Mérida is the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of Yucatan. While heavily influenced by the Mayan culture of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mérida is also a cultural melting pot of Spanish, French, British and to a smaller extent, Dutch influences. As a result, Mérida is a vibrant cultural center, boasting multiple museums, art galleries, restaurants, and beautiful colonial buildings - a reminder of the city’s colonial history. Meandering, grid-like, narrow streets lead to large, open plazas, where often there is a musical or artistic event taking place, as music and dancing are part of the fabric of day-to-day life.
Read on to find out about the 9 things that you must do while in Mérida:
1. Museum of the Mayan World
Opening in 2012, the last year of the Mayan calendar, the Museum of the Mayan World (Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida) celebrates Mayan culture with a permanent collection of more than 1100 well-preserved artifacts. It is a good place to start your visit to Mérida, to learn about the history and culture of the Mayan people. All of the artifacts come from archaeological sites in Quintana Roo. There are three permanent exhibition rooms: the Mayas de Hoy, the Mayas Room of Yesterday and the Mayan Ancestral Room.
The building itself is a work of art. It was designed in the form of a ceiba, a sacred tree believed by the Maya to connect the living with the underworld and the heavens above. On an outside wall, you can view a free light-and-sound show, at night.
Check out the Opening Night Light and Sound Show in this video!
Museum of the Mayan World
Address: Calle 60 299 E, Unidad Revolución, 97110 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
Website: Museum of the Mayan World
2. Cathedral of San Ildefonso
With its construction that began in 1561 and completed in 1598, the imposing Cathedral of San IIdefonso was built on the site of a former Mayan temple and some of the stone from the temple was even used in its construction. The Renaissance style façade contains the main door (“Door of Forgiveness”) flanked by the sculptures of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Flanking the sides are four columns, which symbolize the four apostles, charged with protecting and promoting the religion.
The somewhat austere and cold interior pays homage to both Mayan and Spanish religious traditions. The cathedral was more decorated before the Mexican revolution, but in 1915, when General Salvador Alvarado arrived in Mérida, he set about destroying the inside of the cathedral. In the apse behind the altar, stands a massive crucifix, featuring the Cristo de la Unidad (Christ of Unity), as a symbol of reconciliation between the Spanish and Mayan heritage.
Cathedral of San IIdefonso
Address: Calle 60, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
3. Parque de Santa Lucia
The Parque de Santa Lucía is surrounded on the north and west sides by colorful arcades. In the past, this was the spot where stagecoaches arrived from and left for the surrounding towns and villages. Today it’s a popular restaurant area and venue for Serenatas Yucatecas (Yucatecan Serenades), an open-air dance, with live music and colorful costumes, on Thursdays at 9 pm. On Tuesdays, you will find jazz musicians playing and you can enjoy the performances from any of the many benches or from a sidewalk restaurant or bar. Get there early if you want a good spot from where to see the performance.
Parque de Santa Lucia
Address: Calle 60 476A, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
4. Walking tour in Plaza Grande
If you want to learn about the history of Mérida, head to Plaza Grande at 9:30 am, Monday through Saturday and you can take a free walking tour (consider a well-deserved tip). It is also a good way to get your bearings and learn your way around town, so it’s a perfect way to begin a visit to Mérida. Along with some history, you’ll learn about the city itself and the attractions nearby and also have a chance to go inside historic buildings, surrounding the plaza. The tour takes about 90 minutes to two hours and begins at the city tourism office, located on the west side of the plaza. Make a point to return on Sunday so you can see Mayan dancing and hear the police band.
The Plaza Grande is a popular gathering spot for tourists and locals alike and a perfect spot to take a break from sightseeing. There are plenty of benches and lots of shade, so you can get a bite to eat from one of the many food vendors at the edge of the plaza, or pop in one of the restaurants around the plaza. With the Cathedral de San Ildefonso and other Spanish colonial architecture surrounding the plaza, you have a beautiful 360-degree backdrop.
Walking Tour of Plaza Grande
Address: Mérida Tourism Office, ground floor of the Palacio Municipal, Calle 62 at Plaza Grande
5. Get a taste of local culture at the Lucas de Galvez Market
Lucas de Galvez Market is the main public market in Mérida and a good venue to mingle with local buyers and sellers and get a feel for daily life. The bustling market occupies several buildings, some with stalls, and some with open spaces. There is a plethora of products: hardware, shoes, spices, flowers, prepared food, small live animals, healing herbs, local clothing, jewelry, homemade crafts and of course food. Fruits and vegetables cultivated from the interior are brought here to sell and there is a fish market with a variety of fish from the Gulf Coast. Go early in the day to make sure you get the freshest fish, which you can get fish prepared any way you want - whole, deboned, sectioned or filleted. There is also a fresh meat market section.
To learn about local culture and, more broadly, Yucatan culture, a visit to Louis de Galvez Market is highly recommended. All the ingredients of traditional Yucatecan food can be found here.
Market is open 6:00 am - 5:00 PM, Monday through Saturday
Lucas de Galvez Market
Address: Calle 65 y 69 x 56 y 56 A, Col.Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
6. Cruise Paseo de Montejo
Paseo de Montejo, known as Mérida’s “Champs Elysees”, is a lovely, tree-lined boulevard, flanked with some of the most iconic buildings and monuments of the city. Here, you will find the Palacio Canton, which houses the Anthropology and History Museum, Las Casas Gemelas, and the Quinta Montes Molina. There are also many beautiful mansions here, that were built along the avenue by wealthy Yucatecans of the 19th century, some built in French Neoclassical style.
Paseo de Montejo extends north from the Santa Ana District and connects to Highway 231, just south of the Mayan Museum (Gran Museo Maya). A good place to begin is at El Remate, a square located between 47 and 49, which serves as an entrance to the Paseo de Montejo. There are several ways to stroll along the Paseo. You can walk up one side of the avenue and back on the other, or take a horse-drawn carriage ride.
On Sundays, between 8:00 am. and 12:30 pm, the Paseo becomes a pedestrian street, closed off to vehicles and becomes La Bici-Ruta (bicycle route), a Sunday family tradition. Besides people riding bikes, you’ll also find dog walkers, runners and sometimes live music.
Paseo de Montejo
Location: Paseo de Montejo begins east of Santa Ana Park and runs nearly 8 km (5 miles) to the north.
7. Pok-a-Tok - A Mayan ball game
Pok-a-Tok (sometimes called Pok-ta-Pok) was a ball game played by the ancient Maya, well over 1000 years ago, on the Yucatan Peninsula. Pok-a-Tok is sort of a cross between soccer and basketball, except much more difficult to play. The object of the game is for the two opposing sides to try and hit the hard rubber ball into a stone hoop, placed at both ends of the playing field, but you can only pass and shoot the ball using your thighs and hips.
The tradition of the game is repeated each Friday night, on Calle 60, in front of the Cathedral on Plaza Grande. There are bleachers for seating and the performance ends with a variation of the game, with a flaming wooden ball. Players use their bare hands to throw the fiery ball.
The Pok-a-Tok event in Mérida is free and begins promptly at 8:00 pm. It is recommended to arrive 15-20 minutes early, to get a good spot in the bleachers.
Pok-a-Tok Mayan Ball Game
Address: Calle 60 in front of the Cathedral on Plaza Grande
Learn More: Pok-a-Tok Mayan Ball Game
8. Zona Arqueologica Uxmal
The archaeological site of Uxmal is located 62 kilometers (38.5 miles), south of Mérida, in the center of the Puuc (“hill” or “chain of low mountains”) region, in the southwestern part of the Yucatan. The ruins of the ceremonial structures at Uxmal represent the pinnacle of late Mayan art and architecture, in their design, layout and ornamentation. Some of the most important buildings at the site are the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, the Quadrangle of the Nuns, the Governor’s Palace, the House of the Tortoises, the Ball Court, Great Pyramid and Pyramid of the Magician.
This UNESCO Mayan ruin site is less crowded than others. It is a wonderful balance of both jungle and wide, open spaces - another feature unique to other Mayan archaeological sites. There are three hotels and a museum within walking distance and an overnight stay will give you an opportunity to experience Uxmal at night.
Zona Arqueologica Uxmal
Address: Located in the center of the Puuc region in the southwestern part of the Mexican state of the Yucatan, near the municipalities of Muna and Santa Elena.
Website: Zona Arqueologica Uxmal
For an authentic taste of Yucatecan cuisine, take a guided tour of a local food market that is less frequented by tourists, where you will shop for fresh ingredients and later prepare several tasty dishes. As you walk around the outdoor market, your guide will explain the uses and origins of fruits and vegetables, common to the Yucatan region. After you have purchased your ingredients, your guide will escort you to the home of a local host, where you will learn about Mexican culinary traditions, while you prepare a light lunch.
Some Yucatecan local dishes you may have a chance to sample and prepare include salbutes (Mayan tacos), Panuchos (black bean filled tostadas), papadzules (enchiladas topped with pumpkin seed sauce) and codzitos (stuffed and fried tortillas). You will also learn about the influence of other cultures on local culinary traditions.
Included in the tour price are the professional guide, food, non-alcoholic beverages, the cooking session at a local home, transportation to the market and the local home.
The flavors of Mérida, Mexico
The city of Mérida has a uniqueness to it, as a result of its Mayan heritage, but European culture is also part of the fabric of the city. Mérida has successfully kept its pre-colonial traditions alive while embracing its post-colonial imprint. World class restaurants have put their contemporary slant on traditional Mexican cuisine, while bustling markets showcase local fruits, vegetables and spices. Tree-lined boulevards have a distinctly European feel, while both small and grand plazas are steeped in Mexican culture. Hotels, residences and palaces are dressed in Spanish Colonial and French Neoclassical architecture styles. A visit to Mérida is a delight for the senses.
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