Founded in 25 BC, Mérida holds some of Spain's most iconic Roman ruins. The capital of Extremadura was once part of a Roman outpost known as Emerita Augusta. You can still see traces of the empire dotted across this UNESCO Heritage City. Among them is the Teatro Romano, a theatre that has remained in operation for over 2,000 years.
The city really comes alive in the summer with festivals recreating those ancient traditions. Beyond the theatre, Mérida hides many other relics, from a Roman temple to a Moorish Alcazaba and a 13th-century basilica.
One day is enough to cover the top attractions in Mérida, but if you have a little more time, you can explore nearby towns like Badajoz and Cáceres. Below is our suggested itinerary, plus a list of places to eat and must-see festivals.
Our tour of Mérida begins at the Circo Romano, one of the largest monuments in the city’s Roman network. The circus could once host up to 30,000 people. For centuries, it was used as a hippodrome welcoming regular chariot races. Today, there are only remains of the arena and seating areas. It’s worth visiting the interpretive centre nearby to learn more about the history of this monument and Diocles, a chariot racer who began his career in Mérida before moving on to Rome. A combined ticket gives you access to the circus and other top sites.
Just a few miles south is the Teatro Romano, the most iconic attraction in Mérida. Established in 15 BC, the theatre is still active today. Performances are held here every year, including concerts, plays and ballet. The highlight is the Festival de Teatro Clássico which pays homage to the ancient theatre traditions of Greece and Rome. Visitors can sit on the same stone benches and imagine what it was like to attend a show back in the day. Among the building’s highlights are the striking Corinthian columns and the central entryway featuring statues of gods.
Connected to the Teatro Romano is a Roman amphitheatre dating back to 8BC. In its heyday, this was the stage for gladiatorial contests with room for 14,000 spectators. The gladiator and lion fresco displayed in the nearby Museo Nacional de Arte Romano was recovered from here. Representation of naval battles were also popular, with the stage being flooded to represent the sea. After the banning of the gladiatorial contests, the amphitheatre was sadly left to ruins.
Another place worth visiting is the Casa Romana del Anfiteatro, an ancient Roman villa attached to the amphitheatre. The rooms are very well preserved, with ancient floor mosaics and frescoes on display. Remains of the original courtyards, kitchen and thermal baths are also visible.
As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to Roman Art. The collection is spread across three floors and includes statues, mosaics, frescoes, coins and pottery. Most of these items were collected in and around Mérida and brought to this museum which opened in 1986. Among the highlights is a bust of Emperor Augustus made with Carrara marble and wall paintings from the Roman theatre. The building itself stands out with its terracotta facade and arched entryway. Make sure to allow at least an hour for your visit.
Our next stop is the Casa del Mitreo. Established between the 1st and 2nd centuries, this Roman villa used to belong to a noble family. The name comes from a nearby temple dedicated to the cult of Mithra. You can still spot the house’s stunning mosaics, including the mosaico cosmológico, which depicts the forces of nature and the creation of the world. A footpath connects the Casa del Mitreo with the Roman necropolis, Los Columbarios.
After lunch, continue walking towards the Pórtico del Foro. It’s the only remainder of the 1st-century Roman Forum that used to be here during the empire of Augustus. You can still capture the Corinthian columns and a wall with statues of Roman gods.
A few steps from the Pórtico, you’ll stumble upon the Templo de Diana. The rectangular-shaped temple sits on a pedestal, with its ancient columns contrasting against the surrounding modern buildings.
Take a break at the nearby Plaza de España, one of the city’s central squares. Restaurants surround the area with outdoor terraces perfect for an afternoon drink. The buildings cover a mix of architectural eras, from the 13th-century Co-cathedral of Santa María la Mayor to a 16th-century palace, now home to a luxury hotel. The church occupies the site of a former Visigoth temple. Most of the building was renovated in the 17th century following a Neoclassical style.
Make your way to the waterfront, stopping to visit Mérida’s Alcazaba. This Islamic fortress was established around the 9th century by Abd ar-Rahman II. Some say it was the first Alcazaba of the Al-Andalus region. Among its noteworthy features are the remains of a Roman cistern which used to store water from the Guadiana river. It’s worth walking along the ramparts to take in the views of the Puente Romano and the riverside. Nearby is a statue of the Loba Capitolina, which honours the city’s Roman roots.
After visiting the Alcazaba, you can cross the Puente Romano. Established at the start of the city’s foundation, it is one of the longest bridges created by the Romans, once connecting Mérida with Tarragona. The bridge stretches for 792 metres and features 60 granite arches. From here, you can spot the Puente Lusitania, a modern bridge designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava.
End the day with a visit to the Zona Arqueológica de Moreria. Here you’ll find the remains of a Moorish quarter, including the walls and a cemetery, but also a few Roman ruins. At the visitors' centre is a map of the city’s old road network.
There are many things to do with kids in Mérida. Families can travel back in time by touring the city’s top attractions. Wander through a Roman amphitheatre or climb up a Moorish fortress as you view the Guadiana river. When you get tired of sightseeing, you can retreat to one of the local parks like Parque López de Ayala or Parque La Isla. This last one features football and basketball grounds, bike paths and a playground for the little ones. Alternatively, you can cross the river and enjoy a picnic at the Parque de las Siete Sillas.
Mérida offers the chance to try some of the traditional Extremadura dishes. Pork is among the base ingredients. It can be turned into sausages or used in soups and stews. The proximity to Portugal has also influenced the local cuisine, with dishes like the bacalao dorado (fried cod with crispy potatoes). Another popular dish is the cocido extremeño (pork and chickpea stew). Below are some of the best places to eat in Mérida:
Mérida suffers from extreme temperatures, with harsh cold winters and summer days often reaching 40ºC or more. With this in mind, the best time to visit Mérida is between March and June or September and October. It’s also worth scheduling your trip around local festivals like the Festival de Teatro Clássico or Semana Santa.
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