The capital of Yucatán, Mérida is a city that grew suddenly in the late-19th century, powered by a booming henequen industry.
Derived from the agave plant this hard-wearing material was once known as “green gold” and the landowners who produced it constructed extravagant homes in Mérida.
Those mansion are concentrated on Paseo de Montejo, a distinguished boulevard designed in 1888 and dotted with sights like the Monumento a la Patria.
With Mayan roots, Mérida dates back long before the 19th century.
On Plaza Grande is the first cathedral to be completed on the American continent, and it lies on the foundations of the Mayan city of Th’o.
If you’re curious about Yucatán’s Mayan heritage you don’t have to travel far from Mérida for amazing archaeological sites.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Mérida:
1. Paseo de Montejo
Named for Francisco de Montejo the Younger, the Conquistador who founded Mérida in 1542, Paseo de Montejo is a grand French-style boulevard running north from the city centre.
The artery dates to 1888 and came during henequen boom, which created a class of entrepreneurs who built themselves lavish residences.
At the beginning is the Monumento as los Montejo, depicting Montejo the Younger alongside his father, with whom he travelled to Yucatán.
The way is lined with sizeable Indian laurel trees before rows of extravagant Neoclassical houses.
Some to keep in mind are the Casa Vales, Casa del Minarete, Casa Peón de Regil and finally Quinta Montes Molina, which you can enter.
On Sunday mornings the boulevard is car-free and you can hire a bike to coast past the mansions.
2. Plaza Grande
There’s always something happening at Mérida’s central square.
Weekends and evenings bring cultural events, all funded by the city hall.
One of the things to catch is the Yucatecan “Vaquería” dancing on Mondays.
On Sundays a craft fair (Mérida en Domingo) takes over the square, and on the fringes will be scores of street food carts.
Mérida’s daily free walking tour, organised by the tourist office, starts in Plaza Grande at 09:30. If you happen to come when there’s nothing on the agenda you can take a breather under the royal palms and elephant-ear trees, amble along the arcades, buy an ice cream and admire the stuccoed buildings fronting the square or take a ride in a horse and buggy.
Like all public spaces in the city, Plaza Grande has free Wi-Fi.
3. Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
Inaugurated in 2012 to commemorate the end of the Long Count cycle in the Mayan Calendar, this museum is all about historical and present day Mayan culture.
The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is the ultimate intro if you’re planning to see the archaeological sites on the Ruta Puuc or go all the way to Chichén Itzá.
There are over 1,150 artefacts from the various periods of Mayan civilisation, through the colonial period and up to contemporary times, with helpful explanations of the arcane symbols you’ll encounter at Mayan sites.
In the historical galleries are wonderful stelae, bas-reliefs, stone sculptures and jewellery in gold, shell and jade.
From the days of New Spain are books, paintings, Catholic religious works and engravings, and you can investigate contemporary Mayan culture through textiles, arts and crafts and religious items.
4. Monumento a la Patria
On a roundabout on the Paseo de Montejo is an imposing cantera stone monument by the 20th-century sculptor Rómulo Rozo.
The Monumento a la Patria is a neo-Mayan work, with highly detailed reliefs and sculptures around a semi-circular wall.
These show Mérida’s coat of arms and a wealth of Mayan symbols like the reclining Chacmool, a pair of Jaguar Warriors and the Ceiba tree with four butterflies, representing the glory of the people of Mexico.
There’s also a half fish, half bird signifying Mexico’s sovereignty over the sky and seas.
The body of the relief charts important moments in the history of Yucatán and Mexico, like colonisation, independence, reform and revolution.
The most prominent figure is a Mestiza woman at the apex of the semicircle wearing necklaces and bracelets and symbolising the “homeland” above an eternal flame.
5. Ruta Puuc
A 41-kilometre tourist route leads you through the Mayan Puuc archaeological sites south of Mérida.
We’ll go into more detail on the most important site, Uxmal (the most important), and the others include Kabah, Sayil, Labna, X’lapal and the Loltún cave.
To see these wonders on a budget there’s a public bus departing Mérida’s TAME bus station on Sunday mornings.
The bus will travel to all the main sites, stopping for between 30 and 50 minutes at each one, and allowing extra time to take in Uxmal at the end.
For more time to roam you can hire a car and stop for tasty Yucatecan street food on the way.
One of Yucatán’s spellbinding archaeological sites, UNESCO-listed Uxmal was in an excellent state of preservation, even before restoration work began.
This city thrived for around 200 years from the 10th century to the 12th century, when it is believed to have been taken over by Toltec invaders.
Of the many monuments to take in, the finest is the Governor’s Palace, which rests on a massive platform and is aligned with the path of Venus when viewed from the Pyramid of Cehtzuc.
The palace has an amazing frieze, with depictions of serpents, jaguars, astrological symbols and Chaac, the rain god.
Another show-stopper is the Pyramid of the Magician.
Unusual for Mayan architecture as it has rounded sides, this structure’s western staircase is lined up with the setting sun on the summer solstice.
Recommended tour: Uxmal & Kabah plus Choco Story Museum Tour
7. Mérida Cathedral
The American continent’s first cathedral, Mérida Cathedral was also the only American cathedral to be completed during the 16th century.
Work on this Renaissance and Mannerist monument began in the 1560s and was finished in 1598, borrowing from the style in favour in the Spanish region of Andalusia at the time.
The sober cantera stone facade still bears the coat of arms of the Spanish crown, framed by two Tuscan pilasters and two simple bell-towers.
On Friday nights at 20:30 a light show projected onto this wall, and you can see it all from Plaza Grande.
The interior is equally austere but atmospheric, with Baroque altarpieces, a coffered central nave and Gothic rib vaults on the two lateral naves.
8. Quinta Montes Molina
One of the most sumptuous properties on Paseo de Monteho, the Quinta Montes Molina is a standout piece of architecture from the days of the Porfirio Díaz regime.
Completed in an Eclectic style around 1902 the mansion was acquired by the Montes Molina family in 1915 after its Cuban founder sold up during the Revolution.
Quinta Montes Molina has been in the same family ever since.
As a result, the house is embellished with a century’s worth of decorative art and fittings like Carrara marble floors, antique furniture, porcelain, alabaster figurines and Baccarat and Murano chandeliers.
There are three English-language tours a day Monday to Friday, and two Saturdays.
9. Palacio Cantón
This refined turn-of-the-century mansion on Paseo Montejo hosted Mérida’s anthropological collections until they were moved to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in 2012. Now the Anthropological Museum stages temporary exhibitions on the pre-Hispanic history of Yucatán, and these are updated around three times a year.
The building itself is a major draw and was built in the 1900s for the conservative politician and general Francisco Cantón Rosado.
This mansion has the same Eclectic style as others on Paseo Montejo, mixing neo-Baroque and Neoclassical elements.
It continues to wow visitors for its grand dimensions, stuccowork, Doric and Ionic columns, profuse marble in various tones, gardens and ceremonious central staircase.
10. Museo Fernando García Ponce (MACAY)
In a handsome stucco-fronted palace next to the cathedral on Plaza Grande, the Museo Fernando García Ponce is dedicated to contemporary painting and sculpture.
There are fifteen rooms for temporary exhibitions, providing a platform for the top talent in Mexico’s art world, so you can see if anything catches your eye when you arrive in Mérida.
There are also four halls for the museum’s permanent collection, and these are filled with works by Yucatán’s leading modern artists, like the Abstract Expressionists Gabriel Ramírez Aznar and Fernando García Ponce, and the Muralist Fernando Castro Pacheco.
After a feast of art you can enjoy a moment of repose in the peaceful courtyard.
11. Museo de la Ciudad de Mérida
In another building from the prosperous early-20th century, this small but informative museum documents Mérida’s history in four key stages: The pre-Hispanic period when the Mayan city of Th’o stood here, colonial times as part of New Spain, the 19th century and its henequen haciendas and lastly Mérida since the 20th century.
The exhibits have information panels in English and feature textiles, posters, photographs, scale models, Catholic liturgical art, busts and some Mayan sculpture including a representation of the reclining Chacmool.
The venue is as stately as you’d expect, dating to 1908 and once housing Mérida’s central post office, telegraph offices, treasury and district court.
An easy day out, the Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltún are about 15 kilometres north of the city centre.
The main monument here is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, set on a platform and so-called as seven figurines were discovered when the monument was first excavated in the 1950s.
The temple is oriented so that the sun can be seen through its east and west doors a few minutes after sun rise during the autumn and spring equinoxes.
Dzibilchaltún’s water supply came from the Xlacah cenote, measuring 100 metres by 40, part-covered by lilies and just the place to cool off after a visit.
There’s also a museum with intriguing artefacts like Mayan stelae, textiles, conquistador armour and liturgical art from the 16th-century Spanish chapel on the site.
If you still have an appetite for Mayan archaeology this is another superb site approximately 30 minutes southeast of Mérida.
Even up against the many Mayan vestiges close by, Mayapán is a jaw-dropping city, with more than 4,000 individual structure over 4.2 square kilometres.
In the Late Post-Classic Period of Mayan civilisation (13th-15th century), Mayapán was home for up to 17,000 people.
A wall, 9.1 kilometres long protects the centremost shrines, temples, platforms, halls with columns and oratories, and of the 12 gates, seven have imposing proportions with vaulted portals.
Anywhere else in the world Mayapán would be overrun with tourists, but you’ll have large portions of the site to yourself because it’s just one of many Mayan sites on the Yucatán Peninsula.
Your priorities have to be the painted Sala de los Frecos, the Redondo Temple and the Kukulcan Pyramid, one only the few Mayan pyramids that you’re still allowed to climb.
14. X’batun Cenote
If you have to pick just one out of the multitude of cenotes near Mérida, make it X’batun, some 50 kilometres to the south.
One of the many charming things about X’batun is its primitive style: You have to negotiate a 2.3-kilometre dirt road to get there, and you’ll pay and pick up lifejackets and snorkel equipment at a palapa (thatched palm shelter). The cenote has a long ovular shape, and has jungle vegetation hanging down to pristine waters that vary in colour from aquamarine to dark blue.
Time your trip for a weekday to avoid peak times; that way you’ll be almost alone with the fish, birds and iguanas in the forest.
Available tour including 3 cenotes: Full-Day Cuzama Cenote Tour from Mérida
15. Sotuta de Peón
To really get to grips with Mérida’s past you could stop by a henequen plantation, and there’s a good pick to the south near the village of Tecoh.
The Hacienda Sotuta de Peón rode that henequen wave in the 19th century and gives a sense of what a high volume plantation would have been like in those times.
You’ll get to ride on a “truk”, a moving wooden platform used by workers, pulled by mules and attached to a Decauville industrial railway.
You’ll inspect the agave crops and learn how this plant’s fibres were processed into rope and twine.
The historic machinery from the boom days has been restored to working order.
Sotuta de Peón also has lush tropical flower gardens and its own cenotes for swimming.