Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, is nicknamed The White City, in part because of its cleanliness and in part because of its many white, colonial-era structures, magnificent buildings funded by the fortunes of sisal plantation owners. Despite the Old World feel, the city has plenty of modern services. Visitors interested in authentic cultural experiences won't be disappointed; Mérida offers free musical and dance performances practically every night of the week.
Admiring architecture, both pre-Hispanic and colonial, is one of the top reasons to visit Mérida. The city is located in the state of Yucatán, which was the heart of Maya civilization, and the ancient, accomplished culture's pyramids, temples, ceremonial centers, and residential and recreational structures are on display for visitors at sites such as Chichén Itzá and lesser-known places like Mayapan and Dzibilchaltún. Come back to the city center and walk along the Paseo de Montejo to fast-forward to the colonial era. Mérida was flush with cash from sisal production, and its barons of industry built lavish mansions; some of them are open to the public today, such as Casa de Montejo, a former residence that is now a museum.
Mérida is an inland city, set about a half-hour from the nearest coastal area; it's also a bit removed from the more jungle-like areas of the Yucatán Peninsula. Nevertheless, the city is an excellent jumping-off point for outdoor adventures in either type of environment. From wildlife excursions (including birding) in the town of Celestún to on-foot exploration of nearly a dozen Maya sites, among them world-famous Chichén Itzá and the lesser-known but no less wondrous Dzibilchaltún, active travelers won't lack options for things to do during a visit to Mérida. If you just have to get to the beach, the coastal town of Progreso and its white-sand beaches, just to the north of the city, make for an ideal day trip.
Mérida is the official capital of the state of Yucatán, but it is also considered the cultural and culinary capital of the region. Food here is very distinctive, and is typically influenced and informed by long-standing traditions, techniques, and recipes that have endured since the golden age of the Maya civilization. Expect dishes featuring pork, corn, and squash; try some of them at La Chaya Maya, or the upscale K'u'uk, both of which specialize in Maya-inspired cuisine. The city's relative proximity to the coast also means that fresh fish and seafood are easy to find. If you're keen to take home some recipes, a cooking class at the renowned Los Dos culinary school is a can't-miss experience.
Mérida has all the usual organizations and institutions where visitors can experience art and other cultural traditions; however, it's in the city's open, public spaces—namely, its plazas and squares—where some of the most affordable and most memorable experiences can be had. Nearly every night of the week you can find music and dance performances that channel the traditions of the Yucatán; many of these are influenced by the ancient Maya civilization and all of them are free of charge. Don't skip formal spaces, though; venues such as the exceptional Teatro Peón Contreras, home to the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra, feature world-class artists in ornate settings.
Mérida is warm year-round and can get very hot in summer; visit in fall for lower humidity and more comfortable temperatures. Mérida is located on the Yucatán Peninsula and is serviced by Manuel Crescencio Rejón Airport. Though it's an international airport, service from U.S. cities is limited. Many visitors fly into Cancún; though a four-hour drive from Mérida, it has more international flights. Combine the two destinations to experience the beach and a colonial city. A rental car is the best way to get around with maximum freedom and flexibility. The official language is Spanish and the currency is the Mexican peso. Voltage is the same as in the United States.
Julie Schwietert Collazo
Julie Schwietert Collazo has been a bilingual freelance writer, editor, and translator for the past 10 years and loves (almost) every minute of it, but tells people if she could have any other job, it would be a gig as a Mexico City evangelist. The Mexican capital is her former home and the first place she always wants to go when she gets on a plane. Read more at collazoprojects.com and Cuaderno Inedito.