Oaxaca is one of the highlights of Mexico that you definitely don’t want to miss on your trip. This breathtaking city is relatively quiet and has a really nice bohemian atmosphere. Walking through the beautiful Oaxaca city center, you will pass museums, markets, art galleries and countless coffeeshops and restaurants. You can stroll around for hours past squares, churches, colonial buildings, botanical gardens and colorful street art. I have made a list of the best things to do in Oaxaca city, Mexico.
An introduction to Oaxaca city, Mexico
Before we go into the list of best things to do in Oaxaca, let me tell you a bit about the history and background of the city. It is the capital of the Oaxaca state and has always attracted many artists, scientists, poets and writers. Oaxaca is also the birthplace of two notorious Mexican presidents: Benito Juarez (late 19th century and the first Mexican president of native descent) and Porfirio Diaz (dictator from the early 20th century). The inhabitants are descendants of the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs, pre-Columbian civilizations who built cities like Monte Albán and Mitla, hundreds of years ago. Both are archaeological sites with beautifully preserved ruins that you can visit nowadays.
Oaxaca City, along with Mexico City and Guadalajara, is seen as one of the cultural capitals of the country. There are plenty of events, exhibitions and festivals. Once a year, the famous Guelaquetza festival takes place, with traditional dance, music, costumes and parades through the city. Oaxaca is also called the “City of the Mezcal”. Mezcal is a kind of tequila, only it’s made from a different agave plant. Besides this, the city is famous for its moles (delicious herbal sauces), a grasshopper snack, colorful ceramics and the alejibres, little wooden sculptures with dots that are used during the annual Día de los Muertos.
Best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico
1. Dive into the typical Oaxaca atmosphere
One of the best things to do in Oaxaca is to just walk around, sit on benches, let the local life pass you by and take in the countless scents and colors. The Zócalo, the central center, with the cathedral, is a great start for a walk. From the Zócalo you walk into the nice old streets. Calle Alcala is a pedestrian zone with many shops, art galleries and coffeeshops. Be sure to check out the beautiful 17th-century Santo Domingo. The botanical garden behind it, is also worth a visit, during the rainy season.
Tip: On Sundays the Zócalo is the place for local people to come together. If you’re lucky, there is a band playing and everyone is dancing.
2. Visit the ancient ruins of Monte Albán | Oaxaca tours
The ancient ruins of Monte Albán, half an hour drive outside of Oaxaca, are an absolute must-see and cannot be excluded from your list of things to do in Oaxaca. Monte Albán is an archaeological site where you won’t find mass tourism yet. When you go early in the morning you might even have the place for yourself. Monte Albán was built around 200 BC and the religious, political and economic center of the Zapotec empire for 2000 years. The city is located on a hill, and the view is beautiful! If you look out over the complex you want to go back in time and see how impressive it must have looked.
The complex contains several parts, including the central plaza, a ball playing field, the buildings of the elite and the tombs near the entrance. Stroll around the ruins and pay some special attention at the frescoes called “Los Danzantes”. And take a seat on one of the benches on the hill and spot different birds of prey. Read here more about a visit to Monte Albán
Interested in exploring more ruins in Mexico? This is a list with the best ruins to visit in Mexico.
3. Visit the Museo Rufino Tamayo | What to see in Oaxaca
You do not have to be a history lover to appreciate the Museo Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca city. In a few rooms you will be taken on a journey through Pre-Columbian Mexico: From the Olmecs, the first inhabitants, to the Maya’s, one of the last Pre – Columbian civilizations before the Spaniards came. The images, figures, masks and other finds are very impressive. Depending on your interest you can spend 30 minutes to 1.5 hours in this museum. Definitely one of Oaxaca’s best museums to visit when you’re there. Another great thing to visit are the temporary exhibitions at Oaxaca’s modern art museum Museo de Arte Contemporáneo.
Planning to visit Mexico City? Make sure to visit the Frida Kahlo museum.
4. Strolling around the many markets | Best things to do in Oaxaca
I love to stroll around local markets, just to observe people and local life. Oaxaca has two major markets. Mercado Benito Juarez, two blocks from the Zocalo. The Mercado Central de Abastos, the biggest market, where you get lost in a maze of streets, is a little further away, just outside the colonial center (at the end of Calle Las Casas). You will find a mix of local products and souvenirs at both markets. From traditional moles, bottles of mezcal, Frida Kahlo bags to alejibres, Día de los Muertos souvenirs and local chocolates.
5. Taste the traditional mole | Best food in Oaxaca
Oaxaca is famous for its delicious cuisine! You cannot leave without tasting the delicious mole, a sauce consisting of various spices, including cocoa. There are several moles on the menu in Casa de la Abuela, on the Zocalo. You can also order a “mole” tasting, so you can taste different moles at the same time.
6. Get a mezcal in one of the many Mezcalerias | Best local drink in Oaxaca
If you want to go for a typical Oaxaca drink, visit one of the Mezcalerias, such as La Casa del Mezcal. These are bars serving countless varieties of the local Mezcal specialty. (a kind of tequila only from another “agave” plant). A good way to start a local night out. But even if you do not drink alcohol, it is nice to go in and view the selection!
7. Try the local specialty: Deep-fried grasshoppers | What to eat in Oaxaca
If you really want to go local, grab a bag of dried grasshoppers with lemon in one of the street stalls and enjoy a local snack. This might not sound to you as one of the best things to do in Oaxaca, but you can’t say you’ve visited unless you’ve tried this local treat. Buen provecho!
Where to eat and drink in Oaxaca
Eating good food is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca. The city offers some great restaurant choices with delicious food and drinks. These are a few of my personal favorites, that I love spending time at whenever I’m in the city:
- Boulenc is a nice place for different types of breakfast or a healthy lunch such as salads, sandwiches, quiches and pies. There is also a matching bakery where you can get fresh bread. It’s a popular place so you might have to wait for a table.
- Do you have a bit more money to spend for a chic dinner? Los Danzantes is the little sister restaurant of the restaurant Los Danzantes in Mexico city. In a beautiful setting, you will enjoy beautiful a modern fusion cuisine with local products, including delicious cocktails with Mexican spirits
- La Casa de la Abuela is located on the first floor on one of the corners of the Zócalo. Make sure to get a table near the window so you can observe the lively plaza. You really want to try the traditional moles here.
- La Biznaga is a modern restaurant with a mixed menu, combining Western and Mexican dishes, including super cocktails. You can sit outside in the lovely courtyard.
Best time to visit Oaxaca
Climate in Oaxaca | When to visit Oaxaca
Oaxaca is located at an altitude of 1,550 meters (5,000 ft.) above sea level and is surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountain range. This gives it a pleasant climate year-round. Climate wise, the best time to visit Oaxaca is during October and November, or during February and March. Temperatures are moderate and it’s low Season, in case you want to avoid crowds. June and August, as well as the holiday season between mid-December and early-January, constitute high season. The rainy season usually lasts from May through September, and the rest of the year is quite dry.
Holidays and festivals in Oaxaca | What to see in Oaxaca
No matter when you visit, chances are you’ll stumble upon some type of cultural celebration or religious processions in the street. But there are two major Holidays in Oaxaca you should be aware of when planning our trip. The famous Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, spanning one week from the end of October until the beginning of November. And the Guelaquetza festival, an indigenous cultural festival with traditional costumes and dancing, native food and artisanal crafts. I highly recommend it if you’re visiting the city in the second half of July.
Interested in reading more about Mexico? Check out the article about what to do in San Cristobal de las Casas, discover the house of Frida Kahlo in Mexico city: Casa azul, the archaeological site of Yaxchilan and Monte Alban. Interested in learning more about archaeology and places to visit? This is an overview with the best and most beautiful ruins to visit in Mexico.
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