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13 Out-Of-This-World Things to Do in Oaxaca

Known for its delicious food (hello, mole!), colorful streets, access to beautiful ruins, and its festive Day of the Dead celebration, the best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico are as varied as they are interesting.

During our trip, the city ended up stealing our hearts–and whenever we find ourselves dreaming of Mexican food, we often start absentmindedly searching for plane tickets to Oaxaca.

Planning a visit soon and wondering what to do in Oaxaca? We’ve covered all the best things to see here, including both spots in Oaxaca City (in Spanish, Oaxaca de Juarez) and those that are easy to visit as day trips from Oaxaca.

Kate Storm and Jeremy Storm at Monte Alban in Oaxaca Mexico--exploring lots of ruins like this is one of our top tips for traveling to Mexico!

The Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City (+ Nearby!)

Visit Monte Alban.

The abandoned city of Monte Alban is, in our opinion, even prettier than Teotihuacan near Mexico City–which is impressive, given how much we love the first!

Monte Alban is one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, and is believed to have been one of the major cultural centers of the Zapotecs. Visiting is one of the most popular things to do in Oaxaca, and it’s easy to see why!

You can see mountains on all sides of Monte Alban, and ruins all around you–in every direction, there’s nothing but views: the past at eye-level, and the present in the cities occupying the valleys below.

monte alban as seen from above, one of the best places to visit in oaxaca

Wander through the center of Oaxaca City and visit the Zocalo.

Oaxaca’s main square is enormous and is easily the perfect first item to add to a list of things to do in Oaxaca. The gigantic shade trees make it a welcome break from the sun, the balloon sellers throughout the square add eye-catching splashes of color in every direction, and the hawkers are some of the politest that we have come across–they all asked us once, and only once if we wanted to buy anything before moving on.

Prices at the restaurants surrounding the square are a little inflated as compared to other parts of the city, of course–but it’s still worth grabbing a meal here just to people-watch in the square.

man selling balloons from a large bunch in the zocalo oaxaca de juarez

Taste some Mezcal.

Taking a Mezcal tour is an incredibly fun way to spend an afternoon in Oaxaca!

In exchange for listening to a sales pitch at the end of the tour, we were able to see each step of the Mezcal process, from the beheaded corpses of fresh agave plants all the way to the finished product.

The tour finished with a Mezcal tasting (which is not to be confused with Tequila–Mezcal and Tequila are very different)–our guide was liberal with the pours, and if you would like, you just may be able to try half a dozen versions of Mezcal.

If you’re not interested in touring a factory, don’t worry: Mezcal is available at just about any restaurant in Oaxaca.

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Sample mole.

All of the incredible foods to eat in Oaxaca could justify an entire blog post in their own right, but no other food is as iconically Oaxacan as mole.

Intricate and complex, mole is both delicious and varied (Oaxaca has 7 definitive versions, though each recipe is unique), and well worth devouring with… well, just about anything.

plate of mole with tortillas in the background, eating mole is one of the best things to do in oaxaca mexico

Check out the Templo de Santo Domingo.

Oaxaca’s most famous cathedral is located in the north of town and is never absent from any list of the best things to do in Oaxaca–for good reason.

Situated with a small square in front and botanical gardens to the rear, the area surrounding the church (despite its draw for tourists) is much quieter and more peaceful than the Zocalo to the south–a perfect area to relax in.

templo de santo domingo front facade

Take a cooking class.

What better way to explore a region renowned worldwide for its cuisine than by learning a bit about cooking it yourself?

This cooking class will not only teach you how to cook Oaxacan dishes (complete with plenty of eating) but also includes a market tour.

Book your Oaxacan cooking class today!

chiles meat and tortilla on a grill in mexico

Visit the Ethnobotanic Garden.

Oaxaca’s botanical gardens are peaceful and pretty (as all botanical gardens should be), and have a different twist than many flower-focused gardens: a lot more cacti, for one!

Located right next door to the Templo de Santo Domingo, it’s not hard to find a chance to cross this off your list of Oaxaca attractions to visit.

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Check out the Oaxaca Cultural Museum.

Oaxaca is the most culturally diverse state in Mexico, and it shows in this museum: artifacts spanning many periods and cultures are displayed here, emphasizing individual cultures and, of course, the impact of Spanish colonialism.

The museum is attached to the Templo de Santo Domingo, in what was once the monastery–meaning that the building is a museum artifact itself!

Fair warning: all of the signs in the museum are in Spanish. I stumbled through the best I could, but Google translate was my friend.

I have no doubt that I would have gotten more out of the museum with more advanced Spanish, though the artifacts alone are enough to make it worth stopping by.

exterior of oaxaca cultural museum, one of the best oaxaca attractions

Tour Mitla.

One of the best day trips from Oaxaca, the stunning and intricate ruins of Mitla are one of the best places to visit near Oaxaca City.

Mitla is a religious and cultural center for the Zapotecs, dating after Monte Alban was abandoned. Our guide referred to the style as “Greek” because of the geometric patterns that dominated what remains of Mitla–the detailed work is mesmerizing and well worth spending some extra time admiring.

Much of Mitla was torn down when the Spanish arrived in order to build the cathedral that now overlooks what is left of the city–but the remains are more than enough to be impressed by the incredible amount of craftsmanship that went into creating Mitla.

exterior of an intricately carved building in mitla

Enjoy the festivals.

Oaxaca is well known for its exuberant celebrations, and luckily for travelers, they happen all the time.

Jeremy and I didn’t remotely try to plan our trip around any festivals, but that didn’t stop us from hearing fireworks going off every night, seeing the Zocalo covered in people dancing a tango, or stumbling into two different parades, or seeing people performing on stage almost every night we were in town.

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A little research showed us that we were most likely seeing preliminary celebrations for the Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe and/or the Fiesta de la Soledad–and, of course, Christmas, for which a Christmas tree taller than the nearby cathedral was being built near the Zocalo when we were there.

Of course, the most famous festival in Oaxaca is its famous Day of the Dead Celebration, which is considered to be one of the most incredible in all of Mexico.

day of the dead display in oaxaca in november, one of the most popular things to see in oaxaca city

Go shopping at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre.

Whether you want to buy artisanal souvenirs or simply eat your heart out, the Mercado 20 de Noviembre is one of the best places to visit in Oaxaca!

Sip hot chocolate.

Oaxacan hot chocolate is spiced with cinnamon and is famous for a reason–it is absolutely delicious! Don’t leave town without sampling a cup.

Cup of atole in an orange mug with tamales behind it and pan dulce to the left of it.

Fall in love with Hierve el Agua.

I saved my favorite of all the fun things to do in Oaxaca for last.

Hierve el Agua is a petrified waterfall, and the area you visit in order to view it is filled with pools formed of the same calcium carbonate that created the “falls”.

Stand and look forward from the pools, and you will see the gorgeous mountains opening up before you–the view is irresistible.

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The area is extraordinarily peaceful, and while there is a small changing area and bathroom nearby, the expected food stalls and souvenir stands are out of sight and a 10-minute hike up a fairly steep hill from where the pools are located, leaving the entire area feeling less commercial than it could.

Sadly, Hierve el Agua is a couple of hours from Oaxaca City by car–but it is a must-see and one of the best day trips from Oaxaca. This is, hands down, our favorite thing that we saw while in the region, and our only regret is that we weren’t able to stay longer.

pool of hierve el agua on a sunny day, one of the best places to visit in oaxaca

Where to Stay in Oaxaca

When deciding where to stay in Oaxaca, we recommend looking for something centrally located, within walking distance of the Zocalo and the Templo de Santo Domingo. From there, Oaxaca City is easy to explore on foot, and transportation outside of the city is easy to reach!

Prices are most expensive when events are going on, especially the legendary Day of the Dead festival–if you plan to visit Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead, we strongly recommend booking as far in advance as possible.

Here are a few well-reviewed hotels that are fantastic places to stay in Oaxaca.

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Budget

Hotel Oaxaca Magico — This hotel was exactly what we were looking for during our first trip to Oaxaca: clean and in a great location. A budget hotel means a small room, but the 10-minute walk to the Zocalo, daily maid service/replacement of toiletries, and overall smooth experience left the tiny room in the back of our minds. We would be happy to stay here again!

Check rates & book your stay at Hotel Oaxaca Magico!

colorful colonial street in oaxaca city mexico

Mid-range

Hotel Suites del Centro — Located just a 5-minute walk from the Zocalo and boasting excellent reviews, these small apartments all feature a kitchenette. The property boasts a beautiful terrace, and there is free parking on-site for travelers who would like to explore the surrounding area independently!

Check rates & book your stay at Hotel Suites del Centro!

Luxury

Casa Antonieta — For spacious luxury in the heart of Oaxaca, check into Casa Antonieta, where you’ll find gorgeous furnishings, excellent customer service, a walkable location, and a beautiful terrace to relax on.

With fantastic reviews and a popular breakfast option, Casa Antonieta is the perfect base for exploring the best things to do in Oaxaca.

Check rates & book your stay at Casa Antonieta!

colorful church in the region of oaxaca mexico with flags dangling from it

About Organized Day Trips from Oaxaca

We took a one day tour from Oaxaca, which included visiting Hierve el Agua, a Mezcal factory, Mitla, a wool rug craftsman, and the Tule tree (the last two aren’t on this list because we found them dull–the first is a predictable sales pitch and the second is a large tree that is not worth seeking out on your own). The cost was 200 pesos per person and included all transportation and an excellent guide for Mitla.

A few other entrance fees (totaling less than $10/person) were required to be paid on the tour, and though not technically “required”, the buffet lunch that the tour pauses for is predictably overpriced (about $7/person, but very tasty).

The tour fulfilled our needs and seemed to be available at a similar price from every tourism agency in town. You can also book a very similar tour online if you’re partial to paying in advance–but as you can see, you’ll pay less if you book on the ground in Oaxaca.

jeremy storm standing on the edge of hierve el agua as an american backpacking mexico

The downside was our limited time of about one hour at Hierve de Agua–next time rent a car and going for the day as it was one of our absolute favorite things to do in Oaxaca, though the mountain roads to access it are very windy–be prepared for a bit of an adventure if you want to drive.

Shop rental cars for your trip to Oaxaca today!

Tours are also available to visit Monte Alban, though I wouldn’t recommend taking one unless you really want a guide with you. Monte Alban is about 30 minutes outside of the city, and shuttles that will sell round-trip transportation for 70 pesos/person are everywhere.

The Oaxaca City bus is also an option if you want to stick to a very low budget, but my tendency to get motion sickness made me very grateful for the direct and simple transportation.

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Don’t forget travel insurance!

We don’t ever suggest traveling without insurance–anything can happen, and this is definitely a case of better safe than sorry. Traveling to Mexico is generally safe, of course, but it also likely involves stepping outside your comfort zone and trying out new adventures in a foreign land… where you may or may not speak the language. We use and recommend World Nomads for trips to Mexico.

Shop travel insurance for your trip to Oaxaca today!

two photos of oaxaca, one of city street and one of hierve el agua, red and black text on a white background reads "oaxaca travel guide"

 

20 thoughts on “13 Out-Of-This-World Things to Do in Oaxaca”

  1. Great post! We’re thinking about going. We checked out Mexico City this past year but almost went to Oaxaca and think we might like to make it over in 2018! How did you get to Hierve el Agua and how much time do you recommend spending there?

    Reply
    • We definitely recommend it! Oaxaca is awesome, as is Hierve el Agua. We visited Hierve el Agua as part of a day trip that included several stops (we booked it in person), but we’d recommend trying to find one that focuses on Hierve el Agua specifically if you can–we didn’t have nearly as much time there as we had wanted.

      I’d only recommend driving yourself if you’re very confident with the directions and mountain roads–it’s about 2 hours of driving, a lot of it on very winding roads with blindspots, from Oaxaca City to Hierve el Agua! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Hi Kate!! Thank you for this awesome post! My boyfriend and I are going to Oaxaca this week for a wedding and were trying to decide what to do on our free day. This definitely helped us decide on seeing Hierve el Agua! =)

    Reply
  3. Thank you for your post. We are looking to do a road trip starting in Puebla or Oaxaca , spending 10 -12 days in January in the region to include beach town, villages, culture, national park and fly back either from Puebla or Oaxaca airports.
    we are 7 in total looking for special places and experiences not interested in the tourist attractions too much. and would probably rent a minivan . We do not want to drive all day so no issues in staying i several places and doing tours from each place. Looking forward for you wonderful advice.

    Reply
    • Hi Joe!

      We haven’t taken that road trip, but I can tell you that around the Oaxaca area we strongly recommend making time for Hierve el Agua and Mitla.

      We also loved the beach/surf town of Puerto Escondido, and would love to go back–can recommend a stop there as well!

      Reply
  4. Hi both

    Thank you for the article – just super reading. I’m going to be in Oaxaca for around 10 days over Christmas and New Year. Do you have a sense of what will be open for tourists during that time and if guides will be available? And thank you so much for highlighting Hierve el Agua – not in either of my guidebooks!

    Reply
    • Hi David!

      We were actually there at a similar time ourselves–just before Christmas. Everything should be operating more or less normally, with the usual expected closures for Christmas Day, etc. In the weeks surrounding Christmas, though, you’ll definitely find guides!

      Definitely head to Hierve el Agua if you can! Of all the places in and near Oaxaca, it’s the one we’re most excited to eventually get back to. 🙂

      Reply
  5. Hi, Kate – Thank you for this VERY informative post! I’m going to Oaxaca with a small group of friends later this month, and you’ve given us some great guidelines for top things to see in town — and we will now definitely make plans to go out to Hierve el Agua! LOL, we were mainly going for the food, as one of our group is a world-traveling foodie, but I’m the “art person” of the group and will now do some research on the Templo and the museum. I also hear there are many art galleries in town?

    Reply
    • Hi Ganieda! Thank you so much, glad we could help!

      The food truly is amazing, we still miss it all the time.

      I do remember seeing quite a few galleries around, but honestly, I was more like your friend and focused more on the food, so no specific recommendations there, I’m afraid!

      Reply
  6. Thank you for your suggestions! Can you recommend how many days you think is needed to explore all these spots comfortably? Trying to figure out how many days I should take off from work haha. Also, do you have suggestions for any other day trips that you didn’t get to go to that you thought would be nice? Something a few hours outside of Oaxaca that can still be done in a day? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hmm… I’d say probably a minimum of four full days to be comfortable? Two for the city, one for Hierve el Agua and Mitla, and one for Monte Alban, more or less. But a few more days would definitely be helpful!

      I’ve heard that the Yagul ruins are also nice, but we didn’t make it there ourselves. Personally, if we were going back, our first priority would be to dedicate more time to each Mitla and Hierve el Agua, as we felt like we didn’t spend enough time at either!

      Reply
  7. Great recommendations but in addition I think that a cooking class with visit of a market is a great introduction to Oaxaca’s famous food. I tried 3 and my favourite is Alma de mi Tierra.

    Reply
  8. Great post! and thanks for all the great information! I am very excited, I am visiting Oaxaca in May, can’t wait to visit all these places you are recommending!

    Reply
  9. I’m thinking of going in late May. Would you say it’s safe for a female solo traveler? I would like to know more about transportation? It’s been recommended to me to travel there.

    Reply
    • Hi Mona!

      I haven’t personally visited as a solo female traveler, but I know lots of women who have visited Oaxaca alone and absolutely loved it (I even know one who loved it so much she moved there).

      If you’re staying in the center, you’ll be able to walk to most of the major highlights in town. Shuttles and/or buses will get you to various day trips around the area.

      Reply

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