Nestled between valleys, and framed by beautiful mountain ranges, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most vibrant and beautiful cities. Bustling with art, food, and color, colonial Oaxaca is rich in Mexican history, and offers so much more than just your average good tequila and tacos. (Though those are great, too.) Into food? Oaxaca boasts top-class cuisine, where even the most experienced foodie can have a chance to try something new. Like history? The city is surrounded by several sprawling archeological sites, and contains some of the most majestic cathedrals in all of Mexico.
We could go on (and do, below), but, basically: Oaxaca has so much to offer any and all travelers. Add it to your travel hit list. Or book a trip now (just do it!) to escape winter. Or just read and live vicariously. Here, what to know, eat and experience in the lovely little city of Oaxaca.
Things to know:
Oaxaca is best enjoyed on a relaxed schedule. Throw out that rigid itinerary and let yourself wander, taking in the incredible smells, tastes, and sights that this lively Mexican town has to offer at every corner.
And on that note, walk everywhere! Don’t be afraid to explore and get a little lost. Oaxaca has some beautiful things around every corner. I usually stumbled upon my favorite places by complete accident. And don’t worry—during the day, the city is lively, safe, and the locals are super friendly.
The city is really, really quiet at night. It’s pretty safe, and there’s not many people out after dark. Usually just some locals and tourists grabbing dinner and drinks. Just like in most places, keep from wandering too much after dark, and make sure you stay in well-lit areas. This is an old city, with cobblestone streets and not many streetlights. Like you would anywhere, be aware of your surroundings so as to not run into trouble.
Plan to exchange dollars into pesos before you arrive. Most larger Mexican cities accept dollars for the most part, but Oaxaca isn’t quite as Westernized, so you may run into trouble if you don’t have pesos. Also, you’ll be using pesos to pay for all of your artisanal finds and delicious street foods, as most if not all of the local vendors only accept cash.
Most of the year, Oaxaca is sunny and warm during the day—think tank top weather. At night though, it gets breezy and a little cold. Layer and prepare for chilly nights, especially if you’re wanting after-dinner drinks on a rooftop. October is a great time of year to visit—the afternoons are mild and clear, with somewhat cooler evenings. Perfect for daytime exploring and cozy nights drinking handmade hot chocolate.
Drink all the mezcal, and mescal-infused cocktails. They are seriously delicious, and Oaxaca is famous for this native spirit. Made from agave plants grown right in the area, mezcal is smoky and strong. Go easy and slow with it, thought—remember to sip and not shoot, and pair it with a hearty meal.
Most home rental sites offer some great lodging options in Oaxaca. You can find a clean and cozy apartment or loft near the city center for less than $100 US dollars a night. Also, staying in a Oaxacan home makes you feel like you’re really immersed in the culture. Plus, walking out of your front door and onto the downtown cobblestone streets can save you a bunch on taxis and makes for easy coming’s and going’s.
Eat all the chocolate, molé, and Oaxacan cheese you can. Oh, and we can’t forget the crickets. Yes, crickets. Trust me, you can’t leave without crunching down on one of these guys. Most market vendors sell them, and even the upscale restaurants have their version of these little critters. If the big ones creep you out, go for the tiny ones covered in chile and garlic powder. Yum!
And where to eat.
La Pitiona This place is incredible, and cooked up one of the best Mexican meals I’ve ever had, hands-down. They have an incredibly attentive staff, and you can sample the mezcal before ordering a glass or bottle.The service alone would have made my experience here one of the best in Oaxaca, but the food was also wildly good. Make sure and order the black molé with chicken, and don’t be surprised if your drink is paired with salt garnished with tiny ants. Worth making a reservation ahead of time to ensure a nice table.
Case Oaxaca One of the most well-known restaurants in the city, Casa Oaxaca is known for its modern take on Oaxacan cuisine. Make sure and order the chapulines and guacamole. Yes, they’re crickets, but going to Oaxaca without trying them is like being in Mexico without having a taste of tequila. They have amazing cocktails, including mezcal-infused drinks, and an extensive wine list. The decor is modern, all-white, and perfect for a date night. If you’re lucky, there might be some live music. After dinner, go enjoy dessert or some champagne on their rooftop, while you admire the quiet city lit up at night.
La Olla This little hole-in-the-wall eatery is super casual and homey. Great place for a decadent, late-morning breakfast. Try the tlayudas, a hearty Oaxaca staple made from a large crispy tortilla, and topped with lettuce, onions, avocado, Oaxacan cheese, and your choice of meat. Sip your hot chocolate or coffee as the cooks hand-make their tortillas right in front of you. La Olla is a lovely, cozy place to fuel up before exploring the town.
Zandunga A lively and fun dinner place, Zandunga has bright decor, friendly service, and is slightly more upscale (but not as pricey as La Pitiona and Casa Oaxaca, if you’re looking to stay under-budget). They have amazing cocktails and great appetizers, perfect for starting your evening out on the town. Sit at the bar and chat up the local bartenders — they have great recommendations for post-dinner outings and local hidden gems.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre One of the biggest markets in town, Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a foodies dream. You can find everything from dark chocolate to 20-plus ingredient molé here. It is a noisy, bustling indoor market, with food and people at every turn. But the best kept secret in the city is a little corridor in the market where they have rows and rows of meat stands. It is insanity in there — lots of people, lots of options, and movement everywhere. But the bustle is worth it if you want to eat some of the best tacos you’ve ever had in your life.
Explore the market until you arrive at an alley that is filled with smoke, and lined with meat vendors. Order meat from any of the vendors — half a kilo is usually good for two people. They will give you a card to take to a person who will take your order, seat you, and bring out the meat you ordered freshly cooked and prepared. They’ll ask you if you want to buy salsa, limes, tortillas, onions and chiles to pair with your meat. SAY YES TO ALL OF IT. If you have one food adventure, it has to be this! Watch this video* to get a feel for it before you head in.
And finally, the street corn! A staple in most cities in Mexico, corn in a cup is one of my favorite Mexican treats. A older man is always outside of the Santo Domingo church selling it from his cart. He gets there around 5pm (I know this because I stubbornly waited until he appeared) and charges you a couple of pesos for a big, overflowing cup of corn, cheese, mayo, and chile. It’s a sinful treat, and one-hundred percent worth it.
… and a few other things to explore, too.
Downtown Market Around the Zocalo (main downtown area) there’s usually a big, open-air market on the weekends, with tons of food and lots of artisan vendors. It’s a good option if the indoor markets feel to stuffy and claustrophobic. Take in the lively atmosphere, as you shop around and browse the different stands of Mexican treats and hand-made items. A great afternoon pit-stop as you walk through town, and the perfect place to pick up some souvenirs for your loved ones at home.
Mercado de Abastos/Benito Juarez Another big indoor market that sells food, clothing, blankets, and other artisan wares. Also a great option for souvenirs, or if you’re looking to pick up some authentic Mexican decor for your home. Word of warning: most vendors will jack the price up on you, especially if they assume you’re a tourist. So work them! All the vendors loves a good haggle, so never take an initial price as a final one.
Monte Alban An ancient archeological site of Zapotec ruins that lies right outside the city, Monte Alban is a beautiful excuse to get out of town for the day. Inquire in any local hotel about the bus tours that take you here. They’re relatively cheap, safe, and are a really easy 20-minute trip from the city. The ruins are sprawling and incredible, so they make for a fun afternoon of exploring on your own — pack a lunch and make a day out of it. Some of the same bus tours have multiple stops in the smaller villages around the city, and are a great option if you’d like to see more of the surrounding area on the same day.
Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo A really beautiful, modern outdoor museum with a nice restaurant upstairs. This place also had the guac and crickets plate, and it was my favorite that I tried in town. Great for an afternoon coffee or lunch break, especially if you’re looking for a quiet spot to take a rest from walking around town all day.
Café Brújula A cozy little café and bookshop, stop in for a midday pick-me-up and some literary browsing.
Santo Domingo Church The grandest and most well-known church of the city, Santo Domingo is at the crux of the city of Oaxaca. It’s worth taking a peek into their museum, but if you prefer to skip the history lesson, make sure and visit the amazing botanical garden outside, which houses some of the largest cacti you’ll ever see.
Mezcaloteca Touted as the best mezcal tasting in the city, make sure you make a reservation because this place fills up quick. The bar is small, intimate, and surrounded by dark wood; the understated decor houses some of the best spirits in all of Oaxaca. The bartenders are known for their immense knowledge on everything mezcal, so if you’re wanting to brush up on your knowledge of the smoky spirit, this is your spot.
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