15 Unmissable Things to do in Oaxaca City, Mexico

Things to do in Oaxaca City Mexico FM

Oaxaca city, located in the Oaxaca state, is one of the most incredible cities I’ve visited in my entire life and the most complete in terms of cultural, historical, and artistic offerings.

In fact, this Mexican jewel nestled in the Oaxaca Valley, surrounded by beautiful mountains, has literally everything: from delicious cuisine to colorful street art, ancient ruins, indigenous cultures, access to natural wonders, and much more.

With so many attractions, it’s hard to choose which ones to focus on when you visit Oaxaca city (also called Oaxaca de Juarez) especially if you don’t have much time. 

Since I lived in the area, I decided to save you some time and make this guide with some TOP things to do in Oaxaca (if you’re wondering how to pronounce Oaxaca in Spanish, they say “wa-ha-ka”).

So, are you ready to come on this magical trip with me?

Let’s jump right in!

If you are in a hurry 

If you don’t have time to read all the best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico, check out this quick list of the best tours in Oaxaca city:

Here are the main things to book in advance:

And here are the best hotels: Hotel Quinta Real (Luxury), Hotel Boutique Parador (Mid-range), Parador San Agustin (Budget)

1. Head to el Zocalo Square

People walking through the colorful el Zocalo Square, one of the best things. to do in Oaxaca City

If you want to have a feel of the local culture and of the city itself, you should definitely start by wandering around the charming cobblestone streets of downtown Oaxaca.

Here are concentrated most of the historical attractions of Oaxaca de Juárez (like the Oaxaca Cathedral) as well as fine dining restaurants, street vendors selling delicious food at any corner, and Oaxaca’s main square: Zocalo.

In Zocalo main square, located right in the heart of Oaxaca city center, you’ll find musicians and countless street food stalls selling fresh fruit (if you want to try it in the Mexican way, add a sprinkle of chili) traditional handicrafts, clothes, and typical souvenirs.

But what I personally enjoy the most here is people watch… just sit in one of the many restaurants and bars of the square and enjoy a mezcal, a coffee, or a meal while you see locals in their daily life! 

Prices could be higher than average in Zocalo venues, but the lively atmosphere of the square is definitely worth it.

You can visit Zocalo as a part of a free walking tour with a local guide (quite a unique and different experience) or with this half-day city tour exploring the main architectural and historical monuments of the city center.

2. Explore Monte Alban ancient ruins

Monte Alban archeological site

You cannot leave Oaxaca city without visiting Monte Alban Zapotec ruins, an archaeological UNESCO World Heritage Site about half an hour from the center: definitely one of the MUST things to do in Oaxaca.

This ancient site was one of the earliest cities in Latin America and the social, political, and economic center for the Zapotecs, one of the main indigenous cultures of Oaxaca Mexico.

Now in Monte Alban, you can gaze at the remaining pyramids, canals, plaza, terraces, and stairs… I was able to travel back in time as soon as I saw the first stones with indigenous carvings!

And the best thing is that you’ll see all of this with 365-degree views of the city and the mountains all around: an unforgettable show!

Since there is so much history behind these magnificent ruins, I suggest you visit them with an expert tour guide, so that you can really understand what you’re seeing, like this half-day tour or even with a full-day trip including artisan towns like Arrazola and San Bartolo Coyotepec. 

PRO TIP: Monte Alban ruins are open from Monday to Sunday from 8 am to 5 pm, but I suggest you avoid the hottest hours (from 12 pm to 2 pm): it gets super hot and you don’t have lots of places to repair from the sun!

PRICE: 75MXN ($4) only entrance

How to get there

If you don’t want to rely on a tour to go to Monte Alban, there are some ways to go alone:

  • Taxi: anywhere in the city center (especially in Zocalo) you can take a taxi for 150 MXN ($7), or 300 MXN for round trip transportation
  • Shuttle bus: you can take a bus for 6MXN ($3) from the Central de Abastos to the town below Monte Alban and then take a moto-taxi until Monte Alban for 10 MXN 
  • Car: it will take you around half an hour to get to Monte Alban from Oaxaca City, and you can park for free in the parking right before the ruins. Check the rental car prices here.

3. Visit the Templo de Santo Domingo

templo santo domingo

If you love gazing at the architecture of old churches, you’ll fall in love with the Templo de Santo Domingo (Santo Domingo Church), the most famous cathedral in Oaxaca city. 

Situated within a small square of the city center, the Templo de Santo Domingo is huge and majestic and looks even better when you go inside: its interiors are decorated with gold, carved stone, and wood, and you’ll also find a high altar totally covered with gold!

The Santo Domingo Church was founded in 1575, but they actually used it as military barracks during the revolutionary war period to be finally restored as a religious building in 1938.

The church plaza is also a great place to hang out, bustling with life: musicians, street vendors selling any kind of souvenir or food, painters and many people, from locals to tourists!

4. Try the best Mexican food 

traditional food

One of the things Oaxaca city is known for in Mexico as the whole world is its amazing cuisine and street food!

The city has so many traditional dishes and ingredients produced in the area that it’s hard to try them all… but there are some you need to taste (otherwise you can’t really say you have visited Oaxaca).

Let’s check them out:

  • Mole: this is the most Iconic food, (or better said, sauce) of Oaxaca city. This sauce is made of many different ingredients, among which are chili, spices, and even chocolate! In Oaxaca there are 7 unique versions, to try in meat or tortilla dishes.
  • Oaxacan hot chocolate: hot chocolate is one of the most traditional and popular beverages in Oaxaca, and you will see it in all the chocolate shops! It can be made of water or milk, and you can drink it with sugar, cinnamon, or just natural. Usually, you combine it with pan dulce (sweet bread) or pan de Yema (egg bread)
  • Oaxaca cheese: also known as quesillo, this is a white cheese that originated in the Oaxaca region, tasting like Monterey Jack but with the texture of Mozzarella. It is one of the main ingredients of any street food you’ll try: tacos, tlayudas, quesadillas, and many more!
chapulines
  • Chapulines: one of the most typical (and, frankly, quite weird) snacks you can try in any market is the “chapulines”: grasshoppers dried and seasoned to be eaten just like that! In the end, they look worse than what they taste (exactly like their seasoning!)
  • Tlayudas: if you want to try street snacks in Oaxaca, you should start with the famous Tlayuda: a big and crispy tortilla topped with beans, cheese, avocado, and either veggies or any meat of choice.
  • Tamales: this is my favorite Mexican street food ever, made from steamed corn-based dough and wrapped in a corn husk. The filling can be with anything: meat, veggies, fish, cheese, raisins… perfect for a fulfilling snack!

Even if you can try all these delicious foods just wandering in Oaxaca city by yourself, there are many food tours with which you sample several traditional dishes with a local, so you also avoid the risk of falling into the typical tourist traps, like this half-day walking food tour.

5. Relax at Hierve el Agua natural pools

5 Relax at Hierve el Agua natural pools

At about one hour and a half from Oaxaca city you’ll find a magical spot called Hierve el Agua: some natural mineral springs made of rocks and formations that look like a cascading waterfall!

Once you get to Hierve el Agua, to reach the actual pools you’ll just need to hike for 10-minutes on a quite steep hill, but then you’ll swim in freshwater (don’t forget your swimsuit!), saturated with calcium carbonate and other minerals… a blessing for your skin! 

Hierve el Agua is the perfect place to take a break from city life, enjoy some peace, reconnect with nature and enjoy breathtaking views of the mountains all around… one of the best day trips from Oaxaca.

P.S.: if you love nature, check out my post about Chacahua, an amazing natural reserve on the Oaxacan coast!

The best way of visiting Hierve el Agua is with a guided tour, so you don’t have to worry about transportation and you usually have the chance to visit other cool spots in the surroundings. 

This day trip tour, for example, combines Hierve el Agua with a visit to a mezcal producer and the Zapotec town of Teotitlán del Valle. It is ~50USD per person, so I think it is a pretty good deal!

How to get there: 

  • Taxi: from anywhere in Oaxaca city center, it will cost you around 200MDX (US$10) 
  • Bus: catch the bus (18 MDX / $0.90) from the Oaxaca 2nd class bus terminal from Oaxaca City to Mitla for 1h, then change to a camioneta in Mitla bus station (40 pesos / US$2.00) until Hierve el Agua
  • Car: it will take you 1 hour and a half on a curved road to go from Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua

PRICE: 50MDX (US$2.5) (+10MDX if you enter with your own car) 

6. Do some Mezcal tasting 

6 Do some Mezcal tasting

A trip to Oaxaca city is not complete if you don’t try Mezcal: smoky alcohol from distilled agave (tequila is actually a type of mezcal). 

And even if you wanted, it’s impossible to avoid mezcal in Oaxaca, with all the mezcal bars (also called mezcalerias) popping out through the city. I honestly didn’t like Mezcal before coming to Oaxaca, and after my vacation, I ended up loving it… you just need to get used to the taste!

I think you got the point: a mezcal tasting is a must, and there are different ways to do it. You can do like me and randomly taste the different types of mezcals by yourself, and in this case, I suggest you visit the famous Casa del Mezcal, the oldest traditional cantinas in the city.

The second option is to join a Mezcal tasting tour through the traditional mezcal distilleries of the Oaxaca valleys, like this private tour or this mezcal tasting session with an expert, with which you can also learn about the origin of the drink.

7. Visit the botanical garden

7 Visit the botanical garden

One of the best things to do in Oaxaca if you love green spaces is to visit the beautiful and peaceful botanical gardens (Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca).

This public garden is not just a bunch of plants put together but has the objective to tell the region’s history through its flora and explore the link between the Oaxacan people and plants, which are divided by cultural and ecological groups.

The Botanical Gardens are quite big, sitting on 2.5 acres of former monastic grounds and they are located right next to the Templo de Santo Domingo, so they’re super easy to reach.

NOTE: they’re open from Monday to Saturday and can only be visited with guided tours, which are offered in English every day at 11 am. Check out the website for more info!

PRICE: 100 MDX ($5)

8. Take a Mexican cooking class

8 Take a Mexican cooking class

One of the best (and most fun) things you can do in the culinary capital of Mexico is to explore its food culture with a cooking class. 

In this way you can spend quality time with the locals, deep dive into their traditions, and learn how to cook their best dishes: mole, fresh tortillas, guacamole, and salsa, Oaxacan tamales, and much more… so you can easily reproduce them at home if you start having Mexican cravings!

For example, this Oaxacan cooking class combines the lesson with a visit to a bustling local market with a chef, to buy fresh produce for your recipes. Get ready to prepare handmade tortillas and typical drinks like Tejate, Chilacayota, and Mezcalitas (Margaritas with Mezcal)!

Otherwise, with this other cooking class, you’ll learn how to cook the best dishes of the Oaxacan cuisine in a world-class restaurant in the city, guided by an expert chef-instructor. You’ll be part of a small group, and you’ll decide together which dishes will go on the menu, how cool is that?

PRICE: ~US$90 for a 5.5-hour tour

9. Explore the local art

Jalatlaco

If I think about art, the first thing that comes to my mind is Oaxaca: I’ve never seen a city so full of colorful graffiti, art galleries, and street painters selling the best works you can imagine!

If you’re a fan of street art like me, I suggest you lose yourself in the streets of the Jalatlaco neighborhood: with its colors, bohemian vibe, hip cafes, art venues, and murales it will make you fall in love (or at least, I did!).

Another cool way to explore the local art is through this guided tour, which will take you around 3 neighborhoods of Oaxaca and do art workshops, and see street art, and some interesting galleries and artists.

10. Get lost in the markets

10 Get lost in the markets

One of my absolute favorite things to do in Oaxaca is exploring the many local markets, where you can buy fresh ingredients, clothes, handcraft souvenirs, or just sit in one of the street food restaurants and try the local food.

This is the best way to have a real feel of Mexican culture: chaotic and colorful. I suggest you visit at least the three main markets of Oaxaca city: Mercado Benito Juárez, 20 de Noviembre market and

In Mercado Benito Juarez, at walking distance from the zocalo square you’ll find everything from local goods to clothing, fresh ingredients, and Oaxacan snacks: here’s the place to try the famous chapulines (fried and seasoned grasshoppers). 

Just a block from Mercado Benito Juárez lies the 20 de Noviembre market, the most popular one, featuring mainly food stalls. 

The market is famous for “El Pasillo de las Carnes Asadas” (“The Grilled Meats Hall”) where you choose your favorite cut of meat and have it prepared in front of you! But I warn you: this part of the market is super hot, with all the smoke coming from the grills… can be overwhelming!

Finally, The Mercado de Artesanias is perfect if you love handcrafts, selling textiles, black (barro negro) and red pottery, jewelry, etc. The most traditional thing you can find here are the Alebrijes: imaginary and colorful wooden animals that have a special meaning in the Oaxacan culture.

11. Check out the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca

11 Cultural Center of

Just right next to Santo Domingo Church you’ll find an incredible museum: the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, restored as the Cultural Center of Oaxaca. 

The Museum is located in a 16th-century monastery: just the building itself is beautiful, with vaulted corridors and glassless windows… but the best part is inside the museum, where you’ll find archaeological treasures from the Pre-Columbian era until now!

Get ready to gaze at colorful art, learn about the Oaxacan indigenous cultures and attend very interesting exhibitions… and from the windows, you can have some of the best views of the city! The museum is open every day except for Monday from 10 am to 6 pm.

PRICE: 85 MXD ($US4), on Sunday the entrance is free

12. Do a Temazcal Ceremony

12 Do a Temazcal Ceremony

Temazcal is a very traditional ceremony of Mexican heritage, dating back from pre-Hispanic Indigenous people, consisting in purifying your body in a small and dark “sweat lodge”, aimed to make you feel again in the mother’s womb.

“Temazcal” actually refers to the structure where the ceremony happens: a dome-like construction usually of cement, mud, or volcanic stone, which can host from 1 up to 10 people, but 

Ceremonies are all different and unique, but they have some common patterns: they last about 1 or 2 hours and they are led by a sort of spiritual leader (the temazcalero or shaman). 

To start you’ll enter the sweat lodge and sit in a circle with the other people, around some steaming volcanic stones. The shaman will pour water over the stones to produce the steam that will make you sweat and close the door, and then repeat it at regular intervals.

When I did it, the water was mixed with herbs meant to have healing and therapeutic properties, but this depends on each ceremony: in some of them, they even make you drink some herbal tea while inside the temazcal… as I said, there are many variations!

At the end of the ceremony, you’ll get out of the dome and take a cool shower to lower your body temperature, and you will feel reborn! I know it can sound overwhelming, but it’s actually a great experience, and it comes from a person who hates saunas!

There are many centers in Oaxaca where you can experience Temazcal, but one of the most popular in the city is the Ceviarem, managed by a lovely Zapotec couple… check it out!

13. Go on a day trip to Mitla

13 day trip to Mitla

The location of Oaxaca city, close to many interesting towns and natural attractions, makes it perfect to go on cool day trips, especially if you have the luck to stay in the city for a long time. 

One of the best day trips from Oaxaca is definitely Mitla, located 1-hour drive from Oaxaca (east of it). This town is the most ancient religious center of Oaxaca and was home of high priests during Pre-Hispanic times. 

In fact, Mitla comes from the word “Mictlan”, meaning “the underworld”, and was originally built as a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Now Mitla is a super interesting archeological site to visit for its incredible mosaics, depicting the earth, the sky, and other natural figures, as well as its old churches and colonial buildings

Check out this full-day tour to Mitla, combining a visit to El Tule, a huge tree 1400 years old, and Hierve el Agua!

How to get there:

Taxi: you can take a taxi from anywhere in the center to Mitla: it will take you 40 minutes and cost you around 30 MXD ($1.5)

Drive: driving from Oaxaca city to Mitla will take you 40 minutes and cost you around $5

Bus: take a bus from here for 20 MXD (about $1) with a big ‘Mitla’ sign in the window

PRICE: US$37 for the tour 

14. Celebrate the Day of the Dead

14 Celebrate the Day of the Dead

If you happen to visit Oaxaca between October 31 and November 2, you’ll have the luck to attend one of the most magical celebrations of Mexico: the Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos in Spanish).

If you haven’t watched Coco, the Disney cartoon yet, make sure to watch it before you go, this will explain a lot! 🙂 

In fact, the Dead festivities in Oaxaca are some of the most spiritual and unique in the whole country, combining pre-Hispanic and Christian traditions!

Forget about the typical Halloween: during this time, Mexican people believe that the door between the world of the spirits and the living is lifted and that their dead loved ones come back to our world to visit them!

In order to receive the spirits, locals put ofrendas (offerings) on altars at their homes, schools, and cemeteries: pictures of the deceased, candles, sugar skulls, crosses, flowers, and food… so the dead can enjoy them as if they were living!

During the Dia de Los Muertos (and one week before), the city fills with colorful flowers, altars, sand tapestries made by local artists, music, traditional parades with costumed performers and marching bands around the streets… such a magical moment to live in the city!

P.S.: Another place that is home to one of the largest days of the dead celebrations is Mexico City, hosting a huge parade… 

You can even celebrate the day of the dead with this guided tour, which will also give you an explanation of this antique tradition, considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity!

15. Attend the Guelaguetza Festival

15 Attend the Guelaguetza Festival

Guelaguetza is one of the most important Oaxaca festivals, happening on the last 2 Mondays of July, which is also called “Los Lunes del Cerro” (Mondays on the Hill). 

The meaning of this celebration has to do with the different communities of the Oaxaca region coming together and sharing their unique cultural heritages: in fact, the word Guelaguetza in the Zapotec language means “offering”, implying a reciprocal exchange between cultures. 

During this time, all the ethnic groups of the Oaxacan region travel to the city to exhibit traditional clothing and celebrate with dances, music, costumes, and food: the ultimate celebration of Oaxacan culture!

The festival is celebrated in The Guelaguetza Auditorium, located on a hill at the exit of Oaxaca City International Highway, a 30 minutes walk from the Historic Center. To buy the tickets (US$2), you can either do that online or directly at the ticket offices of the Secretaría de Turismo.

How to get there

  • Free citybus: leaving from the Zócalo at any time of the day (but you could have to wait in long lines)
  • Public bus: Take the bus from Crespo Street and get off at the “escaleras del Fortín” stairs, which will take you directly to the Auditorium
  • Walk: it will take you 35 minutes from the Historic Center of Oaxaca
  • Taxi: if you manage to find one during this time, taking a taxi will cost you around 100 MXD ($US5) and take you 5 minutes

PRICE: US$2

🤩 Range of activities:Large
👪 Family-friendly score:Medium
🏛️ Best museum:Museo de las Culturas
🎢 Top paid attraction:Monte Alban
🚶🏽‍♂️ Best free activity:Zocalo Square
👧 Best attraction for kids:Hierve el Agua
🥟 Must try food:Tlayuda
📅 How many days:5-7
📍 Best neighborhood:El Centro 
🍽️ Dinner for 2:$30
🚕 Average taxi PRICE:$5
💵 Avg hotel PRICE:$100
✈️ Cost of traveling:Medium

Where to stay in Oaxaca

If you want to have easy access to all the amazing things to do in Oaxaca we just saw, the Centro is definitely the best area in the city, close also to most of the shops, restaurants, bars, and historical attractions. 

I gathered here below a quick list of the best Oaxaca hotels in the central area, and divided them by different price ranges: check them out! And if you want to see other hotel options and areas, check out my post about where to stay in Oaxaca.

16 Where to stay in
  • Luxury ($180 and up)
    Hotel Quinta Real – If you want to enjoy luxury right in the heart of Oaxaca check out this amazing hotel, within walking distance of the Oaxaca Cathedral! Here you’ll find spacious rooms with colonial-style décor, a swimming pool where to relax, and an on-site for the best cocktails.
  • Mid Range ($90 – $130)
    Hotel Boutique Parador – This Boutique hotel offers the best value for price and a great location in Central Oaxaca, close to all the best attractions! Get ready to eat the best Mexican food at the gourmet restaurant on-site and sleep in comfy beds after an intense day of visiting.
  • Budget (up to $70)
    Parador San Agustin – If you want to visit Mexico on a budget, this affordable hotel is what you’re looking for, located right in the heart of Oaxaca Centro. The property gives you access to spacious rooms, perfect for a stay with the family, and a charming interior courtyard to spend some relaxing time.

Frequently asked questions about Oaxaca

17 Frequently asked questions about

🤩 What are the best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico?

The best things to do in Oaxaca are people watching in Zocalo square, swimming in Hierve el Agua mineral pools, and trying all the traditional food at the markets, like the delicious hot chocolate.

🟡 Is Oaxaca safe as a city? 

Yes, Oaxaca has a very low crime rate compared to other big cities in the country like Mexico City, but pickpocketing happens, so you always have to use common sense especially around Zocalo and at markets!

🚕 Which are the best day trips from Oaxaca, Mexico?

The best day trips from Oaxaca are the ones to Hierve el Agua, Monte Alban archeological ruins, and to Mitla town, an ancient religious center with incredible mosaics.

👀 Which are the most unusual things to do in Oaxaca?

The most unusual things to do in Oaxaca are attending cultural events like the Day of the Dead and the Guelaguetza Festival, or participating in a Temazcal ceremony!

Conclusion

18 best things to do in Oaxaca

Congrats! You finally made it to the end of this super extensive guide on the best things to do in Oaxaca, the beautiful capital of the Oaxacan region, Mexico.

We went through so many cool activities and attractions, from cultural events to natural wonders, indigenous ruins, art galleries, and delicious food… you definitely won’t have time to get bored here!

I hope you enjoyed my post and it will be helpful for your vacation in Oaxaca, and if you have any questions for me, please leave them in the comments below: I am looking forward to answering you!

Have the best holiday! 

Elena 

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