Mérida is fast becoming one of the Yucatán Peninsula’s most popular destinations for expats and tourists alike. As the nearest city to Mayan sites like Uxmal, the Yucatán capital makes for a great base for day trips. But as Mexico’s tenth oldest continuously inhabited city, Mérida is a worthy destination in its own right. Learn exactly why in the Mérida guide below.
Also be sure to check the very end of the article for tips on transport and accommodation. But first, a bit of history:
Like many cities in the region, what we now call Mérida was once the site of an ancient Mayan city. Sadly, however, the former pyramids are now all missing, having been replaced by cathedrals.
Mérida as we know it today was officially founded in 1542 by the Spanish. But taking the city was no easy task. A general named Francisco de Montejo was originally charged with conquering the Yucatán Peninsula, though he failed on his first two attempts in 1528 and 1535.
He then acted as governor of nearby states like Tabasco and Chiapas, while entrusting his son of the same name, better known as ‘El Mozo,’ with the same mission. El Mozo came out victorious, and as you’ll discover in the following Mérida guide, numerous monuments and streets have since been named after the Montejo family.
In the 19th century, Mérida flourished economically thanks to the trade of henequen, a type of agave that yields a fiber used in rope, twine and even liquor. And many of the affluent family homes from this era remain in place to this day.
Around Centro Historico
The heart of Mérida is its central park, locally known as ‘Plaza Grande.’ While hardly evident today, this was once the center of the ancient Mayan city of T’ho that was completely demolished once the Spanish took over.
Francisco de Montejo the Younger, or El Mozo, then made this plaza the center of the new city of Mérida. As such, many of the city’s most important buildings continue to surround it, one of which is the red Palacio Municipal, or Town Hall.
On the opposite side of the park, meanwhile, is Mérida’s most famous cathedral, San Ildefonso. Completed in 1598, it was built on the spot of a former Mayan temple, the stone from which was used in its construction.
Museo Casa Montejo
On the plaza’s south side is another one of the city’s most famous landmarks, Casa Montejo, an opulent home which dates to 1540. Originally serving as lodging for soldiers, it was later converted to a residence in the 19th century for descendants of the Montejo family.
It was recently restored by the Banco Nacional de México, and the building now functions as a free museum.
After admiring the ornate outer facade, inside you’ll find many rooms in the style of the Victorian (19th century) and Edwardian eras (1901-10). While England is a long way from Mexico, many wealthy Mexican families still looked to Europe for inspiration.
Furthermore, wealthy families of this era were especially interested in procuring exotic objects from foreign lands, as evidenced here by the furniture and decorations from Asia and Africa.
At the time of my visit, one of the rooms was housing an exhibit by folk art duo Jacobo and Maria Angeles, who are known for their colorful renditions of traditional Mesoamerican guardian animals.
The Governor's Palace
Over on the north side of the plaza is the Governor’s Palace, which also offers free entry. Built much later than the other structures, it wasn’t completed until 1892.
It still houses the state’s Executive Branch, while today it’s mostly known for its large murals painted by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. The murals focus on significant themes from Yucatán’s past, particularly the domination of Spanish culture over the indigenous Mayan traditions.
Other subject matter includes the brutal Caste War that took place throughout much of the 19th century, during which the region’s indigenous rose up against the Hispanic population. Lasting over fifty years, the war is said to have cost over 300,000 lives.
Another mural features the portrait of Salvador Alvarado (1880-1924), a former Yucatán governor. He’s best remembered for freeing Mayans enslaved by debt servitude while he implemented numerous other social reforms.
The Museum of the City of Mérida
While not immediately next to the Plaza Grande, the Museum of the City of Mérida is yet another free attraction situated within the Centro Historico.
The comprehensive museum details the history of Mérida from ancient Mayan times through the Spanish colonial era and up to modern times.
The main attraction here is the written information rather than the objects themselves, but it’s a great way to get acquainted with the city before visiting the rest of the attractions in this Mérida guide.
The Folk Art Museum
Yet another free Mérida museum in the city center is the Folk Art Museum. While the museum features some great pieces, it can’t quite compare to the fantastic Casa de los Venados in nearby Valladolid.
If you’ve already been there, a visit here isn’t essential, though it won’t cost you anything and will only take up around thirty minutes of your time.
Centro's Other Churches
Aside from San Ildefonso mentioned above, central Mérida is home to several other historical churches. Among them are Iglesia de Mejorada which dates to 1640, the Rectory Jesus of the Third Order, also from the 17th century, and Iglesia de Jesús, built in 1618.
Paseo de Montejo
To the north of the historic center is Mérida’s most prestigious avenue, Paseo de Montejo – yet another place named after the region’s conquerors. It was here that many wealthy businessmen who’d gotten rich off the henequen trade built their opulent homes.
Today, a number of these homes now serve as museums. Among them is the beautiful Palacio Cantón, which now functions as the Regional Anthropology Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed during my visit.
Aside from Quinta Montes Molina, which we’ll cover shortly, other house museums include Casas Gemelas and El Minaret. And at the end of the avenue, you’ll encounter the iconic Monumento a la Patria.
Aside from admiring the architecture, Paseo de Montejo is home to a multitude of trendy cafes, restaurants and bars. And its spacious sidewalks with ample shade make for a nice change of pace from the hectic city center.
Quinta Montes Molina
One of Paseo de Montejo’s most famous homes is known as Quinta Montes Molina, which costs around $70 MXN to enter.
Built in the Neoclassical style, it was constructed in the early 20th century when the henequen industry was booming. Like Casa de Montejo mentioned above, its style was very much influenced by what was fashionable in Europe at the time.
The house was built by a Cuban businessman named Don Aurelio Portuondo who married a local woman named Josefa de Regil Casares. The events of the Mexican Revolution, however, would cause him to leave just a few years after the house’s completion.
After that, it was purchased by a businessman named Mr. Avelino Montes Linaje, who also participated in the henequen trade. He married the Yucatán governor’s daughter, with whom he had seven children – one of whom still owns the house to this day.
Walking through the house, you’ll find informational placards outside each room that detail its contents and original function. And when finished with the main floor, you can then go down to the lower level to see the main kitchen.
All in all, the experience is quite like touring Casa de Montejo, but with fewer visitors.
While, as mentioned above, Paseo de Montejo is home to yet even more house museums, visiting more than two during one’s time in the city would be overkill for most.
Monumento a la Patria
Continuing north along Paseo de Montejo, you’ll reach a roundabout, in the center of which is arguably the most famous monument in the city.
Inaugurated in 1956 after eleven years of work, Monumento a la Patria was created by a Colombian sculptor named Rómulo Rozo. The stunning neo-Mayan monument utilizes various traditional artistic motifs such as jaguars and chac mool sculptures.
The images along the side, meanwhile, depict the history of Mexico as a whole, including the pre-Hispanic era, the Mexican Revolution and other major events.
Interestingly, the monument was largely intended to bolster national pride among local Yucatecos, as at the time it was built, this region was pretty isolated from the rest of the country.
On the opposite side, one can find emblems representing each state of Mexico. The open space, meanwhile, represents Lake Texcoco, on which the Aztecs built their capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).
You can also see the Mayan Tree of Life, represented by the ceiba tree, in the background. The ceiba tree was synonymous with the universe itself. According to Mayan cosmology, it links our world with the underworld below and the heavens above.
UPDATE: I revisited Mérida in the summer of 2022, a few months after my initial visit when most of these photos were taken. Passing by Monumento a la Patria, I was shocked to see that it had been badly vandalized by radical feminists during a protest. They also desecrated many of the other statues along Paseo de Montejo.
Then in September 2022, a similar group set the ‘Mérida’ letters in the Plaza Grande on fire! Let’s hope the city can get this issue under control soon.
Gran Museo del Mundo Maya
The state of Yucatán is home to some of the Mayan world’s most significant archaeological sites. Accordingly, the state capital of Mérida hosts what’s likely the world’s largest museum dedicated to Mayan culture.
The museum is situated in a modern building that opened in 2012. And it was built in the shape of a ceiba, or Mayan Tree of Life mentioned above. While there is certainly a lot to see inside, the museum’s outer facade makes it appear bigger than it really is.
Surprisingly, the museum starts with the present, detailing the life of ethnic Mayans in modern-day Mexico. You’ll learn about the cultural practices and language that have been preserved by the Yucatec Maya all these years, and some of the symbols they still use, such as the green cross.
While Christian at first glance, the symbol actually dates to pre-Hispanic times and symbolizes the cosmic axis at the center of the four corners of the world.
You’ll also learn how upon the Spanish conquest, the Mayans came to associate symbols of the Virgin Mary with their native goddess, Ixchel.
But most visitors will be coming to this museum to see artifacts from the ancient ruins they’ll be touring. And the museum doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
Moving along through the museum, you’ll encounter things like graves from nearby Dzibilchaltún, stone serpents from Chichén Itzá and stone stelae from lesser-known sites like Oxkintok.
You’ll even find full-scale recreations of the tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok at Ek Balam and the Temple of the Masks at Quintana Roo’s Kohunlich. Also on display are beautiful pages preserved from original Mayan codices.
While absolutely worth visiting, is the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya the only Mayan museum you need to visit during your time in Mexico?
Definitely not. The subject matter overwhelmingly focuses on Yucatán state, while other states in the region also possess some of their own excellent Maya museums, albeit on a smaller scale.
Of special note is the San Miguel Fort Archaeological Museum in Campeche which displays a stunning collection of jade masks. Also be sure to visit the on-site museum at the Palenque ruins, a city that arguably produced the most exquisite artwork in Mayan history.
The Museo Maya de Cancún is also worth a visit, while many important artifacts are kept in the Mayan section of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
When finished with the museum, be sure to walk about six minutes north to the local Costco. Why Costco? Well, this isn’t just any Costco, but one that has a cenote, or natural sinkhole in its parking lot!
The Mayans used cenotes as freshwater sources while also viewing them as sacred links to the underworld, and this small cenote is just one of thousands in the region. But it’s surely the only one situated right outside a big-box store!
GETTING THERE: At 12 km north of the center, the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is the most difficult place to reach in this Mérida guide. The easiest way to get there would be to simply take an Uber, though you may be able to find a colectivo (minivan) along Calle 60.
When finished, it should be easy to find a colectivo taking you back to the center.
Easily the most overlooked destination in this Mérida guide is the city’s largest cemetery, the Cementerio General. It was first established in 1821 in what was beyond the city’s official boundaries, along a road connecting Mérida with Campeche.
But Mérida has been constantly growing over the last two centuries, and the cemetery is now well within the city limits. You can find it in the southwest portion of the city, not far from the airport.
While the cemetery is noticeably a bit dilapidated, it’s well worth going out of your way for. Not only does it contain some beautiful mausoleums, but it’s home to numerous important figures from the city’s past.
Two main roads, C. 90 and C. 66, run through the massive cemetery, which is where you’ll find many of the larger mausoleums. But there are also plenty of side alleys to wander down, home to a multitude of colorful graves.
In fact, over 25,000 graves exist here. And atop many of them, you’ll find common religious motifs like crosses and statues of angels.
The larger tombs, meanwhile, utilize architectural styles like Neoclassic, Gothic and Greek Revival, not to mention a few in the neo-Mayan style.
One of the most well-known graves belongs to American journalist Alma Reed (1889–1966), who worked in Mexico in the 1920s.
Just nearby is the grave of her former lover, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, governor of Yucatán from 1922-24. He was ultimately assassinated right in the cemetery itself after making enemies with a group of henequen oligarchs!
Other famous residents include Lieutenant Felipe Trejo, the very first person to be buried here in the 1820s.
The Best Mérida Day Trips
While Mérida is certainly an attraction in its own right, the city is arguably one of Mexico’s best bases for incredible day trips. Be sure to dedicate at least a week or more in town to see everything.
The closest archaeological site to the city is Dzibilchaltún. Unfortunately, during my entire month-long stay, the site was shut down by local villagers in protest of some sort of money dispute with INAH.
Beach lovers should be sure to visit the town of Progreso, about an hour north of the city, nearby which is an ecological reserve and pink salt flats. Furthermore, there are plenty of cenotes in the region, though the city of Valladolid is a much better base for cenote lovers.
Be sure to learn more about all of these fascinating day trips (except Dzibilchaltún) in our dedicated guides.
As one of the largest cities in the Yucatán Peninsula, you’ll find direct bus routes to Mérida from all over the region. You can even get here via a long bus ride from Mexico City, if you so desire.
While there used to be two ADO bus stations, there is only one at the time of writing, located in the southwest part of Centro Historico.
This is the station most people will arrive at, though there are a few regional 2nd Class bus stations several blocks to the east.
Mérida also has its own airport with connections to cities all over Mexico, along with American cities like Miami and Houston.
In Mérida, it’s best to stay as central as possible. Some popular mid-range hotels in the center include Casona 61 and Kuka y Naranjo. Those on a tighter budget should also enjoy the highly-rated Hotel Santa Maria and Hotel Real Toledo.
Not only are most of the attractions in the Mérida guide above located in the historical center, but so are the city’s multiple bus stations.
In addition to the main ADO station, nearby are smaller stations run by companies like Noreste, Centro, Oriental and Autoprogreso that will take you to the area’s best day trip destinations. Ideally, you should be within walking distance of these stations.
The outer districts of Mérida, meanwhile, are home to some great and affordable Airbnbs, but there’s one main reason to avoid them: the sprawling city’s terribly inefficient transportation system.
While it’s easy to get to the center by either bus or colectivo from just about anywhere, it’s surprisingly challenging to get from the center to another part of town. Thankfully, ridesharing apps do exist, but Uber in Mérida is expensive by Mexican standards and the drivers often take ages to arrive.
As Mérida is so spread out, things may be much farther apart in reality than they appear on a map. Before making any booking, it’s best to confirm the precise walking distance from your accommodation to the city’s main square, Plaza Grande.
Not only is Mérida a great base for visiting some of Mexico’s most impressive ruins, but it’s also one of the top choices for expats to live. What’s more, it’s also considered to be Mexico’s safest city, while it’s often touted for its charming colonial architecture.
With all these things in mind, I decided to make Mérida my base for a full month amidst my long trip across Mexico. But did the city live up to the hype?
All in all, the city wasn’t quite what I expected. It was much larger, more sprawling, and all around less charming than what I’d envisioned.
As mentioned above, the transportation system is atrocious, which makes getting around both frustrating and expensive for those not staying right in the center.
Furthermore, I found the city to be quite dirty, with trash piling up in the streets in many of the residential districts I walked through.
I’d ultimately find exactly what I’d envisioned in my mind before coming to Mérida at my next destination, Campeche. That city is much more laid back with calmer traffic and all-around prettier architecture. It’s a big mystery why it doesn’t have nearly as big of an expat community as Mérida.
As mentioned in the Mérida guide above, it is indeed an interesting city with lots to see and do. However, I’d recommend visitors ignore all the hype online and come to the Yucatán capital without any special expectations.