Make the Most of Five Days in Oaxaca City

Oaxaca is a rising foodie capital
Oaxaca is a rising foodie capital | © Carlos Sánchez Pereyra / Alamy
Photo of Shyal Bhandari
26 May 2020

Oaxaca is a city steeped in history and tradition, with a proud and distinct identity from the rest of Mexico. This five-day itinerary will immerse you in Oaxacan life and leave your taste buds satisfied, as Oaxaca is a food-lover’s paradise.

Day 1: Discover the city’s historic center

Santo Domingo Church is one of Mexico’s finest examples of colonial architecture | | © iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

Upon arriving in Oaxaca, a true foodie capital of the world, it would be a crime to resist the urge to taste some delicious local produce. For breakfast on day one, treat yourself to a traditional hot chocolate and dunk in hunks of fluffy pan de yema (a sweet bread made using egg yolks) at Mayordomo, the golden standard for distinctly Oaxacan-made chocolate. Stroll across to the Templo de Santo Domingo – one of Mexico’s finest examples of colonial architecture. Inside the stunningly decorated Baroque church, you will find that the walls and ceilings are dripping with gold.

See a skull decorated with turquoise from Monte Albán at the museum | | © DeAgostini/Getty Images

Spend the afternoon learning about the city’s history next door, at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. The converted monastery is a beautifully laid-out museum, home to a vast collection of artifacts including an immaculately preserved Mayan jade mask. The library displays copies of some of the oldest books in Latin America, many of which were forbidden to read by the Catholic Church.

Oaxaca has tasty street food for you to enjoy | | © Holgs / iStock

In the evening, take a walk along the bustling pedestrianized street, Calle de la Constitución, where you can try some authentic street food; we recommend esquites (corn taken to the next level, cooked in a broth and served with mayo, cheese, chili powder and lime). For a drink, head a couple of blocks north to Mezcalerita, which is popular with locals and visitors who mingle in the reasonably priced rooftop mezcal bar.

Day 2: Check out Oaxaca’s graphic art scene

Wall murals are an important part of the local culture in Oaxaca | | © Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It is difficult to turn a street corner in downtown Oaxaca City without noticing the impact of the graphic art, or grabado, movement. Since 2006, there has been a boom of Oaxacan printmaking that is often politically motivated and in dialogue with the social realities of the region. On day two, before spending the afternoon hopping from one grabado studio to another, fuel up on some flaky Danish pastries or ripe avocado on sourdough toast at Boulenc, an outstanding bakery-cum-restaurant with a diverse brunch offering.

Hoja Santa Taller supports female ‘grabado’ artists | | © Hoja Santa Taller

Further up on the very same street (Calle Porfirio Díaz) are several studios that include Hoja Santa Taller (a space that promotes the work of female grabado artists) and Taller Artístico Comunitario (a community-driven studio that showcases the printmaking of artists from indigenous communities). Take some time to observe the artists at work and, if you are able to do so, show your support by purchasing anything from a silkscreen-printed T-shirt to an original woodcut print.

After dark, make your way to Tastavins – a dimly lit cozy Spanish wine bar – before ending the night at arguably the city’s best taco truck: El Lechoncito de Oro.

Day 3: Visit the ruins of Monte Albán

Monte Albán is one of Mexico’s most impressive archeological sites | | © Angelika / iStock

Situated only six miles from Oaxaca City is the magnificent Monte Albán, one of Mexico’s most impressive Pre-Hispanic archeological sites. The ancient Zapotec city was built upon an artificially flattened mountain-top around 2,500 years ago. To visit the ruins, we recommend booking your place on a bus tour with a reputable local travel agency (a couple of options are Turismo Santours and El Andador). The buses pick up customers from their hotel or accommodation in the morning and return back to the city center around 5pm. In addition to a guided tour of the site, you will be given around an hour to roam freely amidst the pyramids, temples and palaces.

‘Alebrijes’ sculptures feature fantastical animals | | © Crystal Egan / Alamy

Then, you will be taken to see how local artisans carve and hand paint alebrijes (brightly colored wooden sculptures of fantastical animals) before stopping for a truly Oaxacan buffet lunch where all seven varieties of mole sauces can be sampled alongside handmade tortillas. After lunch, you will be shown how barro negro (black pottery) is made at Doña Rosa’s world-famous workshop before returning to downtown Oaxaca.

‘Chapulines’ (grasshoppers) are a Oaxacan specialty | | © Fitopardo / iStock

Rest up back at the hotel before going out for dinner at refined modern Oaxacan restaurant Zandunga, known for showcasing the bold flavors of the Isthmus region. For a nightcap, walk on over to El Salón de la Fama; the walls of the popular cantina (dive bar) are covered with nostalgic black-and-white photographs from the golden age of Mexican cinema.

Day 4: Explore the city’s legendary markets

Eat and shop your way through Oaxaca’s vibrant markets on day four. But first, stop for a light breakfast of a coffee and a croissant at Muss Café – a chic spot that serves velvety flat whites using locally sourced beans. Cut through the Zócalo (the city’s main gathering place) and meander towards Mercado Benito Juárez. At this large covered market, there is a great variety of crafts, sombreros, fresh produce, spices and traditional sweets on offer. Lose yourself to the sights, smells and sounds while you practice your Spanish with the vendors, and do not miss out on trying a glass of agua de sabor (sweetened water that has been flavored with fresh fruit).

Oaxaca has an abundance of vibrant markets | | © Patrick Escudero / hemis.fr / Alamy

Once you have built up an appetite, cross the street to the Mercado 5 de Noviembre market for some of the most authentic and tastiest food in the city. Follow the smell of grilled steak to an alleyway on the left-hand side that specializes in tasajo: a thinly sliced quality cut of beef cooked over charcoal. Take a seat and order your meat with sides of grilled cactus, onions and chilis. Wash it all down with an ice-cold Mexican lager. After lunch, head towards the artisanal market Mercado de Artesanías. There, typically Oaxacan textiles and hand-embroidered clothing are for sale at reasonable prices.

Oaxaca is known for its textiles | | © Robert Fried / Alamy

At night, venture north to the up-and-coming neighborhood of Reforma. Start off at Cervecería Chapultepec: a buzzing bar that has a full menu of food and drinks at only 21 pesos (US$1) per item. Continue on to Funky Cat bar for live rock music and a decent mezcal list. End the night cutting some shapes on the dance floor at nearby Barezzito.

Day 5: Go for a stroll through Xochimilco

Oaxaca’s picturesque Xochimilco neighborhood is worth visiting | | © Jim West / Alamy

On day five in Oaxaca, spend the morning in the tranquil and picturesque neighborhood of Xochimilco. Grab some breakfast at Café Filemón; they serve thick and fluffy pancakes and mouthwateringly good mermelas (small tortillas topped with refried beans and cheese). Directly opposite the café is the children’s library (El Biblioteca Infantil), which is worth visiting if only to admire the architecture and gardens (entry is free). As you snake your way towards the city center, look out for colorful murals on the exterior walls of Xochimilco’s colonial buildings. Stop off at the organic farmers market La Cosecha, where they sell natural skincare products, handmade jewelry, pottery and much more. Try the traditional low-alcohol drinks made from fermented agave such as aguamiel and pulque.

In the afternoon, pay a quick visit to the Museo de Sitio Casa de Juárez, the house of a bookbinder where the national hero and former president of Mexico Benito Juárez lived while he studied in the priesthood. The museum is a little time capsule that will catapult you back to Oaxaca City in the 19th century. Then, stop by the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños: a wonderful art museum that showcases the work of Oaxaca’s most preeminent artists including Francisco Toledo and Rufino Tamayo. Go for a late lunch at Caldo de Piedra, a casual Pre-Hispanic downtown restaurant that takes its name from its signature dish: a super fragrant and fresh fish and giant-shrimp soup cooked with the heat of log-fired rocks.

Mezcal is one of Mexico’s traditional spirits | | © Indigoai / iStock

If you have some time to spare before leaving the city, spend the early evening doing some last-minute shopping around the Templo de Santo Domingo. Don’t regret never picking up that bottle of mezcal, that slab of chocolate for drinking, or that grabado print that caught your eye.