The state of Oaxaca often becomes many visitors’ favourite area in Mexico. Why? It’s incredibly diverse, offering colonial cities, stunning landscapes and laid back surf towns. It’s also considerably less touristy than states on the east coast like Quintana Roo.
Now, not to make things confusing but the capital of Oaxaca also has the same name and is known as Oaxaca City or just Oaxaca. Another thing that trips people up is how to pronounce Oaxaca. It’s wah-HAH-kah.
This guide focuses on Oaxaca City, a stunning colonial city that’s overflowing with culture, history, art and delicious traditional dishes.
Give it a few hours of wandering through it’s brightly coloured, cobblestone streets and you’ll inevitably fall in love with the city. After you try one of the traditional dishes such as Mole or a Tlayuda, you’ll never want to leave.
Aside from just admiring how pretty the city is, there’s plenty of things to do too. The city is full of iconic historical structures, museums and street art.
Outside of the city you’ll find plenty of day trips, including visiting the magnificent rock formations of Hierve el Agua or the interesting Monte Alban ruins.
#1 Get to know Oaxaca City with the free walking tour
This is the first thing you should do when you arrive in Oaxaca City!
Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to familiarise yourself with a new city is by taking a free walking tour.
You get to see the city in a few hours, learn about its history and get recommendations for the best places to go and eat. One of the organisations we recommend is Oaxaca Walking Tour.
During the 2.5 hour tour, your guide will share with you Oaxaca’s culture, history, gastronomy and music. You’ll also get to learn about colourful political arts and the important social political movements within the city. You’ll be a pro on Oaxaca City by the end of the tour!
If you opt to join the free walking tour, you may be able to tick this one off the list too. If not, the Zocalo, or main square, or Oaxaca City is certainly worth exploring.
The Zocalo has been the heart of the city since 1529 and despite being an old heart, the atmosphere is still youthful and thriving.
On the north side of the Zocalo you’ll find the Cathedral of Oaxaca, which also dates way back to 1535. On the south side is the building that used to be the state offices but is now home to the Museo del Palacio.
Scattered around the square are a number of cafes and restaurants that are perfect for grabbing a front row seat of the square and just watching the world go by.
You’ll also always find plenty of people here selling an array of quite frankly random things. If you need a balloon or some bubbles, the Zocalo is your place to go!
#3 Spend the day shopping and eating at the markets
Oaxaca is a city rich in markets. Prepare for your senses to be inundated with rich smells, lively noises and bright colours in all directions.
Make sure to visit Mercardo Benito Juarez when you’re hungry as there’s plenty of delicious foods to sample. Brightly coloured fruit and vegetables are piled up on almost every corner of the market.
The market is one of the best places in the city to buy mole paste, delicious coffee beans, freshly baked bread and if you’re brave enough, crickets.
Chapulines (grasshoppers) are a popular snack in Mexico and one that you won’t struggle to find in Benito Juarez. Once you forget about what they are, they’re actually pretty tasty!
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Just south of Benito Juarez, you’ll find Mercado 20 de Noviembre. This is a meat lovers paradise.
As well as the place to get cheap and local food, the market is a chance to get a glimpse at what the city was like 60 years ago.
Some of the food vendors have been working in the market for over 60 years, with recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation.
This is where a lot of the locals eat, so you can almost guarantee that whatever you pick is going to be good. The aisle that has made the market famous has been nicknamed the ‘smoke aisle’.
Carnivores will be in paradise, vegetarians not so much, as there’s stall after stall of raw meat which can be cooked and eaten on the spot in the market. The smoky aroma of the meat then fills the market air.
New to Oaxaca City? Our compact Oaxaca City guide shows you the best areas to stay, restaurants you don’t want to miss and many more tips for your visit to Oaxaca City!
#4 Admire the natural springs at Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is one of the most popular spots to visit from Oaxaca City. The only other place in the world where you can find something similar is in Turkey.
Hierve el Agua actually means ‘the water boils’ in Spanish, but in contrast, the water’s actually cool so make sure to bring your swimming stuff!
The turquoise pools of water were created over thousands of years as spring water escaped from the limestone and became calcified. Relaxing in one of these pools feels like being in your own private, natural infinity pool.
Views of Hierve el Agua are absolutely incredible, with the calcified water creating an illusion of a cascading waterfall but with no water moving.
How to visit Hierve el Agua
The easiest way to visit Hierve el Agua is by joining a tour. This way you don’t have to worry about anything all day apart from just enjoying yourself. This day tour of Oaxaca visits Hierve el Agua, Mitla ruins and Santa Maria el Tule all for $53.
How to visit without a tour
If you’d prefer to be on your own schedule and spend the whole day in Hierve el Agua then you can visit the water formations by yourself. And it’s pretty simple!
First you’ll need to get either the bus (20 MXN ($1)) or a colectivo (30 MXN ($1.50)) to Mitla. The colectivo is slightly faster, taking 45 minutes as opposed to the 1-hour bus.
From Mitla you can either take a taxi for around 600 MXN ($30) or take the more adventurous option, a camioneta. This is essentially a pick up truck which will only cost you around 50 MXN ($2.50) – 60 MXN ($3).
The only downside is that the trucks wait until they reach full capacity, so you could be waiting for a while! The journey from Mitla to Hierve el Agua takes around 45 minutes.
You can’t really come to Oaxaca and not spend the day exploring the Monte Alban ruins. They’re often chosen as travellers’ favourite ruins in the whole of Mexico.
The Monte Alban ruins date back to 500 BC and are believed to be one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, built by the Zapotecs. The ruins are beyond impressive, boasting an array of structures from the main plaza, ballcourt to even an observatory.
What takes these ruins to a whole other level though are the surrounding views. As you stand on top of one of the pyramids, you’ll be rewarded with glorious views of the mountains and valleys all around you.
How to visit Monte Alban
Entrance to the ruins costs just 75 MXN ($3.75). If you choose to visit Monte Alban by yourself, then the two best ways to get there are by taxi or shuttle bus.
The ruins are situated 10km outside Oaxaca City and take around 20-25 minutes to get to. A taxi will cost around 150 MXN ($7.50) each way, whilst the shuttle buses are only 50 MXN ($2.50) return. We recommend using Autobuses Turistico, whose shuttles leave every hour to Monte Alban.
Alternatively you could join a tour and have everything organised for you, plus have a knowledgeable guide to tell you all about the ruins. A tour of Monte Alban with transportation included will cost around $35 per person.
If you just can’t get enough of historic ruins, then you can also visit Mitla. These ruins are considered the second most important within the state of Oaxaca.
Similar to Monte Alban, Mitla ruins are of Zapotec but also of Mixtec origin, resulting in quadrangle buildings surrounded by patios, chambers and low roofs.
Now this is where it gets exciting, especially if you love a bit of gore!
Mitla was a religious centre, run mainly by priests who spent most of their time making human sacrifices. Their preferred method of sacrifice involved removing the heart of the LIVE person and placing it in a pit of fire for the gods. We’re just glad this isn’t still happening today!
How to visit Mitla ruins
Entrance costs just 75 MXN ($3.75) and you should only need an hour or two to explore the ruins.
Getting to Mitla is relatively easy and inexpensive. You can hop on a 1-hour local bus for 20 MXN ($1) that takes you directly from Oaxaca City to Mitla.
If you’re not familiar with Mezcal, let us introduce you. Most people have heard of Tequila, and have probably drunk too many shots of it, but Mezcal is still often unknown.
Mezcal is a liquor made from almost any kind of agave plant and has a distinctive smoky flavor. This flavour is created by roasting the agave plant hearts in a wood burning pit. And Oaxaca knows how to do this well, often quoted as producing some of the best Mezcal in the country.
If you just want to try some Mezcal, you can hop between the mezcalerias in town asking to sample some of the smoky liquor. A lot of places will offer free tastings in the hope that you’ll love it and buy a whole bottle! It won’t take many tastings before walking in a straight line becomes a bit of a struggle. It’s strong stuff!
For those interested in the end-to-end process, you can join a Mezcal tour which will take you to one of the local distilleries just outside of town.
The Paths of Mezcal Tour includes a Mezcal tour but also visits to Santa Maria del Tule, Teotitlan del Valle and Zona Arqueológica de Mitla all for just $55.
Templo de Santo Domingo is one of Oaxaca City’s iconic buildings that can’t be missed. The 16th century church took over 200 years to build, so it would just be rude to not admire the years of work that went into the incredible building.
The church has had a turbulent history suffering from earthquakes and changing purpose from a church to a monastery to military barracks at one point.
After admiring the New Spanish Baroque architecture from the outside, make sure to take a look inside to appreciate the intricate walls and decorations adorned with gold. When the candles are lit during evening mass, it’s as if the whole church is shining gold.
#9 Surround yourself with nature at the Botanical Gardens
If the buildings, cars and noise are getting too much for you, then you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city by visiting the Botanical Gardens.
The gardens themselves are magnificent, filled with an array of plants and flowers that compliment and contrast each other. Not only is it a ‘pretty place’, you will also get to learn the importance of the plants to the people of Oaxaca.
It’s fascinating how the plants were, and some still are, used for medicine, fabric dye, food and drink.
You’ll need a guide to visit
Potentially a benefit to some, but a negative to others is the fact that you can only visit the gardens with a guide. This is to prevent vandalism and theft which occured when they first opened.
If you were planning on walking around at your own pace, engulfed by nature then you may want to skip the gardens. A sneaky tip if you still want to see the gardens is to visit the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca which offers picture-perfect views of the gardens.
English tours are available at 11am on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. They cost 100 MXN ($5).
#10 Sample the traditional Mole sauce
Visiting Oaxaca City and not trying Mole is like going to Italy and not having pizza or pasta. It’s just not okay!
Mole is a traditional sauce that’s very popular in Oaxaca. Some of them are made up of more than 30 ingredients such as dried chiles, peanuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon and the secret ingredient, chocolate!
It’s often served over chicken or with enchiladas, tacos and burritos. Oh and did we mention, it’s delicious!
You can head to one of the local markets that we mentioned before, Benito Juarez or Mercado 20 de Noviembre, to get a taste.
Cuilapam Convent, just 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca City, is a building exploding with an interesting history. Aside from the stunning architecture, the stories that sit behind the building make it even more intriguing.
First of all, the building is actually incomplete. The initial purpose of the building was to convert indigenous Oaxacans to Catholicism, but after a smallpox epidemic, construction was stopped forever. This is why the convent has no roof!
The site was also where the former Mexican president Vincente Guerrero was executed by firing squad on Valentines Day in 1831. You’ll find an oil painting commemorating him in the convent.
The grounds are extremely peaceful and the perfect place to take a relaxing stroll and reflect on your trip so far.
#12 Witness the 2000 year old Árbol del Tule
I’m sure we’ve all been dreaming of visiting the widest tree in the world, well now is your chance to do so. Situated in Oaxaca is the Árbol del Tule, also known as Tule Tree.
The tree is a masterpiece of mother nature, one reason why it’s been given UNESCO status. It’s believed to be over 2000 years old and is over 42 metres tall.
Let your imagination run wild and try to spot some of the figures claimed to be depicted in the tree. These include an elephant, lion, crocodile and fish.
Tule Tree is a good addition to your trip if you’re already visiting places like Mitla ruins and Hierve el Agua.
#13 Take a tour with the non-profit Fundación En Vía
Fundación En Vía is a non-profit organisation that works to empower women to be able to support themselves and their families. At the moment interest-free loans and educational programs are provided to women in 6 communities throughout Oaxaca.
The organisation is able to do this through the tours that they offer. By taking part in one of the tours, you’re directly giving back to the community.
Their tours include a Microfinance tour, where you can connect with the entrepreneurial women and understand their businesses or a Day of the Dead tour. You can find out more information via Fundación En Vía’s website.
Located at the start of the historic centre, Ayook is housed within the remnants of an 18th century house. It’s interior boasts a warm and cozy feel, thanks to its large wooden features and intricate lighting.
After just a glimpse at the hotel’s pictures, you’re guaranteed to want to stay here!
You’ll feel like you’re staying in the height of luxury, without paying the price for it. The luxury continues with the à la carte breakfast served to you every morning. The beds are huge, with memory foam pillows, perfect for starfishing all night long.
Set within a colonial building, the hotel's interior and design creates a unique blend of the new and the old. The large roof terrace gives you the chance to sit back and reflect over the city of Oaxaca. You’re also only minutes away from some of the biggest attractions in Oaxaca City.
The open central courtyard is the perfect place to enjoy your complimentary breakfast each morning before adventuring through the city. All of the rooms have their own patio, offering you some privacy and a personal place to relax.
Situated minutes from Downtown Oaxaca, the cathedral and the flea market, you’ll be able to see all of this from Casa El Mundo’s rooftop terrace. The Mezcal they serve at the rooftop bar is to-die-for, and if you can’t get enough, they even do a Mezcal tour.
The hosts welcome you like family, offering tips on all of the best places to visit in Oaxaca. The whole hotel is clean and bursting with colour wherever you look.