Oaxaca is arguably the cultural thread and heartbeat of Mexico, loved by locals and visitors alike. In fact, my Uber driver the other day in Puerto Vallarta told me, “if you want to understand the essence of Mexico, you need to visit three places: the Yucatan, Jalisco, and Oaxaca. Then you will truly know Mexico.” Perhaps a biased opinion, but having visited all three states, I can affirm that these wonderful places do indeed provide a well-balanced understanding of Mexico as a whole.
Did you know that there are 16 indigenous groups in Oaxaca? Each group has hundreds of subgroups, distinguished by their own language and social customs. You will hear Spanish spoken here, along with many other indigenous languages, with Zapotec being the prevailing tongue. It sounded to me like an Eastern Asian language, and as someone who appreciates and is fascinated by languages, this was like hearing a symphony of music to my ears.
**FUN FACT** – Travel + Leisure Magazine named Oaxaca the capital of chocolate.
If you like colonial towns, art, museums, chocolate, mole, mezcal, or if you’re an avid foodie, you will absolutely fall in love with Oaxaca as we did. Out of our three months living and traveling in Mexico, Oaxaca for sure ranks as one of our most memorable travel experiences.
Before we dive in, how do you pronounce Oaxaca? It’s WUH-HAA-KUH.
In this post I’ll outline 15 of the best things to do in Oaxaca, as well as where to eat in this foodie capital of Mexico!
There is no Uber in Oaxaca, only shared taxi. I recommend renting a car because several of the top things to do in Oaxaca are outside of the main city center. This way you’ll have more freedom. We rented from Eurocar for $30 USD per day.
Are you ready to get to know Oaxaca? Let’s dive in!
15 BEST THINGS TO DO IN OAXACA
- Visit all the incredible markets
- Stand in awe at the Santo Domingo Church and wander around the Zocalo (city center)
- Check out local art at the Jardin del Arte
- Visit a traditional rug weaving village in Teotitlan del Valle
- Partake in a traditional Temazcal ritual
- See the widest tree in the world at Arbol del Tule
- Climb the pyramids at Monte Alban
- Take a mezcal tour
- Eat street food
- Enjoy a fine dining experience at one of Oaxaca’s many restaurants featuring specialty foods from this region (keep reading to the end of this post to find all our favorite places to eat in Oaxaca!) And absolutely try mole!
- Photograph the local wall murals
- Visit a “Mezcal Library” at Mezcalería In Situ
- See a petrified waterfall and have a soak at Hierve de Agua (currently this is closed due to Covid)
- Learn about the rich culture of Oaxaca at the Museo de las Culturas (currently this is closed due to Covid)
- Take a tour at Ethnobotanical Garden (currently this is closed due to Covid)
1. VISIT THE MARKETS
Markets are literally the lifeblood of Oaxaca; they supply the delicious, locally-grown regional ingredients which make up the incredible cuisine that this state is so well known for. We had such a memorable experience at the markets that I dedicated an entire blog post to it, which you can read here: 6 Must-Visit Markets in Oaxaca.
One ingredient you’ll commonly see in this part of Mexico, is cacao beans, which is the key ingredient in the regional dish that hails from Oaxaca called mole. You absolutely must try this whilst in Oaxaca! There are 8 different types of Mole! It is a laborious process that can take anywhere from four hours to an entire day to prepare.
Read about our Mole Cooking Class in Puerto Vallarta.
One market not to miss, is the Sunday Tlacolula Market, located 50 minutes Southeast of the city center by car. While you’re here, check out the Templo de Asunción.
2. SANTO DOMINGO CHURCH & ZOCALO (CITY CENTER)
The main city center is called the Zocalo, and is where the magic happens at night, with live music, dancing on cobblestone streets, or merely sipping on a mezcal cocktail under a full moon on a rooftop terrace. Ahh, yes, Oaxaca is the city of romance! During the daytime, temperatures reach the high 80’s even in the wintertime, so you’ll find dogs (usually in groups of three for some strange reason) napping in the shade, appearing nearly dead.
**FUN FACT** – You’ll see a lot of vintage Volkswagen Beatle cars in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca city is especially charming at night when the temperatures are not so hot. In the below photo on the right side, I am posing with a beautifully painted recycling bin shaped in a heart! You deposit the bottles in a slot on top. Oaxaca is really good at turning mundane eye sores into beautiful pieces of artwork.
3. CHECK OUT LOCAL ART AT THE JARDIN DEL ARTE
Come have a chat with the artists themselves and enjoy this open-air art gallery from Fridays – Sundays from 10AM – 7PM.
4. VISIT A TRADITIONAL RUG WEAVING VILLAGE IN TEOTITLAN DEL VALLE
Located about 50 minutes Southeast of the city center by car, is a traditional weaving village lined with indoor / outdoor stores selling unique hand-woven wool rugs, purses and other crafts. You can read more about this valley and the impressive and laborious rug-making process in my blog post here.
5. PARTAKE IN A TRADITIONAL TEMAZCAL RITUAL
A temazcal is an ancient ritual in Mesoamerica that has been around for well over 1,000 years. This cleansing ritual historically took place before and after battles or sports tournaments. It is thought to have healing powers, and is a place to come to cleanse your mind, body and soul, both physically, mentally and emotionally. If you were going through a challenging time in your life, or you had to make a difficult decision, a temazcal is thought to bring clarity to help you get unstuck and move forward.
We booked our private temazcal experience through Ceviarem Temazcal Oaxaca. Blanca speaks English very well and explained the process to us. This place is normally booked weeks in advance, so be sure to book your spot early. However, because of the lack of tourists right now, we were able to get a last-minute reservation.
Upon arrival you’ll change into your bathing suit (preferably one you don’t care about, because by the end of this, you’ll come out looking and smelling like a fruit cocktail.) The ritual begins by drinking a hot herbal tea concoction to acclimate the body from the inside out to prepare for the heat. We were then led into an igloo-shaped cement and brick sweat lodge (meant to symbolize the womb), where the doors were closed and we sat in darkness with our guide, a 60-year-old generational leader of this ritual. The purpose of the Temazcal ritual is to cleanse the body in a form of meditation, exfoliation and being present. You’ll spend one hour inside this dome, which is heated to 38 degrees C (100 F) or higher, depending on your heat tolerance (mine is low, but my husband is Russian and grew up going to banya (traditional Russian spa), so he likes high heat).
We began by rubbing mezcal all over our bodies, followed by lemon and orange to open up the pores, nopal (cactus), aloe, then a mixture of papaya and guava (the seeds in the guava act as a natural exfoliant), and finally pure Oaxaca chocolate mixed with water to soften the skin and close up the pores. The ritual culminates with a bunch of fresh herbs such as hierba buena, mint, and chamomile, which you dip in cold water and breathe deeply through your mouth. You then slap the bunch of herbs on your body (very similar to a Russian banya platza), or you can rub it into your skin over your chakra points. This was accompanied by an ancient chant in the Zapotec language with a drum by our guide. At the end of the hour, our guide left my husband and me alone to seal in our practice together by sitting on the floor in the middle of the Temazcal joining hands to share how we are grateful for enriching each other’s lives. It was truly a beautiful experience, and I highly recommend it if you visit Oaxaca. Afterwards we felt relaxed yet energized, thirsty, smelling like an amazing cocktail, and extremely grateful.
6. SEE THE WIDEST TREE IN THE WORLD AT ARBOL DEL TULE
Believe it or not (you can Google it!), Oaxaca is home to the widest tree trunk in the world. Located about 30 minutes from the city center by car, is Santa Maria del Tule where you can see for yourself this enormous cypress tree! This past summer Sasha and I visited Redwoods National Park in California, so this wasn’t as impressive of a sight, but still very cool to know that you’re looking at a tree that is over 2,000 years old! The tree stands at 42 meters tall (126 feet) with a trunk diameter of 14 meters (42 feet), and it is said that it would take 30 people clasping hands to fit around the entire trunk.
**Please note that this area is currently closed to visitors during the pandemic. Local police patrol the area and do not allow tourists past the yellow caution tape, so this was as close as we were able to get to take a photo. Because this is a small town, please remember to wear your face mask.
7. CLIMB THE PYRAMIDS AT MONTE ALBAN
Located 2,133 meters (6,400′) elevation, is Monte Alban pyramids. Founded in 500 B.C. by the Zapotec people, Monte Alban was one of the earliest Mesoamerican cities, and at its peak, was said to have had 18,000 residents. Unlike many pyramid sites in the Yucatan, climbing the stairs of the pyramids here is allowed. Hours of operation are 8AM – 5PM and admission is 80 pesos per person ($4 USD). Located 15 minutes by car outside the city center.
8. TAKE A MEZCAL TOUR
Mezcal is having a shining moment! Known as tequila’s classier, more complex and sophisticated sister, mezcal reigns queen in Oaxaca! There are many different places to learn about the mezcal making process, but we recommend Don Agave in the Teotitlan Valle. I recommend making a day trip out of the following due to their close proximity:
- Teotitlan Del Valle – traditional rug weaving village
- Don Agave mezcal tour (and lunch)
- Tlacolula Sunday Market
- Arbol Del Tulle
We had such a great time on our free mezcal tour that I wrote an entire blog post dedicated to it. You can read more about it here: From Plant To Bottle – A Mezcal Tour in Oaxaca.
9. EAT STREET FOOD
Yes, that is Sasha using street corn as a light saber, fighting an imaginary Darth Vader. 😂 But in all seriousness, the street food in Oaxaca is a must-try. You can even make an entire meal out of it, and congratulations, you’ve just spend $5 USD on dinner in Oaxaca!
10 ENJOY A FINE DINING EXPERIENCE
Read on for some of our top recommendations on fine dining experiences in Oaxaca.
11. PHOTOGRAPH THE LOCAL WALL MURALS
Oaxaca is filled with delightful art around every corner of each brilliantly painted building.
12. VISIT A MEZCALERIA
You can find Mezcalerias literally on every single street corner in the city center of Oaxaca. In Situ is one of the most popular, with all different kinds of mezcal in bottles lining the entire bar. Try a flight tasting, or order one of Oaxaca’s hundreds of unique cocktails.
13. HIERVE DE AGUA
I was so disappointed that this was closed during our visit. Located 1.5-hours by car from the city center of Oaxaca, is the beautiful Hierve de Agua (Boiling water). The water is definitely not boiling and apparently it’s not even that warm, but the water source comes from hot springs. This is where you can find the fascinating and trick-of-the-eyes petrified waterfall. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos, but Google it and be amazed.
14. MUSEO DE LAS CULTURAS
Learn about Oaxaca’s rich culture and history in this museum located right in the center.
15. TAKE A TOUR OF THE ETHNOBOTANICAL GARDENS
I was bummed to learn that you cannot merely turn up and pay an admission fee to see these gardens. (Also the gardens are currently closed now due to Covid.) The only way you can gain entry is to do a free walking tour. Tours are done in English only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. You can find out more about the tours and books yours through their website here. The ethnobotanical garden focuses on the relationship between plants and people, and as you walk through the garden, it tells the story of the culture and artistic traditions of Oaxaca.
WHERE TO EAT IN OAXACA!
And now we’ve arrive to my favorite topic…food! The restaurants in Oaxaca are beyond magical. Nearly all restaurants and cafes have a lovely outdoor courtyard, or terrace overlooking the church or city center. Oaxaca is so romantic! Chefs here take special care to source ingredients locally from the region whilst maintaining culinary traditions passed along from generations, which you’ll see in the beautiful artistic presentations on your plate.
Here are our top recommendations for fine dining restaurants in Oaxaca, all of which I highly encourage making a reservation in advance because they fill up!
FINE DINING RESTAURANTS
Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante was one of our foodie highlights. We ate atop the romantically lit open-air terrace under a full moon. Your server will make your very own salsa tableside in a molcajete (pestle & mortar) based on your flavor profile preferences (they ask you how spicy you like it, and select a chili based on that.) The service is impeccable, and the cocktails were unique and beautifully made.
Another highly rated restaurant was Origen (rated 4.5 on Google), but we were sorely disappointed. The interior, service and food felt tired and outdated. They won several awards in 2016, but I think their hay day is over. I recommend skipping Origen Restaurant.
BEST PLACES TO EAT IN OAXACA
- Boulenc – hip brunch place & cafe (French)
- In Situ (mezcal library)
- The Rayon Pochote Organic Market – an outdoor covered space with three restaurants that you select from
- Pan: am – pastries, brekkie & lunch serving only cage-free farm fresh eggs with an outdoor courtyard. Excellent sandwiches if you need takeaway food if you plan on doing a day trip
- Muss Cafe – I think this is the only cafe in all of Oaxaca that serves kombucha!
- Oaxaca en una Taza – THE BEST MOCHA IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!!!
- Maguey y Maiz
- Sur a Norte – bar with rooftop overlooking the Santo Domingo Church
- Criollo – beautiful cactus garden inside the courtyard and huge courtyard space
Rayon Pochote Organic Market is a good spot to stop for a quick snack or lunch after a day of walking around the city. Try one of their delicious sopas! (soups)
Pan: am was our favorite brekkie spot, and we also grabbed some takeaway sandwiches to take with us to the airport for our flight back home to Puerto Vallarta. They’ve got a lovely outdoor couryard and delicious coffee.
Muss Cafe is a great place to work remotely, and you’ll find a lot of expats and digital nomads here on their laptops. This may be the only place in Oaxaca that sells kombucha! There’s a nice outdoor colonial courtyard with a peaceful vibe, and they serve healthy bowls.
Oaxaca en una Taza means “Oaxaca in one cup”, and I may blow your mind here, but this is THE BEST mocha I’ve had in our entire travels around the world. And let me tell you, this is a HUGE statement coming from me, because I’m kind of a mocha connoisseur. Every cafe we visit, I ask them what they use in their chocolate to make a mocha. If it’s not made in house, or if it’s out of a plastic bottle or store-bought, we move along.
We live in Seattle (arguably the coffee capital of the United States), and we have traveled all over Ecuador, Colombia, and Italy where they have some of the finest chocolates in the world, but this one blew everything else out of the water and knocked our socks off. What makes it so special? They use natural cacao from the region, grind it, and make their own special sauce using the raw cacao, vanilla, sugar, cinnamon and milk. Mix that with a few shots of espresso, and it’s a foodie’s heaven.
Criollo was such a delightful gem! As soon as you walk in, you’ll be greeted with a fresh clay oven, making traditional tlayuda. You’ll then walk through a cactus garden to get to their enormous outdoor space covered with rocks. Large tables are spaced apart, and there’s a bar outside in the open and a fire pit in the center roasting fruits, fish and meats.
We merely scratched the surface to get a taste (literally!) of Oaxaca, and it was hands-down one of our favorite cities that we have visited in Mexico thus far. I can’t wait to return in October for Dia De Los Muertos celebration, which is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest celebration in Mexico, and especially in Oaxaca.
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