10 Top Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico

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From the moment I first arrived, Oaxaca held a special place in my heart. Its energy and mine just synched. I’ve only grown to love the destination more with each subsequent visit. I even ran tours there.

Matt Kepnes standing next to a mural in Oaxaca, Mexico
Matthew Kepnes in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a city of colorful buildings, scenic rooftop restaurants and bars, ornate murals and street art, historic colonial churches, and picturesque parks. It’s also one of the gastronomic centers of Mexico and a hub for mezcal. 

As you plan your own visit to Oaxaca, this travel guide will help you see the best sites, do the best activities, and eat at the best restaurants.

Things to Do in Oaxaca

1. Wander the historic downtown

People walking down a street in Oaxaca, Mexico surrounded by buildings
Explore on foot

This is the perfect place to explore iconic landmarks like the Zócalo (the plaza in front of the National Palace), the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, and the Santo Domingo Cultural Center.

Spend some time wandering to take in the vibrant colors and historic architecture of all the buildings.

2. Explore Mercado 20 de Noviembre

This covered market, one of the biggest in town, is home to all kinds of delicious street food as well as local produce. Be sure to try some of the amazing grilled meats here (a local favorite).

3. See Monte Albán

View of a sunset from a stone steps
View from Monte Albán

The pre-Columbian UNESCO World Heritage Site of Monte Albán, located just 15-minutes outside Oaxaca city, was founded in the sixth century BCE.

The must-see historical and archaeological attraction is one of the top places to visit in Oaxaca and full of ancient Zapotec pyramids that span several miles. Be sure to get a guide, since there’s not any signage here. 

4. Try a street-stall hamberguesa

The hamberguesa is a delicious, must-eat meal here. I know it’s weird to suggest “eating a hamburger,” but this a quintessential Oaxacan invention (meaning it’s not made for tourists) and is more than just a burger.

It’s a burger topped with a hot dog, sliced cheese, Oaxaca cheese, ham, pineapple, lettuce, tomato, and jalapeño! Cangreburguer near Santo Domingo sells one of the best.

5. Learn about Mezcal

Oaxaca is the main center of mezcal production in the world. If you want to learn more about this popular drink, Rambling Spirits runs the best tours in Oaxaca. Its guides have deep knowledge and good connections, so they can take you to places the bigger tours can’t. 

Additionally, you can pop into one of the many Mezcalerías in town to learn more. My favorites are Los Amantes Mezcalería, Mezcalogia, Tres Hermanas, Mezcalería In Situ, and Comere.

6. See the Templo de Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo cathedral behind agave palnts in Oaxaca, Mexico
Templo de Santo Domingo. Image by depositphotos.com

This Baroque Roman Catholic church was started in 1572, though it wasn’t completed until 1731. Originally used as a Dominican church and monastery, Temple de Santo Domingo was transformed into a museum in the 1970s.

It is now home to all kinds of religious and pre-Columbian artifacts, including famous ones from Tomb 7, which had the most intact Zapotec artifacts ever found. It is one of the best attractions in Oaxaca. You’ll learn a lot. 

7. Wander the Botanical Garden

View of the ethnobotanical garden in Oaxaca, Mexico
Ethnobotanical garden. Image by depositphotos.com

These gardens span over two acres and feature plants from across the state (Oaxaca is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the country).

Self-guided tours are not allowed, so you’ll need to go with a guide. There is only one English tour available per day, so get there early as it is first come, first served.

8. Take a food tour

One of the best ways to get a sense of the local food scene is to take a guided food tour. I highly recommend doing one here since Oaxaca is such a center for gastronomy, with one of the most diverse selections of dishes in Mexico.

Oaxaca Eats runs several tours; you’ll get to sample 20+ dishes depending on the tour. I like its tours the best, because they go to some unique spots.

 9. Meander the Sunday market

Mercado Tlacolula is one of the most popular markets in the region. It’s essentially been in operation for centuries and is a good place to buy local crafts, produce, food, and everything in between.

It’s located 45-minutes outside town, so you’ll need to drive there or take the bus, but it’s absolutely worth the journey. 

10. Celebrate Day of the Dead

Man and woman dressed up with face paintings for a festival in Mexico
Popular holiday in Mexico. Image by depositphotos.com

Día de Los Muertos is a big celebration in Mexico. Locals paint their faces, visit cemeteries, and give offerings to honor the dead.

Oaxaca hosts one of the biggest festivals in the country, and there are tons of events and parades throughout. It’s an incredible experience. 

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is considered one of the gastronomic centers of Mexico. There’s a lot of incredible food here. Here are some of my favorite restaurants: 

  • Los Danzantes – This is the best restaurant in all of Oaxaca, serving a modern take on Oaxacan food in a beautiful courtyard. You have to eat here. Try the tuna tostados and the mole platter. 
  • Las Quince Letras – A traditional Oaxacan restaurant serving incredible mole. 
  • Casa Taviche – This restaurant changes its menu depending on what is in season, but it’s consistently good food. 
  • Boulenc – A bakery and brunch spot with excellent breads, pizzas, and sandwiches. Get there early, because there is always a line. 
  • Taquería El Padrino – This food truck in El Llano Park has some of the best tacos in town. 
  • Tastavins – This inexpensive place serves cheap tapas and Italian food along with great wine. The more wine you drink, the bigger your tapas get. It’s got a good vibe and is really popular.

In summary

Cobblestone street with colorful flags hanging above it
Jalatlaco, Oaxaca’s artsy neighborhood

Oaxaca is an incredible destination. It’s a vibrant place and full of life, like street parades and vendors and music in the park every day of the week. If you love food, history, and mezcal, then you have to visit. Even if you don’t, a journey here will make you love all three. 

For the best places to stay in Oaxaca, check out this post on the best hostels in Oaxaca if you’re looking for somewhere cheap.

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