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, there’s so much to see here, and it’s also a great base to explore the rest of the state.
Beautiful architecture surrounds you at every turn, and you’ll have the chance to experience a festival like no other in the world: dia de los muertos! With so much on offer, it’s difficult to know where to start, so here are the very best things to do in Oaxaca.
1| Explore the Oaxaca Zocalo and City Center
Image by Raphael of Journey Wonders
Soak up the sights and sounds of Oaxaca and the city center. The streets are so colorful! They reminded me a little of charming Puebla. The best thing is, all the main sights in Oaxaca 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 city’s central square (zocalo in Spanish), Plaza de la Constitution. Originally built in colonial times, the square, or zocalo, has been the focal point for life in Oaxaca 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.
In such a religious country, it comes as no surprise that Oaxaca is home to plenty of beautiful churches that are not to be missed. In particular, make sure you stop by the Catedral de Oaxaca is 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 this city, 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 in to some Oaxaca cuisine, or pick up souvenirs from your trip.
2| 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.
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! 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.
Looking for the perfect tour? Check out the top Oaxaca Tours and Day Trips!
3| Take a Half-Day Trip to Monte Alban
Monte Alban is a pre-Columbian archeological site that just outside Oaxaca. 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 worth a visit for sure.
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!
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4| Don’t Miss the Celebrations of Dia de los Muertos
While Oaxaca 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. Dia de los Muertos is undoubtedly one of the best festivals around the world.
Beautifully crafted alters litter the streets, paying respects to the departed while simultaneously transforming the city into a sea of color.
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: 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, as 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!
5| Take a Day Trip to Hierve el Agua
While Hierve el Agua is located quite a distance away from Oaxaca, it’s DEFINITELY worth to take 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 the rock of the cliffs themselves.
At the top of the cliffs, you’ll find Hierve el Agua’s namesake- multiple natural pools, 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!
READ ALSO: 9 Best Oaxaca Tours & Day Trips Not To Miss
6| 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 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, but 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 that show just how important this place was when the monastery was at its peak. Wander out into the gardens, and you’ll also be able to get a closer look at many of plants native to this region, in an incredible botanical garden.
7| Visit the Tlacolula de Matamoros Market
Located 30km east of Oaxaca, 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 easy enough to get there, as buses run from Oaxaca 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, so make sure you bring some spending money with you!
8| Drink Mezcal
If there’s one thing that Mexicans are most passionate about, it’s their food and drink. As well as having a rich 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 only really find here in Oaxaca: mezcal.
Similar to tequila, it’s made from the heart of the agave plant, known as the piña. 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”. With a strong, smoky flavor, its distinctive taste alone is worth the trip to Oaxaca.
9| 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, and 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
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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.