The Best Things to See and Do in Oaxaca City, Mexico

The Monte Alban archaeological site makes for a great day trip from Oaxaca City
The Monte Alban archaeological site makes for a great day trip from Oaxaca City | © Ovidiu Hrubaru / Alamy Stock Photo

From sampling smoky mezcal to trying out a steamy temazcal sauna, the vibrant Mexican city of Oaxaca sets up all sorts of adventures.

The southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is an enchanting mix of world-class beaches, Unesco-listed wonders and delicious cuisine. The jewel in its crown is the state capital of Oaxaca City, as rich in color as it is culture with a self-aware sophistication that belies its gritty underbelly.

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Immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of a market

There’s no way better to understand the essence of a place than visiting its markets – nowhere more so than in Oaxaca City. For a deep dive into its extraordinary gastronomy, Mercado 20 de Noviembre and Mercado Benito Juárez both offer a wonderful assault on the senses. For a mellower introduction, the Mercado de la Merced is smaller and less chaotic. If you’re still hungry to get lost among hundreds of stalls, Mercado de Abastos is a vast – and for some overwhelming – everything market on the edge of town.

Pick up a piece of colorful craftwork at Aripo

Almost as much as its food, Oaxaca is famed for its rich craft heritage. For guaranteed quality pieces by local artists, head to the Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Artesanías (also known as Aripo). It’s as much a cultural center as an arts and craft store where you can browse work from all over Oaxaca state – from embroidered fabrics to earthenware. They host regular workshops – and everything you buy helps support the artistic community.

Explore the region’s abundance of plant species all in one place

Oaxaca’s wealth of flora has been curated and concentrated into the fabulous Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. You can stroll through a collection of almost a thousand plant species in this beautifully laid-out botanical garden, each native to the state from its cold mountains to humid tropics. It’s set in the serene grounds of an old convent and also dotted with pieces of contemporary sculpture. Guided tours take around an hour and are available in English.

Discover the region’s history and ancient treasures

If you have time after visiting the botanical gardens, the adjoining Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is more than worth a look-in. As well as being a fine piece of Baroque architecture with flamboyantly gilded interiors, it’s home to the region’s most important museum. It traces the region’s history from pre-Hispanic times through the colonial period over 23 rooms. The museum’s showstopper is the collection of burial treasures found in Monte Albán’s most famous Tomb 7.

Try on this superb textile museum on for size

You don’t need to be particularly interested in threads to enjoy this excellent Museo Textil de Oaxaca exploring the history and traditions of Oaxacan dress and beyond. Thousands of pieces are spread between nine permanent exhibitions, displaying local, regional and national cloth and clothing, much of it well over a hundred years old. To get more out of the experience you can arrange a one-hour guided tour in your language. There’s also an excellent crafts shop onsite if you fancy picking up a souvenir.

Join the locals in the laid-back bustle of the city’s main plaza

Heading to the zócalo (main square) when the day cools to stroll, sit and shoot the breeze is a national pastime among Mexicans – and Oaxacans are no different. Set in the city’s historic center, its official name is La Plaza de la Constitución and is the perfect spot to soak up the city’s inimitable atmosphere. Together with neighboring Alameda de León park, it hosts regular markets and lively events, too. Step into the adjacent cathedral to cool off under ornate vaulted ceilings and baroque treasures.

Travel back in time to the Zapotec city of Monte Albán

Before the Spanish arrived, the region was dominated by the Zapotec civilization, who mostly left their mark in the form of abandoned cities and ceremonial centers. Set on the leveled-off mountaintop just outside the city, Monte Albán is the must-see Zapotec site combining exemplary Zapotec architecture with superb panoramic vistas. Located just outside the Monte Albán Archeological Zone is also a museum that charts the history of these ancient people through an impressive collection of objects, artworks – and human remains.

Sip and sample some of the state’s smoky spirit

It would be a shame to visit Oaxaca and not sample some of its most famous fiery tipple. There are numerous mezcalerías (bars specializing in mezcal) where you can opt for either a casual drink or more formal tasting session. Either way, you’re likely to encounter bartenders who know the spirit inside-out, so don’t be shy in asking questions. If straight liquor is not your thing, a mezcal margarita is a deliciously smoky take on the original.

Detox and de-stress in an ancient sweat lodge

If you’ve overdone it on the mezcal the night before, the fastest way to feel better is with a temazcal. This traditional Mesoamerican version of the sauna used to be part of a curative ceremony, and is still a great way to cleanse and detox. Like a sauna, water is poured over heated stones together with seasonal herbs and fruits. The Ceviarem Temazcal – just out of town – is one of the best places to give it a go.

There are plenty of reasons to visit Oaxaca; inspire your itinerary with the best things to see in Oaxaca state, and don’t miss the best restaurants in Oaxaca City.

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