20 Things To Do In Oaxaca

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Oaxaca is a state in the South of Mexico and (before you ask) it’s pronounced “wa-ha-kah!” Spanning 300 miles (482 km) of the Pacific coastline, Oaxaca is home to some of Mexico’s best beaches and is a diverse region with mountains, valleys and deserts. Not only is it rich naturally but also culturally, so there’s a range of things to do in Oaxaca. 16 different ethnic groups still inhabit the region and speak their native language and it is famed for its arts and crafts trade.

Besides its culture, Oaxaca is also renowned for its rich cuisine, mezcal and hot chocolate. Oaxaca is a must for travellers looking for authenticity. Whether visiting for a few days or a week, Oaxaca provides plenty to explore, entertain and experience. In this article, we’ll be looking at 20 things to do in Oaxaca. We’ve assumed your starting point in exploring the region is Oaxaca City and, therefore, have ordered the list from closest to farthest from Oaxaca City.

Oaxaca, Mexico

Top 3 Tours

20 Things To Do In Oaxaca

hierve el agua oaxaca
Visiting Hierve el Agua is one of the top things to do in Oaxaca.

1- Take A Free Walking Tour Of Oaxaca City

A vibrant city with an amazing mountain backdrop, you’ll find colour and culture everywhere in its cacti-lined streets.

You don’t want to miss anything, right? Well, what better way to get your bearings than to take a free walking tour of Oaxaca City?

Free walking tours happen every day at 10 am from Oaxaca Cathedral and last about two hours.

Afterwards, you’ll know your way around like a local and can choose whether to pursue some of your guide’s recommendations.

Note that although tours are free, tipping is customary in Mexican culture. Another option you may like is this tour.

Oaxaca Cathedral is located at: Avenue de la Independencia 700, Centro, Oaxaca City, 68000.

2- Soak Up The Atmosphere At The Zocalo

things to do in oaxaca city
Admiring the Metropolitan Cathedral and President’s Palace in the Zocalo is an top thing to do in Oaxaca.

Rest your weary legs at the “Zocalo”, a large enclosed square at the heart of Oaxaca City.

The Zocalo is a symbol of Mexican culture, bustling with life and a great place to people-watch.

It’s the perfect place to grab a snack or a drink as you take in the sights and sounds.

The main city centre attractions are just a stone’s throw away.

The Zocalo is located at: Portal del Palacio, Oax Re Benito Juarez, Centro, Oaxaca City 68000.

3- Dive Into The Markets

You won’t fully appreciate the sights if you’re walking about on an empty stomach and this is where Oaxaca City really provides, with its many bustling markets, just waiting to be explored on a gastronomic safari.

One of the liveliest and most well-known markets is Mercado Benito Juarez.

If you’re looking for traditional items from Oaxaca, this is the place.

Another nearby great market is Mercado 20 de Noviembre.

The best experience here is the “Alley of Smoke”, where rows of vendors sell barbecued meat and vegetables served with fresh tortillas and traditional sauces. Yum! You may also like this foodies walking tour.

Mercado Benito Juarez is at Las Casas S/N, Oax Re Benito Juarez, Centro, Oaxaca City, 68000. Mercado 20 de Noviembre is at 20 de Noviembre 512, Oax Re Benito Juarez, Centro, Oaxaca City, 68000. Join this market tour.

4- Visit One Of Mexico’s Most Iconic Churches

santo domingo cathedral oaxaca city
Santo Domingo Cathedral in Oaxaca City.

Mexico is full of beautiful churches, but in Oaxaca City, one of Mexico’s most iconic churches is Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman.

This 16th-century Baroque church is beautiful inside and out.

Almost every surface inside the church is decorated with 3D relief using elaborate gilding and painted scenes.

From the outside, the church’s intricate façade gives it its iconic status.

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman is at C. Macedonio Alcalá S/N, Ruta Independencia, Centro, Oaxaca City, 68000.

5- Learn About Biodiversity At The Botanical Gardens

best things to do in oaxaca mexico
Visiting the ethnobotanic garden is one of the tranquil things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico.

With 900 different plant species calling Oaxaca home, learn more about this region’s rich biodiversity at the city’s Botanical Gardens.

Visiting the gardens is only permissible via a guided tour and English tours take place every day, Monday to Saturday, lasting two hours.

The tour will help you understand how deeply the local ecosystem and the natives’ lives are connected.

Oaxaca City Botanical Gardens is at Reforma Sur N, Ruta Independencia, Centro, Oaxaca City, 68000.

6- Sweat It All Out At A Temazcal Ceremony

Sometimes all you need to feel clean is a good sweat, right?

Experience this by participating in a temazcal ceremony, a unique thing to do in Oaxaca.

The Temazcal ceremony is performed to cleanse the body of negative toxins and has been practised in Mexico for thousands of years.

It takes place in a sauna-like hut heated by water poured over hot volcanic stones and usually lasts around two hours.

It can involve chanting and rubbing food items with different health benefits over your body.

Expect to sweat, A LOT, and you can lose up to a litre of sweat during a temazcal ceremony, so hydrate well before.

The best place to go in Oaxaca City for this experience is Ceviarem Temazcal Oaxaca but make sure to reserve well ahead.

Ceviarem Temazcal Oaxaca is located at: Prol. de Camposanto 119 Barrio, Callejon San Antonio, 7ª Sección, Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca, 68270.

7- Sample Some Mezcal

things to do in mazunte oaxaca bottle and small glass, with orange slice and gusano salt on a wooden table.
One of the fun things to do in Oaxaca is to taste mezcal.

Oaxaca produces some of Mexico’s best mezcal, so be sure to sample this famous alcoholic drink during your visit.

Mezcal is a spirit made from the agave plant and it has a unique smoky taste because of the distilling process, which involves roasting the plant underground.

There’s no shortage of mezcalerias to try around Oaxaca, and the heart and soul that go into mezcal production is truly admirable.

Book your mezcal tour here.

8- Have A Cuppa Mexican Hot Chocolate

Did you know that chocolate was first used exclusively by the Mayan and Aztec nobility?

They blended the cocoa bean with water and spices to make a bitter hot drink, the predecessor of what we know as hot chocolate today.

Oaxaca is famed for its excellent version of this beverage so use this as the perfect excuse to warm up your hands on a comforting mug of Mexican hot chocolate.

A great place to enjoy one and learn more about the art of making chocolate is Mayordomo Chocolate, with several shops all over Oaxaca City. If you’re lucky, you might even get some free samples.

Another way to enjoy Oaxacan hot chocolate is to go on a cacao tour to discover how the plant is grown and the traditions of preparing chocolate drinks and cocoa sandwiches.

9- Become A Mexican Master Chef By Taking A Cooking Class

things to do in oaxaca city mexico
A prehispanic dish typical of Mexico and some Latin American countries, tamales are steamed corn dough wrapped in banana leaves.

If you enjoy Oaxacan cuisine, a fun thing to do in Oaxaca is to take a cooking class.

Local chefs will teach you how to prepare several local dishes and usually includes free snacks and drinks to ease those hungry stomachs while you whip up your culinary masterpiece.

Numerous cooking classes are available throughout Oaxaca City with famous chefs to learn some tasty tips and tricks.

This is a must-experience for all foodies and a great chance to meet people.

10- Experience Latin America’s Largest And Longest-Running Market

If you are in Oaxaca City on a Sunday, take a shared taxi ride to Tlacolula from the baseball stadium.

Every Sunday, Latin America’s largest and longest-running market is held here.

Tlacolula has been a trading hub since the Zapotec Empire, and today, vendors from all over the valley come here to sell their wares.

It’s a sprawling market, stretching 1.5 miles (2.4 km).

Tlacolula village has a lovely square where you can sit back from the hustle and bustle.

11- Taste Out-There Ice Cream Flavours

After a day of adventures, hang out in the huge open square of Plaza de La Danza to taste some interesting flavours of local ice cream.

Ice cream in Oaxaca is not as creamy as you might expect.

It has a coarse texture, more like “granita” because of the ice crystals found in it, but this does not make it any less edible.

You can find some wacky flavours of ice cream in this plaza, like mezcal (of course!), grasshopper (chapulin) or prickly pear (tuna). Which one will it be?

12- Appreciate Life And Death At The Day Of The Dead Celebrations

day of the dead Oaxaca
Celebrating the Day of the Dead is one of the fun things to do in Oaxaca.

If you happen to be in Oaxaca City between 31 October and 2 November, you won’t want to miss the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos).

One of the most important customs of this celebration is to visit the graves of departed loved ones and take them flowers, candles, food or other things they may have enjoyed in their lifetime.

On the night of 1 November, families will gather around graves and spend until dawn with their departed relatives, eating, conversing and playing music.

Oaxaca has some of the best places to experience this, so if you’re here at the time, head to one of the graveyards like Panteon de San Sebastian or Panteon de Santa Maria and witness this touching celebration of life and death.

13- Scale The Pyramids At The Ancient City Of Monte Alban

things to do in oaxaca day trips
Another thing to do in Oaxaca for those who love history is to explore Monte Alban, the ruins of the Zapotec civilization.

Wonder at the impressive civilizations that came before by taking a trip to the ancient city ruins of Monte Alban.

Monte Alban is one of Latin America’s most important archaeological sites, as it was once the home of three indigenous civilisations from Oaxaca: the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs.

There are two scalable pyramids at Monte Alban. For this reason, your visit is best planned earlier in the day. Find out more here.

Monte Alban is only 5 miles (8 km) away from Oaxaca City and easily accessible via public transport.

14- Potter About At An Artisan Pottery Village

best things to do in oaxaca
Shopping for pottery is another of the things to do in Oaxaca.

Learn about ancient pottery-making traditions in the artisan village of Santa Maria Atzompa, where you will find some unique souvenirs to take home.

Situated just 7 miles (12 km) from Oaxaca City, Santa Maria Atzompa is known worldwide for its unique style of colourful pottery.

The pottery uses a technique called “sgraffito”, which involves scratching designs into the clay pots’ surface using a sharp tool.

Santa Maria Atzompa is also charming, with a lovely plaza and its own ancient hilltop ruins to explore.

15- Learn About An Ancient Weaving Tradition At Teotitlan Del Valle

cool things to do in oaxaca
Another thing to do in Oaxaca is to go shopping for traditional indigenous fabrics.

Teotitlan del Valle is a charming artisan village only 19 miles (30 km) away from Oaxaca City and famed for its outstanding production of woollen rugs.

Each rug is so intricate that it can take eight months to complete and follows an ancient Zapotec weaving tradition practised for over 1,000 years.

After a visit to the market in the town centre, why not take in the spectacular valley panorama by climbing the sacred Cerro Picacho hill?

You can buy tickets at the Museo Comunitario in town.

16- Visit The Magic Town Of Mitla

If you’re familiar with Mexico, you’ve probably heard the term “pueblo magico” (magic town), which are towns around Mexico that are awarded this title because of their outstanding beauty or rich history.

It is a mark of excellence and usually means it’s worth spending a day or two exploring the location.

Mitla or San Pablo Villa de Mitla, earned its magical status thanks to its archaeological heritage.

Its ruins are unique among other Oaxacan ruins because of the mosaic patterns found there.

The ruins are also famed for the “Column of Life”, a structure that, if hugged, is meant to divine how many years you have left alive. Hug at your own risk!

Mitla is 25 miles (40 km) from Oaxaca City and can easily be combined into a day trip with Hierve el Agua.

17- Hike From Village To Village In The Sierra Norte Mountains

The mountainous region of Sierra Norte is a hiker’s paradise and is perfect for multi-day treks.

Here you will find a community of 8 villages, known as the Pueblos Mancomunados, that have marked out more than 62 miles (100 km) of walking trails to connect their villages through the mountains.

These communities are devoted to ecotourism and have invested in tourist accommodation and restaurants throughout the villages to make these multi-day hikes very comfortable for the traveller.

Sierre Norte is 39 miles (62 km) away from Oaxaca City.

18- Swim In Pools At The Bottom Of “Frozen” Waterfalls

things to do in oaxaca mexico day trips
One of the iconic things to do in Oaxaca is to visit Hierve el agua.

Cool off from the Oaxacan heat in the refreshing pools at the foot of the petrified waterfalls at Hierve el Agua! You won’t believe your eyes when you first spy these frozen stalactite waterfalls.

Apart from the three pools, there are also several good hiking trails nearby, so come prepared with good footwear.

Because Hierve el Agua is 43 miles (70 km) from Oaxaca City, it is recommended to visit with a tour group, which usually includes some other attractions in the area, or private car as public transport is unreliable.

Check that the site is operating normally at a tourist information office beforehand.

19- Find Oaxaca’s Hidden Beaches

unusual things to do in oaxaca
Spending time on the beach is one of the top things to do in Oaxaca. This is the coastline of San Agustin.

If your idea of a good holiday is soaking up sun and sea, Oaxaca will not disappoint.

The beaches in Oaxaca are hidden gems and naming the best beaches in Oaxaca is tricky because there are so many worthy contenders.

Two favourites are Playa La Punta at Puerto Escondido, which gets some great waves and is an excellent spot to learn to surf, and Playa San Agustin at Huatulco, which has many reefs and is excellent for diving.

Because of their relative secrecy, many beaches in the state of Oaxaca come with that rare authenticity not found in other popular tourist destinations.

Playa La Punta is 158 miles (255 km) from Oaxaca City. Playa San Agustin is 159 miles (257 km) from Oaxaca City.

20- Surf The Waves At Barra De La Cruz

300 miles (482 km) of Pacific coastline comes with great surfing opportunities and one of the best surfing secrets is the beach of Barra De La Cruz (or ‘Barra’ to the locals).

This wide white-sand beach, bordered by lush palm trees, gets some of the best surf conditions in Oaxaca.

For experienced surfers, the swells are best in summer. For beginners, November to February is better suited.

Whether you are an experienced surfer or not, this beach will still blow you away with its beauty.

Barra De La Cruz is 231 miles (373 km) from Oaxaca City.

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Jane Williams is a writer living in Mexico. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, she has visited over 30 countries and lived in Japan for two years. Passionate about culture and history, her fascination for ancient civilisations has led to her to explore the world's iconic sites, such as Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. Even though she loves uncovering the secrets of the past, she feels equally at home exploring contemporary culture. A mother of two with a degree in anthropology, she enjoys sharing her travel adventures with others.