10 Best Things To Do in Merida Old Town, Mexico
Mexican Merida Old Town is one of those places that most people haven’t heard of but those who have, fall in love with it. It is the capital city of the state of Yucatan and is about a three-hour drive from Cancún, that most famous (infamous?) of Mexican cities. Despite its proximity, Merida Old Town couldn’t be more different from Cancún were it in Australia. It is a stunning colonial city that boasts the fame of being the only city to twice hold the title of American Capital of Culture (2000 and 2017).
As a colonial city, Merida Old Town was once walled. Today it has a population of just over 800,000 and has obviously expanded beyond those original walls but the old city arches can still be seen and are fun to search out. Despite its relatively large population, Mérida never feels like a big city. Even without ever leaving the old city one can find plenty to do and see. Here are my top suggestions for the best things to do in Merida, Mexico.
1 – Free Merida Old Town walking tour
Personally, I found Pink Cactus to be a great option for my first suggestion of things to do in Merida Old Town. I spent two hours with Emilio and Sofia being given a fascinating insight into the history of the city. I’d lived in Mérida for four months before taking this tour so wasn’t convinced I’d learn much but they reminded me to stop and look and to question everything I was seeing. I learned about Mérida’s conquistador history and how it coloured so much of the city’s growth and development, from its main road being named after one of its conquistador founders (Montejo) despite the fact that it has the highest percentage of indigenous citizens of any Mexican city, to stories of its enormous wealth at the turn of the twentieth century, thanks to its part in henequén production.
If your tour doesn’t take you inside the Palacio Municipal de Mérida, then take yourself in. It’s on the west side of the plaza, directly opposite the cathedral. Head up the stairs and out on to the balcony for a great view of the plaza and down on to the large Mérida sign on the square. It’s a great place to begin to know Merida Old Town.
Before you leave the Plaza Grande, you’ll need to visit the first cathedral built in the continental Americas, La Catedral de San Ildefonso, built in 1598.
2 – Visit La Casa de Montejo
This Merida Old Town house was build in the mid-sixteenth century on the orders of Don Francisco de Montejo, the conqueror of the Yucatán Peninsula and is apparently one of the very few remaining examples of its type. Near the top of the building, triumphant conquistadors stand on the heads of unspecified ‘savages’, the inference of their being Mayan is, of course, unpleasantly inescapable.
The house currently belongs to Banamex, the national bank who, have opened it to the public as part of a series of buildings offered up as historic spaces. Entrance is free. Be aware that you must not stray, at any point, from the strictly marked path around the rooms!
3 – Walk Up To Paseo De Montejo
Take a stroll through the old city, past Parque de la Madre, past Plaza Santa Lucia, where you will see an oversized pair of Mérida’s special chairs, las sillas tu y yo (you and me chairs), perfect for posing for that real Merida Old Town photo. Keep heading up towards Plaza Santa Ana and then take a right towards the base of Paseo de Montejo, Mérida’s most impressive road of all. Start your time here with a drink in the stunning Casa San Angél before walking the length of Paseo de Montejo, breathing in the crumbling elegance of this road.
There are three museums to visit on this road:
Museo de Antropolgía e Historia (Palacio Canton) – this museum offers a cultural history of the region, including the pre-Hispanic period. Entry costs 55pesos per person.
Chocol Haa – a small museum dedicated to the history of chocolate in the region. It also has a nice little shop on site.
Quinta Montes Molina – built in 1902 and owned by the family of Don Avelina Montes Linaje who bought it when the original owner decided to return to Cuba. It was opened to the public by his descendants in 2003 and is a valuable monument to the history of henequén and the wealth it brought the city of Mérida.
If you get all the way to the roundabout at the top then you’ve done well and you’ll be rewarded with a sight of the monumento a la patria, the monument to the homeland.
The road also boasts a number of restaurants and cafés, my personal favourite being: Rosas Y Xocolate, a stunning hotel with a great restaurant and spa attached.
4 – Mercardo Lucas de Galvés
While this isn’t my absolute favourite market in Mexico, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a fascinating place to walk around. It is an incredibly well-organised market in Merida Old Town, with sections reserved for specific wares. You can truly buy anything you want in this place, it has everything! Be brave, chat to vendors, try new foods and don’t be wary of the delicious, and incredibly refreshing, juices as no one drinks the tap water in Mérida so everything you buy will be made with purified water.
While it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the market on your own, I definitely found that going with a local made it both more fun and more delicious as they introduced me to new foods and got vendors to let me try little bits of new flavours, including cow nipple!
If you’re in Mérida in the run-up to Christmas you’ll also get to marvel at all the incredible piñatas for sale on the roads around the market.
5 – Cementerio General
The main Merida Old Town cemetery was built in 1821 on the outskirts of the city. Before that, the dead were buried in their local churches. It is said that the graves are built in the same style as the deceased’s homes in order to make the transition to the afterlife easier. I believe it is possible to organise a tour of the cemetery but we very much enjoyed just strolling through, stopping to marvel at the architecture, the incredible colours and the history on hand just through reading plaques and headstones.
I think I’ve suggested enough walking now on my things to do in Merida list!
6 – Take in an ice-cream, or six!
You’re spoilt for choice in Merida Old Town. My personal favourites would have to be Pola Gelato on Calle 55 x 62 y 64 (not far from the Plaza Grande). This place is quite new but the ice creams are incredible. You can choose from traditional favourites such as a normal lemon sorbet or chocolate ice cream or you can try something special like their avocado (my personal favourite), red wine and even refried beans flavours.
If you like a bit of history with your refreshment then I suggest you head to one of the two Dulcería y Sorbetería Colón, one on the Plaza Grande, the other on Paseo de Montejo. The one on Plaza Grande was the first ice cream shop in Merida Old Town and it has been serving cakes and sorbets for over 100 years. It truly is one of the best things to do in Merida and a real landmark.
7 – Pok ta Pok and other evening fun
No trip to Merida Old Town is complete without some evening strolling around centro (the main part of the old city). There is always something going on, Mérida loves to give its residents and tourists alike a grand old time. Head out on a Friday evening, take in an early supper in any one of the myriad restaurants (particularly around Santa Lucia) and then make your way to the Plaza Grande for the weekly game of Pok ta Pok, an ancient Mayan ball game that is re-enacted every Friday at 8pm. Get there early to ensure you get a seat.
If you aren’t around on a Friday, it’s still worth heading out just to see what’s going on. Check out in advance if you’re there during any cultural festivals – look at the Yucatan Today website for information.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday are good nights to be out in town generally as it is the Corazón de Mérida when many of the roads around the centre close to traffic to allow people to really enjoy the city´s special ambience.
8 – Walk Away From The Tourists – Santiago
If you enjoy a good walk then I highly suggest you walk away from the touristy (but beautiful) areas and head towards Santiago, a little plaza rarely seen by tourists to discover a wonderful flavour of local modern life in this stunning city.
Start at Pola, the ice cream store mentioned above, on Calle 55 and walk until you hit Calle 70. This walk will take you past a number of small art studios, some with cafés attached, others without. Just down from Pola, on the opposite side of the road is La Fundación De Artistas, a small gallery well worth checking out, even if only for the building itself.
Once you reach Calle 70, take a left and continue until you find yourself on Plaza Santiago, a lovely little square with a quiet market, a beautiful old church and some great cafés around the edges. This square comes alive at night with regular dances held here. As you walk, just marvel at the beauty of the restored colonial buildings, painted in wonderful colours.
9 – Walk Away From The Tourists – La Ermita
To reach La Ermita from the Plaza Grande, you will need to walk down Calle 62 until you find yourself on Parque San Juan, cross the square and carry on in the same direction, walking now on Calle 64. For me, Calle 64 and then Calle 64a are the most beautiful roads in the whole city. They may not have the grandeur and elegance of Paseo de Montejo but they take my breath away with their simple beauty. Carry on until you reach La Ermita, a small and quiet square that only really comes to life at dusk when young kids come out to play and teenagers come to gossip and flirt. If you’re there in the daytime then it’s worth seeing if the back gate to the church’s gardens is open for a quick walk around.
10 – Bici-Ruta
This wouldn’t be a list of things to do in Merida Old Town if it didn’t include the weekly closing of the roads for people to cycle around safely. Start at the base of Paseo de Montejo where you can hire a bike and then join everyone else riding around the city. Be sure to bring ID if you’re planning on renting a bike. Once you’re done cycling, head back to the Plaza Grande for Mérida en Domingo, a weekly market on the main square where food stalls and bric a brac stalls offer their wares all day. At dusk falls, bands begin to play.
What could be a better way to end the week than this?
Final note: Take water and a sun hat. Mérida is hot. Always
If you are going to visit Merida do not forget to visit other famous Yucatan destinations like Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Valladolid. You could find some recommendations of what to see and where to go in this guide. Yucatan is a great place to visit, and it is for a good reason that it has a few sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list
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About the Author
Cassie Pearse is a 30-something woman who has previously worked in international development and the third sector in the UK. She has travelled and lived all over the world. Cassie writes about exploring Mexico and travelling with children. She might be attempting to write a book about exploring the Yucatan Peninsula with children. Read more about her at www.mexicocassie.com.