Are you looking for great things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico? From food to culture and natural wonders, there’s plenty to be enjoyed here! Check out the best Oaxaca activities in this post.
If you’re looking to experience an authentic slice of Mexico, then the city of Oaxaca is a great destination. From ancient ruins to thriving markets, art galleries, delicious cuisine and natural wonders, there’s so much to see here.
Beautiful architecture surrounds you at every turn. You’ll also have the chance to experience a festival like no other in the world: Dia de Los Muertos! I visited Oaxaca for what was supposed to be one long weekend, and ended up staying here for over two weeks -there was just so much to do and experience!
With so much on offer, I’ll say that it’s difficult to know where to start, so hopefully I can make your life easier with this ist of the very best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Make sure you have travel insurance before leaving for your trip to Mexico! As we all know after the last couple of years, unexpected things can happen and you want to be covered when you need it the most.
SafetyWing is the insurance I’ve been using for the last 3 years. It costs USD 42 for 4 weeks (and much less if your trip is shorter!).
BEST THINGS TO DO IN OAXACA
Explore the Oaxaca Zocalo and Oaxaca’s City Center
Image by Raphael of Journey Wonders
Soak up the sights and sounds of Oaxaca city. The cobblestone streets are so vibrant with the colored walls and plenty of street art! They reminded me a little of charming Puebla.
The best thing is, all the main sights in Oaxaca City are within walking distance, so there’s no better way to get acquainted with the city than by taking a stroll through the streets.
You should start your adventure at the Oaxaca’s main square (zocalo in Spanish), Plaza de la Constitucion. Originally built in colonial times, the main square, or zocalo, has been the focal point for life in Oaxaca City for some 500 years.
There’s always something going on here, whether it’s a large-scale celebration of a special day, or just some street performers putting on a show for passersby. The main square is a great place for people watching as well! You can stop for a snack at one of the street food stalls, or buy souvenirs or fresh fruit with a bit of chili on top from the many vendors.
In such a religious country, it comes as no surprise that Oaxaca City is home to plenty of beautiful churches that are not to be missed. In particular, make sure you stop by the Catedral de Oaxaca, a magnificent piece of architecture with its amazing façade made from local green-tinged stone, and neoclassical interior.
However, there are beautiful buildings virtually everywhere you look in downtown Oaxaca, many of which hark back to the colonial period.
If you want to do a spot of shopping, then definitely check out one of the numerous local markets– a great way to tuck into some Oaxaca cuisine, or pick up souvenirs from your trip.
➤ Check out the Walking Tour of Oaxaca City to explore all of these places, including the Temple of Santo Domingo and the zocalo, with a professional guide who will let you in the history and local culture. Pick up and drop-off at your hotel are included. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
Take a Half-Day Trip to Monte Alban
Monte Alban is a pre-Columbian archeological site that’s just outside Oaxaca City, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was one of the main centers of the Zapotec civilization, and a trip here will bring you back in time. It’s not as famous as Chichen Itza or the Tulum ruins, but it’s definitely worth visiting these ruins in Mexico.
Even if from a different civilization, the architecture reminded me of the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Archeologists haven’t quite figured out why the city was ultimately abandoned, but the inhabitants did leave a lot behind to teach us about their civilization and culture.
From religious temples to a sprawling ball court, this city would have been a magnificent place when at its height!
➤ The Monte Alban Half-Day Tour takes you to the mountaintop to explore the temples and pyramids at the archaeological site, marvel at the 360-degree views of the Oaxaca Valley, and learn about the Zapotec culture from your guide. Roundtrip transportation from your hotel is included. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
➤ For a full-day trip that takes you to Monte Alban but also to explore the town of Arrazola, the birthplace of the famous Alebrijes, and other Oaxacan towns full of history and culture, go on the Monte Alban, Arrazola, Cuilapam and San Bartolo Coyotepec tour. You’ll visit an old convent and a church, get a chance to buy the most popular Mexican souvenirs, and learn all about the Zapotecs. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
Don’t Miss the Celebrations of Dia de los Muertos (Day of The Dead)
While Oaxaca City is a great place to visit any time of year, a trip that coincides with the Day of the Dead will truly be one to remember. Day of the Dead is undoubtedly one of the best festivals around the world, and the biggest of all Oaxacan festivals.
Beautifully crafted alters litter the cobblestone streets, paying respects to the departed while simultaneously transforming the city into a sea of color. Cultural events take place all over the city. Every night, families and friends reunite at the local cemeteries and throw some happy celebrations in front of the graves.
There are bands playing, bottles of tequila passed around, and everyone has the best time while remembering their loved ones. I still have goosebumps when I think about it! It’s a show not to be missed.
It’s a tradition to get the face painted as skeletons to celebrate Day of the Dead festivities. You’ll easily find people on the streets offering the service, or you can make an appointment at a hairdresser shop for a fancier make-up like we did (it always costs less than $10).
During this time, the local markets also really come alive. Everyone flocks to them to get everything they need to make their altar, along with special treats enjoyed at this time of year. These include chocolate and black mole sauce- all staples of the Oaxacan cuisine, but which take on an extra significance for the Day of the Dead.
One local specialty is pan de muerto, a special type of bread with decorative heads on it that goes great with local hot chocolate…yummy!
Take a Day Trip to Hierve el Agua
While Hierve el Agua is located quite a distance away from Oaxaca City, it’s DEFINITELY worth taking a day trip to this incredible natural wonder. Visiting this incredible place is in my opinion one of the best things to do in Mexico!
In Spanish, the name means “the water boils”, and when you reach the top, you’ll see why it was given this name. From a distance, it looks like a vast waterfall plummeting down the cliff face. As you get closer, though, you’ll see that this is actually an illusion, as what looks like water is actually a petrified waterfall.
At the top of the cliffs, you’ll find Hierve el Agua’s namesake- multiple natural pools, natural mineral springs, two of which appear to bubble and boil as the current from underground makes its way to the surface. Since these waters are so rich in minerals, they are said to have healing qualities.
While that may or not be true, it certainly does explain why the water here is such a rich turquoise color. Take a dip in the pools if you want to cool off from the hot sun!
You can hire a driver or a rental car, and get here with your own car. Otherwise, you can join a tour like this one below.
➤ The Hierve el Agua and Teotitlan del Valle Tour from Oaxaca City is a great way to visit the area and enjoy plenty of time to take a dip in the warm waters. With the tour, you’ll also get to explore the town of Teotitlan del Valle and learn about the Zapotec history and traditions, as well as visit a mezcal distillery to sample the drink. Roundtrip transportation from your hotel is included. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
READ ALSO: 11 Oaxaca Tours & Day Trips Not To Miss
Check Out the Templo de Santo Domingo
All good things take time, and that’s certainly true for the Templo de Santo Domingo. In fact, it took over 200 years to build! Originally founded in 1575 by Dominican monks, the Santo Domingo Church was an active monastery for over 200 years, before being taken over as military barracks during Mexico’s revolutionary wars.
It was turned into a museum in the 1970s. By 1993 the monastery was a little worse for wear, so extensive work was carried out to restore it to its former glory.
The interior is simply stunning, covered with over 60,000 sheets of gold and filled with intricate carvings and statues. This shows just how important this place was when the monastery was at its peak.
Go on a Cooking Class in Oaxaca City
Since food is such a strong part of the region’s culture, why not learn (and taste!) more about it in a cooking class? With the Flavors of Oaxaca: Cooking Class you’ll tour the local market for produce and ingredients. The best part? You’ll get to choose what you’d like to prepare; there’s no fixed menu for this Mexican cooking class!
The experienced chef, Oscar, will teach you to identify the smells and use the different herbs. You’ll end up with delicious dishes to feast upon, as well as traditional Mexican recipes to cook for friends or family back home. Gluten-free and vegetarian options are available, and you’ll also enjoy complimentary drinks during your class. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
Drink Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico
If there’s one thing that Mexicans are most passionate about, it’s their food and drink. As well as having a rich local cuisine, Mexico has also produced some unique alcoholic drinks that are enjoyed all over the world. But while you’ll doubtless find tequila in any bar in the world, there’s one drink that you’ll find mostly here in Oaxaca: mezcal.
Similar to tequila, it’s made from the heart of the agave plant, known as the piña. With a strong, smoky flavor, its distinctive taste alone is worth the trip to Oaxaca, Mexico.
There’s an interesting local legend behind the drink. It’s said that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking it and releasing its juices in the form of mezcal. For that reason, you’ll find that many locals call it the “elixir of the gods”.
While strolling through the city, stop in one of the many mezcalerias (mezcal bars), and ask the owner for a mezcal tasting. They’ll be happy to let you try a couple of different types. If you don’t have enough mezcal after this, though, consider joining the tour below.
➤ If you want to find out how mezcal is actually produced and see every stage in the production of this iconic drink, you can join the Mezcal Tour: A Day in the Life that’ll bring you to a mezcal distillery. You’ll get to cut the agave plant from the field, prepare it for crushing, and even distill the mezcal alongside indigenous producers and their families.
After all the hard work you’ll be rewarded with a break for lunch and the chance to sample up to 30 mezcals, as well as reduced prices to buy your favorite bottles. One of the best day trips from Oaxaca. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
Try Alllll the Local Food
Oaxaca state, as most of Mexico, is especially popular for its traditional (and delicious!) food. No visit to Oaxaca is complete without trying the local food and drinks. One of the most popular specialties is Mole, a nut, fruit and chili sauce that is prepared in several different ways and paired with most meals.
You can’t either miss the Tlayuda, Memelas or Tetelas. These are different variants of tortillas topped with all sorts of food, from beans to sauces, meat or mole. Another popular topping is Oaxaca cheese, a soft, white, stringy cheese.
In Oaxaca you can also try their very own adaptation of Pozole, a Mexican traditional soup, and the delicious Pan de Yema, a sweet bread you’ll want to have for every breakfast. What’s on top of the list? The chapulines, or grasshoppers as a snack, paired with mezcal!
➤ If you want to try the delicious food with a local, check out the Authentic Oaxaca Street Food Tour, with which you’ll wander around popular markets in search of the best and most traditional cuisine. You’ll get a taste of everything from tamales and meat to cocoa drinks, grasshoppers and dessert treats. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
➤ The Oaxaca Food Tour is a 4.5-hour food walking tour organized by a family-run company that strives to support the local cooks and artisans, therefore delivering a truly authentic cuisine experience. You’ll walk around Oaxaca trying over 20 traditional dishes and street food. You’ll also learn about the gastronomy, traditions and culture of the city from your guide. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
Visit the Tlacolula de Matamoros Market
Located 30km (18 miles) east of Oaxaca City, Tlacolula de Matamoros is a somewhat sleepy town for most of the week. On Sundays, though, the place really comes alive, as a vibrant market springs up that serves as a focal point for the people who live in the surrounding countryside.
They make the trek to the Tlacolula de Matamoros market to stock up on essentials, as well as to sell their own wares to city-dwellers.
If you’re looking for a great way to experience an authentic slice of life in Oaxaca, then we heartily recommend that you make the trip out to the Sunday market, and browse the wares on offer. It’s one of the most local and authentic day trips you can go on, and you’ll see the indigenous communities wearing their beautiful traditional clothes.
It’s easy enough to get there, as buses run from Oaxaca City regularly. From handmade clothing and rugs, to delicious fruit and vegetables grown in the fertile valleys around the city, there’s so much on offer. Make sure you bring some spending money with you!
➤ The Yagul Archaeological Site & Sunday Local Market tour takes you from Oaxaca City on a half-day excursion to explore the ruins of Yagul, the site that flourished after Monte Alban was abandoned. You’ll also visit the town of San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya and its religious art. You’ll head then to the Sunday market of Tlacolula, where you’ll have time to wander around and buy crafts or local bites. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
Explore the Markets of Oaxaca
Like most cities in Latin America, Oaxaca has plenty of colorful markets filled with sounds and delicious smells, and exploring them is a must during your time in the city.
One of the most popular markets for tourists and those with TEFL jobs in the city is Mercado 20 de Noviembre, a covered market that mainly sells food and fresh produce. Here you’ll find several little eateries where you can enjoy a traditional bite, as well as other food vendors, bakery shops, and traditional street food items.
Right next to it is the Mercado Benito Juárez , a well known market with plenty of food stalls. You can also find crafts and artisanal work, flowers, souvenirs, clothing and accessories, and street snacks such as chapulines (grasshoppers).
Visit the Mitla Ruins
Mitla is the second most important archaeological site in Oaxaca, right after Monte Alban ruins. This site was a religious center for the Zapotecs, initially established as a sacred burial site and the residence of the ecclesiastical power.
The Mitla Ruins are about 44 km (27 miles) from Oaxaca City in Tlacolula Valley, but they are worth the visit, especially to learn more about the Zapotec culture and the history of Oaxaca.
Probably the best way to visit Mitla Ruins is with a tour, not only because transportation will be covered. You’ll also understand and appreciate the site better if there’s a guide explaining the meaning of the ruins to you.
➤ The Mitla Guided Tour is a half-day excursion that takes you and a small group to visit the archaeological site with a guide who will tell you all about the Oaxacan heritage. You’ll also visit a workshop where you’ll see the traditional method of dyeing textiles with natural products, and make a photo stop at the world’s widest tree. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
➤ With the Hierve el Agua and Teotitlán del Valle tour from Oaxaca you’ll explore the ancient site of Mitla with a guide. You’ll also visit other iconic places in the region, like Hierve el Agua, where you’ll be able to swim in the thermal waters, the village of Teotitlan del Valle and a Mezcal factory for a tasting. ➥ BOOK IT HERE
Eat Tons of Chocolate at a Chocolate History Class
I love chocolate and I could eat tons of it, but I never investigated its history much. That is, until I got to Oaxaca and joined a chocolate history session led by Chris of Oaxaca Profundo Sessions.
The session lasts half a day and Chris will tell you all about the history of cacao in Mexico and its cultural importance, which was sooo interesting to learn about. Chris is very knowledgeable about anything cacao, and the best part is that the session happens while you walk around Oaxaca and stop for tastings at different markets and shops. Make sure you have a sweet tooth!
The class starts with a tasting of the traditional hot chocolate (you can find this only in a couple of places in all of Oaxaca!) at Mercado Benito Juarez, and then you’ll taste all sorts of things from drinks to chocolate bars and even chocolate-covered grasshoppers in a few chocolate shops! The session also includes lunch mid-way so you can take a break from all the sugar.
I never thought there’s a thing such as “too much chocolate”, but trust me, this session will feed you so much delicious chocolate that you won’t want to see any of it for a while! No chocolate lover should miss this while in Oaxaca.
Stroll Through the Oaxaca Botanical Garden
Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden occupies 2.3 acres of former monastic grounds, and it showcases the broad diversity of vegetation and climate that characterize the state of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is in fact the home of plants that are very different and come from the most arid regions to the sierras (mountain ranges) and the humid zones.
Cactus plants are probably the highlight of the botanical gardens, but you can also find agave, native trees. You’ll also find plenty of flowers which bloom during the spring, like Flor de Mayo and wild hibiscus.
Due to COVID, the only way to visit the garden is with a guided tour. The English tours are conducted on Tuesday and Thursday at 11 AM. You can check their website to find out the schedule for other languages, if you speak them and find the timing more convenient.
Entrance Fee: 100 MXN per person, children up to 12 years old don’t pay.
TIP: Spanish tours are also available. The entrance fee for the Spanish tour is 50 MXN, so if you speak Spanish you could benefit for the reduced fee.
Volunteer in Oaxaca
Have you ever wanted to volunteer somewhere abroad, maybe in Mexico, but you had no idea where to find a placement? You’re right, it’s not easy to find good volunteer opportunities in Mexico on your own. Agencies can charge up to thousands of dollars to find you a volunteer placement.
On Worldpackers, however, there are tons of opportunities when it comes to volunteering in Oaxaca. You can help spreading the word about the importance of cacao on social media, work at a hostel, or help in the kitchen of a vegetarian restaurant, to say a few.
You’ll need to pay a yearly membership that gives you access to thousands of volunteer placements all over the world, and that is frankly very accessible. The yearly membership usually costs $49, but use this link for $10 off the membership.
WHERE TO STAY IN OAXACA | BEST OAXACA HOTELS
Book your accommodation by using the map below ⬇
LUXURY: Hotel Casa Santo Origen – This 5-star hotel features a swimming pool, restaurant, bar and free parking area to make your stay extra comfortable. The rooms have a private bathroom with toiletries, bathrobes and slippers, and there’s a coffee machine, air-conditioning, safety deposit box and cable TV in all of them.
BOUTIQUE HOTEL: Hotel Azul de Oaxaca – Located in central Oaxaca, the hotel has a patio and a roof terrace with incredible city views, a bar and a restaurant, a library, and fully-equipped rooms with private bathroom. The hotel is pet-friendly and it also features family rooms.
BUDGET: Azul Cielo Hostel – The hostel’s rooms feature a cable TV and a ceiling fan, and you could share accommodation with other travelers or choose to have a private room. There’s a complimentary breakfast with the stay, and concierge service available.
And when you are done exploring the city, go and check out the Puerto Escondido beaches in Oaxaca state! They are a beautiful place to go and relax.
Ready to explore Oaxaca? Happy travels!
THINGS TO DO IN OAXACA FAQ
Oaxaca is a relatively safe destination for tourists, and as long as you exercise common-sense safety practices, like avoiding shady places or wandering alone in the dark, and always keeping an eye on your belongings, you should be fine.
Three days in Oaxaca should be enough to visit the main areas and attractions, try its fantastic food and experience the local culture and heritage. If you can plan for a couple extra days, even better!
Unfortunately, Uber is not available in Oaxaca.
The best time to visit Oaxaca is during the spring or the fall, when the temperature is not extreme and there’s lower tourism. From February to May, and from September to early November are great months to visit.
This is a tricky one! Oaxaca is pronounced [wa-ha-ka], with accent on the ha.