Merida is the largest city in the Yucatan and it offers so much both in the city and the surrounding area. It is the best place to learn about and appreciate Maya culture in Mexico, sample Yucatecan foods and soak up the historic centro. With a population of 1 million, Merida is a big and busy city, and yet its easy to navigate centro makes it not seem so large. It is a wonderful city to explore on foot with its picturesque streets, squares and churches.
Most of Merida’s attractions lie in its plazas and parks along with the daily cultural activities that you can experience. We loved that the city puts on these performances for visitors to learn more about Mayan culture and history, as well as a way to keep Maya traditions alive. Although there are activities throughout the week, I would suggest organizing your visit around a weekend when the city really comes to life.
It is easy to see why Merida has a large expat and digital nomad community. We spent a week in the region with 3 days in the city and the rest of our time in the surrounding area. You don’t need a car to visit Merida, but our rental allowed us to spend days at nearby Uxmal, Celestun and Izamal. The area around Merida has some of the best cenotes (swimming sink holes) in the Yucatan and having a car means you can visit as many as you desire. Alternatively, base yourself in Merida for a week and all of the sights mentioned can be visited on day trips. Our complete guide to Merida will help you plan your trip to Merida with kids or without.
After relaxing on Isla Holbox for 5 days, Merida was a great place to dig into the culture of the Yucatan.
- 1 What to do in Merida
- 2 What to do Near Merida
- 3 Merida with Kids
- 4 When to Visit Merida
- 5 Getting to Merida
- 6 Safety in Merida
- 7 Where to Stay in Merida
- 8 Where to Eat in Merida
- 9 Our Verdict
What to do in Merida
This is the heart of Merida and we found ourselves enjoying the leafy trees, daily cultural shows and people watching every day. This is also where you will find the MERIDA sign and the signature Merida couple chairs. Come evening the marquesita vendors come out and the plaza buzzes with activity.
On all sides of the square are historic buildings to appreciate and some great FREE things to do in Merida:
- Cathedral de San Ildefonso- built on the site of a former Maya temple and completed in 1598, make sure you take a peek inside.
- Museo Fernando Garcia Ponce-Macay – a FREE modern art gallery with thoughtful paintings. It makes a great place to escape the mid-day heat.
- Casa de Montejo – an opulent FREE museum with historic furnishings dating from the 1500s.
Daily Cultural Activities
The daily free cultural activities in Merida are one of the best free things to do in Merida with kids. Although there are performances every day, the weekend events are not to be missed. Most of them are located in Plaza Grande, but check to be sure.
On Friday nights there is Video Mapping Projection at Cathedral Ildefonso at 8:30 pm. You might have seen these building projections before, where lights are projected onto the building, bringing it to life. It tells the story of the region’s history and culture in vivid colours and animations. The Projection Show also happens Wednesdays.
As you visit the Maya sites, you become familiar with the ball game played by the ancient Mayans, called pok ta pok. On Saturday evenings at 8:30 pm in front of Cathedral Ildefonso in Plaza Grande, you have the opportunity to watch and learn more about the game. Get there early to get a good seat. Our kids were enthralled with this unique game where players hit the ball with their hip and try to launch it through a ring. The players are elaborately dressed and the religious element of the game is also shown. The second game that is demonstrated involves throwing a ball that has been lit on fire through a ring.
Other nights will have traditional Mayan dancing and performances. We thoroughly enjoyed these and best of all, they are FREE!
We found this was the best site to check the calendar of cultural events.
Paseo de Montejo
This wide boulevard that extends from the centro for 6 km is very grand with its lush trees and heritage buildings. There are numerous cafes and restaurants here and it is the centre of the Biciruta (family bicycling event) every Sunday. The Monumento a la Patria statue is striking, located at the end of the picturesque stretch.
Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
This new museum was only okay for us. It is located quite a ways outside of the centro and it was almost deserted when we were there. While there are lots of great exhibits and information about Maya civilization, it didn’t have many interactive activities to keep the kids engaged. However, for adults it is a great place to really dig in and learn about the history of Maya civilization.
Tickets cost 150 pesos/adults, 50 pesos/children. It is about a 25 minute drive from the centro.
Merida’s busy, narrow streets don’t make it particularly bike-friendly. However, come Sunday mornings, Paseo de Montejo and Calle 60 close to traffic and you can enjoy the quiet streets on bike. Our kids really enjoyed riding around and taking in the festive Sunday atmosphere.
You can rent bikes on Paseo de Montejo (near Calle 47), but get there early to avoid the longer lines. We got there at 9:30 and while the lines looked long, they moved quickly. Bikes cost 20 pesos/person and you will need to leave identification as a deposit. They have a number of kids bikes and even family bikes.
If you are in Merida on a Sunday, Biciruta is a great family activity. There is live music playing from the cafes along Paseo de Montejo and the whole area has a festive feel to it.
Sunday in Merida
“Domingo en Merida” is another reason to plan to be in Merida on the weekend. There is live music and dancing in Plaza Grande and the streets are closed to traffic to make room for pop up restaurants that set up across from the Cathedral. Every Sunday feels like a special festival as locals and visitors relax together.
We love exploring markets wherever we are and Merida’s central market has lots of things to look at. They sell almost anything in here, including your very own marquesita press. We skipped that, but did pick up some delicious local fruits.
What to do Near Merida
One of the things that makes Merida such a great destination is the amount of things to do in the surrounding area. If you are on a shorter trip, I would base yourselves in Merida and do day trips from there. You can also stay over in many of these locations if you want to extend your stay.
Haciendas in the Yucatan acted as agricultural organizations, dating from the 18th century. At various times in history they were used for cattle farming, sugar and maize and finally, henequen (rope). The haciendas, much like plantations housed workers and had stables, chapels and a company store. While many of them around Merida have fallen into disrepair, a number of them have been restored, often as luxurious hotels.
If you want to spend a night or two in a Hacienda, Hacienda Temozan and Hacienda San Jose both come highly recommended. We stayed at Hacienda Uxmal, which offers reasonable rates, historic buildings and is conveniently located right across from Uxmal Archaeological site.
We visited Hacienda Yaxocopoil on our way from Celestun to Uxmal. It has been beautifully restored and attracted many painters. Entry is 100 MXN/adult ($7 CAD), free for kids.
Cenotes are underground swimming holes that have become very popular in the Yucatan. The Yucatan is blessed with loads of cenotes and our kids couldn’t get enough of them. They loved swimming in the blue waters, but especially loved if the cenote had a rope swing or jumping platform.
With our rental car, we were able to make frequent stops at cenotes as we toured around the Yucatan. One of the first ones we visited was Yax Bacaltun near the town of Humon. We had originally planned to spend the day going cenote-hopping, but the kids loved this one so much, we never made it any further. Humon is about an hour southeast of Merida and as you drive near the town, you will be stopped by touts trying to get you to go to their cenote.
Yax Bacaltun had a great rope swing and jumping platform, which kept the kids busy. At 30 pesos per person, it made for a great cheap activity. To get there, use Google maps and have faith that you will get there, as you wind down a dirt road in what feels like the middle of nowhere. There were only a few other people at Yax Bacaltun while we were there.
Nearby Cuzama is another great place to experience cenotes. The cenotes here are accessed by a horse-drawn train that takes you to three different cenotes with time to swim at each.
If you are visiting Uxmal, many tours combine a stop at San Antonio Mulix cenotes made up of Cenote X’baton and Cenote Dzonbaca. Both are beautiful with their stunning blue waters, although we didn’t find them as good for swimming. Cost is 50 pesos for both.
Uxmal is one of the most impressive ruins in the Yucatan and while it doesn’t receive as many visitors as Chichen Itza, it is still a very popular site. You can visit on a day trip from Merida, but we chose to stay a night at Uxmal. Get there early to avoid the large tour groups. Unfortunately at the beginning of 2019, the Yucatan government doubled the entrance fees for Mayan sites. It now costs over 400 pesos/adult ($30 CAD), although we weren’t charged for the kids.
We spent over 2 hours wandering the large site where you can climb many of the buildings. There are English speaking guides available for 800 pesos/group.
If you would like to stay in Uxmal, we can definitely recommend Hacienda Uxmal Plantation which blends historic buildings with modern comforts. We loved the pool and massive green spaces for the kids to explore.
If you are visiting the Uxmal ruins, include a stop at Choco-Story which showcases the history of chocolate. But, it is so much more than that; we learned so much about Maya culture, Maya way of life and the plants of the area. The beautiful, lush grounds have excellent, informative signage (in English) that kept our kids engaged. They particularly enjoyed the chocolate drink making demonstration with sample, the chocolate Maya ceremony and feeding the rescued monkeys. The chocolate cookies at the gift shop make for a great treat at 20 pesos.
Choco-Story cost 120 pesos/adult, 75 pesos/child, but we thought it was well-worth it and we spent almost two hours there. It is located directly across from the Uxmal Archaeological Site entrance.
Flamingos at Celestun or Rio Lagartos
Flamingos are one of those birds that enchant us all and if you want to see them in the wild, the Yucatan is just the place. We visited Celestun in February, but if you are going at different times of the year, they can be seen at Rio Lagartos or even Isla Holbox between April and October.
Celestun is a small town an hour outside Merida, most famous for its pink celebrities. However, its beach side location and quiet un-touristy town, make it a great spot to spend a few days.
Most visitors will do a motorized boat trip to see the flamingos in the lagoon, but we really enjoyed our eco-canoe tour. It was an early morning for us as we met our guides at 6 am in the mosquito infested mangroves. But, it was a fabulous way to experience the bird life and natural environment of this region. Our guides poled us through the mangroves, out into the lagoon and we spotted many interesting birds along the way. Once in the lagoon, we saw flocks of flamingos and it was especially interesting to see them flying overhead. The guides had binoculars and we learned a lot about how the flamingos and other bird species live. Cost 1000 pesos/canoe (can hold 2 adults max). We were able to negotiate to pay 1500 pesos for two canoes for our family of 5.
We had a car so just showed up at Manglares de Dzinintun huts (there is a sign as you come into town and you drive down a dirt road) the day before to organize our tour for the next day. You can also book with Jose over What’s App +52 9996 45 43 10 or email, firstname.lastname@example.org
In Celestun, we stayed in a great budget family hotel right on the beach. They aren’t on any of the booking sites – just call them up to book. Hotel Gutierrez, +52 988 916 2648. We had a simple, but clean room with 2 double beds and space to hang a hammock for 550 pesos/night. There is an excellent restaurant there that serves breakfast and lunch.
Celestun has a few more expensive beach side seafood restaurants. While they have a great atmosphere, we found the food only okay. We preferred eating at the restaurants on the town square. We really liked El Loco with its shrimp tacos and burgers for the kids.
The Yellow City of Izamal
Just an hour outside Merida is the picturesque yellow city of Izamal. Almost all the buildings in the city have been painted mustard yellow to match the Convento de San Antonio cathedral at the centre of the city. This Spanish cathedral like many Spanish sights was built over top of important Maya sites. In addition to seeing the main plaza of Izamal, there are still 3 pyramids in various stages of restoration that you can explore (FREE). Kids will enjoy touring Izamal by horse and carriage ride. The lovely Kinich restaurant is a large palapa with lush grounds and a great place to sample many Yucatecan traditional foods.
Merida with Kids
So often when we think about visiting Mexico we think about beaches and relaxation, but Merida has just as much appeal as the beaches. It truly is the cultural capital of the region and with so many free cultural activities and the historical centro, it is a great place for families. Additionally, with cenotes, beaches, Mayan sites, and wildlife in the surrounding area, there is plenty to interest kids.
Merida is a big and busy city so you will want to keep an eye on your kids. It was the first time in Mexico that our kids saw a lot of beggars on the streets, which can be difficult. However, we had zero safety concerns in Merida and felt very comfortable walking around.
Books About Mexico for Kids
When to Visit Merida
Merida is hot and humid for most of the year, but you might want to avoid the very humid months of July and August. Merida is most popular in the winter months, with January being the busiest. We were there in February, which was a great time of year to be visiting. There are a number of festivals throughout the year, which are fun to experience, but will increase hotel costs.
Getting to Merida
Merida does have an international airport with daily flights to the US and Canada, in addition to domestic destinations.
We rented our car in Cancun for our Yucatan and Quintana Roo roadtrip. The drive time from Cancun to Merida is 3.5 hours along Highway 180 toll road. Be prepared for the cost – 504 pesos one-way ($35 CAD!). It is very easy highway driving, similar to Canada or the US.
Safety in Merida
Whenever we tell North Americans about travelling independently in Mexico, they ask about safety. Merida is one of the safest cities in Mexico and we never felt unsafe. Being a large city, there are harmless panhandlers on the streets. Crimes against tourists are rare here and we recommend common sense travel precautions that we use wherever we travel (not carrying flashy stuff, watch carefully when getting change, avoid secluded areas, etc).
Where to Stay in Merida
Merida streets are very congested, therefore we recommend staying as close to the centro as possible. Almost everything you will want to do is there so you can walk and mid-range rooms typically cost $30-40 USD.
Family Airbnb – this is where we stayed and we loved the large room with a queen, 2 singles and hooks to sling our hammock. It is in the centro and has parking for an additional fee. We paid 800 pesos/night. Click here to see the listing.
Some other good options:
Hotel Luz en Yucatan – great mid-range hotel with a pool in the centro. They have rooms with 2 queens, suitable for families. Click here to check prices.
Hotel La Mision de Fray Diego – located a few blocks from Plaza Grande in a beautiful building with a pool. They have rooms with 2 doubles for families. Click here to check prices.
Tip for Larger Families in the Yucatan – buy or come prepared with a hammock. Almost all rooms in the Yucatan have hooks to set up a hammock, giving every one a place to sleep.
Where to Eat in Merida
Pola – kids love ice cream and the ice cream at Pola is excellent. We went here every day we were in Merida to work our way through the many exotic flavours. 35 pesos/single scoop.
Gorditas – on the corner of the Plaza Grand, this is a great place for quick and cheap eats. They offer a number of fillings for your gordita, that you can top with the bright pickled onions and hot sauces.
La Chaya Maya – there are two locations, but the newer one has better ambiance (Branch Casona, Calle 55 x 60 y 62). This place is popular for a reason – it consistently churns out delicious Yucatacen specialties at reasonable prices. Try the sample plates that include a variety of dishes.
Wayan – this taco joint is only open until early afternoon and is a bit outside of the centro, but is a great, cheap lunch. Tacos are 14 pesos/each. The kids loved the cochonil pabil and we had huevo con chaya for us vegetarians.
El Apapacho – great for vegetarians as any dish can be made veg. Lovely courtyard seating. Their specialty is molle. Foreign owner knows how to cater to kids with crayons on the table.
Street Food – kids and adults will enjoy the park vendors selling marquesitas, a crepe like snack that is traditionally made with cheese and Nutella (you need to try it!). Domingo en Merida popup restaurants in Plaza Grande are a great way to try a variety of foods.
Merida feels world away from the tourist strip near Cancun and we loved the opportunity to learn more about the history and culture of the Yucatecan and Maya people. Traveling in the Yucatan is probably one of the easiest and safest places to travel independently in Mexico, making it a great choice for families. With loads to do in the city and surrounding area, you can easily spend a week in the region.
We found the following blogs were really helpful in planning our visit:
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