Oaxaca City is a vibrant, culturally rich destination in southern Mexico that should not be missed. Known as the “land of seven moles” due to its traditional cuisine, Oaxaca City has been an important cultural and archaeological center since pre-Hispanic times.
It’s home to numerous colonial buildings, 16th-century churches, buzzing markets and impressive archaeological sites such as Monte Albán – a Zapotec city built atop a mountain near the valley of Oaxaca.
With its beautiful plazas, lively festivals throughout the year, and stunning architecture set against ancient ruins – it’s no wonder why so many travelers flock to this Mexican gem every year. Whether you’re looking for great food or culture-filled experiences – here are some of the best things to do in Oaxaca City!
13 Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City
The first order of business will be getting from Oaxaca Airport to Oaxaca City, which is far less daunting than it may sound to a first-time visitor. Once you’re in Oaxaca City, there’s plenty to do:
1. Take a Cooking Class
Taking a cooking class is one of the best ways to get an authentic cultural experience in Oaxaca City. A cooking class gives you the chance to learn about traditional Mexican cuisine from local chefs who are experts on the flavors and techniques that make dishes like mole so unique.
You will also get a chance to sample these delicious dishes while learning how to prepare them, which can be a great way to bring home a taste of Oaxaca and impress your family and friends with your new culinary skills!
Plus, it’s fun getting involved in a hands-on activity during your stay in Oaxaca City while you mingle with fellow travelers.
2. Join a Mezcal Tour
Mezcal is one of the most iconic and traditional Mexican drinks, and joining a mezcal tour in Oaxaca City is the best way to learn about its history, culture, and production.
Mezcal is made from agave plants that are largely grown in this region. During your tour, you’ll have the chance to visit artisanal mezcal producers and learn about how this spirit is made.
Many times, artisanal mezcal-making is a tradition passed down from generation to generation. When you visit a local producer, you’ll get to sample varieties of mezcal that are not widely available commercially. Plus, you’ll be supporting a family’s livelihood.
Even if you don’t consume alcohol yourself, consider joining a mezcal tour if for no other reason than to learn about this highly significant aspect of Oaxacan life.
3. Venture Outside of the City
One great thing about Oaxaca City is that it also serves as a great base for several significant day trips. For instance, you could visit the spectacular petrified waterfall known as Hierve el Agua. There are only two such waterfalls in the world, the other being in Turkey.
You could also venture out to Monte Alban, an ancient city of the Zapotecs located on a mountaintop near Oaxaca City. Its archaeological importance is immense, as it was one of the largest and most important pre-Hispanic cities, second only to Teotihuacán.
Yet another day trip option is to take a textile tour to Teotitlan del Valle and learn about the manufacturing process from locals.
4. Sample the Street Food
Oaxaca is considered Mexico’s foodie capital, so you’re sure to eat very well while visiting. Be sure to seek out the typical street foods, like memelas (great for breakfast). These thick tortillas are made from corn masa and are usually served with a variety of toppings, like cheese and beans.
Another staple street food in Oaxaca is the tlayuda. This “Mexican pizza” is made from a large corn tortilla, covered in refried beans, and topped with Oaxacan string cheese, cabbage or lettuce, salsa, and more.
While you’re at it, try Oaxacan empanadas as well. You’ll find vendors and food trucks around the city serving these, as well as other typical food and drink.
Empanadas del Carmen, which was featured on Netflix, is a centrally located option that is easy to get to. The most popular item on the menu here is the empanada with mole amarillo.
5. Explore the Markets
Oaxaca also has several different markets worth walking and eating your way through. The most popular is Mercado Benito Juárez. Here, you can buy spices, coffee, flowers, and more to take away, as well as food to eat on-site.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre provides a similar experience and is also a popular stop worth adding to your itinerary.
While there are several other similar markets to explore, one that’s particularly unique is La Cosecha. This is a much smaller, organic market tucked away a few minutes’ walk from Jardin Conzatti Park.
In addition to the typical Oaxacan street foods mentioned previously, here you’ll also find smoothies and other healthy treats, which you can enjoy at one of the picnic tables set up in the little courtyard.
6. Wander Through Jalatlaco
The neighborhood of Jalatlaco is one you absolutely must wander through when visiting Oaxaca City. Its relaxed vibe contrasts with its bold street art and colorful buildings beautifully.
It’s a great place to start your day with a takeaway coffee to enjoy as you stroll aimlessly through the streets of the neighborhood, taking in all the murals. Enjoy at a leisurely pace, and it will still only take you about an hour to see most of the gems.
Jalatlaco also has some excellent brunch options, so you can continue a slower-paced morning into the early afternoon.
7. Take In Sweeping City Views at a Cafe
Have some work to get done? Grab your laptop and head to Cafe Boca del Mont, which offers stunning views over Oaxaca City with a mountainous backdrop.
While it may be tough to draw your eyes away, they do have Wi-Fi here, making it easy to get some work done while still feeling connected to your destination.
If you plan to sit on the rooftop, as you should, arrive close to opening time so you can snag a table. Enjoy coffee, a hearty brunch, lunch or really any meal with an epic view over Oaxaca City.
8. Walk Through Zocalo
Located in the heart of the historic district, Oaxaca City’s Zocalo is one of the most popular squares in Mexico. Here, you can explore churches and museums, take in live music performances, and have a leisurely stroll around its beautiful gardens and plazas.
On one side of the square, you’ll find the Oaxaca Cathedral, a stunning Baroque-style building. On the other side is the city’s Government Palace, which has some impressive murals on its facade depicting ancient Zapotec history.
In the evening, Zocalo turns into somewhat of a party scene with performances, people congregating, and live music. Join in the fun, or find a place to sit and people-watch for a while!
Nearby the Zocalo, you’ll also find the impressive Santo Domingo Church. If you’re lucky, you might even find yourself in the audience of a wedding party processional making its way to the church.
9. Buy Alebrijes for Souvenirs
Looking for the perfect souvenir to bring home from your visit to Oaxaca? Look no further than the famous alebrijes. These brightly painted wooden sculptures are a ubiquitous sight in the markets and shops around Oaxaca City and make for great decorations or gifts.
The most popular type is the one representing various animals, but you’ll also find ones depicting humans or mythical creatures. They come in all shapes and sizes, and if you’re shopping for loved ones, you’ll find it helpful to know what their favorite animals and colors are!
10. Free Walking Tour
While you can easily explore Oaxaca City on foot on your own, a great way to get more of an insider’s perspective is by taking a free walking tour. There are a variety of options, with tours starting at different times throughout each day and even focusing on different neighborhoods throughout the City.
Taking a walking tour is a great way to learn more about the city and its history, as well as to meet other travelers.
There’s usually no fixed price for these tours, but you are encouraged to tip your guide at the end.
Who knows, if you’re lucky, you might even pick up a few tips from locals on where to find the best food and experiences in town. For that reason, a free walking tour is a great thing to do in Oaxaca City early on in your trip.
11. Visit the Jardín Etnobotánico
The Jardín Etnobotánico in Oaxaca City is a popular attraction that offers a unique glimpse into the region’s diverse plant life and traditional medicine.
You can peer into the garden from the Santo Domingo cultural center, but to actually visit the Jardín Etnobotánico, you’ll need to join a guided tour. This is for the protection of the plants in the garden.
It’s best to arrive early at the ticketing office on the day you’d like to attend a tour, as they tend to be first come, first served.
English-language tours are scheduled for 11:00 am, Monday through Saturday. Plan to arrive an hour early to hold your spot. The cost for this 2-hour tour is 100 pesos or about $6 USD.
12. Enjoy Drinks With a View
Voted one of the 50 best bars in North America, Selva Cocktail Bar is a wonderful place to grab a drink with a view in the center of Oaxaca City. Selva uses local, seasonal ingredients and Mexican spirits to concoct their delicious cocktails, which are served in an earthy atmosphere.
Try to get a seat at one of the small balconies so you can look out at Santo Domingo Church and down to the colorful street below.
13. Experience a Temazcal Ceremony
A Temazcal ceremony is a tradition that has long been a part of Oaxacan culture. It is a sweat lodge ceremony that is used to purify and heal both the mind and body. The traditional temazcal, or “house of heat,” ceremony includes entering into a domed structure made from rocks that are heated with fire.
While the ceremony is typically conducted by an Indigenous shaman, you can also join in certain group ceremonies that are open to tourists.
The Temazcal ceremony has seen a resurgence in popularity as a way for visitors to Oaxaca City to connect with local culture and learn more about Shamanism. If you’re looking for a unique experience in Oaxaca City, seek out a Temazcal experience.
FAQ: Things to Do in Oaxaca City
As you plan your visit, consider these commonly asked questions:
How Many Days Do You Need in Oaxaca?
At a minimum, you should allow at least 2-3 days to explore Oaxaca City. A week or more is ideal because it would allow you time to take day trips to surrounding areas. Beyond Oaxaca City, you could also visit the coastal areas of Oaxaca state with even more time.
Is Oaxaca Mexico Touristy?
While Oaxaca rises in popularity as a tourist destination, the city itself does not feel overrun with tourists as some other bigger cities do. You can still experience an authentic atmosphere in Oaxaca City, even if you also run into fellow travelers along the way.
Is Oaxaca a Walkable City?
Oaxaca City is incredibly walkable, and you do not need to worry about renting a car or navigating public transportation. If you book any sort of activity or day trip that takes you outside of the main city, transportation is generally provided by the tour company itself.
Final Thoughts: Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City
Oaxaca City is a vibrant destination with plenty of things to do for all kinds of travelers. Whether you’re interested in exploring its unique culture, indulging in the local cuisine, or learning more about the historic civilizations that called this region home — you’re sure to have a memorable experience here.
From wandering the lively streets of the historic district to admiring the colorful alebrijes at the markets, Oaxaca City has countless experiences waiting for you.
And if all else fails, simply sit on a rooftop with a delicious meal and stunning views over this beautiful city.
About the author: Nausheen is a Chicago-based, Pakistani-American solo female traveler. She’s passionate about empowering transformation through travel and shares helpful tips and itineraries at globe-gazers.com.
Nausheen is a Chicago-based, Pakistani-American solo female traveler. She’s passionate about empowering transformation through travel, and shares helpful tips and itineraries at globe-gazers.com.