Your Ultimate Travel Guide to Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico 2021

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
The colorful Calle Macedonio Alcalá, a pedestrian-dedicated stretch in historic Oaxaca Centro / photo by @travelinglamas

Your ultimate guide to the best things to do, eat and see in magical Oaxaca City.


When thinking about Oaxaca, a few words immediately come to mind: magical, colorful, cultural, historic…FOOD. Words that come to life the second you step foot in the eponymous capital of Mexico’s Oaxaca state, and words that we experienced (and then some!) during our recent extended stay in a city that effectively charmed us – and still has our hearts.

Sharing its indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec roots with colonial influences and modern-day sensibilities, today’s Oaxaca City (officially, Oaxaca de Juárez) presents as a vibrant, historic hub that remains distinctly and authentically Mexican. It’s a city known for friendly locals, colorful architecture, storied churches and plazas, UNESCO-protected archaeological sites, a thriving arts scene, arguably the best gastronomy in the country and of course, a smoky agave spirit you might have heard of called mezcal.

Here, we’ve prepared your ultimate guide to the best things to do, eat and see in Oaxaca City right now (2021), covering everything from restaurants to street food, mercados to mezcal bars, historic sights to archaeological sites and the best hotels for post-exploration R&R.

[Related: Your Ultimate Travel Guide to Mérida, Yucatán, the “Best Small City in the World” According to Condé Nast Traveler]

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Stairs leading out of Plaza de la Danza, Oaxaca / photo by @travelinglamas

BUT FIRST – LET’S TALK COVID

Within the current climate of the Covid-19 pandemic, Oaxaca City is now open and welcoming visitors. Hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, mercados and more businesses are open with Covid safety measures in place, including but not limited to: mandatory temperature checks and hand sanitizer and/or hand washing upon entry, in addition to capacity limitations, required mask wearing and social distancing. Indoor dining is allowed. While many businesses are open please be aware that many of the cultural activities, festivities and performances that make Oaxaca, well, Oaxaca, are not happening. Some popular destinations in and around the city including the Jardín Etnobótanico (Botanical Garden), Museo de las Culturas (Culture Museum) and famed Hierve el Agua remain closed. If you wish to have the full Oaxaca experience, waiting to visit is your best move. Otherwise Oaxaca still has an incredible amount to offer and enjoy, responsibly.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
A historic building on Avenida José María Morelos, Oaxaca Centro / photo by @travelinglamas

If you do choose to visit now, please be considerate of not only your health but the health of those around you. Practice social distancing. Wear a mask. Mask wearing is not only a courtesy but expected when walking anywhere outdoors or indoors. Support small businesses, street stalls and local vendors and tour guides. The pandemic has had a profound impact on the local economy which will greatly appreciate your support. If you choose to visit Oaxaca now, please visit conscientiously and responsibly.

Important note: all states in Mexico are currently operating on a stoplight system (red –> orange –> yellow –> green) which updates every other week. As of time of publishing (third week in January), Oaxaca is in orange. For up-to-date information on Covid-19 in Oaxaca, please visit the state’s government website here.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
A Catrina dressed up for Día de Muertos in front of Templo Santo Domingo / photo by @travelinglamas

[Related: LA CATRINA: Mexico’s Grande Dame of Death]

AND A FEW FAST FACTS

Wifi: Is available and plentiful all throughout Oaxaca Centro, and most businesses have free wifi that you can connect to. Cell service and data are prevalent in Centro as well (I had great reception on my U.S. SIM card as did Alberto on his Mexican SIM card), although be prepared for this to dwindle the further out into the valleys and of course, mountains, you go.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Pretty, palm-lined Avenida Gurrión in Oaxaca Centro / photo by @travelinglamas

Money: Most businesses accept both cash (Mexican pesos) and major credit cards, although cash is king when it comes to street stalls, mercados and smaller shops and vendors. Luckily there are plenty of banks with ATMs for withdrawing pesos in Oaxaca City, including international banks such as HSBC.

TIP: When withdrawing pesos from any ATM, a screen will pop up towards the end asking if you want to “accept the conversion rate.” Always hit DECLINE. ATMs exist to make money, and without fail will always give you a WORSE exchange rate than your bank will. Depending on how much you’re taking out, you could be losing anywhere from $10 – $100+ USD by accepting the ATM’s exchange rate – so don’t do it!

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Avenida de la Independencia with a view of the storied Teatro Macedonio Alcalá / photo by @travelinglamas

Getting oriented: Oaxaca City centers around historic Centro, where you will likely be spending most of your time. Just north of Centro is the residential district of Reforma, where you’ll find a vast range of excellent restaurants, beautiful hotels and charming streets perfect for strolling. Northeast of Centro you’ll find Jalatlaco, a hip, laid back neighborhood known for street art, plenty of coffee shops, family-run eateries and an emerging hostel and hotel scene.

Directly northwest of Centro you’ll find a lengthy staircase leading up a large hill (called the Cerro del Fortín) to the Guelaguetza Auditorium, site of the famed, annual cultural event La Guelaguetza. Here you’ll find a number of epic viewpoints of the city below, or keep climbing past the Auditorium and further into the hill for a series of challenging running and hiking trails.

Venture within an hour radius of Centro (in just about any direction) and you’ll find plenty of day trip destinations ranging from archaeological sites and artisan villages to mezcal distilleries and sprawling mercados, mountain hikes to further eco-tourism activities.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Views from Cerro del Fortín / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
A view of the city at dusk from Oaxaca’s Cerro del Fortín / photo by @travelinglamas

Getting around: One of the many things we love about Oaxaca is how compact and easy to navigate the city is. Almost everything you’ll want to see and do is conveniently located in and around Centro, easily covered on foot, local taxi or Didi – Oaxaca’s answer to Uber for quick, safe and inexpensive rides. Make sure to download the Didi app on your phone prior to your arrival in Oaxaca! For day trips or overnights further out into the valleys, you can either go with a tour guide or DIY it with a car rental. We found car rentals plentiful and affordable in Centro, although were most impressed with the seamless and friendly service from Silvers Car Rental. They’re conveniently located right in the middle of Centro and even offer one-way drops to their Huatulco and Puerto Escondido locations for those (like us!) considering a road trip to the coast.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
The stunning and historic Templo & Ex-Convento San José at sunrise / photo by @travelinglamas

Safety: Oaxaca is among the safest states in Mexico, with a very low crime rate. We never once felt unsafe in Oaxaca in any way, even when walking late at night on empty, dark streets. That said – petty crime, pickpocketing and opportunists do exist. Use the same vigilance you use with any kind of travel in staying alert and aware of your belongings and surroundings, at all times. Please be aware that while Oaxaca is one of the safest states in Mexico, it is also one of the poorest states. Don’t be surprised to be approached throughout your trip by street vendors, beggars and even children who, while harmless, can be persistent. This is especially common in areas frequented by tourists such as Templo Santo Domingo, the Alcalá and the Zócalo. In regards to children especially, before you’re tempted to give a few pesos or purchase one of the woven bracelets they are oftentimes selling, please consider the vicious cycle being perpetuated when a child returns from the day successful – however harmless your intention.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamasS IN OAXACA 
A “catrina” stands in Oaxaca Centro for Día de Muertos / photo by @travelinglamas

Travel Insurance: Whenever, and wherever, you might be traveling, travel insurance is always a good idea. We personally love SafetyWing for their transparent, easy to understand and thorough coverage starting at just $40.00 USD/month. Their two-tier coverage offers medical benefits in the event of an accident or illness while abroad, in addition to travel benefits such as compensation for delayed trips and lost luggage. Plus, all new SafetyWing policies automatically include COVID-19 coverage. Please note testing for COVID-19 is not covered unless deemed medically necessary by a physician. This means pre-flight tests do not count, nor do antibody tests. Find out everything you need to know about SafetyWing travel insurance, here



WHERE TO STAY / BEST HOTELS IN OAXACA 

Where to Stay in Oaxaca City: The Best Boutique Hotels in Oaxaca City to Check Into Now (December 2020) / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Hotel Sin Nombre, one of Oaxaca’s newest and best boutique hotels / photo by @travelinglamas

[Related: 11 Best Boutique Hotels in Oaxaca City to Stay in NOW]

HOTEL SIN NOMBRE 

What’s in a name? That’s the question at the root of the newest addition to Oaxaca’s design hotel scene: Hotel Sin Nombre (“hotel without name”). Housed within the walls of an unassuming exterior just steps from the busy Zócalo, this stunning oasis acts as a calming escape not only from the hustle and bustle of the city, but of society’s ever-present commercialization. Here, minimalist design presents itself as a label-free, blank slate – encouraging guests to fill in the rest. The 17th-century building was formerly a liquor distillery, uniquely fitting as owner and artist Elliott Coon is also the co-founder of artisanal mezcal brand Gem & Bolt. The only label you’ll find at Hotel Sin Nombre, and worthy of a pass. 😉 The building was carefully restored by architect João Boto Caeiro, who together with Coon reimagined and redesigned the space into Hotel Sin Nombre. Reminiscent of a Moroccan riad with a distinct Mexican foundation, 22 tranquil rooms are further complemented by a rooftop terrace with pool, a small library “hidden” underneath a staircase, a sunlit central courtyard and plenty of further nooks and crannies to get lost in. The on-site restaurant serves up haute Oaxaca-vegan fare from Chef Israel Loyola, which you can pair with expertly crafted mezcal cocktails from the beautiful backlit bar.

Find & follow Hotel Sin Nombre: Web / IG / Maps

HOTEL AZUL

Opened in 2010, this design-focused hotel masterfully celebrates both colonial style and modern day minimalism. Upon entering Hotel Azul you’ll find yourself in a carefully restored, 17-century building committed to preserving its historic roots. Keep walking through the colonial-style courtyard and you’ll soon emerge into a modern, minimalist oasis lined with tall San Pedro cacti and featuring a focal fountain wall designed by renowned Mexican artist Francisco Toledo. Twenty-one rooms in total are housed between the two facades, including five signature suites each designed by, and named after, a different Mexican artist – including the aforementioned Toledo. Hotel Azul is further complemented by a library and business center, cinema room, chapel, art gallery and shop, on-site restaurant (including a beautiful private dining room) and rooftop bar and terrace with impressive views of the city – and mezcal cocktails to match.

Find & follow Hotel Azul: Web / IG / Maps

CASA DE LAS BUGAMBILIAS

Ideally located just steps from Templo Santo Domingo, this family-run boutique hotel (previously their own private residence) has been charming guests since the 1990s. Standing the test of time for good reason, Casa de las Bugambilias exudes Oaxaca from every corner – be it the colorful colonial exterior, delightful courtyard or 10 thoughtfully appointed rooms complete with local folk art and antique furnishings. We also love their spacious communal lounge complete with library and desk space for working on-the-go. Enjoy complimentary breakfast in the on-site dining room, and later head next door to sister restaurant La Olla for evening cocktails (and views!) on the rooftop terrace.

Find & follow Casa de las Bugambilias: Web / IG / Maps

EL DIABLO Y LA SANDÍA – BOCA DEL MONTE

With a name like El Diablo y La Sandía (The Devil & the Watermelon) you know you’re in for a fun and eclectic stay! Counting two locations, Boca del Monte (literally translating to “mouth of the mountain”) is located on a quiet cobblestone street at the foot of Oaxaca’s Cerro Del Fortín hill – home to the famed Guelaguetza Auditorium and plenty of epic views. This 8-room boutique hotel exudes authentic Oaxacan charm with plenty of quirky touches, seen throughout a beautiful interior courtyard, elevated terrace, large communal kitchen (where complimentary breakfast is lovingly prepared), and honor bar waiting with local libations to kick start, or end, your night. Quaint yet spacious rooms await with antique furnishings, exposed wooden beams and plenty of colorful, authentic accents. The best part? The property’s lovely and welcoming owner, Maria, who will go out of her way to ensure you have an excellent stay.

Find & follow El Diablo y La Sandía: Web / IG / Maps

CASA DE ARTE

A relative newcomer on the scene, Casa de Arte opened it’s doors in early 2020 as part boutique hotel, part art gallery and part restaurant and bar. The property is located an approx 15-minute walk from Centro in the neighborhood of Reforma, leaving you close enough to the action without being in the thick of it. Seven stylishly appointed rooms feature rotating works from local, contemporary artists, in addition to locally-produced, natural wood furnishings. This explains why each room is thoughtfully named after a regional tree, like the Madimbo Room pictured above. You can further catch up on some R&R poolside in the pretty back patio and later, head to the on-site Mixtú restaurant for inventive Oaxacan cuisine and mezcal cocktails.

Find & follow Casa de Arte: Web / IG / Maps

WHERE (& WHAT) TO EAT / BEST STREET FOOD IN OAXACA

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Tacos Del Carmen Street Food / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Street food goals at Tacos Del Carmen in Oaxaca Centro / photo by @travelinglamas

TACOS DEL CARMEN

To say Alberto & I were obsessed with the chorizo tacos from this place is an understatement. Possibly our favorite street food spot in all of Oaxaca, head to this mecca of deliciousness for truly authentic, to-die-for tacos. Served rolled – similar in appearance to flautas – tacos here are cooked to perfection on the wood-fired comal (a large, smooth, round griddle you’ll see everywhere in Oaxaca), stuffed with your choice of fillings ranging from chorizo to chile relleno to quesillo (a delicious, salty, stringy cheese) & hoja santa. The latter, which you’ll also see written as hierba santa, is known in English as Mexican peppermint or root beer plant. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly this flavorful herb tastes like, but imagination notes of anise, eucalyptus, sassafras and mint and you’ll come close. It’s delicious and should basically be eaten with anything and everything. Open daytime only, head to Tacos Del Carmen to load up on a serious morning or mid-day street feast.

Find & follow Tacos Del Carmen: Web / IG / Maps

EMPANADAS DEL CARMEN

If you’ve seen Netflix’s Street Food Latin America: Oaxaca episode, than you’re already familiar with this street gem that happens to be located right next to the above mentioned Tacos Del Carmen. Don’t worry about having to choose between one or the other at the same time though – while Tacos Del Carmen reigns supreme during the day, Empanadas Del Carmen opens, and takes center stage, at night (open from 5pm). As the name suggests, come here to try Oaxaca’s famed empanadas. Not the puffy, flaky, pastry-style empanadas that you might be thinking of. In Oaxaca, empanadas are made with a large, thin and flat tortilla on the comal, folded in half for a resulting appearance similar to that of a quesadilla. The most common empanada you’ll see offered is made with mole amarillo (a “yellow” mole sauce that’s actually closer to orange or even red in appearance), pollo (chicken) and hoja santa.

At Empanadas Del Carmen, you can try empanadas amarillos as well as empanadas verdes (green mole sauce), in addition to other delicious antojitos (literally, “little cravings”) like quesadillas con quesillo y flor de calabaza (quesadillas with quesillo cheese and pumpkin flower) and tacquitos de costilla (fried tacos with pork ribs).

Find & follow Empanadas Del Carmen: Web / IG / Maps

MERCADO 20 DE NOVIEMBRE / PASILLO DE CARNES ASADAS (GRILLED MEAT HALL)

Calling all carnivores: get ready for a feast! Head to the famed Pasillo de Humo (literally, “hall of smoke”) at Mercado 20 de Noviembre for carne asada (grilled meat) at its finest. Fittingly, this place is also referred to as the Pasillo de Carnes Asadas. It’s an experience that’s just as hectic, unique and unforgettable as it is delicious, and a total must while in Oaxaca to try regional takes on grilled meats such as tasajo (beef) and cecina (spicy pork). Such a must that we have your step-by-step guide on mastering the hall like a pro, here!

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Visiting (& Mastering!) Oaxaca’s Famed Grilled Meat Hall

MEMELAS SAN AGUSTÍN

Have you even been to Oaxaca if you haven’t eaten a memela? Offered at numerous places throughout the city, we preferred ours at Memelas San Agustín: a street stall located just two blocks from the Zócalo. A popular antojito and especially for breakfast, a memela is essentially a slightly thicker and larger version of a corn tortilla, either oval or round in shape, heated on a comal with asiento (pork lard). This leaves the edges slightly crispy while remaining tender in the middle. The simplest memela, a memela sencilla, is traditionally topped with frijoles (refried beans), queso fresco (a crumbly cheese) and salsa. There are all manners of variations of course, and additional toppings may include chorizo, tasajo, quesillo, champiñones (mushrooms), nopales (cactus) and more.

Find Memelas San Agustín: Maps

TLAYUDAS EL NEGRO

Another must-eat ubiquitous with Oaxaca, tlayudas can be loosely referenced as a super thin crust, Mexican-style pizza. We’ve seen them served two ways: open-faced, on an oversized, round, crispy and very thin tortilla, or folded in half similar to a quesadilla. Either way, tlayudas are typically spread with a layer of frijol (beans) then topped with any number of options ranging from tasajo, cecina and chorizo to quesillo, nopales and chapulínes (fried grasshoppers), oftentimes with sliced avocado and tomato as well. Tlayudas are so large that one is typically sufficient to feed two people! Tlayudas El Negro counts three locations: one in Centro just south of Plaza de la Danza (follow the sounds of the live marimba band they oftentimes have playing at this location) and two just east of Centro.

Find & follow Tlayudas El Negro: Web / IG / Maps

TAMALES MINA

While you can find tamales all over Mexico, tamales oaxaqueños are slightly different in that the corn masa treat is wrapped and steamed in banana leaves instead of corn husks – which we feel leaves the texture slightly more dense and moist vs. the other. The most traditional tamal oaxaqueño here comes stuffed with mole negro and shredded chicken, which we loved getting at Tamales Mina: a modest street cart located right next to the Zócalo. There they sell this kind as Mole en Plátano, which you can wash down with a cup of champurrado (a delicious hot chocolate drink thickened with corn flour). They also offer a number of husk wrapped tamales, of which we’re fans of the Mole Amarillo and Salsa Verde. Opening nightly around 7:30pm, best to arrive on the earlier side – lines are known to form and they can sell out!

Find Tamales Mina on Miguel Hidalgo at the corner of Calle 20 de Noviembre (between 20 de Noviembre and the Zócalo). TIP: Don’t use Google Maps to find this place. It will give you a slightly off location that says they’re permanently closed.

EL POCITO

One of the more unique things we ate while in Oaxaca were piedrazos. This local street dish starts with a piece of hard bread dunked in a vinegar-chile concoction, served in a bowl with pickled onions, carrots and potatoes and stringy quesillo cheese. The bread ends up being a little bit soft and a little bit crunchy, resulting in an interesting mix of textures and a salty, tart and briny flavor – with a spicy kick! The best place to try piedrazos is at El Pocito, where you can wash them down with one of many delicious aguas frescas (flavored waters). We had the horchata con tuna (a sweet rice milk drink with tuna – a tropical fruit you know as prickly pear, not the fish!) and agua de sapote (a dark tropical fruit).

Find El Pocito: Maps

TIP: If you’ve seen Netflix’s Street Food Latin America: Oaxaca episode, than you saw El Pocito featured as a street stand in front of a green and white church. While there is a street stand in front of this church, it is not El Pocito! Rather, El Pocito is located directly across the street in a storefront. Whether they upgraded due to Netflix fame or were actually across the street the whole time, we’re not sure. 😉 

NIEVES MANOLO JR.

Indulge your sweet tooth with Oaxaca style ice cream that’s more sorbet-like in consistency, and can be either milk or water based. Our favorite sweet spot is Nieves Manolo Jr. in the northeast corner of Parque Llano, where you can treat yourself to flavors like leche quemada (burnt milk), chocolate oaxaqueño, menta con hierba nuena (spearmint) and tuna – again, not to be confused with the fish! Tuna here is a delicious cactus fruit you know as prickly pear. For the daring, you can even opt for chapulín con tamarindo (fried grasshopper with tamarind, a sour-sweet fruit).

Find & follow Nieves Manolo Jr: Web / IG / Maps

WHERE (& WHAT) TO EAT / BEST RESTAURANTS IN OAXACA CENTRO

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca: Interview with Chef Toño Garcia of Oaxaca's Teocintle / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by Alberto Lama @travelinglamas
Chef Toño Garcia & team outside Teocintle Restaurant / photo by @travelinglamas

[Related: This Young Chef is Changing the Game on Oaxaca’s Fine Dining Food Scene]

TEOCINTLE: COCINA INDÍGENA

Located on the outskirts of Oaxaca Centro, this intimate, five-table restaurant is effectively changing the game on the city’s fine dining food scene. More impressive than the inventive, five-course Mixtec tasting menu offered nightly for under $20.00 USD is the talent whipping up the world-class creations at this culinary gem: a trio of twenty-something locals all hailing from different districts of Oaxaca’s Mixteca region. We were so impressed, in fact, that we felt compelled to interview the chef! Head here for much more on Teocintle, including insight from the man behind it hall: Chef Toño Garcia.

Teocintle currently offers indoor dining only. Find & follow Teocintle

LOS DANZANTES

This was our first dinner in Oaxaca and easily remains one of our top favorites! Centrally located near Santo Domino right on the Alcalá, Los Danzantes perfectly blends an upscale feel with a lively and relaxed vibe in their open-air, courtyard dining room. Delicious, innovative and complex Oaxacan dishes are further complemented by excellent mezcal cocktails and top-notch service, all at reasonable prices. The Hierba Santa appetizer was among the most flavorful things we ate while in Oaxaca, and we also loved the Mogo Mogo appetizer (a take on Istmo wedding stew – more on this below) and Chile Ancho Relleno con Huitalacoche entree (chile pepper stuffed with corn mushroom).

Los Danzantes offers open-air, courtyard dining. Find & follow Los Danzantes: Web / IG / Maps

LA POPULAR

A favorite of both locals and tourists alike, this place is called La Popular for a reason! Head to this casual and hip eatery for lunch, dinner or late night to nosh on Oaxacan staples like tlayudas, cecina and tasajo, or our favorite: the hierba santa rolls stuffed with quesillo and topped with a savory chapulín paste. Expect plenty of vegetarian options as well (including a delicious sautéed mushroom plate), a good variety of mezcals and best of all – super affordable prices. If you show up and the place is packed, don’t fret. They’ll point you in the direction of their second location, aptly called La Otra Popular, just up the street.

La Popular and La Otra Popular currently offer indoor dining only. Find & follow La Popular: Web / Maps

TERRAZA ISTMO

Soon after arriving to Oaxaca we started hearing about a different kind of Oaxacan cuisine stemming from the state’s Isthmus region: Istmeño cuisine, which can best be described as fruity, tropical, celebratory and above all – unique. We decided to give it a try at Terraza Istmo, a lovely and romantic open-air rooftop located just a block from historic Plaza de la Danza. We weren’t disappointed – with the food, service or beautiful views of the surrounding city and mountains. We especially loved the garnachas, fried corn patties topped with shredded beef, salsa, queso and pickled onion, and the estofado del istmeño (Istmo wedding stew), a fruity, thick, braised meat stew typically served at weddings and celebrations.

Terraza Istmo offers outdoor rooftop dining. Find & follow Terraza Istmo: Web / IG / Maps

EXPENDIO TRADICIÓN

Warm lighting, wood-paneled ceilings and whimsically tiled floors all draw you into the beautifully designed space that is Expendio Tradición. With food, cocktails and service to match! Expect an extensive craft cocktail menu with plenty of interesting options (chapulín garnishes included) and a wide selection of both traditional and innovative Oaxacan dishes. Our pick? The Botana Tradicional, a massive, shareable platter counting everything from tasajo, cecina and quesillo to memelas, tamales and plenty more Oaxacan faves.

Expendio Tradición currently offers indoor dining only. Find & follow Expendio Tradición: Web / IG / Maps

RESTAURANTE CORONITA

Located inside Hotel Valle de Oaxaca near the Zócalo, the 70+ year Restaurante Coronita lands on this list for one primary reason: mole (pronounced moh-lay). You can’t come to Oaxaca without eating the famed, complex sauce (preferably, lots of it!) and this place offers an impressive, delicious and filling seven mole tasting. That’s right, seven. You may be familiar with the most famous one, mole negro, but Oaxaca is home to many more. At Coronita you’ll not only get to try all seven classic moles, but will receive an explanation into each one’s ingredients, resulting flavors and occasions to be served (such as parties and even, funerals). Mole-tasting aside, Coronita serves an extensive selection of further Oaxaca staples alongside plenty of mezcal. Open daily from 9am – 6m, plan to stop by for lunch or early dinner for your mole feast.

Restaurante Coronita currently offers indoor dining only. Find & follow Coronita: Web / IG / Maps

HOTEL LOS AMANTES ROOFTOP

You have your choice of quite a few elevated dining experiences on Calle de Ignacio Allende, a beautiful cobblestone stretch extending west from Santo Domingo, but we prefer the open-air rooftop of Hotel Los Amantes. Time your arrival with sunset and in addition to friendly service, contemporary takes on Oaxacan cuisine and excellent craft cocktails, you’ll be awarded with stunning views of Santo Domingo and the surrounding mountains – the best in town in our opinion. Even better if you soak in said views while sipping one of Los Amantes’ namesake mezcals.

Hotel Los Amantes offers outdoor rooftop dining. Find & follow Hotel Los Amantes: Web / IG / Maps

EL OLIVO GASTROBAR

Need a break from Oaxacan cuisine? Especially if you’re visiting for an extended period of time, it may happen. 😉 When it does, head to El Olivo Gastrobar tucked into the northeast corner of Centro. This lively, two-level spot serves up incredibly delicious Spanish tapas alongside an extensive wine, beer and cocktail list. Head upstairs to the rooftop and grab a table at the end for nice views of the quaint street below. You really can’t go wrong with anything on the impressive tapas menu, but we say go for the Table de Quesos and Entremés Mixta (sauteed chistorra, chorizo, mushrooms & garlic). Salud!

El Olivo offers indoor dining downstairs; open-air dining upstairs on their partially-covered rooftop. Follow El Olivo: Web / IG / Maps

WHERE (& WHAT) TO EAT / BEST BREAKFAST & COFFEE SPOTS IN OAXACA

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Boulenc Restaurant / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Breakfast is served at Boulenc / photo by @travelinglamas

BOULENC 

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll walk right by this place. But spot – and walk through – the unassuming, faded blue facade of the exterior colonial building and you’ll emerge into a vibrant, lively open-air courtyard serving the best breakfast in town. The shakshuka is the bomb, not to mention the extensive selection of coffee creations like the Café Tónico (espresso shot with tonic water), teas, juices and house-made fermentos like kombucha. Great at any time of day, Boulenc is equally excellent for happy hour ($19 peso beer, $50 peso mezcalita cocktails and more from 5-7pm, M-Sat) and dinner – the wood-fired pizzas are excellent. A popular spot with tourists and locals alike, don’t be surprised if there’s a wait when you arrive. If there is, it’ll be worth it!

Boulenc offers both indoor & outdoor dining across their two-level, open-air courtyard. Find & follow Boulenc: Web / IG / Maps

PAN: AM

This charming brunch spot is another excellent pick to start your day, counting three locations in Oaxaca City: Centro, Reforma and San Felipe. An extensive menu offers everything from Mexican staples like Chilaquiles and Molletes to a delicious (and massive!) Croque Madame, all served in a whimsical outdoor courtyard. Many tables are situated near power outlets, making this a nice place to bring your laptop and plug-in as well.

Pan: Am offers outdoor dining in their open-air courtyard. Find & follow Pan: Am: Web / IG / Maps

MERCADO DE LA MERCED / FONDA ROSITA

Head just east of Centro and you’ll find Mercado de la Merced, a smaller, local market filled with vendors selling everything from produce to meats to woven goods – and plenty of delicious fondas (family-run eateries) serving up heaping portions of Oaxacan favorites for breakfast and lunch. While you really can’t go wrong with any of the options here, we’re partial to Fonda Rosita. Namely, for their incredible Chilaquiles (red or green; eggs, meat or without) served piping hot in traditional clay bowls. Navigating the mercado to find Fonda Rosita can be an effort in an of itself, but we’ve got your shortcut. The closest entrance is from Av. José María Morelos between Insurgentes and Leandro Valle. Walk through the entrance and make a right – you will see Fonda Rosita right there. You’re welcome and buen provecho!

Fonda Rosita currently offers indoor dining only. Find & follow Fonda Rosita: Web / IG / Maps

MUSS CAFÉ

No muss, no fuss at this lovely coffee shop located just two blocks from the Zócalo. Part of Casa Antonieta, expect a solid selection of expertly brewed coffee, espresso, cold brew and tea and for later – a fun offering of coffee-based cocktails including a Cold Brew Mezcal Tonic and three takes on the Carajillo. Café staples like toasts, salads and sandwiches are also on offer, in addition to freshly baked breads and sweets.

Muss Café currently offers limited indoor-seating only. (Unless you’re a hotel guest, in which case you can enjoy the lobby’s open-air courtyard.) Find & follow Muss Café: Web / IG / Maps

CAFÉ BRÚJULA

Counting three locations in Oaxaca Centro and even more in Reforma, Café Brújula is an easy go-to for your daily caffeine fix. If you’re looking for a work-from spot, head to the location closest to Santo Domingo – literally right across the street on the Alcalá. This is the largest one and has plenty of seating to sit, sip and plug-in with free (and decent!) wifi. In addition to a variety of caffeinated options (hot or ice’d), you can also nibble on a limited menu of sandwiches, muffins or yogurt.

Café Brújula currently offers indoor seating only. Find & follow Café Brújula: Web / IG / Maps

WHERE (& WHAT) TO EAT / BEST RESTAURANTS OUTSIDE OAXACA CENTRO

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Itanoní Restaurant / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Tortillas made from heirloom maíz are pressed to perfection at Itanoní / photo by @travelinglamas

ITANONÍ

Located just north of Centro in the residential neighborhood of Reforma, you’ll find an unassuming gem called Itanoní, meaning “flower of corn.” Starting out years ago as a simple tortillería focused on native maíz (corn) varietals, owner and engineer Gabriela Fernández Ortiz has since expanded the shop into an innovative culinary project not only celebrating, but preserving, heirloom maíz that is otherwise quickly disappearing from the mountain villages of Oaxaca. It should come as no surprise that tortilla-based treats are the star here, where triangle-shaped tetelas or rolled de eses are carefully paired with the right maíz varietal depending on what filling you choose. Our faves? The tetela con chicharrón y quesillo and the de ese con hoja santa y quesillo (pictured above).

Itanoní offers open-air, covered dining. Find & follow Itanoní: Web / IG / Maps

TIERRA ANTIGUA

Head 40 minutes outside of Centro and into the artisan textile village of Teotitlán Del Valle, and you’ll find the family-run restaurant and tapete (hand-woven rug) factory that is Tierra Antigua. Hidden behind the restaurant however is the real gem: the cocina de humo (smoke kitchen) offering an intimate and unforgettable dining experience that will easily be a top highlight of your trip – it certainly was for ours! Only open through 12noon, come hungry and be prepared for a serious morning feast. Authentic Oaxacan dishes are cooked right in front of you by mother-daughter duo Estela and Diana, including mouthwatering tasajo and chorizo fresh off the grill, chile de agua wrapped in fruit-sweetened egg batter (t, empanadas with quesillo cheese and more, all complemented with homemade salsas and plenty of handmade tortillas from the wood-burning comal (you can even give it a try yourself, although tortilla-making is NOT as easy as it looks!).

Reservations are a must to experience the cocina de humo, which can easily be made by calling, Facebook Messenger or Instagram DM (links below). If you can’t make it to the cocina de humo before 12noon, don’t fret! You can still enjoy authentic Oaxacan cuisine in the main restaurant through 7pm daily.

Tierra Antigua offers open-air, indoor dining. Find & follow Tierra Antigua: Web / IG / Maps

LA CORONELA

If you’re looking for a place to stop while on the road to Mitla, there’s no need to go anywhere but La Coronela. Right off the highway, look for the giant, yellow-painted entrance gate – you can’t miss it! Grab a table outside, soak in the mountain views, and order the grilled Botana Oaxaqueña: a plate of deliciousness including tasajo, cecina, chorizo, chicharrón, chile de agua, onions, quesillo and more all kept heated on a mini-grill as you eat. The aguas del día are inventive and excellent, as are the mezcal cocktails. Not to mention the friendly and accommodating staff, who will even point out shapes in the surrounding mountains linked to local legends. An easy choice on your trip to/from Mitla and mezcal country.

La Coronela offer outdoor dining as well as open-air indoor dining. Find & follow La Coronela: Web / IG / Maps

HOTEL CASA REGINA

Head past Mitla and on the road to Xaagá (and further, Hierve el Agua – when it reopens) you’ll find yourself seemingly in the middle of nowhere – until you come upon the stylish and serene valley escape of Hotel Casa Regina. Here, traditional adobe-walled rooms are juxtaposed by a minimalist, glass-walled facade housing the property’s restaurant and bar – all accented by a tranquil swimming pool facing the surrounding mountains. If you’re not already staying as a hotel guest, visiting Casa Regina for a meal is an absolute must! You’ll feel as if you’re at the end of the world here, as you dine on delicious Oaxacan staples (think tetelas, mole negro and chicharron en salsa), sip inventive craft cocktails and soak in the sweeping views. Our tip? Time your visit with sunset. We saw many beautiful sunsets during our time in Oaxaca, however the one we saw here was truly epic.

Hotel Casa Regina offers open-air, covered dining. Find & follow Hotel Casa Regina: Web / IG / Maps

WHERE TO DRINK / BEST MEZCAL BARS IN OAXACA

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Mezcalería Los Amantes Mezcal Bar / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Mezcal bottles and quirky, folk-inspired decor at Mezcalería Los Amantes / photo by @travelinglamas

MEZCALOTECA

Perfect for mezcal rookies as well as those looking for an educational refresh, head to this dimly lit, library-themed bar for a guided degustación (tasting) packed with mezcal intel. You can choose from a tasting of 3, 4 or 5 mezcals, where your knowledgeable bartender will give you detailed tasting notes on each in addition to a crash course on the smoky spirit: its origins, different agave varietals like espadín, tobalá and madrecuishe, and the growth, harvest and distillation process. Open Monday – Saturday from 2pm – 7pm, advance reservations are a must which you can make online here

Mezcaloteca is an indoors-only bar. Find & follow Mezcaloteca: Web / IG / Maps

CUISH MEZCALERÍA

Tucked into the southwest corner of Centro you’ll find Cuish Mezcalería, an artisanal co-op working with a number of maestro mezcaleros (master mezcal producers) throughout different regions of Oaxaca – each specializing in a different agave varietal. Walk into the downstairs bar for an informal tasting experience where you can choose different mezcals to sample, or upgrade to the full pour. On two occasions this is exactly what we did, and lucked out with knowledgable and friendly bartenders both times who were happy to share useful information. For a more directed and educational experience, you can reserve the beautiful upstairs tasting room which is absolutely perfect for groups.

Cuish Mezcalería offers two open-air, indoor bars (downstairs and upstairs). Find & follow Cuish Mezcalería: Web / IG / Maps

BALTAZAR (by Convite Mezcal) 

Head to Baltazar to sip Convite Mezcal in a stylish, open-air courtyard near Santo Domingo. Part mezcal house, part restaurant, you’ll want to leave room to soak up the smoky spirit with Oaxacan bites like tetelas (the house specialty) or our personal fave, the botana oaxaqueña. You can choose from a tasting of any three Convite mezcals of your choice, or opt for a stand-alone pour served neat in a champagne saucer. Be sure to wander through the Casa Convite exhibition room while you’re there, where you can also glimpse the beautiful private tasting room – perfect for groups and available by reservation here.

Baltazar offers an open-air, outdoor courtyard in addition to a by-reservation, indoor tasting room. Find & follow Baltazar: Web / IG / Maps

MEZCALERÍA LOS AMANTES

This tiny mezcal bar will likely cause you to have the same love affair with Oaxaca as we did. Come here to sip mezcal in a jewel-box of a room lined with quirky, nostalgic, folk-inspired decor while getting lost in the romantic ballads sung by the same guitar player who’s there every night. Los Amantes Mezcal is on offer here, available as a degustación of three or by copa. While not the best place to necessarily learn about mezcal, this IS the place to enjoy mezcal in an intimate, magnetic setting that has a way of sucking you in. In most cases, leading to far more rounds of mezcal than originally intended. 😉 Mezcalería Los Amantes is located just steps from Santo Domingo (be careful though, it’s so tiny that if you blink you’ll miss it!), open 4pm – 12am daily.

Mezcalería Los Amantes is an indoors-only bar. Find & follow Mezcalería Los Amantes: Web / IG / Maps

MEZCALOGÍA

This late-night, lively yet intimate bar is a great place to start expanding your mezcal palate. They have a seriously extensive, and impressive, selection of artisanal mezcal labels and varietals on offer here, from standard espadíns to wild coyotes to a number of ensembles (blends). Having a bit of mezcal knowledge will help you here, but even knowing the basics you might still feel overwhelmed with the options – and that’s okay! The more you drink mezcal the more you’ll realize how much the spirit really is like wine in terms of varying varietals, complexities and tasting notes. The best way to learn about the smoky spirit is simply by trying it! Eventually you’ll be able to hone in on which agave varietals and mezcal producers you like best, and Mezcalogía is a great place to get started. This spot is located just west of Santo Domingo and is open from 6pm – 12am nightly, except Tuesdays when they’re closed.

Mezcalogía is an indoors-only bar. Find & follow Mezcalogía: Web / IG / Maps

LA MEZCALERITA

On the northern end of Centro you’ll find this fun spot popular with young locals, expats and tourists alike. Enter through the downstairs bar and head up the stairs to emerge onto a casual, open-air rooftop great at any time of day, or night. Don’t come here for the views (save that for Hotel Los Amantes, mentioned above) but DO come here for the extensive list of artisanal mezcals, local craft beer or even pulque all served in a lively yet relaxed setting. Hungry? Pair your drink of choice with any number of bar bites likes wings, nachos, tlayudas and rotating food specials. Open 12:30pm – 1am daily.

La Mezcalerita offers a downstairs, indoor bar as well as an open-air rooftop. Find & follow Mezcalerita: Web / IG / Maps

WHERE TO DRINK / BEST BARS IN OAXACA (COCKTAILS, WINE, BEER, PULQUE)

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Guajolote de Oro Cocktail Bar / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
A mezcal negroni paired with more mezcal (naturally) at Guajolote de Oro / photo by @travelinglamas

GUAJOLOTE DE ORO

Located inside Posada Dos Palmas hotel, we love Guajolote de Oro (literally “turkey of gold”) for the inviting, glowy ambiance, beautiful backlit bar and most of all – consistently excellent drinks and service. A number of inventive craft cocktails are on offer here, in addition to classic staples like their perfectly prepared Mezcal Negroni. Don’t be surprised to find gleaming bottles of Los Amantes Mezcal lining the bar here, as this intimate spot is owned by the namesake Grupo Amantes (alongside the aforementioned Hotel Los Amantes and Mezcalería Los Amantes, all three of which happen to be located on the same block). 

Guajolote de Oro is an indoors-only bar. Find & follow Guajolote de Oro: Web / IG / Maps

SELVA

Pass through the courtyard entrance, head up the stairs and follow the wafting jazz music to arrive at this upscale cocktail den from the owners of Los Danzantes (one of our fave restaurants, mentioned above!). Sophisticated, stylish and conjuring serious Mad Men vibes, choose from a number of unique craft cocktails expertly prepared by a team of passionate mixologists. Seating is limited at this speakeasy-style spot, so consider arriving earlier in the evening or better yet, make a reservation. Selva is open from 5pm – 9pm Wednesday – Saturday, and recently introduced brunch service from 3pm – 6pm on Sundays.

Selva is primarily indoors, save for a handful of 2-seater tables on the small balcony. Find & follow Selva: Web / IG / Maps

CASA EMBAJADOR

Another solid choice for cocktails in Centro is Casa Embajador. Inventive mezcal libations are the star at this sleek space, crafted to perfection with their own house line of mezcal in addition to plenty of go-to cocktail staples, plus local craft beer and wine. Enjoy with their signature cacahuates (peanuts) or upgrade to larger bites like the Focaccia BLT or Tostadas de Atún (tuna tostadas). Open from 2pm – 11pm Thursday – Tuesday.

Casa Embajador is an indoors-only bar. Find & follow Casa Embajador: Web / IG / Maps

PULQUERÍA MAYAHUEL

Known as a “drink of the gods” in pre-Hispanic times, only priests and other nobility were allowed to drink pulque: the sweet-sour result of fermented agave sap that’s milky in appearance, viscous in texture, and most people either love or hate. In Oaxaca, the best place to try the fabled fermentado is in the northwest edge of Centro at a quirky, laid-back bar called Pulqueria Mayahuel. Lined with luchador (Mexican wrestler) masks, sombreros and other funky Mexican memorabilia, this fun spot serves up pulque by the half liter or liter in traditional, hand-painted jicaras (drinking bowls made from the dried fruit of the Crescentia cujete, or Calabash, tree). Choose from natural pulque or curados (flavors), like avena (oatmeal), arandano (cranberry), piñon (pine nut) and mango – all of which the bartender will happily give you a sample of before committing. Not into pulque? You can also come here for cerveza and a fun selection of tiki-inspired cocktails.

Pulquería Mayahuel is an indoors only bar. Find & follow Pulquería Mayahuel: Web / Maps

LA CUEVA

Located on an unassuming street on the eastern edge of Centro you’ll find this intimate wine & cocktail bar that just opened in the fall of 2020. Come here for an extensive selection of wine (Mexican and imported), artisanal cerveza, inventive cocktails and interesting finds like a Mexican sake we had the pleasure of trying on our recent visit. Be sure to check their Instagram (link below) for upcoming happenings, like guest bartenders and live music ranging from jazz to rock to reggae.

La Cueva is an indoors only bar. Find & follow La Cueva: Web / IG / Maps

LA SANTÍSIMA FLOR DE LÚPOLO

Head to the northern end of Centro to try small-batch beer brewed on-site at La Santísima Flor de Lúpolo (“Holy saint of the hop flower”), a nano-brewery and taproom at the heart of Oaxaca’s artisanal cerveza movement. Interesting brews like the Earl Grey Pale Ale, Saison Rouge and Chocomint Stout are available either on the rotating tap, by bottle or flight, which you can pair with housemade sausages, charcuterie, cheese and more from the connected Gourmand Deli. You can even check out the action with a tour of their nano-brewery, tasting included.

La Santísima Flor de Lúpulo is an indoors only bar. Find & follow La Santísima: Web / IG / Maps

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Templo Santo Domingo peeks above colonial casitas in Oaxaca Centro / photo by @travelinglamas

Related: Your Ultimate Travel Guide to Mérida, Yucatán, the “Best Small City in the World” According to Condé Nast Traveler

WHAT TO SEE & DO / BEST THINGS TO DO IN OAXACA

As prior mentioned, many of the cultural activities, festivities and performances that make Oaxaca, well, Oaxaca, are simply not happening right now. Some popular destinations in and around the city – including the Jardín Etnobótanico (Botanical Garden), Museo de las Culturas (Culture Museum) and famed Hierve el Agua – also remain closed. That said, Oaxaca still has quite a bit to offer visitors! Here are just some of the things you can do now to experience beautiful Oaxaca:

WANDER HISTORIC CENTRO

The best way to experience Oaxaca’s sights, sounds, smells (deliciously beckoning from street food stalls, naturally) and culture is by simply strolling through the charming streets, alleys and plazas of Centro. You’ll find these cobblestone calles and avenidas lined with everything from colorful colonial casitas and stunning historic architecture to cute cafés and shops, street art to art galleries, pretty courtyards to rooftop terrazas, bustling mercados and hidden gems everywhere you turn. Here’s our tried and true, recommended walking route to hit many of the main sights (not including mercados, which we’ll get to separately):

Editor’s note: many of the churches and buildings mentioned below are not currently open for indoor or walk-through visitation. Even if you can’t go inside, all of these buildings are absolutely worth a stop to admire the beautiful exterior architecture.

Start at Plaza de la Danza, a historic square typically serving as a stage for folkloric dance and other cultural performances and events throughout the year – now frequented by young locals playing soccer and at night, lovebirds canoodling on the plaza’s stadium-style steps. While cultural performances are paused here for now, Plaza de la Danza is still a must-see especially as it is lined by two stunning churches: the baroque Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad dating from 1690, and it’s attached ex-convent that now serves as the city’s Palacio Municipal; and across the street the 1559, Jesuit-founded Templo and Ex-Convento de San José. Ready for a refreshment? Walk a few steps to the adjacent Jardín Sócrates where you’ll find a small, pretty plaza lined with nieves (Mexican ice cream) vendors.

Now, walk east to the bustling Zócalo, Oaxaca’s main square lined with restaurants, shops and historic buildings (including the Palacio de Gobierno and Centro Histórico de Oaxaca) and filled with plenty of vendors offering everything from beautiful woven shirts, handbags and hats to street snacks and even shoe shines. Now, walk one block north of the Zócalo and you’ll be able to marvel at the majestic Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca, a landmark Roman Catholic cathedral dating from 1535. Head a couple of blocks east along Avenida de la Independencia and you’ll arrive at the magnificent Teatro Macedonio Alcalá. For now you can admire the Renaissance-influenced style of the theater’s early 1900s facade, and bookmark for future visits when performances ranging from ballet to orchestra to opera inevitably resume.

Next, walk back one block west to Calle Macedonia Alcalá (also known as the Andador Turístico), a vendor-lined, pedestrian stretch running north from the Catedral Metropolitana. During your leisurely stroll you’ll want to stop at MACA, Oaxaca’s Contemporary Art Museum. One of the few (if only) museums currently open in Oaxaca, it’s a must-visit for both permanent and rotating exhibitions of Mexican art in a former private residence dating from the 1700s. Back on the Alcalá, keep walking north until you reach the famed Templo de Santo Domingo: Oaxaca’s ornate, Baroque masterpiece and former monastery-turned-culture museum. While the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo is currently closed, the Templo itself does have limited opening hours where you can view its gilded, 23.5-karat gold leaf interiors – with or without one of the tour guides who will offer you their services as you approach the Catholic church. Please note we are unsure of the exact opening hours as these are ever-changing.

Other sights to explore include the quiet Jardín Conzatti for people watching and a quick rest, and nearby Parque El Llano for a lovely stroll and street snack. You’ll find a handful of vendors here primarily selling memelas or elotes and esquites (Mexican street corn), plus Nieves Manolo Jr as mentioned above in Street Food. Both Jardín Conzatti and Parque El Llano are located on the north end of Centro, making them especially perfect stops if you’re heading to/from the Reforma neighborhood.

Noticeably absent from this walking route is the mention of museums. This is because right now almost all museums in Oaxaca are closed (save for MACA, mentioned above), and will remain closed until the city turns green. Don’t forget the color code changes weekly, and can be found at any time here.

SHOP TIL YOU DROP IN THE MERCADOS

Oaxaca is absolutely a place where you should shop ’til you drop. Compared to other popular destinations in Mexico prices here simply can’t be beat, especially for the quality of workmanship seen in everything from woven shirts and leather goods to handbags and hats, tapetes (rugs) to the region’s famed pottery and of course – mezcal. There are plenty of places to look for said goldmine of souvenirs in Oaxaca between the many street vendors, well-curated shops and artisan villages themselves, but especially in Oaxaca Centro – the city’s vibrant mercados are an excellent place to start.

Mercado Benito Juárez

Wander south of the Zócalo and you’ll soon find yourself in the midst of a sensory overload – in the best way! You’ve reached Mercado Benito Juárez, a sprawling and bustling market offering a feast for the senses in the form of colorful vendor stalls, said vendors trying to grab your attention and wafting scents of freshly baked pan (bread), prepared moles, savory chapulines and more. The mercado itself is indoors, although you’d hardly know itas you’ll find numerous outdoor street stalls lining the adjacent streets as you approach – creating a blended, indoor/outdoor experience only separated by the official mercado entrances. Please note in Covid times there are dedicated entry and separately, exit points, and it is absolutely required to wear a mask while indoors at all times (except when seated and eating).

What can you buy at Mercado Benito Juárez? Well, pretty much everything. Roam the vendor-lined halls to peruse finds ranging from leather shoes, handbags and hats to woven shirts and jewelry, handicrafts to home goods, prepared foods like quesos (cheese), locally-produced miel (honey) and moles (Oaxaca’s famed, complex sauce – sold here in ready-to-cook, paste form) and plenty of further souvenirs. This is a great place to try the aforementioned chapulines, a popular Oaxacan street snack otherwise known as fried, savory grasshoppers. Don’t knock it ’til you try it! Vendors will happily let you sample from different flavors such as our favorite, chile-garlic. TIP: chapulines go great with mezcal, which you can also find (and sample!) here.

Mercado Benito Juárez is also a great place to try tejate: a pre-Hispanic, non-alcoholic “drink of the gods” consumed by royalty and used in religious ceremonies in ancient times (similar to pulque in this respect, although the comparisons stop there.) Look for women stirring large, colorful jicaras (bowls) or clay pots of what appears to be a liquid substance with a frothy, foamy paste on top. This is it! Tejate is served cold, made with toasted maíz (corn), pixtle (ground mamey pits), fermented cacao beans and cacao flower. It’s delicious, refreshing and yes – you absolutely can and should drink the pasty foam on top.

Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Oaxaca's Famed Pasillo de Carnes Asadas (Grilled Meat Hall): A Step-by Step Guide / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Oaxaca’s famed Pasillo de Carnes Asadas (Grilled Meat Hall)

Mercado 20 de Noviembre

Hungry? After all that shopping you probably are. Exit Mercado Benito Juárez and head one block south, where Mercado 20 de Noviembre has you covered in spades. Come here for street food, traditional fondas (family-run eateries), to stock up on prepared foods, fresh produce and baked goods, or for the #1 reason most visitors come here: to experience the famed Pasillo de Carnes Asadas (Grilled Meat Hall). There’s so much to say about this place we dedicated an entire blog post to it! Click here for our step-by-step guide on navigating this famous food hall like a pro.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Visiting (& Mastering!) Oaxaca’s Famed Grilled Meat Hall

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Mercado de Artesanías / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Textile heaven at Mercado de Artesanías / photo by @travelinglamas

Mercado de Artesanías

Now that you’ve refueled at Mercado 20 de Noviembre, head another block south to the Mercado de Artesanías. Come here for one main reason: textiles. Beautiful, colorful textiles in every shape, size and form, from tapetes (rugs) and tableclothes to huipiles (colorful blouses and dresses) and handbags, throw pillows to further woven home decor. Often overlooked compared to the larger Mercado Benito Juárez, we highly encourage you to carve out time and save your textile shopping for this place! There are a number of reasons why we love and recommend Mercado de Artesanías, including the fact that it’s smaller (comparatively speaking), easy to navigate and incredibly well-stocked, not to mention that it’s a quieter and far less hectic experience than the larger mercados.

TIP: don’t be fooled into thinking that the styles/colors you see hanging are all a particular vendor has to offer. For every handbag you see hanging in one color, there will be many, many alternate color options of that exact style hidden in the stall. Vendors are very happy to show you all available color options – don’t be afraid to ask and delve in!

For those seeking a more local mercado experience, you can also head to Central de Abastos just over the southwest cusp of Centro. This massive marketplace (bigger than Mercado Benito Juárez) sells just about everything under the sun, where you’ll get an authentic picture of daily life in Oaxaca. You can also check out the smaller, food-driven Mercado de la Merced, located east of Centro near the Jalatlaco neighborhood. Alongside fresh produce, spices and baked goods you’ll also find a number of fondas here all excellent for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. (See our pick, Fonda Rosita, mentioned above in Where to Eat / Best Breakfast Spots.)

CLIMB THE CERRO DEL FORTÍN FOR STUNNING VIEWS OF THE CITY

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Views from Cerro del Fortín / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Sweeping mountain views from Cerro del Fortín / photo by @travelinglamas

Directly northwest of Centro you’ll find the Escaleras del Fortín, a lengthy staircase leading up a large hill called the Cerro del Fortín. Climb these stairs and you’ll reach the Guelaguetza Auditorium, site of the famed, annual cultural event La Guelaguetza. In front of the Auditorium you’ll find a number of epic viewpoints of the city below, or keep climbing for more views and a monument in honor of national hero and indigenous Mexican president Benito Juárez (who happened to be born in rural Oaxaca). Press on further and you’ll even stumble across a planetarium and space observatory.

Go in the early morning and you’ll find your climb joined by a number of briskly-paced locals who use the Cerro del Fortín as a daily workout. If you too are looking to burn some serious calories, keep climbing further into the hill (past the initial escaleras and subsequent staircases) where a series of challenging hiking and running trails await.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Views from Cerro del Fortín / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
National hero and former Mexican president Benito Juárez, born to an indigenous Zapotec family in Oaxaca, pointing the way at the top of Cerro del Fortín / photo by @travelinglamas

WHAT TO DO & WHERE TO GO OUTSIDE THE CITY / BEST DAYS TRIPS FROM OAXACA

Located in the foothills of Mexico’s sweeping Sierra Madre mountain range, there is no lack of beautiful, nearby experiences easily accommodated in a half day, day or overnight. Here, our top picks of where to go and what to do outside of Oaxaca Centro:

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Dainzú Archaeological Site / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Dainzú Archaeological Site in Oaxaca / photo by @travelinglamas

ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES

Oaxaca’s many archaeological sites are one of the primary draws for visitors, and rightly so. Within an hour’s drive of Centro you can find not one, but multiple sites containing temples, monuments and further beautifully preserved remains of ancient Zapotec and Mixtec empires.

Arguably the most important archaeological site in Oaxaca as well as one of the largest in Mexico, you’ll want to put the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Monte Alban at the top of your list. This former capital of the Zapotec civilization flourished from 500 B.C. – 850 A.D., later abandoned long before the Spaniards arrived. Located just a 20-minute drive outside of Centro, here you can explore numerous structures including vast palaces and plazas, elaborate tombs, a ball court, observatory and a fascinating collection of large carved stones called “Los Danzantes” (The Dancers). There’s even a small on-site museum, and let’s not forget the views! Monte Alban is situated on a hill stretching 400 meters / 1,300 feet above Oaxaca City, leading to sprawling views of the city and valleys below – not to mention the surrounding mountain range.

Considered the second-most important archaeological site in Oaxaca, Mitla lies about an hour’s drive outside of Centro in the small, eponymous town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Stemming from the Nahuatl word Mictlan meaning “Place of the Dead,” it’s no surprise that Mitla was originally used as a sacred burial ground and religious center by Zapotec priests. Around 1000 A.D. the Mixtecs gained control, continually inhabiting the site until the Spanish arrived in 1521. The site is most known for its intricate, impressively preserved mosaics carved into flat quadrangle structures, in addition to red painted walls, rows of large columns and numerous underground tombs – two of which have been emptied out so you can actually climb down into them and explore. Also to note here is the imposing juxtaposition of the Spanish-built Catholic church you’ll see as you enter the site, rising out of and partially constructed from a Zapotec wall.

Two other, smaller Zapotec sites worth visiting are Dainzú, meaning “Cactus Hill” in Zapotec, and Yagul, known as Pueblo Viejo (Old Village) by locals. Rather recent discoveries, Yagul was only first excavated in the 1950s and Dainzú in the 1960s. And while small, they do offer the advantage of little to no crowds. Both are on the way to Mitla and located mere minutes off the highway. If you’re headed that way and especially if you’re DIYing it with a car rental, these are easy, worthwhile and historically significant stops to make – that you may even have all to yourself!

Hidden gem: on the other side of Oaxaca Centro (just past Monte Alban) you can also visit possibly the least known of all the archaeological sites, Atzompa. This small yet fascinating set of Zapotec ruins were actually once part of Monte Alban – considered a neighborhood within the large metropolis. Amazingly this site only began excavation in 2009, opening to visitors in 2012. Located up the hill from the town of Santa María Atzompa, known for its generations of green pottery artisans, you can even view an excavated kiln here used to make such pottery centuries ago. Archaeologists have unearthed a vast collection of ancient pottery here as well, now on display at a museum in town.

At time of writing, Mitla, Monte Alban, Atzompa and Dainzú are all open. Yagul currently remains closed, although as mentioned – is just minutes off the highway on the way to Mitla. Especially if you’re driving yourself, its worth the quick detour to check if they’ve reopened. (You’ll know this quickly if the road is roped off or not.) If nothing else, you can spot the prehistoric, cliffside painting visible from the highway turnoff.

TIP: Entry to all archaeological sites in Mexico is free to Mexican citizens on Sundays. Naturally, this makes Sunday the busiest day. If you wish to share your experience with fewer visitors, consider going on a weekday – preferably in the morning as close to opening time as possible.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Santiago Matatlán Mezcal Country / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Somewhere in mezcal country (Santiago Matatlán), Oaxaca / photo by @travelinglamas

MEZCAL PALENQUES (DISTILLERIES) / SANTIAGO MATATLÁN

Oaxaca is synonymous with mezcal, and you would be remiss not to experience at least once mezcal palenque (distillery) during your time here. You’ll find most of these in Santiago Matalán, the birthplace of mezcal located an hour’s drive outside of Centro (taking the same route as Mitla). As you near mezcal country expect to be greeted by rows upon rows of beautiful, endless agave fields, not to mention a wealth of options to try (and buy!) the smoky, agave-distilled spirit. You can visit mezcal country either with a tour group or private tour guide, or you can DIY it at your own speed with a car rental.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Maestro Mezcalero Oscar Hernández Santiago of Gracias a Dios Mezcal Palenque (Distillery) in Santiago Matlatán / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
The man behind the mezcal: Maestro Mezcalero Oscar Hernández Santiago of Gracias a Dios Mezcal / photo by @travelinglamas

We went the DIY route and loved our experience at Gracias a Dios, a 10-year old mezcal brand with local, family roots stemming back five generations. You can book a private tour (in Spanish or English) where you’ll learn how the agave is roasted, crushed, fermented, distilled and finally hand-bottled, followed by a mezcal tasting including a unique agave gin. Our experience was led by Emmy, the daughter of Maestro Mezcalero Oscar Hernández Santiago, who was absolutely excellent in explaining the distillation process, mezcal varietals and more to our group. And of course, during the tour you’ll have the opportunity to meet the Maestro himself. We also love that Gracias a Dios prioritizes employing local women who have been disadvantaged either through abuse, abandonment or other means, plus pays all employees 25% above the standard salary in Santiago Matatlán.

ARTISAN VILLAGES / TEOTITLÁN DEL VALLE

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Master Weaver Diego Montaño of Tierra Antigua in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Master Weaver Diego Montaña of Tierra Antigua, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca / photo by @travelinglamas

There are many artisan villages you can visit in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys, one of them perhaps being the most famous: Teotitlán del Valle, for it’s beautiful, colorful and hand-woven textiles. Generations of weavers continue to call this village home, stretching back to pre-Hispanic times when villagers paid tribute to the Aztecs in the form of woven cloth. The specialty here are Zapotec tapetes (rugs) in all manner of colors, patterns and prints, although you can find other high quality woven wares like handbags and throw pillows as well.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Tierra Antigua Textile Studio in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
Dyes for days at Tierra Antigua in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca / photo by @travelinglamas

You can visit a number of family-run weaving studios and factories here, although we thoroughly enjoyed and recommend Tierra Antigua. Also mentioned above (Where to Eat / Best Restaurants Outside Oaxaca Centro), Tierra Antigua is half restaurant, half textile factory, and all heart. Here, Master Weaver Diego Montaño will give you a thorough and enthusiastic explanation (in English or Spanish) of how the weaving process works. He’ll cover everything from where they source the yarns to how they make the dyes (including traditional processes like cochineal and indigo) to the time-intensive process of weaving – which he’ll demonstrate on the family’s giant, hand-built pedal loom. We were fascinated not only with the process but learning that behind the beautiful, geometric patterns carefully woven onto each tapete lies a deeper meaning depicting the cycle of life.

Following the demonstration you can peruse Tierra Antigua’s tapete gallery for any you may wish to bring home, all of course hand woven on-site lovingly – and painstakingly. Pieces here can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to even a full month to weave. Prices are reflected in the craftsmanship (deservedly so!), ranging from around $100.00 USD all the way up to $3000.00+ USD. TIP: Due to the time-intensiveness and quality workmanship of the woven goods here, as well as other family-run studios in Teotitlán del Valle, it is NOT recommended to haggle with the artisans (contrary to mercado and street vendor experiences where yes, it can be customary to haggle).

Other artisan villages you can visit in Oaxaca include San Bartoló Coyotepec for barro negro pottery (burnished, black clay pottery), Santa María Atzompa for glazed, green pottery (and home to the aforementioned Atzompa archaeological site) and San Martín Tilcajete for hand-carved alebrijes (colorful wooden figurines representing whimsical animals and mythical creatures).

MERCADO DE TLACOLULA

Located 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca Centro (on the road to Mitla), head to this traditional Sunday market in the village of Tlacolula de Matamoros for a feast for the eyes – and belly! Hundreds of vendors come down from surrounding mountain villages to sell everything here from textiles and household goods to handicrafts and souvenirs, flowers and produce to regional food and beverages – making Mercado de Tlacolula a destination for locals and tourists alike. One of the oldest, continuously running markets in all of Mexico (stretching all the way back to Mesoamerica), expect to see female vendors dressed in brightly colored, indigenous clothing such as intricately embroidered huipiles and headscarves.

Come hungry, because one of the biggest draws here is the famed Barbacoa Hall – an experience that can best be described as hectic, fun and insanely delicious. As you enter the hall be prepared for an onslaught of activity as vendors try to wave you down. Many will offer you samples which is a good bet in helping you choose one, as they all essentially sell the same thing and at the exact same prices. Once you’ve selected a vendor, take a seat and get ready to be served heaps of barbacoa: slow-cooked, braised lamb (or goat), resulting in a tender, juicy and flavorful delicacy traditionally eaten in Mexico on Sundays – explaining the timing of this market.

Whether visiting as a stand-alone Sunday destination from Centro or tying in with a weekend out in Mitla or mezcal country, experiencing Mercado de Tlacolula is an easy – and delicious! – must during your time in Oaxaca.

ÁRBOL DEL TULE

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Árbol del Tule - Tree of Tule / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
The giant Árbol del Tule (Tree of Tule), Oaxaca / photo by @travelinglamas

Located just 30 minutes outside of Centro you’ll find the small town of Santa María Del Tule, and in it, the famed Árbol del Tule (Tree of Tule). This giant Montezuma cypress clocks in as one of the oldest trees in the world (estimates range from 1,5000 – 3,000+ years), but the real kicker here is its width. The ancient tree boasts a jaw-dropping circumference of 164 feet / 54 meters, landing it in the record books as the widest tree in the world. In normal times local guides will give you “tours” of the tree, pointing out hidden figures in the winding, gnarled bark such as jaguars, elephants, lions and even human faces.

Currently the tree, as well as the charming plaza it’s located in, are closed. You can however still get a great view through the fence (see above photo), making it worth a quick stop while already on the road to/from Mitla. Hungry? Tie-in your visit to Árbol del Tule with a bite or refreshment. You’ll find a number of casual comedors (eateries) as well as nieves (Mexican ice cream) vendors located right around the plaza.

TEMPLO AND EX-CONVENTO DE SAN JERÓNIMO TLACOCHAHUAYA

Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / Convento de San Jerónimo in Tlacochahuaya / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas
San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya Church and Ex-Convent in Oaxaca, Mexico / photo by @travelinglamas

Religious art enthusiasts especially will want to stop at the Templo and Ex-Convento de San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya. This 16th-century Dominican church and former monastery may look austere on the outside, but the real draw is its beautifully preserved, ornate interiors. Whimsical ceiling frescoes painted by indigenous artists are accented by original checkerboard floors, baroque retablos (altarpieces) and a famed grand organ – dating from 1725 and still used in church services to this day. Located about 40 minutes outside of Oaxaca Centro in the small Zapotec village of San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya, this is an easy and worthwhile stop to make on your way to/from Mitla, Santiago de Matatlán or other destinations along Oaxaca’s Ruta del Mezcal.

HIERVE EL AGUA

Currently closed due to the pandemic, we took the above photos four years ago at this magical, otherworldly site located in Oaxaca’s Sierra Madre mountain range. And would be remiss not to include it here in this guide for future travel! One of Oaxaca’s most coveted destinations, Hierve el Agua is a 1.5 – 2 hour drive outside of Centro, hidden deep in the mountains past Mitla. Literally translating to “the water boils,” the waterfall-like rock formations you’ll see here are created by mineral water deposits slowly “boiling” (calcifying) on the mountain’s edge over thousands of years. The resulting petrified waterfalls are made even more majestic by a series of ethereal, mineral-rich infinity pools lying on top. Not only stunning to look at, these cliffside pools are reputed to have unique healing properties and YES – are absolutely swimmable.

While you might be disappointed to learn that the two infinity pools are man-made, you’ll be happy to know that the water feeding them is not. Surrounding the pools you can spot pockets of natural spring water bubbling up from the ground, not only feeding the pools today but remarkably, sustaining the area’s Zapotec inhabitants 2,500+ years ago. Keep looking and you’ll notice an ancient, complex irrigation system counting numerous terraces and canals, utilized by the Zapotecs in what is believed to have been a sacred site.

The best way to experience this hallowed haven (once it reopens)? By arriving in the morning just before opening time, when you’ll not only beat the crowds but may even be lucky enough to have this incredibly special site all to yourself.


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Best Things to Do, Eat & See NOW in Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (January 2021 / TravelingLamas.com / Photo by @travelinglamas


All photos in this guide taken by your favorite pair of @travelinglamas

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