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Mérida, Mexico, Is a Favorite Travel Destination Among Locals — How to Visit

by Staff

Old-world glamour meets an earthy ethos in Mérida, one of my favorite cities in Mexico. I first dipped my toe into Mérida during a solo backpacking trip in 2017. Back then, the city was not yet a “rising destination,” and still a far cry from the beach hot spots that dominate the tourist scene. 

Mérida is an interesting melange of cultures. It was one of the most important Mayan areas in Mesoamerica, but centuries of colonization built elaborate Spanish cathedrals, homes, and palaces directly on top of, and in some cases using stones from, Mayan architecture. It is one of Mexico’s oldest European-settled cities, with the Spanish arriving in the 16th century, and it also has a strong Middle Eastern influence due to an influx of Lebanese immigrants during the Ottoman occupation. 

A walk through the Centro Histórico will take you back in time and across cultures through expansive plazas, down tree-lined boulevards, and into historic mansions and internationally influenced restaurants. The city also has a legendary nightlife scene, with many bars, cantinas, and clubs, most of which offer live music and are housed in centuries-old saloon-style buildings.

“I love the colorful style and pace of life in Mérida,” said Ben Gritzewsky, a Mérida resident and Mexico travel expert with Frosch Vacations. “Although the city has grown exponentially in the last few years, it retains a provincial, laid-back friendliness, superb public safety, and all the variety of goods and services of a large city.” 

He added, “Another reason [I love it] is the social diversity and tolerance. I also appreciate the vast contrasts and other geographical features, like the abundance of natural wonders, from cenotes and jungles to flamingos, mangroves, and sunny beaches.”

The entire state of Yucatán has something for every traveler, and Mérida is the perfect encapsulation of what makes this such a fantastic part of Mexico.

Top 5 Can’t Miss

  • Stay in one of Mérida’s historic homes-turned-hotels. Casa Lecanda Boutique Hotel is an elegant, chic oasis in the heart of the city.
  • Wander the Centro Histórico to feel the heartbeat of Mérida’s culture and history.
  • Shop for high-end souvenirs and art at La Casa de las Artesanías.
  • Have a cocktail or locally brewed beer while dancing salsa in the open-air patio at La Negrita Cantina.
  • Indulge in the best brunch in town at El Barrio. 

Itzel Garrido/Travel + Leisure


Best Hotels and Resorts

Wayam Mundo Imperial

Sleek, contemporary, and LEED-certified (a must for sustainable tourism), Wayam combines the charms of a luxe Mérida residence with an impressive art collection and beautifully manicured grounds. “It’s my favorite for its unique vernacular through contemporary style. It’s built around an art deco-era house in a shady neighborhood convenient to attractions, but away from the chaotic Centro Histórico. Its restaurant, Cuna, is one of the best, too,” said Gritzewsky.

Fiesta Americana Mérida

Perched on one of the most iconic corners in Mérida — Paseo de Montejo and Colon — Fiesta Americana Mérida is a classic hotel in a historic building. “It’s a classic favorite because of its five-star amenities and prominent location on Paseo de Montejo, Mérida’s Champs-Élysées,” said Gritzewsky.

Rosas & Xocolate

A beautiful boutique hotel and spa, Rosas & Xocolate lives in the bones of a French-style mansion overlooking the glamorous Paseo de Montejo. The on-site restaurant has tucked quite a few awards under its belt, and the 17 rooms are all individually designed, each with private outdoor Jacuzzis. “Rosas & Xocolate is a sexy boutique hotel right on the Paseo, surrounded by cafes, clubs, and shops, many occupying European-style mansions built during the henequen boom around the turn of the 20th century,” said Gritzewsky.

Casa Lecanda Boutique Hotel

An adults-only, luxury boutique hotel built into a 19th-century state home, Casa Lecanda provides a stunning oasis in the heart of the buzzy city. All rooms have doors that open onto garden or patio views, while a central courtyard pool is the perfect place to take a break from the notorious Mérida heat. “Casa Lecanda is a luxuriously converted house on Calle 47, our newly designated culinary corridor, lined with eateries and bars,” said Gritzewsky.

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Best Things to Do

Centro Histórico

Mérida’s Centro Histórico is a treasure trove of historic architecture, leafy plazas, and one of the most stately boulevards in the world, the Paseo de Montejo. Visitors will also want to meander Calle 60 for its seemingly endless array of restaurants, shops, and bars.

Gritzewsky says that wandering the Centro Histórico on foot is essential to understanding the heart and soul of Mérida. “The main square is always lively and surrounded by important sights such as the oldest cathedral on the continental mainland (Catedral de Mérida, San Ildefonso), constructed with stones from Mayan structures.”

Museo Regional de Antropología, Palacio Cantón

With more than 60 indigenous languages and dozens of indigenous groups and cultures, anthropology is an important part of Mexico’s history. Mérida’s Museo Regional de Antropología is an impressive collection of Mayan pieces — the group most prevalent in the Yucatán. Plus, the body of work is housed in a beautiful Paseo de Montejo mansion. Gritzewsky notes the building is one of Mérida’s most palatial.

Uxmal

Speaking of Mayan history, the Yucatán peninsula is home to dozens of Mayan archaeological sites. The ancient city of Uxmal is the closest to Mérida and one of the region’s most impressive. Its Pyramid of the Magician is simply breathtaking, rising like a white-stone beacon from a sea of lush, green jungle. Uxmal also happens to be less than an hour away from Mérida.

Gulf Beaches

Mérida may be a thriving, cosmopolitan city, but one of my favorite things to do here is escape the pavement and hit the beach. The city is close to some of the best beaches along Mexico’s Gulf Coast. A personal favorite is Celestún, a sleepy, sandy little beach town and the gateway to the natural wonders of the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún. 

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Best Shopping

Mercado San Benito

One of the largest indoor markets in Mérida, Mercado San Benito is a bustling bazaar that sells everything from fruits and spices to household items and food. It’s one of the best places to escape the tourist fray and do as the locals do.

La Casa de las Artesanías

High-end shopping and luxury retailers take up most of the real estate at La Casa de las Artesanías. This huge shopping mall is an eclectic mix of local designers and internationally renowned brands. It also has stunning, historic architecture, built more like a museum than a shopping center.

Galeria La Eskalera

If you’re looking to bring a bit of the Yucatán home with you, Galeria La Eskalera is a showcase of some of the funkiest, most unique art from local and international artists. 

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Best Nightlife

Mercado 60

Ask the 20- and 30-somethings where they’re hanging out and they’ll tell you Mercado 60. The first gastronomic and cultural market in Yucatán, Mercado 60 is part boutique, part music venue, part foodie destination. It was the first place I went in the city during my solo backpacking trip around Mexico in 2017. The space has grown considerably since then, but I still love it for the convivial energy, the mix of tourists and locals, and the social scene.

El Cardenal Cantina

Strong mezcal cocktails, live music, and a powder-blue building that dates back more than 100 years — that’s what El Cardenal Cantina is serving, and it’s a vibe that has been a classic since it opened. One of the oldest cantinas in the city, El Cardenal Cantina has a guest list of regulars and transients every night of the week.

La Negrita Cantina

You cannot have a list of Mérida’s best nightlife without mentioning La Negrita Cantina. It has become a popular stop on the tourist trail — and for good reason. With more than 100 years of history, this snug bar opens up to a grand outdoor patio where live music and salsa dancing are the norm. It’s a crowd-pleasing blend of old and new, from the historic saloon doors to the electric blue limonada served in mason jars. You can sip a bottle of locally brewed beer and snack on small bites from around the Yucatán region.

Dzalbay Cantina

Yet another Mérida nightlife legend, Dzalbay has become a city institution for its live jazz and blues. Music is at the foundation of this place, whose owners are a group of men from around the world who met playing in the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra. Today, visitors come for the live music (of course), as well as the cocktails, food menu, and rooftop terrace.

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Best Restaurants

K’u’uk

A farm-to-table pioneer, K’u’uk serves both a la carte and tasting menus to showcase the history of Mérida’s culinary scene. Start with the Yucatán lime soup, which has been on the menu since 2012. Leave room for Middle Eastern-influenced dishes like tabbouleh and labneh, too, and pair it all with a bottle of Mexican wine. 

Nectar

Industrial-chic in design and split over two floors, the open-plan Nectar focuses on seasonal ingredients to create a menu of sensational, haute cuisine (think: foie gras and duck ravioli, charcoal onions, and a burnt Basque cheesecake served with truffle ice cream).

El Barrio

For one of the best breakfasts in town, El Barrio serves Yucatecan comfort food with a twist. This was my go-to breakfast spot when I first visited Mérida, and the food was so good, I ended up extending my trip to be able to try it all. A standout is the Gemelos, two eggs on cornbread with a spinach salad, xcatic béchamel sauce, and Valladolid sausage.

Hermana República

You cannot come to the Yucatán and not try cochinita pibil, one of the classic and most historic dishes of the region. The best cochinita pibil tacos I’ve had are at Hermana República.

Salón Gallos

With Mérida’s long history of Lebanese influence, you can expect to find this cuisine in restaurants across the city. Salón Gallos is a super-trendy hot spot, with a Brooklyn warehouse-style design and a menu heavy on Lebanese dishes. The labneh and Kibi Maya are particularly tasty.

Itzel Garrido/Travel + Leisure


Best Time to Visit

Mérida has a reputation for being particularly hot and humid. The best time to visit the city is November through March, when temperatures can still climb into the 90s during the day, but the nights are considerably cooler. Gritzewsky says April and May are very hot and dry, while the rainy season begins in June, rewarding with daily refreshing showers.

Mérida has an incredible theater scene, and the Classical Theatre Festival, which dates back to 1933, is held from early July until the end of August. This is the best time to take in culture, shows, and educational programs.

Holy Week, or Semana Santa, is one of the most important periods across Mexico, and Mérida celebrates with pomp and circumstance. Processions take place from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, when the entire city is cast with an ethereal candlelit glow.

How to Get There

The most convenient way to get to Mérida is to fly into Mérida International Airport (MID), which is close to downtown and has a large number of direct domestic and international flights. Cancun’s airport is four hours away, though it has a lot more frequency and is typically less expensive.

Travelers can also reach Merida from other destinations in the Yucatán via the ADO bus system, which is convenient, comfortable, and affordable, with connections all around southern and central Mexico. 

The new Tren Maya, a controversial regional rail network across the Yucatán Peninsula, has a stop in Mérida as well, connecting it to Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Campeche, and Palenque.

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Neighborhoods to Visit

Santa Ana: At the intersection of two popular areas, Santa Ana is one of the best neighborhoods in town. To the north is the mansion-flanked Paseo de Montejo, with all of its shopping and dining venues. To the south is the Zocalo — the main square with all of the city’s top tourist attractions.

Santiago: Just about a 15-minute walk from the city center, Santiago is bursting with great dining and fun coffee shops. It’s a bit more affordable here than in Santa Ana, but it’s still within walking distance of the attractions and sites of downtown.

Colonia México: Just north of the city center, Colonia México features cozy bistros, historic architecture, wine bars, and gastropubs, as well as beautiful gardens. It’s close to the Plaza México shopping center and offers a much more modern, residential feel.

How to Get Around

Getting around Mérida is easy and cost-effective. The public transportation system reaches practically everywhere and is very affordable.

“Taxis are abundant and inexpensive, and Uber works great,” said Gritzewsky. “Increasing traffic can be annoying, but driving and parking are simple, so the benefits of having a car are worthwhile.”He recommends renting a car for the most comfort and convenience, or, if your budget allows, hiring a car and driver.

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