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.
How long should you spend in Oaxaca City?
It’s easy to slip into a daily routine in a city like Oaxaca, as you go for your breakfast in one of the trendy cafes, before reading your book in the parks and finally ending the day in a family run restaurant.
This way of life is what makes people never leave. If you’re not as plentiful with your time, then 3-4 days should be enough to see the main attractions of the city and explore some of the surrounding sites.
With how well-known Oaxaca City is, and being the capital of the popular Oaxaca state, you’d probably expect Oaxaca City to be pretty big!
In fact it’s only the 67th biggest city in Mexico by population. It’s actually a relatively condensed city, making it easy to explore.
Essentially whichever neighbourhood you choose to stay in, you won’t be very far from the next one. Even so, we’ve put together our top 3 places to stay in Oaxaca City so that you can choose the perfect one for you.
Location #1: Centro – the centre of the action and attractions
Love to roll out of bed and have all of a city’s iconic attractions on your doorstep? If you just answered yes, then you should probably be staying in the Centro area of Oaxaca City.
The Centro area is regarded as the streets that surround Oaxaca’s Zocalo, the city’s main square. Here you’ll be immersed in the pumping heart of the city, surrounded by landmarks, markets and just the general hustle and bustle of the city.
Centro is bursting with hotels, Airbnbs and hostels. You’ll literally find one on every street, so you’re certainly spoilt for choice. Prices can be slightly more expensive as you’re right at the centre of the city, but you can still find a private room for $20 per night.
Location #2: Santo Domingo – the place to party all night long
You’ll find the Santo Domingo area only a few streets north from the Centro area. It’s sandwiched between the Centro and El Llano, a very popular and beautiful park in Oaxaca.
This small neighbourhood is made up of cobblestone roads, bordered on either side by colourful colonial buildings. It’s also where you’ll find Santo Domingo church, an iconic structure in the city.
If you’re looking for the shortest walk home after a night out, then Santo Domingo is the place to stay. This area is brimming with the city’s restaurants, bars and clubs. There’s such a variety here that there’s the ideal night out for everyone.
You can find a lot of hostels in Santo Domingo as it’s popular amongst backpackers looking to party, but it’s still not short of nice hotel options too. Prices are similar to Centro, starting at around $20 per night.
Location #3: Jalatlaco – brimming with hipster coffee shops and cafes
Hop a few streets east of Santo Domingo and you’ll stumble upon the Jalatlaco neighbourhood.
It’s considered one of the trendiest and coolest areas to stay in Oaxaca City. It has a slightly more relaxed atmosphere than the other two areas, being a bit further from the Centro.
What makes this area special are the hipster coffee spots, vibrant street art and delicious cafes. It’s a modern bubble in a colonial city rich with history.
As it’s only a small neighbourhood there’s slightly fewer accommodation choices, but prices remain around the same as the rest of the city.
Where to eat in Oaxaca City
Oaxaca is one of the cities in Mexico that has helped to give the country it’s famous reputation for delicious food.
The city has a number of traditional dishes that are bursting with spices and rich flavours. For example Oaxacan Mole, a popular local sauce, has over 30 ingredients. The people of Oaxaca take their cooking very seriously!
Oaxaca City is all about cheap eats and street food, but it also has a number of lovely restaurants that have mastered fine-dining.
You could easily spend months in Oaxaca just devouring the delicious food, but here are our top 3 restaurants to try:
Libres Tlayudas Doña Martha – try Oaxaca’s version of pizza
A good way to describe what Tlayudas are is by calling them Oaxacan-style pizzas. This traditional dish is made up of a large partially fried tortilla covered in refried beans, asiento, lettuce or cabbage, avocado, Oaxaca cheese and your choice of meat. Delicious right?
Libres Tlayudas is one of the best places in Oaxaca to sample one of these! It’s a small and authentic restaurant that is usually filled with locals, boasting a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
El Biche Pobre – a great place to try Mole Negro
El Biche Pobre is a modest, family run local restaurant where you’ll find delicious dishes made with love. It’s also one of the best places in Oaxaca to try the famous dish, Mole.
Their Mole Negro is a must try! Served atop chicken with rice and tortillas, mole is sauce with over 30 ingredients, one of which is chocolate.
Being a local spot, expect to pay local prices here!
Casa Oaxaca – traditional local food with a fine-dining twist
‘Five senses influenced by an extraordinary gastronomic experience’ is how the restaurant describes the experience of eating at Casa Oaxaca.
The chef, Alejandro Ruiz, showcases the diverse flavours of Oaxaca through a number of traditional dishes with iconic twists to them. All of the ingredients are locally-sourced, with all of the vegetables and sprouts being grown in their own organic garden.
All of this is served in a stunning 18th-century colonial townhouse which boasts an airy bar terrace.
How to get around in Oaxaca City
Getting around Oaxaca City couldn’t be easier! It’s a city designed to be walked in.
Walking is most likely going to be your go-to form of transport whilst staying in Oaxaca City. This is ideal as it’s free, a form of exercise and a great way to see the city.
The city has made it easy to walk to most places. Calle Macedonio Alcala is a pedestrianised street that connects two of the main areas in the city, Templo de Santo Domingo and the Zocalo.
You may never need to use a taxi during your time in Oaxaca City as everything is so close together.
If you do end up using one though, they certainly aren’t very hard to find. There are always plenty roaming the street looking for a passenger. They’re also bright yellow, making them very hard to miss! Many of them will give you a little honk to indicate that they’re free.
A taxi ride to most places within town will cost between 40 and 60 MXN ($2-3). Make sure to agree on the price before getting into the taxi as none of the taxis are metred.
Taxi’s can be a good way to reach some of the activities a bit further from Oaxaca City. For example a taxi to Hierve el Agua will cost you around 600 MXN ($30).
If you’re looking to save money on transport, the colectivo taxis can be a great way to get to your destination.
The colectivos in Oaxaca city are maroon and white cars that usually have their destination on a big sign in their windshield.
Getting a colectivo is easy, you just flag them down off the street and use them to go in the direction you want to go. They are a faster option than the bus and a cheaper option than a taxi. A typical fare will cost you around 15 MXN ($0.75).
Getting the bus in Oaxaca City is not an easy task, so you may just want to avoid this form of transport!
There is virtually no information available on any of the bus routes or times. Even some of the locals will just give you a shrug if you need information.
The buses aren’t government run, so no data collection has ever been done. Your best strategy is to either ask your hotel or turn up at a bus stop and hope for the best. Not the most reliable of strategies if you ask us!
One positive of the buses? They are super cheap and will only cost you 7 MXN ($0.35).
By Renting a Car
As we mentioned before, Oaxaca City is the capital of the glorious Oaxaca State. Therefore if you’re looking to explore the surrounding areas, renting a car may be a great option for you.
You can travel at your own pace and not rely on public transport, which isn’t the most reliable in Oaxaca. Having a car means you could drive to Puerto Escondido and spend a few days exploring this popular surfing town as part of your visit to Oaxaca City.
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.
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.
Open and airy design
Large roof terrace
Private patio with every room
Private rooms start from $60 per night, including breakfast
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.