If you’re lucky enough to visit Oaxaca, then I have no doubt it will quickly become one of your favorite destinations of all time. (And not just in Mexico, but the world over.) From the city’s bustling markets, smoky street food stands, charming mezcalerías, colorful colonial architecture, and incredible museums, to its indigenous archaeological sites, vibrant handicrafts and textiles, and world-class restaurants, there are countless unique and enriching things to do in Oaxaca.
The sheer amount of authentic experiences and mind-boggling flavors that await you in Oaxaca is overwhelming. After all, Oaxaca is the undeniable cultural and culinary capital of Mexico.
So to make it easy for you, I’ve rounded up my top picks of the best things to do in Oaxaca City and its surroundings – along with where to stay, what to eat, and some other must-know tips.
So without further ado, here are the top 20 best things to do in Oaxaca!
This blog post covers the 20 best things to do in Oaxaca, plus other need-to-know tips, info, and recommendations. It’s a comprehensive guide for your trip to Oaxaca! Use this table of contents to navigate to specific sections of the post.
Table of Contents
- Top 20 Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City, Mexico
- 1. Head to El Zócalo
- 2. Meander through Mercado de Benito Juárez
- 3. Visit the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca
- 4. Try the street food
- 5. Explore Monte Albán
- 6. Stop by Templo de Santo Domingo
- 7. Visit a mezcalería
- 8. Shop for local crafts
- 9. Feast at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre
- 10. Take a cooking class
- 11. Go to Hierve el Agua
- 12. Stroll through the Ethnobotanical Garden
- 13. Learn about traditional textiles
- 14. Dine at Oaxaca’s finest restaurants
- 15. Visit Mitla
- 16. Tour a mezcal distillery
- 17. Check out the art galleries
- 18. Sip on hot chocolate
- 19. See El Tule
- 20. Experience Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)
- Where to Stay in Oaxaca City
- How to Get to Oaxaca City
- The Top 20 Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City
Top 20 Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City, Mexico
1. Head to El Zócalo
First things first, head to El Zócalo.
El Zócalo is Oaxaca’s main square, located smack in the center of town. It’s the perfect place to people-watch and discover how day-to-day life in Oaxaca unfolds.
In the main square, dozens of street food stalls permeate the lively atmosphere with smoky, mouth-watering aromas. Fresh fruit stands offer to quench your thirst on sweltering days. And hundreds of local people gather there to relax, catch up, laugh, and possibly, to sell you their traditional handicrafts, clothing, and souvenirs.
To properly experience El Zócalo, buy some fresh fruit with a sprinkle of chili, find somewhere to sit, and spend some time taking it all in.
2. Meander through Mercado de Benito Juárez
El Mercado de Benito Juárez is a maze of colorful market stalls offering everything from street snacks and typical ingredients, to traditional clothing, handmade pottery, home décor, and hand-painted handicrafts.
If you’re looking for souvenirs for friends, or some décor to color your home, this market is a great place to start. El Mercado de Benito Juárez is also another great place to start understanding more about the local culture and people.
At Mercado de Benito Juárez, I purchased quite a few authentic ingredients for my kitchen – including mole negro paste, packed with roughly 30 ingredients. Such a good buy!
Make sure to clear a couple of hours in your schedule. This market is huge and demands plenty of time to see, taste, and experience everything on offer! In fact, you may need to return a couple of times.
3. Visit the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca
Even if you’re not a huge fan of museums, the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca is a must. During my travels, I’ve been to countless museums, but this one has been the most spectacular.
Set in a centuries-old monastery, the building itself is an important piece of the city’s history. However, inside the museum, you’ll find precious ancient artifacts from the Pre-Colombian era and from during and after the Conquest.
You’ll see colorful art, learn about the many indigenous cultures that have thrived in the area, and be blown away by the amazing exhibitions and organization.
The Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca, so don’t miss it!
4. Try the street food
The street food in Oaxaca is legendary.
In fact, eating street food in Oaxaca is like taking a bite of the city’s rich history itself. These recipes have deep indigenous roots, use centuries-old techniques, and have been passed through families for generations. And honestly, you should feel honored to experience them!
As you walk down the streets, stop at any one of the delicious-smelling stalls (especially the ones crowded by locals!), and you be rewarded with a cheap and simple, yet incredibly flavorful meal.
During your trip to Oaxaca, make sure to try these street food dishes: tlayudas, tamales oaxaqueños, memelas, tetelas, and empanadas oaxaqueñas.
For more information on Oaxacan street food (and all the other reasons you’ll love Oaxaca), click here!
5. Explore Monte Albán
A trip to Oaxaca would be incomplete without visiting an indigenous archaeological site or two! Especially Monte Albán, the mother of all the ruins in the state of Oaxaca and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Monte Albán was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica and the main sociopolitical and economic center for the Zapotecs for roughly 1,000 years. Other peoples, such as the Olmecs and the Mixtecs, also lived here in succession.
The ingenious centuries-old engineering of Monte Albán’s pyramids, canals, terraces, and dams will blow your mind!
The best way to experience Monte Albán is with an expert tour guide so that you can fully grasp the magnitude of what you’re seeing. I recommend booking this half-day tour to Monte Albán.
6. Stop by Templo de Santo Domingo
The Templo de Santo Domingo is arguably the most beautiful church – inside and out – in all of Oaxaca.
Mainly built between 1570 and 1608, the region’s best artists came all the way from Puebla and elsewhere in Mexico to help construct this church.
Oaxaca is an earthquake-prone region, so the church’s stone walls and pillars are incredibly thick. Meanwhile, its domed interior is adorned in ornate paintings, a gilded altar, and masterful sculptures.
Simply put, the beauty and all of the small details in this church are mind-blowing.
7. Visit a mezcalería
Ever heard of mezcal? Put simply, mezcal is the smokier, edgier (and more delicious) cousin of tequila and it is the thing to drink in Oaxaca.
Throughout the city, you will encounter plenty of different mezcalerías – or mezcal bars. And in my opinion, it’d be a crime if you didn’t stop in to at least one mezcalería for a tasting!
At some mezcalerías, you will need to make a reservation in advance. But at others, you can simply walk in, strike up a conversation with the bartender, and proceed to taste and learn about different mezcals!
8. Shop for local crafts
Oaxaca is one of the last places in Mexico where handicrafts are still made with love, care, and tradition – rather than being mass-produced.
Whether you want to buy something to decorate your home (such as a hand-woven tapestry, beautiful textured pillows, a vibrant blanket, or a hand-painted alebrije), or something to wear (like buttery leather huaraches, a wicker tote bag, or a traditional blouse), you will find it in Oaxaca!
A great place to shop for crafts is the Mercado de Artesanias, however, there are all kinds of stalls and shops throughout the city. Just be ready to barter!
9. Feast at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a food market in the center of the city, featuring dozens of food stalls and all kinds of typical Oaxacan meals. From pollo con mole and enfrijoladas, to tlayudas and tetelas, you can find it all in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre!
There’s also a section of the market called el Pasillo de los Tasajos, which is essentially a smoky hallway lined with stands selling freshly grilled meats, served alongside grilled onions and spicy salsas. For meat-lovers, this is a must!
10. Take a cooking class
I love taking a cooking class in every new country I visit. Cooking classes are the best way to spend quality time with the locals (sometimes in their own homes!), learning about their food and culture, so I always jump at the chance. And I think you should too!
Want to learn how to make mole from scratch? How about fresh tortillas, guacamole, and salsa? Or maybe Oaxacan tamales wrapped in banana leaves?
Oaxaca is the undisputed culinary capital of Mexico, so if you have any interest in traditional Mexican or indigenous Mesoamerican cuisines, then you should take a cooking class in Oaxaca. No doubt, your cooking class will be a highlight of your trip!
All cooking classes in Oaxaca cost roughly $100 per person, but I promise it’s worth the splurge. CLICK HERE to book your cooking class!
11. Go to Hierve el Agua
When you visit Oaxaca, it would be a shame to spend the entire time on cobblestone streets. Instead, make sure you get out into the enchanting, mountainous countryside and visit Hierve el Agua.
To make it easy, I recommend taking this day trip to explore the state of Oaxaca. Along the way, you’ll stop at el Hierve el Agua – a set of natural rock and mineral formations that look like a frozen waterfall! The views are stunning, and you can also go swimming in the natural springs – so make sure to bring a swimsuit.
This tour is one of the best day trips from Oaxaca and includes visits to Hierve el Agua, Mitla, El Tule, Teotitlan del Valle, and a mezcal distillery.
12. Stroll through the Ethnobotanical Garden
In the city center, around the back of el Templo de Santo Domingo, you’ll find the city’s treasured Ethnobotanical Garden, filled with all kinds of beautiful cacti and other regional flora.
Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden is a peaceful place to visit, enjoy a slow wander, and take some photos among the cacti.
13. Learn about traditional textiles
Look around, and it won’t take you more than five seconds to realize that textiles are a huge deal in Oaxaca, Mexico.
So much so, that there’s an entire museum dedicated to textiles: El Museo de Textil de Oaxaca. And while textiles may not strike you as the most fascinating thing in the world, they are, indeed. Trust me when I say, this museum is 1000% worth visiting!
Another highlight of my trip was visiting a traditional textile workshop in Teotitlán del Valle. There, I learned about the dyeing and weaving processes the indigenous peoples of the region have been using for centuries. And to be honest, I was mind-blown.
After seeing the hard work that goes into these beautiful textiles, you will want to buy them all!
14. Dine at Oaxaca’s finest restaurants
As you might’ve guessed, Oaxaca is home to some of Mexico’s best restaurants. So splurging on a few fine meals is non-negotiable! You have to do it! (Plus, fine dining in Oaxaca is very affordable… Especially when you compare it to similar experiences in, let’s say, Europe!)
But if you can only go to one, make sure it’s Casa Oaxaca. No doubt, it’s the best restaurant in the city!
The rooftop dining area, which overlooks the beautiful Templo de Santo Domingo and those old cobblestone streets, is truly special. Not to mention… The amazing, modern Mexican food (the mole was epic!), attentive service, and table-side finishes all make for an all-around unforgettable dining experience!
In addition to street food and fine-dining restaurants, Oaxaca has plenty of amazing mid-range restaurants on offer.
Make sure to check out these can’t-miss restaurants:
- Itanoni emphasizes the all-important ingredient (indigenous corn!), a slow, authentic experience, and simple, traditional cooking. Go for lunch.
- Casa Taviche is one of my favorite places in Oaxaca! An absolutely stunning little restaurant, sharing beautifully presented, traditional yet modern Mexican cuisine. Perfect for lunch or dinner.
- Cabuche offers a charming setting, classic dishes, great service, and big flavors that never dissapoint. An unrivalled lunch spot.
- Mexita delivers authentic Napoli-style Italian food in a romantic atmosphere. It’s a good and welcome addition to Oaxaca’s surplus of Mexican eats. Great for dinner!
15. Visit Mitla
After Monte Albán, Mitla is the second most important archaeological site in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Mitla is thought to be a sacred burial ground for the Zapotecs. And it makes sense, since Mitla is a Nahuatl name translating to Place of the Dead.
If you have some extra time, you should make sure to visit Mitla as well as Monte Albán.
Photo by Russ Bowling
16. Tour a mezcal distillery
If you haven’t picked up on this yet, artisanal mezcal is the drink of choice in Oaxaca. So it’s only fitting that you go to a nearby distillery to see how it’s made!
To give you a quick idea, first the mezcaleros roast the hearts (or piñas) of agave plants in underground pits with hot rocks for up to a few days. Next, the pits are uncovered and donkeys or mules macerate the agave with a stone tool (called a tauna) to aid the fermentation process. And finally, the cooked agave plants are distilled into delicious mezcal!
During a day trip around the region, I stopped at El Rey de Matatlán for a tour of the distillery and plenty of mezcal tastings. It was so much fun to learn about the process of making this smoky, strong, and super delicious spirit. I bought a couple of bottles to bring home too!
17. Check out the art galleries
As you roam the city streets, you’ll happen upon countless art galleries showcasing all kinds of art, from Oaxacan folk to modern art.
Make sure to stop into each (or, at least, most) of the galleries to enjoy their brilliantly colorful paintings and sculptures. And if you have the budget for it, feel free to splurge on a one-of-a-kind piece!
We found ourselves completely blown away by this city’s art, and we have an inkling you’ll feel the same.
18. Sip on hot chocolate
Oaxaca is famous for its rich hot chocolate drinks, which are made in clay pots, and laced with cinnamon.
You can’t leave Oaxaca without having a cup of hot choccy, so here are my top recommendations for where to find it:
- Oaxaca En Una Taza: A cute little café offering delightful cups hot chocolate (infused with your choices of spices and fruits) and delicate pastries. My top pick for Mexican chocolate in Oaxaca.
- Cafe Brújula: I loved this cafe – for hot chocolate, chai, and specialty coffee – and went back many times.
- Be adventurous, support a small business owner, and see if you can find the best chocolatey drink at a stall in one of the markets!
19. See El Tule
While looking at a tree might not seem like one of the top things to do in Oaxaca, it totally is.
El Tule is, by far, the most impressive tree I’ve ever seen… considering that it’s more than 2,000 years old, 119 feet in circumference, and 116 feet tall!
After you’ve marveled El Tule for a bit, feel free to roam around the tree’s adorable hometown of Santa María del Tule and do some people-watching.
20. Experience Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos)
Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos in Spanish) is a Mexican holiday and festival where families and friends gather to welcome back the souls of family members who have passed away. Undeniably, as a traveler, the best place to experience Day of the Dead is in Oaxaca.
If you go to Oaxaca during Day of the Dead celebrations, you’ll be met with intricate altars decked in flowers, candles, and religious figures. Not to mention, markets bursting with altar decorations, mole sauce, chocolates, and tamales, and a sea of endless sugar skull faces. All of this, and more, is Mexico’s way of celebrating and remembering the lives of lost loved ones.
Day of the Dead festivities take place every year on November 1st and 2nd. If possible, plan your trip to line up with these dates, and you will be set for the cultural experience of a lifetime!
RELATED READING: 20 Festivals to Experience in Your 20s
Where to Stay in Oaxaca City
Oaxaca is filled to the brim with authenticity, culture, tradition, and charm. In other words, you won’t find any huge international hotel brands as you roam the streets. Instead, you’ll stumble upon plenty of cute, historic bed and breakfasts with typical decor and beautiful courtyards.
There are also plenty of other options, ranging from fun and affordable hostels to fancy hotels.
Here are my top recommendations on places to stay in Oaxaca!
Best Bed & Breakfast
During my week in Oaxaca City, I stayed at a bed and breakfast called Hotel Casa de la Tía Tere and loved every minute of it!
I highly recommend this bed and breakfast for its friendly staff, good location, and great value.
- NaNa Vida Hotel Oaxaca (3-star hotel)
- Palacio Borghese Hotel Boutique (4-star hotel)
- Quinta Real Oaxaca (4-star hotel)
Best Budget Accommodation & Hostels
How to Get to Oaxaca City
Via Airplane (Recommended)
The safest and quickest way to take a trip to Oaxaca is via airplane. There are domestic flights available throughout Mexico and there are plenty of one-stop flights available from the USA.
The last time I visited Oaxaca, I spent one week eating my way through Mexico City, before hopping on a plane to Oaxaca. To give you an idea, the flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca takes about one hour and costs roughly $100 USD.
From the airport, I arranged for my hotel to pick me up, but you can easily grab a taxi from the airport to the city center for around $7.
Easy, safe, and efficient, this is the best way to travel to Oaxaca City.
If you have a rental car, you can drive yourself to Oaxaca. However, for safety and ease, I wouldn’t recommend this option. Once you’re in Oaxaca City, you will have little use for a car. The city is very walkable and taxis (if necessary) are very affordable. Plus, depending on where you’re traveling from, it can be dangerous to drive yourself to Oaxaca City.
If you’re convinced on road-tripping through Mexico, know this: it is not safe to drive the highways after dark.
Quick FAQs about visiting Oaxaca + the top things to do
If you don’t speak Spanish, this can be a tricky one! In case you’re not sure, Oaxaca is pronounced like [wa-ha-ka].
Absolutely! If you have the chance to take a trip to Oaxaca, then go! Oaxaca City is one of the top destinations to visit in Mexico for its bustling markets, rainbow-colored colonial architecture, incredibly rich history and indigenous cultures, artisan galleries and workshops, friendly locals, and some of the world’s best street food. In this blog post, I’ve detailed the top 10 reasons why Oaxaca is worth visiting.
There are countless unique and enriching cultural and culinary experiences to discover in Oaxaca. Some of the best things to do in Oaxaca City include visiting indigenous archaeological sites like Monte Albán and Mitla, trying local street food, sipping Mexican hot chocolate and local mezcal, exploring the bustling markets, going to the many museums, swimming at Hierve el Agua, experience Day of the Dead celebrations, and so much more. This article includes the top 20 things to do during a visit to Oaxaca, Mexico.
Yes, Oaxaca is generally quite safe for tourists to visit. Like any other destination, it’s important to keep your wits about you, be aware of your surroundings, and do your research before you arrive. Speaking from years and years of personal experience traveling through Mexico, I have never felt safer in any other destination in Mexico than I have in Oaxaca.
If you’re planning to visit Oaxaca, make sure you allocate plenty of time. With so many things to do, see, eat, and discover in Oaxaca City, three days is the minimum amount of time you need. However, ideally, you should stay in Oaxaca for up to one week to ensure you can experience everything the city – and its surrounds – has to offer.
The Top 20 Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City
Well, there you have it, friends! Those are the top 20 most incredible and unforgettable things to do in Oaxaca City.
Between its fascinating history, incredible food, smoky mezcal, warm and friendly locals, indigenous archaeological sites, Day of the Dead celebrations, beautiful arts and handicrafts, and surrounding natural beauty, Oaxaca City is home to an overwhelming variety of unique and enriching experiences.
Plus, with its bright-colored colonial façades, cobblestone streets, wrought-iron details, and peaceful tree-lined plazas, Oaxaca is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.
I don’t think a city has ever stolen my heart as quickly as Oaxaca did. And if you follow this guide of the best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico, my guess is, you’ll feel the same.
Planning a trip to México? Check out these posts!
- 10 Reasons You’ll Fall in Love with Oaxaca City
- A Foodie’s Guide to Mexico City
- A Roadtrip to Baja California, Mexico
- Loreto, Mexico: A Top-Secret Destination in Baja California Sur
What are your favorite, top things to do in Oaxaca City? Let us know in the comments below!