Oaxaca is probably best known for being the beating heart of Mexico’s culinary scene. And before visiting we were a little over excited about all of the fabulous food on offer. Now don’t get me wrong, the nosh is totally worthy of the accolades. But we were also happily taken aback by the sheer number of things to do in Oaxaca.
We went to the culinary capital primarily to stuff our faces, but came away having been bowled over by a beautiful city with deep cultural roots and a real sense of fun. If you’re planning your own adventure to this part of the world then you’ve gotta check out these awesome things to do in Oaxaca.
*Oaxaca is a state in Southern Mexico which has a capital of the same name, Oaxaca City, that’s usually just referred to as Oaxaca. To avoid any confusion, this post is about the best things to do in Oaxaca City and the surrounding areas.
If you’re interested in getting out of the city and hitting Oaxaca’s stunning coastline as well then check out this ultimate guide to Mazunte and the surrounding beaches.
Best Things to Do in Oaxaca
Visit a Oaxacan Mezcal Distillery
OK, so we’re guessing you’re definitely familiar tequila. And you may well have regretted smashing back a few shots of Jose Cuervo with a lick of salt and a bite of lime on a heavy night out. But you might not have tried or even heard of tequila’s closest relative, mezcal.
This region is celebrated for its widespread Mezcal production. So getting to know the smoky, fiery tipple with a visit to a distillery should go straight onto your list of things to do in Oaxaca.
Tequila and mezcal are both made from the agave plant and some varieties can taste pretty similar. Which means that people often get confused over what separates the two spirits. A tour round a mezcal distillery is the perfect way to get to understand the differences.
Even if your experiences of tequila put you off, we’d recommend giving it a chance. You may come away with a new found love for mezcal. Each variety has a really distinct flavour and they’re considered more like a malt whisky that’s meant to be sipped than a spiky spirit to be shotted in one.
Head just half an hour out of the city and you’ll come across dozens of distilleries or palenques of varying sizes, from what look like bathtub operations to large factories.
Probably the best way to experience them is to book yourself onto a curated tour where you’ll visit a number of distilleries to witness the full production process plus get to taste all of the varieties available.
This tour which includes a visit to a Mezcal distillery with tasting has great reviews and is very reasonably priced.
Take a Trip to Hierve el Agua
Ever wondered what a waterfall frozen in motion would look like? Well wonder no more, because that’s exactly what the spectacular Hierve el Agua appears to be.
It’s made up of a series of picturesque, natural rock formations that were shaped over thousands of years by water rising out of natural springs and depositing minerals as it flowed over the side. A bit like how a stalactite, comes into being. But on the side of a cliff instead of in a cave.
There are two parts to Hierve el Agua. The first is a number of natural infinity pools, overlooking the surrounding lush green valleys from thousands of feet up. The second is what looks like a giant, icy glacier cascading over the edge of the mountain a little further around the hillside.
Not only will this site provide you with endless winning shots for your Insta feed, but Hierve el Agua’s mineral rich spring water is said to possess mystical healing properties. So bring your bathing suit and prepare to emerge from the pools looking ten years younger. Maybe.
Though this petrified waterfall is a couple of hours drive from the city, it’s a popular day trip to take so still makes it onto the best things to do in Oaxaca. You can get here by car, but the roads are pretty poor, so unless you have a 4 wheel drive you may be better off going with a tour or getting there by public bus.
Wonder at the Historic Site of Mitla
Mexico is packed full of impeccably preserved ruins, from the mind boggling pyramids of Teotihuacan near Mexico City, to the vast, crumbling jungle city of Palenque. But even if you’ve visited a few and are feeling like you’re all “ruined out”, Mitla is completely unique.
Unlike many of the other important historical sites in Mexico, Mitla is not a Mayan ruin. It was actually built by the Zapotecs. Immediately when you arrive you’ll start to spot differences, and you’ll be blown away by the intricate mosaics that decorate the sides of the buildings.
It’s said that the site was used as a kind of ancient times end of life care home for the high and noble of Zapotec society. They would be brought to Mitla just before they were about to die, to allow them to be administered pain relief and cross over peacefully (but alone) into the afterlife.
You can get to Mitla independently by car or bus from Oaxaca quite easily, and there are also a number of tours that will take you there if you’re not into public transport.
Embark on an archaeological adventure in Oaxaca with this tour which includes a visit to Mitla plus the pyramids of UNESCO World Heritage listed Monte Alban too.
Eat All the Oaxacan Food
This is what the majority of the hordes of visitors come here to experience, so piggin out on delicious food is high up on the list of best things to do in Oaxaca. But where to start?
Well, Oaxaca casts a long culinary shadow, not just over the rest of Mexico, but far across the foodie world. If this regional cuisine isn’t firmly on your radar then you need to crawl out from whatever rock you’ve been living under, because it’s big news.
Possibly its most famous export is mole. This rich, dark sauce comes in a wide array of differing forms which can contain a dizzying and slightly mental mixture of ingredients ranging from chocolate to pumpkin.
But Oaxaca lays claim to seven signature varieties, usually served over meat, so make it a mission to sample them all.
Oaxacan cheese comes wrapped up into large, grapefruit sized balls that look like monkey’s fist knots. It’s incredibly stringy, very tasty, and great for melting so you’ll find it in dishes like quesadillas.
Tlayudas are often referred to as Mexican pizzas, and consist of a large, flat corn base loaded with mouthwatering toppings. A liberal spreading of pork lard is followed by a layer of beans, vegetables, Oaxacan cheese, and succulent meats, before the whole thing gets a grilling on the barbecue.
Another must try local delicacy is chapulines. These little fellas are grasshoppers and make up an important part of the cuisine here, cropping up in numerous dishes. They actually taste pretty good, and simply fried with chilli, salt and lime, make for an ideal bar snack – crunchy and savoury.
And if you’re really loving the food in Oaxaca why not take a cooking class so you can remake the best of these Mexican classics at home.
Visit an Artisanal Carpet Factory
Carpets, or tapetes as they’re known here, are one of the handmade items that are produced in abundance in and around the city. Because of this, one of the most fascinating things to do in Oaxaca is to make a visit to a factory to see the production process first hand.
Though we say factory, they’re not huge grey buildings with masses of shiny machinery inside them churning out rug after rug. Expect a small wooden building with a couple of people carefully creating the colorful matts by hand on a wooden loom.
Not only will you get to see them making the carpets, but you’ll also be taken through the entire process, from combing out the raw wool, to how they colour it with natural dyes and get it ready for weaving.
Even if you have no interest in textiles it’s a very interesting visit and you’ll also have the opportunity to look through all of the gorgeous patterns and colours of rug available. Just remember, you may need to purchase extra luggage allowance if you end up buying one!
See Arbol del Tule
Santa María del Tule is a bijou little town on the outskirts of Oaxaca which has only one reason, albeit a very large one, that anyone ever visits it. To some it may sound like an underwhelming claim to fame, but once you clap eyes on it you’ll understand.
Santa María del Tule is home to the world’s girthiest tree. It has a circumference of around 58 meters, which means that it would take almost 40 people holding hands to form a circle around its base.
It’s so big you won’t even be able to fit the whole thing into a photo, and though it may not necessarily sound like one of the most exciting things to do in Oaxaca, setting eyes on it is truly a humbling experience.
There’s a church behind it that is completely obscured by this massive lump of timber. It drinks 2,000 litres of water each and every day, equivalent to what you sup down in about 3 years.
Now before you get any bright ideas about hugging it, climbing it, or even touching it, they’ve erected a fence around its perimeter, so the closest you’ll get to its trunk is about 5 metres away.
Hit the Vibrant Markets
One of the most fun things to do in Oaxaca is to get your shop on at the vibrant markets. Full of beautifully crafted, handmade artisanal products, you’ll need to make a bit of extra space in your suitcase to transport your haul back home.
Mercado Benito Juarez is a treasure trove of local produce, with dozens of stalls peddling everything from handmade clothing, sandals, belts, and bags, to the local Oaxacan pottery, and lovely wicker baskets. It’s colorful and lively, so go armed with your camera as well as your wallet.
Just across the road is Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which is where you want to be heading to try all of the delicious food highlighted above at very reasonable prices. There are tonnes of small, family run restaurants and stalls selling freshly prepared, authentic Oaxacan favourites, so make sure to take your appetite with you.
Check Out the Colonial Architecture
The whole of the city centre has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks in a large part to its fabulously preserved colonial architecture. This is one of the least taxing things to do in Oaxaca as there are splendid examples of it everywhere you go.
Stroll around the cobbled streets of the city centre and you’ll be surrounded by quaint colonial buildings that were constructed almost 500 years ago by the Spanish.
Oaxaca is one of the best preserved colonial cities in the whole of Mexico, and you don’t have to be an architecture enthusiast to appreciate it.
Even the commercial buildings which have been modernised on the inside are still built around courtyards stretching back much further than you’d imagine, meaning the layout is instantly recognisable as colonial.
There are a number of impressive churches dotted around the city which are possible to go inside, the most significant of which is probably the imposing Templo Santo Domingo, which also houses a museum.
There also are dozens of other colonial buildings open for the public to visit, so if colonial architecture is your thing then you’ll be in 7th heaven.
Go on a Coffee Crawl
Oaxaca is one of the main coffee producing states in Mexico and there are plenty of cafes that serve up a solid cup of Joe. You’ll find every kind of cafe across the city, from those serving traditional local style brews, to hipster joints hawking single origin java in test tubes.
If you’re a coffee head then you’ll be more than happy with the selection here, and if you’re desperate for some decent wifi then check out this guide to the best digital nomad cafes in Oaxaca.
Spend an Evening at a Mezcaleria
As we’ve already established, mezcal is your top tipple in this patch of Mexico, so one of the best things to do in Oaxaca in the evenings is to check out a mezcaleria. Or two. Or three.
There are plenty of specialist mezcalerias to choose from and even more well regarded bars serving decent mezcal. Plus, the nightlife here is absolutely something to experience.
Somewhat surprisingly, even though the mezcal they serve is locally produced, the stuff ain’t cheap. That said, it’s not just a regular measure shot that you get, it tends to be quite a large tumbler full, so you’re getting a good bang for your buck.
Many of the mezcalerias also only serve artisanal, limited batch mezcals from small producers, so what you’re getting is a completely unique flavour that won’t be replicated ever again.
Hang Out in the Zocalo
Most cities and towns in Mexico have their own zocalo or central square, and this one is no different. One of our favourite things to do in Oaxaca was to just hang out and do some people watching.
Particularly if you catch it during a festival, this place tends to be buzzing at all times of the day and night. Around the edges you’ll find street food sellers pushing elotes and esquites (sweetcorn in different forms), as well as numerous popular restaurants and bars.
There’s always something going on here, from performances by clowns or bands, to people selling locally made goods and helium filled balloons, and it’s used by a nice mix of locals and tourists alike.
There’s no traffic as it’s completely pedestrianised, and the tree lined square just makes a cool place to chill out, watch the world go by, and soak up the atmosphere.
Find a Festival
When you’re planning out what to do in Oaxaca, be sure to check the calendar for festivals. The rich culture of this town means that it’s festival central and you’ll find something going on here pretty much every month throughout the year.
We timed our visit to coincide with Dia de los Muertos, and let me tell you, these guys know how to party! Forget Day of the Dead, this was more like Month of the Dead, as the celebrations started way before and carried on well beyond the actual date that marks the festival.
Other popular festivals include Holy Week in the run up to Easter, Fiesta Guelaguetza which takes place at the end of July, and the fabulously named The Night of the Radishes in December.
Top tip – if your visit coincides with one of these festivals, make sure to book your accommodation well in advance. We made the mistake of waiting until a few days before, found that everywhere decent was fully booked, and so ended up paying well over the odds for a less than spectacular hotel.
Brave BBQ Alley
So we’ve already covered food in general, and also the markets. But one of the most exhilarating and sensory things to do in Oaxaca is to head to what we nicknamed bbq alley, so it rightfully gets a separate, special mention.
It’s actually part of Mercado 20 de Noviembre, but is housed in its own narrow ginnel at one end of the market. Stepping in will simultaneously make you want to want to reach out and grab a succulent chorizo with one hand while preparing to call the bomberos with the other.
Thick clouds of meat perfumed smoke billow out from the dozens of gigantic grills being furiously fanned to intensify the heat.
Make no mistake, this is a bbq flavoured competition and each stall wants your business so will be trying their damndest to get you to choose their place over all the others.
There were plenty of bewildered tourists when we visited, seemingly completely overwhelmed by all the heat, smoke and noise. But it’s actually pretty simple.
Just pick the stall you like the look of and sit down, someone will ask you what meat you want (we’d recommend a mixed selection), and other people will come over and sell you tortillas, beers and accompaniments separately.
More Oaxaca Info
No Hablo Espanyol?
One thing to be aware outside of Mexico’s main tourism hotspots, is that not many people speak English. Unless you are staying at an international hotel chain or hire an English speaking guide, it’s rare. And as for taxi drivers and market stall holders, forget it.
You can of course usually get by, but since we started learning Spanish we found that it has hugely enhanced our travel experiences. Not to mention enabled us to travel around Spanish speaking countries more confidently.
Which is why we’d like to recommend this Travel Spanish Confidence course we took recently. It enabled us move beyond a basic level to being able to communicate effectively in Spanish.
If you don’t know a word of Spanish however, this won’t be for you yet. Better to get started with Duolingo or some basic language classes first.
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Heading to Oaxaca? If you have any unanswered questions about what to do, drop us a line in the comments and we’ll do our to help.
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Travel lover, professional writer and football (soccer) obsessive, James loves nothing more than getting outside and exploring little known corners of the globe. He’s also very partial to a drop of Guinness.