From wandering around its picturesque colonial buildings to exploring popular street food, in Oaxaca you’ll really feel like you’re in the heart of Mexico.
You’ll also find many incredible day trips, such as to the formidable ruins of Monte Albán, one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica.
I will share with you the 10 very best things to do in Oaxaca City (also known as Oaxaca de Juárez), including some insider tips that will help you have the most memorable time here.
Top 10 Things to Do in Oaxaca
Now let’s take a look at the very best things you can do in Oaxaca City, including some spectacular day trips into the nearby regions.
1. Walking tour through the Historic Center
This should be the first thing that any traveler does when arriving in Oaxaca City.
The Historic Center is the beating heart of the city. This is where we’ll find charming colonial buildings, local festivities, and a hidden gem or two lurking around most street corners.
Oaxaca by Locals is a group who do a fantastic free walking tour around the city, where they’ll show you top sights as well as some more local gems on a flexible itinerary.
It’s also worth considering paid walking tours, too, as they have their own distinct advantages (such as air-conditioned transport between areas as well as pre-organized activities).
If you prefer a more comfortable experience, then you’ll want to join this organized walking tour. Here, your professional guide will lead you through many of the top city sites, including those of the Templo de Santo Domingo and Mercado Benito Juárez.
Regardless of which you end up choosing, you’ll find any kind of walking tour to be fun, interactive, and also great for seeing the more authentic side of Oaxaca City (given some parts can feel quite touristy nowadays).
2. Eat local food in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Oaxaca City is actually home to two legendary markets.
Mercado Benito Juárez is the first, which is known for its large selection of fresh produce and handicrafts.
The other market is the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which is the very best for foodies given it’s home to endless food stalls and artisan vendors.
It’s my top recommendation for those who want to try authentic Oaxacan dishes such as Tlayudas (which look like pizzas, however, are layered with meat, avocado, cheese, and other traditional Mexican ingredients).
Other dishes worth sampling include Quesillo and Tamales, whilst those who are more adventurous can try Chapulines (fried grasshoppers!).
Given the chaotic nature of the market, it can feel quite daunting for first-timers.
Just remember to keep valuables in your front pockets, and also try not to judge as you walk around. This way you can open up more and enjoy this wild market for what it really is.
3. Take a day trip to Hierve el Agua
Nature often has many incredible surprises just waiting to be explored.
However, there are also some of the more unorthodox natural sceneries that you can’t quite believe until you see them yourself.
One of these more bizarre landscapes is Hierve el Agua, which is a petrified waterfall that is frozen over the edge of a cliff in the Oaxacan mountains.
Whilst it may seem like a random and sudden event caused this odd formation, it’s actually millions of years in the making!
The pools that feed this unorthodox waterfall are rich in minerals such as magnesium and calcium, which over time began to calcify in the middle layers of these rocks.
Once you enter the site you’ll be able to see Hierve el Agua in all its glory, with the crystal-coloured phenomenon sticking out from the thick green foliage that surrounds it.
You’ll also be able to sit in a natural infinity pool which is known for its healing properties, where you can enjoy the wild landscapes in front of you.
I suggest heading with this organized day tour, which includes all transport (Hierve el Agua is located 70 km east of Oaxaca City). You’ll also get to visit a traditional mezcal factory and indigenous loom workshop along the way!
4. Explore the Templo de Santo Domingo
No trip to Oaxaca can truly be complete without visiting this jaw-dropping cathedral.
Known for its solid-gold interior and altar, this baroque church is by far one of the most impressive of its kind in all of Mexico.
Taking over 150 years to complete, it was finally completed in 1724 and was first used by the Dominican Order.
Whilst the ornaments and murals are seriously impressive (you’ll definitely want to bring your camera here), the history of this cathedral is just as eye-opening.
After being opened for religious use, it later became occupied by various factions during the Mexican War of Independence.
This included the Insurgent Army and various Centralist groups, who each used the cathedral as a faction base before finally being returned to the Dominicans after a hectic period spanning some 90 years.
Today, you won’t find any Mexican forces inside, however, you’ll instead find stunning altars and a museum that includes various ancient Zapotec artifacts (many of which were unearthed from the infamous Tomb 7 inside Monte Albán).
5. Wander around the Jalatlaco Barrio
Whilst all the talk is usually reserved for the historic center, the neighborhood of Jalatlaco is another great, yet underrated area of Oaxaca City to visit.
Located just a few blocks east of the main zócalo, here we’ll find the streets bursting with color, hanging decorations, and captivating history.
Jalatlaco was once an ancient Zapotec town (before the arrival of the Spanish), and here we can find numerous murals dedicated to this past civilization.
I recommend beginning in Calle Aldama and then weaving in and between the nearby cobblestone streets to see the very best creations.
There are also many scenic architectural delights to keep an eye out for too. These include the Templo San Matías de Jalatlaco with its multicolored bell tower.
Some of the colonial buildings have since been converted into modern cafes where you can enjoy a late breakfast (Mujer de Café is a nice stop), as well as various organic and artisanal markets such as Alma Raíz and the Mangata Mercado.
Jalatlaco is pretty safe to walk around during both the day and night, however, it’s still a good idea to leave valuables in your apartment since petty theft can happen anywhere.
6. Enjoy the atmosphere of an authentic Mezcalería
Whilst Mezcal is slowly gaining popularity, it still remains the lesser-known spirit when compared with its bigger brother Tequila.
The strongest of the two, Mezcal is also made from the same agave plant, and first originated here in Oaxaca (despite its popularity all over Mexico, over 2/3 of Mezcal is still produced in the state to this day).
This spirit really is the social glue of the city, and in the local mezcalerías, you’ll find locals sat side-by-side pounding these back – even along with the occasional tourist or two too!
During your time in Oaxaca City, I highly recommend visiting one of these bars at least once, where you can not only have a memorable night out but also get to try various styles and authentic Mezcal concoctions.
Even better, you can visit one of the local Mezcal distilleries to try this legendary spirit straight from the source.
Los Danzantes is one of the most formidable mezcal bars you can find in the city, which also serves some really tasty regional dishes.
Also consider heading to La Mezcaloteca, where you can enter into the world of Mezcal with a tasting workshop. Here you’ll sample various styles and learn more about the history of the heavy spirit.
7. Head to the Botanical Gardens
When taking trips to and from Oaxaca, you’ll notice the vast amount of arid shrubs and cacti that grow wild and freely in the region.
Whilst they make for great photos, you can do one even better by heading to the Botanical Gardens.
The Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca is full of rare plants found all over the state, and even those that you won’t be able to find when out and exploring.
One of the main highlights is the perfect rows of cacti, which make for that perfect Oaxaca “wild-west” shot.
Once you enter you’ll begin a walking tour around the site, learning about the history of the site as well as the importance of each species and what they’re commonly used for.
Even more impressive are the eco-friendly greenhouses, which are fully self-sustaining as they use solar panels and collected rainfall to keep the plants at their optimum conditions.
The Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca is located right next to the Templo de Santo Domingo, making it an easy visit when exploring the historic center.
8. Join a Traditional Cooking Class
As already mentioned, Oaxaca’s gastronomy is one of the most popular in all of Mexico.
With a range of ancient ingredients and tasty local dishes, I really recommend spending time getting lost here in the memorable world of Oaxacan food.
Heading to the markets of Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre is a really good way of kicking things off, however, joining an authentic food tour is even better.
This traditional cooking class is the perfect way to dive deeper into the local food scene, where you’ll be taught by an experienced chef how to make your very own Oaxacan dishes.
You’ll first head to a local food market to learn about the history of the different ingredients, where you’ll also pick up everything you’ll need for later on.
In the workshop, you’ll then be shown step-by-step how to make various classics, as well as your own tortillas and Oaxacan drinks (such as Tejate and Chilacayota).
Even better is that you’ll get to sample some well-crafted Mezcal cocktails too!
9. Visit the Ancient Pyramids of Monte Albán
By far the most popular day trip you can take from Oaxaca City, the ruins of Monte Albán offer us a deeper glimpse into the pre-Hispanic world of Southern Mexico.
Built way back in 600 B.C., the once flourishing city has been conquered and ruled by several civilizations including the Zapotecs, Olmecs, and Mixtecs.
Whilst known for its formidable positioning on top of a hill (you’ll get really good views over the surrounding Oaxaca plains), it’s this rich mix of different cultures, that has led to a variety of unique temples and structures being built throughout the site.
Although you can reach Monte Albán independently (it’s an hour’s drive from the city), I highly suggest going with this day tour from Oaxaca City.
Not only will you have hotel pick-up and drop-off included, but you’ll also have a professional historical guide show you around the site.
This allows us to dive deeper into the ancient history of Monte Albán, learning interesting things that you otherwise wouldn’t when strolling around by yourself.
10. Discover the lost textile art of Looms
If you ever walk past an Oaxacan market or souvenir shop, then there’s a good chance you’ll spot various colorful, embroidered blankets and ponchos hanging from above.
Many of these are actually handmade using an ancient practice called loom, which dates back to the pre-Hispanic times of this region.
Fabrics are woven using wool from animals such as Alpaca, Sheep, and Vicuña, each with their own particular texture and feel.
They are also dyed with bright colors using plants and other materials found throughout the region.
Nowadays, they are crafted quicker with the help of pedal machines brought over by the Spanish, however, they still remain both authentic and unique.
Given Oaxaca has some of the highest levels of diversity in the country, this means we’ll find dozens of indigenous groups still thriving in areas such as Tlacolula and Teotitlán del Valle.
Each culture has its own original style and woven designs, meaning it’s worth heading to these different towns to find the best fit for you (you can also compare them in artisanal markets).
Now you know the best things to do in Oaxaca…
Oaxaca City is truly one of the most interesting cities to visit in Mexico if you’re looking for culture and cuisine.
For more tips on how to spend your time in Oaxaca, don’t miss our Oaxaca travel guide with 1, 3, and 6-day itineraries, where to stay, and how to get to Oaxaca.
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