The best things to do in Mérida, Mexico

Lilit Marcus, CNNUpdated 25th June 2018
Mérida, Mexico (CNN) — Mérida is one of those dream destinations where "something for everyone" is not just a tourism-board platitude.
The capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, there's a ton of Spanish colonial and Mayan history, as well as stretches of sunny beachfront practically engineered in a lab for perfect relaxation.
Here's everything you need to know about enjoying the city, whether you have a quick weekend of travel or a lot of time to hang out.

Arts and culture

The best way to begin your visit to Mérida is by exploring the area's history and figuring out how Mérida fits into the bigger story of Mexico.
The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya provides necessary background.
The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya provides necessary background.
Mérida, named for the town in Spain, was built on the site of a thriving Mayan city. Even today, these two major cultures brush up against each other -- it's not uncommon to hear Maya still spoken in the area.
Next step: take a walk along the Paseo de Montejo, which begins not far from the city center.
The Spanish colonizers became rich from agave farming, and many built mansions along the Paseo de Montejo, named for one of the first Spanish sailors who landed here.
These days, the mansions are in various conditions -- some have been converted into B&Bs, some are still single family homes and a few are in disrepair waiting for the right buyer to come along and fix them up.
While it's far from authoritative, this walk will really help you to visualize how Mérida has changed over the years and what it may have felt like two hundred years ago.
Dzibilchaltún Mexico
Dzibilchaltún is an archaeological site close to Merida.
Getty Images/stockcam
Many people combine their visit to Mérida with visits to Mayan sites like Chichen Itza throughout the state.
But if you're short on time or want to experience multiple spots, Dzibilchaltún is close to central Mérida and you're likely to be the only tourist there.
As yet another example of Mayan and Spanish cultures intersecting with each other, Dzibilchaltún has both a temple and the ruins of a church, as well as a small museum that gives background and context on the area.
For a more modern -- and complete -- church, head to Mérida Cathedral, aka San Ildefonso Cathedral.
Modern is a relative term here, as the cathedral is one of the oldest in the Americas and dates to around 1598. Look down for foundational stones from a Mayan temple and up for Renaissance-era architecture.
Dzibilchaltún, Mérida 156782, Mexico (+52) 999 922 0193
San Ildefonso Cathedral, Calle 60, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico (+52) 999 255 8622

Where to chill

One of the best things about Mérida is how many different kinds of activities are packed into a small area. Besides history, ruins and food, there's also a great beach culture in Progreso, about 45 km (29 miles) away from downtown.
On weekends and in the summer, this area is packed with families and hotels and rental houses sell out way in advance, so plan carefully.
If you just come out for the day, stroll along the malecon (walkway along the waterfront) and then break for a casual lunch at Flamingo's, where you can sit in a plastic chair, wear flip-flops and eat fresh-cooked fish that were caught just that morning.
Progreso Beach's malecon has gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico.
Progreso Beach's malecon has gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico.
Many of the former haciendas built by wealthy Spaniards are a considerable way out of town.
However, one way to get this langorous feeling while still being in walking distance of the city center is to stay at the lush Rosas Y Xocolate hotel on Paseo de Montejo, which is a member of the Design Hotels of the World group.
The neon pink-painted open air courtyard frames a shallow swimming pool that changes colors throughout the day as the sun sets and the interior lights shift.
But if you're lucky enough to stay the night there, ask for a room with a bathtub - they are made in an elegant old style where water is poured into a stone-hewn tub via a "bucket" on the wall. It's as beautiful as it is relaxing.
Flamingos, Calle 69 x 72, Malecón Progreso, Yucatán (+52) 969 934 4050
Rosas Y Xocolate, Paseo de Montejo 480, Zona Paseo Montejo, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico (+52) 999 924 2992

Comida tipica

Yucatecans have a reputation for independent spirits, and sometimes other Mexicans joke that they think of Yucatan as a separate country.
Their rich, varied food scene is definitely in a class of its own.
To get started, settle in at La Chaya Maya, a local establishment likely to have lines around the block (they recently expanded to a second location to handle demand).
Cochinita pibil is a popular request at La Chaya Maya.
Cochinita pibil is a popular request at La Chaya Maya.
Courtesy La Chaya Maya
The "specials" section is a good place to get started -- look for lime soup (with peppers, turkey, cilantro and crunchy slivers of tortilla chips), panuchos (small fried corn tortillas topped with chopped turkey and vegetables) and papadzules (flour tortillas stuffed with chopped up hard-boiled egg, with a pumpkin and epazote herb sauce).
For a more casual evening out, Mercado 60 is an open-air food hall with a range of options from classic Mexican to Brazilian churrascaria, pizza and solid vegetarian options, plus craft beer.
Finally, for a splurge, the best spot for a fancy dinner is Kuuk, whose twelve-course tasting menu is a stunning, multisensory take on Yucatecan dishes.
Though the menu changes seasonally, you can count on local ingredients like beans, corn tortillas, shellfish, tamales and fruits like guava and mango paired in unexpectedly delightful ways -- and there's always Yucatecan chocolate at the end.
La Chaya Maya, Calle 62 X 57 no. 481, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico (+52) 999 928 2295
Mercado 60, Calle 60 461, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico, (+52) 999 429 5339
Kuuk, Avenida Rómulo Rozo 488 por 27 y 27A, Itzimná, 97100 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico, (+52) 999 944 3377