4 Colonial Cities to Visit in the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico
The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is not just about the coastline and beaches. There is a rich history of Spanish colonial history, starting in the mid 1550’s. Yes, while much of North America was not even explored by Europeans, colonial cities were being built here. Here are three colonial cities in the Yucatan you can visit. If you are going to be visiting them from the Riviera Maya, they are 1 1/2 hours away from Playa Del Carmen to Valladolid, 2 1/2 hours to Izamal and 3 hours to Merida.
This article is just an overview of three colonial cities you can visit in the Yucatan Peninsula. Click the links to each of our detailed guides for much more information.
See Merida the colonial capital of the Yucatan
Merida is the largest city in the Yucatan Peninsula with about one million inhabitants. Even though this is a large population, there is a smaller city feel here. You can spend several days just going around Merida and getting to know it. It also makes for a nice base location to explore the nearby Mayan ruins.
Merida has some of the best examples of colonial architecture of the three cities mentioned here mainly from the sheer amount and the wealth that built the city. The colonial center of Merida emanates out from the Zocalo (or main plaza). Throughout the city you can see other architectural styles as the city developed. You can find art deco to 1960’s style but overwhelmingly the main attraction is the colonial building.
What are some not to be missed things to do in Merida?
If it is your first time going to Merida, here are some things you have to look forward to:
- Roam around the Zocalo (or main plaza). Each side has colonial buildings with something to see. There are two museums to see on this plaza, the Casa de Montejo and MACAY Modern Art Museum.
- Paseo De Montejo was designed to look like an avenue from Paris. It is lined with many colonial mansions.
- Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. This modern looking museum houses the current state of Mayans living in the modern world and also examines the Mayan past in the Yucatan Peninsula. Hours: open 8:00am-5:00pm Wednesday-Monday. Closed Tuesdays. Entrance price: 150 pesos for non Mexicans and 100 pesos for Mexicans.
- Anthropology and History Museum. This museum has a lot of Mayan artifacts from around the area and peninsula. This is a well done two story museum with an impressive collection. Hours: open Tuesday-Sundays 8:00am-5:00pm. Closed Mondays. Entrance price: 55 pesos.
- If you like food markets, the Luis Galvez Mercado is huge. Here you can see local fruit, vegetables and Mayan traditions carried on.
- Walk the center to admire many of the restored colonial buildings.
Here is our video introduction for Merida Yucatan
Visit the yellow city of Izamal
Imagine what it would be like if everyone in your town painted the same color on all the buildings. That is basically what they have done in the colonial city of Izamal. Izamal is so yellow, it has the nickname of “the yellow city“. Izamal is often just a day trip or a stopover from visiting somewhere else. However there is a certain charm of this small town that can be missed if you only spend few hours here.
Besides being called the “yellow city” it is also called the “city of hills“. It is called the city of hills because of the large remnants of Mayan pyramids that dot the city.
What are the highlights of visiting Izamal?
Here are just a few of our recommended things to do while in Izamal Yucatan.
- Kinich Kak Moo Pyramid. (Also spelled Kinich Kakmo). There are five large remnants of pyramids in Izamal. This one is the largest Mayan pyramid you can visit in Izamal. In fact this pyramid has the largest footprint of any pyramid in the Yucatan, making it the largest by this estimate. Entrance is free and open daily from 8:00am-5:00pm. The first part is easy to climb but the second pyramid has a little bit more challenging steps. There are no railings or rope to balance you, so be careful climbing.
- The Convent. This structure was actually built on an ancient Mayan pyramid. After the Spanish invaded Mexico this Mayan temple was partly leveled and constructed into this building. The convent was finished in 1561 and boast the second largest outdoor atrium in the world. The convent is open from 6:00am-8:00pm daily. A small museum is in the back of the church. This museum highlights the history of the building and commemorates the Popes visit in 1993. Entrance is 5 pesos.
- Rent a bike to explore. The town if Izamal is small, but a nice way to see the streets is by renting a bike. You can rent bikes at the store Izamal Bikes and Crafts.
- Eat at Kinich Restaurant. Here you get a good sampling of Yucatecan food at decent prices. We love going to this restaurant because the atmosphere, food, value, and handmade tortillas! Kinich Restaurant is open from 12:00 noon to 9:00 pm daily.
Our video introduction to the colonial city of Izamal
Valladolid-the city where Mayan and colonial mix
Located right in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula you can find the colonial city of Valladolid. Originally this was the Mayan city of Zaci. When the Spanish arrived they took the stones from the temples to build this colonial city. Now the only thing with the original name is a cenote in town.
Valladolid is smaller than Merida but a little larger than Izamal. There is a mix of the old world Spanish Colonial center and the Mayan culture where you can still see people wearing traditional dress going around. Valladolid makes for a nice place to base yourself for visiting nearby Mayan ruins of Ek Balam and Chichen Itza.
What makes this colonial city so special?
Here is what we think are some of the things to see in Valladolid:
- The main square. The main park is called Park Francisco Cantón Rosado. It is an excellent place to sit in the heat of the day and watch the city go by. There are a few good ice cream shops where you can get something cool and sit in the park enjoying it. On Sunday the park and the streets next to it are closed off for live music and dancing. The innocence of it will transport you back to a simpler time. You will find many arts and craft stores around the main square. Traditional Mayan dresses, napkins with embroidery, honey products and leather goods are all good things to buy here.
- Calle Los Frailes. This is the most charming street that is lined with restored colonial buildings.
- The Convent of San Bernardino de Siena. This colonial jewel was built in 1552. The building once functioned as a Franciscan monastery and also as a fort to protect themselves from the rebel Mayan threats. Walk around in the pink hues of the walls and see the cenote well in the back garden.
- Mercado. For an authentic look at a farmers market in the Yucatan, this small market shows off colorful flowers, fruit and vegetables. Many Mayan people come from outside the city to sell here.
- Private Museum, Casa de los Venados. This museum only opens once a day at 10:00am. Here you can see not only a beautiful private home but a large collection of Mexican folk art.
Our video guide to what to see in Valladolid Yucatan
Espita is the smallest of these colonial cities mentioned here. It is off the beaten path but rewarding to see this working village. Here there is no tourist infrastructure but the town is very photogenic. One of the first things you will notice is the Cathedral of San Jose. It is very similar to the cathedral in Valladolid.
Walking around or taking a taxi moto tour of the town will give you an opportunity to see this charming place. For more on visiting Espita, see our article here.
If you have never gotten to explore past the beaches, there is so much more to see and discover in the Yucatan Peninsula. It is one thing that makes living here so exciting, we have Mayan ruins, modern cities as well as colonial cities all just a few hours away from each other.
Have you been to some of these colonial cities in the Yucatan? What did you think? We would love to hear your comments below.