There are so many great things to do in Oaxaca. While I initially wanted to visit Oaxaca because of its reputation as a culinary capital, when I got there I realized there is actually a lot of really cool history and unique culture to explore. These were my absolute favorite sites in Oaxaca.
Things to Do in Oaxaca
Monte Alban is a really fascinating set of ruins near Oaxaca City. You can easily get there on your own by using one of the many vans that leave from the city center every half an hour. Ask your hostel or hotel where the vans leave from and make sure you make note of where it drops you off so that you know where to catch it back to the city.
I took a tour of Monte Alban, which I always prefer for sites like this. I literally know nothing about it before visiting, so having a knowledgeable guide explain more about it was great. I used Bamba Experience, which was great. There are a lot of different tour operators in the city that you can book with once you arrive – all of them take the same route and stop for a slightly overpriced buffet lunch.
This was one of the best things that I did in Oaxaca. You can only visit the botanic gardens with a tour and English tours are only available on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 11 a.m. Trust me, it’s worth getting here for the tour. The guides are so passionate and well-informed about not only the gardens, but what’s happening in the wider region of Oaxaca and Mexico in general.
The gardens are really beautiful with so many different varieties of corn and cactus. It’s not your average botanic gardens. These were designed by an artist and are very aesthetically pleasing.
Templo de Santo Domingo
This was my favorite church and square in the city. The zocalo is a nice square with an okay church, but the area around Templo de Santo Domingo just seemed to have so much more excitement going on. There were dancers, musicians, and vendors plying their trade. There are tons of great shops, bars, and restaurants around the church, and the interior is really beautiful. I found myself drawn to the area around this church most afternoons for the great people watching and the cups full of esquites (corn topped with all manner of deliciousness).
Museum of Oaxacan Culture
This museum is attached to the Templo de Santo Domingo and gives you some of the best views out over the Ethno Botanical Gardens. When I visited in July 2017, the price was 60 pesos for entrance (roughly $3.50). The building is really beautiful inside and there is a lot to see. It’s a history-lovers dream with tons of paraphernalia from pre-hispanic times through to the present. Most of the signs are in Spanish, but most of the pieces really need no explanation. You can pay to have a guide take you through the museum if you really want to learn more about the old monastery.
Hierve el Agua
This is a seriously incredibly place. It was one of my favorite things to do in Oaxaca and in my opinion, if you come to Oaxaca, you need to add it to your itinerary. The best way to get there is to take a tour. It’s quite far from the center of Oaxaca and if you do decide to drive it yourself, you’ll have to deal with tolls, windy roads, and several unpaved areas where things aren’t well sign-posted. It’s totally possible, but just know what you’re getting yourself into and get really good directions before leaving.
Hierve el Agua literally means the boiling water. The Spanish gave it this name because of the way the water seems to bubble out of the earth. It then calcifies as it drips down the cliffside and over the years has created these incredible formations that look like waterfalls, but are actually totally solid.
Mitla is another set of ruins that are worth a visit. If you take a tour of Hierve el Agua, the tour also includes a stop at Mitla, so you can see tons in one day. Having a guide take you around Mitla is a MUST. Just like Monte Alban, I didn’t know anything about Mitla, so to hear how it managed to remain so intact after Spanish colonization was pretty cool.
The carvings are absolutely stunning and for buildings that are so old (literally thousands of years old), they are still in incredible condition.
Call me a geek, but there’s something cool about visiting the widest tree in the world. Most people think this is a waste of time (it’s part of the tour to Hierve el Agua and Mitla), but I really enjoyed this little detour. While we were there we met two Mexican girls who needed to practice their English for school (this literally happens in every major tourist spot in the country, but it’s still nice) and they told us all about the history of the tree and why people in the region feel like it’s so important. Plus, it is a seriously wide tree.
The shopping in Oaxaca is amazing. There are so many artisanal craft shops, so many colorful shirts and shoes and rugs only people with a willpower of steel could leave this city without buying at least one bottle of mezcal.
My favorite places to find souvenirs in Oaxaca are:
- Mercado Benito Juarez: This is an especially great place if you want to buy leather shoes, mole, or Oaxaca-style cheese to take home with you. They’ll wrap it up so that you can take it on the plane (the food, not the shoes).
- La Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca: I literally could have spent all day in this store. It’s the best place to find alebrijes (folktale carvings native to Oaxaca). There are rooms full of them and they are all very reasonably priced. My advice would be to avoid buying anything on the tours you go on and come here just before you leave Oaxaca for your souvenirs instead.
- Mezcal Oro de Oaxaca: You will literally see mezcal shops everywhere. You can sample mezcal at markets around the city, on tours you go on, in restaurants. It’s so hard to know exactly what to get. If you just want a souvenir bottle of mezcal, come to Oro de Oaxaca. They’ll let you sample the most popular varieties and you can buy a bottle for a really reasonable price.
- Los Amantes Mezcalería: If your budget is slightly bigger and you want to get something more unique, get yourself to Los Amantes. They have some of the best mezcal I’ve ever tasted and it’s all made locally. If you’re not sure, you can sample several different varieties. They speak English in there, too so they’ll be able to explain all of the different flavor notes.
- Teotitlan Rug Store: This is right on the corner of the Plaza de Santo Domingo and has a beautiful selection of rugs from the nearby Teotitlan de Valle. They’re not cheap, but they are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They have scarves and other smaller pieces, too.
Eating All the Food
This is one of the most important things to do in Oaxaca. From the early morning hot chocolate with pan de yema to the late night burgers, from the amazing tetelas to all the moles, there are so many amazing things you need to try while you’re in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is one of the culinary capitals on Mexico. Many flavors, ingredients, and cooking styles that you find around Mexico originated here, so it’s only right that you explore the food scene.
I have an entire (enormous) post about all of the best things to eat and drink and where to find them. You can read all about what to eat in Oaxaca here.
The only thing I found slightly disappointing was the lack of street food available in Oaxaca. There are tons of great restaurants with amazing food, but late night, the only food available from street stalls is burgers and corn (both of which are delicious, but quickly get old).
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