Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo, but the city's history goes back to the ancient Maya city of Ichcanziho. Built on the ruins of this ancient Maya city, Merida still embraces several elements of Maya culture and tradition, including customs, cuisine, and a modern version of the old Maya ball game. The city of over a million people got its White City nickname from the white limestone used in the construction of many of its historic buildings. By the way, carved Maya stones from ancient Ichcanziho were used to build many Spanish colonial buildings. These stones are embedded, for instance, in the cathedral walls. As the capital of the state of Yucatan, it is the financial and cultural centre of the Yucatan Peninsula. Merida is often considered the safest city in Mexico and one of the safest cities in the Americas. So check out a selection of things to see and do in Merida. Let’s start our self-guided walking tour with the main square, Plaza Grande.
Plaza Grande is the soul of the city and its central square. This square is a great starting point for your exploration of Merida. Not only is it a place where locals gather, but it is also home to several interesting sites. It is surrounded by the historic cathedral, the MACAY Museum, the red Ayuntamiento or old City Hall building, the green Governor’s Palace, and Casa de Montejo. Walking around the square, you will notice white double chairs.
You and me chairs
Legend has it that “sillas confidentes” or “tú y yo” (you and me) chairs were designed by a father wary of a developing romance between his daughter and a local boy. The chairs first appeared in the Plaza Grande of Merida after remodelling works in 1915. Today, you can find these chairs all over the parks of the historic centre of Merida. You can also rent a horse-drawn carriage at the square and go on a sightseeing tour around the city.
Cathedral of San Ildefonso
This splendid cathedral, the oldest in continental America, was built in the middle of the 16th century, soon after Merida had been founded. The cathedral was dedicated to honouring San Ildefonso, the archbishop of Toledo.The towers of the cathedral are in a Moorish style, while the interior and the façade are in a Renaissance style. Inside there are three aisles with chapels on the sides. On the main altar stands a 7.7-metre-high image known as the Christ of the Unity, hand carved from birch wood by Spanish sculptor Ramon Madrid Lapayese River. San Ildefonso also has Baroque altarpieces on some of its walls. When appreciating the cathedral from the outside, notice the stones from Mayan temples used for its construction.
Practical tip: The cathedral is open to the public every day. Just keep in mind that it is still used for its original purpose, so masses and other events are held there nearly every day, all open to the public.
Passage of Revolution
It is perched between the MACAY Museum, formerly the Archbishop’s Palace, and the cathedral, beautifully roofed with glass and iron structures. The passage was built in 1905 and renovated several times. It is used as an open-air art gallery from time to time.
Casa Montejo is the former residence of Francisco de Montejo, a Spanish conquistador who founded modern-day Merida. The building is an excellent example of Spanish colonial architecture and was built in 1549. It is the only Renaissance-style house in Mexico that has survived for nearly five centuries. Currently, this majestic house serves as a museum whose halls are decorated with elegant furniture from the era of Yucatan's economic boom.
Address: C. 63 506, Centro.
Inaugurated at the end of the 19th century, the Governor’s Palace initially served as the headquarters for all government agencies. Presently, only the Governor's office, the General Secretariat of the Government, the Mayor's office, and the Legal and Press Directorates are located there. It has two floors adorned with portals, a courtyard, and arcades. The palace boasts a beautiful quarry stone staircase and a replica of the bell of Dolores, built on the central window of the building. On the top floor is a hall that presents the history of Yucatan through beautiful and large paintings by artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. The Governor’s Palace is open from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Practical tip: The tourist information office is located at the main entrance, open from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week.
Temple of San Juan de Dios
Formerly attributed to Our Lady of the Rosary, the construction of this temple was completed in 1562. The temple, which may be the oldest in Merida, temporarily served as a cathedral while the main cathedral was being built. The main façade of the building has a slender three-level belfry.Address: C. 58 58, Centro.
Palacio de la Música Mexicana
The Palacio de la Música Mexicana was completed in 2018. This modern building fits nicely into the architectural ensemble of the historic centre of Merida and is a fine example of the revitalisation of the old town. The building houses the interactive-multimedia museum of Mexican Popular Music, a square integrated into a public space where musical events can take place, a concert hall, and the whole collection of music history.
Address: Calle 58 corner with Calle 59.
Practical tip: If you visit the building complex at sunset, it will turn orange in the sunlight.
Mansion Merida Hotel
Dating back to the middle of the 17th century, Mansion Merida was the first two-storey home in Yucatan and was owned by the governor of the time. During the early twentieth century, the stunning mansion was owned by Don Felipe G. Canton Pachon, who made the building as it looks today. The current owner has invested heavily into restoring the building’s magical historic splendour and converting it into a luxury boutique hotel embodying the rich heritage of Yucatan. Even if you are not staying at the hotel, visit its lobby and admire the stunning interior with a collection of antique clocks that used to be placed in the hotel rooms.
Santa Lucia neighbourhood
Thanks to its long history, charm, and ample selection of cafés, restaurants, and shops, it is no surprise that Santa Lucia and its surroundings have become a fashionable neighbourhood of the city.
Santa Lucia Park
Santa Lucia Park was established in the middle of the 16th century, and it served as a place for gathering slaves brought by the Spanish for forced labour. In the early 19th century, the abandoned square was transformed into a colourful and pleasant park. In the 20th century, the park became a space to honour Yucatecan trova musicians and composers. For many years, on Thursdays, a corner of the park was transformed into a stage for traditional Yucatecan serenades. On Thursday nights, at 9 p.m., well-known bands perform popular folkloric songs and dances. Check out the 2.4-metre-high fibreglass installation, a large-scale version of the iconic you and me chairs found in many parks throughout the city.
Aside from being a fantastic outdoor venue to enjoy music and culture, Santa Lucia has become an excellent hub for food lovers, with a wide range of restaurants featuring Mediterranean, Peruvian, Italian, and Mexican cuisine.
Where to eat
Since Merida is one of Mexico’s ethnic melting pots, its cuisine reflects Mayan, Caribbean, Mexican, European, and Middle Eastern influences. Papadzules is a Mayan dish with egg-filled corn tortillas drenched in a pumpkin seed sauce and flavoured with epazote. Poc Chuc is a local version of boiled or grilled pork, whereas panuchos are fried tortillas with lettuce, tomato, turkey and avocado topping.
La Chaya Maya Casona
Amidst the nostalgic atmosphere of a colonial home, across from the historic Santa Lucia Park, La Chaya Maya restaurant offers the traditional dishes of Yucatecan cuisine. Pumpkin seeds, maize, chilli peppers, chaya, and achiote glowing in red tones take you back to the origins of the Mayan people. By employing these ingredients and the gifts of the East, as well as cinnamon, pepper, spices, garlic, sausages, oranges, and the fusion of Arabia and Castile, the restaurant can offer its clients sumptuous and mouth-watering meals. Interestingly, the chaya leaf stands out not only for its excellent taste but also for its outstanding medicinal and healing properties.
Address: 55x60 y 62 #510, Centro
You can find another intriguing restaurant Casa Maya just around the corner from La Chaya Maya Casona.
I only had breakfast there and it was delicious. But the main attraction to me in this place was the interior, including even the toilet.
Address: C. 62 496, Centro
Check the calendar for cultural events in Merida
Check out the live music, nightlife, culture, art and foodie events when visiting the city. Many of them are free.
Since downtown is a grid, it is easy to get around Merida. Main streets have names, like Paseo de Montejo, and smaller streets have numbers. The even-numbered streets run north to south, and the odd-numbered streets run east to west.
Check out a map of your walking tour!
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Author: Anita Sane
About the author
Anita is a part-time traveller, passionate photographer and a retired career woman from Latvia, travelling mostly solo for more than 15 years. She is a skilled travel planner who plans and executes her travels by herself. Anita wants to show you how to travel the world and open your mind to new experiences. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Bloglovin.