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.
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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.
Also known as Oaxaca de Juarez, this area was 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.
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The Best Time To Visit Oaxaca City
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 the 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.
People Watch at Oaxaca Zocalo
As Oaxaca’s main square, this is a great spot to take in the sights and observe local life in this bustling city centre. Besides people watching, there is plenty more to do and see in the Zocalo. The ornate, Baroque-style Oaxaca Cathedral is located here, and the square is lined by lots of cafes, restaurants, and shops.
Visit Santo Domingo Church
This 400-year-old church is one of the main symbols of the city. Inside Templo de Santo Domingo, 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 Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. 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.
Check Out The Local Markets
Benito Juarez Market
This lively street market is a must-stop in downtown Oaxaca. 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 with some friendly locals.
Mercado de Abastos
Encompassing an area of over three sq km, this is the biggest and one of the oldest markets in Oaxaca. There are hundreds of vendors at Mercado de Abastos, and you can find absolutely everything here – local fruit, baked treats, Oaxacan hot chocolate, clothing, craftworks, souvenirs, and much more. Take care to be aware of pickpockets though, and it’s probably best to leave flashy jewellery, purses, and watches back at the hotel.
La Casa de las Artesanías
Located in the Oaxaca city center, this market features goods made my indigenous artisans from different regions within the state of Oaxaca. You’ll find handmade textiles, jewellery, pottery, and more.
Visit Oaxaca Museums
There are several museums to explore in the city, showcasing everything from traditional textiles and exhibits focused on precolonial history to contemporary art and photography.
Museum of Oaxacan Cultures
Housed in the gorgeous monastery attached to the Santo Domingo Church, the Museo de las Culturas is home to several exhibits on the history and cultures of the state of Oaxaca, going all the way back to hunter-gatherers who settled in the area ten thousand years ago.
Museo Textil de Oaxaca
Located on property that was once the orchard belonging to the convent of Santo Domingo Soriano, this specialty museum focuses on Oaxaca’s textile traditions, featuring exhibitions, workshops, and presentations on this centuries-old craft. The museum houses over ten thousand pieces of traditional textile, some dating back a hundred years or more.
Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca
Set in a restored Spanish colonial mansion, the Contemporary Art Museum of Oaxaca showcases works by local and international artists in unique exhibitions. There is also a sculpture garden in the mansion’s courtyard, where performances and film showings are held.
Join A Street Art Tour
Oaxaca has some amazing street art, and a guided bike tour is a great way to see it. You’ll explore three of the city’s most colourful neighbourhoods, learning about the street artists who created the murals, stencils, and giant posters that embody the history, culture, and politics of the region.
Take A Cooking Class
A cooking class is a great way to learn about the local culture of any place you visit while preparing delicious food. This Traditional Oaxacan Cooking Class with Market Visit starts with a trip to the main markets of the city, where a chef will show you how to pick the best and freshest ingredients for your dishes. You’ll go back to the kitchen, where you’ll prepare a traditional meal, complete with authentic tortillas and mezcal cocktails.
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 are a number of Oaxaca tours that will tell you everything about the history and local 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, constructed in 500 BC, is the most well-known historic site in Zapotec culture. Located just 10 km (6 miles) from Oaxaca City, the ancient 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Located about 2.5 hours south of Oaxaca City, the seaside town of Puerto Escondido is a bit of a trek but well worth it if you need some beach time away from the tourist crowds. This laid-back beach town is a great place to surf, enjoy the freshest seafood, and just relax in the sun.
Santa Maria del Tule
Nestled in the Valles Centrales region, this picturesque town is just 11 km east of Oaxaca City. Santa Maria del Tule is famous for El Arbol del Tule, a 2,000-year-old Montezuma Cypress that is considered to be the widest tree in the world.
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.
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 of 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.
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 chili peppers to nuts to chocolate to tomato. It is usually served over meat and rice.
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.
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: Casa de Sierra Azul offers a quiet environment in the centre 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
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 $50 USD/night.
Best Restaurants In Oaxaca, Mexico
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 may be.)
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.
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.
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 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 to 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?