as a transportation hub (colectivos and buses stop by regularly), has a cute church on the grounds, and is perfect to people watch for a couple of hours. It is about four blocks south of the Plaza Grande.
Or head a bit east from Plaza Grande, toward the main market area, and you’ll find a small, less-touristy park: Eulogio Rosado. Here, many locals congregate to grab a bite, relax under the sun, or meet before heading into the market.
It’s a busy area that packed to the brim at times, but a nice little public space tucked away in the large city. Many other parks and plazas can be found all throughout the wonderful city of Merida, Mexico and the outlying towns.
Paseo de Montejo
There is one more area that MUST be your list of the best things to do in Merida, Mexico: Paseo de Montejo. This wide road has lovely sidewalks on either side.
Sunday mornings, one side of the road is shut down and opened up for bike riding, rollerskating, dog-walking, and much more. Bike rentals are readily available all over the area; you can even snag a free bike rental during certain times when companies decide to host! It is a great Merida event that is full of smiles.
But even if you can’t make it Sunday morning, make sure to take a stroll up and down this lovely street at some point. Grab an ice cream at Dulcería y Sorbetería Colón, go for a beer at the popular expat Hennessy’s Irish Pub, or join the locals for lunch at La Reina de Montejo. You won’t be disappointed.
Merida Museums: Maya, Montejo, & Contemporary Art
Another thing found in abundance in Merida are museums, with over a dozen scattered over the town. Our favorite happened to be the Museum of Anthropology and History. This is located on Paseo de Montejo. It hosts many temporary exhibits which can be truly extraordinary.
The museum is housed inside of an old mansion, and at the time we visited, was full of ancient Maya artifacts from all over Mexico. It cost $60 pesos per person to enter ($3 USD) and was worth every penny. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 8 am to 5 pm.
To understand the history of Merida a little better, head to Plaza Grande and find Museo Casa Montejo. The Montejo family lived here for a long period of time before it was converted, and it is filled with some of their original furniture and art, as well as many equally-stunning replicas.
As you walk through the doors and into each room of this small museum, you can feel the presence of the historical family. Without them, Merida would not be what it is today. The history of Merida and the Montejo family is not without controversy; their treatment of the indigenous population, mainly Maya, was quite horrific.
Nonetheless, it is still an incredibly important part of history for this region of the world and one of the best things to do in Merida. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 7 pm; Sunday from 10 am to 2 pm. One-hour, free, guided tours go at 11 am, 1 pm, and 5 pm Tuesday through Saturday; and 11 am & 1 pm on Sunday.
Also in the Plaza Grande, you can find the Museo Fernando García Ponce-Macay. This is a contemporary art museum and is one of the best free things to do in Merida, Mexico. The entrances are slightly hidden, but it can be entered from Calle 60 just south of Catedral de San Ildefonso, or from inside of the magnificent Passage of the Revolution (a beautiful, open-air archway that stretches the length of a city block).
The numerous rooms in this contemporary art museum host a variety of collections that are still growing to this day. They exemplify the countless artists that live around the city.
And the entrance of the museum has a wonderful courtyard which acts as a quiet oasis in the center of the busy city. Perfect place to compose yourself if you’re finding the many things to do in Merida a bit overwhelming.
There is one more must-see museum near the Plaza Grande: The Government Palace (Palacio del Gobierno). This is where you can find the tourist information booth, but that’s not all.
Incredible murals line the many walls of this two-story museum, depicting the complicated and intense Yucatan history. With everything from the villains of each era to the saviors of the people, you won’t go home without knowing more about the local history. This is free to enter and is open daily from 8 am to 10 pm.
Another city favorite is the Palacio de la Música. This large museum focused on Mexican musical history comes to life with sound from all over. There is a room where the little ones can give unique instruments a try.
To the north of the central area, Mayan World Museum of Mérida (Museo del Mundo Maya) boasts an impressive collection of Maya artifacts in a very large structure.
You can spend hours here going through the various rooms, learning much about the Mayan culture and history. With everything from impressive architecture to amazing medical understanding, you are certain to have your mind blown by the facts housed here.
And it will help you understand the underlying history and culture of the region which has thrived for centuries. There is a free light show every day except Tuesday at 8:30 pm.
Markets in Merida: Mercado San Benito
What Mexican city would be complete without a giant market? Not this one, that’s for sure. Located about four blocks southwest of Plaza Grande, El Mercado San Benito will leave your senses overwhelmed, your bags packed to the brim, and your stomach full. The nearby Mercado Lucas de Galvez is essentially joined with San Benito and just adds more variety on top of it all.
These markets are a complete maze that stretches over an entire city block and multiple stories high.
You can find sections dedicated to specific arts: jewelry in one, shoes in another, miscellaneous handicrafts all over, produce galore, and of course, a cornucopia of restaurants and food stands. There is a large butcher area with all sorts of seafood and meat (not for the faint of heart). All sorts of things to do here.
Get lost in this giant market. Bring some shoes that need to be resolved if you have any! The cobblers are impressive and work in front of your very eyes to complete the job. If your glasses happen to break, don’t worry; you can have them repaired or replaced here quicker than you can imagine.
An entire secondary market, the municipal market of crafts, is just outside the doors and it filled with a variety of colors and textiles of all kinds. Shirts, hats, sweaters, jeans, socks, and shoes are all sold here in an open-air breezeway that sites to the northwest of the main market.
Smaller markets and weekly pop-up markets are found throughout the city as well. This includes the small yet charming Mercado Municipal No 2 Santos Degollado, which is about 8 blocks northwest of Plaza Grande. Go here for cheap eats and quick shopping.
The Parque de Santa Ana hosts market stalls regularly and can also have scheduled markets associated with specific geographic regions, often Oaxaca-influenced items.
While it’s quite difficult to match the incredible markets of Oaxaca, this will at least give you a small glimpse into life on the other side of the country. Check out our post here for more on the one-of-a-kind markets in Oaxaca.
Entertainment and Theater Shows in Merida, Mexico
Did I mention the Merida events in the parks and plazas yet? (Hint, yes – see above for more details.) Well, they’re worth another description. Merida’s entertainment isn’t limited to ticketed shows.
The plazas and parks come alive each night with plenty of things to do in Merida: a variety of shows, dancing, music, and food. There are many scheduled events that you can simply drop into as you pass by.
One of the most popular shows at the outdoor venues is the Mexican Night (Noche Mexicana). Each Thursday, the southern end of Pasejo de Montejo transforms into a stage. Dancers and singers put on wonderfully designed and decorated outfits, then entertain you for the majority of the night with their magical voices and movement.
And it’s completely free! Amazing, right?!
But the ticketed shows aren’t so bad either. In fact, there are multiple theaters in the central area of town with regular shows that will blow your mind and rotating performances rivaling Broadway’s finest.
Teatro Peon Contreras is the grandest of the theaters in Merida. And there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Grab a ticket to a concert or symphony of your choosing and be prepared for a great show. Best of all: Tickets start around $10 USD. What a steal! People rave about the Yucatan Symphony’s regular show.
Don’t forget about the other theaters in the central part of the city either. Teatro Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Teatro Mérida, and Teatro Casa Santa Ana are all smaller venues hosting many Merida events and shows throughout the year. With so many performers and artists located in one city, there is certainly no challenge to finding great entertainment here.
Mall and Movie Theater: The Harbor Lifestyle Mall & The Harbor Mérida Cinepolis
Okay, okay… I get it. Travel all the way to Merida just to go to a mall?! Or even worse, a movie theater? Hear me out on this one. I am not usually a fan of either one of these, but there’s a new kid in town that’s changing the scene in Merida. A fellow traveler mentioned this to me as we came into town and I thought they were crazy. Until I went.
The Harbor Lifestyle Mall is located about 6 miles (10 km) north of the Plaza Grande. You can take a cab or Uber (yes, Uber works in Merida) there for about $50 pesos ($2.50 USD).
This brand-new indoor mall has an incredible food court, tons of designer stores, and a large movie theater. The food court doesn’t have the usual Dairy Queen and Panda Express. It’s packed with excellent options with almost anything your heart desires: great burgers, pizza, and vegetarian food.
The location and ambiance are what make it a real treat. It’s placed on top of the mall, with the perfect seating areas overlooking an incredible courtyard area filled with large fountains. Do you like the Bellagio in Las Vegas? Trick your mind to thinking you’re thousands of miles away and come check this out. Seriously, it is impressive.
The Harbor Mérida Cinepolis is a movie theater that’s worth checking out, especially the VIP section where two fully-adjustable recliners will make you feel like you’re floating on cloud 9. Sit side-by-side with a loved one and snuggle up in these loveseat-style recliners.
Oh yeah, and don’t forget to order some food and drinks during the show!
With a wide variety of drinks and everything from the customary concessions (popcorn, candy) to restaurant-quality food, you won’t go home hungry. After the show, head back up to the food court to see it transformed into one of the city’s coolest evening hangouts.
Another mall option is in the northern area of town off of Paseo de Montejo: Plaza Americana. This one is smaller and not something I’d recommend going out of your way for. However, there is one little group of some of the best restaurants in Merida that really hit the spot for us just south of here, and also just off of Paseo Montejo.
The City Express Plus Mérida is a beautiful new hotel that has a great little food-court style area on the main level. It includes some of the best beer in Merida: Hop 3 Beer Experience.
Merida Restaurants, Food, and Nightlife
The food. Oh, the food. Like many places in Mexico, Merida is a gastronomic gem.
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the local food scene is to take a cooking class in Merida.
You can find many types of restaurants in Merida: fine dining, fast food, street carts, and much more. Admittedly, we usually stick to the budget-friendly options, but we found quite a few incredible places to check out.
To start off with, you have to try one of the favorite snacks in Yucatan: marquesitas. These crepe/waffle-like desserts are served up on nearly every street corner.
Look for ones with a line to ensure you get the best around. They’ll make them hot in front of your eyes, then you choose what to put inside of them.
As odd as it sounds, the most popular stuffings include a dry cheese (queso de bola, aka Edam cheese), Nutella, peanut butter, and condensed milk (lechera). Give one a try!
Our most memorable night started off at a very popular restaurant in Merida at a bar named La Negrita. Located six blocks north of Plaza Grande (near Parque de Santa Ana), you can find excellent happy hour deals, accompanied by free botanas (snacks), as well as regular live music, awesome service, and a very cool atmosphere.
This is one of the best things to do in Merida. Get here before happy hour to snag a spot in the courtyard near the back bar. Be warned, however, the hours don’t match the usual Merida late-night love. It closes at 10 pm.
Once La Negrita is closed, head a couple of blocks south to Pipiripau. This late-night spot will keep the drinks and music going for hours. And the laughing and smiles are abundant.
To get a taste of local cuisine, you don’t have to go far away from Plaza Grande to go to a good restaurant in Merida. On the northeast corner of the plaza, Las Quekas Quesadillas Y Sopes serves up some traditional Yucatan fare.
Although this is a touristy restaurant and nothing fancy, the cochinita pibil was quite good. It is a slow-roasted pork dish made with achiote paste, spicy peppers, and marinated with sour oranges.
The closest thing I can compare it to in the United States is some type of barbecue dish, but really, that description does not do it justice. Incredibly flavorful and unique. Sampling cochinita pibil is one of the best things to do in Merida.
Amaro is a popular Mediterranean restaurant in Merida located one block north of Plaza Grande. Their service is top-notch; they offer plenty of options including a good amount of vegetarian fare, and the courtyard atmosphere is excellent.
Another great option for authentic Mexican drinks in Merida is Mezcaleria La Fundacion, located two blocks east of Parque de Santa Lucía. If you aren’t familiar with mezcal, it is a spirit derived from agave and there are tons of varieties that can be shockingly different. For more information about mezcal, check out our post based on our experience in the world’s mezcal capital: Matatlan, Oaxaca.
To give you an idea about other restaurants in Merida, here are some highly reviewed places in the area: 130 Grados Steakhouse, Oliva Enoteca (Italian), Kuuk (Mexican), Wayan’e (Merida gem with local fare), and La Cubanita (Cuban).
All of these have tons of online reviews with photos, so feel free to do some research before coming down to see what fits your pallet the most! Here are a couple of links to get you started: Fine Dining Lovers, Foodie Flashpacker, and the standby, TripAdvisor.
Where to Stay in Merida
While visiting Merida, there is one incredibly obvious place to stay: near Plaza Grande. With so many Merida events held here, you’ll never get bored. But that’s not the only location worth your time.
Paseo de Montejo is a wonderful area as well, with tons of newer hotels and things to do in Merida. If you want to get a bit more air and avoid the craziness of the central part of town, this is your best bet. If you go south of Plaza Grande, you will find yourself in a less touristy and more authentic neighborhood.
It is definitely worth it to stay in town rather than on the outskirts. There are a lot of great transportation options including buses, colectivos, taxis, and even Uber, but it’s best to use those to escape town rather than have to rely on them to go in each time.
Things to Do in Merida: Favorite Day Trips Outside the City
Merida is a flourishing and incredible city. If you don’t want to leave the city, you absolutely don’t have to. But you will be missing out. So make sure you set aside a bit of time to do day trips near Merida.
Close to the city, you can find a wide selection of cenotes to visit. Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes formed in the limestone. They can be open-air, but more commonly, they are underground and cavernous. One of the best sets of Cenotes is known as Cenote Cuzama. You are taken in a horse-drawn cart down an old mining railing.
Check out our full post on these three incredible cenotes here (and don’t be fooled by one of the many imposters in the area!). This post also lists many of the other popular cenotes and things to do near Merida. You might be surprised to know that even Costco has a cenote. No kidding.
Pro-tip for visiting cenotes: Don’t forget to pack a travel towel!
Don’t feel like swimming in an underground cave? Then head up to Progreso for a little beach time. This lovely town is one of the best things to do near Merida and is very easy to get to, only about 30 minutes north.
It serves as a port city with the world’s longest pier connecting shipping lines and cruise ships to the Yucatan Peninsula. The beach is nice and the water is comfortable, but don’t expect to see the crystal-clear water you’ll find on the other side of the peninsula.
Along the same lines, the town of Celestun is worth visiting, especially if you are in town during the late winter or very early spring.
Celestun has a nice beach and plenty of wonderful seafood restaurants, but its main attraction is the lagoon. Why? FLAMINGOS!
Thousands of them congregate here before heading up north to Rio Lagartos for the spring and summer. If you’re interested in going, make sure to read our full post on Celestun here to make sure you get the most out of your visit.
Uxmal is an awe-inspiring archeological ruin site that’s just south of Merida. The large temples and unique architecture here will blow your mind. And make sure to wear some shoes suitable for climbing stairs. You can go on top of one of the large pyramids here for an excellent view of the site.
We love Uxmal’s Temple of the Magician and have even thought about getting some wall art with it depicted (but then we remembered that we don’t have a permanent home).
Near Uxmal are four other ruin sites located along a route known as Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route). This is another top thing to do in Merida. On Sundays, you can catch a bus from the TAME bus terminal about 6 blocks southeast of Plaza Grande. The bus leaves at 8 am, stops at all sites for about an hour, and returns around 5 pm.
If this sounds like fun to you, read our post on Uxmal and Ruta Puuc!
Izamal is a town known for its brightly painted yellow buildings. There is a large church here near the central plaza, as well as about four different ruin sites tucked into the town itself, all within walking distance. You can catch a ride in horse-drawn carriages to explore the town and check out all of the wonderful painted buildings.
And you can find traditional Panama hats here too; the real thing (many poor replicas are found all over Yucatan). These hats are made from special fibers and cured in underground cellars giving the hats a flexible nature that can be packed away in luggage and then spring to life once brought out. They’re more expensive than most hats, around $1,000- $1,500 pesos ($50 – $75 USD), but they’re well worth it.
You can also visit the city of Valladolid from Merida. Valladolid is best known for being close to Chichen Itza. Ek Balam is another ruin site located just north of Valladolid, and we actually enjoyed its less-touristy atmosphere more than Chichen Itza.
Valladolid has a great selection of cenotes, including a couple that we adored. Check out our post here for the Cenotes Dzitnup.
Finally, there are a lot of caves (grutas) worth visiting all around the Merida area. Be warned that some of these can be a little more expensive than you would think, often having entrance fees, mandatory guide fees, and possibly other hidden costs.
Grutas Calcehtok are near Oxkintoc. Grutas Tzabnah are also popular, located near Tecoh. Take a bus from Noreste to get there; the entrance cost is $60 pesos ($3 USD) per person. Grutas de Loltun are the last on the list. You can take a colectivo to Oxkutzcab, the taxi to Loltun for $60 pesos each way. This one is $118 pesos per person ($6 USD) plus tip for guide (mandatory and often surprisingly high).
Popular Day Tours from Merida
Summary of Things to Do in Merida, Mexico
Whew, that’s a LOT of information. And it’s just barely scratching the surface of the many things to do in Merida, Mexico and the surrounding area.
The lively plazas and parks can keep you busy for days on end with Merida events. The museums will have you learning until your brain hurts. Theater shows and movies will keep you continuously entertained. The many restaurants in Merida will keep your belly stuffed to the brim. And the day trip options will fill your itinerary quicker than you can imagine.
No matter what your taste, heading to Merida is a great idea and one that you won’t regret. So take the trip to the area that’s slightly less popular with tourists on the Yucatan Peninsula and enjoy a real slice of Mexico’s finest.
Plan Your Trip to Merida, Mexico
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Did you know Merida exists? Or have you been and feel like we’re missing something on this post? Leave us a comment below to share your thoughts!