Where we’re at: Here, I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this trip to Mexico in November.
It’s no secret that while Cancun is one of the most popular resort destinations in Mexico, it’s one that independent travelers tend to turn their nose at while heading further afield to Tulum, Isla Holbox, and other, chicer destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula.
But I had an inkling there was something more to this area — especially the downtown core, on the mainland away from the so-called “hotel-zone” peninsula. I was already heading to Isla Mujeres to get my beach fix. So for these few days, I was more than happy to focus exclusively on Cancun’s largely undiscovered downtown.
What I found? An artsy, offbeat urban center, and a perfect base for starting or ending a trip from Cancun International Airport, the gateway to the Yucatan. You’ve pretty much gotta go there anyway, right? So here’s how to enjoy it, rather than just rushing through.
Where To Stay in Downtown Cancun
Selina Downtown Cancun
I’ve been wanting to stay at a Selina — the brand of boutique hostels and coworking spaces that’s seemingly taking the world by storm — forever. And so when I saw they had a location in growingly trendy downtown Cancun, I was all over it.
The Selina Downtown Cancun is a sprawling complex made up of several buildings, with room types ranging from chic dorms to spacious condo-like suites with personal kitchenettes. They are centered around a large pool, bar and restaurant and a lobby with a cafe, co-working space, movement studio, movie room, and small spa treatment room.
We visited in semi-low season in early November, so with a limited weekly schedule we didn’t catch any of the weekly yoga classes, but we did splurge on reasonably-priced post-flight massages.
Our room was so gorgeous, I really couldn’t stop squealing at all the little details — and loved how each one’s individual murals reflected the upcoming vibes of the area. For those on a budget, they also have “micro” private rooms with shared bathrooms.
Yes I love sometimes splurging on a flashy resort and I get down with dorms still, even at thirty — but a hip boutique room like this is just my style.
Everything at Selina feels thoughtfully designed and deliciously homemade. I couldn’t get enough!
It was the perfect base for three nights before we headed over to Isla Mujeres. I’m not kidding when I say I want to do a Selina tour of Mexico! They have locations all over Yucatán with more opening all the time (the one in Isla Mujeres was under renovation when we got there.)
Selinas, stay fabulous! I’ll be back soon.
On my most recent trip through Downtown Cancun, I stayed in this wildly affordable loft, easy walking distance from my favorite restaurants in the area. While it wasn’t the most soundproofed from the other apartments in the building, I appreciated that the kitchen was fully stocked with anything you’d need to cook.
I loved feeling like a local for a quick and easy stay!
What To Do in Downtown Cancun
There’s loads to do in Downtown Cancun and of course, you can also use it as a more affordable, locally-focused base to enjoy the beaches and attractions further afield in the Hotel Zone and beyond, too. For this guide, I’m going to focus exclusively on what’s special about urban core, but just know that you can easily hop a public bus to the beaches and most tours will do pickups downtown, too.
Street Art Tour
My top recommendation for getting to appreciate what’s special about Downtown Cancun is to take a street art tour there — here’s the one we chose.
We took a tour with a local artist via Airbnb Experiences and loved getting the insider scoop on the best murals within walking distance of our hostel.
Sure, you can just wander around and see the art for yourself, but having taken street art tours in St. Pete, Rio de Janiero, Miami, and even my hometown of Albany, I always value getting the background on the artist’s vision and intention and process.
Other workshop options allowed you to roll up your sleeves and create your own works in different studios around town — it’s an area bursting with creativity.
Our guide John is a photographer himself, and was amazingly informative about the area, pointing out restaurant recommendations (may of which we took him up on and I pass on below!), travel tips for the Yucatan, and filling us in on the history of Cancun and what it’s like to live there now.
We learned about local and international art projects and festivals, talked about different styles of street art, learned much about the area and soaked up so much beauty in the process.
We even simply walked down side-streets we otherwise wouldn’t have visited — it was like a treasure hunt!
For me, this is the true top thing to do in Downtown Cancun — even if you stay in the Hotel Zone, this is well worth coming downtown for a day for (especially if you combine it with a meal or two.)
Knowing that we were headed to Isla Mujeres to scuba dive at the famous Museo Subacuático de Arte, an underwater sculpture garden, I was intrigued when I saw a tour of the land-based workshop on Airbnb Experiences, right in the outskirts of Downtown Cancun.
We got off to a funny start when our Uber led us to the Google Maps location and then essentially dumped us on the side of the road, with no service, as we insisted we didn’t think we were in the right area. Thankfully after a brief walk we got signal and were able to call our host Roberto, who immediately hopped in his truck and drove around looking for us! Five stars, and we hadn’t even arrived yet.
When we arrived through the gates of what appeared to be a large estate, we breathed a sigh of relief. It was beautiful and peaceful here — a museum indeed. Or at least the topside branch of it. It was also, according to a plaque on one of the exterior walls, the Hungarian Consulate.
“Oh yes,” Roberto waved away, “I am the Honorary Consul of Hungary here in Cancun.” Long story, he shrugged.
It was a fitting personality quirk for the Mexico City native who’s vision brought the world’s first underwater museum to life as a way to ease congestion on the natural reefs and fuel the creative community in The Yucatán.
After an introduction to MUSA’s history while we wandered through one of the outdoor sculpture gardens, we went on to learn about the various artists who have contributed over the years, peek at recent prototypes, hear behind-the-scenes tales of the difficult casting process, learn who many of the models were, and hear about the hardships the museum faced as they pioneered this original project.
We left more eager than ever to dive the underwater galleries — and so thrilled we’d taken the time to have this unusual and intimate experience seeing the works before they’re sunk. I’d recommend it to any diver, snorkeler, art or marine enthusiast!
Want to see the underwater galleries, too? If you’re heading to Isla Mujeres, it’s best to see the Manchones Reef sculptures from there — but there is both a diving tour and a snorkeling tour available from Cancun, as well. A more shallow set of sculptures in the Punta Nizuc gallery can be accessed from a snorkeling tour right off Cancun’s Hotel Zone.
Food or Drink Tours
If art really isn’t your thing, foodies will also be in heaven here. Any sort of food or market tour you see advertised in Cancun will inevitably bring you downtown. Want to try a super home-style cooking class? Check out this Airbnb experience run by a young local woman and her mom. Want to dive deep on Mezcal, the smokey local spirit? Check out this Viator tour and tasting.
And if you’d rather DIY, simply wander around the markets of Mercado 28 and Mercado 23 and sample local ingredients, or head to the vendors at Parque de Palapas to find the finished results.
Where To Eat in Downtown Cancun
No lie — this might be my favorite part of staying in Downtown Cancun! While you can easily grab cheap local eats at the options listed above, there are also plenty of cute cafes and swish spots within walking distance for a bite, too.
Jetlagged or burnt out on travel? Uber Eats and Rappi, it’s Latin American counterpart, do operate here as well — you can have just about anything delivered to your door.
I can’t get enough of this fresh, healthy eatery in a stylish open-air plaza on hip Carlos Nader Avenue. Fresco Habito serves up smoothie bowls, superfoods, wraps, buddha bowls and beyond. Plus, it’s adorable! There are swing seats as well as versions planted firmly on the ground.
Don’t forget to wander around and check out the other eateries around the plaza. It’s so charming!
While perhaps what I loved best about it was the fact that it was served poolside, Selina’s restaurant had a great menu of food and drinks and does allow non-guests to enjoy them, too. If you’re craving some frozen drinks with your toes in the water but don’t want to leave downtown, look no further!
La Fonda del Zancudo
If you’re looking for a romantic date-night vibe — like I obviously was with my two best girls — look no further than La Fonda del Zancudo. With fairy lights strewn across crumbling stone walls and furniture painted a distressed white, this outdoor dinner spot looks like it’s straight out of a movie set.
The menu is made up of hearty fare from local ingredients, as well as daily specials. Don’t miss the great cocktails and wine list, too.
El Tigre Y El Toro
Loved La Fonda del Zancudo? You’ll adore its sister restaurant, El Tigre y El Toro, which rocks a similar look but a slightly more casual vibe. Pizza is the real star here, though there are plenty of other Mediterranean Italian fusion dishes for those alleged non-pizza lovers I’ve heard exist out there somewhere in the world.
El Socio Naiz Taqueria
If you’re craving local tacos, but with a twist, don’t miss El Socio Naiz! Another trendy spot on Nader Avenue, complete with its own blinking neon sign, El Socio Naiz features more can’t miss cocktails — and insanely delicious churros, to boot.
. . .
Long story short, don’t be so quick to blow off Downtown Cancun. I know a lot of vacationers head straight for the big resorts on the beach, and a lot of backpackers blow right through, but it’s so worth a stop. It’s the gateway to the Yucatán regardless, so why not stop for a night or two?
You might find yourself delighted. We sure did.
Have you been to Downtown Cancún? Did you know there was so much to love there?
Many thanks to Selina Downtown Cancun for hosting us. As usual, you receive nothing but my unfiltered thoughts and opinions regardless of any gifts or sponsorships.