The city of Oaxaca has so much to offer, deciding where to go and what to do over a short vacation can be a challenge. Abundant historical ruins, natural geographic wonders, and sleepy mountain towns are a short car ride outside of the city. And within the city center of Oaxaca lays many churches, museums, restaurants, plazas, and parks.
But there’s one aspect that can’t be missed: strolling through the best Oaxaca City markets situated just south of the main plaza (El Zócalo). Each one is slightly different. Grabbing a bite to eat or a fresh juice is highly recommended, but there are plenty of shopping opportunities to pick up little treasures to bring back home.
- Mercado Benito Juárez
- Mercado 20 de Noviembre
- Other Top Markets in Oaxaca City
- Prices at the Markets of Oaxaca
First off, if you’re planning on visiting Oaxaca, make sure to read our Ultimate Guide to Oaxaca to learn more about everything this amazing city has to offer!
Mercado Benito Juárez
For a one-stop market with a bit of everything, look no further than Mercado Benito Juárez. Doesn’t get easier to find either, just head south from the Zócalo one block. A warehouse-style structure houses this Oaxaca market and essentially fills one entire city block.
Mercado Benito Juárez starts off with some incredible textiles at the northern end. Many of the smaller towns in the state of Oaxaca are famous for their weavings, pottery, wood carvings, shoes, and other artful pieces. A rainbow of colors fills spectacular dresses, shirts, and hats.
The alebrije wooden carvings are intricate; many are no larger than your fist, but full of detail, often depicting an animal-like creature, and painted in an array of vivid colors. If you’re interested in seeing where these are made, pay a visit to one of the nearby villages on market day. We wrote up a whole post on two of our favorite market days: Ocotlan and Tlacolula or you can take a guided culture and food tour of Ocotlan.
Keep walking through the first few stalls and you’ll reach the food. If you don’t know much about Oaxacan food, you’re in for a delicious surprise! We love it so much that we dedicated an entire article to listing all of the top food and drinks to try in Oaxaca.
We’ve had incredible snacks here: fresh squeezed papaya/orange juices and quesadillas being our go-to items. Don’t pass up the aguas frescas! Literally translates to fresh water, these are juice-like drinks which come in more flavors than you could imagine and are made with fruit, flowers, cereals, and/or seeds.
And since you’re in Oaxaca, the mezcal (locally made agave liquor) shops are all around. Most of them will gladly fill up a tiny shot glass for you to taste some of their best items. If you try a handful of shots, it would be rude to walk away empty-handed. So when a bottle of mezcal is out of the budget or space in your bag, heading to one of the many mezcalerias (mezcal tasting shops) around town is your best bet.
Toward the southern end of Mercado Benito Juárez sits a more ominous area, the meat. It may be a bit hard to wrap your head around if you haven’t seen much Mexican street food as the meat is displayed on the countertops in piles or hanging from bars above the shopkeepers head.
The most common options for the carnivorous folk include thinly sliced and marinated cow or pig meats, plentiful sausages, and entire chickens.
And finally, in the small hallway leading to the southern exit lays a Oaxacan delicacy: chapulines.
Stick with me here.
How does a small snack that’s salty, crunchy, and full of flavor sound? Revered by foodies worldwide, chapulines have had trouble making their way into mainstream American cuisine. Why? They’re grasshoppers.
Scooped out of large bins and sold in small bags, chapulines range from larger grasshoppers about 1.5 inches long down to little guys less than a half inch. Snack vendors sell them at most events and gatherings, and nearly every restaurant which has any authentic Oaxacan food has them somewhere on the menu. (Side note: eating insects is a great way to reduce our impact on the environment!)
I’m certain this revolted some of you, so let’s step outside the southern entryway of Mercado Benito Juárez to check out the produce lined up! Stall after stall of beautiful tomatoes, avocados, onions, herbs, squashes, squash blossoms (amazing for vegetarian dishes), limes, bananas, apples, papayas, oranges, potatoes, cactus, corn, and many types of dried and fresh chiles.
And that does it for Benito Juárez. A bit of everything in one spot!
The Place to Go for a Bite: Mercado 20 de Noviembre
If you’re looking for food and food only, then walk across the street from Benito Juárez to Mercado 20 de Noviembre, one of the best Oaxaca City markets. It is another warehouse-style building that takes up an entire city block. But this one is primarily full of prepared food served onsite.
Soup, Juice, and Bread
The northern hallway is large and greets you with a simple juice stand. To the right you can find soup row. About 8 different soup stations offering many types of menudo. Tripe (cow stomach) is a common ingredient in those, so if you’re not a fan, you might want to keep walking.
Just after comes the bread. Sweet bread (pan dulce) is all over and goes incredibly well with another traditional Oaxaca food item: hot chocolate! The hot chocolate can be served with water, milk, or a broth-type liquid made with corn (atole). Special wooden whisks mix freshly milled cacao, sugar, and your choice of liquid, leaving a nice froth on top.
Pan dulce is not the only type of bread, however. Pan de Yema (egg yolk bread) is also very common for breakfast or snacks; slightly sweet but not sugary like pan dulce. And plenty of savory rolls. Used more for tortas (sandwiches).
Restaurants and Food Stalls
Keep walking past the bread area and you’ll find the heart of 20 de Noviembre. If I had to guess, I’d say there are around 30 different spots to eat here. These aren’t food carts. These are small restaurants, with permanent walls, kitchens, bars, and tables usually constructed out of cement and tile.
Some specialize in a specific drinks (juice or hot chocolate), some offer a very limited menu, while others offer a variety of food and drink. Over toward the eastern side of the building are three restaurants which have been there for generations. La Abuelita is one of our favorites and is consistently busy.
Mole and tlayudas are the most popular dishes. Mole is a traditional Mexican sauce made with chili peppers, spices, and cacao. It comes in seven main styles in Oaxaca.
Tlayudas (tlay-oo-das) are a pizza-like dish. A large, toasted tortilla serves as the base, covered with a light layer of beans and lard (although it’s not a problem to ask for them without lard). On top goes the local quesillo cheese, sliced tomato, lettuce, and whatever toppings you want: mushrooms, squash flower, sausage, chicken, marinated beef, tripe, etc. Nearly endless options.
Wash it all down with one of my favorites: a michelada, a beer cocktail somewhat similar to a Bloody Mary. A mug with a rim coated in a spicy/salty mix is filled about one-third the way up with a flavorful concoction of tomato/Clamato juice, lime juice, spices, maybe some Worcestershire sauce, and a bit of ice. A beer is served on the side which is poured into the mug. They’re incredible.
Kristina usually sticks with the suero because micheladas are not always vegetarian. Clamato juice or Worcestershire sauce being the biggest culprits. Check out our Guide to Being Vegan and Vegetarian in Mexico for more tips on what to eat and what to avoid.
A suero is a similar drink, but usually just a salt-rim on the mug and only lime juice and ice in the bottom. But this isn’t a squeeze of one wedge of lime. I’m talking the juice from at least two limes, maybe more. Quite powerful, but also very tasty.
These drinks helped me understand why so many Mexican beers are relatively flavorless lagers. For an IPA drinker like myself, the micheladas and sueros bring some much-needed flavor to the table.
Some areas of Mexico call these slightly different names, so make sure to ask what’s included. The Riviera Maya, near Cancun and Tulum, a michelada is only lime/salt while an Ojo Rojo (red eye) comes with Clamato juice as well. In other places, a chelada means lime/salt only and michelada includes all of it. Confusing, right?
Finally, at the last stop in Mercado 20 de Noviembre, the carnivorous crowd can have a blast. The hallway leading out the eastern exit is stocked full of about a dozen meat vendors. All with similar offerings of thinly-sliced & marinated meats and sausages. Between the vendors are red-hot grills and the rich smoke of meat cooking over coals is visible in the air. I’m pretty sure we can see the plume of smoke from the rooftop of our rental, about 5 blocks away.
Walk up, point to what you want, and they’ll throw it right on the grill. A few tables at the entrance have servers nearby with salsas, tortillas, and whatever else you need to go with your dish. It goes without saying, but just in case this isn’t clear: vegetarians that aren’t comfortable around meat smells or seeing lots of meat products should stay away from this area. But for those of you that have a mouth-watering reaction to meats cooking over charcoal, you don’t want to miss out.
That wraps up 20 de Noviembre (or at least as much as you can through a blog post). This is an incredible market and a tremendous place to stop for a quick bite. It’s not hard to tell which places are the best. I feel a bit sad for the many empty stalls around, but we usually follow the crowd in places like this. Especially if they seem to be full of locals instead of tourists.
Other Markets in Oaxaca
From 20 de Noviembre, walk one more block south then one west to find Mercado de Artesanías (Artisan Market). This is the best Oaxaca City market for textiles, pottery, jewelry, shoes, hats, and more. We aren’t big shoppers since we travel very light and keep possessions to a minimum, but this is a great place to pick up some local clothing or gifts for those back home.
If the sound of a warehouse as big as a city block sounds like too much, head a few blocks northwest from the Zócalo to Mercado IV Centenario. This is a smaller neighborhood market with a row of restaurants on the outside of the eastern side, a line of juice stands and breakfast spots near the northern end, produce along the west side, and meats/cheeses to the south. While there isn’t much for textiles, this is more of a locals spot and much more calm than the markets south of the Zócalo.
For the more adventurous crowd that wants to head our of the city center to see a tourist-free local market, go to Central de Abastos Oaxaca. We ventured over here immediately upon arrival and were floored by the amount of fresh produce. This is not just one city block, but more like three. The stalls just keep going and going, then they wrap around and keep going. It’s an incredible sight. We guess that a lot of the other produce served closer to town is first purchased here.
Put your valuables away if you head to Central de Abastos Oaxaca. And don’t be afraid to haggle a bit. The prices here should be lower than anywhere else, but that comes with risks. We were told that you have a higher chance of being pick-pocketed here. Avoid going here after dark, when most of the major markets are closed anyway.
Prices at the Markets of Oaxaca
The Zócalo is one of the main tourist attractions in the area, and as such, has some of the most expensive and underwhelming food around. The michelada I ordered there came without any spiciness to it at all, and the server was still terrified it would be too spicy for this gringo. She literally couldn’t believe that I eat habanero (one of the hottest chili peppers in Mexico).
By going down to Mercado 20 de Noviembre, you’ll find a steep drop in prices and much more flavorful food. Most dishes are 50-150 pesos (about $2-$7 a the current rate), the freshly-made juices are around 20 pesos (less than $1), and the sweet breads are about 5 pesos each ($0.25). Beer and mezcal prices can fluctuate wildly, anywhere from 20 to 80 pesos (about $1-$4).
If the prices aren’t on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask how much things are before you order. It isn’t uncommon for places without published prices to charge tourists a bit more, but it always helps to let them know you’re aware of how much things should be. This also helps verifying the total bill is accurate because receipts are rarely used at small food stalls.
And finally, one last tip about your money while eating at the markets. Check your change and don’t accept any bills that have been ripped and taped together. Other places will not accept those for payment. But don’t let that keep you away. If you see that they didn’t give you enough change, tell them it’s wrong (está mal), they will correct it immediately in most cases.
Summary of the Best Oaxaca City Markets
The three markets closest to the main plaza are Mercado Benito Juárez, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, and Mercado de Artesanías. Depending on your taste, finding the right food, drinks, knick-knacks, or textiles is just a matter of a few steps. These markets are incredibly diverse, full of life and energy.
Even if you only have a short stay in Oaxaca, make sure to take a couple of hours and go for a stroll through. If you can, stop to enjoy a tlayuda and michelada, or a hot chocolate with some sweet bread. Your belly, and even your wallet, will thank you.
If you’re headed to Oaxaca, check out our other posts:
- The Ultimate Guide to Oaxaca City
- Where to Eat and Drink in Oaxaca
- Visiting the Monte Albans Ruins in Oaxaca
- Ocotlan vs Tlacolula: Experience the Best Village Markets
- How to Visit Oaxaca’s Petrified Waterfalls and Arbol del Tule
Would you try the chapulines (grasshoppers)? Do you enjoy visiting the local markets when you travel as mush as we do? Let us know in the comments below.