Anyone who travels (and, probably, anyone who has lived in New York) knows what it’s like to fall in love with a city. It’s not that different from falling in love with a person––you get the same butterflies in your stomach, the same giddiness, the same high. When it’s right, you just know it, and you want to drink it all in and discover everything there is to know about that place.
I fell in love with Oaxaca the first time I stepped off the night bus at 6am, with an aching neck and sleep-heavy eyes, and onto the bumpy cobblestone streets lined with pastel-colored buildings and overgrown bougainvilleas.
Since then, I’ve been back about eight or nine times, but it never feels like enough. For me, Oaxaca City has all the best of Mexico: the most delicious food, the tastiest mezcal, the most beautiful ceramics and textiles, and the most charming architecture. There’s also a growing tech and entrepreneurial community, a lively contemporary arts community, and an incredibly rich history of artisanal production.
Writing a guide to Oaxaca is something I’ve put off for a while. After all, how do you do justice to your favorite city? Here’s my best attempt––a list of my favorite restaurants, day trips, shops and sites in Oaxaca City.
What to Eat in Oaxaca City
The food. Oh, the food. I’ve taken several trips to Oaxaca simply to eat, and it was worth it. Oaxaca has, in my opinion, the best food in all of Mexico, so any Oaxaca City guide that’s worth reading should start off with where to eat. Here are my top places for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Mercado Sanchez Pascuas
Go to the back of the market where you’ll find people seated at a series of food stalls with benches. Order a tlayuda or a quesadilla de flor de calabaza (zucchini flower) from the woman working at the middle stand (which is also the second food stall from the left, directly across from the juice stand). Then, while you wait for your food, order a chocolate caliente or, even better, a champurrado (hot chocolate mixed with corn flour and spices), from the stall directly to the left.
When you’re done, walk out of the front entrance of the market and take a right. You’ll see a small street whose walls are covered in graffiti by local artists.
Hidalgo 719, La Paz
Casa Oaxaca Café
This is an off-shoot of the fancier Casa Oaxaca restaurant, which is in the city center. They serve awesome traditional Mexican breakfast. Not much more to be said.
Calle Jazmines 518
La Olla is run by Pilar Cabrera, a famous chef who specializes in traditional Oaxacan food. They serve amazing breakfast; my favorite are the huevos al comal––eggs grilled on a traditional platter used to heat tortillas (made from either ceramic or metal). I’ve heard their lunch is pretty good, too.
Reforma N° 402, Centro Histórico
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
This is Oaxaca’s main market, where you can shop for chocolate, mezcal, chapulines, and artisanal goods. There’s also an entire section of the market devoted to food stalls, and it’s a great place to get breakfast. You can’t really go wrong; just pick a stall, and order!
20 de Noviembre
EAT LUNCH OR DINNER
La Zandunga is my favorite restaurant in Oaxaca City. They serve fantastic food from the Istmo region of Oaxaca, and the restaurant has a great atmosphere. The first time I ate here, it was a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant with about five tables, each covered with that brightly-patterned plastic material typically seen in Mexican restaurants. The next time I went to Oaxaca, they had become so popular that they had to move to a much larger space across the street––same neon flower table cloths, same great food, more room and a new bar.
Don’t miss the fish carnita-type dip served with fresh tortilla chips right after you sit down, any of the appetizer salads, or the tamal served with queso fresco. They also have a bar with an extensive selection of mezcal.
They’re almost always full, so call ahead to reserve.
Calle de Manuel García Vigil 512-E
Feeling a little heavy or hungover from all the champurrado, tlayudas, and mezcal? La Biznaga is famous for its enormous leafy green salads. Like Zandunga, it gets busy, so call ahead. There’s also a really cool shop right next to the restaurant entrance that sells artisanal goods.
Gral. Manuel García Vigil 512
Los Danzantes is a Oaxaca classic, with great food and a beautiful setting. It’s one of the fancier (and more expensive) restaurants on this list. My favorite dish here is the shrimp tlayuda, accompanied by the house reposado mezcal.
Calle Macedonio Alcala No. 403-4
Casa Oaxaca Restaurant
Like Los Danzantes, Casa Oaxaca Restaurant is also more upscale. It serves traditional Oaxacan dishes with a sophisticated, modern twist. There’s upstairs seating on a beautiful outdoor terrace.
Calle Constitución 104-A
I haven’t gotten to try Origen yet, but I’ve heard great things about the food. They also offer workshops where you can learn traditional Oaxacan culinary techniques.
Av. Hidalgo 820
Where to Drink in Oaxaca City
Mezcaloteca is a mezcal tasting bar with a cool speakeasy feel. Each tasting session consists of three different types of traditional mezcals. The server will walk you through how each one is made, why it’s special and how to drink it in order to fully experience the taste. They’ll also explain the history of mezcal and what the industry is like today.
Unión de palenqueros de Oaxaca
If you like mezcal, you will love Unión de palenqueros. It’s a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop that sells all kinds of mezcal in labelless bottles. My favorites are the mezcal with pericón (tarragon) and mezcal de la olla. This is not a bar, so you can’t drink here, but it’s a great place to pick up a small bottle for your hotel room (when in Rome…), or to take back home.
Calle de Mariano Abasolo #510
Los Amantes Mezcalería
Los Amantes is a tiny mezcal bar just a few blocks from the Santo Domingo cathedral. At night, it’s not uncommon to see local Oaxacans spilling out from the bar and onto the street, sipping mezcal and chatting.
The Best Things to Do and See in Oaxaca City
Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca
Housed in the former monastery of Santo Domingo, the Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca offers a break from the busy city center. It’s a soothing space with mirror-like pools of water, cacti twice your height, and trees covered in intricate patterns that seem too sophisticated and symmetrical to occur naturally.
Reforma s/n esq. Constitución
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MACO)
Oaxaca’s contemporary art museum is a serene, modern exhibition space housed inside one of the many historic colonial buildings in the city center.
The stark contrast between the grand exterior and the simple, all-white interior is a reminder of Oaxaca’s effort to integrate its rich cultural history with its booming contemporary art and technology scenes. As the website explains:
“MACO shows––through its installations and activities––that the past and the present can integrate to create a valuable and original experience. This message is especially pertinent in Oaxaca, where the rich and diverse culture of the state possesses an enormous potential that, more than a motive for disintegration, should be important to social development.”
Calle Macedonio Alcalá 202
The Church and Former Monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán
The Santo Domingo church is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Oaxaca. It’s worth taking a look inside, but the best way to experience Santo Domingo is to sit in the plaza next to one of the giant agave plants and simply observe. You’ll see vendors selling kitschy artisanal goods, Oaxacan teenagers hanging out with friends, and travelers taking pictures or burying their heads in guidebooks.
Calle Constitución #101
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
I’ve already mentioned Mercado 20 de Noviembre as a great place to get breakfast. It’s also where you should go if you want to experience an authentic Mexican market (and pick up a few things to take home). It’s housed in a giant warehouse and contains hundreds of stalls that sell everything from chapulines (fried grasshoppers), tlayudas, mezcal, chocolate, mole paste, sweets, and vegetables to tin sacred hearts and strange ceramic genitalia.
20 de Noviembre
The Centro Histórico
One of the best ways to take in Oaxaca is to simply walk around the historic center. It will seem like each street is more beautiful than the next, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to glimpse inside a pair of big wood doors, cracked open just a few feet, and see one of the many incredible homes. Start at the Zócolo and zigzag along the streets until you get just north of the Mercado Sánchez Pascuas.
The Best Shops in Oaxaca City
Oaxaca has some of the most beautiful artisanal goods in all of Mexico, including ceramics, decorated skulls and animal figures, intricately carved guajes and elaborate textiles. It’s also home to several bold contemporary designers. Here are a few of my favorite shops in Oaxaca City.
La Plaza, artesanías de Oaxaca
This shop has all kinds of traditional artisanal goods, but it’s especially good for picking up ceramics from different regions of Oaxaca. There is also another store a few doors down that has a great ceramics selection. Hit up both!
Matamoros No 103
Silvia Suarez is a Mexican designer who fuses contemporary aesthetics with traditional Oaxacan artisanal techniques to make gorgeous women’s clothing. Her shop is right next to the Santo Domingo church in the historic center.
A Gurrión 110
Los baúles de Juana Cata
This boutique has some of the most beautiful textiles I’ve ever seen, including shawls, dresses, scarves, tablecloths, and decorative wall hangings. The attention to detail, the quality of the material, and the use of color are exquisite. It’s run by Remigio Mestas Revilla, who works directly with artisans in various communities around Oaxaca to produce pieces for his shop.
403 Macedonio Alcala
San Bartolo, Coyotepec, & San Martín Tilcajete
If you have time, rent a car and take a day trip to a few towns outside of Oaxaca City that are famous for their artisanal goods. Go to San Bartolo Coyotepec for ceramics made from barro negro (black clay), Coyotepec for beautiful textiles, and San Martín Tilcajete for alebrijes––elaborately-painted animal figures of all sizes.
Colectivo 1050° is a design collective from Oaxaca that focuses on ceramics. You’ll likely drink mezcal out of their mezcal glasses at several of the local restaurants, including La Zandunga. They describe themselves as a group of designers, artists and artisans working together to make high-quality, unique and functional products. Here’s a list of the shops they currently sell in.
The Best Day Trips Around Oaxaca City
Centro de las Artes de San Agustín
If you can only pick one thing to do outside of Oaxaca City while you’re there, this should be it. This enormous old textile mill sits on top of a hill overlooking Oaxaca City. Nowadays, it serves as an arts center, with rotating art exhibitions, events and workshops. It offers incredible views the surrounding valleys and mountains. To get there, take a taxi from the center of Oaxaca City; it should cost you about $10-$15 USD and take about 40 minutes. You need at least an hour to see the mill.
Monte Albán is an enormous pre-columbian archeological site about 30 minutes driving outside of Oaxaca City. It rests on top of a mountain, offering sweeping views of everything below. You can climb on top of the pyramid structures to get an even more amazing view.
Hierve el Agua
As your car climbs the steep road leading to Hierve el Agua, you’ll see what appears to be a massive waterfall frozen to the side of the mountain. It’s actually a natural mineral formation accumulated from mineral-rich water flowing over the edge of the cliff for thousands of years.
At the top of the mountain, you’ll find people bathing in two hot springs with bright turquoise water, and some of the best views in all of Oaxaca.
You can rent a car and drive there yourself, or you can go with a guided tour group.