Oaxaca is a lively Mexican city with serious international flair. Its acclaimed cuisine, world-class institutions of fine art, preservation of indigenous tradition, glowing landscape make it a must-visit. Read our guide to making the most of the city.
Walk the City
The best way to take in the infectious rhythm of the city is to venture out on foot. One of colonial Oaxaca’s most notable features truly solidifies its reputation as a walking city: The Plaza de la Constitución (more commonly referred to as the Zócalo,), has served the city as a lively central hub for over 500 years. At the weekend the lively atmosphere is ideal for people watching or simple repose among the benches, fountains, and shade-giving trees. Meander past an impressive array of museums, cathedrals, restaurants, vendors, markets and boutiques on Macedonio Alcalá, the city’s cobblestone pedestrian walkway. Flats of colonial haciendas and courtyards in saturated hues flank this vivid route.
Oaxaca’s central walking district is home to several internationally-renowned museums of fine art. The MACO (The city’s museum of contemporary art) regularly exhibits the work of acclaimed Oaxacan artists on rotation from their permanent collection. The museum’s iconic roster also features a fluid program of contemporary exhibitions, often including large-scale installation work. Housed in one of the oldest buildings in the city, the MACO program – a vision that refuses to shy away from provocation with its own brand of brutal yet refreshingly candid social and political commentary – contrasts both in form and content the strong, monastic colonial architecture. It is a perfect syncretism, a refreshing and engaging reprieve from more conventional modes of presentation.
The MUPO – The Museum of Oaxacan Painters – houses within its walls a dynamic platform for artists to dissect or contemplate the complexities of Mexican identity in a modern age. Visual dialogue exploring imaginary physical boundaries, pre-conceived notions of social hierarchy, and cultural exploitation make for a very visceral and engaging museum experience. Other local museums within a short stroll abound (The Alvarez Bravo Photography Center and City Museum, to name a few).
There is no better place to enjoy a rich and robust cup of Oaxacan coffee (roasted in small batches) than Café Brújula. Though a relatively new addition to the Oaxacan culinary scene, this quaint café has gained significant prominence over the past several years for its truly sublime roasts, smoothies, in-house baked granola and other treats. Take advantage of the Wifi and unwind on the arched patio, then peruse the adjacent bookstore – Graiten Porrua Liberia de los Bibliofilos Oaxaqueños.
Corner vendors and market stands bloom perpetually with fragrant and colorful fruits, yielding the rainbow-like spectrum so characteristic of Oaxaca’s juices. For a few pesos, you can purchase a quart-sized cup of the seemingly omnipresent jugo verde – a tangy and full-bodied concoction of local cactus, a bouquet of citrus, and several other bright fruits and veggies (depending on the variation).
The Tianguis, or weekly open-air market, is a Mexican tradition dating back to pre-Hispanic times. The central valley region of Oaxaca is famous for several major markets that continue on in the ancient tradition: Ocotlán, Zaachila, and Tlacolula. The Tlacolula market has cultivated a reputation as the country’s most traditionally intact, culturally vibrant (and not to mention largest and busiest) tianguis. Every Sunday, indigenous communities from villages all over the Central Valleys of Oaxaca congregate on the bustling main street of town to eat, drink, socialize, and shop. Zapotec women dressed in psychedelic cloth with silk-adorned braids can be seen carrying live turkeys or grinding maize for tortillas; it is a flooding of the senses. Mountains of exotic produce, livestock, traditional Zapotec pottery, herbs, incense, handicrafts, and house wares are heaped upon blankets and tables. Fresh meats are cooked on charcoal grills DIY-style, or prepared by the butcher. Don’t leave Tlacolula without sampling the regionally acclaimed breads or succulent barbacoa tacos (the original ‘farm-to-table’). From Oaxaca Centro, Tlacolula is easily accessible by a colectivo or local rideshare.
The church and former convent of Santo Domingo is one of the city’s most impressive and quintessentially Oaxacan buildings. This baroque, fortress-like establishment towers over pedestrians on Alcalá. Its monumental raised entry terrace is dotted with elephant-foot palms and rows of aqua-hued maguey (agave). The church itself boasts ornate detailing and opulent stylization throughout, while the massive former convent portion is a multi-tiered, expansive space. Its echoing, sunlit halls and tranquil inner chambers are open to the desert air and offer a wide view of surrounding mountains. This seemingly endless space, with its sunny courtyards lined with fountains and hand-planed cobblestones, make up the Santo Domingo Cultural Center: the Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca (dedicated to the infinitely rich histories, arts, and cultures of the region), a library for ancient books and an ethnobotanical garden. Situated in the former convent orchards, the Santo Domingo Gardens emphasize the local use and cultural significance of each plant. One of Santo Domingo’s most internationally sought highlights is its fascinating display of the Tomb Seven spoils of Monte Albán, one of Oaxaca’a premier and most extensively restored archaeological sites.
The region’s signature dish contains a mix of at least 40 ingredients, including a rich and aromatic array of spices, and, most notably, chocolate. The traditional Latin tamale takes is interpreted Oaxacan-style with fluffy maize cooked inside of a banana leaf, stuffed with turkey and mole negro (an indulgent pairing traditionally reserved for special occasions). Sample this specialty and other local dishes sourced from around Oaxaca at La Biznaga. The open-air patio is a perfect place to enjoy fresh Mayan Pulque – a sacred pre-Columbian drink made from the milky froth of fermented agave.
The idiosyncratic food of Mexico is the first cuisine to have received UNESCO cultural heritage status. An area of rich biodiversity, Oaxaca’s true mix of cultures, traditions, and regional ecology is reflected in its food. From the Pacific coast to the mountainous desert, Oaxacan cuisine is at once subtle, layered, mysterious, and divine. Specialties include Tlayuda (Mexican pizza) – giant handmade tortillas stuffed with tart and briny artisanal quesillo, salty chapulines (grasshoppers – a source of protein for the indigenous since ancient times) fried with chili and lime, corn fungus, exclusive Oaxacan craft beers, and cacao-rich chocolate with a hint of cinnamon. Many of these local specialties can be sampled at the sprawling city markets or further explored in a cooking class (check out the Casa de los Sabores cooking school).
For a creatively nuanced take on traditional culinary influences, visit Los Danzantes for dazzling locally-sourced dishes, marigold tea, and mezcal from the restaurant’s acclaimed countryside distillery. For reservations see Los Danzantes Oaxaca.
Oaxaca’s crowning glory, mezcal, is an enormously diverse and highly varied category of distilled alcohol (tequila is just one type of mezcal) from the maguey plant, a catchall term for the many species of Mexican agave. Discover hundreds of local labels handcrafted by thousands of small-batch production distilleries in the semi-desert countryside on a tour, or at one of the many mezcalistas around the city.