Visiting Cancun for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do
Perhaps you’re heading to Cancun thinking you’ll simply spend all of your vacation days blissed out on the beautiful beaches. Well, that’s certainly an option ... but you’d be remiss to miss out on everything else this Yucatan hot spot has to offer. So, clear some time in your schedule to get off the beach and away from the bars; instead, check out some of Cancun’s historical and cultural attractions or embark on a water adventure. Here are our top recommendations for first-time visitors to Cancun.
Visit Maya ruins
Discover the Indigenous history of North America.
For those interested in learning about the cultural history of the Yucatan, there are a few Mayan archaeological sites that can easily be visited on day tours from Cancun and tours typically include round-trip hotel transfers and lunch. Chichén Itzá is the big one—it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and was one of the largest of the Mayan civilization’s great cities. Meanwhile, the Tulum Archaeological Zone is known for its perch right on the coast with views of the turquoise sea, while Cobá boasts the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan.
Swim in a cenote
Refreshing, cool, and picture-perfect.
Some of the Yucatan’s most distinctive natural features, cenotes are sinkholes that have created natural underground swimming pools. Historically used by the Maya as a water source and the occasional setting for ceremonies, today they are popular with tourists and locals alike who swim in their cool, fresh waters. Many tours combine time at a cenote with a visit to a Mayan archaeological site such as Chichén Itzá or Cobá and on a hot day, there’s nothing better than taking a dip.
Explore an underwater art museum
Snorkel around works of art.
Created by the British sculptor and environmentalist, Jason deCaires Taylor, the Cancun Underwater Museum (also known as Museo Subacuático de Arte, or MUSA) makes for a diving or snorkeling experience like no other. The underwater museum displays more than 500 life-size sculptures on the ocean floor with the goal of promoting ocean conservation (the sculptures form artificial habitats for marine life and ease pressure on nearby, over-touristed diving destinations). You can explore the submerged statues by booking a snorkeling or diving tour from Cancun. If you’d rather stay dry, glass-bottom boat tours are also available.
Sail to Isla Mujeres
It’s the perfect Cancun day trip.
The small island of Isla Mujeres is just 8 miles (13 kilometers) off the coast of Cancun, but offers a quieter and more relaxing experience than the busy tourist hub. Catamaran sailing tours and other cruises transport visitors to the island from Cancun and offer a variety of experiences, from diving or snorkeling around colorful reefs to glass-bottom boat tours and fishing charters. Some sailing tours are party-themed, and the alcohol flows freely, while others offer a more relaxing experience suitable for families. On land, you can also opt for a tour of the island that introduces you to its rich collection of street art works.
Shop for souvenirs at a craft fair
Take some authentic crafts home.
There are a number of markets around Cancun that sell traditional Mexican crafts such as ceramics, textiles, home decor, and jewelry. Mercado 28 covers an entire city block in the heart of town and, while visiting can be an overwhelming experience, it is a great place to pick up some souvenirs before having a bite to eat in the central food court. Another option is Mercado Ki Huic, one of the city’s longest running markets located on busy Avenida Tulum, just outside the Hotel Zone.
Spot whale sharks
These gentle giants are a sight to behold.
The biggest fish in the sea, whale sharks gather in the warm Caribbean waters off Cancun to feed and mate in the summer, typically from mid-June to early September. Tours departing from Cancun provide the opportunity to snorkel in those same waters and view the majestic creatures from a safe and respectful distance—be sure to choose a tour operator with a strong environmental track record. You’ll also have the opportunity to spot dolphins, manta rays, and turtles.
Check out an adventure park
There are plenty to choose from.
South of Cancun, near Playa del Carmen, a collection of family-friendly parks including Xcaret, Xel-Ha, and Xplor offer a multitude of activities including ziplining, water rides, swimming in underground rivers, and cultural experiences such as meeting with local artisans and watching pre-Hispanic cultural demonstrations. A day at one of these parks makes for a fun alternative to another day on the beach and offers a different take on the Riviera Maya that is suitable for all ages.
Enjoy the nightlife
The scene is one of Mexico’s liveliest.
Cancun’s nightlife scene is the stuff spring break dreams are made of, and for those who want to live it up after the sun goes down, there are dozens of bars and clubs in town to check out. Coco Bongo, Señor Frogs, and the massive, 6,000-capacity City Nightclub are three of the most legendary, but different clubs are the place to be on different nights, so consider a nightclub tour to hit the best parties at the right time with a ready-made social group.