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Oaxaca (that is, Oaxaca de Juárez) was always the-one-that-got-away for me; the city that I always wanted to go to during my longer Latin America travels but never made it up to. Finally going back for it at the end of 2022, it did not disappoint. I was there just after Día de los Muertos so lots of the decorations were still up, but similar bunting goes up for pretty much any celebration in the city across the year.
Some parts of Oaxaca city provide a relaxing, colourful backdrop to stone-paved stroll, other parts are absolutely chaotic and really spark your senses into action.
This post is going to tell you all the best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico, and then some extra useful information like how to get there, where to stay and how long to visit for.
How to pronounce Oaxaca: wa-HA-ca
Once you reach the end of this post on the things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico, don’t miss these useful guides:
- How to get a bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca
- Hierve el Agua: making the most of your time there
- Oaxaca state: The perfect 2-week Mexico itinerary
Want to skip to something in particular?
What’s the (brief!) history of Oaxaca?
The people who live in the city (and state!) are known as Oaxaqueños, but many have deep Zapoteca and Mixteca indigenous roots – in fact, Oaxaca has the highest number of indigenous cultures and languages of any state in Mexico.
Though much of these cultures have been either lost to time or actively wiped out by Europeans, some parts are still very much alive and kicking.
Lots of Oaxaca’s history is influenced by the widespread reach of the Dominican missionaries from the 1500s. This stifled much of the original culture of the area as the Europeans carried out their mission to convert all of Mexico to Christianity. You’ll see references to this all around as you explore the city.
In modern times, Oaxaca has begun creeping up on the radar of expats and digital nomads, which starts to show when you notice certain bars are full only of English-speakers with their dogs. It doesn’t take away from the charm of the city though; the foreign gentrification is mostly contained to the blocks directly around Templo de Santo Domingo.
If you love to see first-hand just how vibrant authentic Mexican culture can be, plan a trip to Oaxaca during Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) at the beginning of November, when you can experiences all the parades, offerings (ofrendas) and rituals they have to celebrate loved ones and ancestors passed.
14 unmissable things to do in Oaxaca City
Right, now you know a bit of context, let’s get into the meat of the most awesome things to do in Oaxaca! Coming up are 14 super exciting things to do while you’re here…
1. Snap up a place on the Guruwalks free walking tour
My first thought in any historically-rich city is to take a proper walking tour to learn about the past, present and future of the area.
There’s no shortage of walking tours in Oaxaca, but there are some that I heard less favourable things about.
I ended up missing my original tour when the guide didn’t tell me a meeting place in time, so hopped on the 2.5-hour Spanish Guruwalks tour at 4pm on the corner of the Macedonio Alcalá Theatre (you are supposed to book onto the tour so they can keep numbers low, but I got lucky as the tour guide was feeling generous!).
There is also an English tour which leaves at the same time from the corner of Calle de la Constitución and 5 de Mayo.
The walking tour was super interesting, and while in-depth in places, she also pointed out other things to do in Oaxaca to spend our time on after the tour was over, and told us why they were so worth a visit.
We made a few stops at local vendors to illustrate her stories or try things, but at no point did it seem forced or over-touristic. Each stop was relevant and interesting, with no pressure to buy anything. I’d say this is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca on your first day.
Guruwalks is a free walking tour of Oaxaca, so you tip however much money you think it was worth at the end of the tour. Bring cash and don’t ask for change from your donation!
2. Taste the OG Hot Chocolate
Cacao is a key part of Oaxaca’s culture, so much so that centuries ago the beans were even used as currency.
All around the city, you’ll find teeny shops that do demonstrations on how they go from bean to chocolate, and how they make their traditional (i.e. original) style of hot and cold chocolate drinks. Most will offer you things to taste, and will also sell their own handmade chocolate.
You can also do full-on cacao classes where you can make your own chocolate with the help of the local experts.
If you don’t want to go to a full chocolate demonstration, several of the Mayordomo chocolate shops (such as the one on Las Casas with Flores Magón) have staff working through the process of chocolate-making (albeit with slightly more technical machinery), so you can more or less see how things are done.
If you do visit Mayordomo, do not leave without buying a Chocolate Frio for just 20 pesos – it’s basically a chocolate milkshake but it’s soooo good in the daytime heat.
Another way of experiencing Oaxacan chocolate in a way that’s much more traditional is to buy a cup of tejate. This is a drink that contains cacao beans, cacao flowers and maíz and has been a favourite amongst Oaxaqueños for centuries.
3. Get a sense for Oaxaca through street art
Graffiti can tell us an awful lot about a city – about the most significantly happy or painful moments in its history, the thoughts & feelings of the people and where they hope to get to as a city.
The popular street art bike tour takes you all around the best graffiti in Oaxaca in a 4-hour light bicycle ride that tells you all about the meanings behind the many gorgeous murals around the city.
Some of the most beautiful are found in Jalatlaco barrio and the old town (especially along Calle José López Alavez).
4. Take a bit of Oaxaca home for your wall!
Aside from their impressive graffiti, the people of Oaxaca have a penchant for creating gorgeous art prints on their famous paper – some so beautiful I started wondering if I could just dump one of my hand luggage bags and take a print on the plane as a personal item instead.
Even if you don’t have the space or money to buy, perusing the different shops and galleries is still amongst the more inspiring things to do in Oaxaca.
There are many, many galleries around the city, with a lot of the best ones being opposite Templo de Santo Domingo. Actually, there are lots of things to do in Oaxaca for art-lovers in general. Up next…
5. Get creative in an art workshop
Like the prints of Oaxaca? You can make your own! Subterraneo’s Oaxaca wood-working print workshop has you drawing your own design, carving it into wood and then printing it onto paper within a jam-packed 4 hours. Contact them on social media to book your place.
Alternatively, you can carve and paint your own Alebrije figurine, yet another Oaxacan specialism. It’s a super-relaxing workshop where you’ll be taught by local artisans in the small town of San Martin Tilcajete (transport included!).
6. Be in awe at Santo Domingo
Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán is special because it’s one of the few large churches I’ve ever been to that inspired more awe looking to the back than to the pulpit. Its 300-year-old layers upon layers of intricate golden guilding are breath-taking – and I’d be lying if I said the pulpit wasn’t worth admiring either!
The church is free to enter, just be respectful of any services that may be on.
7. Hunt down Oaxaca street food
Oaxaca is the gastronomical hub of Mexico – for real! There are stupid amounts of options for food in Oaxaca, though somehow the real gritty stuff can still be a bit hard to find if you’re not in-the-know.
In hindsight, one of the first things to do in Oaxaca would have been to take a food tour in order to get myself in-the-know, but as usual I bumbled through things by myself, didn’t I…
When it comes to street stalls, they usually all sell the same type of food next to each other, so certain areas of the city are for certain things (corn is a few blocks north of the centre, meaty dishes are a few blocks south, and there’s hardly anything in the main plaza, oddly).
Your best bet to find street food is therefore to head to the streets around the markets, where you’ll find many more options together.
If you want to sit down and eat, check out Taco Roy, which has a cheap (and very tasty!) street food feel with actual tables to sit at.
There is also the Empanadas del Carmen in the evenings, which I thought was going to be a tourist trap due to being in an expat-heavy area outside La Popular bar and having been featured on the Netflix show ‘Street Food: Latin America‘, but it beat my expectations with super tasty street food at low prices, all served with a smile.
8. Eat your corazón out in Oaxaca’s Restaurants
A truly unmissable thing to do in Oaxaca for food-enthusiasts. If you’re looking to taste something more premium and even Michelin-starred, boy do you have choices!
All around Templo de Santo Domingo is where you’ll find several blocks of super-swanky restaurants in pretty much every direction. A fair few of them are rooftop restaurants which is pretty dreamy given the views.
A little warning though: I tried out a mid-range restaurant with UK prices, Zandango, and didn’t find it to be anything to rave about. I’d say it’s go big or go home with Oaxaca restaurants!
If you don’t mind getting out of the city for lunch or dinner, Rancho Blanco is a beautiful traditional Oaxacan restaurant set in a mezcal ranch, just past Tlacolula (about an hour’s drive). I expected a major tourist setup when I got there, but it was actually full of rich old Mexican abuelas and their grandchildren having family lunch.
9. Learn from the best with cooking classes in Oaxaca
And of course, the true foodies among us couldn’t leave Oaxaca without a cooking course! The best cooking courses take you to a market first to buy your fresh ingredients, which is what this very popular tour does. You also get to make the food with traditional equipment.
Unlike many of the cooking classes on offer elsewhere in Latin America, there is actually the option for a vegetarian cooking class in Oaxaca, too.
10. Fill your boots in Oaxaca’s markets
Oaxaca is full to the brim with markets! Luckily, most of them are situated in the same kind of area, south of the plaza, so you can bounce between them. The main markets to check out are:
- Mercado Benito Juárez – a mix of tourist trinkets, clothing for locals, mezcal, food and flowers. After exploring, chill with an agua fresca in one of the little bar stalls
- Mercado 20 de Noviembre – fantastic for baked goods and other tasty local foods (note: in November 2022 you still need to be wearing a mask to enter)
- Central de Abastos – the biggest and oldest of Oaxaca markets; it has just about everything, but if you’re going to try mole, it’s here.
- Mercado de Artisanías – more aimed at tourists but still not very touristy; find fusions of Western-style clothing with local design twists, stunning textiles and homely goods like cushions
There is also Tlacolula Market on Sundays, which is more of a Oaxaca day trip; I’ll share more details of that in another post.
11. Find treasure in the Museo de las Culturas
The Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca is interesting in itself because it is set in an old convent, which was built by the Dominicans but then repurposed into barracks and stables for horses in the 19th and 20th centuries. Oaxaca then realised just how culturally significant the place was, and began the long process of restoration.
Nowadays, the museum is hugely comprehensive and has done its best to bring it back to the look & feel of the convent.
This museum is the perfect complement to a day trip from Oaxaca to Monte Albán, because it contains a large exhibition of the artefacts excavated from Tumba 7. They’re stunning, with a lot of information in both Spanish and English – one of the few exhibitions in the museum that has both, unfortunately).
There is also an extensive exhibition on the evolution and social importance of Mexican dogs (hairless Xolos), which was surprisingly interesting (though only in Spanish).
It costs 85 pesos for an all-day ticket with re-entry, and you can choose to visit independently or hire a private tour guide for 600 pesos when you arrive.
Note that you’re not allowed to bring food, water or backpacks (these get left in a pile inside the entrance gates if you do bring one), and it’s one of the few places in Mexico that require masks be worn at the end of 2022. If you don’t have a mask, pop directly across the road to the baños in a small courtyard between art galleries to buy one for 10 pesos.
12. Get prickly in the Jardín Etnobotánico
Adjacent to and included in your ticket for the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca is the botanical garden.
This garden is seen as incredibly important to the region, because it contains hundreds of species of plants all native to Oaxaca state.
Planting is ongoing, and as you walk through the Jardín Etnobotánico you’ll realise you’re also going through the old ruins of the convent, as the garden space was used both as a orchard and also laundry rooms, kilns and irrigation channels.
It’s lovely for a stroll after you’ve visited the museum.
13. Cleanse your inner self with a Temazcal Sauna ritual
This is one of the most deeply interesting things to do in Oaxaca that I tried. On the edges of the city, you can take a (literally) breath-takingly immersive experience into the world of temazcal saunas. This is a ritual that the Mixtecs use to rid bad energies from the body.
Unlike ayahuasca ceremonies, this is not ritual that natives need to spiritually earn, nor is it something that is exploiting and depleting natural resources. Just obviously make sure you’re taking it seriously, as it’s an important ritual for those who follow Mayan traditions.
The sauna is done in what can only be described as a human-sized pizza oven (and is meant to represent being a womb of Mother Earth from which you will be reborn when you eventually crawl out on hands and knees).
During the ceremony, you sit inside the sauna and sweat your knickers off while a healer takes you through the ritual of cleansing using various plants & herbs. She asks you to rub some plants in your hands and inhale them, then takes larger ones and beats you with them (gently enough!) to cleanse you.
After, the plants go onto the volcanic rock hearth of the sauna to make you sweat the negativity out and breathe in the heavy therapeutic scents for 20-30 minutes. The healer sings a little, and then leaves you for long-feeling quiet periods to go into your own thoughts.
Overall, it’s a very mind-clearing process! My travel buddy described it really well as ‘a lack of stimulation so deep that you actually feel over-stimulated’.
To finish off the Temazcal sauna, you have the opportunity to jump into a cold plunge pool (which, surprise surprise, I immediately opted out of).
After that, I strongly advise you choose the add-on option of a 1-hour massage – this isn’t part of the ritual but is offered as a way to relax out of it. Finishing the ritual and crawling out of the oven door, your brain can feel a bit disorientated, and the massage brings you back slowly to earth.
This Oaxaca Temazcal sauna experience is the one that I did, and it costs $65 USD solo, or $50 each as a pair, which includes a door-to-door 30-minute car ride to get to the sauna compound.
There are very few slots to be booked, and they give you the whole place to yourself, so get in contact with the sauna sooner rather than later to book. It’s one of the most unique things to do in Oaxaca!
14. See what’s on at Zócalo
Zócalo is the main plaza of the city, and a pretty obvious spot to find things to do in Oaxaca on a whim. It features a big ole cathedral (La Basilica) and plenty of tourist-tat stalls, but oddly not a lot of street food. It is, however, lined with restaurants and teeny mezcal bars (check out El Almacen) and so a lovely place to spend a couple of hours.
At night, this place quite often comes alive, with both planned and spontaneous events happening a few times a week. Head down from sunset to see what might be on – you might find fire dancers, comedians, weddings and even full parades.
I was walking home one evening around 6pm when I chanced upon a huge procession with several marching bands and traditional dancing as a salute to baked goods. Oaxaqueños celebrate anything, I’m telling you.
How long do I need to complete all the things to do in Oaxaca?
Well, I stayed 3 nights (which gave me 4 full days due to getting to and from Oaxaca via night bus), and that felt like enough to get all of the things to do in Oaxaca that I wanted to do (as well as any excursions out of the city) whilst still having breathing space to relax and party.
If you want to do everything independently or feel the burning desire to try as much of the food as possible, factor in a few more days for your stay in Oaxaca.
Where to stay in Oaxaca?
While you work your way through the many amazing but sometimes tiring things to do in Oaxaca, you’ll want somewhere nice to come back to each night! Here are some of the best hostel & hotel options to stay in…
Best hostels in Oaxaca
Looking for a strong friendly community vibe but don’t mind feeling like everything around you is at least a little bit dirty in a natural, hippy kind of way? Check yourself into Azul Cielo. The traditional Mexican breakfast they serve there is bloody fantastic.
Alternatively, if you prefer things clean-cut & modern and want to be closer to the city, Casa Angel is a super popular hostel to choose. Vibes are a little bit party-esque, but the terrace bar closes at 11pm which pushes all the partiers to go and try some of the local bars instead of disturbing sleepers. They host activities like BBQs and salsa/yoga classes every day so it’s easy to meet other backpackers.
Depending on your budget, I recommend reserving one of the deluxe pod beds at Casa Angel, as these were much quieter and easier to sleep through in than the curtained beds in the larger dorms (yep, I tried both!).
Best hotels in Oaxaca
If you would prefer to experience all the things to do in Oaxaca knowing you’re coming back to the privacy of a hotel stay, budget travellers should check out Hotel Casa Antigua which is nice and central.
However, for those with looser purse-strings, the bougie-and-somehow-also-rustic Pug Seal Hotel is an exceptional place to rest your head.
How do I get to Oaxaca?
Oaxaca has a mid-sized ADO bus terminal with buses from cities and towns such as Mexico City, Veracruz, Mérida, Puebla and more – BusBud has all the departures and tickets for you to book. Here’s a detailed guide to how to get to Oaxaca from Mexico City via ADO bus.
There is also a small international airport. This provides flights between limited Mexican cities like Mexico City, Tijuana and Cancún, as well as international destinations such as Los Angeles and Dallas.
So that’s my guide to all the awe-inspiring things to do in Oaxaca and other useful know-how! Hopefully this helps you make the most of your visit to Oaxaca, please let me know in the comments if any more important questions need answering!
Now that you’ve come to the end of this post on the things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico, read these guides next:
- The 8 most interesting Oaxaca day trips
- How to get a bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca
- Hierve el Agua: making the most of your time there
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Last Updated on 13 May 2023 by Cuppa to Copa Travels