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Sasha Savinov By
Posted 29 Mar, 2020 | No comments
Posted in: Mexico, Things To Do

Exploring ancient Mayan ruins, swimming in cenotes, taking in cultural performances, and indulging in Yucatecan cuisine. These are just a few of the many amazing things to do in Merida. Read on for a closer look at all this Mexican city has to offer!

Despite being a state capital and popular destination for nomads, expats, and retirees, Merida has lived in the shadow of nearby Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. After all, most travelers who come to this part of Mexico head straight to the beach. 

With the nearest beach being 40 km (25 miles) away from Merida, this means the biggest city in the Yucatan Peninsula has long been an afterthought.

But, that’s all changing.

Conde Nast Traveler recently named Merida the best small city in the world. Travelers are finally taking notice, and Merida is ready for its time in the spotlight!

streets of merida

Even though I’ve spent the better part of the last three years living in Mexico, I hadn’t travelled to Merida until recently.  

I’m happy to say that Merida did not disappoint, and it’s one of the best places to go in Mexico! It’s a vibrant city with numerous attractions and places to visit. I’m excited to share some of the best things to do in Merida with you in this post. Vamos, chicos!

1. Explore Centro Historico & The Zocalo

Kicking off our list of things to do in Merida is a walk around the city’s Centro Historico. Apparently only Mexico City and Havana, Cuba have larger historic centers than Merida, so there’s a lot to see and do here.

Join a Walking Tour

I recommend joining the free walking tour for an informative and entertaining introduction to the city. It starts at 10AM every day in Santa Lucia Park (click here for directions) and lasts about two hours. 

On this short tour, you’ll get introduced to the history, culture, and traditions of Merida.

While the tour is free, it’s customary to tip your guide for a job well done. A good tip for a walking tour like this is 100 pesos (about $5). Head to their website to sign up for the tour. 

There are also some great options on Airbnb Experiences for exploring Merida’s historic center. You can jump on a 2-hour walking tour in the evening with a local and expert in cultural and natural tourism. Click here to check it out and book your spot.

If you’re wondering what to do in Merida when you first arrive, joining a walking tour is a good bet. 

zocalo in merida

Explore The Zocalo Independently

Even if you sign up for one of the tours, it’s worth it to spend some extra time exploring the Zocalo on your own. This tree-lined park is very much the heart of the city and is the best place to soak up the local culture.

The park is home to a giant Mexican flag and the colorful Merida sign, which is a must for your Instagram feed. It’s also surrounded by the most famous and important landmarks of the city.

These include the Merida Cathedral, Municipal Palace, Casa de Montejo, and the Governor’s Palace. The latter is home to some incredible murals depicting the city’s history. They’re all free to visit, so take your time and enjoy them all!

There’s also a free walking tour of the Zocalo given by the city’s tourism board. It starts at 9:30AM on the ground floor of the Municipal Palace (click here for directions). 

2. Swim in Cenotes

One of the most refreshing things to do in Merida – a city that is often boiling hot – is cooling off in the surrounding cenotes. If you’re not familiar with these, they’re basically natural sinkholes.

These are found all over the Yucatan Peninsula and number in the thousands. During the hottest time of the day, there’s nothing better than hiding from the sun and swimming in a cenote. 

There are numerous cenotes all around Merida, so, just take your pick!

A great option for enjoying a few cenotes is this tour that visits three — Cascabel, Chaksikin and Pool Cocom.

cenote merida things to do

The full-day trip starts at 8:45AM and includes swimming in three cenotes, plus lunch, transportation, guide and entrance fees. Click here to learn more about this top Merida attraction.

Another highly-rated tour is this Airbnb Experience that visits two different cenotes along with a beautiful hacienda.

The cenotes aren’t on the regular tourist track and you’ll most likely have them to yourself! Along the way, your local guides will teach you about Mayan culture. Food, transport, guide and entrance fees are included. Click here to learn more. 

3. Go Museum Hopping

In and around the Zocalo you’ll find several different museums, including Casa de Montejo. Built in the 1540s, it was the mansion of the conquistador Francisco de Montejo. These days it’s a museum that’s free to visit, making it one of the most popular things to do in Merida.

Before you head in, be sure to take a closer look at the facade of the building. It depicts the Spanish conquistadores standing on the heads of the local Mayans — a reminder of the horrific realities of colonialism in Mexico.

On the right side of the cathedral, there’s a covered walkway called Passage of the Revolution. This is where you’ll find another completely free museum, this one focused on the art of Fernando Garica Ponce and other Mexican artists. 

Completing the trifecta is the Museum of the City of Merida, where you can learn all about the city’s history from the time of the Maya to the present. It’s located just a few blocks from the Zocalo, click here for directions. 

4. Learn About Mayan Culture

A common misconception among visitors to Mexico is that there are no Mayan people around anymore. I’ll admit that I was guilty of thinking this when I first traveled there many years ago. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

It’s estimated that around 60% of the population of Merida are of Mayan heritage, and this is a city of nearly 1 million. Mayan culture is very much alive and well here, blending with Spanish, French, British, and modern-day Mexican influences.

One of the top places to see in Merida is the city’s Great Museum of the Maya World. The building itself is quite an impressive sight, and it holds a vast collection of Mayan artifacts.  

The museum is actually located quite a distance from the city center. You can hop on the bus bound for Progresso and tell them you want to get off at the museum or just get a cab out there. Uber is also available here and works very well in my experience.

It’s open from Wednesday to Monday from 9AM-4:30PM and costs 150 pesos for foreigners. On Sundays, it’s free for residents of the Yucatan, so I’d recommend going on another day. 

5. Visit Chichen Itza

Visiting Mayan ruins is without a doubt one of the top things to do in Mexico. A great thing about traveling to Merida is that you can easily reach many of the most epic ruins on a day-trip. 

Without a doubt, the most famous Mayan city of all is Chichen Itza. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, this is an incredible place to visit. Looking up at the massive pyramid known as El Castillo is an awe-inspiring experience, to say the least.

chichen itza day trip merida

Being such a popular destination, it’s very easy to sign up for a tour to Chichen Itza. It’s a bit far from Merida (about an hour and a half), but it’s definitely worth the journey!

You can hop on this highly-rated small group tour that includes transport, guide, a visit to a cenote, lunch and more. Click here to book your spot. 

Another solid option is an Airbnb Experience with a local guy who is a certified tour guide in history and archaeology. His tours run from 6AM-3PM and are highly rated. Click here to check it out. 

Note: you might be thinking that 6am departure is early, but the line-ups and crowds can be huge at Chichen Itza, and the sun can be intense — it’s best to go as early as you can. 

6. Travel the Ruta Puuc

While Chichen Itza is by far the most famous, there are tons of other options for visiting Mayan ruins in the area. From Merida, you can travel the Ruta Puuc to see a handful of different Mayan sites. 

Among these, the largest and most popular is Uxmal. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important places in the Mayan world. Having been to all the big ones, I can honestly say Uxmal is my favorite Mayan site I’ve visited.

You can just catch a local bus there and back, although you may end up waiting a while on the side of the road for the return bus as we did. The bus costs 80 pesos per person each way.

uxmal ruins day trip from merida

A more comfortable visit can be enjoyed on this Airbnb Experience where you also visit the Choco Museum. It costs just $33 per person including guide, transport and a drink, but you’ll need to cover your entrance tickets. Uxmal costs 418 ($17) pesos for foreigners and the museum is 180. 

There are also a few other, smaller ruins in the area like Kabah, Labna, and Xcalak.

One way to see all of these is with a rental car. If you’d rather stick to public transportation, the only option is catching the bus at 8AM on Sunday morning. It makes quick stops at the smaller ruins and gives you a few hours to explore Uxmal. 

One easier and less exhausting option is this tour that visits both Uxmal and Kabah. It includes a guide, transport, lunch and some pool time at a fancy hotel. Tours start at 8:30AM. Click here to learn more and book your spot.

7. Hit the Beach

As an inland city, you can’t just walk to the beach in Merida. It takes a bit of effort, but a day trip out to Progreso is worth it if you’re looking for some time on la playa

Progreso is a major cruise ship port, so it’s definitely got that tourist vibe. That being said, the beach is really nice and it’s a great escape from the city to enjoy a cerveza or two, and munch on some fresh ceviche

If you get out there early enough and are motivated, you can hire a driver or sign up for a day tour to explore the area. You can visit an ecological park, salt ponds, a pink lake, and a small Mayan site on a half-day tour.

progreso beach places to see in merida

The cheapest way to get up to Progreso is by catching the local bus. The station is located a few blocks south of the Zocalo (click here for directions). It only costs 19 pesos each way, or about $1. 

8. Day Trip to Pink Lagoons

One of the top things to do in Merida is taking a day trip out to Ria Celestun, a biosphere reserve located about 100 km out of the city. It’s well worth the trip here to explore the pristine beaches, mangroves, and low rainforests.

It’s a unique place as its location creates a mixture of fresh water from the estuary and salt water from the sea. The area is known primarily for its pink flamingoes, who flock here in the winter. 

To visit the reserve, you can sign up for a full-day tour that includes a boat ride through the mangroves and lunch. It departs at 8:45AM from Merida, click here to learn more and to make your booking.

ria celestun

9. Eat All the Things

Merida really is a foodie’s paradise. There’s so much delicious food here that you could plan your whole stay around what you’re eating. From street food and local markets to fine-dining, it’s all here. 

Mexico is home to some of the best food in the world, with the Yucatecan food being famous all across Mexico — and for good reason.

The most famous local dish is definitely cochinita pibil — a dish of pit-cooked pork that’s marinated in an acidic citrus juice and seasoned with annatto. It’s basically like pulled pork only way better, and you get to make tacos with it!

Other must-try items here include poc chuc (marinated pork), sopa de lima (lime soup), and papadzules — corn tortillas filled with hard-boiled eggs and covered in a pumpkin seed sauce. It sounds weird but it’s delicious!

cochinita pibil tacos merida

Be sure to skip breakfast if you sign up for this excellent food tour. It takes you first to a local market, then a seafood restaurant, and finally to a gelato shop. The tour starts at 10:30AM and lasts three hours for $49 per person.

There’s also this popular Airbnb Experience where you visit a market and then sample several vegetarian dishes in a local’s home. It runs from 4-7PM and costs just $29 each.

Mexican cuisine is so diverse and delicious. No matter how you choose to experience it (on a tour, street stands, restaurants, on the beach…), just make sure you sample it all!

10. Take a Cooking Class

You know what’s even better than trying local food? Trying local food that you cooked yourself! One of the most rewarding things you can do in Merida is taking a cooking class, and you’ve got lots of options.

On this half-day tour, you start by visiting one of the busiest markets in Merida. You’ll learn about some of the most common ingredients, including the spicy habanero chile.

Next, you head to the kitchen to whip up some classic local dishes that you’ll get to enjoy for lunch. Best of all, you can bring the recipes home and impress your friends and family! This highly-rated tour starts at 10AM, click here to learn more.

There’s also this very popular Airbnb Experience which takes you through a market to get all the ingredients for the cooking class. Then, you’ll enjoy your 3-course lunch in one of the nicest courtyards in the city. It starts at 9:30AM and costs $61 each.

cooking class in merida

11. Admire the Architecture on Paseo de Mantejo

Walking around the tree-lined boulevard Paseo de Mantejo, you’ll notice some pretty impressive buildings. Most of these were mansions built in the late 19th century when the city was experiencing a large boom thanks to the henequen industry.

Never heard of henequen? Neither had I.

This agave plant that somehow thrives here in a place with little water or fertilization can be used to make rope. The good times didn’t last forever, though — these days most of the buildings are either museums or commercial spaces.

Take a stroll along the boulevard and be sure to bring your camera. You’ll spot gorgeous buildings like the Palacio Canton and Quinta Montes Molina, both of which are museums that are worth a visit. 

Keep walking north until you find the impressive Monument to the Fatherland. This stunning monument depicts the history of Mexico and makes for some memorable photos.

12. Experience Ruta Bici

One of the best things to do in Merida is taking part in the weekly Ruta Bici event. Every Sunday morning, the Paseo de Mantejo is cut off to motorized vehicles for several hours.

Locals, expats, and tourists alike all come out to enjoy walking, skating, or cycling along the scenic boulevard.

It’s possible to rent a bike for a few bucks an hour. You’ll just need to make sure you have an ID on you. 

Apparently they also do a special nighttime Ruta Bici on the first Saturday of every month now, so that’s definitely worth checking out if you happen to be in the city at that time.

Don’t miss this vehicle-free time in Merida!

merida streets

13. See Cultural Performances

Without a doubt, one of the top things to do in Merida is taking in some of the many cultural performances. There’s something going on every night of the week here, and they’re usually free!

Some of the best events to take part in include the Yucatecan Serenade, which happens every Thursday night in Santa Lucia Park at 8PM.  There’s also the very festive Noche Mexicana (Mexican Night) every Saturday with song and dance performances.

Perhaps the most fun of all, though, is Sundays in Merida. This is a day-long event in the Zocalo and a great cultural experience. There are food stalls set up all day long and performances begin later in the day.

14. Catch a Football Game

There’s no denying the importance of football in Mexican culture. It’s more like a religion here than a sport as people are very passionate about the game! 

That’s why one of the top things to do in Merida is cheering on the local football club. Venados FC plays in the Liga de Ascenso, which is the 2nd tier league in the country. 

They play over at Estadio Carlos Iturralde (click here for directions) with games taking place between January and April. Check out their schedule to see if there’s a home game when you’re in town! 

15. Go Cantina Hopping

Last but not least, it’s time for some cantina hopping! For the uninitiated, a cantina is a classic Mexican bar. Think swinging doors, loud music, and plenty of tequila.

Traditionally, a cantina has been somewhat of a boys club. That’s why I usually skip out on them when we travel in Mexico, as my wife doesn’t usually feel comfortable going into a place where she’s not exactly welcome.

That’s all changing, though, and there are plenty of cantinas in Merida that are open to both men and women. The most popular is definitely La Negrita. Offering complimentary botanas (snacks) and live music in a nice courtyard, this place fills up every night of the week.

cantina in merida

Now You Know What to Do in Merida!

There’s a reason Merida was named the best small city in the world. It’s a great place to visit with a vibrant culture, plenty of interesting attractions, and endless opportunities for adventures in the area.

While nearby Cancun is more of a Disney version of Mexico, Merida is the real deal. If you’re looking for an authentic Mexican city with friendly locals, delicious food, and raucous nightlife, look no further!

After years of people telling me how cool Merida is, I’m happy I finally got to spend some time there. A 2-week digital nomad stint was just enough to scratch the surface of all the fun things to do in Merida and I’m definitely planning on going back soon.

Have you ever been to Merida? Got any recommendations for things to do, places to eat, or day trips? Leave a comment below and let us hear all about it!

Images in this article are courtesy of Shutterstock. Click here to learn more.

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Sasha Savinov

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Sasha is a regular contributor to Goats On The Road where he shares his advice as a full-time traveler and digital nomad. In particular, Sasha is an expert in travelling the United States, Mexico and Thailand. He’s also an online English teacher and a video producer. In fact, he studied video production at Michigan State University. He and his wife Rachel share their adventures on their website, Grateful Gypsies.

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