Your Ultimate Travel Guide to Magical Oaxaca City, Mexico (2023)

A complete travel guide to Oaxaca City, Mexico, covering everything from best restaurants and street food to mercados and mezcal bars, historic sights to archaeological sites and the best boutique hotels.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Oaxaca Travel Guide: In & Around Oaxaca City, Mexico

Last updated: August 2023

When thinking about Oaxaca, a few words immediately come to mind: colorful, cultural, culinary, historic and above all, magical. Words that come to life the second you step foot in the namesake capital of Mexico’s Oaxaca state, and words that I experienced (and then some) during my recent extended stay in a city that effectively charmed me – and still has my heart.

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

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Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

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Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Practicals.


Wifi is available and plentiful all throughout Oaxaca Centro, and most businesses have free wifi. Cell service and data are prevalent in Centro as well, although be prepared for this to dwindle the further out into the valleys and of course, mountains, you go.


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.

ATMs: 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. Depending on how much you’re taking out, you could be losing anywhere from $10.00 – $100.00+ USD by accepting the ATM’s exchange rate. Heed my advice and don’t do it!

Related: This Pretty Seaside City is Mexico’s Newest It-Destination

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: 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 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 more eco-tourism activities.

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Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: How to Get Around.

One of the many things I 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.

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. I found car rentals plentiful and affordable in Centro, although was 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 me) considering a road trip to the coast.

Related: Valladolid Travel Guide: Best Things to Do, Eat & See in this Bohemian Yucatán Enclave

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Safety.

Oaxaca is among the safest states in Mexico, with a very low crime rate. My husband & I 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.

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Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Travel Insurance.

Wherever, and whenever, you might be traveling, travel insurance is always a good idea. I personally use and recommend Faye Travel Insurance for their thorough, easy to understand and fair-priced coverage options. Think: emergency medical and sickness benefits in the event of an accident or illness while abroad, compensation for lost luggage and personal effects, and trip protection covering things like unforeseen cancellation, interruption or missed connections.

You can even add optional coverage for your traveling pets, that sweet ride you’ll be renting, extreme sports and accidental vacation rental damage (oops). Plus! A game-changing travel benefit you can add on to your policy: the ability to cancel for any reason. Did I mention a seamless in-app claims process and rapid, on-the-go reimbursements to your digital Faye Wallet? Check pricing here.

Pro Tip: it’s best to buy your travel insurance policy within 14 days of making your initial trip deposit (like when you buy your flights or book your hotel).

Related: The Best Boutique Hotels in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Where to Stay // Best Boutique Hotels

Where to Stay in Oaxaca City, Mexico: Best Hotels
Grana B&B, Oaxaca / Photo: courtesy Grana B&B
Best Boutique Hotels in Oaxaca City: Grana B&B

The sister property to Mexico City’s Chaya B&BGrana B&B (named after the pre-hispanic, botanical dye “grana cochinilla”) is set in a renovated 18th-century mansion located just 1 block from Templo Santo Domingo. Calming, refined rooms with wood and cacti accents are offered from Standard to Suite to Loft, some with views of the surrounding cobblestone streets and others facing the inner courtyard – complete with antique fountain and inviting hammocks strung between traditional cantera columns.

A charming dining area hosts daily, complimentary breakfast, while a quiet reading room doubles as a yoga and meditation space. Grana further boasts a romantic rooftop with beautiful views of the city, surrounding mountains and of course – epic Oaxacan sunsets.

Book your stay at Grana B&B.

Where to Stay in Oaxaca City, Mexico: Best Hotels
Casa de las Bugambilias, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Boutique Hotels in Oaxaca City: 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.

I also loved 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.

Book your stay at Casa de las Bugambilias.

Best Boutique Hotels in Oaxaca City: Casa Antonieta

Located just two blocks from the bustling zócalo (main square), this chic boutique hotel acts as a calming haven right in the middle of it all. Riddled with history, the property was previously a monk’s convent that partially survived an earthquake – all before becoming a private residence in the 1970s inhabited by the current owner’s grandparents. (Got all that?)

Fast forward to now, and Casa Antonieta presents as a 9-room luxury hotel featuring neutral hues, natural furnishings crafted from sustainable materials such as bamboo and hardwood, and just enough accents to add style while maintaining a minimalist aesthetic. Plus: an on-site café serving up excellent espresso, cold brew and more that you can enjoy in the property’s peaceful courtyard.

Book your stay at Casa Antonieta.

Where to Stay in Oaxaca City, Mexico: Best Hotels
Hotel Sin Nombre, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Boutique Hotels in Oaxaca City: There’s More!

See all 10 of our top picks in: The Best Boutique Hotels in Oaxaca City, Mexico

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: What to Eat // Best Street Food

Best Street Food in Oaxaca City: Tacos Del Carmen

Possibly my 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 imagine 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Street Food in Oaxaca City: 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 – 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 the aforementioned 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).

Best Street Food in Oaxaca City: Memelas San Agustín

Have you even been to Oaxaca if you haven’t eaten a memela? Offered at numerous places throughout the city, I preferred mine 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 white 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Pasillo de Humo at Mercado 20 de Noviembre, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Street Food in Oaxaca City: Pasillo de Humo at Mercado 20 de Noviembre

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).

Best Street Food in Oaxaca City: 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 – leaving the texture slightly more dense and moist vs. the other. The most traditional tamal oaxaqueño comes stuffed with mole negro and shredded chicken, which I loved getting at Tamales Mina: a modest street cart located right next to the zócalo.

Here, they sell this traditional tamal 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 I loved 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Street Food in Oaxaca City: Tlayudas El Negro

Another must-eat ubiquitous with Oaxaca, tlayudas can be loosely referenced as a super thin crust, Mexican-style pizza. I’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.

Best Street Food in Oaxaca City: El Pocito

One of the more unique things I tried 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). I 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).

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, I’m not entirely sure.

Best Street Food in Oaxaca City: 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. My 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 hierbabuena (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).

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Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Where to Eat // Best Breakfast Spots & Coffee Shops

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: Boulenc

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll walk right by this place. But spot – and walk through – this colonial building’s faded blue facade and you’ll emerge into a vibrant 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, $58 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.

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: Pan:Am

This charming brunch spot is another excellent pick to start your day, counting three locations in Oaxaca City: Centro, Reforma and north of town in 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: Fonda Rosita at Mercado de la Merced

Head just east of Centro and you’ll find Mercado de la Merced, a 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, I’m partial to Fonda Rosita. Namely, for their incredible Chilaquiles (red or green; eggs, with 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 I’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!

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: 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. For later – a fun offering of coffee-based cocktails including a Cold Brew Mezcal Tonic and three takes on the carajillo (espresso cocktail). Café staples like toasts, salads and sandwiches are also on offer, in addition to freshly baked breads and sweets.

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: Cafe 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.

Related: Best Restaurants in Campeche, Mexico: Rooted Dining Crossing Land to Sea

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Where to Eat // Best Restaurants in Oaxaca’s Historic Center

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: Los Danzantes

This was my 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 an 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 I ate while in Oaxaca, and I also loved the Mogo Mogo appetizer (a take on Istmo wedding stew – more on this below) and Chile Ancho Relleno con Huitlacoche entree (chile pepper stuffed with a type of superfood mushroom that grows on corn).

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: 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 my 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 – 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: Terraza Istmo

Soon after arriving to Oaxaca, I 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. I 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.

I wasn’t disappointed – with the food, service or beautiful views of the surrounding city and mountains. I 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.

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: Restaurante Coronita

Located inside Hotel Valle de Oaxaca near the zócalo, the 70+ year old 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.

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: Terraza Los Amantes

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 I preferred Terraza Los Amantes: 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. Even better if you soak in said views while sipping one of Los Amantes’ own mezcals.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca City: 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 I say go for the Table de Quesos and Entremés Mixta (sauteed chistorra, chorizo, mushrooms & garlic). Salud!

Related: These Are the Best & Most Unique Dining Experiences in Mexico’s Riviera Maya

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Where to Eat // Best Restaurants Outside of Oaxaca’s Historic Center

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Itanoní, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca: 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. One not just celebrating, but preserving, heirloom maíz varietals that are 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 depending on which filling you choose. My faves? The tetela con chicharrón y quesillo and the de ese con hoja santa y quesillo (pictured above).

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Tierra Antigua, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca: 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 of 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 mine!

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, 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 fair warning: tortilla-making is not nearly 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. 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 6pm daily.

Best Restaurants in Oaxaca: 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Hotel Casa Regina, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Restaurants in Oaxaca: Hotel Casa Regina

Head past Mitla and on the road to Xaagá (and further, Hierve el Agua) 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 (read: tetelas, mole negro and chicharron en salsa), sip inventive craft cocktails and soak in the sweeping views. Top tip: time your visit with sunset. I saw many beautiful sunsets during my time in Oaxaca, but the one I saw here was truly memorable.

Related: 8 Epicurean Experiences Feeding Your Wanderlust at Luxury Resorts Around the World, Italy to Anguilla

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Where to Drink // Best Mezcal Bars in Oaxaca’s Historic Center

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Casa Convite, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Casa Convite, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Mezcal Bars in Oaxaca City: Casa Convite

Head to Casa Convite to sip eponymous 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 my personal fave, the botana oaxaqueña. Choose from a multi-mezcal tasting 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.

Best Mezcal Bars in Oaxaca City: La 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. Think: mezcal origins, different agave varietals like espadín, tobalá and madrecuishe, and the growth, harvest and distillation process.

Open Monday – Saturday from 1pm – 9pm, advance tasting reservations are a must which you can make online here.

Best Mezcal Bars in Oaxaca City: Mezcalería Los Amantes

This tiny mezcal bar will likely cause you to have the same love affair with Oaxaca as I 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 (tasting) 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Mezcalería Cuish, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Mezcal Bars in Oaxaca City: Mezcalería Cuish

Tucked into the southwest corner of Centro you’ll find Mezcalería Cuish , an artisanal co-op working with a number of maestro mezcaleros (master mezcal producers) throughout different regions of Oaxaca. Each specialize 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 I did – lucking out with knowledgable and friendly bartenders 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.

Best Mezcal Bars in Oaxaca City: 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 – par for the course with mezcal! Order your favorite or better yet, ask the bartender to create a tasting for you based on your palate preferences.

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, and 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 4pm – 12am daily.

Best Mezcal Bars in Oaxaca City: 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 Terraza 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 garnachas, tlayudas, nachos and wings. Open 12pm – 12am daily.

Related: 9 Tropical-Inspired Craft Cocktail Recipes to Shake Up at Home

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Where to Drink // Best Cocktail Bars in Oaxaca’s Historic Center (Plus: Wine & Beer)

Best Cocktail Bars in Oaxaca City: Guajolote de Oro

Put Guajolote de Oro (literally “turkey of gold”) on your list 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). 

Best Cocktail Bars in Oaxaca City: 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. 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 – 11:30pm Monday – Saturday.

Best Cocktail Bars in Oaxaca City: 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 – 10pm Thursday – Tuesday.

Best Wine Bars in Oaxaca City: La Cueva

Located on an unassuming street on the eastern edge of Centro you’ll find this intimate wine and cocktail bar. Come here for an extensive selection of wine (Mexican and imported), artisanal cerveza, inventive cocktails and interesting finds like a Mexican sake I had the pleasure of trying on my recent visit. Plus: rotating happenings like guest bartenders and live music ranging from jazz to rock to reggae.

Best Craft Beer Bars in Oaxaca City: 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”). This nano-brewery and taproom is at the heart of Oaxaca’s artisanal cerveza movement, crafting interesting brews like an Earl Grey Pale Ale, Chocomint Stout and Saison Rouge. Enjoy by the bottle, flight or take your pick from the rotating tap, and don’t forget to pair with housemade sausages, charcuterie and cheese from the connected Gourmand Deli.

Related: Mexico’s Sun-Kissed Yellow City is Having a Moment.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Best Things to See & Do in Oaxaca’s Historic Center

Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City: Explore the Historic Center

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 to hidden gems everywhere you turn. Here’s my tried and true, recommended walking route to hit many of the main sights (not including mercados, which I’ll get to separately).

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Exploring Oaxaca’s Historic Center: Plaza de la Danza

Start at Plaza de la Danza, a historic square serving as a stage for cultural performances like folkloric dance, plus political happenings. Frequented by young locals playing soccer during the day, pairs of lovebirds can be found canoodling on the plaza’s stadium-style steps at night. Lining the plaza you’ll also find two stunning churches: the baroque Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad dating from 1690 (plus it’s attached ex-convent that now serves as the city’s Palacio Municipal), and the 1559 Jesuit-founded Templo and Ex-Convento de San José. Ready for a refreshment? Walk a few steps to the adjacent Jardín Socrates where you’ll find a small, pretty plaza lined with nieves (Mexican ice cream) vendors.

Exploring Oaxaca’s Historic Center: Plaza de la Constitución (Zócalo)

Now, walk east to the bustling Plaza de la Constitución, Oaxaca’s zócalo (main square) lined with restaurants, shops and plenty of vendors offering everything from colorful woven shirts, handbags and hats to street snacks and even shoe shines. Plus, historic buildings like the Palacio de Gobierno (Governor’s Palace). If you ask the guards nicely (and in Spanish), they may let you in to marvel at the soaring painted frescos on the first floor.

Exploring Oaxaca’s Historic Center: Teatro Macedonio Alcalá

Now, walk one block north of the zócalo and you’ll be able to gaze 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. You can admire the Renaissance-influenced style of the theater’s early 1900s facade, or perhaps even enjoy a performance ranging from ballet to orchestra.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Exploring Oaxaca’s Historic Center: Templo de Santo Domingo

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. A leisurely stroll along this vibrant artery will bring you to the famed Templo de Santo Domingo: Oaxaca’s ornate, Baroque masterpiece and 17th-century monastery-turned-culture museum. Wander into the Catholic church to view it’s gilded, 23.5-karat gold leaf interiors – with or without one of the tour guides who will undoubtedly offer you their services as you approach – then peruse Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological artifacts at the aforementioned Culture Museum. Don’t miss the exhibition room housing fascinating finds as excavated from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán.

Exploring Oaxaca’s Historic Center: Parque El Llano

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. Both Jardín Conzatti and Parque El Llano are located on the north end of Centro, making them particularly perfect stops if you’re heading to/from the Reforma neighborhood.

Related: These Are The Best Sweatproof & Water Resistant Sunscreens to Slather on Now

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Mercado Benito Juárez, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City: Shop ‘Til You Drop in the Mercados (Markets)

Oaxaca is absolutely a place where you should shop ’til you drop. Compared to other popular destinations in Mexico, prices 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. While you can certainly find said souvenir goldmines amongst Oaxaca’s many street vendors and well-curated shops (not to mention entire artisan villages), the city’s vibrant mercados are arguably the best place to start.

Best Markets in Oaxaca City: Mercado Benito Juárez / Intro

Wander south of the zócalo and you’ll soon find yourself in the midst of a sensory overload. 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 it as 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.

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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Chapulines at Mercado Benito Juárez, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Markets in Oaxaca City: Mercado Benito Juárez / Chapulines

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 my favorite, chile-garlic. TIP: chapulines go great with mezcal, which you can also find (and sample) here.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Tejate at Mercado Benito Juárez, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Markets in Oaxaca City: Mercado Benito Juárez / Tejate

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. 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.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Markets in Oaxaca City: 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) or to stock up on prepared foods, fresh produce and baked goods. Better yet – for the #1 reason most visitors come here: to experience the famed Pasillo de Carnes Asadas (Grilled Meat Hall).

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Mercado de Artesanías, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Markets in Oaxaca City: 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, I highly encourage you to carve out time and save your textile shopping for this place.

There are a number of reasons why I 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 dive in.

Best Markets in Oaxaca City: Central de Abastos / Mercado de la Merced

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 my top pick, Fonda Rosita, mentioned above in Where to Eat / Best Breakfast Spots.)

Related: This Bohemian Hideaway is Giving Tulum Vibes on Yucatán’s Under-the-Radar Gulf Coast

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Oaxaca City, Mexico / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Things to Do in Oaxaca City: Climb Cerro Del Fortín for Stunning City Views

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.

Related: 6 Psychedelic Wellness Retreats Around the World Offering the Trip of a Lifetime

Oaxaca City Travel Guide: Best Day Trips

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. Ahead, our top picks of where to go and what to do outside of Oaxaca’s Historic Center.

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Dainzú, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Day Trips From Oaxaca City: Archaeological Sites

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

Best Archaeological Sites in Oaxaca: Monte Albán

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 Albán 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 Albán is situated on a hill stretching 400 meters / 1,300 feet above Oaxaca City, leading to sprawling views of both the city and valleys below – not to mention the surrounding mountain range.

Best Archaeological Sites in Oaxaca: Mitla

Considered the second-most important archaeological site in Oaxaca, Mitla lies about an hour’s drive outside of Centro in the small, namesake 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 Spaniards 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 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.

Best Archaeological Sites in Oaxaca: Dainzú and Yagul

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. 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.

Best Archaeological Sites in Oaxaca: Atzompa

Hidden gem: on the other side of Oaxaca’s Historic Center (just past Monte Albán) you can visit possibly the least known of all the region’s archaeological sites, Atzompa. This small yet fascinating set of Zapotec ruins were actually once part of Monte Albán – 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 small museum in town.

Best Archaeological Sites in Oaxaca: When to Visit

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.

Related: 18 Best Cooling Beauty Hacks to Beat the Heat, At Home or On-the-Go

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Day Trips From Oaxaca City: Mezcal Palenques (Distilleries) in Santiago Matatlán

Oaxaca is synonymous with mezcal, and you would be remiss not to experience at least one 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 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 in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Palenque Gracias a Dios in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Mezcal Distilleries in Oaxaca: Palenque Gracias a Dios

My husband & I chose 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 history of the palenque. During the tour you may even have the opportunity to meet the Maestro himself. More to love: 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.

Related: Holbox Travel Guide: Everything You Need to Know for an Unforgettable Island Adventure

Best Day Trips From Oaxaca City: Artisan Villages

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 in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Master Weaver Diego Montaño at Tierra Antigua in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Artisan Villages in Oaxaca: Teotitlán del Valle

You can visit a number of family-run weaving studios and factories in Teotitlán del Valle, although I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend Tierra Antigua: 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. I was fascinated not only with the process, but learning that behind each tapete’s unique, beautifully woven pattern lies a deeper meaning depicting the cycle of life.

Best Artisan Villages in Oaxaca: San Bartoló Coyotepec, Santia María Atzompa and San Martín Ticajete

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).

Related: La Catrina: 9 Facts You Probably Don’t Know About Mexico’s Famed Dia De Muertos Figurehead

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Day Trips From Oaxaca City: Mercado de Tlacolula

Located 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca’s Historic Center (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.

Related: Mexico’s Newest Pueblo Mágico Boasts a Biodiverse Lagoon, Stunning Sandbar and Idyllic Boutique Hotels

Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Árbol del Tule, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Day Trips From Oaxaca City: Árbol del Tule

Located just 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca’s Historic Center 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 1,500 – 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. You can marvel on your own or opt for a “tour” of the tree from a local guide – pointing out hidden figures in the winding, gnarled bark such as jaguars, elephants, lions and even human faces.

Hungry? Tie-in your visit to Árbol del Tule with a bite or refreshment. You’ll find a number of casual comedores (eateries) as well as nieve (Mexican ice cream) vendors located right around the plaza.

Best Day Trips From Oaxaca City: Templo and Ex-Convento de San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya

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.

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Best Things to Do, Eat & See in Oaxaca City, Mexico
Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca / Photo: Alberto Lama for Under the Palm
Best Day Trips From Oaxaca City: Hierve el Agua

One of Oaxaca’s most coveted destinations, Hierve el Agua is a 1.5 – 2 hour drive outside of Centro, hidden deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains past Mitla. Literally translating to “the water boils,” the otherwordly, 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? 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.