Izamal, Mexico is a ridiculously photogenic and wonderfully walkable Pueblo Magico, in the heart of Yucatan State.
Loaded with charm, Izamal wows visitors with its colorful colonial past, accessible ancient ruins, and friendly, small-town atmosphere. Izamal is also widely known as the Yellow City for reasons that will quickly become obvious.
Lori and I were completely blindsided by this stunning little corner of Mexico, having stumbled upon Izamal during a road trip around the Yucatan. After staying just a few nights, it was harder than we thought to hit the road and say goodbye to this magical place.
So, get ready to clamber up Mayan ruins, take in colorful colonial architecture, and mingle with friendly locals, as we share what we loved so darn much about Izamal, Mexico (and why we think you should visit for yourself!).
(Plus helpful tips for making the most of your stay in this unique little town)
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8 Reasons to Visit the Yucatan’s Izamal
1) Unspoiled & Under-the-Radar (for now)
Izamal is unique in that it offers so much for visitors in terms of Mayan and Spanish colonial heritage sites, excellent food, and a good choice of accommodation, yet at the same time, it remains largely unknown to visitors coming from outside of Mexico.
The city’s architecture and archaeological sites have earned it a place on the UNESCO list of tentative sites, but the tourist masses of a full fledged World Heritage Site such as Guanajuato or Campeche have so far eluded Izamal.
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Their loss is your gain.
With a population of 16,000 packed into just four square miles, Izamal is a compact and very walkable old colonial town.
There isn’t a lot of traffic and residents are refreshingly friendly — the kind of friendly that is not uncommon in small towns off the tourist trail.
It can get pretty darn hot in Izamal, and the center of town becomes eerily still in the heat of the day.
But when the sun goes down, the town’s streets are transformed as life suddenly spills out from all directions in captivating and dramatic fashion.
Expect to see mostly tourists braving the heat by day (and a handful at that), and the town’s locals relishing in their atmospheric town in the evening.
2) The Color YELLOW
(I’m sure you had to see this one coming).
If you love yellow (and by yellow, I mean BRIGHT yellow), then Izamal is your dream come true!
This striking town has certainly earned the label “Yellow City”, for, well, its brightly colored yellow buildings located not just in the town center, but across the entire town!
The lively choice of paint, coupled with stunning and well-preserved colonial architecture huddled in a compact town gives Izamal a unique feel, quite unlike any other place Lori and I have visited.
On a clear day with deep blue sky overhead, the views are simply unreal.
3) The Historic Convento San Antonio de Padua
Long before nearby Merida’s rise to prominence, Izamal was the grand capital of the Spanish Yucatan, and Convento San Antonio de Padua was at the center of it all.
In the 16th century, the city held much significance for the colonial government (and Catholic church), evidenced by the city’s grand structures.
Even today, all of the action in town seems to radiate from this central point.
The main colonial structures of the day were built atop sacked Mayan pyramids, and the convent was built upon the main Mayan acropolis, indicating that the city site held significance within the former Mayan empire as well.
The convent dominating the center of Izamal remains an important place of worship for Catholics today for several reasons.
For starters, it has one of the largest enclosed atriums in the world (second only to the Vatican!).
It is also a popular pilgrimage site for the faithful who believe that many of the statues of saints inside the convent perform miracles.
Last, but not least, it was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993, who crowned and blessed a statue of the Virgin Mary in the main chapel, also making it a popular destination for pilgrims.
At the time of our visit, there was no entrance fee to walk around (though a donation is suggested) and there are guides on hand to offer historical perspective.
HOT TIP ▸ Don’t miss the rousing light show in the courtyard, held every night after sundown.
4) Izamal’s Evocative Hotels
We had a blast in Izamal, in no small part owing to the city’s numerous historic sights (and some fantastic weather). Our hotel stay, however, elevated our visit to another level.
For a town of this size, Izamal’s got some fantastic hotel and guesthouse options within easy walking distance of the town’s main attractions – from upmarket boutique resorts to lovingly maintained colonial hotels, and everything in between.
Plus, the value for the money can’t be beat!
Here are our top recommendations for places to stay in Izamal, Mexico if we were planning our trip today.
Izamal Hotels & B&Bs | Our Top Picks
OUR TOP PICK – Hacienda Hotel Santo Domingo is located on the eastern fringes of the central area, within easy walking distance of Izamal’s best restaurants and points of interest. A tranquil place to kick back, relax, and base yourself for explorations around town and beyond. Hacienda Hotel Santo Domingo offers a ton of upmarket touches and amenities (like a pool) for a fraction of the price that you’d expect to pay in other Pueblo Magicos.
OUR MID-RANGE B&B PICK – Located a few blocks east of the central plaza, Hotel Macanche Bed & Breakfast offers 12 well-appointed bungalows and swimming pool, set in a tropical garden setting. They’ve also got two large houses perfect for hosting larger gatherings.
OUR TOP COLONIAL HOTEL PICK – Hotel San Miguel Arcangel is located smack dab in the center of town, within a stone’s throw of the Convento San Antonio de Padua and central plaza. In addition to its central location, the hotel boasts charming colonial architecture and a lovely outdoor garden.
PARKING IN IZAMAL – If you happen to be coming to Izamal under your own steam, parking can’t get much easier. We had no problem getting a parking spot right across from the front entrance of our hotel near the main plaza. Many areas in the town center are patrolled at night by security guards and we encountered no issues during our stay.
5) Izamal’s Pre-Columbian Temples & Pyramids
Centuries before Izamal rose to prominence under the Spanish, it was one of the largest Mayan cities in the region.
Archeologists have catalogued 80 structures from that time period, which have survived to varying degrees to the present day.
Five such structures are visible and accessible to visitors, three of which are worth your time.
Located directly north from Convento de San Antonio is the imposing Kinich Kak Moo (Kinich Kakmo), the highest pyramid in town. Climb to the top for sweeping views of Izamal and beyond! (Find Kinich Kak Moo on the map).
Directly to the northeast of the Convent is the sprawling archeological site of Itzamatul, with a photogenic pyramid (map).
From the main plaza, head directly west to check out the temple of Kabul (map).
6) Izamal’s Central Location on the Yucatan Peninsula
Located exactly half way between vibrant Merida and ancient Chichen Itza, Izamal makes a great jumping off point for exploring the region’s top attractions while avoiding the crowds.
A three-hour drive east gets you to the Riviera Maya and popular destinations like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum (not to mention the less-visited Caribbean beach town of Puerto Morelos, which is another favorite of ours on the Yucatan Peninsula).
While you’re here, we recommend taking advantage of Izamal’s location and doing a day trip to the world-renowned UNESCO archeological site of Chichen Itza, located an hour east of town (check out our hand-picked list of top tours from Cancun, Riviera Maya, and Merida).
There are also a number of stunning cenotes (freshwater limestone sink holes) a short distance from Izamal. If you don’t have your own car, you can arrange a day trip through your hotel or with any of the small tour agents in town.
If you are planning a day trip to Izamal from Merida, you can combine your visit with a stop at a spectacular cenote.
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6) Izamal’s Evocative Spanish Colonial Center
The city’s vibrant yellow and decidedly colonial center is an excellent opportunity to get lost in another time while taking part in the daily life rituals of today’s city residents.
While out and about, don’t miss a visit to the Centro Cultural y Artesanal Izamal (Crafts Museum). You’ll also find a variety of artisan crafts shops scattered throughout town and even in people’s homes.
One of the most popular woodcarving shops (taller de madera) is located on Calle 21, east of Panaderia El Zerro. Also expect to run into various residents making tortillas the old-fashioned way in various neighborhoods.
It was fun being able to freely roam about town, alongside local residents going about their daily lives — not merely for the sake of tourists. We were frequently offered a nod and a warm greeting as we soaked up the immense charm, bright colors, and tasty cuisine of this small heritage pocket in the heart of the Yucatan.
Grab a street snack and explore the town’s neighborhoods on foot or by horse-drawn-carriage.
And don’t forget to peek into the various colonial churches and chapels scattered across town.
7) Izamal Eating & Drinking
Drinking and dining options are surprisingly superb for this small town, and yet another reason to love Izamal.
Here’s a sampling of top picks to try out while you’re here, all within a short walk of the central plaza:
KINICH EL SABOR DE IZAMAL ▸ Located just two blocks north of the central plaza, Kinich may just be the best place in town, certainly for the money. Try their mouthwatering pulled pork dishes, or really anything else on the menu, for that matter.
RESTAURANTE LOS ARCOS ▸ Located directly north from the central plaza, Los Arcos offers a unique Yucatan take on old favorites and delicious brunch pastries, in a rustic colonial setting.
RESTAURANTE ZAMNA IZAMAL ▸ Set under a giant palapa in the courtyard of a colonial building, Zamna is another solid option in central Izamal. Try the cochinita pibil and empanadas de bola.
RESTAURANTE MUUL ▸ Muul was recommended to us by the owner of our hotel and it did not disappoint. Located right on the central plaza, Muul offers a commanding view of the center of the action in Izamal, plus delicious small plates and snacks. Try a shot of the local Izamal mezcal!
Final Thoughts on Izamal, Mexico
Izamal doesn’t yet get the numbers of tourists you might expect from a place brimming with well-maintained historic structures at every turn, but that will likely change in the not too distant future.
For now, Izamal occupies an ideal space on the tourist spectrum, offering enough sights and services for visitors to feel comfortable, without the tourist traps, crowds, or hustlers of better known destinations.
A visit to Izamal, Mexico strikes a balance that is increasingly hard to find these days — but thankfully, still seems to exist here in this small corner of the Yucatan.
Lori and I absolutely loved our stay in Izamal and can’t wait to go back!
A Word About Health & Safety in Mexico
Despite the headlines, the vast majority of travelers to Mexico these days don't encounter serious issues with health and security. With that said, we've had plenty of stuff happen affecting our travel over the years no matter where we travel — severe weather, road accidents, broken bones, foodborne illnesses and other nasties.
When we've had these sorts of setbacks while traveling, it's been a huge relief to have solid international travel insurance — from a financial standpoint, but also to have the support of English-speaking health care experts at any hour.
We use World Nomads for all of our short-term travel outside of the U.S. and our experiences have always been positive.
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Have you visited Izamal in the Yucatan?
Tell us about your visit in the comments below!