Has a place ever spoken to you so deeply that you leave feeling changed? Oaxaca City did that for me. Its mystery, vibrancy, layers upon layers of art, food, culture, and history made it one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Not only is Oaxaca City visually stunning from every charming courtyard to sun-bleached zocalo, something about it spoke right into my soul. The vibrant colors of the textiles and 17th-century stucco buildings are rivaled by the warmth and kindness of its locals, eager to introduce you to its rich history and culinary traditions.
On a recent trip to Oaxaca City, I ate more molé and fresh tortillas than I ever thought possible, logged an incredible number of miles on foot (nearly everything is walkable), sipped great coffee or spicy mezcal at every meal, and wandered from shop to shop with an awakened curiosity for Oaxaca’s artistic traditions. There were wonders to be found around every corner, and I’ll be honest—I’m already planning my return trip to dive deeper into Oaxaca’s magic. The handful of US and European expats I met described the city’s pull that spoke to their artist spirits in a way they couldn’t shake. So be forewarned: while this Oaxaca City travel guide will convince you to book a long weekend, you’re destined to be back.
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What to know about Oaxaca City
One of the only entire cities that made it onto UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list, Oaxaca City is known for its beauty, incredible history, and rich arts and crafts traditions.
When to go to Oaxaca
There’s really no bad time to visit Oaxaca City. Its temperate year-round climate and make it pretty much perfect all the time. And, it’s widely considered one of the safest regions in Mexico.
Where is Oaxaca City?
Oaxaca (pronounced waa·haa·kuh) is both the name of the state (Oaxaca de Juarez) located in southern Mexico, and the capital city. Most things to do in Oaxaca City are located near the city center, so you’ll often hear locals simply reference “Centro” when talking about things to do or places to eat in the city. When you fly into Oaxaca City, pull out some pesos at the airport or a bank to cover taxis and cash-only restaurants.
How to get around.
Almost everything in Centro is walkable, so you can definitely get away without a car. There are incredible day trips all around the area, but there are myriad taxi, bus, and private tour guide options, which I’ll share in my Oaxaca City travel guide below.
Where to stay: Best Oaxaca Hotels
Escondido Oaxaca. Part of the Grupo Habita hotel group, Escondido Oaxaca was our home base for the trip, and it was basically perfect. Located right in Centro, the hotel is a beautifully-designed blend of history and modernism. Whether you stay here or not, be sure to watch at least one sunset while sipping a mezcal margarita on the lush rooftop terrace.
Casa Antonieta. Our friends stayed at Casa Antonieta, and we were thankful for a reason to make it our second home, stopping by for cocktails on the terrace and snacks at the charming light-filled restaurant, Muss Café. Housed in one of the oldest buildings in Oaxaca City, dating to 1529, it has that certain character that can’t be replicated in newer construction, though the thoughtfully-designed rooms and beautiful design details fill it with modern comfort.
Here’s what to do in Oaxaca City on a long weekend…
Day 1: Explore the City on Foot—and Discover the Best Oaxaca City Spot for Mezcal
Head to beloved bakery Boulenc for breakfast (it likely won’t be your last visit there over the course of the weekend.) Hop in line at the counter bakery to grab pastries and a cold brew latté, or grab a table and order from the menu—highly recommend the breakfast sandwich served on a house-made english muffin. Share a flaky, sugar topped Nudo pastry for dessert.
After breakfast, wander next door to Suculenta, aka the tiny grocery store of my dreams. Stock up on artisanal Oaxacan chocolate and jars of salsa macha to pack in your suitcase.
I learned from experience that the best way to soak up Oaxaca City is to carve out several hours just to walk, explore, and be guided by your curiosity. Start in the zocalo around stunning Santo Domingo church, then pop into the textile and ceramics shops that speak to you. A few favorites of mine: Huizache is a huge shop with traditional embroidered clothing and textiles, ceramics, and other artisan goods; Los Baúles de Juana Cata for beautiful tablecloths and napkins, and Silvia Suarez for hats and dresses. Marchanta is the shop I wish we had in the states—gorgeous clothes and bags with sculptural shapes and arresting patterns from South American designers.
When your feet need a break, grab a coffee at Onno Loncheria—the vibe is hip, and the coffee and snacks are solid.
Run don’t walk to Las Quince Letras for lunch. Our guide, Lalo, who was born and raised in Oaxaca City, recommended this spot as one of his favorites, and I’m so glad he did. We sampled three types of molés and devoured corn tortillas made by hand on the comal in the center of the restaurant. It was fresh, nourishing, and I wanted to go back and try everything on the menu.
Now it’s time to wander, a key part of any trip to Oaxaca City. Some of the greatest moments from our trip happened when we didn’t plan, walking around the streets of Centro, popping into shops that caught our eye, people-watching, and snapping photos of beautiful buildings covered in flowering vines. Go ahead, get a little lost.
Since Oaxaca is the birthplace of mezcal, it’s no secret that everyone here is obsessed. The ultimate mezcal tasting happens at Mezcaloteca. Make a reservation at this incredibly “library” of over 100 types of mezcals, and your group will have the place all to yourself as Rodrigo guides you through an hourlong history of mezcal in Oaxaca, as well as how to experience it for maximum enjoyment. You won’t want to leave without buying a bottle to take home.
Head to dinner at Criollo, one of the most visually stunning restaurants I’ve ever set foot in. Helmed by Chef Enrique Olvera (of Pujol in Mexico City), this is definitely one of the pricier meals you’ll have in Oaxaca, but it’s a unique experience that I would recommend for any first-time visitor to the city. You enter through a colonial mansion, and are led into an expansive courtyard with minimalist wood furniture, lush flowers, and bunnies and chickens roaming the property. The 6-course menu is elevated but speaks to Oaxacan tradition. Prepare to eat a lot.
Day 2: Soak up history at Monte Albán
Rise and shine! Walk over to Café Muss for to refuel with an oat milk latté, green juice, and Shakshuka. You’re going to need your energy for all the stairs you’re about to climb.
Tour Monte Albán. Sure you can take a taxi to this ancient Zapotec city, but hiring a local guide to fill us in on the incredible history of this archaeological site, founded around 500 B.C., was worth every penny. Hearing the stories and meaning behind the pyramids, tombs, and ancient carvings brought it to life in a way that I never would have appreciated on my own. Monte Albán opens at 8am, and the earlier you arrive, the more chance you have of beating the hot sun. (Shoot an email to [email protected] if you’re going to Oaxaca and want our guide’s contact info!)
Grab lunch at delicious vegan restaurant Hierbe Dulce—the food is surprisingly satisfying whether you’re vegan or not. We sat on the very warm courtyard (seriously, try to grab a spot near a fan) and had tostadas topped with pickled vegetables, new twists on guacamole, iced horchatas, and mushroom tacos.
Hope you saved room for an ice cream, because come 5pm, the Nieves vendors come out all around the city center. It’s one taste you’ve got to experience when visiting Oaxaca City. Nieves is artisanal hand-churned ice cream that’s more like sorbet than traditional American ice cream. It comes in refreshing flavors like mango, hibiscus, and cactus fruit.
If it’s Saturday, you’ll likely be treated to an impromptu wedding parade through Oaxaca City’s streets—truly one of the highlights of our entire stay. Let yourself get caught up in the parade and join the dancing.
Casa Oaxaca is one of the best restaurants in Oaxaca City, so definitely make time for a dinner there. Thanks to the stunning setting and incredible food, it’s as beloved by locals as it is by tourists and travel experts. Request a seat on the terrace overlooking the church, and prepare your appetite for a parade of Oaxacan seafood dishes, molés, grilled meats—and for dessert, an incredible coconut flan that I’m still dreaming about.
Day 3: Explore the Art, Artisans, and Best Oaxaca Restaurants
Start the day with a pastry (did I mention the Nudo from Boulenc? I ate one every day of our trip.) Then, make it a point to explore the interior of Templo de Santo Domingo, the iconic church in the city center that you’ve likely walked past countless times at this point in your trip. It’s free to enter the church, and if you plan ahead, you can reserve a spot in one of the guided tours of its Botanic Gardens, which I highly recommend. There are several guided tours a day, with a few each week in English.
Oaxaca City is full of pottery, textile, and home shops—there’s an incredible fusion of traditional folk art and modern design. My favorite place to go for handmade ceramics is Colectivo 1050°. Don’t let its small size fool you—it’s packed floor to ceiling with a stunning array of handmade pieces made by artisans around Oaxaca, and perfectly embodies this blending of past and present.
For lunch, head to one of the markets like Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Pull up a chair and have perfect carne asada cooked right in front of you, with peppers, onions, and (of course) handmade tortillas to wrap it all up in.
Though the weekend is nearing a close, we’ve saved perhaps the best experience for last: a trip outside Oaxaca City to Teotitlán del Valle, a small village that epitomizes why Oaxaca is the capital of Mexico’s artisan craft scene. You can book a guide to take you to the village through many hotels or travel agencies—our incredible guide Angie took us to family-owned workshops where we could watch artisans weave vibrantly-hued rugs, hand-dye wool with natural materials like flowers and herbs, and create beautiful beeswax candles into sculptural forms. Many of the artists bring a contemporary point-of-view to historic Zapotec designs. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime, can’t-miss opportunity while you’re in Oaxaca.
It’s time to get dressed up and toast an unforgettable weekend in Oaxaca City. Book a table at Selva for artisanal cocktails made with Oaxacan ingredients. Since it’s your last night, might as well go with a mezcal drink, like the green Selva cocktail described as a “rainforest in a glass.”
Words can’t describe my love for dinner at Levadura de Olla, quite possibly my favorite meal of the entire trip. Everyone told us that the tomato salad was an absolute highlight, and they were right. 26-year-old chef/owner Thalía Barrios Garcia has created a menu rooted in the cuisine of her hometown in Oaxaca’s southern mountains, and her food is at once fresh and smoky, vegetable-forward and deeply nourishing. We sipped crisp white wine from Mexico and dug into sweet potato-filled tamales as the female cooks turned out fresh corn tortillas on the nearby comal. More than any other meal I’ve had in recent memory, everything about dinner at Levadura de Olla made me really, really happy.
Have any recommendations to add to our Oaxaca City travel guide? Drop your tips and favorite spots in the comments.