Bustling, beautiful, and a world away from the beaches of the Costa Maya, Merida is the Yucatan's hub, and one of Mexico's most rewarding destinations.
Founded in 1542, Merida was a jewel in the Spanish colonial crown, and its city center is the proof. Wandering past square after square of majestic churches, fountains, and elegant boulevards can be a little disorienting - like stepping into the 17th century. Then you are jolted back to the 21st century, thanks to an array of fine museums, endless bars, live music on the streets of the city center, and the energy of a regional capital.
The ideal base from which to explore the Yucatan's Mayan cities, but a marvelous urban destination in its own right, Merida rewards everyone who visits with a once-in-a-lifetime display of architecture, street life, and cultural delights.
Nicknamed the "White City" due to its abundance of marble and limestone colonial buildings, Merida is an architectural feast. Plaza Grande is the place to start exploring, with the Catedral de Ildefonso and the Casa de Montejo palace, but don't miss the mansions on Paseo de Montejo and grand buildings like the Palacio Canton (which houses the excellent Anthropology and History Museum).
Merida prides itself on its cosmopolitan nature, and there's no end to its museums, theaters, and galleries. Highlights stretch from the Museo de la Ciudad de Mérida, which provides a great grounding in the city's history, to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, showcasing the Mayan era, and the excellent Contemporary Art Museum.
The Maya created a dazzling urban culture well before any Spanish conquistadors arrived, and Merida is ideally situated to tour many of their most impressive creations. Nearby sites include Oxkintok, with its labyrinthine complex, and Izamal, a vast Mayan city, along with Dzibilchaltun, near the beach resort of Progreso.
Take a tour around the massive Mercado Lucas de Galvez, then check out Yucatec specialties like Poc Chuc (Mayan-style grilled pork) and Papadzules (egg tacos cooked in a delicious pumpkin seed sauce).
Another one of Merida's great attractions is its proximity to some of Mexico's most enticing beaches. You can reach the beaches and seafood restaurants of Progreso in half an hour, or head to sleepy fishing villages like Rio Lagartos, with almost deserted stretches of sand.
Merida is a tropical destination, which visitors may want to bear in mind. The winter is an excellent time to go. Any time between September and May will see high temperatures (by US standards) and low humidity, making for ideal sightseeing conditions. Summer is much more humid, and tropical storms are possible.
Manuel Crescencio Rejón International Airport (MID) is around five miles south of the city center and has regular flights to the USA. When you touch down, the easiest way to get into town is via a taxi or shuttle bus (expect to pay around Mex$200). ADO also runs buses into the city from the airport.
Merida is at the tip of the Yucatan peninsular, so it's quite a drive from Mexico City. However, if you are up for the challenge, its fairly straightforward. Take Highway 150D to La Tinaja, then switch to 145D. Change to Highway 180 at Coatzacoalcos, and follow it all the way up the coast to Merida. If you are coming from Cancun, it's a much shorter drive. In that case, take Highway 180 westbound.
Merida has two major bus stations. The main station is called CAME and is located on Calle 70. Served by ADO and OCC, CAME is where you'll be dropped off if you are coming from distant cities like Mexico City, Campeche, or Veracruz. There's also the "2nd Class Bus Station", located on Calle 69, which serves regional routes. Additionally, intercity buses may stop at Hotel Americana Fiesta (particularly ADO buses from the airport).
Merida has plenty of choice for luxury travelers. Many of the best hotels are located in sumptuous colonial-era buildings and are a real treat, including Las Escaleras Guest House and the Hotel Hacienda in the Centro Historico. More modern options include the Mansión Mérida on the Park, and the beautiful Casa Lecanda Boutique Hotel, housed in one of the city's finest restored mansions.
Centro Historico - Merida's Centro Historico is clustered around the Plaza Grande and is packed with beautiful architecture, museums, shops, and public artworks. The splendid cathedral is a major highlight, but the Casa de Montejo (built in 1549) is just as impressive (and shocking, if you look closely at its 16th-century reliefs showing the Spanish conquest).
San Sebastian - before Merida was founded, San Sebastian was a sleepy Maya village, and it retains an intimate feel. Its beautiful 17th-century Shrine of Santa Isabel protected transatlantic voyagers to the home country, and the neighborhood has benefited from strikingly successful regeneration efforts in recent years.
La Mejorada - lying slightly east of the Centro Historico, Mejorada is more than just another colonial neighborhood (although it does have some stunning colonial mansions). It used to be Merida's rail hub, before the station was closed, but now the area hosts a fascinating Yucatan Railway Museum as well as excellent restaurants like Los Almendros.
Walking is the best way to enjoy central Merida, and the city has an easy-to-navigate grid pattern, which you'll soon become accustomed to. There is a bus system (tickets are around Mex$7) but public transportation isn't great in the city, and as a result most visitors tend to rely on taxis or rental cars to get around. Buses to Izamal and Rio Lagartos depart Terminal Noreste, while Progreso can be reached by the buses that leave from Auto Progreso Terminal on Calle 62.
Booking taxis via your hotel concierge is a great way to get around central Merida, and rates are very reasonable. Expect to pay around Mex$20 for the meter drop, then around Mex$25 per mile (throughout the day). If you'd like to ask your driver to wait while you see a museum or palace, there's a Mex$150 per hour waiting charge as well.
Renting a car is a good option in Merida. You'll be able to get around without worrying about bus schedules or booking taxis, the beach will always be within reach, and getting to Mayan ruins will be a breeze. Rental branches in the center of town include Alamo and Europcar, and rates can be as low as Mex$100 per day.
There's no competition for Merida's most exciting shopping street: the Paseo de Montejo wins, hands down. Lined with manicured trees and impossibly elegant old mansions, the ground floor of the street features a mixture of stores. There are apparel stores like Yapurlandia, Morana, and Guayaberas Ravgo, places to stop for a hot chocolate like Ki Xocolatl, and department stores aplenty. Aside from the Paseo de Montejo, there are also a number of bustling markets. The Mercado Lucas de Galvez is the biggest and most intriguing, and you'll find everything from fine foods to shoes, clothing, and electronics on sale.
Merida has a huge selection of supermarkets, including familiar names like Walmart and less well-known chains like Súper Aki or Superama. All are good places to stock up on groceries. Expect to pay around Mex$60 for a gallon of milk or Mex$28 for 12 eggs.
Yucatec food is very different from the Mexican food most visitors are used to, with slow roasted pork dishes like Pibil, and egg tacos in pumpkin seed sauce. Great places to explore the region's cuisine include Manjar Blanco and the taco specialists Wayan'e, while excellent pizza is to be had at El Trapiche. After that, be sure to visit Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon for a beautiful, palate-cleansing dessert. Meal prices average around Mex$100 per head.