Known for its colorful, picturesque streets, its bustling markets, and its hand-woven and natural-dyed textiles, Oaxaca is a city in the state of the same name in the southwest of Mexico. Walking around any time of day, you’ll encounter mezcal and an abundance of mouthwatering food—stringy quesillo, seven types of thick mole, and cinnamon and almond infused hot chocolate, modeled after tejate, the pre-hispanic drink of the gods—usually accompanied by some salsa or cumbia music. While there you can learn about Oaxaca’s rich and complex history, from the legacy of the Zapotec and Mixtec people, to the victories of indigenous sovereignty today. You’ll likely see sit-ins and protests for improvements to the education system as well as feminist street art and graffitti. Although many visitors spend two or three days passing through Oaxaca, it’s worth staying longer so you can to get to know this multifaceted historical city. As you enjoy all that Oaxaca has to offer, remember to be courteous to the residents of the city, tip around 10% at restaurants, and don’t expect people to know English—this is the moment to use all the Spanish vocabulary you’ve gathered over the years!
Here’s what you need to do whenever you’re in Oaxaca.
The Zócalo is Oaxaca’s central square. Bordered by the majestic Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca, the Zócalo is always bustling. It’s easy to pass a few hours people watching on a bench, perhaps with a cup of cold, frothy chocolate frio from the window of Restaurant Mayordomo on the northwest corner of the square. Depending on the time of day, you’ll probably see street performers, live musicians, fortune tellers, clothing and craft sellers, families, dogs, mobile food vendors, and many more surprises. Be sure to browse the craft market stalls that are set up around the square too.
Monte Albán is the biggest and most well known site of ruins in Oaxaca. It was a Zapotec metropolis that was later inhabited by the Mixtec people. It’s worth taking around two hours to wander around. Be prepared for crowds, bring water and a hat since there’s not much shade, and consider hiring a guide to explain the different structures and histories. If you’d like to visit archaeological sites further off the beaten path, stop by Mitla, a smaller complex that still has some tour groups, or Yagul, which is quite large but usually much emptier.
If you don’t already know some Spanish, you will likely realize it is helpful to know at least a few words and phrases to get around Oaxaca. Plus, it allows you to speak to the locals and learn about their city through their eyes. If you’d like to go a step further than Duo Lingo, consider signing up for classes at Becari Language School. They offer group and individual classes every weekday and schedules ranging from regular to super-intensive. The lessons start at $150 USD for 15 hours of classes a week, and you’ll find yourself using your Spanish at the markets, on the buses, and in the mezcalerías in no time.
There are two markets just a block or two away from the Zócalo that are absolutely worth visiting. Mercado 20 de Noviembre is the perfect place to get traditional Oaxacan food, from enchiladas con mole to chocolate caliente to fresh juices from fruits endemic to the region. Each restaurant has bar-style counters to enjoy your meal. Right next door, Mercado Benito Juárez is full of everything from chapulines (grasshoppers) to tejate (a pre-Hispanic maize and cacao drink) to fresh fruits and veggies to candy to incense to pottery to clothing, and much more.
From many parts of the city, you’ll see a big cross on a hill in the distance. Although there is no marked path, you can climb up to the cross and watch the sunset over the city. Head towards the north east of the city and ask locals for directions. There is a steep road through a residential neighborhood that becomes a gravel road that eventually turns into a walking path. You might get slightly lost along the way, but don’t give up—it’s all part of the adventure.
Oaxacan weaving is famous for its rich colors and Zapotec symbolism. Many weavers are based in Teotitlan del Valle, a small town outside of the city. To get there, you can hire a taxi (a few hundred pesos) or hop on a bus or colectivo (20-50 pesos). After a ride of about 30 minutes, you will have arrived. Several homes will provide free demonstrations of how they weave: making the wool into yarn, dyeing the yarn with natural colors made from plants and an insect called cochinilla, and using hand looms to create a design. Be sure to leave a tip or purchase a weaving from the family’s shop. Afterwards, wander around the various weaving shops and visit the Centro Cultural Comunitario, where you can learn more about the Zapotec history and traditions that go into each weaving.
Oaxaca is famous around Mexico for its salsa dancing scene, so get ready to feel the rhythm and dance the night away. If you don’t know the basic steps or feel like you have two left feet, consider taking a dance class at Ritmo Y Sabor. They have many studios around the city, and you can take a trial class for free. They offer beginner classes every evening and rotate between salsa and bachata. Locals come regularly and it’s a great way to meet people! Keep in mind that lessons are in Spanish, but non-Spanish speakers can still follow along.
El Árbol del Tule is a massive tree that holds the record for having the stoutest tree trunk in the world. It is a sight to behold, but bear in mind you will have to pay a small entrance fee to get closer to it than the gate outside the church grounds. Nearby are also a colorful flower garden, a church, a small market, and food stands. The tree is situated around 9 km east from the city of Oaxaca and you can get there on a bus or colectivo towards Mitla or take a taxi directly there.
Hierve el Agua is a classic destination for visitors to Oaxaca. You can take a taxi there, which takes around an hour and a half, or a bus to Mitla and then a camioneta to the destination, which will take longer but cost less. Once you arrive, hike down to the base of the “petrified waterfall,” which was actually formed by dripping water that calcified to stone over time. Then, after hiking back up (warning: it is somewhat steep in a few stretches), get into your bathing suit to take a dip in the turquoise and emerald colored natural springs. Where else can you get a naturally formed infinity pool overlooking lush rolling hills? Soak it in while you can.
Oaxaca is filled with incredible food all around. If you want something fancier than the markets, visit any of the cafés and restaurants around the city. For a nice coffee or a light-filled place to work or read, try Cafebré and Café Brujula. If you’d like delicious typical Oaxacan food, check out La Popular, Hierba Dulce (vegetarian), or Expendio Tradición. For food from other countries, visit Tastavins, where you get tapas with your wine, or Boulenc, which many visitors swear is some of the best food they’ve ever had (heads up, there probably will be a wait). Or, just poke your head into any restaurant you pass while on a stroll—chances are, if you try it, you won’t be disappointed.
To get to one of the highest points in the city, walk up towards the Auditorio Guelaguetza, a stadium overlooking the streets below. You’ll have to climb a few sets of stairs, but it’s worth it. There’s a viewpoint by the stadium which is perfect for sunsets. If you want to keep going, proceed up the road circling around the Guelaguetza. You’ll pass a few houses and many trees before coming to a juncture. If you turn left, you will eventually reach the planetarium, which is open to the public to learn about the stars and other celestial objects, including from a Zapotec and Mixtec perspective. If you turn right at the juncture, you’ll go up a steep hill to the observatory, which often has public gatherings. If you get lucky, you can look through the telescope at the moon and other stars. Even if not, you can always take in the sunset and city lights from the panoramic vista. Be sure to check the hours of each in advance if you want to visit the planetarium or the observatory.
Mezcal is everywhere in Oaxaca. It’s worth learning about the history and traditional significance of this smoky liquor—made from the agave plant, which was considered sacred in pre-Hispanic Mexico, it is served straight and slipped slowly. If you can’t handle it straight, consider ordering a mezcal cocktail such as a Mezcalita or a Mezcal Mule. 90% of the world’s Mezcal is produced in the state of Oaxaca, so you’ll have no trouble finding it. Check out El Cortijo La Mezcalería, which also offers distillery tours, or Mezcalogia, a lively bar with music performances.
At night, show off your moves at the bars and clubs around the center of the city. Check out La Tentación for live music, a big local crowd, and some of the most jaw-droppingly talented dancers. Archivo Maguey has two floors, one for cumbia—a Mexican dance form—with a live band, and one for reggaeton. Here you can expect a mixed crowd of tourists and locals, long lines for their signature mezcal cocktails, and lively music with lots of gritos. Also check out Txalaparta, which is sure to be a great time with a live band playing Latin music classics. Each bar charges a cover between 50-200 pesos, so be sure to bring cash.
Trisha Mukherjee is a writer and audio journalist based in NYC. Her work focuses on human rights, women, immigration, the environment, travel, and adventure around the world. She is a producer at iHeartMedia and an AIR New Voices Fellow. Find more of her work at trishawrites.com.