A plume of copal smoke rises through the air, a flash of fireworks explodes in the mid-afternoon sky, and the unmistakable sound of yet another comparsa dances through the streets. A quick walk to the corner market can lead you astray into a flurry of twirling skirts, giant paper mache people, and friendly strangers handing you shots of mezcal. Oh, how I miss Oaxaca.
We love Oaxaca so much that we think everyone should visit at least once. And we’ve created this Ultimate Guide to Oaxaca to show you the best things to do, what and where to eat and drink, and the top day trips to take from this amazing colonial city.
The History of Oaxaca
Oaxaca de Juarez, or just Oaxaca as it is commonly known, is the capital city of the southeastern state of Oaxaca in Mexico. The area was has been inhabited for thousands of years by the Zapotec and Mixtec people whose descendants are still there.
The Aztecs arrived around 1400 AD and named the area “Huaxyacac” after a local tree called huaje. Soon after, the Spanish came along to colonize and renamed the city Antequera in 1529. Once Mexican Independence occurred, however, the city’s name was reverted to Oaxaca, which is the Spanish spelling of the previous Aztec name.
The state of Oaxaca is the most ethnically diverse state in Mexico, with 18 different indigenous people and languages. The most populous in Oaxaca City being the Zapotec. You can hear the Zapotec language often as you walk down the streets or encounter signs in museums or ruin sites.
The historic colonial center of the city of Oaxaca and the nearby pre-hispanic ruins of Monte Alban are a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the area from a historical and cultural perspective.
The city of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka) has long been one of the cultural gems of Mexico and the international reputation is building. It made #2 on Travel and Leisure’s 2018 World’s Best Cities (right behind San Miguel de Allende, also in Mexico). The region is the cultural star of the Disney movie, Coco, based on Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations.
When to Visit Oaxaca
Oaxaca City is located in the highlands of Oaxaca at an elevation of over 5,000 ft (1,500 m). The rainy season starts in April and ends in October. The coolest month is December, with an average high of 80.8 F (27.1 C) and low of 49.3 F (9.6 C).
We were there the entire month of October and the first week of November. Afternoon showers were a common occurrence. Even then, the temperature swings were dramatic. The days were hot and the nights were chilly enough for a jacket or warm layers.
You’ll get the best weather in Oaxaca if you visit November through March. But if you want to experience any of the major festivities, you’ll need to visit on the following dates:
- Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) – Approximately October 28 through November 3
- Guelaguetza (Regional Dance Festival) – Last 2 weeks of July
- Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes) – December 23
How to Get to Oaxaca
Flights: The only nonstop flight from the US to Oaxaca departs from Houston. Other than that, flying to Oaxaca City is available from most major cities in the US – including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City – with a short layover in Mexico City. We recommend using Skyscanner to search for Mexican domestic carriers for the last leg of the trip from Mexico City to Oaxaca, which is only about 45 minutes long. Our Interjet tickets cost $55 USD each. The seats were comfy, the attendants were nice, and they gave us free chips, beer, and tequila. Basically airplane heaven.
Bus: You can also fly into Mexico City and take a first-class ADO bus down to Oaxaca. The trip is around 7 hours and costs between $20-30 USD one way.
What to Do in Oaxaca
Oaxaca has a never-ending list of things to see, taste, and experience, so don’t feel bad if you’re not able to do everything the first time you visit, even with a guide to Oaxaca. Even after we spent over a month there, we can’t wait to go back to continue exploring. In this city, it’s best to take it slow and let all of the colors, sounds, and aromas soak in.
People Watch at El Zócalo
El Zócalo is the main plaza and the heart of the city. There is always something going on here: marimba concerts, food carts, shoe shiners, street performers, and vendors selling everything from bookmarks to puppets. With plenty of benches shaded by huge trees and restaurants surrounding the main square, there are excellent places to enjoy the atmosphere and people-watch.
The plaza Alameda is right next to el Zócalo and houses the city’s green, cantera-stone Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción that dates back to the 1500’s.
Explore the Markets
There are three major markets just a short walk south of el Zócalo: Mercado Benito Juárez, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, and Mercado de Artesanías. There is so much to see, buy, and eat at these markets that this guide to Oaxaca can’t encompass them all. We dedicated an entire post to the Best of Oaxaca City Markets.
Visit the Santo Domingo Church Complex
Head north of el Zócalo on the pedestrian street lined with art galleries and shops to get to the impressive Iglesia y Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. This complex contains a church with gold-leaf interiors, an ex-convent which is now a cultural museum, and an adjacent ethnobotanical garden.
If you’re only going to one museum in Oaxaca, make it this one. The Museo de las Culturas Oaxaca houses the jade encrusted skull and other artifacts from the Monte Alban ruins and gives a very thorough explanation of the history and cultures of the area. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am to 6:30 pm and the entrance fee is $70 pesos.
The Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca) is an astonishingly diverse collection of plants native to the state, including medicinal and edible plants. You’ll need to plan the timing of your visit because it is only accessible with a guided tour during the allocated times. The cost is $100 pesos and the tours in English are only on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 11 am.
Eat & Drink as Much as Possible
Everyone loves Mexican food, right? Well, Oaxacan cuisine is one of the best in all of Mexico. If you’re visiting Oaxaca, you should be prepared to set aside a good chunk of your time to eat and drink your way through most of the region’s unique gastronomic delights.
We love the food in Oaxaca so much that we wrote an entire post about what to eat in Oaxaca.
Here are just some of our must-try foods:
- Quesillo (Queso Oaxaca)
- Nieve de Leche Quemada con Tuna
- Chocolate de Agua
If you love cooking, consider taking one of these delicious Oaxaca cooking classes.
Visit the Many Museums
Staying true to its reputation as a cultural gem, Oaxaca has many great museums to visit. Here are just some of the options:
Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca
History and culture of the region. Pre-hispanic, Spanish colonization, and modern times are call covered. Mixtec treasures from Monte Albán’s Tomb 7 are housed here. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am – 6:30 pm. Cost is $70 pesos.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO)
Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art. Open Wednesday-Monday, 10:30 am-7:45 pm. $20 pesos.
Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo
Mexican artist’s collection of pre-hispanic art. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 am – 2 pm and 4-7 pm. $90 pesos.
Museo Textil de Oaxaca
Textile Museum of Oaxaca. Collections of hand-made textiles from Oaxaca. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 am – 8 pm. Sundays 10 am – 6 pm. Free entry.
Museo de la Filatelia
Stamp Museum. A fun and quirky museum with a collection of stamps from around the world. Open Monday-Sunday, 10 am – 8 pm. Free entry.
Arts & Crafts from Surrounding Villages
The city of Oaxaca is surrounded by villages where families of artisans have cultivated their crafts for generations. With so much to do, it’s no wonder you’re looking at a comprehensive guide to Oaxaca. Each village has their own specialty and you can visit several to see them in action or you can view their work at the many shops or at the Mercado de Artesanias.
Alebrijes are fantastical creatures carved from copal wood and colorfully painted. The village of San Martin Tilcajete is best known for their alebrijes.
Barro Negro (black clay) is a style of pottery which Oaxaca is famous for. These artisans live in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
The people of Oaxaca have a long tradition of producing textiles using backstrap looms, and most recently, stationary looms. You can often hear looms clanking away as you walk down the street. That sound will always remind us of this magical place. Teotitlán del Valle is best known for its weaving looms and artisanal textile production. It also has an excellent textile museum.
Best Day Trips from Oaxaca
Oaxaca is a fantastic place for a long-term visit because there is so much to see and do. Not only just within the city itself, but also endless opportunities in the surrounding valleys and mountains.
Explore the Ancient Zapotec Ruins
The ancient Zapotec capital and archaeological site of Monte Albán should not be missed! It’s only about 30 minutes away from el Zócalo.
The ruins in Mitla (about 1 hour away) are unique because of their greek-like mosaics. Mitla means “place of the resting” and this town specializes in making beautiful bread for the Day of the Dead.
Visit a Mezcal Distillery
Santiago Matatlán is known as the world capital of Mezcal. It’s also just a small town with one main street lined with mezcal distilleries. The tour groups usually all stop at the same place called Rey de Matatlán. We recommend visiting Matatlán on your own for a true immersion into the process of producing this local liquor.
Experience Market Day in a Village
In Oaxaca, each day of the week has a corresponding village market day. We visited Tlacolula de Matamoros and Ocotlán de Morelos. If you are going to visit just one, I would recommend Ocotlán de Morelos due to the artistic gems within the city. Read all about these towns in our guide to Oaxaca Market Days.
See the World’s Largest Tree
The enormous Árbol del Tule (Tule tree) is located about 20 minutes outside of Oaxaca in the town of Santa Maria del Tule. Yes, the town itself is named after the tree and they treat it like their star citizen. We visited on the day of the annual Árbol del Tule celebration. It was a blast!
Swim Above Petrified Waterfalls
The petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua are one of the most spectacular natural formations we’ve ever seen. You can take a dip in the spring-fed pools above them. Just know that these are not hot springs, as most people assume due to its name meaning “boiling water.” The views are one of a kind and perhaps our favorite thing on this entire guide to Oaxaca.
Relax on the Beach
While not exactly a day trip, a lot of people choose to spend a portion of their time in the state of Oaxaca relaxing on the magnificent coastline. And there is no shortage of options. Surf mecca Puerto Escondido is one of the most popular (with bioluminescent lagoons and untouched beaches nearby). Or you can tone down the energy and head to the smaller beach communities of Mexico’s next hot spot: Mazunte. And if all-inclusive resorts are more your thing, Huatulco is the place to be. It’s just a 30-minute flight from Oaxaca to either of the coastline’s airports: Puerto Escondido and Huatulco.
More Things to Do in Oaxaca
Where to Eat & Drink in Oaxaca
The best piece of advice that you’ll find on this entire guide to Oaxaca is to eat like the locals do. In a place with so much rich cuisine, the online recommendations can often be underwhelming. Far too often, we went to places highly recommended on TripAdvisor or other forums, just to find overpriced restaurants packed with tourists, serving food that lacked flavor. So hunt around for spots which are busy with locals and offer traditional foods. You won’t be disappointed.
The Oaxaca City markets, especially 20 de Noviembre, have absolutely everything you should try in Oaxaca under one roof. From chapulines (fried grasshoppers) to tlayudas, and even an entire hallway of grilled meats.
Tlayudas El Negro was our absolute favorite spot for a quick and cheap dinner. $40 pesos for an enormous grilled tlayuda with gooey quesillo. We always shared one because they are so big and ordered some of the agua frescas with free refills for $15 pesos each. I loved that they had 3 different types of salsa on the table and lots of limes! They have several locations in Oaxaca and the BEST service in the city. This is a true gem and we expect them to continue rapid growth.
Check out our What and Where to Eat in Oaxaca post for a full list of delicious restaurants and authentic cantinas that you won’t find on TripAdvisor’s top 5.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca
We stayed in an Airbnb that was a 5-minute walk to el Zócalo next to Plaza de la Danza. It was perfect. Oaxaca is a big, noisy city, and although we usually search for quieter areas to stay, we really enjoyed the experience of living in the historic town center. Otherwise you’ll miss the parades coming by and the chance to run out to the street to see them. Or walking over to el Zócalo for our almost daily afternoon esquite (Mexican street corn in a cup).
We found that the closer you stay to el Zócalo, the more you’ll experience. If you insist on a quieter area and don’t mind walking 30 minutes to get to the action, we would recommend the Xochimilco neighborhood, which is north of Santo Domingo on the other side of the main boulevard.
Although we are currently staying in Airbnbs, we always like to think about what hotel we would have stayed if we were there on vacation. For us, Quinta Real Oaxaca was that hotel. It’s not a trendy, colorful boutique hotel, but the setting is beautiful. It’s housed in a former 16th-century Dominican convent and is close to everything. It also has a pool to cool off on those hot Oaxaca days.
What to Pack for Oaxaca
Depending on the time of year, Oaxaca can get very hot during the day and quite cold at night. It also rains at times. We ended up using all of our layers while we were there. It’s also very conservative compared to the beach resort areas in Mexico. You won’t find the locals wearing shorts, mini-skirts, or flip flops.
- Lots of layers!
- Jeans or pants
- Long skirt
- Warm sweater or jacket
- Walking shoes
- Rain Jacket
- Bathing suit for swimming in the pools at Hierve el Agua
What are you waiting for? Book your flight to Oaxaca!
We hoped you enjoyed this guide to Oaxaca, an amazing place to immerse yourself in Mexico’s thriving indigenous culture, colonial architecture, and booming culinary scene. This is a city that you’ll want to return to over and over again until you’ve explored every last corner and tasted every last drop of mole.
Have you been to Oaxaca? What were your favorite things to do and eat? Leave us your tips in the comments below.