12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Cancún
We may earn a commission from affiliate links ()
Welcome to Mexico's most recognized paradise. Cancun, perhaps the best-known destination in all of Mexico, sits on a 13-mile-long, 396-meter L-shaped island that squares off the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula.
Cancun was always destined to be a paradise. In fact, it was built specifically with luxury travel in mind. The large vacation center was built up from jungle and pristine beach in just over a decade. Today it is one of the most visited destinations in the world, attracting more than four million tourists annually. The big draw? Endless attractions and things to do. From white-sand beaches to impressive large coral reefs to explore and near-perfect weather, you'll never run out of adventure.
The prime tourist area is linked by a causeway to the mainland on which the modern city of Cancún itself stands, a vibrant hub with a number of interesting attractions worth visiting -assuming, of course, you can drag yourself away from the beaches.
And if you're only able to get away for a single organized tour or excursion, make sure it's to one of the well-preserved, historic Mayan sites dotted around the island. Most of these are an easy tour bus ride away, and offer plenty of sightseeing opportunities along the way. To help ensure you get the very best out of your time in this tropical paradise, be sure to refer often to this list of the top things to do in Cancún.
See also: Where to Stay in Cancun
1. Visiting Cancún's Beautiful Beaches
Most of Cancún's top resorts are built with direct access to the beaches, known in Spanish as "playas." You'll enjoy stunning views over the sparkling, crystal-clear waters that make this destination so popular with tourists seeking a memorable Mexico vacation. Cancún, in fact, consists of a number of long stretches of beach, and while regular visitors may have their preferences, it's certainly hard to go wrong. They're all nice and have something great to offer.
Among the most popular playas are de las Perlas, Juventud, Linda, Langosta, Tortugas, Caracol, and Chac-mool, some of them lying alongside the Boulevard Cancún and the Paseo Kukulkán all the way from the city boundary (of these, Tortugas, Caracol, and Chac-mool tend to be the busiest).
Also of interest is the seven-and-a-half-kilometer-long Paseo Kukulkán, alongside which is an 18-hole public golf course known as Pok-ta-Pok.
2. Exploring the Mayan Ruins of Chichén Itzá
Few visitors will want to miss the chance to spend at least a little of their vacation time sightseeing at one or more of the larger Mayan ruins within reach of Cancún. One of the most popular day trips is to Chichén Itzá, three hours west of the beaches and one of Mexico's largest and best-restored archaeological sites. Settled by the Mayans more than 1,000 years ago, this UNESCO World Heritage Site includes many famous Chac-mool statues, along with important buildings such as the 30-meter-tall El Castillo, one of the country's most famous pyramids.
If you're an early-riser, you may in fact want to join Chichen Itza and Cenote Swim tour. This tour starts early and is a full day. Hotel pickups are scheduled for 7am, but are worth it for the chance to explore the famous ruins. These fun day-long excursions include the important sites, a bevy of fascinating facts, a buffet lunch, a visit and swim at a nearby cenote, and round-trip transportation.
3. Discovering El Rey Maya Ruins
If you've room in your Mexico itinerary for another interesting archaeological site, just a few minutes away from the Punta Nizuc end of Cancún are a number of interesting Mayan ruins known as El Rey. Named after a mask found here that was believed to be dedicated to the sun god, the El Rey Ruins (Las Ruinas del Rey) include the remains of some 47 buildings, along with numerous tombs built by the Mayans from AD 900 onwards.
Of particular interest are the two main platforms with their temples, once part of the market, which also served as important ceremonial areas. It's well worth taking the time to visit, and many resorts offer inexpensive tours to the site, which is also famous for the large colonies of iguanas that live here.
4. Stopping at The Maya Museum
Located in the Cancún Center, the city's large convention complex, the Maya Museum (Museo Maya de Cancún) is an attraction that's certainly worth visiting to learn more about the region's rich history. The largest such museum project since the opening of the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City in 1987, this superb attraction does a good job of explaining the ancient roots of the region's Mayan culture, from its founding centuries ago right up to the modern day.
Highlights include some 350 artifacts spread across three halls, most from in and around Cancún, including skeletal remains found in Tulum that date back 14,000 years, and the remains of the famous 10,000-year-old "Woman of the Palms."
Other notable exhibits include displays of Mayan architecture and art, including sculptures from Chichén Itzá and the adjoining San Miguelito archeological site. There's also a variety of programming for kids, including art and crafts.
Address: Blvd Kukulkan km 16.5, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, QROO
5. Diving to the Cancun Underwater Museum
One of the most unusual points of interest in this resort town is the Cancún Underwater Museum (MUSA). Set up in 2009 in the wake of storm damage to the Cancún National Marine Park, this seabed-based attraction is dedicated to the "art of conservation" and is a delight for divers to explore.
The core of this unique art collection are the more than 500 sculptures spread across two underwater galleries (a few are located on land in a nearby mall) submerged at depths of between three and six meters and encompassing human figures in a variety of poses (there's even a concrete car).
Put together by six artists from Mexico and Britain, the sculptures will ultimately form the basis for new coral reefs. A variety of guided snorkeling and diving tours area available. If diving is not your thing, this remarkable collection can be viewed from the comfort of one of the many glass-bottom tour boats that ply the waters.
Official site: https://musamexico.org
6. Exploring El Meco Archaeological Site
Another interesting Mayan site that is easily accessible from Cancún's main resort area-this one located at the north end of the main beaches-is the El Meco Archaeological Site. Originally inhabited around AD 300, it rose to prominence as a Mayan trade center from the 1100s until its decline after the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
Of particular interest is the 12.5-meter-tall El Castillo, the only pyramid of its kind to have been built in the area. Perched atop the pyramid are the remains of an old temple from which you'll be rewarded with stunning views over the coastline and Isla Mujeres. This easy one-hour or so visit is well worth adding to your Cancún itinerary.
7. Enjoying Animal Adventures
A good place to get a close-up view of the area's rich marine life is at Cancún's Interactive Aquarium. After donning flippers and a snorkel, you're free to swim around the facility's enclosures surrounded by numerous species from stingrays to seahorses and clown fish. The real highlight, however, is the attraction's "swimming with dolphins" experience, an exciting program that allows you to get up close and personal with these gentle sea creatures. Similar programs are also offered at other nearby venues including Dolphin Discovery and Dolphinaris Cancún.
Address: Plaza La Isla, Blvd. Kukulcan Km. 12.5, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, QROO
8. Climbing the Scenic Tower & Xcaret
A must-do while in Cancún is to take a trip up the Scenic Tower (Torre Escenica). Something of a landmark in the hotel district due its height - it's 110 meters tall - as well as its pencil thin base, the tower is a fun diversion for those wanting a bird's-eye view of the city, as well as its many beaches and the surrounding coastline.
While a set of steep steps can be climbed, by far the best way to reach the top is to simply take a seat in the large round elevator that gradually, as it rises and rotates, becomes an observation deck. It's a particularly attractive structure at night when it's lit up to resemble a Mayan representation of a flower.
The tower is in fact part of Xcaret, an interesting mix of theme park and natural attractions (entry to the tower is included with Xcaret admission). Given its 50 or so cultural and natural attractions, you can expect to easily spend a day here exploring the many things to do. Highlights include water-based activities including a beach and lagoon, plus the chance to explore underground rivers, a coral reef aquarium, a folk museum, and performances of music and dance, an equestrian show, boat tours, and plenty of dining options.
Also fun is Ventura Park Cancun, with activities including a zipline, water park, and a dolphin encounter.
Address: Blvd. Kukulcan Km. 4.5, Kukulcan Boulevard, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
9. Getting Lost at Urbano Kabah Park
In the heart of Cancún is Urbano Kabah Park (Parque Kabah), also known as the Kabah Ecological Park. This natural oasis is a popular spot for a stroll, a jog, or a picnic, and consists of a two-kilometer long trail that cuts through a mix of tall palm trees and lush gardens.
The park is particularly popular for families traveling with kids due to its playground and petting zoo. There's plenty of wildlife to watch out for, too, including iguanas, the raccoon-like coatis, deer, a type of small wild pig called a peccary, and even the occasional spider monkey.
It's a particularly good spot for bird-watchers to visit, especially during migration season, when species from as far as the US and Canada winter here. Other highlights include the Casa Maya Museum, a tiny yet fascinating attraction with its history of the development of the region.
Address: Yaxchilán, Sin Nombre, Cancún, QROO
10. Cruising to Isla Mujeres
Another destination that is closely associated with Cancún is the lovely Isla Mujeres (the Island of Women). Located about 13 kilometers from the mainland and just a short hydrofoil ride from the pier at the convention center (Cancún Center), this long, skinny island-it's just seven kilometers long and 650 meters wide-is particularly popular among surfers for the larger waves experienced on its east coast, while divers love the abundant marine life surrounding the numerous coral reefs of Garrafon Natural Reef Park.
It's also popular with beachgoers who enjoy the less hectic pace; traffic on the island is limited to taxis and buses, all of which are vastly outnumbered by golf carts and scooters. Isla Mujeres is also a popular day trip destination for those staying elsewhere on the Riviera Maya thanks to its many fine restaurants offering excellent views over the water to Cancún.
Also popular to explore is Contoy Island (Isla Contoy). Located some 30 kilometers north of Isla Mujeres, this tiny island is now a national park due to its important flora and fauna. A variety of providers offer fun eco-tours and adventures.
11. Exploring Tulum
Tulum, just 90 minutes south, is a better option for those pressed for time. Famous for its cliff-top location and for being the only known fortified Mayan coastal town, Tulum contains many other unique structures in addition to its tall, wide walls, most noticeably its Temple of the Frescos with its sculptures and reliefs depicting seated figures with elaborate headdresses. The site's largest building, the Castillo, is also its most famous, perched as it is on the cliff-edge overlooking the sea.
A fun way to see the best parts of this attraction-along with other nearby points of interest-is via a 3-in-1 Discovery Combo Tour that takes in the Tulum ruins, cenotes, and caves, along with some reef snorkeling. Also included in this day-long adventure is an informative jungle walk, along with transportation, a bilingual guide, all equipment, plus a traditional Mexican lunch.
Accommodation: Best All-Inclusives Resorts in Tulum
- Read More: Visiting Tulum: Attractions, Tips & Tours
12. Chasing Adrenaline with Extreme Tours
Blanketed in miles upon miles of jungle, the area surrounding Cancun is primed for extreme adventure activities. This includes everything from ATV tours to ziplining, diving cenotes, and everything in between.
You may want to book this ATV, Ziplines, and Cenote Tour at Extreme Adventure Eco Park Cancun. The half-day experience includes a combination adventure experience from Cancun. Activities include off-roading in an ATV, ziplining through the jungle, and swimming in a local cenote.
Guests can be picked up from their Cancun hotel and will also be returned in an air-conditioned vehicle. From here, they are whisked off to the eco park, where an experienced guide will take you on a treetop tour through the zipline park. From here, climb aboard a Honda 220cc ATV for a trail ride down bumps, rocks, and roots. The experience caps off with a cooling plunge in a cenote. Snacks are included on the tour, as well.
Where to Stay in Cancun for Sightseeing
We recommend these fun beachfront resorts in Cancun, each of which offers easy access to the region's top attractions, activities, and fun things to do:
- Leading the way in luxury, The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun beachfront hotel boasts elegant sea-view rooms, sumptuous bedding, award-winning restaurants, a choice of lovely swimming pools, a kids' club, and a wonderful spa.
- The Royal Sands Resort & Spa All Inclusive is another luxury location worth looking into, and comes with a personal concierge, infinity and kids' pools, a restaurant with theme nights, plus a spa and beauty salon.
- Be sure to also look into availability and hotel deals at the Royal Service At Paradisus Cancun, a posh location with nine restaurants, an adults'-only section, plus sports activities including tennis and golf.
- A mid-range favorite, Fiesta Americana Cancun Villas features large rooms, an outdoor pool, kids' and teens' clubs, plus Mexican-inspired spa treatments.
- The Royal Islander All Suites Resort is another good choice and comes with great oceanfront views, seven dining options, multiple pools, plus tennis courts.
- Be sure to also look into Hotel Faranda Dos Playas, a reputable three-star hotel popular for its direct beach access, pleasant gardens, and proximity to entertainment and dining options.
- A good option for those seeking a cheap Cancun beachfront vacation, Smart Cancun by Oasis features great affordable rates, a handy downtown location, bright modern décor, and good quality rooms.
- The budget-friendly Ambiance Suites Cancun is in another good central location close to great shopping and attractions, and features an outdoor swimming pool, a restaurant, and a beach club.
- Hotel Margaritas is another reputable option and features bright, clean rooms and friendly staff.
More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com
Mexico's Big Cities: Sprawling Mexico City is well worth spending time exploring and features no end of cultural attractions, including the nation's museum of anthropology and famous Zócalo square, where the country's first constitution was proclaimed. Other cities to explore include Guadalajara, the country's second-largest city and home to a variety of World Heritage sites, including the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas and Guadalajara Cathedral. Though smaller, the colonial city of Guanajuato is another good spot to explore for its attractive old architecture and fascinating subterranean road system.
Beachfront and Seaside: Thanks to its many splendid coral reefs, the island of Cozumel is particularly popular among those who enjoy water-based activities such as diving and snorkeling. The upscale resort destination of Cabo San Lucas is another good spot for those who enjoy lovely beaches and spectacular coastlines, as well as pleasant boardwalk strolls. Playa del Carmen in the Mayan Riviera is also fun to visit, and is popular for its proximity to historic attractions as the Mayan capital of Chichén Itzá.
Mexico Vacation Ideas: Mexico offers plenty of opportunities to learn more about the country's rich history while on vacation. A great place to visit for a few days (or longer if you can manage it) is the well-preserved colonial city of Mérida with its many old churches, museums, and pleasant public squares. The old city center of Morelia is also worth visiting and can be reached easily from either Mexico City or Guadalajara. So, too, is Oaxaca, famous for its cathedral and traditional markets.