21 Unmissable Things to Do in Oaxaca City

Posted 08/03/2024 | 8th March, 2024

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to spend a whole month in Oaxaca City, exploring all the best it offers. 

Oaxaca totally blew me away. It’s a stunning, walkable city with beautiful architecture, friendly locals, and plenty to do. 

So, from the magical Hierve El Agua to the famous eateries and everything in between, here are all the best things to do in Oaxaca City

21 Things to Do in Oaxaca PIN
21 Things to Do in Oaxaca PIN

21 Unmissable Things to Do in Oaxaca City

Enjoy Sunset Drinks on a Rooftop Bar

Rooftop Bar in Oaxaca
Sunset drinks with a view over Oaxaca City
Rooftop Bar in Oaxaca
Enjoying a beer and cocktail in a rooftop bar in Oaxaca

I don’t know what this says about my style of travel, but this was literally the first thing I did in Oaxaca. 

We wandered into town, found a great bar, and watched the sun set over this magical city with a mezcalita

There is no shortage of excellent rooftop bars in Oaxaca. Just before sunset, take a walk around the city and grab a table in one that matches your vibe.

I recommend always checking the menus before you go – some of the higher-end bars can have very expensive drinks.

Mezcal Tasting – Things to Do in Oaxaca at Night

Mezcal Tastings Oaxaca
A great introduction to Mezcal in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is the home of mezcal. Therefore (providing you drink alcohol) you must try some of this spirit whilst in the city. 

If you’re anything like me and don’t know where to start with drinking mezcal, I recommend booking a tasting session. I booked this Airbnb experience, which was absolutely fantastic. 

We were actually the only ones who had booked this particular tour, and as such, we got a private tasting experience with two friendly, informative guides. We had six different mescal tastings and then got the chance to make our very own cocktail (which was my favourite part!). 

The guides were friendly, informative, and relatable. They also speak excellent English so you have the option to take the tour in Spanish or English. They also gave us some excellent recommendations for places to eat and drink around the city, which was much appreciated!

If you don’t want to take a tour as I did, you could try a mezcal sample in one of the many speciality bars across the city. La Casa De Mezcal and La Mezcalerita are two popular options. 

Now, I wouldn’t say this too loud, but I think I prefer Tequila to Mezcal! (If you want to read about my experience in Tequila Jalisco, you can here). But, if you’re the same, I wouldn’t let this stop you from trying a Mezcal tasting in Oaxaca.

Relax in the Zocalo

If you’re visiting Oaxaca as part of a bigger Mexican trip, you will be familiar with these beautiful Zocalos. 

The Zocalo is the square in the centre of the city, and it’s the best place to soak in the area’s atmosphere and witness local culture. 

The Oaxaca Zocalo has a gorgeous bandstand with many benches where you can relax for a few hours while watching the world go by. Expect to be approached by many vendors selling savoury snacks, handmade goods, and ice cream – but everyone was friendly, and there was no pressure to buy.  

Heaps of bars and restaurants surround the Zocalo, in case you fancy a coffee (or something stronger). These make excellent people-watching spots.

Seek Out Street Art – Free Things to Do in Oaxaca City, Mexico

Street Art Oaxaca

There is so much street art to enjoy in Oaxaca. Comparable to the likes of Penang and Shoreditch, Oaxaca City is packed with gorgeous pieces and monumental murals. 

You won’t be walking for long before you hit some fantastic artwork, and I found the best street art just east of the main historic district – a beautiful area also filled with gorgeous cafes and restaurants. 

If you would prefer to explore this area with a guide, you should check out Coyote Aventuras’ Oaxaca Street Art Cycling tour. This tour is four hours on two wheels, exploring all the best art Oaxaca offers with an expert local guide.

Colourful Street Art Oaxaca
Fantastic street art in Oaxaca
Mountains in Oaxaca
Beautiful view of the mountains behind the city

Take A Walking Tour

Walking tours are a fantastic way to immerse yourself in a new town or city and meet other travellers. 

Oaxaca has a completely free walking tour offered daily in English and Spanish. Private tours can also be arranged in French and Italian. 

Not only will a walking tour point out all of the highlights, but it will also uncover some hidden gems most tourists would otherwise miss.

Sample Mole

Oaxaca is the home of mole (however, those from Puebla may dispute this!), so it would be rude to sample some of the offerings whilst in the city. 

There is a vast amount of variety here – but I found the most popular to be mole negro, mole amarillo, mole verde and mole rojo. My favourite was mole verde (although this was quite spicy!). I enjoyed this slathered inside a quesadilla with chicken. 

You will find mole served across the city, from fine dining restaurants to street food trucks. It serves as an accompaniment to a significant number of items, such as tortillas, quesadillas, chicken and empanadas. 

I recommend trying a variety of the different options as they each have a very distinct flavour.

Visit Monte Alban

Bus From Oaxaca to Monte Alban
Bus Ticket from Oaxaca to Monte Alban

A visit to Monte Alban is, without a doubt, one of the best things to do in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

Monte Alban is a remarkable archaeological site dating back to 500 BCE. It is an ancient Zapotec city that boasts impressive pyramids, plazas, and intricate stone carvings, showcasing advanced engineering and cultural significance. 

How to Get to Monte Alban

Getting to Monte Alban is extremely straightforward. The bus departs from ‘Transportaciones Turísticas Mitla’, just a few blocks from Hotel Rivera. You can purchase tickets from Hotel Rivera or directly from the bus station. The price is the same regardless of where you buy the tickets.

The bus costs $90 MXN per person for a return trip. It leaves Oaxaca City on the hour every hour between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. The return journey departs Monte Alban at half past the hour from 10.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.

Be sure to keep hold of your ticket, as you will need it for the return leg of the journey. 

The bus departed around 9:15 a.m., and we were at Monte Alban within 25 minutes. Although I read online that Monte Alban didn’t officially open until 10 a.m., we purchased tickets and were inside by around 9:45 a.m. Tickets cost $95 MXN per person, with some discounts for Mexican residents. 

When to Visit Monte Alban

We visited on a Saturday morning; unsurprisingly, it was very busy! There were lots of large tour groups, but that did not detract from the magic of this place. It is truly stunning. 

Even though you will undoubtedly get there at the same time as large tour groups, I still recommend arriving first thing in the morning. 

The weather in Oaxaca is hot and unforgiving, so I can only imagine how this feels in the middle of the afternoon. Regardless of the time of day, be sure to take plenty of water, sunscreen and a decent hat. 

Monte Alban Oaxaca

Do You Need A Guide at Monte Alban?

Personally, I didn’t feel the need for a tour guide at Monte Alban. There was plenty of signage throughout (in both Spanish and English), which contained lots of information about the various elements of the site. 

However, if you did want to invest in a guide, lots were hanging around outside the enterance, so you certainly don’t need to pre-book. 

We spent around two and a half hours at Monte Alban, which was sufficient to explore the whole site and the museum. We took the 12.30 pm bus to Oaxaca and were back in the city by 1 pm.

Monte Alban Oaxaca City Mexico
Monte Alban viewpoint
Monte Alban Oaxaca City
Spectacular views at Monte Alban

Visit The Tule Tree

Tule Tree Oaxaca
Tule Tree Oaxaca

The Tree of Tule in Oaxaca, Mexico, is a massive Montezuma cypress with the broadest trunk in the world. Believed to be over 2,000 years old, this Oaxaca tourist attraction draws swarms of visitors every day. 

We were ready for some exercise, so decided to walk from our accommodation in Reforma. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you want to break a sweat and burn off some of those Tlayudas.

The walk took around two and a half hours and was comfortably flat all of the way. However, it is down the middle of a pretty busy main road, which means lots of noise and fumes. Whilst this wasn’t unbearable, I’m sure you can do many much nicer walks in Oaxaca. 

Nevertheless, we really enjoyed our visit to the Tule Tree.

Access was $20 MXN per person, and we stayed for around twenty minutes enjoying the surroundings on a beautiful sunny day. The town itself is small but very beautiful, with a nice plaza to relax in. There are also many small restaurants and cafes to grab lunch in afterwards. 

As with the way there, you have three options for getting home: walk, bus, or taxi. We opted for the bus, which was a great idea. They arrive every ten minutes along the main road in Santa Maria de Tule and cost just $8 MXN.

The bus ride is an adventure of its own, packed in like sardines with loud music and a driver who spent most of the journey on WhatsApp. Absolute chaos, but we lived to tell the tale! The bus conveniently drops you just north of Centro – perfect regardless of whether you are staying in Centro or Reforma.

Try Out A Cooking Class

As you might be beginning to tell, food is a huge part of Oaxacan culture. Therefore, taking an Oaxacan cooking class is one of the best things in Oaxaca City. 

Cooking classes are one of the more expensive things you can do in Oaxaca, but they offer an excellent insight into the culture of this unique and beautiful region. 

Some of the best cooking classes include:

🌮 Flavors of Oaxaca

🌶️Traditional Cooking Class with Minerva Lopez

🥑 Oaxacan Vegetarian Cooking Class

Hierve El Agua

Hierve El Agua
Incredible viewpoint at Hierve El Agua

Hierve El Agua is definitely one of the best things to do in Oaxaca City. It is one of only two petrified waterfalls of this kind in the entire world (the other being in Turkey). 

The site itself is absolutely stunning, with lush green mountains surrounding the natural water. There is a hike you can enjoy that offers the best views and takes around one hour to complete. This hike isn’t too difficult, with only the last ten minutes becoming very steep. 

It’s also a very clear route, meaning there’s no chance of getting lost, and you don’t need a guide. 

Once you’ve worked up a sweat on the hike, it’s time to cool off in the incredible waters. There are three pools to enjoy here, with the most popular being the one closest to the cliff edge. Although the water is cold, in the Oaxacan sun, it is very well received. 

There are toilets, a changing area, and places to buy snacks and refreshments at Heirve El Agua. 

Hierve El Agua is a little challenging to get to and involves taking a bus to Mitla, followed by a collectivo from Mitla to the site. Although this journey via public transport does take over two hours, it is well worth it in my opinion, rather than taking a guided tour, which is considerably more expensive.

Read the Full Guide: How to Get to Hierve El Agua From Oaxaca

Soak in Cafe Culture

NANA Cafe Oaxaca
NANA Cafe Oaxaca

Behind the gorgeous facades of Oaxaca City are many lovely places to eat and drink. In fact, there is a huge cafe culture in Oaxaca, with some of the most beautiful cafes I have seen across the country.

Two of my favourites are Chepiche Cafe and Boulenc, both known for putting a modern twist on classic Oaxacan dishes. However, if you’re looking for something a little more authentic, then head to Itanoni in the Reforma district.

Indulge in a Hot Chocolate

Oaxaca is the home of chocolate, and they are incredibly proud of their drinking chocolate (enjoyed both hot and cold). Whilst in the city, you simply have to try this drink.

When ordering a hot chocolate, you will typically be asked whether you want it with water or milk. I went for milk the first few times (how we would normally drink it in the UK); however, the one with water was much tastier, in my opinion!

Hot Chocolate in Oaxaca
Ice Cream in Oaxaca

Treat Yourself at Mercado Benito Juárez

Mercado Benito Juárez is the place to come to buy yourself a gift or souvenir from your trip.

It is a clean, well-organised market selling everything from food and drinks to clothes and jewellery. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, I recommend visiting to browse the various stalls. 

Feast at Mercado 20 de Noviembre

Mercardo 20 de Noviembre is the place to go in Oaxaca City if you want quick, cheap, authentic food. 

We visited right after our morning at Hierve El Agua, and it was the perfect way to recharge! There are many food stands selling a range of local dishes, including the famous Tlayudas. 

There are also a range of stalls selling snack and juices, and of course, Oaxacan hot chocolate!

The prices are affordable, and the food is tasty. Enjoying lunch at Mercardo 20 de Noviembre is a fun, must-do activity in Oaxaca.

Dont Miss ‘Pasillo de Humo’

Pasillo de humo Oaxaca
Pasillo de humo

You absolutely cannot miss lunch at Pasillo de Humo whilst in Oaxaca City. 

Vegetarians and Vegans: Look Away!

Just to the side of Mercado 20 de Noviembre is Pasillo de Humo, a street packed with about ten different vendors, all grilling meat fresh to order. There is organised chaos on this street, with locals and tourists alike squished onto long benches to enjoy a midday feast. 

To order your meal, you first need to head to the stand selling the sides. They will give you one of the large woven baskets. You then can choose your meat stand and order the desired amounts. The offerings ranged from small $100 MXN portions up to family-sized $500 MXN baskets of meat. 

Hand over your basket and pay for the meat; they will give you a card as a receipt. You can then grab a seat and order your drinks and sides with the first vendors. They have an extensive menu with various alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and loads of accompanying veggies. 

Your basket of meat will then be delivered to your table ready to enjoy! Eat with your fingers, get messy and enjoy the wild atmosphere, its so much fun!

Prices at Pasillo de Humo: We paid $210 MXN for the meat, $30 MXN for the tortillas, and $110 MXN for drinks and sides (this included two soft drinks, limes, radish, roasted onions, and salsa rojo). 

So the total was $350 MXN for two ($175 MXN per person). 

Top Tip: Do not wear fresh, clean clothes out of the wash when visiting Pasillo de Humo! Everything you wear will smell strongly of smoke. 

Visit Mitla

After Monte Alban, Mitla is Oaxaca state’s second most important archaeological zone. 

The Mitla Archaeological Zone contains a series of impressive structures and buildings with intricate geometric patterns made from finely cut and polished stones.

Mitla lacks the large pyramids commonly associated with ancient civilisations, unlike many other Mesoamerican sites. Instead, it features columned halls, courtyards, and unique architectural elements known as grecas (geometric patterns) and fretwork.

Have Breakfast with Doña Vale

Memelas Doña Vale
Memelas Doña Vale is a popular breakfast spot in Oaxaca
Memelas Doña Vale
Memelas in Oaxaca City

Anyone who loves food and loves Mexico will have seen the Oaxaca episode of Somebody Feel Phil. One of the highlights of this episode is when he enjoys breakfast with (the now world-famous!) Doña Vale. 

It’s a little bit of a walk to get to this market and expect some Mexican chaos right outside at the entrance. Once you’ve taken a few steps inside, you will see the signs pointing you toward Doña Vale (I guess that’s what happens following a Netflix appearance!)

You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the line of gringos waiting for a seat.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see plenty of locals enjoying a mid-week breakfast here, too. 

We enjoyed two memelas each – one topped with salsa de tomate and the other with salsa de mortia. Personally, the tomato salsa was the star of the show here and the perfect breakfast option. 

Also, the hot chocolate here is amazing – in fact, it’s the best I’ve had in the whole of Oaxaca.

Explore the Botanical Gardens (Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca)

Jardín Etnobotánico in Oaxaca City is a botanical garden showcasing the rich biodiversity of Oaxacan plant life.

Managed by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, it serves as an educational space, preserving and promoting the region’s cultural and botanical heritage through its diverse collection of indigenous plants.

You should be aware that you cannot just walk into the Botanical gardens in Oaxaca. Instead, you have to join one of the daily guided tours (these are offered in Spanish, English and French). 

You cannot pre-book tickets for these tours. You must just turn up at the designated time. Each tour allows thirty guests, and this place gets extremely busy!

We arrived at 10.30 am (for the tour that started at 11 am) and were turned away, along with people who arrived much earlier than us. Therefore, I recommend arriving at least an hour early to enjoy the Jardín Etnobotánico.

Marvel at Templo de Santo Domingo

Templo de Santo Domingo
Decadant gold inside Templo de Santo Domingo

If you wander around Oaxaca, exploring the beautiful, colourful streets, you will not miss the Templo de Santo Domingo. It’s a stunning church that was originally opened in 1724 and stands proudly in the centre of town. 

Although exquisite from the outside, I recommend you take a peek inside. The church is elaborately decorated and adorned in gold. 

This church is not a museum and is a fully functioning place of worship. Please be respectful during your visit.

Experience Day of the Dead

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican holiday honouring and remembering deceased loved ones. In the region of Oaxaca, Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated with unique customs and traditions that reflect the rich cultural heritage of the area.

In Oaxaca, the celebration often involves elaborate rituals, vibrant decorations, and special events. Families create altars called “ofrendas” in their homes or at cemeteries, adorned with marigolds, candles, incense, and the favorite foods and drinks of the departed.

These ofrendas are meant to welcome and guide the spirits of the deceased back to the world of the living.

One notable aspect of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca is the use of intricately crafted sugar skulls and “alebrijes” (colourful Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures).

Additionally, the city of Oaxaca hosts parades, processions, and festivals featuring traditional music, dance, and costumes.

It’s important to note that while Dia de los Muertos involves honouring those who have passed away, it is not a sombre occasion. Instead, it is a festive and joyful celebration of life and death, a time for families to come together and remember their loved ones in a spirit of love and remembrance.

Day of the Dead is typically celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd.

Head to The Coast

Bahai Principal Sunset
Sunset at Bahai Principal beach
Playa Carrizalillo Oaxaca
Beautiful view of Playa Carrizalillo

In early 2024, the new highway between Oaxaca City and Puerto Escondido opened. This highway was widely contested by many residents of Oaxaca (waayyyyy beyond the scope of this article to go into). However, having spoken to many locals, there is no denying that this new road will make a beach weekend escape much more realistic!

This road has cut down the journey from Oaxaca City to the famous beaches in and around Puerto Escondido from around nine hours to three. 

I was lucky enough to take this journey on the new highway, which was quick and seamless. 

There is so much coastline to be enjoyed in Oaxaca. Puerto Escondido is perhaps the most well-known amongst backpackers but there is also Mazunte, Zipolite and Huatulco (to name a few).

Playa Carrizalillo and Mazunte are two of my favourites in the area, but there are so many long sand stretches and hidden coves to be explored!

Frequently Asked Questions – Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City

Cash or Card in Oaxaca City?

I found that card was accepted almost everywhere in Oaxaca city, except market stalls and small street food vendors. Therefore, I would stick to card where possible but always carry a small amount of cash with you.

How do I Get to Oaxaca City?

Oaxaca’s international airport is just half an hour from the central historical district. Alternatively, a bus journey from Mexico City takes around seven hours.

Are There Beaches in Oaxaca City?

No, there are no beaches in Oaxaca city, but the state of Oaxaca is home to many beautiful beaches.

How Long Should I Spend in Oaxaca City?

Oaxaca is a beautiful city that you could spend weeks exploring. I recommend spending at least five days there to see all it has to offer.

Is Oaxaca City Safe?

It is impossible to judge for certain whether or not a city is safe. However, the reported crime rate in Oaxaca is among the lowest in Mexico. I felt very safe in Oaxaca, especially in the more central areas. 

Should I Tip in Oaxaca City?

Yes, tipping is expected in most bars and restaurants in Oaxaca. A 10% gratuity was typically well received wherever I went.

How Expensive is Oaxaca?

Prices in Oaxaca are comparable to those of other big touristy cities in Mexico. However, there are lots of excellent restaurants here that you might want to stretch your budget for.

I paid around $800 MXN per night for a two-bedroom apartment in the Reforma district. Expect to pay around $30 MXN for a soft drink and $50 MXN for a local beer.

Where Should I Stay in Oaxaca?

If you are just in Oaxaca for a few nights, I recommend staying right in the heart of Centro. However, if you are visiting for an extended period, Reforma is ideal.

When is the Best Time to Visit Oaxaca?

There really is no bad time to visit Oaxaca. However, the best time to go to Oaxaca is between November and April, which is the dry season.

Palm Tree in Oaxaca City
Palm Tree lined streets in Oaxaca
Yellow Building in Oaxaca City
Brightly coloured buildings in Oaxaca City


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21 Things to Do in Oaxaca PIN
21 Things to Do in Oaxaca PIN
21 Things to Do in Oaxaca PIN

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