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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
November 2021 Update: After a period of closure, Hierve el Agua has now reopened!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
The downside was our limited time of about one hour at Hierve de Agua.
Next time, we will rent a car and go independently 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.
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!