Hailed as the cultural capital of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mérida is steeped in history. You could spend days just wandering the city’s ancient streets and admiring its colonial architecture. But Mérida also has museums and galleries to see, Yucatán cuisine to savour, and one of Mexico’s largest historic districts—which includes the lively Plaza Grande square—to explore.

Mérida for foodies

La Chaya Maya

Where to stay: Chocolate lovers should book a room at Rosas & Xocolate Boutique Hotel & Spa, near Mérida’s historic centre. Not only does this boutique hotel have its own Belgian chocolatier, its spa also incorporates chocolate into its treatments. Epicures will love the six-course tasting menu at the on-site restaurant.

What to do: For a crash course in Maya cuisine, sign up for the all-day Taste of the Yucatán class at Los Dos cooking school. The experience includes a market tour, hands-on preparation of regional specialities (such as avocado soup and stuffed tamales) and a hearty lunch in the school’s colonial mansion.

Where to eat: Housed inside a colonial building downtown, La Chaya Maya is the place to go for Yucatán cuisine. Try the cochinita pibil—pork marinated in ground achiote seeds and orange juice, then baked in banana leaves—and pair it with a green juice made of chaya, a plant praised by locals for its various health benefits.

Mérida for nature lovers

Ría Celestun Biosphere Reserve

Where to stay: Just 15 minutes from downtown Mérida, Hacienda Misné feels like an oasis, with lush tropical gardens, towering old trees and beautiful colonnaded terraces. Built in the 18th century, this former plantation home features 50 rooms, two pools, a restaurant and a traditional Maya house for massages.

What to do: For an easy day-trip, head about 90 kilometres west of Mérida to the Ría Celestun Biosphere Reserve in Celestun. This estuary is home to hundreds of species of resident and migratory birds including pink flamingos. Keep your camera and binoculars ready as you cruise through the mangroves.

Where to eat: After the biosphere, stop by La Palapa Restaurant & Snack Bar on Celestun’s beach for an icy margarita and some succulent coconut shrimps served in a coconut shell. This beach bar is casual, so bring your swimsuit and a towel and splash in the turquoise surf just steps away.

Mérida for culture seekers

Traditional dance, photo by GM Photo Images/Alamy

Where to stay: Located just steps from the Plaza Grande, Hotel Casa del Balam was converted from a family home to a hotel in the 1970s. The antique furnishings, stone fountain in the courtyard and wrought iron flourishes make this property feel more like your grandma’s house than a hotel—enjoy a siesta by the pool.

What to do: Mérida’s City Council offers free cultural activities every day at central locations in the city. Mingle with Méridanos and enjoy traditional dance, folkloric musicals, pok-ta-pok (an ancient Maya ball game), handicraft markets and even a cemetery tour. Click here for event listings.

Where to eat: For street food unique to the region, visit Mérida’s central market, Mercado Municipal Lucas de Gálvez. Here, a variety of vendors serve up local specialties including panuchos—fried tortillas filled with black beans and topped with avocado, lettuce, pickled onions and chicken or turkey.

Mérida for history buffs

San Ildefonso Cathedral

Where to stay: The beautiful Fiesta Americana Mérida is a pristine example of the area’s Porfirian-style architecture—made popular at the turn of the 20th century as a way to modernize various Mexican cities. The hotel offers a pool, spa and Restaurante Los Almendros, featuring authentic Yucatán dishes.

What to do: Explore Mérida aboard the Turibus, which takes riders past some of the city’s most historic attractions on a narrated tour. Hop off around Plaza Grande to visit one of the continent’s oldest churches, San Ildefonso Cathedral, which was built between 1561 and 1598 using stones from a Maya temple.

Where To eat: Chill out with a scoop of sorbet or ice cream from Dulcería y Sorbetería Colón, a popular place to cool down since 1907. Choose from tropical flavours including coconut, mango and chicozapote, a Mexican fruit with a cinnamon taste. Enjoy your treat while people-watching in the Plaza Grande.

[This story appears in the November 2017 issue of WestJet Magazine]