Seasoned Yucatan travelers are already familiar with Merida’s many charms, but it seems that the rest of the world is ready to fall in love with this historic city too. Conde Nast Traveler readers just rated Merida the Best Small City in the World in the 2019 Readers Choice awards for its history and traditions. State capital of the Yucatan, Merida was founded in 1542 and around every corner there’s a surprise, a tree-lined square, an old church, a bustling market or an opulent mansion. There is so much to do and see and a concert or cultural event every night. Here’s a starter guide for your next trip.

Go straight to the heart: the main square

The Plaza Grande or main square lies at the heart of the second largest colonial city center in Mexico. It is the site of some of the city’s most important historic and civic monuments such as the imposing Cathedral, City Hall, Government House and Casa de Montejo, the 16th-century house of Francisco de Montejo, the conquistador who founded Merida.

On the south side of the square is Casa de Montejo. Visit the Casa de Montejo Museum for a glimpse of Merida history and an exhibition of folk art from all over the country, including a huge ceramic jaguar and some impressive trees of life.

Located on the east side of the square, the Cathedral de San Idelfonso dominates the skyline. With its twin towers and austere façade, it is one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas and the first to be completed in Mexico before 1600 (construction 1551-1585).

Merida was built amidst the ruins of a much earlier Mayan city called T’ho, which was abandoned long before the Spanish Conquest. The Spaniards used some of the ancient carved stones in the construction of the cathedral and other buildings in their new city.

Escape the midday heat by venturing into the cool interior of the cathedral with its columns, vaulted ceilings and huge dome. In one of its chapels resides the Christ of the Blisters, a black figure of Christ that is said to have miraculous powers and is the patron saint of the city.

Built on the site of the colonial Casa Real or Captain-General’s residence from 1879-1892, Government House fronts the north side of the square. This elegant building is worth a visit for a glimpse of the murals on the first floor. The work of the late artist, Fernando Castro Pacheco, they depict the history of the Yucatán, with scenes from the ancient Mayan creation story, the Conquest, Mayan rebellions, the 19th-century Caste War and the henequen boom.

The work of local artists is on display at the Macay Gallery (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Yucateco)

The Merida Tourism Office offers a free walking tour of the city center, Monday to Saturday at 9:30 a.m. with a bilingual guide. The meeting point is outside the Palacio Municipal or City Hall in the main square.

People watch

Walk north from the main square, along Calle 60 to peaceful Parque Hidalgo, site of several sidewalk cafes and bars for people watching, a cinema, boutiques, book and craft shops. The charming 17th-century Church of the Third Order lies to the north of the square and is a popular venue for weddings. Several of the hotels in this area are actually renovated turn-of-the century mansions, once the residences of local aristocrats who loved all things European. The French influence is still tangible.

The original University of the Yucatán building is on the corner of Calle 60 and Calle 59. Founded by the Jesuits in 1618, this is one of the oldest universities in the country. Take a look at the impressive courtyard.

On the opposite side of the street is the Peón Contreras Theater. Built by Italian engineer Enrique Deserti to emulate the opulence of a European opera house, this magnificent theater opened its doors in 1908 at the height of the city’s prosperity. Sit outside the theater in the evening at one of the open-air cafes.

Walk further on and you’ll come to Santa Lucia square, the site of another colonial church, restaurants, bars, boutiques and folk art stores.

Moonlight, Roses & Romance

Take an evening stroll along Calle 60 to Paseo de Montejo. This wide boulevard was inspired by the Champs Elysées in Paris. Lined with tamarind and flame trees, it is a magnificent setting for the elegant mansions built by the henequen barons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

After your walk, enjoy a candlelit dinner under the arches in a colonial courtyard or one of the tree-lined squares on Calle 60. Let a guitar trio serenade you and buy a bouquet of roses or better still, a buttonhole of blanca mariposas, a fragrant, white flower that is native to the area.

If you are in the main square on Wednesday or Friday evening stay for the impressive video mapping on the facade of Casa de Montejo and the Cathedral.

Dine out

Good restaurants abound in Mérida and there’s everything from fresh seafood, after all the Gulf of Mexico is only a 20-minute drive away, to Mexican, Italian and Lebanese cuisine, but you must try Yucatecan food during your stay.

A blend of Mayan staples (corn, chile, tomato, beans, squash, turkey) and European and Middle Eastern ingredients (pork, Seville oranges, garlic), Yucatecan cuisine is a sophisticated blend of flavors. The secret is in the seasoning and local chefs use recados or spice mixes that are sold in the markets as pastes and dissolved in chicken stock and orange juice to make sauces. Look out for panuchos and salbutes, Sopa de Lima, Cochinita Pibil, which is pork marinated in achiote (annatto) and cooked in a pit, Relleno Negro, turkey cooked in a spicy black sauce and Queso Relleno, Dutch Edam cheese stuffed with minced beef and pork, raisins, almonds.

The Museo de Gastronomia Yucateca on Calle 62 combines museum exhibits on local cuisine, its origin and influences with a courtyard restaurant serving up Yucatecan dishes. Another option is to visit Hacienda Teya for lunch and learn about the history of this estate and its renovation as you walk through the grounds. Teya is located to the east of the city on the Merida-Cancun highway.

Museum Hopping

Merida has a growing collection of museums and art galleries and your first stop on the museum circuit is to delve into the Yucatan’s Mayan heritage. The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya on Prolongacion Montejo is an interactive museum experience with fascinating displays on ancient Mayan history, society, beliefs and the lives of the Maya today.

Next stop is the Regional Anthropology & History Museum on Paseo de Montejo for a look at Mayan art, stone carvings and ceramics unearthed at archaeological sites throughout the state. Highlights include gold, jade and turquoise dredged from the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza. The museum is located on Paseo de Montejo in Palacio Canton, perhaps the finest of Paseo de Montejo’s mansions, built in 1901-11 in the Italian Renaissance style. The museum is closed on Monday.

Also on Paseo de Montejo is Casa Museo Montes Molina, another beautiful old mansion with furnishings dating from the days of the henequen boom, now open to the public.

Located in the Old Post Office on Calle 56, the Museo de la Ciudad relates the history of Mérida and has interesting displays on the Mayan city of T’ho. If you are interested in Mexican folk art, call in at the Museo de Arte Popular in La Mejorada on Calle 59.

Go Shopping

From hammocks and Panama hats to ceramics, alebrije figures, silver and embroidered textiles, Merida is an excellent place to shop for folk art from the region and elsewhere in Mexico. Not only will you find handicrafts but also the work of up and coming Mexican artists who weave ethnic symbols into contemporary designs.

Go shopping for Yucatecan crafts in the Casa de Artesanías, two blocks behind City Hall in Las Monjas, a 16th-century convent that once housed the daughters of wealthy local families. Hammocks, Panama hats, guayaberas or cotton shirts for men, embroidered hipiles or traditional dresses, basketry, filigree jewelry, pottery, wood carvings and candles are good buys.

You’ll also find a colorful selection of Mexican folk art in shops clustered along Calle 60, in Santa Lucia, on Paseo de Montejo and in the Fonart store at El Remate de Paseo de Montejo.

If you like visiting markets, Bazaar Garcia Rejón is probably the best for crafts, and bargaining is a must. Look for locally made hammocks, Panama hats and pottery. Located two blocks south of the main square. Portal de Granos and Lucas de Galvez markets are also worth a look for crafts, traditional local snacks, honey, chilies, spice mixes and exotic fruit and vegetables.

Merida also has its fair share of modern air-conditioned malls too, all to the north of the city. The list includes La Isla, The Harbor and Plaza Galerias.

In the mood for dancing

Watch the vaqueria or traditional Yucatecan fiesta on Monday evening in the main square in front of City Hall. For more music and dance performances, don’t miss the Noche Mexicana on Saturday in El Remate Park at the beginning of Paseo de Montejo. On Tuesday, walk over to Santiago Park for big band and danzón music at 8:30 p.m. You’ll soon be joining other couples on the dance floor.

Catch a Concert

Don’t miss Parque Santa Lucia on Thursday evening where guitar trios gather to play serenades and classic romantic trova songs, many ballads written by local composers. If you like the music, several city bars also offer live trova music, ask at your hotel for details. For information on this musical genre popular in the Yucatan, Veracruz and Cuba visit the Museum de la Cancion Yucateca (Museum of Yucatecan Music) on Calle 57.

The Peon Contreras Theater on Calle 60 is home to the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra and you might catch one of its season concerts when in town. Enjoy jazz or rock under the stars and of course, as we are in tropical terrain, there are salsa bars too where you can dance the night away to salsa, cumbia and merengue.

Head for the Gulf coast

Spend a couple of days exploring the area surrounding Merida. Driving north from Mérida for 13 miles, en route to the port of Progreso, the archaeological site of Dzibilchaltún is worth a visit. The site was continuously inhabited from 1000 B.C. up to the Spanish Conquest. Highlights include the Temple of the Seven Dolls, Xlaca’ Cenote, a colonial chapel and the Museum of Mayan People.

Progreso is a good place to start exploring the Gulf coast and sample some of the fresh seafood for which the area is famous. Flamingos can often be seen feeding in the shallow lagoons to the east of the town.

On the subject of flamingos, head west from Merida via Hunucma to Celestún Biosphere Reserve where you can go on a boat trip through the mangroves to see flocks of flamingos, herons and other aquatic birds.

Explore southern Yucatan

Head south to spend the day exploring archaeological sites, haciendas, Mayan communities and caves. Rent a car and drive out of Mérida to the village of Umán; take highway 261, marked “ruinas,” to the archaeological site of Uxmal. En route, call in at the Yaxcopoil hacienda to learn about henequen cultivation. Next stop is the village of Muná, at the foot of the low range of hills known as the Sierra Puuc. A 17th-century Franciscan church dominates the village square.

The road climbs out of Muná and on the other side of the ridge, the ancient city of Uxmal, comes into view. During the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900), Uxmal was a regional capital, controlling southwest Yucatán and a chain of smaller cities referred to today as the Puuc Route: Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná. In recognition of their outstanding cultural worth, UNESCO declared them a World Heritage area in 1996.

Plan on spending at least a morning in Uxmal, you’ll be captivated by its temples and palaces. The principal buildings are the Magician’s Pyramid, the Nuns’ Quadrangle, the Palace of the Governor and the adjoining Great Pyramid.

A 30-minute drive from Uxmal, Kabah is the second largest Puuc site and is famous for the Codz Pop, a temple with an impressive frieze featuring 250 masks depicting Chaac, the rain god. Sayil is next with its three-tiered Palace, and the smallest site, Xlapak, lies nearby. The highlight at Labná is its magnificent freestanding korbel arch.

You can return to Merida via the pottery town of Ticul or continue to the Caves of Loltún, the mission towns of Oxkutzcab and Maní and back to the capital along Highway 18, the Convent Route, a name that alludes to the chain of villages you’ll pass through, each one with a colonial church.

Evening entertainment in Merida

There’s something on in Merida every night of the week. Check out our listing of weekly events.

Vaqueria Yucateca show in front of City Hall, 9 p.m.

Trova Night at the Olimpo Cultural Center on the main square, 8:30 p.m.
Big Band Concert, Santiago Park (Calle 59 & 72), 8:30 p.m.

Noche de las Culturas: Francisco Montejo, Casa Montejo, Video Mapping, Calle 63 entre 62 y 60, 8:30 p.m.
History Tour of the Cemetery, 8 p.m.
Trova Concert in the Museo de la Canción Yucateca, Calle 57 no. 464 por 48, 8:30, $50 pesos per person

Serenades and traditional dancing in Santa Lucía Park, 9 p.m.
En el Corazón de Merida Festival, Calle 60 entre 59 y 61, 8 p.m.

Piedras Sagradas Video Mapping, Cathedral, Plaza Grande, 8:30 p.m.
En el Corazón de Merida Festival, Calle 60 entre 59 y 61, 8 p.m.
Noche de Leyendas Street Theater Walking Tour, Peon de Contreras Theater, 9 p.m.
$140 pesos per adult, $120 pesos for teens, $80 pesos per child.

Pok Ta Pok Ball Game, in front of the Cathedral, Plaza Grande, 8:30 p.m.
Noche Mexicana, traditional music and dance from different parts of Mexico, Paseo Montejo & Calle 47, 8 p.m.
Noche de Leyendas Street Theater Walking Tour, Peon de Contreras Theater, 9 p.m.
$140 pesos per adult, $120 pesos for teens, $80 pesos per child.

Merida en Domingo festival takes place on the main square and surrounding streets, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Music, dance, craft and food stalls.

Ask for the current schedule when you are in Merida or look for the free Yucatan Today magazine

Plan a trip to Merida

Thomas More Travel offers one-day and overnight trips to Merida and can also help you plan a longer stay.