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Last Updated on March 20, 2021

Just a 1-hour flight from Mexico City, Oaxaca has become known as a hot spot for arts, incredible food, museums, and culture.  Oaxaca City is also packed with history: indigenous cultures including Zapotecs and Mixtecs, as well as archaeological sites at Monte Alban and Mitla. 

With 2 days in Oaxaca City, you can easily see top things to do, including its colorful colonial streets, landmarks, galleries and restaurants.  With 3 days or up to one week in Oaxaca, you can fully experience this gem, by adding on day trips to surrounding villages and sights.

I’ve got great recommendations for the best things to do in Oaxaca City for a trip of any length: start with the landmarks in the historical city center, then add the day trip excursions suggested at the end of this Oaxaca travel guide, like Monte Alban, Hierve el Agua, and Tule.

In This Guide to Oaxaca, Mexico

Where is Oaxaca?

Oaxaca City (pronounced “wah-HAH-kah” with the emphasis on the “HAH”) is the capital of the state of the same name, located in Southwestern Mexico.  Also known as Oaxaca de Juárez, the city has a small international airport a 1-hour flight from Mexico City. Or take an ADO bus from Mexico City and be there in about 6-7 hours. The state of Oaxaca is also famous for its Pacific-coast beaches in Puerto Escondido, Mazunte, Zipolite, and Huatulco, which are just a quick flight away.

If you’re visiting Mexico City with limited time, check out this day tour option to see the top sights of Oaxaca in one day, including round-trip transportation.

Oaxaca, Mexico map
Map of the location of Oaxaca City, a 1-hour flight from Mexico City.

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Top Things to Do in Oaxaca City

Check out a detailed description below for each of the city sights on the map, or click the numbers on the map for my brief description. There’s also an individual map link below each sight.

1. People watch at the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman

When I visit cities in Mexico, I immediately head either to the cathedral or the city square to see what’s going on.  The Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman church and former monastery – an icon of the city – did not disappoint.  The church plaza always seems to always be bustling with activity: locals and tourists meeting up or hanging out, souvenir sellers hawking their wares, even painters with easels capturing the church and the enormous agave plants that surround it.

The Santo Domingo complex was founded by the Dominican order beginning around 1575.  It served as military barracks during the revolutionary war period, and the church was finally returned to religious use in 1938.  Don’t miss the church interior, which is richly adorned with gold, carved stone, and intricate woodwork. Its high altar is gilded with 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leaf! Don’t miss including the Santo Domingo Church in your top things to do in Oaxaca.

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman: map location

Vendors in the plaza of Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman
Vendors in the plaza of Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman

2. Check out city views and historical artifacts at the Cultural Center of Oaxaca

Located just next to the Santo Domingo Church, its former monastery is another top sight of Oaxaca. It’s been impressively restored as the Cultural Center of Oaxaca(Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca)  The 16th-century colonial building is beautiful in and of itself, with vaulted stone corridors and glassless windows providing impressive views of the city.  But the museum also houses a vast collection of cultural and archaeological treasures dating from the pre-Hispanic era to the present.

The museum also offers amazing views of the Ethnobotanical Garden’s lush landscape and the Santo Domingo church.  I took about 1,000 photos here – I just couldn’t get enough of the views! Cost: $70.00 MX

Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca: map location

Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca
Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca

3. Learn about the region’s history through plants at the Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden

Also part of the Santo Domingo monastery complex, Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden (Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca) is another best thing to do in Oaxaca. It sits on nearly 2.5 acres of the former monastic grounds. The public garden, which was designed by famed Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, is meant to tell the region’s history via its flora.  The plants are arranged within cultural and ecological groupings, and explore the relationship between the Oaxacan people and plants throughout history.  

The Ethnobotanical Garden can only be visited with a group tour, so check the schedule posted at the entrance to confirm the days and times.  In general, it’s closed on Sundays, and tours are offered in Spanish three times a day (10AM, 12PM and 5PM) and in English on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 11AM.  Click to check the garden’s website for more information and tours in other languages.   Arrive early if you’re visiting during a busy tourist season, to ensure you get space in the tour.

Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca: map location

Things to do in Oaxaca: Ethnobotanical Garden
Views of the Ethnobotanical Garden from the Cultural Center

4. Get stuck on the Stamp Museum

A stamp museum (Museo de la Filatelia Oaxaca) might sound like a snoozefest!  But I had seen pictures before my visit and was determined to see the minimal architecture of this museum.  The museum features stamps from Mexico and around the world, as well as artwork based on stamps. During Day of the Dead, they also decorate the museum courtyard with marigolds and other seasonal decor. It’s a peaceful little spot in the city just half a block from the Ethnobotanical Garden. Free admission.

Museo de la Filatelia Oaxaca: map location

Oaxaca Stamp Museum
Oaxaca Stamp Museum

5. Stroll the Andador Turistico of the Calle Macedonio Alcalá 

Oaxaca’s main pedestrian street connects the Santo Domingo church complex with the zocalo, about 6 blocks south.  Along the way you’ll encounter an area with shops, bars, restaurants, museums and galleries. During holidays such as Day of the Dead or Semana Santa, there are parades and events along this street as well.

Calle Macedonio Alcalá: map location

Andador Turistico: Oaxaca top sights
Andador Turistico of the Calle Macedonio Alcalá 

6. Get into Oaxaca’s art scene at the MACO

To fully experience Oaxaca, you must include one of its museums in your itinerary! The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO) merges global contemporary art with traditional, local art.  Housed in a colonial mansion dating from the 17th century, the museum has permanent exhibitions with displays showing Oaxacan painters including Rufino Tamayo, Rodolfo Morales and Francisco Toledo. Admission $20.00 MX.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO): map location

Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO)
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO)

7. See the city center at the Oaxaca Cathedral and Zocalo

Oaxaca’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption is just north of the Zocalo (public square).  First built in 1533, it’s been reconstructed a few times following earthquakes in the 16th and 18th centuries.  The zocalo is the center of activity in the historical center, a square ringed by shops, restaurants with patios, street vendors, musicians and more.

Visiting the zocalo and enjoying a drink or a meal while people watching is anther of the the top things to do in Oaxaca. Be sure to stop by the Oaxaca Mio kiosk by the Cathedral to see if there are any special events when you visit, or for a schedule of events for the Day of the Dead festival.

Oaxaca Cathedral: map location | Zocalo: map location

Oaxaca Cathedral in the zocalo
Oaxaca Cathedral in the Zocalo

8. Discover Oaxaca’s Textile Museum

The architecture of this small museum is one of the top sights of Oaxaca itself, especially during Day of the Dead when it’s adorned with a million marigolds.  But it also houses a beautifully-displayed and fascinating collection of traditional Oaxacan crafts and textiles. The museum has education programs that highlight textile techniques, materials, creative processes, and designs in Oaxaca and around the world.  The gift shop also sells artisan textiles from the local area. Free admission.

Museo Textil de Oaxaca: map location

Museo Textil de Oaxaca: Oaxaca Textile Museum
Textile display at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca

9. Shop and snack at Oaxaca’s markets

You must visit Oaxaca’s markets to get a feel for the local culture, including foods!  Oaxaca’s many markets are another best thing to do in Oaxaca. The Mercado Benito Juarez, located about a block from the zocalo, has a mix of many goods.  Expect to find an assortment of “everyday” local goods including embroidered clothing, leather sandals, woven bags and more. 

It’s also the place to find local mole seasoning, produce, meats, fish, and balls of Oaxaca’s delicious, buttery cheese. Don’t miss a traditional Oaxacan snack sold here: chapulines, which are fried grasshoppers toasted with seasonings like garlic, lime juice, chili and salt.

A block south of Benito Juarez, you’ll find the 20 de Noviembre market.  It also has some goods for sale, but the star of this market is its food stalls.  Stop here to try tlayudas, an Oaxacan staple, of a giant tortilla topped with refried beans, veggies and melted Oaxacan cheese, served either folded or open-face.  There’s “El Pasillo de las Carnes Asadas” (which translates as “The Grilled Meats Hall”) where you can select a cut of meat and have it prepared to your liking. Don’t miss having some pan dulce (sweet bread) or pan de yema (egg bread) with Oaxacan hot chocolate.

The Mercado de Artesanias features Oaxacan crafts from the surrounding area, including textiles, pottery, chocolate, jewelry, and shoes.  In particular, look for alebrijes, which are brightly-painted, fantastical wooden animals traditionally made in the Oaxaca region. The region is also known for its pottery, both black (barro negro) and red, and weaving.

Map locations: Benito Juarez | 20th de Noviembre | Mercado de Artesanías

Alebrijes animals traditionally made in Oaxaca
Alebrijes, brightly-colored wooden animals traditionally made in Oaxaca

10. Relax in the Courtyard of the Basilica de la Soledad

Need a quiet moment during your Oaxaca trip? Oaxaca’s Basílica de la Soledad is another must-see stop. The basilica is laid out in the shape of a cross, and is dedicated to Our Lady of Solitude, Oaxaca’s patron saint.  Completed in 1690, its spires and towers were built low to better withstand earthquakes. While it is an impressive building and beautiful inside, my favorite part of visiting was the lovely shaded courtyard. 

There are at least 3 different ice cream sellers with patios clustered around a fountain. They seem to compete for the title of “wildest flavor,” with options such as mezcal, vampiro and tuna (??). But you can also find a perfectly delightful mango, coco, or guanabana for an afternoon treat.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad: map location

Basilica de Soledad Oaxaca
The Basilica

Ice Cream Flavors at the Basilica Courtyard
Vampiro flavor… yum!

11. Try a mezcal tasting or food class

Oaxaca’s foodie scene is not-to-be-missed during your trip. Oaxaca is famous for its regional cuisine and for mezcal, a smoky spirit from distilled agave. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but it’s only made from one type of blue agave.  Get to know the city’s craft mezcal scene and amazing cuisine with a food tour, mezcal tasting or food class early in your visit.  You’ll find many bars offering mezcal throughout Oaxaca, but try a mezcal tasting room for the full experience like Mezcaloteca. Or take a full-day tour of mezcal distilleries in outlying towns of Oaxaca.

For more Oaxaca culinary tours, check out this food walking tour of Oaxaca or this street food cooking class. Or click to see all of Viator’s tours in Oaxaca.

Mezcal tasting in Oaxaca
Mescal is traditionally drunk from gourd cups called jicaras.

12. Take an Oaxaca graffiti tour

Oaxaca’s art scene spills into the streets with its graffiti, and you can stroll the streets on your own to discover it.  Or book an Airbnb experience graffiti tour via bicycle to have a guide for the city’s best murals, posters and stencils.

Oaxaca graffiti street art
Oaxaca graffiti street art

13. Visit Oaxaca during a festival like Dia de los Muertos

One of the absolute top things to do in Oaxaca is its annual Day of the Dead celebrations from October 31 – November 2. Oaxaca also celebrates the Guelaguetza Festival in late July, when different ethnic groups travel to the city to exhibit traditional clothing and folk dances. Or celebrate the Noche de Rabano, Night of the Radishes, when radishes are carved into traditional Christmas centerpieces.

Oaxaca Day of the Dead - Xoxocotlan cemetery for Dia de Muertos
Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Get all my best tips for experiencing this festival in my Oaxaca Dia de los Muertos travel guide here!

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca: Traditions & 2021 Trip Itinerary

Oaxaca, Mexico is magic, especially during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations! Learn about the holiday’s traditions and get an itinerary for your own Day of the Dead trip to Oaxaca!

Read more

Day Trips from Oaxaca City

If you have 3-5 days or a full week in Oaxaca, add on half day tour or full day tours to sights surrounding Oaxaca City.

14. Climb a pyramid at Monte Alban 

No visit to Oaxaca is complete without seeing its Zapotec ruins. Monte Alban is a must-see pre-Columbian archaeological UNESCO site about ½ hour from Oaxaca City.  You can climb the platforms for an expansive view of the site and its plaza, as well as 365-degree views overlooking the city in the distance. 

Tour options to Monte Alban include half-day tours (usually around 3 hours) which are easy to fit into a day of city sightseeing like this 3-hour option. Or you can take a full-day trip which includes visiting ruins at Mitla. There’s also a shuttle if you prefer to visit on your own.

Monte Alban - view from the pyramid
Take in views from one of the platforms of Monte Alban

Love ruins and archaeological sites? Be sure to check out my guide to all of the best ruins in Mexico, including Maya and Aztec sites!

Best Mexico Ruins: Ultimate Guide to 20+ Ruins in Mexico

Nestled in the jungles of Mesoamerica, the rediscovered ruins of Maya, Aztec and Zapotec cities stand as monuments to the power and knowledge of these ancient civilizations. How many of these Mexico ruins have you visited, and which are on your bucket list?

Read more

15. Explore the mineral pools of Hierve el Agua 

Have a little more time? Don’t miss one of the best day trips from Oaxaca City. Hierve el Agua, located about an hour and a half outside the city, are natural mineral pools and rock formations that resemble cascading waterfalls. The pools are created by fresh water springs, whose water is saturated with calcium carbonate and other minerals. 

Day trips to Hierve el Agua are often combined with other area sights including Zapotec ruins at Mitla, the  2,000-year-old Montezuma cypress tree at Tule, and weaving traditions in the Zapotec village of Teotitlan of the Valley.

Check out this tour option of Hierve el Agua from Oaxaca City that also includes Tule, Mitla and a mezcal tasting to finish the day!

Hierve el Agua - Oaxaca
Hierve el Agua’s ethereal mineral pools

How to get to Oaxaca City

Fly into Oaxaca International Airport, OAX, 5 miles from the city. It’s about an hour flight from Mexico City, or 4-6 hours from Mexico City to Oaxaca by bus.  Shared shuttle service to the city can be booked in the airport after you exit customs.

If you’re visiting Mexico City with limited time, check out this day tour option to see the top sights of Oaxaca in one day, including round-trip transportation.

Where to Stay in Oaxaca City

The historical center is the best area of Oaxaca City to stay in, within walking distance of all the city sights above. This is the main tourist area, with lots of hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and shops in easy walking distance of this neighborhood. Check out my best recommendations for where to stay in Oaxaca, including hostels, boutique hotels and Airbnbs to fit any budget!

Best Hotels in Oaxaca: Hotel NaNa Vida
Oaxaca has reasonably priced hostels and hotels to luxury boutique hotels filled with local artwork.

Oaxaca Weather

Oaxaca has a humid subtropical climate with a cool dry season and a hot wet season. The dry season, from November to March, has little rainfall. Due to its high altitude (over 2,300 meters) it experiences cooler temperatures than some other cities in Mexico. The wet season is from May through October but has a lower average rainfall than other cities at the same latitude. The hottest months are March, April and May.

Oaxaca weather by month - average temperature and rainfall
Oaxaca weather averages by month: average temperatures and rainfall. Courtesy

Where to Eat in Oaxaca

Safety in Oaxaca

While no destination is completely without risk, Oaxaca state is one of the safest parts of Mexico for travel! I felt quite safe here for a week for Day of the Dead as a solo female traveler.

Planning a trip to Oaxaca? Don’t miss all my guides for travel in the region!

Visiting for Dia de los Muertos? Wondering where to stay in Oaxaca? Can’t decide which gorgeous Oaxaca beaches to head to after your city break is done? Want to see more Mexico ruins or get the top tips for visiting the beaches of Huatulco or Puerto Escondido? I’ve got you covered!

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca: Traditions & 2021 Trip Itinerary

Oaxaca, Mexico is magic, especially during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations! Learn about the holiday’s traditions and get an itinerary for your own Day of the Dead trip to Oaxaca!

Read more

Where to Stay in Oaxaca, Mexico: Best Oaxaca Hotels, Airbnbs & Hostels

Grab my ultimate Oaxaca hotels guide: the best area to stay and the best hostels, midrange & luxury hotels and Airbnbs. Plus where to stay in Oaxaca for the 2021 Day of the Dead festival!

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The Best Oaxaca Beaches: Oaxaca, Mexico Coast Guide

Can’t decide where to stay on the golden beaches of the Oaxaca coast? Take a beach style quiz to find your perfect match! Then get travel tips on how to get there, where to stay, and top things to do at the best beaches in Oaxaca, Mexico.

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Best Mexico Ruins: Ultimate Guide to 20+ Ruins in Mexico

Nestled in the jungles of Mesoamerica, the rediscovered ruins of Maya, Aztec and Zapotec cities stand as monuments to the power and knowledge of these ancient civilizations. How many of these Mexico ruins have you visited, and which are on your bucket list?

Read more

Best Huatulco Beaches & Hotels: Ultimate Vacation Planner

Discover the secrets of Huatulco’s best beaches! Ultimate vacation guide with Huatulco hotels & beach resorts, things to do & best tours in this guide to Bahias de Huatulco, Oaxaca.

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Save What to Do in Oaxaca for trip planning!

What to do on Oaxaca City - Top sights
What to do on Oaxaca City - Top sights for a 2 day, 3 day or week trip to Oaxaca

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Adrienne, The Haphazard Traveler

I used to be a hot travel mess, but I got better! I kept the name and now blog my best tips for culture and adventure travel from around the globe. Follow along for travel advice, destination info, and photography from faraway lands - and at home in Washington, D.C.

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