Known for its exquisite all-inclusive resorts, crystal clear water, and status as a popular Spring Break spot, Cancun is a popular tourist destination in Mexico's Quintana Roo region. But despite its reputation for being a ‘Gringo' playground, Cancun has much more to it than just luxury hotels and beach clubs (although granted, it does both of those very well!).

Delve a little deeper beyond the surface and you'll find incredible nature, unrivaled cuisine, and some of the best beaches in Mexico. Thanks to its proximity to incredible destinations such as Tulum, Isla Mujeres, and Isla Holbox, Cancun can also serve as the jumping-off point for visiting more of Mexico.

View over the Cancun Hotel Zone
View over the Cancun Hotel Zone from Punta Cancun.
Our hotel room at Krystal Grand Cancun
Views from our hotel room at Krystal Grand Cancun.

I actually took a whole road trip across the peninsular to Merida after visiting Tulum, Playa and Cancun and it was the best of both worlds, beaches, history and culture.

If you're interested in visiting this lively city in Quintana Roo but aren't sure where to stay – the whole Downtown Cancun vs the Cancun Hotel Zone is a common dilemma that I initially had too. I've got you covered in my guide to where to stay in Cancun, including my picks for the best Cancun hotels.

The best neighborhoods to stay in Cancun

Hotel Zone – Cancun's beating heart of tourism, the Hotel Zone is home to luxury all-inclusive resorts and unbeatable beaches. If a stress-free high-end vacation is your thing, choose one of the many Cancun Hotels within the Hotel Zone.

Puerto Cancun & Puerto Juarez – Known for the Marina Puerto Shopping Mall and the beautiful Cancun port, this upmarket area is perfect for shopping. The nearby Puerto Juarez provides a relaxing alternative to the Cancun Hotel Zone, without sacrificing the tourist-friendly amenities.

Downtown Cancun – Interested in seeing a more authentic side to Cancun? Head to the downtown area, where street tacos and backpacker hostels combine to create an atmosphere more laid-back than anything you'd find in the Hotel Zone.

Isla Blanca – This quiet part of town is characterized by beautiful beaches and a blissful escape from the crowds. It's Cancun's best-kept secret – pass it on or don't, it's your choice!

Isla Mujeres – The ultimate spot for enjoying island life just off the coast of Cancun, this idyllic island boasts incredible beaches, Instagrammable brunch spots, and a laid-back pace of life. Time to disconnect the Wi-Fi and simply be.

Punta Nizuc – Home to some of the best nature you'll find in Quintana Roo, this spot is ideal for snorkeling, scuba diving, and simply enjoying that laid-back beach lifestyle.

Puerto Morelos – Located just a short drive from the city of Cancun, Puerto Morelos is an authentic Mexican fishing village tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the main strip.

1. Where to stay in Cancun for first-time visitors: Cancun Hotel Zone

cancun hotel zone

Cancun is famed for its Hotel Zone, where high-end all-inclusive resorts meet quirky boutique hotels, spread out along a thin strip of land that faces the beach. Punta Cancun is located at the tip of the Hotel Zone and is nightlife central.

This is the Cancun that visitors picture – stepping out onto their boutique hotel balcony to look over their outdoor swimming pool or the clear turquoise waters and white sand of the Caribbean Sea.

If you're seeking sun, sand, sea, and luxury, staying in the Hotel Zone is a no-brainer. It's also the place where first-time visitors should stay and the best jumping-off point for exploring more of Cancun.

As well as soaking up the sun, the Hotel Zone is the perfect spot for eating, drinking, and shopping. This section of Cancun was essentially built with tourists in mind, so it's got everything you could want within the six-mile strip, from haute cuisine to souvenir shops.

The only downside to the Hotel Zone is that it's very tourist-centric and certainly not as authentic as other parts of Mexico, or even other parts of Cancun.

It is quite an Americanized part of town, but if you're seeking luxury accommodation and proximity to the beach, there's nowhere better to stay.

One of the benefits of its popularity with tourists also means that the Hotel Zone has a tourist-friendly infrastructure. For the most part, restaurant staff speak English and the hotels are well-equipped to deal with travelers from all over the world.

In terms of shopping, you're close to both the Marina Puerto Cancun Mall and La Isla Shopping Village to enjoy some retail therapy.

Things to do in the Cancun Hotel Zone

The Cancun Hotel Zone is famous for its beaches and beach clubs, so hiring a beach sunbed for the day while friendly waiters bring you cocktails and snacks is never a bad idea.

Likewise, there's plenty of luxury shopping in the area, so if those Mexican pesos you've exchanged are burning a hole in your pocket, you'll definitely find places to spend them.

Some of the Cancun Hotel Zone's hotels are among the best all-inclusive resorts in the world, so enjoying a day by the pool with first-class cuisine is a plan that never fails.

There are plenty of eateries in the Hotel Zone, but if you're looking for that all-important authentic Mexican taco place, you'll be more likely to find them with a short taxi ride to the Cancun Downtown area. Ubers are still a tricky subject in the Hotel Zone, so ask your hotel to book you an official taxi, instead.

Best area for:

  • Luxury hotels and resorts

  • Beach clubs

  • Nightlife

Best hotels to stay in The Hotel Zone

($$$) Grand Fiesta Americana

($$) Royalton Chic Cancun

($$) Krystal Grand Cancun

($) Mayan Monkey Cancun

2. Where to stay in Cancun for luxury & fewer crowds: Puerto Cancun & Puerto Juarez

puerto juarez

Puerto Cancun is one of my favorite parts of Cancun, and if you like shopping it's a must-visit. Home to one of Cancun's best shopping malls – Marina Puerto Cancun – this area is home to budget and luxury shopping alike as well as many of the city's most upmarket bars and eateries.

Here you'll find names like Zara & H&M as well as more upmarket stores such as Massimo Dutti. Plus there are plenty of places to eat and drink, offering Italian, Mexican, and Japanese cuisine, as well as American classics such as buffalo wings.

Staying in Puerto Cancun is one of the most convenient locations, too, since you'll enjoy proximity to both Downtown Cancun and the Cancun Hotel Zone. But the best part has to be the views out over the port.

The bars and restaurants that line the port offer the opportunity to sit back, relax, and take in the sights and sounds of Cancun – with a margarita in hand of course.

Located just two miles from Cancun center is Puerto Jarez, another destination that's perfect for escaping the crowds. This port town is best known for being the spot where you get the ferry to Isla Mujeres, but it's worth visiting as its own destination.

It's one of the best places in the whole Cancun area for eating seafood and boasts a more laid-back vibe than the Cancun Hotel Zone or Downtown.

Things to do in Puerto Cancun and Puerto Juarez

If you're a dedicated shopper, the best place to get bang for your buck is the Marina Puerto Cancun Mall. Filled with household name brands like Zara and Pull&Bear as well as upmarket stores and handy spots like pharmacies, the Marina is a great place to stroll around and do some window shopping or buy a whole new wardrobe.

My favorite places to eat here include La Pizzara, a stylish pizza and pasta joint with views of the marina, and Hiromi, an upmarket Japanese restaurant serving authentic sushi and ramen.

If you find yourself sick of tacos, the eateries in Marina Puerto Cancun span a range of cuisines, so you can take a break from Mexican food.

From Puerto Juarez just slightly further up, you can get the ferry to Isla Mujeres or spend a day strolling around the local fishing village with laid-back vibes.

Best area for:

  • Luxury shopping

  • Seeing the Cancun Marina

  • Being close to the Hotel Zone while escaping the bulk of the crowds

  • Getting the ferry to Isla Mujeres (from Puerto Juarez)

Best hotels to stay in Puerto Cancun and Puerto Juarez:

($$$) The Royal Cancun All Suites Resort

($$) SLS Cancun Hotel & Spa

($) Renaissance Cancun Resort & Marina

3. Where to stay in Cancun like a local: Downtown Cancun

downtown cancun

Cancun is a tourist-heavy place and it makes no secret of that. From its tip culture to the proliferation of English speakers, Cancun is more ‘Americanized' than other places in Mexico.

Downtown Cancun, while not the most beautiful part of the city, is definitely the most authentic. Here you'll find the best food and enjoy the experience of living like a local, while escaping the crowds associated with the Hotel Zone.

It's also a popular spot for backpackers and digital nomads hoping to see a more authentic part of Cancun while retaining proximity to the vibrant nightlife.

Unlike many European cities with their charming narrow streets, Cancun's center is sprawling, with wide boulevards and neighborhoods spread out across the city. It can be beneficial to hire a car for getting around, but walking and taxis can do the job just as well.

Avenida Tulum is the main street in Downtown Cancun. Down this long boulevard, you'll find plenty of shops, bars, and restaurants, and it's a pleasant spot to stroll down to better get to know the city.

Street art is prevalent here, so stroll down the streets to get a sense of the locals' creativity and take a walk through Parque de las Palapas for some greenery and people-watching. Plus, you find some great street food at local prices.

Downtown Cancun is also home to plenty of hostels, so if you're keen to experience a laid-back party atmosphere, head to a local hostel bar where you can rub shoulders with backpackers while practicing your salsa moves.

You'll also find plenty of tour operators running excursions to nearby historical spots, such as Chichen Itza, one of the 7 new wonders of the world that is well worth the visit.

Things to do in Downtown Cancun

Downtown Cancun is home to plenty of street art, so simply strolling around the city center and taking in the street art is simply awesome. You could join an official street art tour, too, such as this tour by Viator. This way you'll get to see all the hidden spots.

If you're staying in the center, you absolutely need to try some tacos, especially street tacos (if your stomach can handle them). A beloved local spot is Gory Tacos, but if you're staying in Downtown Cancun you basically can't help but come across tacos, so you'll find them everywhere.

The nearby Dubai Palace Casino will keep even amateur gamblers entertained, and the Plaza Las Americas Mall is great for shopping as it's the largest shopping center in the city.

From Cancun, you can easily organise a day trip to Chichen Itza, which I highly recommend. If you have a bit more time, you can also rent a car and drive yourself.

The highway between Cancun and Merida is safe to drive and this way you'll be able to stay in the nearby town of Valladolid for example and get up extra early to arrive at Chichen Itza before the bus crowds. That's how I did it and it was the best.

Lastly, just. strolling down the main Cancun streets such as Avenida Tulum allows you to soak in the atmosphere. I also liked visiting Mercado 28, a bustling traditional Mexican market where you can shop for souvenirs and snack on authentic cuisine from the region.

Best area for:

  • Trying authentic Mexican food

  • Laid-back bars

  • Street art

Best hotels to stay in Downtown Cancun

($$$) Suites Malecon Cancun

($$) Villa Sofia

($) Hotel Casa Mallorca

4. Where to stay in Cancun for beach getaways: Isla Blanca

cancun isla blanca

This hidden gem lies just a short 20km drive north from the center of Cancun's Hotel Zone and it's well worth your time if white sand beaches are your thing.

Home to natural beauty that's much more untouched than the rest of Cancun, Isla Blanca is quiet while still having amenities fit for tourists.

Unlike central Cancun, you won't find traffic and all-inclusive hotels, nor nightclubs that draw in the Spring Break crowd. Instead, this peninsula is home to a few beach clubs, but mainly its unparalleled beauty. Arguably, I would go as far as saying, it's Cancun's best-kept secret.

Granted, you won't find the best all-inclusive resorts here, but the bright blue water and chilled-out vibes will more than makeup for it. There are a handful of resorts here, most come with a private beach and some are adults-only.

If you're looking for excitement, maybe skip Isla Blanca, but for sheer natural beauty and a chill beach vacation, it simply cannot be beaten. Alternatively, stay here and make your way into Cancun center by night to soak up some of that famous nightlife.

Things to do in Isla Blanca

Isla Blanca is the perfect spot for a day spent at the beach. Try yourself on some kitesurfing or go snorkeling.

In terms of things to do, Isla Blanca is more for sitting back and soaking up the sun or dabbling in some water sports and less about famous sights or partying.

Isla Blanca has a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. It's uncrowded and also a great spot to watch the sunset.

Best area for:

  • Relaxing at the beach

  • Being located outside the Hotel Zone and Downtown Cancun

  • Away from the crowds

Best hotels to stay in Isla Blanca

($$$) Grand Palladium Costa Mujeres Resort & Spa

($$) Secrets Playa Blanca Costa Mujeres

($$) Punta Blanca Beach House

5. Where to stay in Cancun for island life: Isla Mujeres

cancun isla mujeres

Arguably, the most unparalleled natural beauty and the best laid-back beach vibes in Mexico can actually be found on its islands along the Riviera Maya, an area stretching along the Caribbean coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Isla Mujeres (translating to Women Island in English) is just a stone's throw from Cancun, yet offers a completely different vibe for travelers who want to mix things up from an all-inclusive resort.

Blessed with pristine beaches, white sand and turquoise water, Isla Mujeres is a laid-back island that offers relief from the hustle and bustle of Cancun.

I absolutely loved Isla Mujeres. I've got some really good memories from here. It's the place where you sip smoothies, take surfing lessons, and enjoy afternoon siestas on the beach, before settling down to watch an unrivaled sunset with dinner.

There is nightlife and plenty of places to grab a margarita, but it's not home to many of the mega-clubs that Cancun is known for. Isla Mujeres is the perfect spot for laid-back travelers.

It's not sleepy, but it is relaxed, and you won't find many crowds or hustle and bustle. To get to Isla Mujeres from Cancun it's just a short ferry ride. You'll need to get to the Puerto Juarez ferry docks, which you can do by car, taxi, or shuttle bus, with the last option probably being the cheapest and the best.

Sadly, taxis in Cancun are incredibly overpriced, but the Uber situation is a little legally murky, so Uber drivers can get attacked and may ask you to sit in the front seat or meet at a different pick-up point to avoid detection.

Taking the shuttle bus avoids the problems associated with both taxis and Ubers, although when I visited Cancun, it did seem like the Uber situation was improving.

You should also aim to pick up pesos before arriving in Isla Mujeres, as there are few ATMs and there can be poor connection on the island for paying by card. Once you arrive, set yourself up at one of the many beach clubs or indulge in some water sports. If you visit in the right season, you can even swim with whale sharks!

Things to do in Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres isn't home to tons of sights, but you'll still find plenty to do, from trying your hand at watersports to simply spending a day relaxing by the beach.

The most popular and my favorite was Playa Norte. Here you can rent a beach bed for the day and get an endless supply of tacos and Mexican beer brought to you until the sun sets.

From the beach, stroll down Avenida Hidalgo, which is the main street for pedestrians to stroll, shop, and dine. It's got a lively atmosphere. I recommend the food at Lola Valentina, they have lots of vegetarian and gluten-free options too. Otherwise, you'll find plenty of bars packed in the rather narrow street.

To see some epic natural beauty, visit Punta Sur Park on the southern tip of the island. We rented a golf cart – it's the absolute best and most eco-friendly way to get around and makes up for half of the experience of the island. To get around the entire island, you'll only take about 30-45 minutes, it's very compact.

If you're interested in diving or snorkeling there are plenty of opportunities at Isla Mujeres – book yourself a tour to MUSA (Underwater Museum of Art), an underwater sculpture park.

Best area for:

  • A laid-back island lifestyle

  • Nature beauty

  • Insta-friendly spots

Best hotels to stay in Isla Mujeres

($$$) Hotel Belo Isla Mujeres

($$$) Izla Beachfront Hotel

($$) Mia Reef Isla Mujeres

($$) Bahia Tolok

($) Suite Isla Mujeres

6. Where to stay in Cancun for nature: Punta Nizuc

cancun punta nizuc

Punta Nizuc is the area on the southernmost tip of the Hotel Zone in Cancun, Mexico.

As well as high-end hotels, Cancun (and its surrounding region, Quintana Roo) is home to some of the most beautiful nature in Mexico, and there are few better spots to scope it out than Punta Nizuc.

While just a short drive away from the main Cancun Downtown and the Hotel Zone, it feels far removed from the hustle and bustle, which makes for a perfect family-friendly vacation.

The prominent beach here is famed for its coral reef, making it the perfect spot to spend the day swimming or snorkeling.

If biodiversity is your thing, Punta Nizuc has it in abundance, with more than 230 species of seagrass and algae, as well as plenty of sea-dwelling creatures to keep any scuba diver busy.

Things to do in Punta Nizuc

This area is best known for its natural beauty, so the best way to approach it is to soak it up with water-based activities, such as exploring the famous coral reef by diving or snorkeling.

There are plenty of delicious steak and seafood restaurants lining the shore, so you can sit and have a glass of wine with dinner and watch the sunset over this beautiful beach neighborhood.

Explore ancient Mayan ruins at the El Rey Archaeological Zone, which is relatively close to Punta Nizuc.

If you're up to venture a bit inland, you can discover some of the cenotes the Riviera Maya is so famous for. Those natural sinkholes are filled with fresh water, providing a unique and refreshing swimming experience.

Best area for:

  • Escaping the crowds

  • Natural beauty

  • Families

  • Snorkeling and scuba diving

  • Water sports

Best hotels to stay in Punta Nizuc

($$$) Nizuc Resort & Spa

($$$) The Westin Resort & Spa Cancun

($$) Residence Inn by Marriott

($) Solymar Beach Condos

7. Where to stay near Cancun without the crowds: Puerto Morelos

cancun puerto morelos

Like the idea of Cancun but not the inflated prices or crowds of tourists? Consider Puerto Morelos.

Close enough that you can still jump in a car and get to the beaches and malls of Cancun, but far enough that you're away from the hustle and bustle of Cancun and in your own little paradise.

Located midway between Playa del Carmen and Cancun, this hidden gem is an authentic Mexican fishing village that boasts some of the best seafood you'll try in Quintana Roo.

While Puerto Morelos may not be filled with numerous attractions, you can eat and drink your way through delicious fish tacos and tequila while enjoying the scenic view of the crystal-clear waters along Puerto Morelos Beach.

If you stroll along Puerto Morelos' main beach, you'll find the leaning lighthouse, or El Faro Inclinado as the locals know it.

Snorkelers and scuba divers will love this destination, too, thanks to the popular National Reef Park of Puerto Morelos, which lies just 400 meters away from the Puerto Morelos shore. You can reach it with a boat and then explore the waters to your heart's content.

Puerto Morelos boasts numerous cenotes, natural sinkholes formed by collapsed limestone and filled with water, which can be discovered along the Ruta de los Cenotes.

For convenient exploration of these cenotes, consider renting a car if it aligns with your budget and transportation preferences.

Things to do in Puerto Morelos

There's plenty to keep you busy in this Mexican port town that's just a stone's throw from Cancun.

As with all of Quintana Roo, there's an amazing coastline and beaches, so you can go on a catamaran tour to explore more of these crystal-clear waters.

The Puerto Morelos Reef National Park is a diver's dream and the nearby cenotes are perfect for going for an afternoon dip.

But if you decide you want a little more of the high life during your trip, you can always go on a drive to Cancun to explore its beaches, shopping, and nightlife.

Best area for:

  • Authentic Mexican beach town vibes

  • Cenotes and water activities

  • Seafood restaurants

Best hotels to stay in Puerto Cancun

($$$) The Fives Oceanfront

($$) Hotel El Moro

($$) Rancho Sakol

($) Hotel Amar Inn

Where to Stay in Cancun – Frequently Asked Questions

⭐ What part of Cancun is most popular?

The most popular place to stay in Cancun is the Hotel Zone. Home to the biggest selection of accommodations in Cancun, all set against a white sand beach within 20 minutes of Cancun International Airport, most tourists flock to the luxury hotels that line this strip of Cancun. Downtown Cancun is where most of the locals live and it's the go-to spot for backpackers seeking tacos just like your madre makes them. Meanwhile, Isla Mujeres is hugely popular for travelers looking for a slice of island living.

✔️ What is the safest part of Cancun to stay?

The majority of Cancun is moderately safe. The Hotel Zone is probably the safest part of Cancun as there are more tourists around and reputable hotels and establishments. The most common crimes in Cancun are pickpocketing and mugging, so try not to carry many valuables around with you. There have been reports of police asking for money from tourists, so opt for taxis and public transport in the evenings instead of walking the streets and don't draw attention to yourself as being a tourist. Learning some basic Spanish will get you far!

❓ Is Cancun or Tulum or Playa better?

Cancun is ideal for luxury resorts and lively nightlife, Playa del Carmen offers a more compact and walkable setting with vibrant nightlife, while Tulum has a laid-back, hipster vibe with a jungle setting and famous cenotes for water activities. All three are close to Chichen Itza, making them popular tourist destinations, and you can explore them over two weeks using buses or private transfers.

📍 Should I stay in the Cancun Hotel Zone?

Cancun's Hotel Zone is undoubtedly the beating heart of Cancun's tourism industry and you'll benefit hugely from the amenities there, such as world-class resorts, luxury shopping and turquoise blue waters framed by white sand beaches. If you're in the market for an authentic Mexican experience, however, the Hotel Zone might not be your neighborhood of choice. In this case, Downtown Cancun, Isla Mujeres, or Puerto Morelos will be the best choices.

📅 How many days do I need in Cancun?

If you plan on visiting Cancun simply to explore the sights and landmarks on offer, you won't need more than a few days to see everything. But many travelers plan a relaxing beach holiday, so you may want to stay for a week or two. With places like Puerto Morelos, Tulum, and Isla Mujeres all within two hours of Cancun, exploring the area for a couple of weeks can be a great option.

Where to stay in Cancun – Final words

Cancun is a beach-filled paradise off the Caribbean Sea with some of the best hotels Quintana Roo has to offer. A stone's throw from other population destinations like Tulum and Isla Holbox, it's well worth visiting this part of Mexico for a unique blend of luxury and authenticity.

If you want to spend your days sipping margaritas and eating tacos on white sand beaches, there's simply no better spot.

Whatever your interests, there's a neighborhood for everyone. Luxury lovers will flock to Puerto Cancun or the Hotel Zone, while backpackers searching for a more authentic side to Cancun will adore Downtown.

If you want to be close to the action without the crowds, head to Puerto Morelos or Punta Nizoc, while nature and island lovers should choose Isla Mujeres or Isla Blanca as their destination.

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