Oaxaca City is one of the most popular cities in Mexico and it’s not hard to see why! Pronounced “Waa-haa-ker”, this vibrant city is exploding with colour, with rainbow-coloured bunting swaying in the breeze, buildings painted in shades of yellow, blue and pink and colourful market stalls filling the plazas. Oaxaca City is known for its rich culture, centuries-old architecture and incredible restaurants. Foodies flock to the city to sample local specialities you won’t find in a standard Mexican restaurant.
This 3 day itinerary will take you around historic landmarks, ancient ruins, and bustling neighbourhoods full of colour and life. While you could easily spend weeks here and not get bored, you can see and do a lot during a shorter stay. This itinerary will give you lots of ideas on how to spend three days in Oaxaca, and can be easily adapted depending on your interests and how much time you have to explore this charming city.
Day 1 AM: EXPLORING THE HISTORIC CENTRE
Your first stop should be Oaxaca’s historic centre, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 thanks to its beautiful colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and picturesque plazas. It dates back to 1529 and there are reportedly more than 1,200 registered historic sites scattered around the city. The Zócalo (main square) is surrounded by dozens of restaurants, shops and attractions and is the ideal spot for relaxing and people-watching.
The Zócalo is right next to the impressive Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the most extravagant church in the city. Opening hours are very sporadic (don’t trust what it says on Google) but if you manage to get inside, you’ll be rewarded with ornate Baroque architecture and elaborate gold leaf decorations from floor to ceiling. The church is free to enter, and there’s also a museum and garden on-site which you can pay to go into (Museo de las Culturas and Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca). The museum has 14 rooms with permanent exhibitions which showcase the region’s rich cultural history and art from the pre-Hispanic times to present day.
Day 1 PM: MARKET LUNCH AND SHOPPING
It’s time for lunch! Let’s head to one of Oaxaca’s markets to try a local speciality. The most popular markets in Oaxaca are Mercado Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Both markets are bustling and noisy, with vendors serving freshly-cooked meals, and stalls selling clothing, handicrafts, leather goods, spices, fruit and vegetables. If you’re a meat lover, I suggest going to Pasillo de Humo (“Smoke hall/alley”) in Mercado 20 de Noviembre. There are rows of vendors selling different types and cuts of meat that you can buy and have them cooked al carbon (over charcoal) for a delicious smoky flavour. You can take it home with you or eat in the seating areas next to the grills. If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of other Oaxacan specialties in the main market like tlayudas, pan de yema, enchiladas de mole, mole coloradito and tamales.
After lunch, continue exploring the colourful streets of Oaxaca. It is a compact, walkable city and there are so many cute boutiques and clothing stores. You can find shop after shop of gorgeous homeware, crockery, vases, purses, clothes, jewellery and leather goods. I was genuinely disappointed when I realised how few souvenirs I could squeeze into my backpack! The next time I visit Oaxaca, it will be with a half-empty suitcase so I can shop with wild abandon.
For a sweet pick-me-up, head to Pop! gelateria for one of their tasty ice creams or sorbets. They specialise in fruit sorbet made with or without Mezcal (flavours include passion fruit, mango, lime and tamarind). If you’re not a sorbet fan, they have dozens of ice lolly flavours (try the coconut one – it has real shredded coconut in it).
After a full day of shopping and sightseeing, head back to your accommodation to rest and recharge. Then it’s time for dinner! It’s only fitting on your first night in Oaxaca to try its most famous dish; a complex sauce made of 20 or more ingredients called mole (pronounced ‘mo-lay’). There are seven types of mole; amarillito, mole negro, coloradito, verde, chichilo, manchamanteles and rojo, which all vary in terms of flavour, colour, seasoning, how they’re prepared and what they’re normally served with. I suggest trying the mole at Levadura de Olla Restaurante. We loved their mole negro with chicken, mole rojo with pork, and guava mole with shrimps and fried cauliflowers.
Day 2 AM – MONTE ALBAN
One of the highlights of visiting Oaxaca is the opportunity to explore the Monte Alban ruins, a pre-Columbian city dating back to 500 BC. Monte Alban is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the ancient capital of the Zapotec civilization. You can get up close and personal to admire the impressive rock carvings and intricate details, and climb the ruins for spectacular views over the valley.
I suggest arriving as early as possible to avoid the relentless midday sun. There are very few trees or shady spots so you definitely need to bring a hat, suntan lotion and something to cover your skin. The site opens at 8am and most people stay for 2 or 3 hours. The entrance fee is very affordable at $85 MXN per person. You can hire a guide on arrival, but we made do with the display boards scattered around the site (information in English and Spanish).
You can reach Monte Alban via taxi, an organised tour group or shuttle bus. As backpackers on a budget, we chose the latter option. Lescas Co Tours has buses departing every hour from 8.30 am, with the last bus leaving Monte Alban at 5 pm. Buses leave from Hotel Riviera del Angel, Calle Mina 519. It costs $90 MXN per person (return ticket). A taxi can cost around $150-180 MXN each way (make sure to haggle aggressively so you don’t get hit with the higher tourist rates!).
Day 2 PM – SIGHTSEEING IN THE HISTORIC CENTRE
After exploring Monte Alban, head back to Oaxaca for a late lunch in the city centre. Then it’s time to learn more about Oaxacan culture. The state is home to over 16 different indigenous groups, each with their own language, customs, and traditions. My boyfriend and I enjoyed visiting the Instituto de Artesanias Oaxaqueños (known as ARIPO); a hybrid shop and museum which displays locally-made products from different indigenous groups. Here you can shop for jewellery, clothing, art, textiles, homewares, crafts and artisanal products. After ARIPO, walk back to the Zócalo area to try whatever street food or snack tempts you the most. The main square often has live performances, salsa dancing , book fairs and festivals so there’s always something to watch or take part in.
DAY 3 – COOKING COURSE / MITLA RUINS
On your third day in Oaxaca, I have two options for you! You can take part in a cooking course to learn about authentic Oaxacan cuisine, or visit the ruins of Mitla, another important archaeological site which features intricate stone carvings and mosaics. Here are all the details you need.
I did a half-day cooking course with Gueta Oaxaca (They promote their course on Airbnb Experiences but I booked via Instagram). Myself and another couple were picked up from the city centre and driven to a beautiful farm in the suburbs, where we were introduced to our chef Su. Over the four hours we shelled and roasted cacao beans, made two types of salsa with red and green tomatoes, rolled out dough and made tortillas filled with shredded chicken and cheese, using a traditional Mexican press machine. We made a traditional mole sauce, prepared a frozen horchata dessert made from rice milk, gelatine and cinnamon and drank multiple Mezcal cocktails with tamarind and sugar syrup. Yum yum! Su and her son Chem (who translated everything for us from Spanish to English) shared lots of insights about Oaxacan culture and customs while we cooked together. The class wasn’t very technically challenging, but it was fun, informal and relaxed.
If Su isn’t available while you’re in Oaxaca, there are other cooking classes available on Viator, Getyourguide or Airbnb Experiences. Whatever your cooking ability, you will be able to find a course suitable for you.
Mitla is very easy to reach from Oaxaca, and its ruins are incredibly well-preserved. Instead of destroying them, the Spanish conquistadors decided to build churches and other colonial buildings around the ruins. When we visited, it was free to enter (a pleasant surprise!) and the ruins are very impressive, with their geometric shapes and bright colours. The entrance is easy to miss as you have to pass by a lot of market stalls first, but the locals were happy to give us directions. Once you’ve explored the ruins, take a stroll around the town. It’s incredibly picturesque, with colourfully painted buildings and houses. Visitors often stop by Templo Católico de San Pablo Villa de Mitla, a pretty church with red domes on the roof.
The town of Mitla is located 40 km away from Oaxaca and can be reached by taxi or local bus. Buses go from Colectivo a Mitla (De Los Derechos Humanos 210) and you can catch a taxi from the same spot. Alternatively you can get a bus from Central de Abasto (just look for a bus with a big ‘Mitla’ sign in the window). The bus takes around one hour and costs 20 pesos per person each way. Make sure you’re carrying exact change or small bills as the driver may not have enough change to break large bills. Taxis are quicker but more expensive, and should cost 40 pesos per person each way.
DAY 3 PM – SIGHTSEEING AND SHOPPING IN THE HISTORIC CENTRE
After the cooking course/Mitla ruins, you will be dropped back in the city centre. Time for more sightseeing! Head to the Santo Domingo Cultural Center, which includes the Oaxacan Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. This is the perfect place to learn more about the regional history and appreciate some of the city’s most beautiful buildings.
You could also do some last-minute shopping if there are any souvenirs you haven’t picked up yet. La Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca is one of the best shops in the city for Oaxacan handicrafts. There’s an incredible variety of jewellery, clothes, hats, bags, purses, crockery, bowls, ornaments and trinkets. Prices are slightly higher than what you could pay at a market, but as someone who hates haggling, I was more comfortable buying souvenirs here.
For your last evening in Oaxaca, try some of the city’s best street food at Taquería Tacomer. This humble taco restaurant is always full of locals munching on tasty pork tacos and platters of grilled beef, peppers, onions, and cheese. If you’re not too tired from the full day, order some Mezcal cocktails at Sabina Sabe and spend your last hours wandering around the historic centre as the sun goes down.
If you have more time in Oaxaca…
You can easily extend this itinerary by doing both the cooking course and visit to Mitla. You could rent a car to explore the Oaxaca region, an area famous for its natural beauty, beaches, national parks, Sierra Norte mountain range and protected areas. You could continue your journey to the coast; my boyfriend and I travelled from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, an idyllic beach town popular for swimming, surfing, and snorkelling.
Depending on when you visit Oaxaca, you might be lucky enough to attend one of its popular festivals or cultural events. The Guelaguetza is a traditional dance and music festival held every July. There’s also a Mezcal fair every July, and the charmingly named Night of the Radishes in December.
Commonly asked questions
Is Oaxaca safe?
Yes! For the vast majority of travellers, Oaxaca is safe to visit. In fact, Oaxaca is one of the safest states in Mexico. It’s always wise to be cautious and aware of your surroundings but I felt safe walking around Oaxaca alone and with my boyfriend.
Do you need to rent a car in Oaxaca?
The city itself is very compact and walkable; you won’t need a rental car for the city. If you want to visit somewhere near Oaxaca City, you can book a tour, rent a car or use local transport like we did.
Is there Uber in Oaxaca City?
No, there is no Uber or Lyft service in the whole Oaxaca state. They do have DiDi Taxi through the DiDi Rider app, which lets you call a taxi via the app. It works like Uber and Lyft; you have a record of your trip and the price is already set.
Where are the best places to stay in Oaxaca?
If you’re only in Oaxaca for a few nights, I suggest staying in the historic centre so you can easily walk to the main sights. My boyfriend and I stayed in Oaxaca for almost a week so we chose an Airbnb near Mercado de La Merced. It had its advantages (including a kitchenette and private terrace) but we did lots of walking to/from the historic centre.
What is the best time to visit Oaxaca Mexico?
The best time to travel to Oaxaca is during the dry season (October to May), which is also the high season. If you don’t mind some rain, visit during the Oaxaca rainy season to take advantage of lower prices and fewer crowds.
As you can see, Oaxaca is a must-visit destination for foodies, culture vultures, and history buffs alike. With its rich history, stunning architecture, and delicious cuisine, there’s something for everyone. If you have any other questions or recommendations, please let me know in the comments.
Ciao for now
Izzie, the Curious Sparrow