Oaxaca City is easily one of Mexico’s most vibrant, and chronically overlooked, cities that you should endeavor to visit on any trip to Mexico – an authentic mix of new age artisans, indigenous traditions with colonial architecture and a booming gastronomical scene create a captivating atmosphere that offers something for everyone.
On first sight the tree-shaded streets and slow-pace of life deceptively suggest a sleepy mid-size Mexican town, but just spend a little time and you will soon discover the brightly coloured fiestas which take over the streets here almost every day and the three C’s of culture, cuisine and creativity which are deeply rooted here.
Visit Oaxaca City and discover not only culinary delights, world-class museums and bewitching market but take your time and explore the famed mountain-flanked Oaxaca valley, home to two cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mexico, vibrant local artist communities, hiking, biking, natural wonders and more…. Perfect for visiting either before or after the gorgeous Puerto Escondido beaches!
The list of Oaxaca City Things to Do is extensive and never-ending, but here is my take on the 15 best things to see when you visit Oaxaca City Mexico! Feel free to let me know of your own in the comments below and help other travelers discover the absolute delights of what to do in Oaxaca City!
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The question of where to eat Oaxaca City has never been easier, and its explosive food scene – with a uniquely modern take on indigenous and colonial ingredients – has made it just that much harder. You cannot walk more than a few meters in Oaxaca City Mexico without your mouth watering at a quiet Taquería or high-end rooftop restaurant serving cuisine that would be just as at home in Manhattan. Take yourself on your very own Oaxaca food tour as your peruse the street and discover the best restaurants in Oaxaca Mexico for yourself – or if you need some help check Cafe Brujula for a relaxed specialty roasted coffee-house, Catedral for Oaxacan fine-dining fusion cuisine or La Florecita for high-flavour Mexican work food. Things change quickly however so please let us know the highlights of your Oaxaca culinary vacation, or check out this in-depth Oaxaca food guide for more information.
I’m not sure what’s more impressive – The pyramids, temples, carving and palaces that were completed over the 1,500 years this city was occupied …. or the fact that it quite literally is carved right out of a solid mountain!! Yes, Monte Alban – part of the Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán UNESCO Site – does not disappoint! At Monte Alban many man-made terraces replaced the natural unevenness of the mountain and up rose a new sacred topography of pyramids, temples and more… An incredible and powerful place, made all the most beautiful by that big blue sky!!!
The best way to get here is the Monte Alban Shuttles that leave every hour on the half-hour in a small well-sign posted shop next to Hotel Rivera de Angel and the Monte Alban Shuttle costs $55 pesos. It takes 4 hours including 30 minutes travel each way which is the perfect amount of time – though you can likely negotiate longer if needed. The Monte Alban Shuttle tickets are also sold throughout the city but since there is no need to book in advance it is best to just go direct for the best price. There are no direct public buses to Monte Alban currently and it is a long walk from the nearest stop (over one hour up hill) though a taxi to Monte Alban could be a good option for a group costing around $300-$400 pesos return including waiting time and can be organized through most Oaxaca City accommodation. If you would like a guide, and are relativity fluent in Spanish many Oaxaca City Tours also include Monte Alban as a stop.
No Oaxaca City travel guide would be complete without a mention of all the street life on offer in this captivating city. For a full list of annual festivals I recommend to visit Oaxaca City Insider when planning your Mexican Holiday, but this only provides a snapshot of what truly is on offer. With the greater Oaxaca City population standing at 650,000 and a vibrant indigenous culture you can expect to see something unusual, different and/or intriguing every time you leave your Oaxaca City accommodation – whether it is a marching band, a protest, a food festival or a parade. There is never a dull moment here that’s for sure (so keep you camera handy at all time!)
Anyone that spends even a bit of time in Latin America / Mexico will know that jaw-dropping churches are a dime a dozen, but trust me – even the most jaded of travelers will want to take a moment inside the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán when they visit Oaxaca City. Built in the Baroque ecclesiastical style the complex brings new meaning to decadent and it’s hard not to feel just a little spiritual in what must one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico! Plan at least a few visit’s to really take in the details – which thanks to it’s central location is pretty easy!
Only a 30 minute collectivo trip from the centre of Oaxaca City (or easily included on many Oaxaca city tours) you will find the isolated Yagul Ruins located on a cactus-covered hillside with stellar views across the entire Oaxaca Valley and beyond. A true off-the-beaten track destination you are likely to have the entire site to yourself – indeed when I visited at 9am the ticket booth operator had failed to show up so it was just me and these supreme ruins. If you take a collectivo you will have to walk the last 1.5 kilometers from the main road but ignore the Lonely Planet as I can’t for the life of me imagine why it would be considered unsafe? Well restored and home to the second biggest ball-court in Latin America – and don’t forget to make the effort to climb the Fortaleza (Fortress) for inspiring views out over the mountains in every direction. One of my favourite Oaxaca City things to do!
Not only is Oaxaca City Mexico known for great food, street life and ruins – but the art in this fascinating region is rapidly gaining attention as a number of it’s artist become known locally and internationally. While the streets are dotted with fabulous galleries, you can also see some of the best contemporary and local art works at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO) or an astonishing array of traditional Oaxacan crafts and textiles on display at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. Honestly – you do not have to look far to find the artistry vein that runs deep through this city and be sure to ask around for temporary exhibitions or performance art events as there are plenty of them! If you are looking for an Oaxaca City accommodation option that fuses art with hospitality I highly recommend Nana Vida Boutique Hotel, a gallery-in-a-hotel type place that perfectly compliments any Oaxaca City vacation.
Yes, its Oaxaca City is not just home to a formal arts scene but for the past 10 years has developed a reputation and the centre for a still-developing political street art movement driven by the political turmoil in the Oaxaca State (one of the poorest in Mexico). Sadly not even mentioned in passing in any Oaxaca city travel guide I read, the murals are an important component of Oaxaca City’s contemporary history and highlight very serious social and political anguish, covering everything from disappeared students to drug lords and migrants. Not yet as encouraged as the street art scene in Medellin, or as polished as the street art in Buenos Aires, the street art here is raw, powerful and deserves to be seen and not hidden away. Just wandering the streets here will not be enough to find it, but not to worry as you can find a free map of street art of Oaxaca here to make your own Oaxaca Street Art tour.
Just 15 minutes further down the main highway from Yagul – and 45 minutes from Oaxaca City Mexico by collectivo – lays the ancient town of Mitla, where one of the most important Zapotec religious centre now lay protected and surrounded by a slow-paced modern Mexico town. Complete with painted friezes and geometric mosaics unpaired in Ancient Mexico, the magic town of Mitla makes a great day trip from Oaxaca City and indeed is one of the most popular Oaxaca City tours available. While Monte Albán was the most important political centre for the ancient Zaoptecans but Mitla is thought to have been the main religious centre – and the level of details in the buildings here really is something special! For a quiet visit try to come on the weekdays as it gets rather packed on the weekends with local tourists.
OK, so admittedly not top of any list of Oaxaca City things to do but hear me out…First, the Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca is free, so it can’t hurt to check it out, but hopefully, you are as pleasantly surprised as I was! An outstanding collection of all types of stamps, envelopes, and postcards from different time period and locations all around the world, it presents a captivating insight into cultural diffusion and history (and some of them are really, really beautiful!). Inside the Philatelic Vault there is an insanely huge collection of stamps you are free to explore, but there is also Hall of Postal Art and a Library. Good for an hour, the museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 8 pm and as I said: admission is free.
Andador Macedonio Alcalá, a humming pedestrian street right in the heart of Oaxaca City, providing a thoroughfare between the two main churches in Oaxaca and a stylish location for many of the cities top galleries, restaurants, shops and more. Take your time, peak into the beautifully restored buildings, watch the inevitable street performer or simply just people watch. A treasure trove of traditional artisan goods and high-end shopping, there is something for everyone!
One of my favourite Oaxaca City things to do was just to relax and enjoy the surroundings in one of the many, many, many delicious panderia’s or coffeee shops scattered throughout the old town. If you have been in Latin America for any length of time you will also appreciate the real bread you can find in this city – none of that cheap, sugary rubbish – and the coffee is freshly roasted and well delivered! So where to eat in Oaxaca City for great bread, coffee and more? Pan y Co. has a great selection of breads and pastries baked daily from all natural ingredients, Bamby is a favourite of budget travelers and locals and La Pasión bakery has plenty of imported black, green, and oolong loose-leaf teas to choose from – the best tea shop in Oaxaca City! For the best coffee shop in Oaxaca City try El Volador, a cute little café with space for only 3 tables, Cofetarika for it’s tranquil terrace or Café Nuevo Mundo for local Oaxacan beans!
When you are considering what to do Oaxaca City I’m sure a museum is not a priority – but the Museo de Las Culturas de Oaxaca (or the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures) is an absolute highlight! Set in the stunning monastery buildings attached to the aforementioned Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán not only is the huge, rich diversity of art on display here a drawcard but so is the architecture. If you read Spanish you will enjoy more but it’s pretty self-explanatory otherwise and I enjoyed wandering for hours just gazing upon the treasures of Oaxaca state ranging all the way from pre-Hispanic to current day. One of the unmissable Oaxaca city things to do, plan on at least a few hours or a whole day if you really want to get into and explore one of Mexico’s best museums!
Not normally a highlight in any city, but the Amate bookstore has to deserve a mention due to the huge collection of English-language books and magazines. If you are traveling around Latin America you will not find this often, if at all, so this is a great place to stock up on not only Oaxacan and Méxican themed books but also top-sellers and numerous other subjects. Jam-packed with practically every book on Mayan and Mexican culture ever printed in English, there is something for everyone. Very reasonable prices and a relaxed attitude make Amate bookstore at least deserving of a quick pop-in!
A bit hard-to-find and yet to be ‘touristified’ this recent UNESCO World Heritage practically guarantees you will be alone as your explore the pre-Hispanic archaeological complex and its series of pre-historic rock caves and shelters. Within these caves is evidence for the first domestication of plants in the America’s which allowed for rise of Mesoamerican civilizations such as Tikal, Chichen Itza or even Machu Picchu.
While many of the caves are hard to access you can easily see them from the road as you visit nearby Yagul and Mitla Ruins, though the best place to see the prehistoric caves of Yagul and Mitla in the Central Valley of Oaxaca UNESCO Site is from Yagul, where cave art can be seen just off the main road on your right, you can see the entire landscape from the Yagul fortress and if you sneak off the road just past the Yagul side-road heading towards Mitla (100 meters) you can see a very large, easily accessible cave. Not top of most what to do Oaxaca City travel guides but a unique piece of history and a gorgeous landscape!
No self-respecting Oaxaca city travel guide would be complete without a visit to the vibrant, hectic and oh-so-photogenic Oaxaca City Markets – complete with the offering of the traditional bug snack, Chapulines, or grasshoppers. While there are a wide variety of markets in Oaxaca City, for food and artisanal purchases – as well as a wild experience – you can’t go past two of the best: the 20th of November market in Oaxaca City centre and the Benito Júarez market just across the road! The 20th of November market is famous for it’s large variety of food, prepared and grilled in front of you (just look for the busiest place to find the best!) and the Benito Júarez market in Oaxaca is an eclectic mix of everything from pet stores to butchers to shoes and alcohol. A truly authentic Oaxacan experience – you will find a mix of everything here for sure!
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!