This post was first published in March 2019 but has been updated in September 2019 with the most recent information things to do in Oaxaca

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When planning a trip to Mexico, most people look to the Yucatan Peninsula with its white sand beaches, perfect palm trees, and 5-star hotels. However, there’s so much more to Mexico than just its resort towns. Some of the best of what the country has to offer can be found elsewhere.

If you’re in search of authentic Mexican culture, look no further than Oaxaca, a small town some 5 hours outside of Mexico City that we discovered on our recent trip to Mexico.

Once home to the Aztecs and later controlled by the Spanish conquistadors, Oaxaca City is a place with a bit of a chaotic past.

Today, Oaxaca is an up and coming travel hotspot.

Oaxaca City is known for its unique architectural styles from locally sourced green stones, and its many historic and archaeological sites. It also plays host to a number of famous festivals throughout the year.

Although Oaxaca is also the name of Mexico’s southernmost state, in this article we’re talking all about the best things to do in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

The Best Time to Visit Oaxaca

Like most cities in tropical regions, Oaxaca experiences a rainy season and a dry season. 

The rainy season lasts from May to October, with precipitation being at its peak during the month of June. 

The dry season lasts from November to April. Temperatures range between 20 and 30 °C (68 and 86 °F) all year round, with a slight increase during the rainy season.

Most tourists come to Oaxaca during the summer between June and August for the high temperatures, or in the wintertime between November and February to escape the cold. During these times, you’ll find more crowds and higher prices.

Oaxaca can get busy!The shoulder season is the best time to go to Oaxaca if you want the perfect mix of affordability and fewer tourists. We recommend visiting between September/October or April/May. 

Aside from the weather, festivals and other events may dictate when the best time to go to Oaxaca is for you. If there’s a particular event you want to attend that happens once a year, don’t be afraid to plan your visit around it! In truth, Oaxaca is great to visit at any time of year. 

Just be sure that you book well in advance if planning to go during the main tourist season, and to pack your umbrella if visiting during the rainy season.

Top Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico

Tour the Old Town

Among top Oaxaca things to do is taking a tour of the city. This is especially a great option if you don’t know where to begin your trip. 

Wandering through the old town is like stepping back in time through a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. While meandering through Oaxaca, make sure you don’t miss the following sites

Check out Benito Juarez Market

This lively street market is a must-stop in Oaxaca City. You’ll find anything and everything on sale here, from local handmade crafts to spices to produce to souvenirs. Spend some time taking in the sights and sounds, and try your luck at bartering. This is also a great place to sample traditional street food and chat up some friendly locals.

Visit Santo Domingo Church

This 400-year-old church is one of the main symbols of the city. Inside, you’ll find baroque statues, religious paintings, and flickering candles. Once a monastery, this church also houses a museum, and the church grounds are worth a visit as well.

Enjoy the Ethnobotanic Garden

A great addition to any sustainable trip is a visit to the botanic gardens. Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Gardens are a beautiful place to take a sunny stroll and admire all the different types of cacti that are found in Mexico. The gardens are located right next to the Santo Domingo Church.

Experience Zapotec Culture and History

The Zapotec people are indigenous to the state of Oaxaca and have a long history in the region. Before Spanish colonization, the Zapotecs were one of the most advanced civilizations in all of present-day Mexico and Central America. Today, the ruins of their ancient cities are some of the region’s top tourist attractions.

There is number of Oaxaca tours that will tell you everything about the history and culture of this place. If you have a spare day, make sure to take a culture trip to one of the following places near Oaxaca: 

Monte Alban

Monte Alban, constructed in 500 BC, is the most well known historic site in Zapotec culture. Located just 10 km (6 miles) from Oaxaca City, the ruins are one of the most popular Oaxaca tours. There is so much to be seen here, from grand courtyards to burial grounds to pyramids that you can climb.

In order to make the most of your time at Monte Alban, we recommend hiring a local guide. With a guide, you’ll get a full understanding of all the history and culture that this UNESCO protected site boasts. 

Monte Alban, Oaxaca
Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Teotitlan del Valle

If you are looking to get away from the city, consider taking a trip to the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua near Teotitlan del Valle, a traditional Zapotec community. Located about 28 km southeast of Oaxaca, this town is famous for its crafts, especially colourful handmade weavings such as ponchos, dresses, rugs and other clothing items. 

Arrazola 

The community of Arrazola is known for the manufacturing of ‘Alebrijes,’ Mexican crafts that are made with different types of paper and carved wood and painted with bright colours. One of the most common representations of this craft is a fictional animal made of physiognomical elements of other animals. 

Check prices and availability for a  full day or half day Zapotec Culture Tour.

Mitla

Another famous archaeological site, Mitla is arguably just as important to the history of Oaxaca and the Zapotec people as Monte Alban. It is best known for the beautifully complex mosaic work that can be found all over the site, including on buildings, gravestones, and plazas. If you’re particularly interested in history, this is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca.

Yagul

Although comparatively small, the Yagul archaeological site is best known for its famous ball court and cliff paintings in addition to its Zapotec ruins.

Take a Day Trip to Hierve el Agua

Often described as natural infinity pools, Hierve el Agua is one of the most popular Oaxaca tours for a good reason. The mineral pools spill over the side of the cliff, creating gigantic cascades. However, unlike normal waterfalls, these waters are completely petrified due to the intense mineral concentration. It is truly a strange and special sight to see.

Hierve el Agua is a great attraction to visit along with Mitla as the two are only 40 minutes away from each other.

Admiring the views of Hierve el Agua
Admiring the views of Hierve el Agua

Attend a Festival

With so much fantastic culture, including music, dance, art, and food, it’s no wonder Mexico hosts so many exciting festivals. While it would take another whole article to mention them all, here are two that stand out that you can celebrate in Oaxaca.

Guelaguetza

This festival is unique to Oaxaca City and is a celebration of the indigenous cultures of the area. For an entire week at the end of each July, everyone dresses up in costume and parades through the city, dancing and singing to traditional music. 

Since Oaxaca’s population is over 50% indigenous, this celebration has a deep cultural and spiritual meaning for many of those who attend. However, should you decide to attend yourself, you will be welcome to enjoy all of the festivities fo Guelaguetza as a tourist.

Día de Los Muertos

The Day of the Dead is a colourful festival celebrated by Mexicans to honour their departed ancestors. Taking place between October 31 and November 2nd depending on the year, the festival is celebrated throughout the day and overnight.

Families decorate altars with beautiful displays of flowers and photos to encourage the spirits of their loved ones to pay them a visit. If you’re thinking of visiting Oaxaca during October or November, you should definitely plan your visit around this special festival.

Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay

Eat Mole

Mole is the rich and highly complex sauce that Oaxaca is so famous for. Mole is normally made with 20 different ingredients or more, ranging from chilli peppers to nuts to chocolate to tomato. It is usually served over meat and rice.

Mole sauce served as a side to this delicious platter

With exactly seven different kinds, make sure to try them all before leaving Oaxaca!

Hotels in Oaxaca, Mexico

Hacienda Los Laureles

Hacienda Los Laureles is a beautiful hotel in Oaxaca Mexico, located just to the north of the city. The adjoining spa is a great place to relax after a long day on foot. What’s more, they’ve been recognized as a Green Leader by Trip Advisor which showcases their commitment to sustainability and ecotourism.

Hotel Las Mariposas

Half hotel and half guesthouse, this adorable accommodation are certified in a number of environmentally friendly practices. It offers private rooms as well as apartments with cooking facilities. Since it’s family run, Hotel Las Mariposas is an awesome hotel in Oaxaca Mexico if you’re looking for an intimate stay with locals.

Hotel Boutique De La Parra

This Colonial-style boutique hotel is located just 2 minutes away from the central square or Zocalo, and is about a 6-minute walk from the Museum of Contemporary Art. It is also about 8 km from Xoxocotlán International Airport.

Casa Antonieta 

A unique combination and simplicity and hospitality, this home-like casa will make you forget that you are in a hotel. Casa Antonieta is not just another hotel in Oaxaca. If you want to disconnect and enjoy the great comfort and rich culture, this place is definitely for you. 

Casa de Sierra Azul 

This elegant and newly renovated colonial home boasts everything that a busy traveller needs: A quiet environment in the center of the city and artsy interiors. It’s located just a few blocks away from Zocalo with its vibrant art and music scene, cafes and restaurants 

Airbnb

If you are looking for a more local way to experience Oaxaca, consider renting a room on Airbnb. There are hundreds of great accommodation options ranging from private rooms to whole houses starting at just $15 USD/night. 

New to Airbnb? Create an account today and get up to $35 USD off on your first booking!

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca, Mexico

La Olla

La Olla is an upscale restaurant in Oaxaca serving traditional Mexican meals with local and sustainably sourced ingredients. People come here particularly for mole, Oaxaca’s culinary claim to fame. Since eating mole is one of the most vital things to do in Oaxaca, it’s essential to find the best in the city (which this very well maybe.) 

Not only is the food at La Olla delicious, but it is also a work of art! Don’t miss this awesome establishment as it is easily one of the best restaurants in Oaxaca Mexico.

Hierba Dulce

This plant-based restaurant has a fantastic atmosphere and even better food. As a self-proclaimed “feminist kitchen,” Hierba Dulce serves not only incredible food but also a feisty spirit of inclusion and female empowerment.

Hierba Dulce

This plant-based restaurant has a fantastic atmosphere and even better food. As a self-proclaimed “feminist kitchen,” Hierba Dulce serves not only incredible food but also a feisty spirit of inclusion and female empowerment. 

Schizandra

This all-vegan restaurant has recently changed location, so make sure to double-check the address before heading out. This is a relatively new venue, however, it has already earned a reputation of a place with a friendly atmosphere and affordable prices.

Verde Vegano

A vegan restaurant that features a variety of plant-based dishes, using organic and natural products. Promotes a zero-waste lifestyle. 

As one of the only vegetarian restaurants in Oaxaca Mexico, the chefs cook solely with the most eco-friendly, local ingredients.

Calabacitas Tiernas

Although it’s a casual and inexpensive restaurant, Calabacitas Tiernas is an awesome spot to find fresh local food that is both completely organic and vegetarian. While their menu fluctuates depending on the season, you can always expect a great meal accompanied by fresh homemade bread.

Xiguela Café

Xiguela Café is a great option for a veggie breakfast as well as coffee, cake, and snacks. Everything is organic and fresh, with many ingredients coming from the adjoining organic store, so make sure to have a look in there too!

How Much Time Do You Need in Oaxaca?

There’s no shortage of things to do in Oaxaca City, and you could easily spend days exploring, taking day trips, and eating yourself into a mole food coma! However, most people visit the city for between three and five days, making sure they have ample time to walk the streets, visit the historic sites, and take a couple of Oaxaca tours without any rush.

However, since many of the best things to do in Oaxaca are day trips from the city itself, the entire Oaxaca state is definitely worth planning a visit to as well. Extending your trip Oaxaca City to the region’s coastline, for example, would be a great way to spend up to one full week in the state of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca was one of our favourite stops during our time in Mexico. We loved our time spent in the city and especially our trip to Hierve el Agua. We would highly recommend a visit to anyone planning to spend time in Mexico. 

Have you ever visited Oaxaca? What would you suggest to first-time visitors to this vibrant city?

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