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Things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico

Updated: Apr 24

Nestled in a valley surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountains, Oaxaca exudes a unique blend of indigenous and colonial charm. In this article, I will share with you all the must-sees in Oaxaca and also fun things to do!

At the end of the article, I will also cover the best areas to stay in Oaxaca!

Short on time? Here is a summary of all the best things to do in Oaxaca:

  • Explore the historic center of Oaxaca

  • Check out the colorful Jalatleco neighborhood

  • Visit Oaxaca's main viewpoint

  • Shop at the local market

  • Try some of the Oaxaca traditional foods

Explore the historic center of Oaxaca

There is so much to see in the historic center but do not worry, everything is within walking distance. Although you can simply wander around the streets and will see something beautiful on each corner there are a few sites you can't miss out on and can add to your list!

To start you have to visit the main square - Zocalo! It is more like a little park with a huge gazebo in the middle. That will be the best place to observe the local life. Usually a very busy area with street musicians and vendors.

Next to Zocalo Square, you will find the main cathedral - the Metropolitan Cathedral of Oaxaca. You can walk inside it and admire it from the outside as it is one of the most impressive cathedrals in Oaxaca.

Nearby the Zocalo and the Cathedral you will find Oaxaca's first university - Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca and Macedonio Alcala Theater. From the outside, the theater immediately grabs your attention with its grand design.

5 minutes walk away to the west, you will find The Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Soledad (Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude). Not only it is a beautiful basilica to visit but also next to it you will find many traditional restaurants.

Must see and my personal favorite is the Santo Domingo Cathedral! This beautiful church and former monastery, built between the 16th and 17th centuries, is one of the most significant and well-preserved examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in Mexico.

The church is grand and impressive from the outside, with a complex baroque facade that features ornate carvings and sculptures. Two bell towers flank the main entrance, creating a symmetrical, balanced look. Inside, you'll be amazed by the lavish gold decoration that covers almost every surface, from the columns and arches to the ceiling and main altar.

But there's more to the Santo Domingo complex than just the church. It also houses the Cultural Centre of Oaxaca, which includes the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. I highly recommend visiting it! This museum showcases the rich history and culture of the region, including artifacts from the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations.

Also, if there is only 1 tip you take away from this article then it has to be this! Do not waste time and money on visiting the Botanical Garden. Although it is highly recommended by many, I do not think it is that impressive. Also, you can't explore it on your own, you have to go with a guide and you might end up being stuck in an hour tour you are not even interested in (me!). Most important, you can perfectly see all the botanical gardens from the museum balconies! So by visiting the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, you hit 2 birds with one stone!

And then you have endless little streets to wander around full of shops selling local textiles, mezcal bars, cute authentic restaurants, rooftop terraces, and simply colorful architecture to admire.

To get to know the historic centre I did a free walking tour on my first day. Although I didn't see everything I wanted during the tour, I did learn a lot of interesting facts about the city and the people from it. So I do highly recommend it and then after you can visit all the sites yourself that were missed out on during the tour. Although it is free, the recommended tip is MXN 100 per person (~$6).

Check out the colorful Jalatlaco neighborhood

Jalatlaco is a very cool upcoming neighborhood with loads of amazing murals!

The Jalatlaco neighborhood, often referred to as the "barrio" (Spanish for neighborhood) of Jalatlaco, is one of the oldest and most charming quarters in Oaxaca City. Stepping into Jalatlaco is like stepping back in time, with its cobblestone streets, brightly colored houses, and a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere.

In Jalatlaco, you can find some of Oaxaca's oldest buildings, many of which have been converted into boutique hotels, charming cafés, art galleries, and shops selling local crafts. Its narrow, winding streets are perfect for leisurely strolls, offering an authentic slice of Oaxacan life.

Despite its proximity to Oaxaca's busy city center, Jalatlaco remains a tranquil enclave, a place where you can experience the slower pace of local Oaxacan life. It's a charming neighborhood to explore, offering visitors a chance to step off the beaten path and experience a more traditional side of Oaxaca.

Visit Oaxaca's main viewpoint

To get the best views of the city you have to visit Cerro del Fortin. Depending on where you are in the historic center, it will be around a 30-minute walk up the main road leaving the city. But do not worry, it is not too steep of a hike.

Visiting Cerro del Fortin is a perfect way to appreciate Oaxaca's beauty from a unique perspective. Whether you visit at sunrise to enjoy the peaceful morning air, or at sunset to watch the city lights gradually come alive, this viewpoint guarantees a memorable experience. You will see the whole historic center from there!

The viewpoint is next to the huge white tent that hosts some of Oaxaca's largest events so you won't miss it!

A great way to combine the visit to the Jalatleco neighborhood and the Cerro del Fortin viewpoint is to go on a bike tour. Daniel offers a great tour that includes both and a bit more.

Shop at the local market

A visit to Oaxaca wouldn't be complete without exploring its vibrant local market, offering a chance to immerse oneself in the daily life and culture of the region. The Mercado 20 de Noviembre market is where you can feel the real pulse of the city, shop for local products, and sample regional dishes as there are several food stalls. So in addition to food, the market also has local crafts, clothing, and souvenirs.

Overall, a visit to Mercado 20 de Noviembre is an immersive experience that offers a true taste of Oaxaca's gastronomy and culture. Whether you're a seasoned foodie or a curious traveler, this market is a must-visit when in Oaxaca.

A quick comment on the prices: I personally think Oaxaca is the cheapest destination in Mexico from the ones I have been to so far (Mexico City, Puerto Escondido & Playa del Carmen). So in Oaxaca, you have a really great value for your money. In all the other places we tend to always spend more than MXN 500 (~$30) for a dinner for 2, but in Oaxaca we always managed to stay below.

Try some of the Oaxacan traditional foods

Oaxaca, often referred to as the "culinary capital of Mexico," is renowned for its rich and diverse cuisine. Its traditional foods, influenced by indigenous cultures and locally sourced ingredients, offer a delectable array of flavors. Here are some traditional Oaxacan foods you must try:

  1. Mole: Oaxaca is known as the "land of the seven moles," with each version boasting a unique combination of ingredients and flavors. The most famous is Mole Negro, a rich, complex sauce made with chiles, nuts, seeds, spices, chocolate, and more.

  2. Tlayudas: Often referred to as the Oaxacan version of a pizza, a tlayuda is a large, thin, crunchy tortilla topped with refried beans, Oaxacan cheese (quesillo), cabbage, avocado, and meat (typically tasajo or chorizo).

  3. Chapulines: These are grasshoppers that have been toasted on a comal (a traditional flat griddle) with garlic, lime juice, and salt. They're often served as a snack with a side of guacamole or used as a topping on tlayudas.

  4. Cheeses: Oaxaca is famous for its cheese, particularly Queso Oaxaca, also known as quesillo. It's a string cheese with a mild flavor and is used in many Oaxacan dishes.

  5. Memelas: These are small, thick tortillas topped with refried beans, cheese, and various salsas. They're a popular street food and can sometimes include additional toppings like avocado or chorizo.

These dishes and flavors provide a rich and diverse taste of Oaxacan cuisine. But there are also 2 drinks you have to try:

  1. Mezcal: Your culinary journey in Oaxaca would be complete without trying mezcal, an alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant. You will find more than 500 Mezcal brands in Oaxaca and it is used for all the cocktails on all the menus. I must say it is a bit too strong for me but you do have to try it! Remember, do not chug it down as a shot! It will burn but with a smokey aftertaste! Sip slowly and try to enjoy.

  2. Chocolate: Oaxacan chocolate is often consumed as a drink, made from cacao beans that are ground with sugar, almonds, and cinnamon. You can find it in local markets, and it's often served alongside traditional Oaxacan pastries. You will think, oh hot chocolate, but trust me it was the best hot chocolate I have ever had. It truly tastes like quality chocolate.

Don't miss the chance to indulge in these culinary delights when you visit Oaxaca!

There are several well-rated food tours on TripAdvisor offered by locals.

If you do need to take a break from Mexican food then I highly recommend a Middle Eastern restaurant - Adamá! You will get great value for your money, the service is quick and amazing and the food is absolutely top!

I know it is hard sometimes to be a vegetarian and still enjoy local goodies. A very local experience but safe for vegetarians is La Cosecha Organic Market! It is a little cute market with several food stalls and also serves as a market where you can buy organic vegetables, fruits, beauty products, and others.

The best areas to stay at in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is fairly safe and as long as you stay close to the historical center you will be walking distance from all of the most important sites. But there is an area I want to warn you about and also recommend the area I think is the most convenient!

Green Circle - the area I think is the best to stay in as you will be in a very beautiful part of the historic center and also it is close to the Jalatlaco neighborhood.

Orange Circle - the area where you should be more careful. I would not book accommodation there!

Purple Circle - is where I stayed and I really enjoyed it as it was very quiet and peaceful there. I was 5 minutes walk away from all the main historic sites but without the busy tourist streets.

To get the feel of Oaxaca check out my Oaxaca Video!


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