Having heard endless praise for the Yucatan’s capital of Merida – seemingly so rich in culture (architecture, food, design and music) - it seemed the obvious choice whereby to hang for a couple of days, as the rain continued to fall relentlessly in Playa del Carmen back in November. Only 200 miles (approx. 4 hours) from the coast, Merida is an architectural jewel. Peaceful, sleepy and full of colorful, restored Yucatecan haciendas, hidden courtyards, wide and beautiful tree-lined avenues and green plazas...this friendly, walkable town is one of the safest in Mexico.

A magnet for both Mexican and expatriate artists – as well as those travelers who want to venture off the Riviera Maya’s beaten path - Merida was listed in 2005 by Fortune, as one of five foreign cities in which “to invest and live one’s golden years”. Most likely the reason an astute group of early adopters (mainly artists, architects and designers) are flocking here to scoop-up nicely priced real estate, with the view to transform dilapidated haciendas into boutique hotels, casas and gourmet food retreats.

We only had two short nights here, but in that time, were able to suss out some great little corners of town – enabling us to confidently share these recommendations:

1. To sleep…

Hotel Hacienda Merida VIP: given we had arrived into town, on a whim, with nowhere to stay – we thought we would head straight for Hotel Hacienda, after reading they were named in 2013 as one of Conde Nast’s best new hotels in the world under USD200. Unfortunately however, fully booked, the sincerely friendly and welcoming staff at the hotel happily recommended us their VIP property instead, a little further down the street. At first, somewhat out of our budget, the lovely staff (Julio – who works the weekend shift!) offered us an incredibly generous deal, and upgraded us to their upstairs, poolside suite for a price we couldn’t refuse (the fact that it was low/rainy season, certainly helped). Hidden behind a beautifully restored colonial façade, this little gem of a boutique hotel has only 4 rooms, and a lovely little swimming pool, which runs the length of the manicured garden. Close to the town center – on Calle 62 – this hotel is perfectly located. When the electricity went out on the first night we were there, the generous and hospitable staff provided us with plentiful candles, complimentary bottles of wine and margaritas, and a cheese plate! Breakfast is served by the pool, or to your room, each morning – freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, eggs, and fruit –bountiful and delicious.

Rosas y Chocolate: located on Paseo de Montejo, this hard-to-miss, hot pink, 17-room luxury boutique hotel is a calming oasis, housed in two 1930s renovated mansions. Designed by Mexican architect Salvador Reyes Rio, guests are lavished with (as the name suggests) fresh roses on arrival, as well as rich organic chocolate from local chocolatiers (we only recently learnt that chocolate derives from Mexico! It was the Mayans who first discovered the cacao plant!). A small pool, set within the interior courtyard, is edged by palm trees and is perfect for a quick dip. An inviting boutique – offers organic chocolate by label, Ki’Xocolatl (whose owners have their own cacao plantation about 2 hours from Merida), and other tempting goodies. On top of that, Rosas y Chocolate has a well-renowned restaurant (see below) – whose Executive Chef is ex-Pujol – and a fabulous rooftop terrace, where there is often live jazz in the evenings.

Coqui Coqui: this dreamy one-suite hideaway, is located above the Coqui Coqui perfumerie in the middle of Merida’s Centro Historico (just around the corner from Hotel Hacienda Merida VIP). Laden with vintage marble floors, gilded mirrors and the wafting scents of tobacco and orange blossoms, this terribly romantic and heavenly suite, surrounds a small, but inviting interior courtyard. We were completely awestruck by the dual vintage clawfoot bathtubs - a central feature of the suite – and the stunning vintage four-poster bed, ornate tiles, and red velvet sofas. Completely blissful.

La Hacienda Xcanatun: although we didn’t get a chance to visit La Hacienda Xcanatun: an 18th century farm-turned 18-suite luxury hotel, we believe a trip out to this oasis (just 15 minutes from the city center) is worth it. If you don’t fancy staying at the property, we suggest dinner at their much-lauded restaurant - Casa de Piedra – serving up modern international cuisine with Yucatecan flair – showcasing local providores.

2. To eat…

La Chaya Maya: somewhat touristy, but also full of locals - on arrival, you will be greeted by a Mexican woman donned in traditional Mayan dress (hui­pil ), making corn tortillas in the window. This is your best bet to sample authentic dishes such as salbutes (fried tortillas with chicken or turkey and pink pickled onions) or cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork marinated in achiote and sour orange) served in banana leaves. We loved the house specialty - Los Tres Mosqueteros (The Three Musketeers) - which combines three classic Yucatecan dishes: relleno negro (a black sauce made from burnt chiles and spices) over pork; papadzul (an egg dish); and pipián (a sauce with a pumpkin seed base) over turkey. Affordable, fun and great margaritas to boot. A good Yucatecan experience.

For a traditional street breakfast, try tacos and tortas from the Wayan’e street stand – which has been operating for over 20 years. Popular fillings include smoky chicken; scrambled eggs with acelgas (Swiss chard) or chaya leaf; and castakan (twice-fried pork belly). A bargain at only 60c a pop! Locals come early, to stock up for their biggest meal of the day. And for Merida’s best fish tacos, check out El Cangrejito: an elbow-room-only hole-in-the-wall. Soft tortillas stuffed with shrimp, bacalao, lobster, and octopus. Yum.

For something more fancy, there is Rosas & Xocolate– more high-end – this is modern new-Mexican cuisine. Think roast duck with local longaniza sausage, chilixcatic, and melon; or deconstructed fish panuchos with cured nopales; and tuna tartare with cocoa butter, pepitas and quail egg. Also popular,their fish of the day prepared on a fried tortilla accompanied by prickly pear salad or duck served with singed corn, local sausage, melon compote and a chile and raisin sauce. Enjoy scrumptious homemade bread as well.

Nectar: this high-end restaurant is well known for one of the best formal dinners in town. We were impressed to hear that Roberto Solis, the young chef and owner, travels to a different country each year to apprentice in an important kitchen—think Per Se, Noma or The Fat Duck—all in the service of expanding his cuisine.

3. To drink…

Cantina la negrita – our favorite and most friendly neighborhood cantina. This cute corner spot offers artisan beers from the Yucatan region, as well as “Micheladas” – these spicy Mexican cerveca drinks, are served chilled with tamarind around the rim, lime juice and assorted sauces, peppers and spices. Sit up at the bad and enjoy good tunes, a fun hip crowd, friendly bar staff, and great drinks and bar food.

Piedra de Agua hotel – for mojitos by starlight – the outdoor bar here has a spectacular view of the brilliantly lit cathedral. Local groups play jazz and blues on Fridays. Try a mojito (or two), and one of their basil-infused, lemon daiquiris.

4. For dessert….

With a few locations around town, Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon is the only place for something sweet. Enjoy ice cream, sorbets, soft merignues, and champolas (milk shakes containing vanilla ice cream and coconut milk)! A Meridan institution since 1907. Ice creams are so fruity and delicious, and as well as all the favorites, you will find other tasty flavors such as tamarind and peach.

5. To do…

Mercado Fresco de Slow Food: every Saturday from 9am-1pm: A little hard to find (located on Avenida Reforma, just north of Colon), we were happy we eventually stumbled across this quaint little organic market. The purpose of the market is to promote Slow Food values in the Yucatan, by nurturing organic production and supporting regional culinary traditions. Our advice is to arrive early because the vendors tend to sell out fast! Think organic herbs and greens, French cheeses, breads, pastries, fresh organic tofu, organic peanut butters and local honeys, organic kale, juices, etc. regional produce that comes from no more than 50km outside Mérida. We got sucked in by the French patisserie guy’s accent and passion for his craft, and ended up walking away with terribly decadent almond croissants and beautiful bread from his stall (Monique’s Bakery). We also loved the homemade almond milks, and the fresh juices of watermelon and mint.

Wander along: Paseo de Montejo - an elegant tree-lined boulevard, often referred to as Merida’s “Champs Elysees”. Home to the Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Fatherland) – this magnificent structure built in 1956, is responsible for telling the story of the Yucatan and the country throughout its carved stone surfaces. 

Stroll through the Plaza Grande in the evenings, and watch this beautiful plaza come alive – it seems the whole city tends to congregate in this leafy plaza, under the towers of Merida’s 16th century Cathedral of San Ildefonso. Horse-and-buggies wait for potential customers, and musicians play guitars and maracas and are available for rent (you can pay them by the hour to play for your loved ones!!).

Check out the shops and galleries: art galleries are everywhere, but there is a cluster around Calle 60 from Calles 41 to 47. Admittedly, we were a little underwhelmed by the offering here…but its worth a wander nonetheless.

Coqui Coqui Perfumeria: one of our most favorite spots. Enjoy succulent scents, romantic jewelry and beautiful candles. The boutique also features the Bonatos and Ravagnan Hacienda Montaecristoaccessories line, which includes locally hand-crafted gold filigree necklaces and even hand-crocheted hammocks.  

Visit the Cenotes: just one hour from Merida, these cenotes are located at the Mayan site of Dzibichaltun. Meaning “old village”, it is an open ground level cenote, perfect for swimming. It is more than 140ft deep at one end.

Live music on the city stages: every Saturday, enjoy folk dancing, comedy, mariachi, marimba and romantic trova music. You can watch from the street or have a drink on the terrace of the Hotel Casa San Angel.

Visit Chichen Itza: 1.5hrs from Merida (halfway between Cancun and Merida), this impressive architectural site was built by the Mayan people c.AD 600-900. A number of different architectural styles are exhibited here.

To get there…

We took the bus from Playa del Carmen…200 miles (approx. 4hrs) west. An easy ride…we love Mexican buses! Super comfy, affordable and complete with wi-fi.