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Magical Mérida

Plaza principal en Merida y la Catedral de San Ildefonso

Mérida's main square and Cathedral de San Ildefonso

The charming streets of Mérida, the capital of Mexico’s Yucatán state, are a blend of colonial history and Mayan heritage—quite literally. Stones from the ancient Maya city of T’ho, upon which Mérida was founded in 1542, were used to construct the colonial churches and buildings. Today, the modern city is a center of commerce and culture.

Start your day in Mérida’s Plaza Grande, a leafy downtown square flanked by a towering cathedral and pastel-hued government buildings and museums. Be sure to step into the pistachio green-colored Palacio de Gobierno, which dates back to 1892 and houses the state government office. On the upper level, browse through a gallery of compelling historical paintings by Fernando Castro Pacheco, chronicling the Yucatán state’s history from the days of the Maya to the arrival of the Spaniards and subsequent social injustices to the henequen (sisal) plantations that contributed to the state’s prosperity and wealth in the 20th century.

Nearby, Museum Fernando Garcia Ponce-Macay, dedicated to modern and contemporary art, and the gorgeous 1908-built Teatro Peon Contreas, home to the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra, are great cultural stops as well. Join the free 90-minute, bilingual, guided walking tour offered by the government tourism office, which covers some of these historic buildings, including the Catedral de San Ildefonso. The tour meets at the visitor center at the city hall building at 9:30 a.m., Monday through Saturday.

Afterward, stroll to Santa Lucia park and find the ki’Xocolatl chocolate shop—one of several around Mérida. Founded by two Belgian expats in 2002, the company is a true bean-to-bar operation, with its own cacao tree plantation in the southern Yucatán. The sustainably farmed cacao is combined with ingredients from around Mexico—sea salt and peanuts from Quintana Roo or pink pepper from Veracruz—for unique and scrumptious flavors that make perfect gifts to bring home.

Nearby, Coqui Coqui is a gorgeous perfumery, hotel, spa and café all wrapped into one. Pop in and spritz a bit of the brand’s famed Coco Coco eau de parfum on your wrist and you’ll be transported to palm-studded white sands. For woven baskets, colorful textiles, ceramics and more, Casa de las Artesanías offers well-made and fairly priced local handicrafts that you’ll want to take home.

The posh Paseo de Montejo is a tree-lined boulevard named after Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo, who founded the city. The Monumento a la Patria, or Monument to the Homeland, sits at a roundabout at the northern end. The carved monument by sculptor Romulo Rózo relates Mexico’s history from its days as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan to colonialism and independence to reform and revolution. Thirty-one columns at the base of the monument represent the country’s 28 states, two territories and federal district.

Opened in 2012, the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is an ambitious museum dedicated to Mayan culture. It boasts an extensive 1,160-piece collection of well-preserved artifacts, several of them from nearby archaeological sites such as Chichén Itzá. Worth seeing for its design alone, the museum is a contemporary interpretation of a ceiba, a sacred tree that unites the three levels of existence, according to Maya mythology: the underworld (roots), daily human life (trunk) and the heavens above (branches).

Where to Stay

Boutique properties such as family-run Casa San Angel and Casa Lecanda feel cozy and intimate, and they’re well situated in downtown Mérida. Tucked into the lush jungle on the outskirts of town is beautiful Chablé, a wellness resort comprising 40 casitas, each with its own private pool. The spa is set around a natural cenote and features a temazcal, or ancient steam house.

Where to Eat

The delicious lunch spread at Apoala includes veggie tostadas and a salad of haricots verts with crispy corn, pumpkin seeds and avocado. Wash it all down with one of the bar’s many creative cocktails. Just months old, La Linda Cervecería is a sleek-looking brewpub that features beers from the local Ciudad Blanca brewery, along with several others from around Mexico and the world. Gourmet tacos, burgers and pizza round out the menu.

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