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Best Things to Do in Oaxaca

Updated: Jun 28

Oaxaca is known for its food scene and local mezcal, but the colonial architecture, vibrantly colored downtown, ancient ruins and indigenous culture provide something for everyone. You can easily spend 3 to 4 days here, so check out these best things to do in Oaxaca.

 

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Things to Do in Oaxaca City

pinterest pin with 5 polaroids with various pictures around oaxaca

Walking Tour

Every time I arrive in a new city, I immediately look for a locally guided tour of the historical district. I signed up with GuruWalk for a free city tour by locals. The city is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site which means even the buildings’ vibrant colors are regulated by the historical organization. Visit cathedrals, old convents and enchanting courtyards to learn about the rich history of the peoples of Oaxaca, dating back 2,000 years.

 

The Botanical Gardens

Visiting the gardens can only be done on a group tour. They offer English tours Monday to Friday daily at 11 am but it’s encouraged to get in line between 9:30-10 am to ensure your spot. There are hourly tours in Spanish if you just want to see the gardens. Prices are 50 pesos for the Spanish tours and 100 pesos for the English. Please note: The gardens are only open Monday through Saturday 10 to Noon and Monday to Friday 5 to 6 pm (for one more tour).

 

Museo de la Filatelia de Oaxaca

This free museum is just across from the Botanical Gardens and displays a large stamp collection and hummingbirds exhibit. They have lockers if you are carrying a big bag and will request your water bottles stay at the front desk during your visit. The museum has a wonderful courtyard and garden in the back, so order a coffee from the cafe inside and enjoy a little rest inside. 

 

Oaxaca Food Tour 


When in Oaxaca, food and mezcal are the main reasons to visit. Viajero Hostel offers an amazing Oaxaca food tour for 300 pesos on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week (you can stop by the hostel to sign up). You will get to sample molotes, which are like open faced quesadillas with bean paste, meat and cheese. You also get to try tejate, a refreshing drink made with cocoa flowers and sugar. It’s like cold chocolate water. We also ate the famous local dish-  tlayuda and 9 flavors of nieve (snow cone ice cream). In the middle, we stopped at a local meat market and ordered large platters of chorizo, steak and pork, served with fresh tortilla, cactus and guac. No Oaxaca food tour is complete without the option to try grasshoppers! We ate big and small grasshoppers with chili lime salt. I actually preferred the large ones and enjoyed the crunch! 

 

*If you don’t want to take an Oaxaca food tour with a bunch of backpackers, you can sign up for this street food tour that visits many of the same locations and gives you the chance to try so many different foods.



If you want to try different Mezcals and don’t want to leave Oaxaca, you can visit the Mezcal Cultural Center. They offer several different mezcal tastings. If you are looking for a cheaper option, visit La Mezcaleria, where you can try 3 types of mezcal for 200 pesos. 

 

Secret Courtyard

On hot afternoons, I would retreat to the San Pablo Cultural Center. Nestled inside is a beautiful courtyard where locals lie under the trees and nap. In the corner sits a Café Brujula, one of the many locations of this local gourmet coffee shop featuring some of the mountain coffee beans from the region. It’s a wonderful place to cool off and enjoy some local people watching. And it’s free!

 


Shopping

The historic city center is filled with boutiques selling embroider shirts, pottery and woven fabrics, but my favorite place for local souvenirs is La Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca. They offer small stalls selling unique handcrafted wares. Open every day from 9 am to 9 pm, this artisanal market offers quality works at fair prices.

 

Half Day to Monte Alban 



Delve into Oaxaca’s ancient past with a visit to Monte Alban, an archeological site atop a hill overlooking the valley (and city) below. Explore the 2,000-year-old ruins, including pyramids, temples and even a ball court. You don’t have to sign up for a tour to visit Monte Alban. You can take a taxi (about 200 pesos each way) or a colectivo to the site. I found and used Lescas Co Tour that offers round trip shuttles to Monte Alban for 120 pesos. While this is 10 pesos more each way than a traditional colectivo, the air-conditioned van with nice seats was totally worth the additional $1! They offer shuttles from Oaxaca every hour at the half hour starting at 8:30 am and return at the hour until 5 pm. Entrance to the site is 95 pesos per person. It took me about 1.5 hours to explore the ruins, reading the various signs and walking through the museum at the entrance. If you’d rather have a guided tour, select this half-day option which includes transportation and a small group guided tour through Monte Alban.


Jam Packed Day Trip


Marvel at some local natural wonders including a spectacular petrified waterfall perched atop a cliff and an ancient tree reminiscent of Avatar or the Lion King. The best way to see the Tulle tree and Hierve el Agua is on a group tour. I choose this tour which combined a visit to the 2,000-year-old Tulle tree with a stop at the waterfall - Hierve el Agua and Mitla - an archeological site. We also stopped at a local family’s textile shop to learn how fabrics are dyed and woven in traditional ways. This indigenous industry goes back generations and the traditional Zapotec weaving techniques are passed on from mother to daughter. There is also a mezcal tasting included with up to 20 different types to try and a quick tour through the distillery process. Drink lots of water! :)

 

Special Note: During our tour, there were protests ahead of the national elections which blocked the road, so we were unable to visit the Hieve de Agua or the Mitla ruins. I was super bummed to miss these sites as they are some of the top activities in Oaxaca but the tour graciously offered a partial refund and we enjoyed a nice meal back in the city. Sometimes, you just gotta laugh and say “this is travel!” 

 

Don’t forget to book your accommodation. I like using Booking.com because I can filter my search by location, price, ratings, etc. I would suggest staying near the historic city center so you can be within walking distance to everything and close to where tours and colectivo buses leave.

 

Even if you come to Oaxaca for the food, you will stay for the culture, adventure and natural beauty. Wander through the historic streets, immerse yourself in the local indigenous traditions and spend some time on outdoor escapades. I hope you get to experience the magic of Oaxaca. It is truly a special place in Mexico.


 

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