Top 10 Things to See & Do in Oaxaca City, Mexico

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Oaxaca, pronounced wah-hah-kah, could be Mexico‘s most vibrant and spellbinding city. The UNESCO world heritage site unfolds like a treasure trove of grand Baroque churches, hip hidden mezcal bars, and thought-provoking street art, blending centuries of tradition with contemporary cool factor that makes Oaxaca a must.

Here’s our round-up of the 10 best experiences in wonderful Oaxaca City…

1. Hang out in the Zocalo

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At the heart of the city is the Zocalo (the main square) – a huge open-air plaza buzzing with social activity, live music, and colorful street vendors. Restaurants and bars rim the Zocalo where grand 18th-century cathedral, La Soledad, also resides. This ‘heart of the city’ is the perfect spot to take some time out, and people watching is a must. Keep an eye out for serenade-ready Mariachis – they’ll even take requests for a few bucks.

2. Visit historic churches

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Churches, cathedrals and ex-convents scatter the downtown area. Hard to miss and worth a visit are La Soledad (next to the Zocalo), and the Basilica de la Soledad, but 16th century masterpiece, Santo Domingo, stands as the city’s finest example of Baroque architecture, filled with Sistine Chapel-like murals and dazzling gold. Its surrounding uncrowded streets, shady trees, and restaurants attract almost as much activity as the Zocalo!

3. Get swept up in a spontaneous street festival

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After the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in 1521, colonial development shaped the city center – but Oaxaca Valley’s rich history dates back to around 1000BC, and sixteen unique indigenous villages still exist within 50 miles of the city. These ancient cultures frequently bring their tradition to town, in spontaneous folkloric parades that fill streets with color, dance, music, and ritual that remain remarkably untouched.

4. Discover food and artisan markets

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These very villages produce many of the textiles and crafts sold across Mexico, so Oaxaca’s markets are deemed some of the country’s best. Buy direct from artisans at Mercado de Artesanias; purchase everything from fresh produce to piñatas at Benito Juarez markets; and feast your senses on food stalls galore at Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Keep an eye out for chapulines (dried grasshoppers), worm salt, and Oaxacan chocolate – the Aztecs pioneered it!

5. Explore ancient Aztec ruins

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Two of the country’s most important archaeological ruins, Monte Alban and Mitla, reside on the city’s outskirts. Their giant mounds and magnificent stone mosaics remain as two of Mexico’s most ancient hallmarks of (Zapotec) civilization, believed to date back to 500BC. 
Tip: get there early to beat the crowds!

6. Drink Mezcal

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Just one drink should accompany meals in Oaxaca – not tequila, but mezcal. Unlike tequila, it’s distilled from oven-cooked agave which gives the liquor its distinct campfire-smoky notes, though quality mezcal allows the agave botanicals to shine. Mezcal to Oaxacans is like Ouzo to Greeks – typically sipped from a shot glass, and consumed in every restaurant, bar, and mezcalaria in town. Sample a bunch and find your favorite at a mezcal tasting – easy to come by in the scores of mezcal bars that scatter the city.

7. Eat Mole

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Oaxaca is also the home of mole – the famously rich slow-cooked sauce that’s typically close-to-black in color and flavored with chilli and chocolate. Besides this popular ‘negro’ mole, there are in fact seven kinds (and colors) to try. There’s red Mole Poblano; dark brown Coloradito; terracotta Amarillo; green Verde; light brown Chichilo; and red-brown Manchamantel. Sample them all in one sitting at a mole degustation – Restaurant Coronita has been famously dishing up mole feasts since 1948. For more contemporary twists on Oaxacan cuisine, head to renowned Casa Oaxaca.

8. Marvel at street art and visit MACO

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Oaxaca’s art scene is equally as vibrant – on display in galleries and museums throughout the city. Stop by the Contemporary Museum of Art (MACO) for an official take on the modern art scene inside a sprawling 1700s mansion. Or, take in the many captivating street murals (often politically driven) that unfold through city streetscapes and echo Mexico’s fascinating history of revolutionary art.

9. Get a nature fix

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Much of Oaxaca’s beauty and ancient heritage lies in the surrounding lush valleys and arid countryside, where horse riding, hiking, beautiful waterfalls, mineral springs – and the world’s widest ‘Tule’ tree offer plenty of interaction with nature. Beach lovers need only head to the Oaxacan coast for quaint fishing and surfing villages perfect for chilling out.

10. Experience Day of the Dead

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Year round Spring temps mean there’s never a bad time to visit Oaxaca, though visitors flock here in late October for eerie Day of the Dead celebrations – revered as Mexico’s most impressive. Beautiful floral altars, festive foods, zombie brides, and skeletal-painted faces flood streets in a hauntingly beautiful celebration to honor of deceased loved ones.

Regardless of your travel pedigree, memories of Oaxaca City will linger as one of life’s purest cultural encounters. Pack your top Oaxaca travel tips and go!

Photo Credits: Julia Ingall

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