Most of Mérida's attractions are within walking distance from downtown. One easy way to see more of the city is on the popular, open-air Carnavalito City Tour Bus. It leaves Santa Lucia Park (calles 60 and 55) at 10am and 1, 4, and 7pm (no 7pm tour on Sun). The guided tour costs 75 pesos per person and lasts 2 hours. A national company, Turibus (www.turibus.com.mx), operates modern, bright-red, double-decker buses that provide earphones with a recorded narrative in English and five other languages. You can ride the entire circuit in less than 2 hours, or hop off at any stop to explore at will and grab the next bus to continue. Pick them up in front of the cathedral, or at any scheduled stop, every half-hour. The tour costs 100 pesos. Another sightseeing option is a calesa (horse-drawn carriage), best at night or on Sunday morning when traffic is light. A 45-minute ride around central Mérida costs 250 pesos. You can usually find calesas beside the cathedral on Calle 61.
Plaza Grande -- Downtown Mérida has a casual, relaxed feel. Buildings lack the severe baroque and neoclassical features that characterize central Mexico; most are finished in stucco and painted light colors. Mérida's many gardens, where plants are allowed to grow in wild profusion, add to the languid tropical atmosphere. The city's plazas are a slightly different version of this aesthetic: Unlike the highland plazas with their carefully sculpted trees, Mérida's squares are typically built around large trees that are left to grow as tall as possible.
The natural starting point for exploring Mérida, the plaza is a comfortable and informal place to gather with friends. Even when no orchestrated event is in progress, the park is full of people strolling or sitting on benches and talking. Big as Mérida is, the plaza bestows a personal feel and sense of community. Mérida's oldest buildings, beautiful in their scale and composition, surround the square.
The most prominent, the fortress-like cathedral -- which was in fact designed as a fortress as much as a place of worship -- is the oldest on the continent, built between 1561 and 1598. Much of the stone in its walls came from the ruined buildings of the Maya city of T'hó (sometimes Tiho). The original finish was stucco, and you can see some remnants still clinging to the bare rock. Inside, decoration is sparse, all smooth white stone, with a conspicuous absence of gold adornments seen in many of Mexico's cathedrals. The most notable item is a picture of Ah Kukum Tutul Xiú, chief of the Xiú people, visiting the Montejo camp to make peace; it hangs over the side door on the right.
To the left of the main altar is a small shrine with a curious figure of Christ that replicates one recovered from a burned-out church in the town of Ichmul. In the 1500s a local artist carved the original figure from a miraculous tree that was hit by lightning and burst into flames -- but did not char. The statue later became blistered in the church fire at Ichmul, but it survived. In 1645, it was moved to Mérida, where the locals attached great powers to the figure, naming it Cristo de las Ampollas (Christ of the Blisters). It did not, however, survive the sacking of the cathedral in 1915 by revolutionary forces, so a new figure was modeled after the original. Take a look in the side chapel (daily 8-11am and 4:30-7pm), which contains a life-size diorama of the Last Supper. The Mexican Jesus is covered with prayer crosses brought by supplicants asking for intercession.
Next door to the cathedral is the old bishop's palace, now converted into the city's contemporary art museum, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ateneo de Yucatán (tel. 999/928-3258; www.macay.org), or MACAY. The palace was confiscated and rebuilt during the Mexican Revolution in 1915. The museum entrance faces the cathedral from the reconstructed walkway between the two buildings called the Pasaje de la Revolución. The 17 exhibition rooms display work by contemporary artists, mostly from the Yucatán. (The best known are Fernando García Ponce and Fernando Castro Pacheco, whose works also hang in the government palace described below.) Nine rooms hold the museum's permanent collection; the rest are for temporary exhibits. It's open Wednesday to Monday from 10am to 6pm, until 8pm Friday and Saturday. Admission is free.
As you move clockwise around the plaza, Palacio Montejo is on the south side. The heavy, elaborate decoration around the doorway and windows is carved in the Spanish plateresque architectural style, but the content is very much a New World creation. Conquering the Yucatán was the Montejo family business, begun by the original Francisco Montejo and continued by his son and nephew, both also named Francisco Montejo. Francisco Montejo El Mozo ("The Younger") began construction of the house in 1542. Bordering the entrance, figures of conquistadors stand on the heads of vanquished Indians -- borrowed, perhaps, from the pre-Hispanic custom of portraying victorious Maya kings treading on their defeated foes. The conquistadors' quixotic posture and somewhat cartoonish expressions make them less imposing than the Montejos might have intended. A bank now occupies the building, but you can enter the courtyard, view the garden, and imagine what home must have been like for the Montejos and their descendants, who lived here as recently as the 1970s. (Mérida society keeps track of Montejo's descendants, as well as those of the last Maya king, Tutul Xiú.)
In stark contrast to the severity of the cathedral and Casa Montejo is the light, unimposing Ayuntamiento or Palacio Municipal (city hall). The exterior dates from the mid-19th century, an era when a tropical aesthetic tinged with romanticism began asserting itself across coastal Latin America. On the second floor, you can see the city council's meeting hall and enjoy a view of the plaza from the balcony. Next door to the Ayuntamiento is the Centro Cultural de Mérida Olimpo. Built in 1999, it follows the lines of the historic building it replaced, but inside it is a large, modern space that hosts art exhibits, films, and lectures. It houses the Arcadio Poveda Ricalde Planetarium on the lower level and also holds concert and gallery space, a bookstore, and a lovely courtyard. A comfortable cafe is under the arches.
Cater-corner from the Olimpo is the old Casa del Alguacil (Magistrate's House). Under its arcades is something of an institution in Mérida: the Dulcería y Sorbetería Colón, an ice cream and sweet shop that will appeal to those who prefer lighter ice creams. A spectacular side doorway on Calle 62 bears viewing, and across the street is the Cine Mérida, with two movie screens showing art films and one stage for live performances. Returning to the main plaza, down from the ice cream store, is a shopping center of boutiques and convenience food vendors called Pasaje Picheta.
At the end of the arcade is the Palacio de Gobierno (state government building), dating from 1892. Large murals by Yucatecan artist Fernando Castro Pacheco, completed between 1971 and 1973, decorate the courtyard walls with scenes from Maya and Mexican history. The painting over the stairway depicts the Maya spirit with ears of sacred corn, the "sunbeams of the gods." Nearby is a painting of mustachioed President Lázaro Cárdenas, who, in 1938, expropriated 17 foreign oil companies and was hailed as a Mexican liberator. The long, wide upstairs gallery holds more of Pacheco's paintings, which have an almost photographic double-exposure effect. The palace is open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 8pm, Sunday from 9am to 5pm (and often later). A small tourism office is to the left of the entrance.
A few blocks from Plaza Grande in the market district, on Calle 56 between 65 and 65A, the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum) the grand old post office building. An exhibit outlining Mérida's history includes explanatory text in English. Hours are Tuesday to Friday from 8am to 8pm, Saturday and Sunday from 8am to 2pm. Admission is free.
Calle 60 -- Heading north from Plaza Grande up Calle 60, you'll see many of Mérida's old churches and squares, as well as stores selling jewelry, pottery, clothing, and folk art. A stroll along this street leads to the Parque Santa Ana and continues to the fashionable boulevard Paseo de Montejo and its Museo Regional de Antropología (Anthropology Museum).
The Teatro Daniel Ayala Pérez, on the left between calles 61 and 59, sometimes schedules interesting performances. On the right side is the small Parque Cepeda Peraza, more often called Parque Hidalgo, named for 19th-century Gen. Manuel Cepeda Peraza. It was part of Montejo's original city plan. Small outdoor restaurants front hotels on the park, making it a popular stopping place at any time of day -- for locals, tourists, and hammock vendors alike. Across Calle 59 is the Iglesia de Jesús, or El Tercer Orden (the Third Order). Built by the Jesuits in 1618, it has the richest interior of any church in Mérida, making it a favorite spot for weddings. If you look at the church's west wall carefully, you'll find stones that still bear Mayan inscriptions from their previous life. The entire block on which the church stands belonged to the Jesuits, who are known for being great educators. The school they left behind after their expulsion became the Universidad de Yucatán.
On the other side of the church is the Parque de la Madre, with a copy of Renoir's statue of the Madonna and Child. Beyond the park is the Teatro Peón Contreras, an opulent theater designed by Italian architect Enrico Deserti a century ago. The theater is noted for its Carrara marble staircase and frescoed dome. National and international performers appear here often; duck inside and check the schedule for performances taking place during your stay. In the southwest corner of the theater, facing the Parque de la Madre, is a tourist information office. Across Calle 60 is the main building of the Universidad de Yucatán. The Ballet Folklórico performs in its flagstone courtyard on Friday nights.
A block farther north, across from Iglesia de Santa Lucía (1575), is Parque Santa Lucía. Bordered by an arcade on the north and west sides, this square was where early visitors first alighted from the stagecoach. The park holds a used-book market on Sundays and hosts popular entertainment several evenings a week, including a performance of Yucatecan songs and poems on Thursday nights.
Four blocks farther up Calle 60 is Parque Santa Ana; turn right to get to the beginning of Paseo de Montejo in 2 blocks.
Paseo de Montejo -- The Paseo de Montejo, a broad, tree-lined boulevard modeled after Paris's Champs Elysées, runs north-south starting at Calle 47, 7 blocks north and 2 blocks east of the main square. In the late 19th century, Mérida's upper crust (mostly plantation owners) decided the city needed something grander than its traditional narrow streets lined by wall-to-wall town houses. They built this monumentally proportioned boulevard and lined it with mansions. It came to a halt when the henequén industry went bust, but numerous mansions survive -- some in private hands, others as offices, restaurants, or consulates. Today this is the fashionable part of town, home to restaurants, trendy dance clubs, and expensive hotels.
Of the surviving mansions, the most notable is the Palacio Cantón, a Beaux Arts confection that houses the Museo Regional de Antropología (Regional Anthropology Museum; tel. 999/923-0557), Mérida's most impressive museum. Enrico Deserti, the architect of the Teatro Peón Contreras, designed and built this between 1909 and 1911, during the last years of the Porfiriato. It was the home of Gen. Francisco Cantón Rosado, who enjoyed his palace for only 6 years before his death. For a time, the mansion served as the governor's official residence.
A visit to the museum offers the irony of one of Mérida's most extravagant examples of European architecture housing a tribute to the ancient civilization the Europeans did their best to extinguish. The exhibition of pre-Columbian cultures covers the Yucatán's cosmology, history, and culture, with a special focus on the inhabitants' daily life. Displays illustrate such strange Maya customs as tying boards to babies' heads to create the oblong shape that they considered beautiful, and filing or perforating teeth to inset jewels. Drawings and enlarged photos of several archaeological sites illustrate various styles of Maya dwellings. Captions for the permanent displays are mostly in Spanish, but it's a worthwhile stop even if you barely know the language for the background it provides for explorations of Maya sites. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday from 8am to 8pm, Sunday from 8am to 2pm. Admission is 41 pesos.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.