Mérida, also known as “the white city”, capital of the state of Yucatán, is located in the north-west of the peninsula. The city attracts visitors with its cosmopolitan atmosphere, human scale and tranquil atmosphere. Indeed, Yucatan’s capital is renowned for its safe streets and peaceful atmosphere. Far from the hustle and bustle and overcrowded beaches of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, Mérida is an ideal stop-off point for discovering southern Mexico. A fascinating, multi-faceted city, it is also ideally located as a starting point for visiting Mayan sites such as Chichén Itz.

A city with an ancient history

Before it was founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1542, the Mayan city of T’Ho lay on the site of present-day Merida. During the post-classical Maya era, from the 10th to the 12th century, T’Ho was home to a significant community, which gradually deserted the city before the arrival of settlers. The settlers built the town on the ruins of the ancient city. Francisco de Montejo, sent by the Spanish crown to conquer the peninsula, found an abandoned city where he was able to build one of the largest cities in America at the time, alongside Mexico City and Havana: Mérida. Evidence of pre-Hispanic times can still be seen in the modern city, such as the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, the oldest in Mexico, where in some places carved stones from Mayan buildings can be seen.

During the 17th century, Mérida was fortified to ward off attacks by Mayan troops. Today, many of the gates of this wall still mark out the historic center and part of the city. Later, the city prospered thanks to “green gold”: henequen, a type of agave exported for its ultra-resistant fiber throughout the world in the form of rope and twine. Trade in this precious resource passed through the port of Sisal, a few kilometers north of the city. This golden age is still visible today in the exuberance of the grand houses that grace the city’s main avenue, the Paseo de Montejo.

Today, the center has preserved its original colonial architecture. Like many Mexican cities, the Plaza Grande, the central square or zocalo, is the heart of the city, where residents gather under the shade of trees and where the city’s historical heritage is concentrated. In addition to the aforementioned Cathedral, the Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace) and the Palacio Municipal (City Hall) are also well worth a visit.

Busy and a little chaotic, with traces of the past around every corner, Merida is a city of colorful facades to explore. Between monasteries and churches, typical little houses and authentic haciendas, the maze that is Merida is full of history.


A thriving cultural scene

Merida is not stuck in the past, however, and boasts a dynamic cultural scene and a number of first-rate institutions. One of these is undoubtedly the Peón Conteras Theatre, the city’s oldest, inaugurated in 1908. With its colonial-style architecture, it is one of Mexico’s most renowned opera houses. It is also home to the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra. Its program includes operas, dance performances, conferences and children’s festivals.

The Museum of Folk Art showcases the work of artisans in wood, glass and textiles. It showcases the traditional skills of indigenous communities, particularly Mayan descendants.

The Macay Fernando García Ponce Museum housed in a restored period house, is the only museum on the peninsula devoted to modern and contemporary art. Its permanent collection pays tribute to local artists such as Fernando Castro Pacheco, Fernando García Ponce and Gabriel Ramírez Aznar. It also boasts several rooms dedicated to temporary exhibitions. Its patio, surrounded by lush green vegetation, is a particularly pleasant place to relax in the shade.

To continue the cultural tour, we can also mention the Mayan World Museum, located to the north of the center, or the Casa de Montejo, which belonged to the family of the city’s founders, located on the zocalo. On the other side of the plaza, the Olimpo Cultural Center boasts a planetarium and a wide range of activities and exhibitions for all ages.

This is just a small selection of Mérida’s cultural activities, as the city boasts cultural centers and art galleries for everyone to discover as they roam around. Among them, one not to be missed: La Fundación de Artistas is an organization that opened a center in 2015 to promote contemporary creation on the Peninsula. In the evening, the atmosphere changes! In the center, the traffic calms down and gives way to concerts here and there, while onlookers stop, sometimes venturing to draw a few dance steps.


A gastronomic capital

The region’s cuisine is an incredible blend of Mayan, Spanish and Arabic flavors. One of the best ways to enjoy a typical meal is to venture into one of the city’s markets, then sit down at one of the small stalls to sample the culinary specialties.

At Santiago’s market, the smell of freshly prepared food mingles in the air, merchants trade from one stall to the next, and regulars and visitors alike flock to the market at lunchtime. Among the abundance of options, a good address is Taqueria de Lupita. Today’s menu features a typical Yucatecan dish: cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork in banana leaves, or taco de “lechon con chicharron”, a piglet taco with chili sauce for the more adventurous.

For those who want to soak up the atmosphere of the cantinas, popular and inexpensive canteens, “La Negrita Cantina”, a stone’s throw from Santa Ana Park, is a typical address of choice where travelers in search of authenticity mingle with the locals. Here, the food is simple and tasty, and the atmosphere friendly – immersion guaranteed!

Also close to the Santa Ana market is the Manjar Blanco restaurant, serving regional culinary specialties such as papadzules, “food for the gods” in Mayan. This dish consists of corn tortillas bathed in a thick pumpkin seed sauce. Poc chuc also features on the restaurant’s menu. This dish, based on pork marinated in citrus fruits and then grilled, is served with rice, beans and red onions. For dessert, corn flan is the option of choice!

Plaza Santa Lucia is a particularly pleasant and lively option for evening dining. Here, folk musicians play the traditional Yucatecan serenata. To enjoy the show while eating, you can sit down on the terrace of Apoala, a slightly more upscale restaurant serving elaborate Mexican cuisine with refined flavors. Reservations recommended!

The ideal starting point

Another advantage of Merida for visitors is its proximity to other points of interest in the region. The city is an ideal starting point for excursions in the surrounding area, including a visit to Chichén Itza, the must-see Mayan site. Chichén Itza is 120 km from Mérida, a journey of 1h30 by car.

Generally speaking, renting a car from Mérida is the best way to discover the surrounding area at your own pace and gain mobility, especially when it comes to discovering the cenotes, water-filled craters of changing color. One of the Yucatán Peninsula’s many unique geological curiosities, several cenotes can be found just a short distance from Mérida. Although some are reserved for professional divers, most are accessible to swimmers and offer an exceptional setting for a relaxing day’s bathing.

Located 72 km east of Mérida, Izamal, also known as “the yellow city”, is a small colonial town not to be missed. Its nickname comes from the ochre color that covers all the buildings in the center. Relatively off the beaten tourist track, this town of barely 15,000 inhabitants retains its own authentic charm. Like Mérida, it was built on ancient Mayan ruins. The imposing 10-storey Kinich Kak-Mó pyramid can be climbed by the most courageous. The city’s other landmark is the Convent of St. Anthony of Padua, which boasts the largest atrium after that of the Vatican. The ensemble, also painted yellow, is breathtaking. Izamal is also renowned for its handicrafts, and there are plenty of artisan workshops to discover in the town center. The Mayan tradition is still very much alive: 50% of the inhabitants speak Mayan as their mother tongue, and road signs are in both languages.

Another possible excursion, especially for nature lovers, is Celestun, a remote village on the coast about an hour’s drive west of Mérida. With its end-of-the-world ambience, it is a bird sanctuary boasting some 200 species of birds. From the tourist pontoon, you can take a trip with a local fisherman to observe colonies of pink flamingos at the edge of the mangrove swamp. The beach, while not exceptional, has the merit of being completely deserted!

Ideally located, fascinating and dynamic, with unmistakable charm, Mérida is a city where there’s something for everyone, from gastronomy and culture to history and a variety of activities. It’s a destination of choice for discovering all that the Yucatán Peninsula has to offer.