The Best Things To Do In Oaxaca, Mexico

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Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-kah) is easily one of my favorite cities in Mexico, and fortunately, there is no shortage of things to do in Oaxaca. Known as one of the culinary capitals of the country, this gorgeous colonial town has so much to offer – both within the city limits and in its surroundings. You’ll easily fall in love with it and vow to go back.

From colorful colonial buildings to gorgeous churches; from well-curated museums to lively markets; from delicious food and drinks and unique traditions, there are many amazing things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Albeit being one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, Oaxaca has managed to retain its local character. Steps away from the city center, you’ll find yourself completely immersed in the lovely local atmosphere, with friendly locals introducing you to the best food you can hope to have during your trip.

It’s in Oaxaca that I discovered my addiction for tlayudas – more about that later!

Whether you are spending a few days or a week, you’ll have so many options for incredible things to do in Oaxaca. Read this post to discover the best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico, and get ready to make the most of the city!

Oaxaca Zocalo

20 Unique Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico

Spend Time at the Zocalo

The heart of the city in Oaxaca is the Zocalo, the public square. It is a gathering place for residents and visitors alike. Most days, you are likely to catch an impromptu musical performance or a street performer providing entertainment for those sitting and walking around.

Vendors are usually present, selling souvenirs and street food. At times you will also find political rallies and protests. If you happen to visit around Christmas time, the square is beautifully decorated, and there are lots of vendors.

The Zocalo is a place where you spend time relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere, making it a great place for people-watching. This is an ideal spot to begin your day of exploring Oaxaca. You can return later to catch the gorgeous sunset here in the evenings, as well.

things to do in Oaxaca Mexico

Visit Templo Santo Domingo and Museum of Cultures

These attractions are located in the same complex, so it makes sense to visit one and then the other while exploring different things to do in Oaxaca.

The church is officially called Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. It was founded by the Dominican order in 1575, and the complex is in Baroque ecclesiastical architectural style. Inside the church, the interior is decorated with over 60,000 sheets of 23.5-carat gold leaf.

The Museum of Cultures displays the cultures of the Indigenous people that live in the region. The museum currently has an exhibit from Monte Alban that contains gold, silver, and gemstones. All the information in the museum is in Spanish, so be sure to use Google Translate on your phone to read the facts about the exhibits.

best hotels in Oaxaca
Photo by Jess Kraft @shutterstock

Visit the Ethnobotanical Garden

Learn all about the flora native to this region of Mexico. The Ethnobotanical Garden is located on the grounds of the former San Domingo monastery. The garden contains several varieties of vegetation from around the region, including cacti. All visits to the garden are by guided tour only, with English tours available Monday to Saturday.

Go on a Free Walking Tour

This is, without a doubt, one of the best things to do in Oaxaca to get yourself oriented to the city and what it has to offer. Guides are locals who have insider knowledge of the history, culture, and the best places to eat.

There are several free walking tours in Oaxaca. Casa Angel Hostel hosts a tour, and you can join even if that’s not where you are staying. Tours run on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, departing at 10:30 am sharp from the hostel.

Alternatively, there are daily tours departing every day at 10:00 am in front of Oaxaca Cathedral and lasting about two hours. If you are unable to join, book yourself on a guided tour such as this one.

Take a Look at Tule, the Tree of Life

Known to be one of the world’s largest trees, this Montezuma cypress tree is located on the grounds of a church in Santa Maria del Tule, just 5.5 miles (9 km) east of Oaxaca. The Tree of Life is one of the most popular places to visit in Oaxaca for its symbolism and stunning beauty.

This very large tree is sometimes referred to as the ‘Tree of Life’ because images of animals, such as elephants and jaguars, have been seen in the trunk.

The exact age of El Arbol del Tule (The Tree of Tule) is unknown, but it is estimated to be between 1,400 to 1,600 years old. The tree has the largest tree trunk in the world. The age and size of the tree have placed it on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

You can reach Tule by bus from Oaxaca. Buses depart regularly from the second-class bus station. Alternatively, you can go there on a guided tour that will also take you to Mitla and Hierve el Agua. For more information, click here.


Discover Archeological History at Mitla

Located about 27 miles (46 km) southeast of Oaxaca, the Mitla archeological site is found just outside the lovely small town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla.

Mictlan is a Nahuatl word that translates to ‘place of the dead’. Located in the northern area of the Tlacolula Valley, this archeological zone has structures of the Zapotec people. All monuments here are divided up into five groups, made up of two quadrangular courtyards. The rooms in these structures are decorated with limestone rock mosaics.

The Mitla Archeological Site is different from many other places to visit in Oaxaca as it is much more than a simple Mayan ruin, it stands for a profound and unique piece of Mexico’s ancient history.

Visitors can explore the Archeological Zone of Mitla every day but Monday. The easiest way to get to Mitla is by taxi. Alternatively, you can go there on a guided tour that will also take you to Tule Tree and other significant sites. For more information, click here.

See One of the Earliest Cities in Mesoamerica – Monte Alban

Mitla was a significant religious and ceremonial center of the Zapotec civilization, while Monte Alban was the capital city of the Zapotec civilization.

If you’re visiting the city and looking for inspiration for things to do in Oaxaca, visiting these important cultural hubs is a must.

Monte Alban was an important place for the Zapotecs and an economic center due to its agricultural production. The valleys surrounding the city were cultivated to fill the demand of the growing population.

The site has numerous monuments dating back as early as 500 BC. Located in the city’s main plaza, these monuments were among the city’s main civic ceremonial structures that housed the elite of the city. The figures on the monuments are believed to be representations of sacrificial victims, such as the Danzantes (dancers).

Monte Alban is located only 5 miles (8 km) from downtown Oaxaca and is easy to get to by car or tour bus. The site also has a museum, gift shop, and café for visitors and it is open daily. Note that you might have to pay a small fee for camera use.

For guided tours of Monte Alban, click here.


Taste Oaxaca Mezcal and Visit One of the Distilleries

Whether or not you are a big fan of drinking and nightlife, Mezcal is an important piece of Oaxacan culture and another fun activity to consider for things to do in Oaxaca.

Mezcal is a liquor that is made from the agave plant, and Oaxaca is well known for its special mezcal. It is made by roasting the hearts of the agave plants in a wood fire pit to give it its distinctive smoky flavor.

One great way to sample the mezcal is to take a tasting tour at one of the many mezcal distilleries in Oaxaca or nearby. Distilleries of note include Lalocura, Gracias a Dios, and El Sabino/Mezcal Macurichos. All offer tours of the distillery, demonstrations on how the mezcal is made, and a mezcal tasting.

For information on guided Mezcal tours, click here.


Be Brave and Sample Chapulines

You can play it completely safe your entire trip, or you can step a little outside your comfort zone. For things to do in Oaxaca, it’s important to truly immerse yourself in the unknown.

Chapulines are grasshoppers that are a common food eaten in a few areas of Mexico. They are widely consumed in the Oaxaca region and are sold as snacks at local sporting events.

Foodies tend to be fans of this unusual (for Americans) treat. The chapulines are toasted on a griddle and seasoned with garlic, salt, and lime juice. They are eaten individually and often become ingredients included in dishes such as tacos or guacamoles. You can find them sold in massive bulks at local markets.

Learn to Cook Mexican

After walking around and eating all the delicious regional cuisine of Oaxaca, take a cooking class so you can make these scrumptious dishes at home. There are numerous cooking classes to choose from in Oaxaca with a wide range of costs.

To book your cooking class in Oaxaca, click here.

Browse the Markets

Visiting local markets is definitely one of the unmissable things to do in Oaxaca. There are several you can check out these local markets or mercados in Spanish.

The Benito Juarez Market is a permanent market located in the center of Oaxaca City. Here you can purchase clothing and artisanal products, as well as food.

The Central de Abastos Market is the largest market in Oaxaca state. Shoppers can purchase everything here, from fresh food and produce to crafts and clothing. The market also has plenty of food and juice stands located throughout so you can take a break and re-energize.

Foodies will love a visit to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre – November 20 Market. For more than 60 years, many chefs have served traditional dishes to locals and tourists. The market is located just three blocks from the historic center between November 20 and Francisco Javier Mina streets.

This makes it the perfect place to wander around and sample the best cuisine the region has to offer. Here you can dine on any of the seven regional moles, Tlayudas, roasted meats, and taste mezcal. Besides the sights, the smells of the food being prepared will make your stomach grumble.

If you fancy a trip out of town, 18.6 miles (30 km) east of Oaxaca, you’ll find the Tlacolula de Matamoros Market. it takes place only on Sundays and turns an otherwise sleepy and unknown city into a very lively place! It’s a very local market – expect to find fresh produce, home appliances, clothes etc but fun to explore. You can get there by bus from Oaxaca.

To discover the flavors of Oaxaca, consider joining a street food tour. You can book it here.


Try Mole in the Land of Seven Moles

Puebla may get the credit for inventing mole sauce, but Oaxaca has seven varieties of their own mole sauces – so make sure to add trying local mole to your list of things to do in Oaxaca! The specific mole varieties include:

Mole Poblano – The most popular, also known as the red mole.

Mole Verde (green) – This mole is mostly made from cilantro, tomatillos, and jalapeños.

Mole Negro (black) – This darker mole combines chocolate with spices, bread, and dried fruits.

Mole Chichilo – Made from homemade beef stock, plus ancho chilies, arbol, and guajillo.

Mole Amarillo – This is one of the spicier moles that is thickened with masa harina or corn flour.

Mole Coloradito – This mole contains all the standard mole ingredients, such as chocolate, chilies, and fruits. The recipe also includes mashed sweet plantains as a thickening agent.

Mole Manchamantel – This mole contains chorizo, tomatoes, and fresh pineapple for a fruitier flavor.


Gorge on Tlayudas

The Tlayudas are the essence of Oaxacan cuisine and are mostly found in Oaxaca. This distinctive dish was featured on the Netflix series Street Food, where the program highlighted Latin American street food.

There’s no better way to fill an itinerary in Oaxaca than sampling all the unique foods you can, and tlayudas are an important piece here.

This traditional Oaxacan dish is a favorite with the locals. It is made with a large fried or toasted tortilla with refried beans, asiento (unrefined pork lard), lettuce, avocado, salsa, Oaxaca cheese, and shredded chicken, beef, or pork.

You can find good tlayudas at the market in Oaxaca. My favorite place, however, is a popular local eatery in San Lorenzo. It’s a bit out of town, but totally worth the trip. You can get there on a quick cab ride.

Admire Oaxaca Street Art

During your time in Oaxaca, be sure to take the time to view the fabulous street art on display. On a walking tour or bicycle ride, you can get a glimpse of the local murals in different areas of Oaxaca.

The Barrio de Xochimilco neighborhood is a quiet residential area with tons of art on every street. While on the streets surrounding Templo de Santo Domingo, you can see murals on the buildings when walking the cobblestone tree-lined streets. Just northeast of the Zocalo, towards El llano Park, are many more displays of murals and paintings.

For a guided street art tour of Oaxaca, click here.

See the Sculptures at the Fountain of the Eight Regions

The fountain is located in a plaza in the quiet neighborhood of Xochimilco. This makes it the perfect place to relax and reflect. The sculptures here depict the eight different cultural regions of Oaxaca. The annual Guelaguetza Festival is based on the cultural diversity of these regions.

Hierve el Agua

Spend a day in Hierve el Agua

The Hierve el Agua, Spanish for ‘the water boils’, is a waterfall located 44 miles (around 71 km) east of Oaxaca. It was created by excess minerals in the freshwater springs that flowed over the mountain edge.

The excess minerals were deposited and created the rock formation and two petrified waterfalls. This is a fantastic place to visit on day trips from Oaxaca, so consider adding it to your itinerary!

Take a dip in one of the warm mineral pools and refresh yourself after hiking around the area.

Hierve el Agua is open daily. In the past, it has closed down for extended periods of time due to local territorial disputes, so be sure to check on the situation before your trip.

How to get to Hierve el Agua

There are several ways to get to Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca.

BY CAR – You can either rent your own car or hire a private driver to take you all the way to the waterfalls.

COLECTIVO – Take a colectivo (shared taxi) from the 2nd class bus terminal to Mitla – the trip lasts about 2 hours, depending on traffic. From Mitla, you can take a shared pick-up truck, an Uber, or a taxi to Hierve el Agua. It will be another hour.

GUIDED TOUR – If you want to save time and effort, you can also just book a guided tour from Oaxaca. Most likely, the tour will go to other nearby destinations, such as Mitla, as part of the itinerary.

You can book your guided tour to Hierve el Agua here.

things to do in Oaxaca

Explore nearby villages on a bike tour

If you’re feeling adventurous and active, consider a bike tour exploring pieces of Oaxaca City while venturing to nearby villages. This is the best way to get off the beaten path, all while challenging your body and learning from a local guide.

This highly-rated six-hour tour takes you from Oaxaca City to the Tule Tree by bike and then to Santo Domingo Tomaltepec. If you have the time, you can also visit a small dam and a leather artisan’s workshop during the tour.

Most full-day bike tours offer a personalized experience around your physical abilities and interests. I went on this tour, and we biked approximately 30 km (18 miles), visited several villages, and truly explored all the nearby Oaxacan terrain.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your guide about your interests and capabilities.


Cleanse Yourself with a Temazcal Ceremony

A temazcal is basically an ancient Mexican sauna. This ancient Mayan ritual uses sweat to remove toxins from your body. The Temazcal, or sweat lodge, is still in use today and is very popular with visitors.

A Temazcal Ceremony has high value as it is so closely connected to Oaxacan history and culture.

See Pre-Hispanic & Contemporary Art at Rufino Tamayo Museum

The pre-Hispanic works in this museum are the personal collection of Oaxacan-born artist Rufino Tamayo. The museum has pieces from several Mesoamerican civilizations, including Mayans, Aztecs, Olmecs, and Mixtecs.

The Rufino Tamayo Museum has many modern and contemporary art pieces, too. Artists from the 20th century with works in the museum include Barbara Hepworth, Julio Le Parc, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, plus many more.

Inside the museum is the Tamayo Store, where you can purchase Mexican design products and publications about contemporary art.

The Rufino Tamayo Museum is not open every day, so double check locally before visiting. Unfortunately, the museum closed during the pandemic and has not reopened as of July 2023, but many are optimistic it will reopen soon.

mexican hot chocolate

Indulge in a Chocolate Tasting Tour

Oaxaca is one of the regions of Mexico that produces cacao beans, which are made into chocolate. In the city, many food establishments grind cacao beans for hot drinks, moles, and other recipes.

Needless to say, a chocolate-tasting tour is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca! These tours are usually a half-day and meet up in the historical center of the city. The guides will take you through the markets and to the chocolatiers themselves. You will taste mouth-watering samples along the way.

Further Readings

Make sure to read my other posts about Mexico:

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Discover the best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico - via @clautavani

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