Oaxaca, a cultural and culinary gem in southern Mexico, is celebrated for its rich indigenous heritage, colorful festivals, and artisanal crafts. For those pondering things to do in Oaxaca, wandering through the vibrant markets of Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre, where the scents of mole and freshly baked tlayudas fill the air, and exploring the historic Oaxaca Cathedral and Santo Domingo Temple, both architectural marvels, are top activities.
The city’s Monte Albán, a UNESCO World Heritage site, offers a glimpse into the ancient Zapotec civilization with its impressive ruins and panoramic views. Nearby, the Hierve el Agua, a set of natural rock formations resembling cascades of water, provides a unique and picturesque landscape.
Beyond its urban and historical attractions, Oaxaca is renowned for its traditional celebrations like the Day of the Dead and Guelaguetza festival. Oaxaca’s blend of indigenous traditions, colonial architecture, and natural wonders makes it a captivating destination for those seeking the best places to visit in Mexico.
Table of Contents
Attractions & Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico
1. Monte Albán
Once the ancient capital of the Zapotec civilization, Monte Albán is an archeological site that overlooks the Oaxaca Valley. The ruins, including temples, tombs, and plazas, showcase this Mesoamerican culture’s rich history and architecture. It’s a window into the past, where one can immerse themselves in the region’s evolution over centuries.
Travel Tip: Wear comfortable shoes and bring a hat or umbrella for shade, as there’s a lot of walking in the open sun.
2. Oaxaca’s Zócalo (Main Square)
At the heart of Oaxaca City lies the Zócalo, a bustling square surrounded by restaurants, cafes, and shops. Here, locals and tourists gather to enjoy live music, savor Oaxacan cuisine, or watch the world go by under the shade of laurel trees.
Travel Tip: Visit in the early evening when the square comes alive with music and dancing. It’s a perfect spot to enjoy a local mezcal or hot chocolate.
3. Hierve el Agua
Translating to “The Water Boils,” Hierve el Agua is a set of natural rock formations that resemble cascading waterfalls. These “petrified” falls sit atop cliffs, offering breathtaking panoramic views of the mountains and valleys. The mineral-rich springs here are also believed to have therapeutic properties.
Travel Tip: Don’t forget your swimsuit. There are natural pools at the top where you can dip and enjoy the vista.
4. Santo Domingo Temple
This colonial-era temple is one of Oaxaca’s most iconic landmarks. Featuring stunning baroque architecture, the church, and adjoining ex-convent house, the Oaxaca Cultural Center, which includes the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures – a treasure trove of regional artifacts and history.
Travel Tip: Allocate at least two hours for a visit, especially if you plan to explore the museum. Photography inside the church might be restricted, so always check beforehand.
5. Benito Juárez Market
Named after one of Mexico’s beloved presidents, Benito Juárez Market is a maze of stalls selling everything from fresh produce to handcrafted textiles. Dive into the vibrant atmosphere, and you’ll find a sensory overload of colors, scents, and flavors unique to Oaxaca.
Travel Tip: This is a great place to buy souvenirs, especially locally-made chocolates and mole pastes. Remember to haggle politely for a better deal.
6. Ethnobotanical Garden
Situated beside the Santo Domingo Temple, the Ethnobotanical Garden showcases the diverse plant life of Oaxaca. Guided tours offer insights into how indigenous communities have used these plants over the centuries, from medicinal applications to building materials.
Travel Tip: Tours are often the only way to access the garden, so check the schedule beforehand. And don’t forget to wear a hat or sunscreen as some parts of the garden can be pretty sunny.
7. Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule)
Located in the town of Santa María del Tule, the Tule Tree is one of the most giant trees in the world by trunk girth. This Montezuma cypress is over 2,000 years old and holds a special place in local folklore and history. Its sheer size and unique shape, with many protruding limbs, make it a natural wonder.
Travel Tip: The town is charming, so plan to explore the local eateries and craft shops after visiting the tree.
8. Oaxacan Textile Museum (Museo Textil de Oaxaca)
Dedicated to the diverse and intricate textiles of the region, this museum offers a deep dive into the art of weaving. With displays ranging from contemporary designs to centuries-old pieces, visitors gain an appreciation for the skill and tradition of Oaxacan weavers.
Travel Tip: The museum regularly hosts workshops and demonstrations. If you’re interested, inquire ahead of time to participate and learn the basics of weaving.
9. Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca
A verdant oasis in the city’s heart, the Jardín Etnobotánico is an ethnobotanical garden showcasing the vast array of plants native to Oaxaca and their importance in local culture and history. The garden offers a serene space to learn and relax, from medicinal plants to traditional dyes.
Travel Tip: Attend one of the guided tours in English; it will provide a deeper understanding of the region’s plant life and significance.
10. Oaxacan Nightlife at Callejón del Diamante
A narrow alleyway lined with bars, mezcalerías, and live music venues, Callejón del Diamante, is the heartbeat of Oaxaca’s nightlife. From traditional mariachi bands to contemporary tunes, there’s something for everyone.
Travel Tip: While Oaxaca is known for its mezcal, always drink responsibly and ensure you can safely return to your accommodation.
11. Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO)
Situated in a beautiful colonial mansion, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO) offers a diverse collection of modern and contemporary works from Mexican and international artists. The rotating exhibitions ensure there’s always something new and intriguing to explore.
Travel Tip: After visiting the museum, stroll in the surrounding historic district to appreciate Oaxaca’s blend of old and new.
12. San Bartolo Coyotepec
Famous for its unique black pottery known as “barro negro,” San Bartolo Coyotepec is a small town just south of Oaxaca City. Here, you can witness artisans crafting intricate designs using age-old techniques passed down through generations.
Travel Tip: Many workshops allow visitors to try their hand at pottery-making. It’s a unique opportunity to create a personal keepsake from your trip.
Second only to Monte Albán in terms of archaeological significance in Oaxaca, Mitla is renowned for its intricate geometric mosaics. These ruins were a religious center for the Zapotecs and later the Mixtecs, with temples and tombs that have stood for centuries.
Travel Tip: While less crowded than Monte Albán, visiting Mitla in the early morning or late afternoon will offer a more peaceful experience and better light for photography.
14. Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Another bustling market in Oaxaca, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, is particularly famous for its food stalls. Dive into a world of tantalizing aromas and flavors, from tlayudas and empanadas to sweet churros and Oaxacan chocolate.
Travel Tip: Venture into the “pasillo de carnes asadas,” or grilled meat corridor, where you can choose fresh meats to be grilled right before you, paired with freshly made tortillas and salsas.
15. Teotitlán del Valle
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Juarez mountains, Teotitlán del Valle is a traditional Zapotec weaving village. Renowned for its hand-woven rugs and textiles dyed with natural ingredients like indigo and cochineal, it offers an authentic glimpse into Oaxacan crafts.
Travel Tip: If you’re purchasing textiles, ask about the dyeing process. Rugs made using natural dyes are more valuable and long-lasting than synthetic ones.
16. Mezcal Tasting Tours
Oaxaca is the birthplace of mezcal, the smoky agave-based spirit. Numerous local distilleries, or “palenques,” offer tours where you can learn about the production process and, more importantly, sample the various types of this beloved drink.
Travel Tip: Always pace yourself during tastings and ensure you’ve eaten beforehand. And remember, while all tequilas are mezcals, not all mezcals are tequilas. Ask your guide to explain the difference!
FAQ About Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico
What is Oaxaca best known for?
Oaxaca is renowned for its rich indigenous culture, colonial architecture, vibrant arts scene, and world-famous cuisine, especially mole sauces and mezcal.
Are there any UNESCO World Heritage sites in Oaxaca?
Yes, the Historic Centre of Oaxaca and the Archaeological Site of Monte Albán are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Monte Albán was once the ancient capital of the Zapotec civilization.
What local dishes should I try in Oaxaca?
Oaxaca is a gastronomic paradise. You should try dishes like “mole negro,” “tlayudas,” “chapulines” (fried grasshoppers), and “quesillo” (Oaxacan string cheese). Don’t forget to sample some local mezcal!
Are there any traditional markets to explore in Oaxaca?
Absolutely! The Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre are two of the most popular markets in Oaxaca City, where you can find local crafts, food, and traditional products.
Can I learn about indigenous cultures in Oaxaca?
Yes, Oaxaca is home to 16 different indigenous groups. The Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca offers insights into the region’s diverse cultures. Additionally, visiting local villages and participating in community-based tourism can provide a deeper understanding.
Is Oaxaca a good place for handicraft shopping?
Definitely! Oaxaca is famous for its hand-woven textiles, black pottery, and intricate wood carvings known as “alebrijes.” The town of Teotitlán del Valle is mainly known for its traditional weaving.
Are there any natural attractions near Oaxaca?
Yes, the Hierve el Agua petrified waterfalls are a must-visit. These natural rock formations resemble cascading waterfalls and offer breathtaking views. The area also has natural mineral springs where you can take a dip.
Is it safe to explore Oaxaca’s nightlife?
Oaxaca has a lively nightlife with numerous bars, mezcalerías, and cultural events. While it’s generally safe, as with any destination, staying aware of your surroundings and avoiding poorly lit areas is essential.