Is Merida worth visiting? If you are planning a trip to the Mexican Yucatan, the cultural capital of Merida may well be one of the destinations high on your radar.
But is Merida worth visiting? And if so, how much or how little time should you dedicate to exploring the city?
This guide has been written by a British Travel Writer that has been based in Merida for the last two years. If you are on the fence about whether or not you should incorporate Merida into your itinerary, it should give you the push that you need to book your trip 🙂
Is Merida Worth Visiting?
Merida is the capital city of Mexico’s Yucatan state and it’s a beautiful one. The city dates back to 1542 when it was founded by Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo y Leon and constructed on the grounds of an old Mayan city known as T´ho.
Like many Latin American cities that developed during the colonial era, Merida’s history is rooted in controversy. The Spanish conquistadors used stones and other materials from Mayan temples and shrines to build their homes and cathedrals.
Today, the Paseo de Montejo, the main street in the city, is named after these founding fathers.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Merida was one of the richest cities in the world. The henequen plant (sisal) grew in abundance throughout the region and it was cultivated and exported across the world to make natural fiber goods.
Sadly, the invention of synthetic fibers saw a gradual decline in the industry. But today, an increasing number of travelers and expats are being drawn to the city’s faded elegance.
Many of the grand colonial mansions and buildings still stand, and a new lease of life is being breathed into them as admirers of the city invest in them to convert them into luxury guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, and boutique stores.
In many ways, Merida is experiencing a cultural renaissance and is quickly establishing itself as one of the best places to visit in the Yucatan. Merida is absolutely worth visiting and from here, we will look at the reasons as to why.
The city showcases the best of Yucatan gastronomy
When most people think about Mexican food, popular dishes like tacos, burritos, and nachos are the first things that spring to mind. However, Yucatecan cuisine is distinctly different and is quite unlike anything that you will find anywhere else in the world.
Most of the dishes that you will find in Merida and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico cannot be found in other parts of the country. Many of the recipes date back thousands of years and were invented by the Ancient Maya.
In most instances, the same traditional cooking methods are also used. For instance, when preparing the regional favorite dishes of cochinita pibil (slow-cooked suckling piglet marinated in achiote and orange) and pollo pibil (slow-cooked chicken breast), the food is cooked in an underground oven known as a pib.
(That’s right! You can walk into a local restaurant and order a dish that is the same as what people would have enjoyed centuries ago during the heydays of Chichen Itza.)
You can find excellent Yucatecan food all over the Yucatan peninsula (the tri-state area of Quintana Roo, Campeche State, and the Yucatan State). However, Merida is particularly great because it is home to so many amazing restaurants serving Comida Yucateca.
If you are looking for something homely and traditional, head to Habaneros – a favorite spot for Mexican families to head to at weekends. If fine dining is more your style, you can experience elevated Yucatecan cuisine at Kuuk – a stunning restaurant set inside a grand colonial mansion.
Apoala is also great if a little on the pricy side. The restaurant is the brainchild of two brothers that moved to the Yucatan from Oaxaca and serve up a delightful selection of Yucatec-Oaxacan fusion meals.
Merida is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in Mexico
Merida, the ¨White City¨ is one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Mexico. Its cobbled streets, colorful houses, and narrow, winding passageways that twist and turn and open out into grand plazas and piazzas are a photographer’s dream.
Calles 58 and 59, with their rainbow-colored houses, are some of the prettiest streets in the city and they have formed the backdrop of many an Instagram photoshoot or Tiktok reel. Nearby, Avenida Del Deportista is lined with grand mansions that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries – a time when the Yucatan thrived during the henequen boom and was one of the richest cities in the world.
Cultural events and free festivals happen almost every week
I have been living in Merida for the past two years and I can tell you that there always seems to be something going on here virtually every week. You can check the local listings to see if there is anything of interest that coincides with your travel dates.
A reenactment of a Pok Ta Pok Mayan ball game takes place on the esplanade of the Catedral de San Ildefonso every Saturday at 8 pm. This ancient ballgame was often used to settle debates and disagreements in Ancient Mayan cities like Mayapan and Chichen Itza.
Often, the losing team was sacrificed! The game rules were that players had to hit a heavy rubber ball through a stone hoop mounted high on the walls using just their hips.
The reenactments are fun to watch as there are fireeaters and jugglers, traditional Yucatecan music, dancing, and of course, plenty of delicious street food for sale. (And fortunately, no sacrifices!)
Every January, you can catch the Merida Fest – a cultural celebration of the city’s history and heritage. Various singers, dancers, musicians, magicians, and other entertainers perform for free in numerous venues across the city.
Merida white night (noche blanca) takes place every May and sees museums and cultural centers throughout the region open until late, sound and light shows projected onto structures at Dzbilchaltun and other archeological zones, and free musical and cultural performances hosted around the city.
Expect parades, concerts, illumination shows, book recitals, poetry readings, and traditional dances. As I mentioned, different cultural events take place almost every week in Merida and the performances mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg.
Merida makes a great base for exploring the wider Yucatan
Merida’s location makes the city a great base for exploring the wider Yucatan state. You can easily take day trips out from Merida to various cenotes (freshwater sinkholes), ancient Mayan cities, Yucatan pueblo magicos, beaches, and other charming villages in the region.
You can get from Merida to Chichen Itza in just over an hour and a half, and the UNESCO world heritage site of Uxmal, along with the lesser visited archeological sites along the Ruta Puuc can be reached in just an hour.
Dzibilchaltun, a frequently overlooked Mayan city known for its obscure ¨Temple of the Dolls¨ is actually located within the Merida city limits and can be reached via just a ten-minute taxi ride from the center.
If you consider yourself a foodie traveler, you will love the various brunch spots that you can visit in the lesser-known upscale village of Cholul, just northeast of Merida city center. The city of Motul is also just 44m away from Merida and is the birthplace of a local breakfast dish known as huevos motuleños.
Head to the Mercado Municipal Noviembre 20 to eat the very best huevos motuleños at Doña Evelias cafe. There are rarely any Western tourists here and local entertainers perform Yucatecan jarana dances and sing for tips as you dine.
If off-the-beaten-path and obscure things to do in the Yucatan appeal to you, then you will love the pueblo fantasma (ghost town) of Misnebalam just north of Merida that was abandoned after locals kept reporting paranormal activity. The abandoned Hacienda Cancabchen Casares in Cholul and the haciendas of San José Chactún and Chan Chocholá are other fascinating spots you can visit if you are renting a car in Merida.
The city is home to several charming local markets and neighborhoods
One of the greatest things about Merida is that although the city has seen an ever-increasing number of tourists in recent years, it remains authentic, unchanged, and not gentrified – at least for the time being. The city is just a couple of hours away from Cancun and the popular tourist resorts of the Riviera Maya but culturally speaking, it is worlds away.
If you want to people-watch and experience what ¨real¨ life is like in the Yucatan, Merida provides the perfect opportunity to do just that. This is particularly true if you are open-minded and willing to venture from the historic center to authentic local neighborhoods like Itzimna and Parque Aleman.
There are some great local marketplaces in central Merida where locals come to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as regional treats like chicharrón (fried pork rinds), marquesitas (Yucatecan crepes stuffed with queso de bola) and raspados (iced sodas). The Lucas de Galvez market at the intersection of Calle 65 and Calle 56, is one of the best places to catch scenes of local life.
The nearby Mercado San Benito on Calle 54 is also a fun labyrinth to navigate your way through. If you are staying in an Airbnb or self-catered accommodation, it can be fun to come here to buy your fruits and veggies.
Meanwhile, the Mercado de Artesanías García Rejón is where you will find stall after stall of local designers and artisans selling handmade huipils and other traditional Mexican clothing, intricately designed wooden Mayan masks and sculptures, and other wonderful Mexican souvenirs to display with pride in your home.
There are plenty of gorgeous beaches nearby
Merida itself is not on the coast and its inland location means that the city can get very hot and humid – especially if you travel here during the summer months. Fortunately, relief and respite are nearby, and the closest beach to Merida can be found at the little coastal town of Progreso just 30 minutes away.
Progreso itself is no great beauty, but it serves a purpose if you are just looking for a day by the sea. If you head east from here, you will pass along the Ruta Esmerelda – a scenic coastal route that runs along the Gulf of Mexico.
If you are looking for a secluded stretch of coastline where you feel like you have your very own private desert island beach, check out Playa Uaymitun, Playa las Dunas Chuburna and the beaches of Chicxulub Puerto which can all be reached in just over an hour from Merida.
If you do not have access to a car, you can easily find Uber and Didi cabs in Merida, Progreso, Chicxulub, and Uaymitun. Heading a little further east, there are some gorgeous exclusive beach clubs and bohemian Tulum-style property rentals in the little resort town of San Bruno.
Yucatecans are some of the friendliest people in Mexico
I always think that it is something of a cliche when people wax lyrical about how they traveled to a particular destination and the people were the friendliest that they met anywhere. After all, there are good and bad people everywhere you go and sometimes a handful of experiences can really make or break your perception of somewhere.
However, with that being said, Yucatecan hospitality is real. As you meander through the streets, markets, and plazas of Merida, locals greet you with a ¨buenos dias¨ or a ¨buenos tardes¨.
Strangers will pass by your table when you dine out in restaurants and wish you ¨buen provecho¨ (enjoy your food/bon appetite). On numerous occasions, I have visited certain cafes and restaurants once or twice, and then when I have gone back weeks or even months later, the owners have remembered me and even remembered my specific order.
Sundays in Merida are for cycling, running, and walking
Sunday mornings in Merida are a treat as the main central stretch of the Paseo Montejo promenade – from the Monument a la Patria statue to Calle 49, is closed off to cars. Numerous bike rental stores pop up all over town and for a few dollars, you can rent a bicycle and cycle up and down the Paseo Montejo and the surrounding parks and green spaces.
When they are sufficiently exhausted from their bike ride, they head for brunch and coffee in their favorite cafes around the center. Pan & Koffee (Calle 43 x 58 y 60 #485, Santa Ana) is a favorite among the expat crowd, known for their delightfully fluffy homemade croissants served fresh and still warm.
Luxury Merida hotel Rosas Y Xocolate is set inside two renovated Parisian mansions and its restaurant serves an excellent brunch. There is usually a live jazz band that performs to delighted guests.
A stay here is affordable, even if you opt for luxury
One great thing about traveling to Merida is that for the most part, accommodations here are much more affordable than those found in tourist hotspots in Quintana Roo. As more and more people have fallen in love with the likes of Tulum, Cancun, and Playa Del Carmen in recent years, the demand has pushed up the prices.
In some areas, this has reached the point where the prices that you pay are not much different from prices in London or New York. Maybe eventually Merida will go the same way, but it is not quite there yet and for the time being, your money goes a lot further here.
You can enjoy a stay in a fabulous hacienda on the outskirts of town or in a luxury hotel set in a converted mansion for rates in the realm of $100 – $200 a night. ($300 or so would fetch you an ultra-luxurious suite, perhaps with a private pool, jacuzzi, or terrace).
Merida boasts interesting museums and cultural exhibitions
There are a couple of interesting museums in Merida that allow you to learn more about the history of the region and its culture. If you are not much of a museum person or you only have the time to visit one museum, make it the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (Mayan World Museum).
The museum contains a number of artifacts, sculptures, and important relics that have been excavated from archeological sites and Mayan ruins across the Yucatán Peninsula. You will find statues and masks on display here from everywhere from Calakmul to Oxkintok and Ek Balam.
The museum boasts what is arguably one of the best collections of Mayan artifacts outside of the Mexico City Museum of Anthropology. It also helps you gain an understanding of the Mayan people, their language, culture, and the challenges they have faced over the years.
On the more obscure end of the spectrum, Merida is also home to the only paranormal museum in Latin America. The Merida Museo Paranormal (Calle 63ᴮ 230 x8 y 10, C. 63ᴮ 228, Cortés Sarmiento) contains hundreds of items that are said to be ¨possessed¨ and have creepy stories and legends linked to them.
(Think of it as the Mexican answer to the Warren Museum in Connecticut).
On the more calming artistic side of things, you can catch various cultural performances hosted in front of a small, intimate audience at the Casa Gemela every Saturday night. Performers range from musicians playing Yucatecan and Mexican folk music, live pianists, interpretive dances, and poetry recitals.
Merida really is a city for the arts.
Merida still has a lot of old-fashioned cantinas and bars
The city of Merida has an excellent nightlife scene that is as classy and understated as the city itself. You won’t find the same wild clubs and all-night parties here as you would in Cancun, Tulum, and Puerto Vallarta.
But what you will find are elegant cocktail bars housed inside grand old mansions in the centro historico, and centuries-old cantinas with old-fashioned wooden swing doors.
La Negrita Cantina (Calle 62 esquina, C. 49 415, Centro) near Parque Santa Lucia is a local favorite and it often gets so full on Friday and Saturday nights that the bar has to turn people away.
It hosts live music nights and salsa dancing virtually every night of the week. Dzalbay Cantina (Calle 64 x 53, Esquina, No.443) is also a popular, yet less crowded alternative that frequently hosts live jazz nights and salsa dancing classes on certain days.
Meanwhile, Cantina El Porvenir offers a traditional cantina experience where visitors are provided with free botanas (tapas-style finger food) with every drinks order and locals will still use old jukeboxes to pay to play the songs they want.
For something a little different, head to Patio Petanca (C. 57 429, Parque de la Mejorada). The bar is set inside a beautiful garden, with drinks served beneath a thatched palapa hut.
There are tons of games around the garden that you can play with other patrons – from lawn bowls and giant jenga to various board games.
Is Mérida Worth Visiting? FAQs
Do you have any further questions about planning your first trip to Merida? Are you still concerned about whether the city is worth visiting at all?
The answers to some frequently asked questions on the topic are detailed below. Hopefully, you will find the answers you are looking for there.
If not, and you are still nervous about traveling here or on the fence about whether you should or should not visit, you are more than welcome to reach out to me.
Why is Merida so popular?
There are a bunch of reasons as to why Merida is so popular. Firstly, the city is rich in culture, history, and architectural beauty.
In many ways, traveling here feels like a journey back in time as many elegant, centuries-old mansions still stand, horse-drawn carriages trot up and down the Paseo Montejo (the main boulevard) and the city exudes an air of timeless elegance.
Merida is also the safest city in Mexico. (And in fact, one of the safest cities in North America period!)
A lot of people are afraid about whether or not Mexico is a safe place to travel, and when people are nervous or anxious about traveling to a new country for the first time, it is good to know that that place is safe like Merida is.
Is Merida good for tourists?
Yes. Merida is great for tourists.
There is so much to see and do in both the city and the wider region of the Yucatan that you could easily base yourself here for a month and still feel as though you have barely scratched the surface.
The tourism infrastructure here is pretty good – buses run to most towns, villages, and archeological sites, and the people are very friendly and welcoming.
Is Merida Mexico worth visiting? Final thoughts
I hope that we have established by now that Merida is well worth visiting and if you do visit Merida as part of your Yucatan itinerary, I am betting that it will easily become one of the highlights of your trip.
Safe travels and enjoy the Yucatan! If you are visiting this region for the first time, you might also like this post on the best things to do in the Yucatan peninsula.
Buen Viaje! Melissa xo