Mérida, Mexico is the capital city of Yucatán state, with roughly one million citizens making it the largest city of the Yucatán Peninsula. For many years, it lived in the shadow of the nearby Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun, which all boast superb beaches, famous attractions, and lively nightlife. However, in 2019 Mérida received a massive boost in tourism investment, courtesy of the state’s Governor Mauricio Vila, and visitors started arriving in droves. In fact, Yucatán state saw more than 3.2 million visitors in 2019 (a new state record!), and a large majority spent at least three or four nights in Mérida.
Over the next few paragraphs, we’re going to give you five awesome reasons why Mérida is worth visiting, although in truth we could probably give you dozens more. We’ll cover some of the most impressive sights, some of the best restaurants, and some of the experiences that make La Ciudad Blanca (“The White City”) such a unique and worthwhile destination.
And we’re starting with one of the most notable features of Mérida: the abundance of Mayan culture.
The whole city was built on top of an ancient Maya city called T’ho, and the ancient Mayan culture is still very much alive in Mérida, blending seamlessly with Spanish, French, British, and modern-day Mexican influences. Most visitors to Mexico get their fill of Mayan culture by visiting the ruins of Chichen Itzá, one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and we can’t deny that it’s a stunning place to visit.
However, we’re recommending that you give Chichen Itzá a miss, as it’s become far too commercialized. Instead, we suggest a trip to the ruins of Uxmal, which are just as awe-inspiring but far less crowded. If you forget the organized tours and rent a car for the day, you can stop off at several lesser-known ruins, before marveling at the majesty of Uxmal. Car hire is cheap — about $18 for a decent-sized SUV — the roads are in pretty good shape, and people even obey the traffic laws (well, most of them). Just don’t drive after dark: not because it’s dangerous (it isn’t), but because the roads aren’t very well lit, and you’ll struggle to see sharp bends, speedbumps, and potholes.
If you’re planning to make a day of it, we should really mention the cenotes: natural sinkholes filled with groundwater from the world’s longest underground river, which flows deep beneath the Yucatán Peninsula. There’s a superb example near to Uxmal called Cenote Kankirixche. It’s known as the “secret cenote” because the entrance is just a set of small, rickety wooden stairs, partly hidden by an ancient tree trunk. But if you take the time to find it, you’ll likely have the whole area to yourself, and a dip in a nice cold pool is the perfect way to cool down after a hot day visiting Mayan ruins!
Another way to get a culture fix is to visit a few (or even all!) of the many museums in Mérida. There are at least 16 within walking distance of the city center, including el Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Merida, which, as the name suggests, is a celebration of Mayan history, full of amazing artifacts and cultural curios. There are plenty of specialist museums too, including el Museo Palacio de la Musica, which traces the history of Mexican music through sound, visuals, and interactive holograms. BTW, don’t bother with the enticingly-named Choco Story Uxmal – although you do get to sample some (admittedly gorgeous) chocolate, it’s basically just a big store with a few lackluster exhibits.
Everyone loves Mexican cuisine, but the food in Mérida is at a whole new level. Apart from being famous for the best ham (jamón) in Mexico, there are so many other tastes to try. The most famous local dish is definitely cochinita pibil — pit-cooked pork marinated in citrus juice and seasoned with annatto. It’s basically like pulled pork, only way, way better! And don’t leave Mérida without sampling papadzules — corn tortillas filled with hard-boiled eggs and covered in a pumpkin seed sauce. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but in reality it’s delicious!
One of our top picks for where to eat in Merida is ChilaKillers: a play on the word “chilaquiles” which are fried corn tortillas cooked in salsa and sprinkled with cheese. Try one for breakfast, served with eggs, a side of beans or nopalitos, and a large glass of freshly-squeezed OJ. And for a late-night bite there’s only one place to go: Mercado 60, which is a terraced courtyard featuring dozens of outdoor-style food stalls serving every imaginable dish (plus a few that defy the imagination!) Most nights, there’s a live band playing rock and pop covers, which adds to the cool and laid-back vibe. We love it!
If you want to see the raw ingredients, there’s no better place than Mercado Lucas de Galvéz, Merida’s main fresh food market. It’s a treat for the senses, with tantalizing spicy aromas, eye-catching colors, and the chance to sample a few freshly-made tacos. Our tip is to get there just before it opens (at 9:00 am) when all the colorful food stalls are still untouched. Alternatively, you can book a tour, where a guide will explain all the local produce, including the famous Seville oranges and huaya, a lime exclusive to the Yucatán region.
And if you want to try your hand at preparing some of Merida’s signature dishes, there are plenty of cooking schools run by local chefs that will be happy to help. One of the best is Los Dos Cooking School, which can count Martha Stewart, Rick Bayless, and Diana Kennedy amongst its star pupils. Their Cocina Económica class is a real highlight: you get to visit a local pueblo and help prepare a signature dish, then you sit down with a real Mayan family and help them eat it!
As night follows day, so drink tends to follow food. The national drink of Mexico is tequila, followed closely by mezcal, and most bars in Mérida (in fact, all the bars in Mérida) have their own authentic version. However, some traditional drinks have a heritage that pre-dates even the Mexicans, and they strongly suggest that the Maya really knew how to party!
A far more modern drink, popular throughout the Yucutan peninsula, is the Bandera Mexicana (“Mexican flag”). It’s served as three separate shots — tequila (white), lime juice (green), and sangrita (red) — which make up the colors of the Mexican flag. If you can’t handle three shots at once, there’s a tamer version that contains three different layered ingredients with the national colors.
There are well over 150 bars in Mérida, and we’re sure you’ll find your own favorite place to down a tequila or mezcal (and remember: the premium ones say “100% Agave” on the bottle). But in case you don’t know where to start, we have a few recommendations. La Negrita is probably the most popular: it’s a shabby-chic place with a great “local” atmosphere, live bands that start playing from mid-afternoon, and free snacks (botanas) with every drink. El Cardenal is a similar type of place, with the added bonus of a decent menu.
But our favorite has to be the tiny Malahat Speakeasy, which has an authentic 1920s ambiance and features bar staff climbing floor-to-ceiling ladders to access all the liquor. In true speakeasy style, you enter the bar by crossing a small, hard-to-find parking lot and them walking through what looks like a kitchen. If you visit in the evening, they even have a live band playing traditional 1920s jazz. It’s the bee’s knees, Daddy-o!
Because of the blend of ancient Mayan and contemporary European culture, Mérida offers some truly unique architecture — most of it right in the heart of the city. And it’s not just historically-important buildings: in recent years, Mérida has become something of a trendsetter in Mexican contemporary architecture, particularly in the modern renovations of old colonial houses. But it’s in La Plaza Grande, Mérida’s main square, that you can find the city’s proudest architectural gems.
By late afternoon, almost the entire population of Mérida, it seems, have congregated at Plaza Grande. Here, you can stop and sit for a coffee or something stronger, just meters away from el Catedral de San Ildefonso: the first church in the Americas to be built on the mainland. This imposing building, completed in 1598, was built on the site of a former Mayan temple by a mainly-Mayan workforce, some of who still practiced their own religion. (They must have felt doubly insulted when some of the stone from their sacred Mayan temple was used for the construction of a Catholic cathedral. Ouch!)
The Renaissance-style Casa Montejo is on the opposite side of the square. This is the city’s oldest building, built between 1542 and 1549 by Don Francisco de Montejo, conquistador of the Yucatán Península. Originally a barracks and then the Montejo family home, the ancient building is now a museum. It maintains the original facade, which is regarded as a masterpiece of renaissance architecture.
Mexico has some world-famous festivals, notably Dia De Los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo, but Mérida seemingly has a different festival every week! This is awesome for visitors, as it’s a great way to experience the culture of Mérida, hang out with the locals, and see some awesome displays for free.
We can’t list all the festivals and events (as there really are too many!), but the crowd favorites are Merida Fest (January), Carnaval in Progresso (February), and Xmatkuil, the Yucatan State Fair, in December. There are also events that happen once a week, always on the same day. To demonstrate the variety of what’s on offer, here’s a selection.
Monday is Vaqueria day, when the Ballet Folklorico dances for free in front of the Palacio Municipal on the West side of la Plaza Grande). On Tuesdays, there’s the Remembranzas Musicales (“Musical Memories”), which is when the older citizens take the floor for some old-style ballroom dancing. The dancing isn’t anything special, but it’s quite sweet in a sentimental way.
Wednesday doesn’t host a special event, but at 8:00 pm you can get a guided tour of Merida’s largest cemetery. It sounds a bit macabre, but actually, it’s fascinating. All the graves are decorated by scale models of small buildings in the same architectural style as the deceased’s houses, which is both cute and creepy at the same time.
On Thursdays, there’s the Serenata en Santa Lucía: a storytelling (in Spanish) with dancers and vocalists. But the big event is every Friday, when two teams re-enact the ceremonial sport Pok ta Pok, known to the ancient Maya as the sport of kings. It’s quite an event, and you’ll find a lot of locals watching as well.
How many days do you need in Merida?
You need three or four days in Mérida to get any further than just the basic touristy attractions. That said, we know of people who have spent two or three weeks there because Mérida’s location makes it a great base for day-trips to most of Yucatan’s historical sites, as well as the beach resorts of Cancún and Playa del Carmen.
What is Merida famous for?
Mainly, Mérida is famous for the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichen Itzá, one of the seven modern wonders of the world. But we prefer the ruins at Uxmal, which are just as awe-inspiring but nowhere near as crowded. Mérida also boasts the first church in the Americas to be built on the mainland, called el Catedral de San Ildefonso. It was built over an old Mayan temple site, which predictably insulted the poor Maya that had to build it.
Why is Merida called the White City?
The story has it that Mérida is called the White City (La Ciudad Blanca) because of the white and light-colored limestone used as an early building material. The man who conquered Mérida, a Spaniard called Francisco de Montejo, saw the white stone and was reminded of an old Roman city back home called Merida, which is how Mérida Mexico got its name.
How big is Merida Mexico?
With an area of 2,223 square miles, Mérida Mexico is the biggest city in Yucutan state. The population figures most available on the internet give a total 892,363 citizens, but that figure was for 2015. More detailed research shows a population figure for 2021 of 1,174,324, with a projection of over 1.25 million residents by 2025. Currently, Mérida is the 12th biggest city in Mexico, and 483rd in the world.