Wondering what to do in Oaxaca on your first visit? Expert, Susan Ripley of Brooklyn Tropicali, is here to spill all she knows!
It’s not very often that you find a travel destination that is jam packed with traditional culture, a variety of high quality artisan work, thousands-of-years-old archaeological sites, beautiful nature, colorful architecture, and some of the best food and drinks in the world. But that sums up Oaxaca, and explains why it’s becoming such a buzz-worthy destination.
So I’m putting together a guide for first-time visitors to Oaxaca, the quintessential list of what to see, eat, drink, and shop for in this cultural hub of Mexico. After spending more than 2+ years in this special place, I want to be sure that travelers have a chance to experience Oaxaca in an authentic and immersive way.
What To See and Do in Oaxaca
A comprehensive list of what to see and do in Oaxaca can be overwhelming. There is just so much history and culture, that you could spend months or even years trying to see it all. So I’m going to focus on some of the most historically important, as well as the most impressive places to visit in Oaxaca on your first trip.
Every trip to Oaxaca should start with a stroll around the colorful and historic Centro. Start at the Zocalo (the main central plaza), visit the Cathedral, people watch, and catch a free concert or dancing.
Then make your way up the Andador, or the pedestrian street, until you reach Santo Domingo. This is an ex-monastery built between 1570 and 1608.
Take time to wander through the other picturesque streets. If you have time, visit the next-door neighborhoods of Jalatlaco and Xochimilco, where you’ll find vibrant and intricate street art.
Check here for some Oaxaca day tours:
As you wander the streets of the historic center, plan to stop in some of the best museums in the city.
Check out the current exhibits at MACO, the modern art museum. IAGO, an art institute that was founded by well-loved Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, has a library, beautiful patios, and rotating exhibits.
MUFI is a museum of Mexican stamp history, and also has beautiful common spaces and patios. The Centro Fotografico Alvarez Bravo has impressive rotating photography exhibits while the Rufino Tamayo Museum has an interesting collection of pre-hispanic art.
The Textile Museum is free and always includes fascinating information about traditional regional textiles.
And finally, the Museum of Cultures in Santo Domingo has a large number of artifacts and historical exhibits, plus you have a chance to view the beautiful architecture inside this ex-monastery.
Monte Alban is one of the most impressive day trips from Oaxaca as it’s an incredible archeological site. As one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, it was built around 500 BC and was the capital of the Zapotec people. You’ll find it contains many impressive ruins, and sits atop a mountain with a stunning view over the city and valley.
Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is an amazing rock formation located in the remote rolling mountains about an hour and a half outside the city. The site features natural mineral springs on top of a mountain. As these springs have slowly spilled over the edge, they’ve formed calcium deposits that resemble a waterfall. I’ve never seen anything quite like it! And the valley views are striking as well.
The Ethnobotanical Garden is part of the Santo Domingo ex-monastery complex. It features a very impressive collection of flora from all over Oaxaca state, the most biodiverse state in the country. The garden aims to include all important plant life and teach visitors about how the plants have factored into the history and culture of Oaxaca. For this reason, all visitors are required to take one of the scheduled tours.
What to Eat in Oaxaca
As the culinary capital of Mexico, and one of the most exciting food destinations in the world, eating should be at the top of your to-do list when you visit Oaxaca for the first time. Below are a few of the most important traditional, local dishes, and where you should eat them.
One of the most quintessential Oaxacan dishes is the tlayuda. It consists of a very large crispy tortilla, covered with asiento (lard), a layer of bean paste, shredded quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) and often shredded lettuce, tomato, and avocado. Order it with a side of tasajo (crispy, thin beef), chorizo (spicy pork sausage), or cecina (spicy thin pork steak).
A trip to Oaxaca wouldn’t be complete without sampling some rich, traditional mole. In Oaxaca, there are 7 types of typical moles, with the most popular being mole negro. Mole sauces often consist of 20-30+ ingredients and take lots of time and love to create.
Try the classic mole negro at Biche Pobre.
Memelas are another important Oaxacan food staple. These crispy tortillas are usually eaten for breakfast, and sometimes for a snack at night.
The tortillas are a bit thicker and cooked until crispy on the comal. They’re then layered with asiento (lard), a bean paste, and topped with queso fresco (fresh crumbled cheese), or quesillo (a string cheese popular in Oaxaca).
You can order memelas sencillo (as above), or with added toppings like chicharron (pork rind), tinga de pollo (spicy stewed chicken), or champiñones (mushrooms).
Try authentic memelas at popular street food stand, Memelas San Agustin.
While Oaxaca isn’t the capital of tacos in Mexico (that title is reserved for Mexico City), there are delicious tacos to be found here too. Head to Itanoni, a restaurant that focuses on a diverse offering of items all made from heirloom corn. Try their tacos guisados, with fillings like huevo en salsa (egg in salsa) or chile relleno (stuffed chile poblano), and enjoy the star of the show – the hot, crispy freshly made tortilla.
Chilaquiles are a filling and delicious breakfast choice in many parts of Mexico. This breakfast dish is made up of crispy tortilla wedges, drowned in a red or green salsa, and sprinkled with queso fresco (fresh cheese), sliced onion, crema, and usually a fried egg, tasajo (thin salty beef) or chicken.
Try this tasty breakfast plate at Maguey y Maiz.
Food Tours in Oaxaca
For some fun food tours in Oaxaca, check out some options below. Also keep an eye on Brooklyn Tropicali food experiences for any new retreats!
- Classic Downtown Food Tour
- Mexcal and Local Food Sunset Tour
- Street Food Tour
- Cooking Class and Market Tour
Where to Grab a Drink in Oaxaca
It’s not just the food that makes Oaxaca’s culinary scene so exciting, it’s the amazing drinks, including traditional mezcal.
Visit a Mezcal Palenque
One of the best things to do in Oaxaca is head to a traditional mezcal palenque. Here you can learn about the typical process of creating this popular liquor, from agave plant to served beverage. You’ll see the different agave varieties, learn how long they take to mature (from 7 to up to 30 years!), how they are cultivated, roasted in a pit in the ground, smashed, fermented, and then distilled.
Often the most authentic mezcal palenques don’t offer tours in English, so I highly recommend booking a tour with a guide. A few of my favorite palenques/distilleries to visit are Lalocura, Gracias a Dios, and Mezcal Macurichos.
After visiting a mezcal palenque, make reservations at Mezcaloteca, a bar/tasting room that does an excellent job of educating guests on everything mezcal.
My first visit was after I had spent quite a bit of time in Oaxaca and thought I already had a good base knowledge about mezcal. However, I still learned lots of new things and had a great experience tasting their impressive varieties.
Now you’re ready to taste mezcal on your own, so head to In Situ, one of the best tasting rooms in town, where they can still guide you on your tasting journey with an excellent variety of mezcals.
La Mezcalerita is a combination of a brewery and mezcal bar, with several rooms downstairs, and a lovely roof terrace to enjoy the Oaxacan night air.
It brews its own beer, but also has dozens and dozens of artisanal varieties from all over Mexico. They also have an extensive list of mezcals, including several house varieties.
Oaxaca Brewing Co.
Another brewery to taste some delicious locally-made beer is Oaxaca Brewing Co.. This intimate and cozy tasting room usually has a list of about 5 rotating artisanal beers and a super friendly staff.
Finally, you might want to try a mezcal cocktail. Head to Sabina Sabe where the bartenders are experts in all mixed drinks, and can recommend something special for your palette.
Non-alcoholic beverages are special and delicious here too. One of the most traditional drinks in Oaxaca is called tejate. This pre-hispanic beverage is made from toasted maiz, fermented cacao (chocolate seeds) beans, toasted mamey pits, flor de cacao, all ground into a paste and then mixed with water. The result is a frothy, rich drink with notes of chocolate. Try this afternoon drink in the Benito Juarez market.
Where to Shop & What to Buy in Oaxaca
Oaxaca is an art-lovers dream. The tradition of artisan work here is strong and reaches back for many centuries. Many pueblos are known for different types of artisan work. Check out the list below to find what interests you the most. You can usually find many workshops open to the public. These let you see how the artisan work is made and purchase it directly from the artists.
Local Traditional Markets
Markets are always one of the best ways to learn about a place and shouldn’t be missed. Also, if you don’t have time to make it to all the most famous pueblos to view the artisan work at the source, these markets will usually have a little bit of every type of work famous in this region.
In the centro, be sure to wander through the two main markets, Benito Juarez and 20 de Noviembre. If you are in Oaxaca on a Sunday, head to the bustling traditional market in nearby pueblo, Tlacolula. There is an impressive amount and variety of artisan work there. Plus you can also find food, clothing, plants, live animals, farm equipment, and anything else you might think of.
Woven Rugs in Teotitlan del Valle
Teotitlan del Valle is the most famous place to buy woven rugs. There are many workshops you can visit here to see how the artisans use the large looms, dye the yarn with natural dyes, and create beautiful works of art.
Ceramics in San Marcos Tlapazola, Atzompa, San Bartolo Coyotepec
There are several villages famous for ceramics all over the Oaxaca valley. Head to San Marcos Tlapazola for the typical red pottery. Atzompa is a village famous for green pottery, and San Bartolo Coyotepec is famous for black pottery.
Alebrijes in San Martin Tilcajete
A very unique artisan work famous in this region are alebrijes, or tiny, brightly painted wooden sculptures of fantastical creatures.
Textiles from Santo Tomas Jalietza
Beautiful textiles in different styles are famous in small villages all over Oaxaca state, from colorful embroidery, intricate huipiles (traditional blouses), or backstrap loom pieces. One of the best places to learn about these textiles is in the village of Santo Tomas Jalietza. They stillpractice traditional backstrap loom weaving here.
Your souvenirs wouldn’t be complete without a couple of bottles of special mezcal to bring home. My favorite place to buy mezcal is directly from the palenque or mezcal farms/distilleries. If you don’t have a chance to get to a palenque, or want to include a bit more variety, there are a couple of great stores to buy mezcal in the centro.
The tasting rooms of In Situ and Mezcaloteca sell special varieties. Besides that, Mis Mezcales has a good selection of high end varieties, and you can find special unlabeled very small batch varieties at my favorite vendor in Benito Juarez Market, Candiza.
Oaxaca is the kind of travel destination you can return to again and again – seeing, learning, and tasting new things every time. But on your first visit to this colorful, vibrant city, this list of must-dos will give you a well rounded (and delicious) understanding of the region, and make you want to come back for more.
Have you been to Oaxaca? What did you think?
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