Oaxaca City is hands-down one of the best cities to visit in Mexico. There are so many incredible things to see, do, taste, smell, and experience here. From vibrant markets to ancient ruins, unique food to colourful street art, you’ll find all this and more in Oaxaca.
The city centre is compact and easily walkable. As well as being a fairly affordable destination, Oaxaca is pretty safe too overall. Provided you take the usual precautions, you’ll be fine. Oaxaca is also a popular destination for Dia de los Muertos celebrations, with many people flocking here at the end of October.
Here are the top 10 things to do in Oaxaca City.
Hang out in the Zócalo
In the heart of the historic centre of Oaxaca is the Zócalo, the city’s main central square (also called La Plaza de la Constitución).
When you first arrive in Oaxaca, head to the Zócalo. It’s a perfect place to get a feel for the vibe of the city, while watching the world go by. The Zócalo is a favourite meeting place with locals, and you’ll see families and friends of all ages hanging out here and having fun.
The large square is dotted with fountains and giant trees which make this a pleasant, shaded place to sit and avoid the midday sun. There are often street musicians and artists here, as well as the ubiquitous food and souvenir vendors.
The ruined city of Monte Albán is one of the most impressive, significant, and best-preserved ancient archeological sites in all of Mesoamerica.
Monte Albán’s natural setting is incredible, on top of a steep hill overlooking the Oaxaca valley and modern-day Oaxaca City. The ancient city was built around 500 BC and was for a long time the capital of the Zapotec civilization, which ruled over much of the surrounding region.
You need to spend at least half a day at the ruins to experience them properly. The site is fairly big, and there are several interesting (and very different) areas to explore. As well as the famous Great Plaza, there are many smaller courtyards, tombs, altars, and temples for you to discover.
Visiting Monte Albán is definitely one of the most popular things to do in Oaxaca City. It’s a good idea to get there early in the day (it opens at 8am) to avoid the crowds. The site has very little shade, so arriving early also means you can avoid much of the mid-afternoon heat. Whatever time you come, bring lots of water.
Explore the markets
Oaxaca is known for its many vibrant markets, and you should experience at least one during your time in the city.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre is possibly the most famous. In this large covered market you’ll find a mixture of delicious local food, ingredients, handmade artisan products, and many other randomly assorted things.
For the carnivores, there’s a section of this market known as the “meat alley”. Here, there are vendors selling various types of meat which you can pick and have grilled over charcoal while you wait. It’s noisy, smokey, more than a little chaotic, and very popular with the locals – a fantastic (and authentic) introduction to Oaxaca’s culinary scene.
Other markets that are worth visiting include the Mercado Benito Juárez (an excellent place to buy spices, local coffee and chapulínes – more on those below), Mercado de la Merced (smaller but with a large range of organic food products), and Mercade de Abastos (a giant beast of a market on the edge of the city).
Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán
There are a few notable churches in Oaxaca, but the church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is the most beautiful of them all. Inside, the 16th-century Baroque interior is ornately decorated with gold and intricate stucco.
The little square outside the church is a peaceful place to sit too, and a popular hangout for couples and friends in the evenings.
From Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, there is an attractive pedestrianised street called Calle Alcala that connects this church with the cathedral in the central Zócalo square. Here you’ll find various cafes, galleries, and a great atmosphere day and night.
Oaxaca is famous as the birthplace of mezcal, a smokey, complex spirit made from agave. There are mezcal producers all over the state, and Oaxaca City has some of the best bars in the world specialising in the drink.
Mezcal is made by cooking the heart of the agave plant in an underground fire pit, then grinding it up, fermenting it in large wooden vats, and distilling the resulting juice.
You’ll find countless mezcalerías (mezcal bars) in Oaxaca City. Some are a bit over-touristy, but others are really excellent. Mezcalería In Situ is one of the best. The staff here are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly, and their mezcal selection is second-to-none. My personal favourite is their Coyote mezcal, distilled using an ancestral “olla de barro” (clay pot) method.
Oaxaca is often described as the culinary capital of Mexico. There’s a thriving food scene here, with an amazing mix of traditional dishes and inventive fusions.
Be sure to taste some of the regional specialities during your time in Oaxaca City. These are packed full of interesting flavours, and include a range of unique ingredients including squash blossom, wormseed (epazote), avocado leaves, and countless varieties of chilli.
Put any squeamishness aside and try chapulínes (fried grasshoppers). They’re seriously delicious (crispy, earthy, savoury), nutritious, and great either on their own (coated with lime and chilli), mixed into sauces, or sprinkled on top of salads.
Other local specialities to try include tlayudas (giant tortillas, toasted to a crisp and covered with beans, vegetables, salsa, cheese, and your choice of meat), pozoles (rich soups made from corn), moles (complex sauces made from a huge number of ingredients), and Oaxacan chorizo.
Oaxaca has a large number of excellent restaurants, but don’t miss some of the fantastic street food. Tortas La Hormiga and Empanadas del Carmen are both delicious, and popular with tourists and locals alike.
In the historical centre of Oaxaca, there are loads of excellent rooftop bars. Many of these offer fantastic views out over the city, and regularly host live music.
In keeping with the city’s overall vibe, most rooftop bars in Oaxaca have a laid back, casual atmosphere, and serve decent cocktails.
Three great options are Praga, Mezquite, and Casa Crespo. All have stunning views out over Santo Domingo de Guzmán church and the surrounding area. Sunset is a particularly beautiful time to come, though arrive early to secure a table outside.
The colourful district of Jalatlaco lies just north-east of the historical centre. It’s an easy walk, but feels like a world apart from the noise and energy of the centre.
Here, you’ll find quiet cobblestone streets, colourful colonial houses, boutiquey guesthouses, and quaint coffee shops. Jalatlaco is a very arty neighbourhood, with beautiful murals decorating many buildings, and brightly coloured papel picado (tissue paper flags with intricate cut-out details) everywhere you go.
Oaxaca Cultural Museum
If you only visit one museum in Oaxaca, make sure it’s this one. Housed inside the former monastery attached to the Santo Domingo de Guzmán church (see above), the Oaxaca Cultural Museum gives an excellent insight into the rich human history of this fascinating place.
It explains (mostly in Spanish) much about the cultures of the various different groups of people who lived in the Oaxaca valley over the centuries, and of the effect of the Spanish conquest.
Even if you don’t speak Spanish, it’s worth visiting this museum to see some of the artefacts on display. The museum contains many important items found at Monte Albán (including the famous treasures of Tomb 7) and various other sites in the region.
If you like cacti, this one’s for you! The Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden showcases the wide range of plant life native to the State of Oaxaca.
There are hundreds of species on display from all over the state. As well as the many cacti, you’ll see plants from the cold, misty Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountains, and the steamy jungles of the Oaxacan coast.
A walk around these gardens also provides a perfect peaceful respite from the heat and bustle of the city. Guided tours run throughout the day, in English as well as Spanish.