Mérida is not only the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of Yucatán and the largest city of the Yucatán Peninsula, it was also recently named by CNN Money as the #1 Place to Retire Abroad in 2017. One reason could be that the American Capital of Culture organization also designated Merida as the American capital of culture.
Merida is located in the northwest part of Yucatan, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the Gulf of Mexico coast, and is served by a major airport. It has the highest percentage of indigenous persons of any large city in Mexico with approximately 60% of all inhabitants being of the Maya ethnicity, which gives it its rich cultural energy.
Mérida was founded in 1542 by Montejo y León (“el Mozo”) and named after the town of Mérida in Extremadura, Spain. It was built on the site of the Maya city of T’hó. Carved Maya stones from ancient T’ho were widely used to build the Spanish colonial buildings that are plentiful in downtown Mérida, and are visible, for instance, in the walls of the main cathedral. Much of Mérida’s architecture from the colonial period through the 18th century and 19th century is still standing in the centro historico of the city. From colonial times through the mid-19th century, Mérida was a walled city. Several of the old Spanish city gates survive, but modern Mérida has expanded well beyond the old city walls.
Mérida’s centro histórico is typical of colonial Spanish cities. The main passage through the city, El Paseo de Montejo, was fashioned after the Champs-Élysées in Paris and is lined with original sculpture. Much of this district boasts a colonial European feel and is becoming increasingly popular with American and other expats who are rescuing and restoring the classic colonial structures.
As the state and regional capital, Mérida is a vibrant cultural center, featuring multiple museums, art galleries, restaurants, movie theatres, and is known for its colorful festivals. Two of the most popular fests in town include the avant-garde International Contemporary Dance Festival and the Oc’Ohtic Mexican and International Contemporary Dance Festival, the latter normally held in the first weeks of December. Other great festivals include the May Music Festival, which brings together performers of every genre, from rock to gospel and even Gregorian chant, as well as the Wilberto Canton International Theater Festival, held during June and the International Choir Festival, in November. There is even an annual Birding Festival held in November for enthusiasts of bird watching.
At the same time Merida is a modern city boasting a comprehensive range of shopping malls, auto dealerships, top-quality hotels, restaurants, and leisure facilities. Merida is popular for its food — the regional dishes are heavily influenced by Mayan cuisine with touches of European flavor. You can sample local food anywhere from casual street-food stands to fine-dining restaurants.
Merida’s central location makes it a great hub from which to explore the surrounding area, replete with archeological sites, Spanish haciendas like Sotuta de Peon and natural reserves and cenotes.
Read our story “Preparing for a Yucatan Adventure” to learn more about visiting Merida.