Is Merida, Mexico, worth visiting? Is it loud, boring, polluted and overpriced? Or is it a lovely colonial city full of beautiful architecture and heaps of things to do? In this article, you will find out what is my opinions about Merida, Mexico.
Of course, it’s a matter of taste and preference. As much as there are destinations that are equally loved by all, there are also those that divide opinions. Merida, Mexico, is probably one of them.
Merida was a stopover on my San Cristobal to Cancun route.
And I literally thought nothing of this place beforehand. In fact, a few days before I arrived, I heard that there was not much to do in Merida and I probably would not enjoy it very much. That I should just book a night and move on without hanging around.
I haven’t met many travellers singing songs about Merida either.
In my preparation for the trip, I also read some not so positive opinions about Merida. Not from bloggers or in online articles, but in comments and forums. So I was quite curious to find out what the reality is.
I had not expected much and genuinely thought it wouldn’t be a stopover to remember.
The opposite was true, and I deeply regretted having given the city only a few days. I could have easily stayed a couple of weeks or longer. I could easily stay for a couple of weeks or more.
There is a lot of depth to this town but also there are boundless things to do in Merida, as well as outside of town. With Yukatan being a beautiful and vibrant part of Mexico, Merida as its capital lived up to high standards.
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So what is the Merida controversy?
I have heard a lot of criticism regarding Merida. People say that Merida is too touristy and overpriced. It’s busy and loud, and the food isn’t great, and there isn’t much street food. That Mexico City is so much more amazing and that the town is a tourist trap.
The thing is that at the end of the day, it is a matter of preference. As I mentioned, I was told a couple of days earlier that I would not enjoy Merida, and I expected exactly that when I arrived. But maybe because I had no expectations, or expectations were so low, I loved it so much.
Of course, if I had to choose between San Cristobal de las Casas or other towns I love and Merida, maybe Merida wouldn’t land on top of my list. But travel isn’t about choosing the top! At least in my opinion. It’s about discovering. Full stop.
So if you asked me if Merida is worth visiting, I would definitely say yes. My view of Mexico as a whole wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t visit Merida. The same as my view of Guatemala wouldn’t be complete without visiting Livingstone or the Pacific Coast.
Reasons why Merida is awesome!
Merida is officially the safest town in Mexico
And while this is not the most important reason to visit (many safe towns in the world offer nothing interesting), it is definitely something worth mentioning.
In 2019, an article in CEOWorld Magazine declared Merida the second safest city on the Americas Continent and Forbes magazine said Merida in Mexico is as safe as Europe.
To top it up Conde Nast Traveller magazine readers named Merida the third best city in the world in 2020!
Every town has its less and more safe areas, and although Merida is very safe, I would still recommend sticking to Centro Historico or Paseo de Montejo for your hostel location if you are planning to stay just for a little bit. Of course, walking around alone in the middle of the night and flashing your valuables isn’t recommended anywhere in the world. Also, be aware of pickpockets at busy markets and shops. But I walked around Merida during the day and in the evening and never felt unsafe. If in doubt, you can always Uber yourself back to the hostel.
Merida has interesting architecture and history
Merida was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world and was said to at some point, house more millionaires than any other city in the world, all thanks to the production of henequén (an agave plant whose fibre is used to make rope and other products). The result of this wealth can still be seen today. Many large and intricate homes line the main avenue, Paseo de Montejo and can be visited by the public. Haciendas were also built in the area to accommodate the magnates and the henequen production.
Merida is home to one of the largest Centro Historico areas. But for me, it is a town full of contrasts. Within few minutes walk, you can be transferred from the historical centre full of colourful buildings into the alley lined with luxurious and elaborate mansions. Just walking around Merida is an experience of its own.
Merida is a cultural centre of the region
Merida is a cultural cenrte of Yucatan. In the town, you will find numerous contemporary and traditional museums, theatres and historical buildings and haciendas to visit. There are also tones of cultural events, workshops, festivals, and so much more.
In Merida, you can take a dance class, cooking workshop, participate in yoga or meditation sessions, or enjoy the symphony. Anything that ticks your fancy you can find here.
Enjoy Merida Fest throughout January, Carnaval of Merida in February or any of the weekly fiestas happening around the town every weekend!
The tradition in Merida is strong
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they found the Mayan culture to be remarkably resilient. Their attempts to eliminate the Mayan tradition, religion and customs were not very successful. As a result, many areas, including Merida, enjoy a cultural blend of Mayan and Catholic/Spanish traditions. The Mayan culture can be seen every day, in speech, food, dress, and both written and spoken histories. It is especially evident during holidays like a Mayan/Catholic Day of the Dead celebration.
Merida itself was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo y León on top of an ancient Maya city called T’ho. The pyramids and stonework were destroyed or repurposed by the Spaniards into Catholic churches and colonial mansions.
Today, although Mayan culture isn’t as apparent as in San Cristobal, for example, it is still a massive part of what the city is and is well represented by cultural events, workshops and museums.
Merida has a great culinary and entertainment scene
Merida’s gastronomy stands out for its taste and tradition. With a selection of over 280 restaurants, Mérida has something to offer to any type of traveller. Apart from many types of restaurants, you will find many smaller traditional eateries, markets, cantinas and bars, often with live music.
Yes, Merida is a touristy town, and in such you will find restaurants catering for tourists and quality will not always be the greatest. I have learnt that smaller, visited mostly by locals, comedores and restaurants offer great value and incredible taste.
I found the best ice cream ever at POLA (one scoop of avocado and one of Beso de Luna – you have to try these!), excellent tacos at De La Union and for the first time (i know !)I tried the crazy cheap Gorditas.
You can also take part in cooking workshops which are very popular in Merida. You will be apple to observe and learn ancient Mayan techniques, use endemic ingredients and learn unique technique for baking and cooking.
When it comes to having fun, this is where the town stands out. It is always alive, there is always something happening on one of many of its Plazas, and there are plenty of bars to enjoy your mezcal.
Make sure you visit one of the Cantinas. Traditionally a Cantina was a bar frequented by males only for drinking alcohol and eating botanas (appetizers) and sometimes a place where people gather to play dominoes or cards. As much in rural Mexico, you can still find traditional Cantinas where women are not allowed, in many cities and tourist spots, those restrictions faded away, and cantinas are now frequently visited by tourists and locals of both sexes.
However, in many more traditional areas, it is still viewed as scandalous for ladies to be seen visiting an authentic cantina. I had some tequila and micheladas with my friend in one of those establishments, and it was great fun!
There are heaps of things to do in and outside of Merida
There are so many things to do in and outside of Merida that a few days wouldn’t be enough to do and see it all. Read on to find out what can you do during your stay in Merida, Mexico.
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Things to do in Merida
Walk from Centro Historico to Peseo de Montejo
Merida is a very walkable town, and there is a lot to discover. The Centro Historico is filled with colourful colonial buildings, hidden coffee shops, many restaurants and shops. As you walk around, you will discover that Merida is a town of many interesting plazas and small parks. Starting from Plaza Grande, where many events are happening and where you will find colourful Merida sign, all the way to small Parque Santa Lucia with large kissing chairs and a few nice restaurants.
As you continue discovering the town, you can walk towards Paseo de Montejo – the main boulevard sometimes compared to Champs Élysées, where all the magnificent mansions are located. As I didn’t research the town very much before my arrival, I was very surprised when I stumbled across this street!
It feels like a completely different town. It is a wide avenue built during Merida’s glory time, lined with historic buildings, quaint cafes and cute bars, and even places like Starbucks or an Irish bar. The avenue ends with an elaborate Monumento a la Patria – a popular photo-taking spot.
As you walk along, you will also find many street vendors, street food stalls and even a Walmart just around the roundabout. The horse carriages offer a sightseeing ride, people enjoying coffee and live music entertaining those visiting the bars.
On your return to the old town, you are again surrounded by a completely different vibe. More than ones, actually. As you walk towards the Mercado the town becomes very ‘local’, closer to the centre it is much more touristy and further down towards Parque de San Juan, and past the arch, you will find streets more quiet, colourful and very colonial. Let yourself get lost around the streets of Merida – one day won’t be enough!
One of my favourite ways to discover a town on a budget is by joining a free walking tour whenever I first arrive. I can learn the history of the town, discover places that maybe I wouldn’t be able to find on my own and often meet other travellers in the process. If I have any burning questions about the location or safety – I always ask those questions to the tour guide. I highly recommend it!
Please note that those tours are free to join but given the tour often offers extreme value it is customary to leave a tip at the end of the tour. I always research what is the typical tip for a free walking tour in my current location.
Check out those Merida Free Walking Tours!
Ride Carnivalito Bus City Tour / Things to do in Merida, Mexico
If you don’t fancy walking, you can hop on a Carnivalito city tour bus. For only $5 you will be taken around the town in a traditional colourful bus. The guide also speaks English and has a lot of knowledge of the city and its history.
It is a very touristy thing to do, but the bus is very cute, and it could be a great thing to do when it’s just too hot for walking. Bus leaves from Parque de Santa Lucia at 13:00, 16:00, 18:00 Monday to Saturday and 13:00, 15:00 on Sundays.
Rent a bike on Sunday
Every Sunday until around noon, the beautiful Paseo de Montejo and some of Merida’s most popular streets are shut down to allow bicycle lovers to enjoy the town. So-called La Biciruta (Bike Route) allows cyclists a chance to ride around town, and big part of the city residents come out on Sunday morning to participate in this weekly tradition.
This is a great way to discover the town and meet other people. Sunday, in general, is a great day to be in Merida with many streets becoming pedestrian-only, the market at Plaza Grande and many events happening in the evening. Make sure you plan your trip so you arrive in Medida around the weekend.
To rent a bike, simply walk up the Paseo, where you should find stands renting bikes or ask at your hostel; many have bikes for rent.
Visit one of Merida's markets
Visiting a market is one of my favourite things to do when I first arrive in a new town. Traditional markets in Latin America are so rich in life, smells, sounds and colours. And they are all unlike the other and offer something new whenever you are in a different country or city.
- Merida’s Lucas de Galvez market is no different. It is located in a very ‘local’ part of town, and it is one of the busiest places in the city. You can find everything there and for a very good price. It is a wonderfully chaotic and vibrant place. Mind you! You need to be the type of person that enjoys hectic, chaotic, foreign places, knows how to haggle and how to politely but assertively say no.
- If you fancy something less local and look for souvenirs, make sure you head to Plaza Grande on Sunday morning. On that day, this beautiful square comes alive with events, music and numerous souvenir, crafts and food stalls.
- If you plan to stay in Merida for a little bit longer, cook in the hostel and look for fresh organic produce, visit Slow Food Market on Saturday. It is located not far from Monumento a La Patria at the top of Paseo de Montejo but you can also grab a taxi. It is well worth the visit. Many local farmers, bakers and food producers come here to sell the freshest and pure food.
I told you it’s worth coming to Merida on a weekend!
Stumble across the street event - something is happening every night!
Every day of the week on a different plaza or in a different part of the town around 9 pm, you could attend a free show or concert. On Monday, for example, you can watch the Folkloric Ballet of Merida. On Tuesday, take part in Musical Memories at Parque Santiago, and on Wednesday, you can see the famous Pok Ta Pol (Mayan ball game) in front of the Cathedral. Check for all the events at Olimpio Cultural Centre. You might have to get a ticket, but those will always be free.
What’s more, there are numerous church fiestas happening in the evening. I happened to stumble upon one not far from my hostel. There was a traditional dance show, dozens of food stalls and an endless amount of people eating, having fun and enjoying the show.
You cannot miss the Noche Mexicana if you are in Merida on Saturday! This event boasts a night of Mexican culture with music and dance performances traditional to the Yucatan region.
Get some culture on - Visit a museum, one of Merida's Mansions or a Theatre.
Merida is the region’s cultural centre, and it boasts not only a large number of interesting museums but also traditional haciendas and historical mansions that can be visited. You can experience life as it used to be in Merida’s heydays.
- You can visit for free the Museo Fernando García Ponce-Macay, which is a contemporary art museum.
- If you are curious what the inside of the mansions on Paseo de Montejo look like, wander into the Casa Museo Montes Molina – this is where four generations of the “Montejo’s” (the founders of Merida)used to live. It is furnished with the original furniture of that period, and it has been kept in optimum condition.
- There is also the Anthropology and History Museum and Museo Palacio de la Musica exhibiting the history of Mexican music brilliantly presented through sound, visuals, interviews and holograms.
- Peón Contreras Theater is the oldest and most beautiful theatre in Mérida. If You don’t want to attend the show, symphony or ballet performance, you can pop in to visit the free gallery and marvel over the elaborate insides of the grand theatre.
Discover Mayan Heritage in Merida
Indigenous Heritage is very much alive and well in the Yucatan area in ways long ago eliminated farther north of the country. It’s estimated that around 60% of the population of Merida are of Mayan heritage.
You taste it in the food, see it in local people and their customs, names and dresses, sweat it out at temazcal ceremony, or you can marvel at it when visiting one of many of the ancient Mayan city ruins like Uxmal, Chichen Itza or Cobá.
There are few magnificent museums dedicated to Mayan history and culture in Merida.
In the Palacio Cantón, a beautifully converted former government building, sits Mérida’s outstanding Natural History Museum. It holds the collection of artefacts, Mayan calendars, sacrificial gifts retrieved from the cenotes at Chichén Itzá, and so much more! All incredible material associated with the peak of Maya civilization.
But the most incredible Maya museum and one of the most important places to see in Merida is the Great Museum of the Maya World. The building itself resembles the ceiba tree, representing the sacred tree of life for the Mayans.
The Mayan World museum will take you on a journey that begins with natural history from the beginning of time and will progress to the life of the modern Maya today. The museum has four permanent exhibition halls displaying the archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, history and customs of the Mayan world in the region. It is probably the best Mayan museum you will ever see.
Of course, what better way to connect with Mayan history than visiting ancient city-states ruins1
To Chichen Itza or Not to Chichen Itza / And the alternatives
I have not gone to Chichen Itza, so I am not very qualified to tell you whether to go or not. But I will tell you why I didn’t go and what people that I met and went had to say about it. And what are the alternatives?
Chichen Itza is one of the most visited Mayan ruins in the world. Partly because it is easily accessible from popular Mexican resorts like Cancun or Tulum, but I have also seen large busses packed full of tourists departing to Chichen Itza from Valladolid and, of course, Merida.
After enjoying the mystical and peaceful experience at Tikal and Palenque, I really didn’t feel like I wanted to push myself through the crowds. I have also heard that there are many vendors lined around the centre of the park (!!!!) that at times you forget you are visiting ancient Mayan ruins. Maybe I should regret not going, but I don’t. (I will most likely visit it at some point on my return to Mexico, just to fulfil my curiosity, and I will update you on the topic then!)
But if visiting Chichen Itza is potentially the only way you could experience Mayan ruins, then, by all means, go!
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is listed as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’. Chichen Itza is home to towering temples, sacred sinkholes, pyramids and mysterious columns.
But if you really don’t fancy crazy crowds and want to visit Mayan ruins, there are quite a few alternatives.
From Merida, you can travel the Ruta Puuc (a route connecting various ancient ruins) to see a series of different Mayan sites. Among these, the largest and most popular is Uxmal.
Uxmal is said to be the most spiritual of the Mayan ruins. You’ll see fewer crowds and more ruins, as Uxmal is more spread out, and it’s not just a few pyramids but an entire city. The complex stands out for some of the finest architectural carvings ever discovered in the Maya world.
Another incredible Mayan site you could visit instead of Chichen Itza is Ek Balam. This site is one of the least visited sites but just as impressive and well-preserved. It is a large settlement spanning 4 square miles
And if you are looking for ruins closer to Merida, Dzibilchaltún is a fantastic alternative. Its most famous structure is the Temple of the Seven Dolls (AKA Temple of the Sun), but you will also find a few pyramids, a museum and a mini sculpture garden. It is said that just a fraction of the 8,000 structures identified here have actually been excavated. As a bonus, alongside the ruins, you will find an incredible Cenote Xlacah you can swim in.
Last but not least, there is Cobá. This complex is the best Mayan destination for those looking for some Mayan ruins adventure. Once a thriving Mayan metropolis, Cobá was a rival to Chichén Itzá, and it is more of a complete city rather than just a handful of pyramids. Surrounding two lagoons, Cobá is famous for its elevated paved roads connecting the main temple to its smaller sites. Many visitors rent a bike or tricycle taxi to go around.
If you’d prefer to take an organized Puuc Route from Merida, you can book one by clicking this link.
Take a day trip from Merida.
One of the best things about Merida is how many great trips you can take. Pop on the local bus and visit Izamal – the yellow village!
You can also take a day trip to Valladolid, but I recommend spending at least a couple of days there instead.
One of the most popular day trips from Merida is Celestun, where you can take a boat trip and see pink flamingos! Celestún is a port east of the Yucatán and Biosphere Reserve and also a lovely fishing village and a lovely beach. A day trip worth taking.
You can catch a local bus from Noriente Terminal, but the ride takes around 3 hours, so make it an early one. You can also take a colectivo, but I found it very challenging to find a correct collectivo from Merida, so (after searching for a colectivo for an hour or so) I did my day all my trips on the busses. It is much easier to find colectivo from Celestun as they are departing near the bus terminal.
Once in Celestun, you can explore the village and take a walk to the beach, where you will be able to book your pink flamingos and natural reserve tour. Alternatively, you can book this organized tour. Enjoy!
Yucatan is abundant in wonderful cenotes, and you can visit quite a few of them from Merida.
The most popular cenotes to visit from Merida are Cenote Xlacah and Cuzama Hacienda, which, in fact, is a collection of three cenotes and offers an incredible experience.
The Santa Barbara cenote site is very accessible, and locals and visitors alike rave about its beauty. If you are coming with family or are a first-time cenote visitor, Santa Barbara is a great option as it is a more developed site compared to many other cenotes near Merida. Life jackets are available, lifeguards, lockers and showers, a small shop and a restaurant.
Hacienda Mucuhche is a very popular cenote in the region mainly as it is a cenote and hacienda trip in one. It is mainly taken as a group tour and offers tours around the old hacienda in either English or Spanish.
After the hacienda tour, it’s time to head down to the cenotes for a swim. Those cenotes are linked by a man-made channel which offers and tremendous and unusual experience.
Or spend a day on the beach
There are a few great beach trips you can take from Merida, and Progreso is definitely the most popular. In addition to the massive beautiful beach, Progreso is home to the world’s longest pier. It is also popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers as it can get quite windy.
Progreso is also a major cruise ship port, so it is a very commercial beach town. But if you walk down the beach, you will find more secluded spots, and you can enjoy a lovely relaxed beach day.
If you prefer less touristy beaches, head over to Telchac, from where you will also be able to visit Xcambo Mayan Ruins and Xtampu Pink Lakes.
Are you looking for a secluded, relaxed beach? Make your way to Sisal, which recently was added to Mexico’s pueblos magicos list. In Sisal, you will find a white-sand beach, a pier to walk down and just a few places to eat and drink. Not much more is happening there, but this could be exactly what you are looking for.
If you are planning to rent a car, make your way to Chiburna– the very last stretch of beach on the peninsula. It’s a stunning white sand beach where turtles lay their eggs at night.
Last but not least - eat drink and be merry!
Some Merida critics say that apart from eating and drinking, there is not much to do in the town. And as much as I think I have proved that the latter isn’t true, undoubtedly eating and drinking is one of the best attractions of Merida.
Mexico is home to some of the best food in the world, and the Yucatecan cuisine is famous across all of Mexico. Dishes like cochinita pibil, papadzules (an ancient dish older than enchilada) or ultimate comfort food, sopa de lima originate from Yucatan.
Merida is a foodie’s paradise. There’s such an abundance of restaurants serving traditional dishes as well as meals from all over the world. Suited for all types of taste and thickness of wallets.
You can have a taste of traditional dishes in the restaurant like famous but touristy La Chaya Maya or Manjar Blanco but also visit a hip gastro bar El Catrín Merida, or Merida Food Hall Mercado 60. Oh, and of course, the Netflix famous La Lupita!
For thinner wallets, I recommend tacos at La Union (amazing!) or located in the bustling Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, La Socorrito – a small family-run restaurant in the middle of a bustling market.
Pizza, pasta, burger, sushi, vegan, super healthy, super unhealthy yet delicious …. you will find it all in Merida. And so much more!
And please promise me you will have some ice cream at POLA!
You can also take some cooking classes in Merida or book this excellent Merida Street Food Walking Tour!
After stuffing your face time for some cantina hopping! A cantina is a classic Mexican bar featuring swinging doors, music, and plenty of tequila that traditionally was a men’s bar but now are open to everyone (at least in main tourist towns). The most famous must be the Negrita, but Pulquerida, El Cardinal and Eladios are great options as well.
Cantinas close around 10 pm, so if you think it’s too early to call it a night, head over to Casa Chica, Pipiripau Bar, Mayan Pub, Fundación Mezcaleria for more fun!
Of course, you can also take this highly rated bar hopping tour!
Can you visit Merida on a budget?
Even if you are visiting Merida on a budget, you will find plenty of things to do that are free or very affordable.
Merida boasts plenty of plazas and parks, many of the historical mansions can be accessed for free, and with the very affordable local market and loads of street and cheap food options you can visit Merida on a budget and have a blast.
In fact, that is what happened to me. Only one week later, I was taking my flight back to Europe and couldn’t afford any extravagant expenses. But this didn’t stop me from having a great time and enjoying Merida to the fullest. You can eat well and pretty cheaply in Merida, especially if you stay away from touristy restaurants.
I spent six days in Merida, went on a couple of day trips, ate out twice and indulged in street food frequently, had a drink (or two) and stayed in a private room in a hostel (it was a great price so just couldn’t say no). All together with some Walmart food shopping, I spent around €150, including accommodation. That’s not too bad for nearly a week. If you chose a dorm bed, only ate in the hostel and weren’t indulging in the wine, you could definitely spend less.
Where to stay in Merida
When in Merida it is best to stay within Centro Historico or Paseo de Montejo area.
Nomadas hostel is very social and extremely popular, and I recommend booking well in advance. I stayed at Hostal la Ermita, and I really enjoyed its location, pool and cute little private room. The breakfast is definitely on a basic side, though. Hostal Barrio Vivo also has excellent reviews and features my favourite type of dorm rooms and as well as a great kitchen, a swimming pool and included breakfast. Zocalo hostel is also very popular among travellers to Merida.
For a private room or more high-end stay:
Kuka y Naranjo is a great boutique hotel and I have heard really good opinions, so o and check it out too!
Useful Merida Mexico tips and information
- Merida can get hot! And full of mosquitos! I was lucky to travel in November, and the weather was perfect, yet I heard legends about the heat. Luckily most hostels offer and swimming pool but be careful walking during the hottest part of the day and pack a mosquito repellant, especially during the rainy season.
- There is Uber in Merida, Mexico so take advantage of this safe shared-ride service.
- You cannot drink tap water in Merida. Pack a reusable water bottle as the majority of hotels will have a water refill station.
- Merida is connected! Free public WiFi is offered in the streets of the Historical Center, bus stops and some public areas like markets and tourist sites.
- The best time to visit Merida is between November and February. Although I personally hardly ever follow this type of calendar in the case of Merida, it’s really worth coming at the right time to avoid heat or heavy rain.
- Plan to visit over the weekend – Merida really comes alive between Friday and Sunday!
I am really curious what is your stand on the Merida controversy! Did you like the town as much as I did? Or do you agree with some travellers that there are not many reasons why one should make a stop there?
Share your opinions in the comments! And until then…
Where to next?
For an in-depth guide to San Cristobal de las Casas click here and if you are planning to enter Mexico from Guatemala via land border head over to my guide here!
If you travelling between San Cristobal de las Casas and Cancun, read about all the best stops you could take on this route.
If you are ending your trip in Cancun and wondering if Cancun is even a good stop for budget backpackers, read about what I think about it here.
Finally, If you are heading towards Palenque don’t miss my comprehensive guide!
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