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36 Hours in Mérida, Mexico: Things to Do and See

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By Freda Moon Photographs by Benedicte Desrus

Feb. 22, 2024

Freda Moon has traveled Mexico from top to bottom, by car and by sailboat, and has been writing about the country for The New York Times since 2009.

Even as tourism to the Yucatán Peninsula skyrockets, many visitors never travel beyond the so-called Riviera Maya, the heavily developed and wildly crowded coastline between Cancún and Tulum. For travelers drawn to Mexican culture and history, Mérida — founded by the Spanish in the 1500s and constructed using the stones from Maya ruins — is an antidote to the coast’s wall-to-wall all-inclusive resorts. Beyond colonial architecture and centuries-old traditions, Mérida is a young, artsy place best experienced with a free-spirited sensibility. While not a late-night city, it is very safe and comes alive after dark, when there are a few hours of cooler evening air, music calling from seemingly every corner and a general sense that if you wander a few blocks in any direction, you’ll stumble upon something really special.

Recommendations

Restaurants and bars

  • Pola Gelato Shop has a changing menu inspired by seasonal and regional flavors.
  • Salón Gallos, in a former grain factory, includes a wine bar, an art-house cinema, a Lebanese-inspired restaurant and a gallery.
  • Patio Petanca is the place for a game of pétanque (a bocce-like sport) and a round of Mexican beer with a fun playlist and a young crowd.
  • Autogiro de la Ermita serves mezcal and botanas (pub snacks) in a homey neighborhood cantina.
  • Soco offers beautiful pastries, including Mexican classics and babka, and rich, saucy, bread-centric breakfasts.
  • Ramiro Cocina is a shady patio restaurant with a changing chalkboard menu of lovingly presented Mexican classics.
  • Taquería de la Unión is a small, steamy taco spot that also serves tortas (sandwiches) and more with classic Yucatecan fillings, like cochinita pibil, a roasted pork dish.

Galleries, markets and shopping

  • Ki’Xocolatl is a shop for all things chocolate, gifts and a Mérida-favorite frappé on one of the city’s most bustling plazas.
  • La Botillería sells an impressive selection of Mexican wine and spirits, including from many small producers, and also offers tastings.
  • Caracol Púrpura and Taller Maya specialize in non-mass-produced, quality handicrafts.
  • Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, the city’s main municipal market, sells everything from regionally specific spice blends to toys to street food.

Where to stay

  • Cigno, in the La Ermita neighborhood, is an elegant, adults-only bed-and-breakfast in a historic mansion blocks from the Plaza Grande. Guests can enjoy a nightly cocktail reception, and several rooms (starting at about 3,100 pesos, or $180) have plunge pools and balconies.
  • Casona Origen, in the Mejorada neighborhood, stands out as a tranquil respite. Seven rooms (from about 2,100 pesos) are laid out around an expansive backyard and two swimming pools.
  • Hostal Barrio Vivo, across the street from La Ermita’s tiny plaza, is a notably clean and comfortable hostel with shared dorms starting at 300 pesos.
  • For short-term rentals, look to the neighborhoods surrounding the Plaza Grande, including Santa Lucía, Santa Ana, La Ermita and Mejorada.

Getting around

  • Mérida is compact and walkable, so it’s entirely possible to spend several days exploring by foot. For rides around town, Uber is easy and affordable. Major international rental car companies, located downtown, are a good option for day trips, though hotels and tour companies can also arrange a driver.
  • Travel in the region, including the 188-mile trip from Cancún to Mérida, may soon be radically transformed when the Tren Maya, a new rail route through hundreds of miles of the Yucatán, begins regular service (it partly started in December). The project has been heavily criticized for displacing communities and for environmental and archaeological damage caused by construction.

Itinerary

Friday

A hand holds an ice-cream cone stacked with a yellow scoop and a pink scoop. Behind is a sign that reads

Pola Gelato Shop

3 p.m. Cool off and check out out the crowds

Mérida is one of Mexico’s steamiest cities. Icy treats are the answer. Pola Gelato Shop, in the Santa Lucía neighborhood of the historic city center (Centro), has regionally and seasonally inspired flavors like strawberry with x’catik (a local chile) and banana with hibiscus. Though the shop has a handful of tables, grab a cone (from 55 pesos, or about $3) and head down the block to Santa Lucía’s plaza. Drop into Ki’Xocolatl, now a small domestic chain, which is a go-to for edible gifts, along with cacao-based soaps. Get a chocolate frappé (64 pesos) and sit in one of Yucatán’s distinctive S-shaped sillas confidentes (or confidant chairs) for excellent people watching on the plaza (there are also free traditional dance performances with live music — held weekly since 1965 — here on Thursdays at 9 p.m.).

A hand holds an ice-cream cone stacked with a yellow scoop and a pink scoop. Behind is a sign that reads

Pola Gelato Shop

4 p.m. Search out souvenirs

Across the street on Calle 60, Caracol Púrpura is a series of galleries set around a courtyard cafe, where you’ll be greeted by chest-high ceramic catrinas (glamorously adorned skeleton figurines) and dizzyingly intricate Tree of Life sculptures, from the states of Oaxaca and Puebla. The collective specializes in folk art from around Mexico — an impressive overview of the country’s staggering cultural breadth — along with the works of contemporary Mexican artists. For elegant souvenirs that benefit local artisans, visit Taller Maya on Parque de Santa Ana, another popular plaza. The shop sells quality handmade crafts — including beautiful hammocks with Yucatán-style decorative tassels, natural-dye bedspreads and tortilla baskets woven from jipijapa palm fronds — labeled with the name of the craftsperson who made them and how long they took to produce.

A person wearing a helmet skateboards in a concrete skate park in the daytime.

Parque La Plancha

5:30 p.m. Tour a transformed train yard

From Santa Ana, walk east along Calle 47 to Mérida’s defunct, 1920s-era train station, which now houses the Yucatán University of the Arts and the new Parque La Plancha, a 50-acre urban park in the former train yards with an artificial lake, a wading pool, a High Line-esque raised walkway, themed playgrounds, a sprawling food court and a staggeringly large Mexican flag. The park is at its best in the early evening, when it’s a destination for families drawn to its interactive fountain, where children shriek and drench themselves in the spectacle of water, color and music. Other on-site attractions include a scattered collection of restored vintage rail cars and the small but worthwhile Museo de la Luz (admission, 100 pesos), which opened in November with exhibits (many interactive, many in English) focusing on the science and culture of light.

A person wearing a helmet skateboards in a concrete skate park in the daytime.

Parque La Plancha

7 p.m. Celebrate the char

For a special-occasion dinner, backtrack to Calle 47 and Micaela Mar y Leña, where the dining room pulsates with celebratory energy. The wood-fired grill gets a workout nightly, turning out charred dishes that include beef ribs with mole, and octopus with sweet potato and pickled vegetables (each dish, 450 pesos). Vegetarian options like cauliflower with tahini and carrots (195 pesos) meet the flames, too. Reservations recommended. After dinner, stop into La Botillería, a bottle shop selling distinctive Mexican spirits — lesser-known mezcals, regional liquors and domestically produced gins not found abroad, including one infused with a bitter orange central to Yucatecan cuisine — that make great gifts. Do a tasting, then return to stock your suitcase.

A person wearing a wide-brimmed hat pours a liquid from a jigger into a stemmed glass from behind a bar.

Autogiro de la Ermita

9 p.m. Follow a night stroll with mezcal and worm salt

Stray from the city’s busiest tourist district and head southwest from the Plaza Grande, the main square, to Parque de San Sebastián, a plaza that is the lively heart of one of Mérida’s oldest Maya neighborhoods and often busy with Zumba classes, carnival games, marching band practice and religious processions. From there, walk back to the adjoining La Ermita neighborhood to find offbeat tattoo shops, closet-size galleries, vegetarian restaurants and street art. Stop into Autogiro de la Ermita, a new-school cantina with exposed stone walls, yellowing lucha libre posters, and sometimes a keyboardist playing tropical dance music or a D.J. spinning salsa. Mezcal is served the classic way, with orange slices, sal de gusano (salt with dried, ground agave worms and chiles) and a botana — a free pub snack — of whole roasted squash. Try the “sorpresa,” or bartender’s choice (140 pesos), if you’re feeling adventurous.

A person wearing a wide-brimmed hat pours a liquid from a jigger into a stemmed glass from behind a bar.

Autogiro de la Ermita

A building with with a curved exterior made of vertical metal bars.

Palacio de la Música, a short walk from the Plaza Grande.

Saturday

A person stands behind a metal table laden with fresh produce.

Mercado Lucas de Gálvez

8 a.m. Stop at the market, then see the flamingos

Stop at Mérida’s main municipal market, Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, for fresh juices and sweet Mexican pastries for the road. Then leave the city (just over an hour via rental car or hired driver) early to get to Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve before 10 a.m., when bird-watching is at its best. American flamingos, the world’s tallest and pinkest, congregate here by the tens of thousands during the peak season (traditionally November through March, but local guides say the season has become less predictable). The ecosystem is also home to pale pink spoonbills, Mexican tiger herons, huge Canadian white pelicans, crocodiles and endangered large cats. Lanchas (small covered boats; 3,000 pesos, one- to two-hour tour) can be shared with other visitors bringing the cost to about 500 pesos per person (young children, free).

A person stands behind a metal table laden with fresh produce.

Mercado Lucas de Gálvez

11:30 a.m. Chill by the sea

After winding through the mangroves in search of wildlife, head for the Gulf of Mexico side of Celestún — a dusty, charming fishing village between the reserve and the gulf — and its long strip of white sand and seashells, palapa-style restaurants with palm-thatched roofs, and clear, pale-blue sea. Local guides recommend Los Pampanos for its simply prepared stone crab claws (half kilo, 600 pesos) and ceviches, but it’s also a fine place to grab a plastic table in the sand, a cold cerveza (starting at 40 pesos), and some shade between dips and before the drive back to Mérida.

Two adults and a child sit at a wooden restaurant table. Behind them is a mural of a person sitting in a tortilla that is growing out of a corn stalk.

Pancho Maíz

3:30 p.m. Lunch late on Yucatecan soul food

Back in the Centro, head for the Mejorada neighborhood east of the Plaza Grande, where Pancho Maíz’s modest appearance belies its ambition. Open for breakfast and lunch, this welcoming corner restaurant has fans whirring in every corner, a retro-green-and-yellow tile floor and a mural of a corn stalk holding a sleeping man — a reference to the restaurant’s mission of preserving the region’s corn varietals, which are sacred to the Maya people and integral to their diet and culture. Everything here, from the pinole (a traditional drink made from ground corn, cinnamon and toasted cacao, 45 pesos) to its jumbo sope — an oversized disk of native corn masa — topped with chicharrón (fried pork rind or belly), pickled onions and chiles, and locally made fresh cheese (135 pesos), is quintessential Yucatecan soul food.

Two adults and a child sit at a wooden restaurant table. Behind them is a mural of a person sitting in a tortilla that is growing out of a corn stalk.

Pancho Maíz

5 p.m. Make friends over a game of pétanque

Walk around the corner to Patio Petanca, an open-air game room that feels like a secret world built around long, gravel pétanque courts with an eclectic, poppy playlist. Later in the evening, this spot becomes a party with D.J.s and groups of friends gathered around buckets of icy beer. Arriving early means beating the crowd to a round of play. Behind another nondescript colonial facade, a few blocks southwest, Salón Gallos has converted a former grain factory into a multipurpose event space with a gallery, a cinema, a wine bar, a restaurant and a music venue — it always has something compelling on offer. Check social media for upcoming events.

People sit on benches in a public square at night beside a tree whose leaves have been pruned into a square shape.

Plaza Grande

8 p.m. Time travel to watch a Maya sport

At Plaza Grande, grab a marquesita, a crunchy Yucatecan street snack that’s a cross between a waffle and a crepe, rolled while hot and typically stuffed with Edam cheese and chocolate-hazelnut spread (from about 50 pesos). Then watch the weekly re-enactment of Pok Ta’ Pok — a ceremonial pre-Hispanic Maya ball game — in front of the city’s main cathedral (free, 8 p.m.), before heading to Taquería de la Unión, a tiny, unpretentious and perpetually packed taqueria, a couple blocks north of the plaza for tacos (28 pesos each) stuffed with cochinita pibil (roasted suckling pig marinated in bitter-orange juice, the region’s most famous dish) or longaniza, a sausage from the nearby city of Valladolid.

People sit on benches in a public square at night beside a tree whose leaves have been pruned into a square shape.

Plaza Grande

A row of shops, one painted a bright pink, on a pedestrian street during the daytime.

A section of Calle 47, a street with many restaurants, bars and cafes.

Sunday

A display of pastries that are in the shape of a scroll, topped with a caramel drizzle and nuts.

Soco

9 a.m. Grab a pastry, then cruise the paseo

Soco, with only five tables, does a brisk takeout bakery business in decadent croissants (traditional and seasonal flavors, 110 pesos) and elegant Mexican pastries like sweet, crispy orejas and sugar-crusted concha. If you can, stay for a hot breakfast — a pork-belly torta ahogada (a sandwich drowned in a flavorful pork broth with ribbons of red cabbage, pickled onions and translucent watermelon-radish slices, 210 pesos) or a luxuriously thick slice of French toast artfully topped with fresh fruit (205 pesos). Then walk to the city’s most prestigious boulevard, Paseo de Montejo, to join the weekly promenade of fairy-tale-esque calesas (horse-drawn carriages, 500 pesos for 45 minutes), bicycling families and souped-up lowrider bikes at the closed-street event known as Biciruta Mérida.

A display of pastries that are in the shape of a scroll, topped with a caramel drizzle and nuts.

Soco

People sit in a leafy restaurant courtyard during the daytime.

Ramiro Cocina

12 p.m. Enjoy a backyard bite

By the early 20th century, Mérida was one of the Americas’ richest cities because of its production of henequen, a plant-derived rope fiber. Several of the city’s grand mansions along Paseo de Montejo date from this heyday and have since opened to the public as museums (including Quinta Montes Molina and, most recently, Montejo 495 Casa Museo). Pop in, or simply gawk from the street. (Or even better, visit one of the region’s remaining, magnificently restored henequen haciendas on your way out of town.) Then for a casual lunch, stop at Ramiro Cocina a few blocks west of Paseo de Montejo, with affordable items scrawled on a chalkboard and patio seating beneath the shade of banana and palm trees. Look for the unusual and uncommonly delicious charred zucchini quesadilla with griddled cheese on an earthy, handmade corn tortilla.

People sit in a leafy restaurant courtyard during the daytime.

Ramiro Cocina

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