The 10 Best Things to do in Oaxaca City, Mexico

After the crowded streets of Mexico City that can sometimes feel all crazy and little culture, Oaxaca City is simply a treat. Driving into the city was perhaps what I expected it to feel like the first time I came into Mexico; beautiful, coloured buildings, cobbled streets and an abundance of traditional gifts being sold in the streets. And so began the slow, but sure, falling in love with Mexico.

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1. SHOP AT ONE OF THE MANY OAXACA MARKETS

If there’s one thing I love about Mexico (and there’s hundreds honestly), it’s that every place visit is FULL of markets. And if you’re a backpacker with little space like me, it’s going to be a little hard to resist buying – well – everything… I can only hope that you have more will power than I do.

But which should you go to? Here are my top 4:

Almost 7 months later, and many a Latin American country down, Oaxaca still remains my favourite place to pick up market goodies. Especially clothes. The two or three things I bought there are complemented every single time I wear them, and they’re perfect for travelling. 

All important info part 1:

    Where: Portal del Palacio, OAX_RE_BENITO JUAREZ, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez

TOP TIP: ‘Gringo tax’ is real. Or more politely put – tourist tax. So, shop around. At first you will probably be charged twice the price that they actually want for the product, but they know us gringos can be a little gullible. Don’t pay more than you think something is worth, but in the same respect, remember that some things are handmade, and these families probably need the money more than you do. One might call it respectful bargaining. This applies to all markets, but especially with clothes. You might think you’ve found the perfect pair of stripey backpacker trousers. But let me tell you, you will see them again. I promise. It may be one of the best things to do in Oaxaca, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only place you can do it.

Oaxaca city is a food haven, so you must try as many of the local delicacies that you can squeeze in. But what are they?

Tlayudas. Thin, crunchy tortilla topped with beans, meat, veg & Oaxacan cheese. Admittedly, the cheese is not so great, but tlayudas are delicious.

Mole. Oaxaca has 7 different types of mole, all with different flavours, and coming from different chillies. (More on this on number 3… keep reading!)

Tamales Oaxaquenos. Corn dough parcels, wrapped in banana leaves and filled with mole negro. Best found in Mercado 20 de Noviembre. 

Chapulines (Grasshoppers) with chilli and salt. Don’t knock them until you’ve tried them. Albeit small, they’re a great protein source.

Sweetcorn topped with Capulines. I cannot for the life of me remember or find the name of this street food snack, but Latinos love their corn. One sweet snack is a small bowl of corn in a thick sauce, topped with chilli and tajín, and then topped with chapulines. This a great way to try chapulines if you’re not quite brave enough to try them on their own. They simply add a salty element to your dish, and you almost forget that you’re eating grasshoppers.

Tacos. Al pastor are always the cheapest and most delicious option for trying the authentic, Mexican taste.

Latin America street food.
Netflix. Check it out here.

TOP TIP: If you have time, I’d recommend watching Netflix’s ‘Street Food Latin America: Oaxaca’ before going for some inspiration – and if you can make your way to the specific market stalls included – even better.

All important info part 2:

    Where: Murguía & Calzada de la República, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Barrio de Jalatlaco, 68080 Oaxaca

    When: Every day 6:00 – 18:00

These are the two most central souvenir markets, where you’ll find clothes, gifts, spices and oils and live animals (which is honestly a little sad to see). I found these markets to be slightly more expensive than those in the streets.

All important info part 3:

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

    Where: 20 de Noviembre 512, OAX_RE_BENITO JUAREZ, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax.

    When: Every day 7:00 – 19:00

Mercado Benito Juárez

    Where: Las Casas S/N, OAX_RE_BENITO JUAREZ, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax.

    When: Every day 7:00 – 19:00

2. TRY ALL 7 TYPES OF MOLE AT LOS PACOS

What on earth is Mole, you say?

You simply cannot visit Oaxaca without trying one of their local delicacies – Mole (Pronounced mow-lay… not mole). Mole is a traditional sauce, made from a mix of dried chilli, tomatoes or tomatillos, roasted or dried fruit and veg, and a thickener like bread or masa. Some even have a chocolatey finish, and they are typically served with meat. But there are also veggie options with tamales for example.

Here’s how you can try all 7 types, in one go!

Oaxaca is famous for having 7 different types of Mole. Although you can try all the varieties across the markets, Los Pacos offers a sample of each. Here they will allow you to have a sample of all 7 of the Oaxaca Moles, then you can pick which you prefer and order it with your meat of choice! Most food tours within the city finish up here, so it’s well recommended! For the best experience, try to bag a seat upstairs on the patio.

    Where: Av Belisario Domínguez 108, Reforma, 68050 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax.

    When: Every day 9:00 – 19:30 (18:30 on Sundays)

3. ZONA ARQUEOLÓGICA DE MONTE ALBÁN

What does Monte Albán have to offer?

Zona Arqueológica de Monte Albán are incredible pre-Hispanic ruins, founded by the Zapotecs around the sixth century BC, and although it flourished up until around 850 AD, for reasons that are unknown, the city was gradually abandoned. Only a short distance from Oaxaca city, this is a must do.

I would recommend (as always), to go earlier in the morning, as you don’t want to be there at the peak of the heat. I learnt the hard way that if you’re ever doing sightseeing in Mexico, particularly ruins. Don’t ruin your day and go when it’s too damn hot. Pardon the pun. Give yourself around 3 hours to explore the ruins and the museum.

How to get there:

Being just 20 minutes out of the city, there are a number of easy ways you can get yourself to Monte Albán. Which are all relatively cheap.

  1. Taxi. This is an easy and cheap option, particularly if you’re going with a small group. The taxi should set you back around 150 pesos. As a lot of people go with this option, you shouldn’t have too much problem getting one back either, as long as you visit early enough!
  2. Public Bus. Buses to Monte Albán leave from Calle de Tinoco y Palacios, near the main square (Zócalo). The buses are very frequent and will cost you less than 10 pesos each way. That being said, the buses don’t go directly to the gate, and the walk on the other side can take over 30 minutes. There is the option to get a mototaxi once you’re there though!
  3. Shuttle. The 2 most recommended shuttle buses are Lescas Co Tours & Autobuses Turísticos. Lescas Co Tours depart every hour from 8.30 am, and the last shuttle leaves Monte Albán at 5 pm. The bus terminal is in Hotel Riviera del Angel (Calle Mina 519). Autobuses Turísticos also depart from Hotel Riviera del Angel. Both of these options will cost around 70 pesos.

    Where: Ignacio Bernal S/N, San Pedro Ixtlahuaca, Oax.

    When: Every day 9:00 – 15:30

    Price: 85 pesos

4. Do a free city walking tour 

Backpacker rule #1: Always take advantage of free things

Almost all hostels have a free walking tour, every day. Failing that, in almost every city, you can go to the main square – zócalo – and there will be a guide doing free walking tours there. As a general rule, they will be holding a flag, a sign, or a huge umbrella. These guides are almost always tip based, so pay as you feel.

Walking tours are the best thing to do on the first day to get your bearings, see the main ‘tourist sights’, and see where you want to go back to.

They’re also a great way to meet people if you’re solo travelling.

Why not learn some salsa whilst you’re at it?

Like I said, backpacker rule #1 is that you should always take advantage of free things. And one of my favourite freebies, is salsa classes. I.e. one of the most important skills to pick up on when travelling in Latin America. If you don’t pick up on the basic skills, you’ll regret it when you’re stepping on someones toes!

I stayed at Ticuchi Hostal, and 3 times a week you could part take in free salsa classes, and if you’re lucky the owner will take you to a salsa bar afterwards. Once or twice I also found a group of people dancing salsa in the streets and squares and they’re happy to take in a backpacker to learn how to dance.

If salsa isn’t your speed, Ticuchi offers sunset yoga on the rooftop, with beautiful views over the cobbled streets of Oaxaca. Free of course.

5. Hierve el Agua

Hierve el Agua is one of the most unbelievable places that I’ve ever visited. Picture two stunning natural pools at the top of a mountain. Then times the beauty of what you can imagine by 10, and you could be close to what you should expect to see! The views are insane and it costs hardly anything to visit.

How to get there:

  1. With a tour. I visited Hierve el Agua during a day tour with Sierra Tours, which you can read more about on #8. I know I usually swear against tours, but this is one that’s worth the money! My only qualm was that I would have liked to stay there a little longer – it was truly beautiful.
  2. Rent a car. Friends of mine did this, but I was honestly a little wary. Firstly, because I don’t like being driven by new people, secondly because that fear is heightened even more in new countries with crazy roads. And lastly, because we were warned that the road there was a little scary. One thing I’ve learnt from spending hundreds of hours driving around Latin American landscapes is that, when someone says a road is a ‘little scary’, it’s a lot scary. And all I can say is, I was even scared going up there driven by someone who had more than likely done it hundreds of times… but maybe I’m a scaredy cat.
  3. Public Transport. You can also get the bus from Oaxaca city to Mitla. And then a colectivo/camioneta (a shared taxi/truck) up to Hierve el agua.

    Where: Arena México, CDMX

    When: Monday, Tuesdays, Fridays & Sundays (check for specific dates on Ticketmaster.

    Price: Between 600 – 1000 pesos

TOP TIP: Make sure you take lots of water, sun cream and a hat. With no shade, it’s dangerously hot up there, especially when you’re distracted by the cooler water. Don’t do what my friends did and come home looking like a tomato. Your memories of the place might be a little tarnished.

6. Visit el Tule

Visit what?

Now, I know this may sound a little odd, but I’m suggesting you go and see a tree. But not just any tree. El Tule is the tree with the largest diameter trunk in the whole world. And it’s pretty grand. It’s also within a beautiful and oddly out of place park.

The tree itself is inside a fenced off area, which requires a small fee to go in. But between me and you, it’s not really necessary to go in – it is after all, the widest tree in the world. You can see plenty from the outside. As you can see on my sneaky, outside the bars picture.

But hey, it really is a big tree right?

How to reach el árbol del Tule:

  1. Public Transport: Head there on a local bus from Oaxaca city from Boulevard José Vasconcelos, highway 190. This will cost around 10 pesos.
  2. Taxi. With the drive being only around 30 minutes to get there, a taxi split 4 ways can sometimes be a viable option.
  3. Tour. As above, I visited el Tule with Sierra tours. Keep reading, you’re only 2 points off reaching the tour info! Almost there…

    Where: 2 de Abril, 8va Etapa IVO Fracc el Retiro, 68297 Santa María del Tule, Oax.

    When: Every day 8:00 – 20:00

    Price: Free or 10 pesos entry fee.

7. Visit a Mezcal factory

I may or may not mention Mezcal on every Mexico post… You’ve been warned

Before I went to a mezcal factory, I thought mezcal was gross. But once you’ve tried a few different types, you might change your mind. A wonderful thing about travelling is finding out how things are made, especially alcohol. Since, if your backpacking style is anything like mine, you might be drinking a lot of it. So go and see the process yourself, most importantly, take part in the taster session at the end. You will not believe the taste difference from an aged mezcal, to a new one. Spoiler – unaged ones taste like paint stripper and should NOT be drunk.

If you can’t be tempted with straight mezcal, as it is to be sipped, not shot. There are mezcal distilleries spread in and around Oaxaca, so there are plenty of tours to choose from. Please give mezcal a chance, and even a second. Everyone deserves a second chance.

TOP TIP: If you can’t handle the straight Mezcal, they have creamy mezcal mies which taste like milkshake. The mango one is absolutely delightful. On the flipside, if a trip to the distillery turns you to the dark side – mezcal and fresh fruit juice as a mixer is a TREAT. You’re welcome.

I visited a distillery on my tour with Sierra Tours, and it’s FINALLY time to tell you all about it… I’m sure you’re thrilled.

8. Do a day Tour with Sierra Tours

Disclaimer: This undoubtedly is the height of all my contradictory statements.

Generally, being a ‘broke backpacker’, and a hater of planned tours, I avoid them like the plague. But this tour, for once, I would genuinely recommend. For 25 USD, you visit : El árbol del Tule, a traditional Oaxacan fabric factory, a candle factory, hierve el agua, and finally a mezcal distillery.

But, let me tell you more…

All the travel is included, and you’re taken in a relatively small air conditioned van. And you’re given a pretty decent amount of time in all the places. You’re taken to a buffet mid-day, with traditional Oaxaca foods for a cost of around 6 USD, but you don’t have to eat if you don’t want to! Feel free to take your own lunch.

Of course some of these points are highlighted above in #5-7, but let’s quickly go over the others:

Handmade Traditional Oaxacan fabrics

This was one of my favourite parts of the tour, and something that I’m not sure would be easy to find or visit alone. You will be given a demonstration of how all the fabric colours are made from natural materials, and then ultimately how they are woven into the most beautiful traditional Oaxacan fabrics.

I’m not sure how to truly sell this to you because it sounds a little dull, but seeing how all the beautiful colours are created from flowers and rocks, and ANTS is incredible. You’ll be wishing you had the budget and the ability to ship one of the rugs home.

If you look on the right of the picture, you can see a little preview of the fruits and natural products that create the beautiful colours for the yarn below.

Candle Factory 

This tiny candle ‘factory’ sends amazing hand-made candles all over the world to be distributed, and once you see them, you’ll know why. You also will have the opportunity to try and craft some yourself. And it’s far, far harder than they make it look.

After demonstrating how easy it was to make a candle rose, I took a turn myself. And it turns out she was extremely well practiced and was far harder than it looked.

She made hundreds of beautiful, intricate roses that were part of day of the dead skull candles, flower candles and so many more.

Once again you’ll be wishing you could stuff your backpack full of cute cactus candles.

Check out more pics and videos from the tour on Instagram for a little more convincing!

9. Walk the stretch from the Zócalo to Templo de Santo Domingo

Templo de Santo Domingo is a beautiful former monastery that you can admire from both the inside and out. Only a 10 minute walk from the Zócalo, it is well worth your visit.

Macedonia Alcalá, the road that connects it, its a beautiful pedestrianised cobbled path filled with little shops, street vendors and galleries. Although the walk is only 10 minutes, it will almost definitely be longer once you get sucked into the Oaxaca street art.

Where to go and when you can go inside:

    Where: C. Macedonio Alcalá s/n, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., México

    When: Monday – Saturday 7:00 – 13:00, 16:00 – 19:30. Sunday 7:00 – 13:00, 16:00 – 19:00

    Price: Free or 10 pesos entry fee.

TOP TIP: If you’re a people watcher (like me), grab yourself a coffee and sit yourself outside of Templo de Santo Domingo. It’s a beautiful view, no matter the time of day. Check out my foodie tips at the bottom to find out where to get the best coffee.

10. Try and catch a traditional festival

Expect the unexpected in Oaxaca

If there’s one thing I can wholeheartedly say about Oaxaca, it’s that it is full, overflowing, with life and soul. There’s a beautiful energy about the place. On every square there are people dancing old and young. Everyone looks happy, it feels happy. You’re never short of… experiences (for want of a better word).

So let me tell you, when I heard music and clapping coming from outside the hostel, I was excited, and I could not have been less prepared for what I saw. I stepped out of my hostel, onto the street, only to see a GIANT doll dancing down the street.

Here she is.

She was literally as tall as the buildings. Truth be told, I never found out what this parade was for, but it was the first of many.

On that note, my suggestion is, if you can coincide your trip to Oaxaca city with one of the many incredible festivals. I would definitely do it.

There’s mezcal festivals, Day of The Dead celebrations (El día de los muertos), Carnival, and tonnes more. You’d be lucky to catch any of them.

Check this blog post out on Travel To Oaxaca for an outline of all of the best ones to line up your trip with.

EXTRA FOODIE TIPS. Where to eat when you’ve eaten more Mexican market food than your heart can take:

MERCADITO GASTRO JEAN-MARCH

This modern food market is the perfect place to go when you get sick of beans and tortillas. One place, lots of cuisines. Each day has a different deal for a different restaurant, where you will get a meal at a discounted price. Di Thai’s prawn pad thai was delicious and the burritos too! Definitely a great option if you fancy a sit down meal with friends.

CAFÉ CAFÉ

Delicious pancakes, good coffee, and cool views. What more could you want? Check out my Instagram for proof of said cool views and pancake syrup pours.

PAN:AM ABSOLO 

Remember when I mentioned I knew a good place for coffee? This bakery has unreal coffee and always has queues out the door for a seat inside. So, the only real solution is getting a pastry and a coffee to take away, and sitting yourself in front of Templo de Santiago. Right? I may or may not have indulged on a frappe with it being an absurdly hot day. But you do you.

STREET BURGERS

Here’s a confession. 99% of the time I’m pescatarian. My part to save the planet and what not. But on a drunken walk home, all my friends got burgers from a BBQ stall in the street. They were completely pilled up with grilled pineapple, onions and peppers, spicey sauce and pico de gallo. And I caved.

Not only did I cave, but I went back 2 days later after being badly recommended an AWFUL taco spot. So, a word to the weak, only have one of the street burgers if you’re willing to have many. Because it was beautiful.

My Final Top Tips : 

STREET SAFETY

I don’t like to even highlight this as I’m completely striving to kill the stereotype that Latin America is too dangerous to travel. But Oaxaca city can be a little more dangerous than other areas at night for petty crimes like robberies, due to the economic situation for many of the locals. Avoid walking alone at night, even if you’re only going somewhere close (I follow this rule on the whole when travelling) and don’t try and take cash out of an ATM at night.

DATA

You’ll have seen this tip on my other Mexico posts if you’ve already read, but getting a sim card is super easy and cheap! OXXO is a convenience store that you will find on every other street in Mexico, and you will go so often that you’ll miss it when it’s gone. For around 200 pesos, you can get a TELCEL sim card with 2GB of data and unlimited social media for 30 days. There are also other, smaller packages for less days, or less data, if you’re only travelling for a short while. If you need to top up, all you have to do is pop in and tell them your number, and top up as many pesos as you want. 

COLECTIVOS

You will slowly but surely become more aware of colectivos the more you travel around Mexico. They’re essentially mini-buses that go to surrounding areas, that are full of locals, and you’ll pay way less than the tourist buses. They usually leave to most places every half an hour, and go almost anywhere.

Lineas Únidas in Oaxaca city is a Colectivo station. I would recommend going the morning of or the day before to secure your ticket if you want to choose your seat and want a specific time. And if you can, sit as close to the front as possible. The roads in Mexico make you feel rather sick and the front is the best place to be.

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Now you’ve covered Oaxaca, how about scoping out other Mexico and Latin America travel posts here for more inspiration to mooch and munch your way around your backpacking adventure!

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