Everyone knows that if you want a bustling metropolis you go to Mexico City, if you’re looking for authentic eats you go to Oaxaca, and if you simply fancy a coastal paradise you ought to head to Playa del Carmen. But there’s one destination that slips under the radar but consistently stuns, and its name is Mérida.
Many Mexicans agree on Mérida being one of the most beautiful cities in the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s also one of the safest in the country, highly cultural, artsy and only 20 miles away from the beach. Plenty of reasons to plan a visit.
Nonetheless, having met many travelers unsure of what to do in Mérida and having lived there a while, I thought it warranted a little guide. So allow me to introduce you to the real city, the nearby attractions, and, of course, how to eat and drink like a local.
Art, culture and history
With its colonial past, Mérida boasts rich culture, history, art and traditions. Enjoying the city to the fullest means getting to discover and fall for them all. In order to do this upon arrival, walk through the city’s downtown buildings – an attraction in their own right. Painted in bright shades of pink, blue, red, yellow and purple, they leave you transported back to the city’s colorful colonial times with a simple stroll.
Walk around a little more and you’ll see various attractions – from the lavish, pink buildings on Main Square, to the Cathedral, to government buildings to an abundance of parks. My favorite building, Palacio del Gobierno – the green one on the corner across from the Cathedral – shows unique, gorgeous frescoes that recount the history of the Peninsula, the Spaniards’ arrival, Mayan massacres, rebellions, local heroes and more.
More of an art lover? The Museum of Modern Art, located next door to the Cathedral, is set around a lush courtyard and regularly shows exhibitions by Yucatan artists who promote local traditions and the beauty of their region. Small galleries can also be found around Santa Ana square (check out Soho Galleries and Galería Tataya) which show more upbeat, contemporary art.
Last but not least, visiting the nearby Mayan ruins is a must. Less-known than their bigger sister Chichen Itzá, Uxmal and Dzibilchaltún, respectively 52 miles southwest and 10 miles north of Mérida , are my absolute favorites. The first is situated in the jungle, and is much less crowded than Chichen Itzá; the second boasts the ‘House of the Seven Dolls’, a temple that was given that name because of the offering of seven stone human figures that were found inside. Worth noting is that Dzibilchaltún has its own cenote with crystal clear waters – just perfect for feeling refreshed when it’s hot.
More about local culture and art can be found at the gorgeous and comprehensive Gran Museo del Mundo Maya on street 60, near Siglo XXI Convention Center.
Sweet and savory
The regional gastronomy is such that you won’t believe you only knew about tacos, fajitas and burritos. Every dish you eat in Yucatán uses local products that won’t be found in other Mexican states. Be prepared to try escabeche, cochinita pibil, sopa de lima, frijol con puerco, relleno negro/blanco, queso relleno, papazules, salbutes, tostadas and poc chuuc as they represent the best of what you can eat here.
Head straight to Lucas de Galvéz Market, the biggest in town, a huge pink building on street 56 between streets 65 and 67. Typically Mexican, the place is as crowded as it is noisy, as colorful as it is magical.
If you’re interested in reducing your environmental footprint by producing less trash, you’ll love buying in bulk here. I usually bring my own little glass containers for spices, cloth bags for dry goods and mesh bags for fresh produce, in order to avoid plastic bags. You may also refill your water jug and try one of the delicious natural juices sold at the entrance.
Don’t neglect the food stalls here, either. I recommend you succumb to kibis – fried wheat treats filled with meat, chopped onions and chile – or tamales – corn-based dough filled with different seasonings and wrapped in banana leaves – from the vendors.
For the best champola in town – ice-cream with coconut milk – choose Heladería Colón on Main Square or on Paseo Montejo. For the best tacos al pastor – shredded pork marinated in an achiote sauce and served with a piece of pineapple – head out to any franchise by Los Trompos. There’s one downtown, on street 60 between streets 59 and 61.
My last local cuisine picks include the dish cochinita pibil (‘little pig’) and the mind-blowingly spicy El Yucateco hot sauce.
Do as the locals do
If you’re looking to meet the locals, head out after sunset when the night air is cool and gives a respite from the relentless heat of the day. Night and day markets, and nightly music and dancing by Santa Lucia or Santa Ana squares is where the fun begins. There’s also traditional costumes and dances on Main Square every Monday night at 8pm.
Remember to browse Paseo Montejo, a tree-lined street offering some of the city’s most iconic buildings. It’s known as Mérida’s “Champs Elysees” – visit, and you’ll see why. Locals love going there on Saturday nights to sit on the benches, listen to music, eat a marquesita – hard crepe filled with cheese and chocolate – and walk from one bar to another, taking it easy.
Final notes on Mérida
As the capital of Yucatán state, Mérida has around one million inhabitants. But I promise that when there you’ll never feel like it’s crowded or unsafe. In fact, walking around the city will make you marvel at the peaceful atmosphere around you. Going out at night is a regular activity for both locals and foreigners, and the vibe is very carefree.
One-way streets (even-numbered from East to West and odd-numbered from North to South) only allow so much traffic. Watch out for city buses zooming by and taxis honking at everyone on foot. Otherwise, you’ll be fine. Well, you’ll be more than fine – you’ll be in Mexican heaven.
Inspired to visit the stunning city of Mérida? Check out our range of small group tours in Mexico.
Image Credits (top to bottom): iStock, Julie Klene x2, Intrepid Travel, Julie Klene x2