13 best things to do in Oaxaca City

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.

Give it a few hours of wandering through its 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.

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.

Get your bucket list ready. In this guide, we’ll show you the best things to do in Oaxaca City and how to experience them.

Need help planning your trip? Check out our tips for visiting Oaxaca City — you’ll find the best restaurants, where to stay, how to get around and more!

Top tours in and around Oaxaca City

#1 Get to know Oaxaca City with the free walking tour

Walking Tour in Oaxaca Mexico
Free walking tour in Oaxaca City

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!

There are three tours a day Monday through Saturday: 10:00, 13:00 and 16:00. On Sundays, the tours leave at 10:00 and 16:00. The meeting point is outside the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá.

#2 Explore Oaxaca City’s Zocalo

Zocalo in Oaxaca Mexico
Zocalo – the heart of Oaxaca City

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 the main square, 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 on 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.

There are two ‘big boys’ when it comes to markets in Oaxaca City that you’ll definitely want to visit: Mercado Benito Juarez and Mercardo 20 de Noviembre.

Mercado Benito Juarez

Mercado Benito in Oaxaca Mexico
A local woman serving Tejate, a traditional drink made of cacao and corn at the Tlacolula market

Make sure to visit Mercardo Benito Juarez when you’re hungry as there are 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, grasshoppers. That’s right. Chapulines are a popular snack in Mexico and one that you won’t struggle to find in Benito Juarez. Once you forget what you’re eating, 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 a place to get cheap and local food, the market is a chance to get a glimpse of what the city was like 60 years ago. Some of the food vendors have been working in the market for decades, using recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation.

This is where a lot of the locals eat, so 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 fills the market air.

#4 Admire the natural springs at Hierve el Agua

Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca Mexico
Hierve el Agua’s natural spring formed thousands of years ago

Hierve el Agua is one of the most popular day trips from Oaxaca City. The only other place in the world where you can find something similar is Turkey.

Hierve el Agua actually means ‘the water boils’ in Spanish, but in contrast, the water’s actually cool, so 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

Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca Mexico
Hierve el Agua spring with a stunning view

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, a Mezcal distillery and Santa Maria el Tule all for $48.

How to visit without a tour

If you prefer to be on your own schedule and spend the whole day in Hierve el Agua, you can visit the water formations by yourself. And it’s pretty simple!

First, you’ll need to get either the bus for 20 MXN ($1.05) or a colectivo for 30 MXN ($1.55) 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 ($31.50) or take the more adventurous option, a camioneta. This is essentially a pickup truck that will only cost you between 50 MXN ($2.65) and 60 MXN ($3.15). 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.

Visit the spectacular Hierve el Agua, Mitla ruins, a Mezcal distillery and Santa Maria el Tule for $48

#5 Take a day trip to the Monte Alban ruins

Monte Alban ruins in Oaxaca Mexico
Monte Alban ruins – A UNESCO World Heritage

You can’t really come to Oaxaca and not spend the day exploring the Monte Alban ruins. They’re often 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 and ballcourt to an observatory.

What makes 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

Main Plaza in Oaxaca city Mexico
Panoramic view of Main Plaza in Monte Alban ruins

The entrance to the ruins costs just 75 MXN ($3.95). 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 10 km 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 ($2.65) 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.

See if the Monte Alban ruins are your favourite in Mexico and join this Monte Alban Ruins tour with transportation included for $36

#6 Why not also visit Mitla ruins?

Mitla in Oaxaca Mexico
Mitla ruins – an important site of Zapotec civilization and a UNESCO World Heritage site

If you just can’t get enough of archaeological sites, you should head to Mitla. These ruins are considered the second most important in 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.

How to visit Mitla ruins

Mitla ruins in Oaxaca city Mexico
A doorway to one of the ruins in Mitla

Entrance costs just 75 MXN ($3.95) 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 ($1.05) that takes you directly from Oaxaca City to Mitla.

Or why not join a tour where you’ll get to visit Mitla ruins, a Mezcal distillery, Santa Maria del Tule and Teotitlan del Valle for just $65.

Enjoy a fun-packed day on this tour to Mitla, a Mezcal Distillery, Santa Maria del Tule and Teotitlan del Valle for $65

#7 Get a little tipsy on a mezcal tour

Mezcal in Oaxaca City Mexico
Mezcal – a popular liquor product of Agave plant with strong notes of smoky flavour

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 under the radar.

Tequila can only be produced from one kind of agave but mezcal is made from any kind of agave plant and has a distinctive smoky flavour. This flavour is created by roasting the agave plant hearts in a wood-burning pit.

And Oaxaca knows how to do this well. The famous mezcal town of Santiago Matatlán (aka ‘World Capital of Mezcal’) is located in the state of Oaxaca but you can also find distilleries in and around Oaxaca City.

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!

Distillation of Mezcal in Oaxaca City Mexico
The distillation process of mezcal using aged-old barrels

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 $65.

Get a taste of Mezcal on this tour to Mitla, a Mezcal Distillery, Santa Maria del Tule and Teotitlan del Valle for $65

#8 Admire Templo de Santo Domingo

Cathedral Oaxaca city Mexico
Cathedral of Santo Domingo built in the 16th century

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

Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca Mexico
Botanical Garden in Oaxaca City Mexico

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 Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca.

The gardens themselves are magnificent, filled with an array of plants and flowers that complement and contrast each other. Not only is it a ‘pretty place’, but you will also get to learn about 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 occurred 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 11:00 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. They cost 100 MXN ($5).

Top tip: The gardens are very popular and people usually start lining up around 10:00.

#10 Sample the traditional Mole sauce

Mole sauce in Oaxaca City Mexico
Traditional Mexican enchiladas with 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. There are actually several kinds of mole, some of which are made up of more than 30 ingredients, including dried chiles, peanuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon and the secret ingredient, chocolate!

Mole is 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 suggested, Benito Juarez or Mercado 20 de Noviembre, to get a taste.

In our Oaxaca Travel Guide, we also recommend one of the best restaurants to try Mole in Oaxaca City.

#11 Go back in time at the Cuilapam Convent

Cuilapam Ruins in Oaxaca City Mexico
The unfinished Cuilapam Convent

Cuilapam Convent, just 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca City, is a building full of 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 Valentine’s 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

Oldest tree in Oaxaca City Mexico
El Árbol del Tule – A 2,000 year old Tule Tree

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

Fundacion En Via in Oaxaca Mexico
Fundación En Vía promotes women empowerment

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 six 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 on Fundación En Vía’s website.

How to get to Oaxaca City

Leaving fromDurationPrices fromSee details
Mexico City2hrs 10mins – 7.5hrs562 MXN ($29.50)747 MXN ($39.50)Mexico City to Oaxaca
Puebla5hrs810 MXN ($43)Puebla to Oaxaca
Puerto Escondido30mins – 10.5hrs250 MXN ($13)2,800 MXN ($145)Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca
San Cristobal4.5hrs – 13hrs1,004 MXN ($53)3,490 MXN ($185)San Cristobal de las Casas to Oaxaca

Rounding it up

Now you’ve picked the best things to do in Oaxaca City, it’s time to start ticking off that bucket list. Not sure how to plan your trip? Our guide is here to help! You’ll find out how long to stay in Oaxaca City, where to eat, how to get around and more. Happy planning! 

Our favourite places to stay in Oaxaca City

Ayook – Treating Yourself

Located within the stunning historic centre, Ayook is housed within the remnants of an 18th century house, but with a modern twist. It’s interior boasts a warm and cosy feel, thanks to the impressive wooden features and perfectly placed 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 granduer continues with the à la carte breakfast served every morning. The beds are huge, with memory foam pillows, perfect for starfishing all night long.

  • Delicious à la carte breakfast
  • Traditional Oaxacan-style interior
  • Great location
  • Private patio with every room

Double rooms start from $80 per night

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La Casa Carlota – Treating Yourself

Set within a historical colonial building, the La Casa Carlota’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 admire the beauty of Oaxaca. From here you can see all of the best sites in Oaxaca as they’re only a few minutes walk from the hotel.

At the heart of the hotel is an open courtyard. The perfect place to enjoy your complimentary breakfast each morning before adventuring through the city. An added bonus, all of the rooms have their own patio, offering you some privacy and a personal place to relax.

  • Spacious and modern rooms
  • Large roof terrace
  • Private patio with every room
  • Amazing breakfast included

Double rooms start from $80 per night

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Azul Cielo Hostel – Mid Range

Three words to best describe Azul Cielo are bohemian, cosy and colourful. It’s a social place with plenty of areas to meet other like-minded travellers. You get the best of borth worlds here — a friendly atmosphere and the tranquility of your own private room. Plus there are plenty of places around the hotel to hide yourself away and relax.

Every room is uniquely decorated, boasting their own style and atmosphere. Make sure to pick the one that suits your vibe the most. Once you’ve enjoyed a rejuvenating sleep, you can start your day off with a delicious complimentary breakfast served by the friendly staff.

  • Friendly atmosphere
  • Great outdoor spaces
  • Excellent location
  • Great breakfast included

Double rooms between $40-$80 per night

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Casa EL Mundo – Budget Friendly

Situated only steps away 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 one of the family, offering tips on all of the best places to visit in Oaxaca. Every corner of the hotel is clean and bursting with colour no matter where you look. This is an unforgettable place to stay.

  • Rooftop terrace
  • Mezcal tour
  • Friendly hosts
  • Bright and colourful rooms

Double rooms between $15-$40 per night

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Professional Traveller

Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.

Professional Traveller & Editor

Aleksandra is a writer and editor who recently moved from Hong Kong to London. She’s worked and studied in four countries (and counting) and picked up a new hobby in each of them. She’s a big fan of long train journeys so you can count on her to take the scenic route, finding a few hidden gems along the way.