Merida is the largest city in the Mexican state of Yucatán, a former Maya stronghold turned colonial settlement that’s long been the political and economic centre of southern Mexico.
Compared to its nearby coastal neighbour of Cancun, Merida sees just a fraction of the number of tourists. Before I travelled to the city, most of what I’d read had led me to believe that the best things to do in Merida would be non-touristy and completely authentic.
Let me tell you, this is not the case, and Merida Mexico is not necessarily the untouched city you may easily be led to believe. It’s definitely touristy, but just not on the same scale or in the same way as the coastal resorts of Quintana Roo.
Don’t let that put you off, but do let it gauge your expectations. Merida is still a wonderfully chaotic, colonial and fun city to visit.
There are some great things to do in Merida, and these were my favourites – with a few awesome local dishes to try when you are in the city too!
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A Brief History of Merida
Merida has long been inhabited, and before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1540s, the city had for thousands of years been the centre of Maya cultures.
It’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas, although when the Spanish ‘founded’ their colonial city, they built over the top of the existing Maya structures, and little remains architecturally of the pre-Colombian legacy.
That legacy though can still be seen in the people, as Merida continues to have one of the highest percentages of inhabitants with Maya heritage in Mexico, and in many ways, the culture is still very much alive.
Merida became a colonial city, and by the end of the 19th century, the wealthy elite were richer than anywhere else in Mexico as they cashed in on the lucrative sale of Henequen which was grown on their plantations. The city grew and became fabulously wealthy, but this was the heyday.
Although it’s no longer the rich city it was a century ago after the price of crops crashed and land reforms swept through Mexico, Merida is very much the cultural and political capital of Yucatán, and there is a lot here to explore!
The Best Things to Do in Merida
Merida has a whole range of great things to do, and you can easily spend days, if not weeks just soaking up the relaxed atmosphere of the city too.
It’s also a great base from which to explore more of the Yucatán, and within easy reach of Merida Mexico are Maya ruins, yellow cities and much, much more!
1. The Plaza Grande
The Plaza Grande, or the Zocalo, is the centre of Merida, and it’s the place to start your journey through the city.
If you ever get lost just head back here, as all roads lead from the centre! The Plaza Grande is very colonial in nature, and if you are travelling across Mexico and indeed, anywhere else in the Spanish speaking Americas, then you’ll come across similar squares in almost all colonial towns and cities.
Merida’s main square is particularly well preserved, with grand government structures still surrounding the wide open square. You enter many of the colonial buildings and wander around, while the central square itself is always lively and colourful, and a great place to chill out.
On weekends the Plaza Grande becomes the scene of cultural shows and a large food market, while during the week there is always some sort of event occurring almost every evening.
2. Walking Tour of Merida
The city tourism board have an office in the central square and every morning they run a walking tour of Merida, which is a great way to see the highlights, learn more about the local history and meet a few other travellers too.
The free tour should run every day at 9.30am, but you’re better off checking in with the tourism office beforehand to confirm the times as things can change quickly in Mexico!
3. Museum of the City of Merida
If you’re wondering what to do in Merida after your walking tour, then why not check out the Museum of the City of Merida? I was pleasantly surprised by this museum, which was free to enter as well – always a bonus when you travel on a budget!
It was high quality, although not exactly extensive, with a focus of course, on the history of the city itself. There are some great archaeological relics on display across the museum, and if you know little of Merida before you entered, then you’ll know plenty more by the time you leave.
There are exhibits focusing on the Maya civilization that flourished here in the pre-Colombian era, before switching to the colonial era, and then the modern era. It’s a great place to spend an hour or two, with a modern art gallery located on the top floor which you can take a look at too.
4. Mercado Lucas de Galvez
There are plenty of local markets in Merida, but right next to the Museum of the City of Merida, you can find the Mercado Lucas de Galvez, a sprawling, and mostly undercover area that’s jam-packed with stalls and shops.
Wander through at your leisure, getting lost in the labyrinth of market stalls as you weave your way past everything from tortilla production lines to hanging pig carcasses. It’s a cool place to pick up supplies if you’re staying in the city for a while and looking to cook, while outside you can find a huge range of street vendors serving up Yucatan food through the day.
5. The Cathedral of Merida
Walk back to the Plaza Grande and you’ll find the towering shape of the Cathedral of Merida rising into the sky on the eastern side of the square. The cathedral is an incredibly well-preserved example of early Spanish, colonial architecture, and it’s one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas.
As with many of the colonial building projects, the cathedral was raised on the site of a Maya temple, and stones from the ruins were used to construct the new Christian place of worship. The Cathedral of Merida was completed in 1598 and is still in use to this day.
6. Palacio de Gobierno
On the northern side of the Plaza Grande, you’ll find the Palacio de Gobierno. This is the government palace, a grand colonial building complete with resplendent arches and balconies. You can wander through many of the hallways and into the main central courtyard, where you can see extravagant murals painted across the walls.
Look closely at the colourful paintings and you’ll quickly realise the colonial nature of them, as Spanish Conquistadors and priests stand tall over the Mayans, imposing their will and religion on the locals.
7. Paseo de Montejo
When Merida was booming from the Henequen trade back in the late 19th century, the rich landowners and merchants profiting from the industry began expressing their extravagant wealth by building grand mansions and houses in the city.
The Paseo de Montejo, a long, wide boulevard heading out of the city centre, became the richest street in Mexico, and the site of the elite construction projects. Many of these lavish mansions are still there, and the avenue is also home to many grand memorials and statues, making it a historic and intriguing place to take a stroll.
8. The Great Museum of the Mayan World
The Great Museum of the Mayan World – or, in Spanish, El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya – is a tribute to the Mayan civilization of the Yucatan peninsula and wider Central America. It’s found at the far end of the Paseo de Montejo, in a modern, purpose built building, and is one of the newer additions to the city’s attractions.
The museum has four permanent exhibition halls, where you can learn about everything from the prehistoric, dinosaur-filled land of the Yucatan that was eventually wiped out by a meteorite strike, through to the Maya civilizations and colonisation.
It’s a great place to spend a few hours, but it’s a bit of a trek out of the city centre. You’ll need to take a taxi or jump on the local bus. The local pus departs around the corner from the central plaza on Calle 58 and then runs north along Calle 60. You’re looking for bus number XXI 21. Entrance to the museum costs 150 MXN.
9. Korean Museum
Somewhat bizarrely, there’s a small museum devoted to Korean immigration to the Yucatan. In 1905, over a thousand Koreans disembarked at Progreso and then began working on the Henequen farms. They built their own communities and today there’s still a small population in Merida.
The museum was being refurbished when I visited, aside from a small collection of photographs, but it should be opening again in July 2019. It will be an interesting look at an unknown side of the Yucatan’s ethnic makeup and history of immigration.
10. Pok Ta Pok
Pok Ta Pok is an ancient Maya ball game, however, the rules were somewhat lost during the violent and oppressive colonisation of Central America by the Spanish. A modern reincarnation of the game has made a resurgence in Merida though, and you can catch it some weekends in the Plaza Grande.
It’s supposed to be a big event, however, I was told by my accommodation that it would be held on Saturday at 8.30pm. I turned up, and there was just music that night. Other sources online say it may be held on Fridays at 8.30pm! If you don’t want to miss out on this cultural event, then check in with the tourism office to figure out the correct time and day of the week!
Izamal is known as the Yellow City, and you’ll quickly understand why if you make the day trip from Merida. Everything is quite literally yellow. It’s a beautiful place, but more intriguing is the hidden history. Izamal was a thriving Maya city, but when the Spanish arrived they simply built new churches and colonial buildings over the centuries-old local temples.
Amongst the colonial streets though, you can still find several temple mounds that were left alone by the Spanish, although they fell into disrepair. You can climb Maya ruins in the middle of the city, making this quite an extraordinary place to visit.
Izamal is one hour away from Merida by colectivo, and these minibuses depart when full from Calle 65, not far from the Plaza Grande. Walk along Calle 65, and you’ll see the Museum of the City of Merida off to the right-hand side, not far along from here you’ll see the colectivos lined up. Buy a token from the small stand and jump in the next one!
Other Day Trips From Merida
Merida Mexico is quite well placed to make other day trips too, and there are quite a few opportunities to travel out of the city if you are using it as your base. You can reach Chichen Itza, Ek Balam and Valladolid on day trips, however, it is fairly far and you can expect to spend a while travelling there and back!
Closer day trips include the Maya ruins at Uxmal and the beach and port of Progreso.
Map of Things to Do Merida
A Few Things to Eat in Merida!
Mexico is a well-known foodie destination because quite simply, the food is great. While you can find all the classic Mexican dishes in Merida, from Chilaquiles to Tacos, traditional Yucatan cuisine is somewhat different from this but just as addictive. Local food takes influences from the Maya world, as well as wider Mexico, the Caribbean and Spain.
You can find local eateries all over the city, but try to stay away from the Plaza Grande if you are looking for low prices. The exception to this rule is Sundays! This is the day when the main square is taken over by the weekly food market, with stands and stalls set up across the plaza selling Mexican and Yucatan food at great prices.
Here are a few of my favourite Yucatan dishes, but just be warned, there are hundreds more you can try too!
This was by far my favourite local offering. Cochinita Pibil is a fairly simple dish in construction, but it’s the complex spices and slow cooking that really make it special. You take slow roasted pork – Cochinita means baby pig – which has been marinated for hours beforehand using a mixture of spices alongside citric acids from oranges. It’s served up with a mixture of side salads, beans and tortillas.
Sopa de Lima
Sopa de Lima – or lime soup – is another staple of the Yucatan and you’ll find it on most restaurant menus. It’s called lime soup, but the main ingredient is usually chicken stock or some other meat stock. The lime is just added for zesty flavour, but it really works!
Papadzules will look very similar to Enchiladas, comprising rolled tortillas stuffed with meats and layered in sauces. Enchiladas are thought to have been inspired by Papadzules, which traditionally were eaten across the Mayan world, particularly by the nobility. The Yucatan Papadzules are generally served swimming in sauce!
Poc Chuc is another gloriously simple dish comprising pork cuts or other meats, but usually pork! – that’s marinated in citrus juices and then roasted or grilled to perfection. Serve it up with a few garnishes and sides and you’ve got a simple but effective winner.
All Words and Photos by Richard Collett