The Yucatan peninsula’s largest city has never been nearly as popular a tourist destination as the Riviera Maya or Cancun, but for travelers looking for culture and history over resorts and all-inclusives, Merida is the place to be. Although Merida is architecturally colonial, the grand plazas and cathedrals don’t hide the city’s Mayan past and present for too long. Visit ancient Mayan ruins, learn more about the indigenous world at the Great Museum of the Mayan World, and then enjoy the best Yucatec cuisine on the peninsula. Here are the best things to do in Merida, Mexico.
Related Article: 3 Days in Merida: The Perfect Merida Itinerary
1. Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya – or the Great Museum of the Mayan World – is one of the top things to do in Merida. This extravagant museum is dedicated to the Mayan world, and it’s fittingly in Merida, where countless Mayan languages are still spoken to this day.
The museum takes you back to prehistoric times when the Yucatan Peninsula was inhabited not by humans but dinosaurs, because it’s thought that the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs struck here, creating the cenotes that the region is so famous for in the aftermath.
After the dinosaurs, the museum explores almost every known aspect of Mayan history and culture. From the rise of cities such as Chichen Itza and Ek Balam – to their downfall – the museum spans several floors before you even get to the Spanish conquistadors, colonialism, and the modern era.
Leave a few spare hours for this museum, because it’s a big one!
2. Free Walking Tours
Head to the tourist office in the zócalo at 9.30 a.m. to join a free walking tour courtesy of the city. It’s one of the best free things to do in Merida, of course, and it’s a great way to get your bearings if you’ve just arrived.
Tours last around 90 minutes, taking you around the zócalo and into the wider city, past Merida’s grand colonial architecture. At the same time, the guides explain more about the significance of the city’s famous landmarks, including how the cathedral and many other historic buildings were built from the rubble of the Mayan city that the conquistadors destroyed.
It’s a fascinating insight into Merida and totally free of charge!
3. Merida Cathedral
Standing tall above the zócalo is the Catedral de Mérida, the city’s imposing Catholic church. Merida Cathedral looks impressive, probably because it was built to subject and convert the Mayans.
The cathedral was built with stone taken from the existing Mayan city that the conquistadors conquered in the mid-15th century, and it was one of the first cathedrals to be constructed anywhere in Mexico.
Work began in the 1560s but wasn’t completed until 1598. On the stone facade, you can see statues of St. Peter and St. Paul, while inside the cathedral, there are plenty of vivid depictions of Christ and all the saints in typically colorful, Catholic style.
4. Sundays in the Square
Sundays aren’t just for churchgoers in Merida, because outside the cathedral in the Plaza Grande, a grand Sunday market is held every week.
Sundays are best spent in the square, where tourists and locals alike can be found enjoying the live music and browsing through the market stalls.
Best of all, though, are the food stalls. You can try all the local specialties – such as lime soup and slow-roasted pork – for just a few dollars a dish!
The market goes on all day from the early hours, but it’s best in the morning and early afternoon. Have a browse, eat some great food, then take a Sunday afternoon siesta.
5. Watch a Pok-Ta-Pok Game
Saturday nights in the city are lively, and one of the best fun things to do in Merida is watch a live match of Pok-Ta-Pok, an ancient Mesoamerican ball game
A skillful yet dangerous game, Pok-Ta-Pok was played in purpose-built ball courts by the Aztecs and Mayans. On Saturday evenings, the zócalo hosts live music and entertainment, including a reenactment of the game.
Since the rules were lost during the Spanish conquest, some creative license goes into the eventful games played in Merida; but it’s certainly a unique way to spend a Saturday night.
6. Palacio de Gobierno
The main square – variously called the zócalo or plaza grande by the locals – is surrounded on all four sides by grand colonial-style mansions, shops, buildings, and of course, Merida Cathedral.
Many of these buildings open up to equally grand courtyards and plazas, hiding a wealth of art and history that tourists can often wander freely around.
One of the best buildings to visit is the Palacio de Gobierno, or the Government Palace. This is where you’ll find the tourist office, and although it’s very much a working government building, you’re allowed inside to see the murals and paintings in the corridors.
The murals mainly depict the Spanish conquest of the Mayans and the Mayan struggles thereafter.
7. Paseo de Montejo
To see more of Merida’s colonial architecture and history, take a walk along Paseo de Montejo.
This long boulevard is easily one of the grandest places to visit in Merida, and at six kilometers in length, it’s one the city’s longest roads. Named for Francisco de Montejo, the Spanish conquistador who founded Merida, the avenue has traditionally been the home of the city’s most affluent families.
Mansions line the Paseo de Montejo while trees shade the walkway from its starting point near the zócalo right up to its ending point by the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya on the outskirts of the city.
8. Museo Casa Montejo
In the main square – and not on Paseo de Montejo as the name might suggest! – you can visit the house of the Montejo family, the “founders” of colonial Merida.
Now a museum, the house dates back to 1549 and is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It’s in a central location right in the main square, and if you look at the facade of the mansion, you’ll see fading artwork depicting the Spanish conquest of the Mayans.
Inside the museum, you can learn more about the Montejos and see many examples of old colonial furnishings, artwork, and décor from when the building was used as a home by the many generations of Montejos.
9. Museum of the City of Merida
If you’re interested in learning more about the city’s intriguing history, then one of the best tourist attractions in Merida is the Museum of the City of Merida.
Although nowhere near as large as the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, this is still one of the best museums in Merida, and it will only take up an hour or so of your time.
The museum looks at the pre-Hispanic cultures that lived here but focuses primarily on how Merida grew from a small colonial outpost into a wealthy trading center in the 19th century.
10. Mercado Lucas de Galvez
When visiting Merida, you have to take a walk through Mercado Lucas de Galvez, one of the busiest markets in the city.
Mercado Lucas de Galvez is just a few streets over from the zócalo, but it’s far removed from the colonial mansions and cathedrals of historic Merida.
This is where you can have a brief yet hectic taste of the local life that is packed into a large marketplace and overflowing onto the surrounding streets, and enjoy a fresh refresco as you stroll past leatherworkers, clothing retailers, butchers, and vegetable stands.
Stop to bargain for a few souvenirs, take a break and fuel up with tacos or tortas, and immerse yourself in the bustle of Merida’s best market.
11. Relax in the Parques
One of the best things to do in Merida is to do absolutely nothing at all in the parks! Merida has public squares, gardens, and parks on almost every street, and each of them offers a shaded respite during your tour of the city.
Grab a refresco from a food stand, then take a seat on a bench, kick back, and relax. In addition to the main zócalo, some of the best public parks in Merida include the Mayan-themed Parque de las Americas, peaceful Parque de Santiago, and the taco and torta stalls of Parque de Santa Anna.
12. Yucatan Cuisine
Once you’ve explored all the best things to do in Merida, you’re going to have worked up an appetite!
Don’t worry, because Merida is a city made for foodies. Stop off at one of the many taco or torta stands for a quick bite to eat and an ice cold agua del dia, but save space for a visit to cantinas and restaurants later in the day.
Given the huge Mayan culinary influence, Yucatan’s cuisine is quite different from that found in other parts of Mexico. You’ll want to try the sopa de limon – lime soup – to start and follow it up with a plate of cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork served with tortillas.
A short drive north of the city will bring you to the Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltun, where you can find out more about the pre-Hispanic world that existed here before the conquistadors arrived in the 16th century.
This was an ancient Mayan city, with archaeological evidence suggesting that it was occupied from as early as 300 BCE until it eventually became home to hundreds of thousands of people.
It was still an important trading hub when the Spanish conquered Dzibilchaltun, which led to the downfall of the Maya here and the founding of modern Merida.
Today, visitors can wander through excavated dwellings and Mayan-built buildings before walking in the shadow of once mighty temples.
An hour away from Merida by car or colectivo, Izamal is one of the most colorful destinations in Yucatan. Named the Yellow City – because almost all of the buildings in the historic old town are a bright shade of yellow – Izamal is a great, and easy, day trip from Merida.
The small city has a rich history, and aside from visiting the Catholic convent that sits atop the hill, travelers can climb to the top of crumbling Mayan pyramids dotted amongst the yellow houses, shops, and churches.
This is where colonial history meets Mayan history head on, making Izamal a fascinating place to explore.
Escape the city with a day trip to Progreso, where you’ll find the best beaches in Merida, Mexico.
Located less than an hour north of the Merida’s city center, Progreso is known for its white sand beaches and seafront bars and restaurants.
The otherwise sleepy fishing town gets busy on weekends and when the cruise ships call in, but plan a trip here midweek and you’ll have sun, sea, and sand all to yourself.
From grand museums and colonial mansions to markets and Mayan ruins, you’ll be spoiled for choice when deciding what to do in Merida.
And once you’ve visited all the traditional sights and attractions, you’ll easily be lost for days dining on Yucatan-style cuisine in local cantinas or waiting for the Sunday food market to come around again.
Why not save our guide to the best things to do in Merida for your next trip to Mexico?