Looking for the absolute best things to do in Oaxaca City? I come here twice a year and here are my recommendations!
Ever heard of Oaxaca from your friends? It’s a constant recommendation, isn’t it? It is truly one of the best cities to visit in Mexico and an incredibly unique destination especially if your image of a Mexican vacation is all about resorts.
Oaxaca is all about Mexican culture known for its rich traditions, indigenous heritage, art, and architecture. So far, it is one of the Mexican states where you can still see local life. Unlike other destinations, it’s a vacation option when you don’t feel like you didn’t leave the United States.
I come to Oaxaca twice a year during day of the dead and in the spring season because I can’t get enough of Oaxaca! And even if I visit quite frequently, there are still many things to do in Oaxaca that I have yet to discover.
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In this article, you will see all my top recommendations of things to do in Oaxaca City that come with a map. You can also watch some videos of my experiences in each activity.
If you ever push through, see all my free resources about traveling to Oaxaca and you will get a lot of tips for traveling in one of my favorite cities in the world!
Here are the best things to do in Oaxaca including activities for families with kids. Let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment at the bottom of this article. Enjoy your trip!
👉🏽 See also: Oaxaca Airport Guide
Use the code MXINSIDER10 upon checkout to get a 10% discount on all things to do in Oaxaca!
1. Spend 5 days in Oaxaca
Every year, I do a 5-day tour in Oaxaca for Spring where I take readers of this blog around Oaxaca with a full-packed local itinerary. 5 days is enough for Oaxaca and during this week, you can discover the food, the top spots, and interact with the local community.
I only host 8-10 people for each group so if you don’t have travel plans this Spring, come join me in Oaxaca City!
2. Join the Oaxaca Day of the Dead festivities
If you are already traveling to Oaxaca, time your visit during the Day of the Dead as this is one of the top things to do in Oaxaca that offers a unique experience.
The Day of the Dead, or “Día de los Muertos,” is a vibrant and meaningful celebration where families honor their deceased loved ones. It’s an excellent opportunity to witness a tradition that has been passed down through generations.
Oaxaca’s Day of the Dead festivities are famous for their elaborate decorations, including altars (“ofrendas”) adorned with marigolds, candles, food, and items cherished by the departed. The streets come alive with parades, music, and performances.
For photographers and artists, the vibrant colors, dramatic costumes, and lively atmosphere provide endless inspiration.
💀 I lead tours for Oaxaca day of the dead every year so if you don’t have plans this year, come and join us!
👉🏽 You might also like: How to celebrate Day of the Dead in Mexico City
3. Eat your way through the markets
Oaxacan markets offer a vibrant glimpse into local life and traditions.They are bustling centers of culture where you can experience the daily rhythms and customs of the city.
Oaxaca is famous for its diverse range of products, including handcrafted textiles, pottery, wood carvings (alebrijes), and jewelry. These markets provide an opportunity to find unique and authentic items that are hard to find anywhere else.
The state is renowned for its cuisine, and the markets are the best places to try local specialties. You can sample a variety of traditional foods, such as tamales, mole, Oaxacan cheese (quesillo), and the famous chapulines (fried grasshoppers). Don’t miss the chance to try mezcal, a traditional Oaxacan spirit.
The markets in Oaxaca are lively and colorful, filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of the region. They are places where locals gather, making them great for people-watching and immersing yourself in the local vibe.
For those interested in learning about local produce, crafts, and culinary practices, the markets are a treasure trove of information, much more when you explore the markets with a local!
4. Visit Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden
The Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden is one of the lesser-known things to do in Oaxaca City. It hosts an impressive array of plants native to Oaxaca, which is one of the most biologically diverse regions in Mexico.
The garden not only showcases plants but also tells the story of how they are intertwined with the local culture, history, and traditions of Oaxaca. It offers a unique perspective on how indigenous people and their cultures have used and respected these plants over centuries.
The garden is located within the confines of a 16th-century Santo Domingo monastery, adding a historical and architectural element to your visit. The juxtaposition of the ancient building with the botanical life adds to the garden’s charm and appeal.
You can only visit on a guided tour and you have to fall in line to get in. They do not accept reservations but rather on a first-come-first-serve basis. The entrance fee costs 100 pesos ($6 USD approx) for English, French, and German tours. Spanish tours are half-priced.
✨ Tip: If the English tour is full, join the German tour as there are fewer tourists. Even if you don’t understand German, you’ll still get to see the garden! (FYI, I did this!)
5. Explore Oaxaca City on foot
Oaxaca City is a walkable city, and exploring it on foot is one of the must things to do in Oaxaca City! It’s a wonderful way to immerse yourself in its vibrant atmosphere and discover its many treasures.
The heart of Oaxaca is its historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking through its streets, you can admire colonial-era buildings, charming plazas, and colorful facades. Key sites include the Santo Domingo Church, the Cathedral of Oaxaca, and the Zócalo (main square).
Oaxaca is known for its vibrant street art scene. Walking through the city, you’ll encounter a variety of murals and street art that reflect the local culture and social issues.
The city’s culinary scene is one of its highlights. Strolling around, you’ll find a plethora of cafes, restaurants, and street food vendors offering local delicacies like mole, tlayudas, and mezcal.
👉🏽 See also: 41 places to visit in Oaxaca City
6. Attend a textile workshop in Teotitlan: best cultural things to do in Oaxaca
Teotitlán del Valle is renowned for its centuries-old tradition of weaving textiles, particularly rugs, using handlooms. These techniques have been passed down through generations, preserving a significant aspect of Zapotec culture.
Seeing the time, effort, and skill that goes into making each piece increases your appreciation for these textiles. It’s a stark contrast to mass-produced goods and highlights the value of handmade artistry.
You’ll gain insight into the entire process of textile creation, from carding and spinning wool to dyeing it with natural dyes sourced from local plants, minerals, and even insects (like the cochineal for red dyes), and finally, the weaving.
This is one of the most unique things to do in Oaxaca that supports local communities so make sure to add this to your list! Families with kids enjoy this experience.
🧶 Participating in a workshop offers a unique opportunity to learn these traditional weaving techniques firsthand from skilled artisans. It’s not just a demonstration; you’ll get a chance to try weaving yourself!
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7. Hike through Hierve El Agua: must-do activity in Oaxaca
Hierve el Agua is famous for its stunning petrified waterfalls, a rare natural phenomenon. These rock formations, created by mineral-rich water trickling down the cliffs over thousands of years, are a spectacular sight.
There are natural mineral pools at the top of the cliffs where you can swim. The pools offer a unique swimming experience with incredible views over the surrounding mountains and valleys.
There are several hiking trails around Hierve el Agua, ranging from easy walks to more challenging hikes. These trails provide different perspectives of the petrified waterfalls and the beautiful landscape of the area.
This is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca if you are adventurous and at the same time, wants to escape the hustle of the city. Actually, you shouldn’t skip this activity!
🧭 For travelers looking to explore beyond the typical tourist spots, Hierve el Agua offers a more off-the-beaten-path experience. You can book a private tour with my local friend – he’s the best guy for this activity!
8. Visit Oaxaca during Guelaguetza
The Guelaguetza is a significant cultural event in Oaxaca, showcasing the diverse traditions, dances, music, and attire of the various indigenous groups from the different regions of Oaxaca. It’s a unique opportunity to witness a wide array of cultural expressions in one place.
The festival features incredible performances of traditional dances and music by local groups. Each performance is a display of intricate choreography, colorful costumes, and lively music, reflecting the history and traditions of their respective communities.
Oaxaca is known for its exquisite cuisine, and during the Guelaguetza, the city’s culinary offerings are on full display. You can indulge in traditional Oaxacan dishes, street foods, and local beverages like mezcal and tejate.
The festival period sees a proliferation of artisan markets, where craftsmen from across the state come to sell their wares. It’s an excellent time to buy unique handicrafts, textiles, pottery, wood carvings, and more.
The city of Oaxaca comes alive during the Guelaguetza with decorations, street parties, parades, and music.
✨ Tip: Guelaguetza is during the month of July which is low season in Oaxaca (and in Mexico). You can get a lot of deals from great accommodations in Oaxaca!
9. Wander in 17+ museums in Oaxaca
Oaxaca is known for its rich cultural heritage, and its museums offer deep insights into the region’s diverse and vibrant history.
Whether you’re a history buff, art lover, or casual tourist, one of the best things to do in Oaxaca City is to visit the museums. They are often housed in beautifully restored buildings, offer not only fascinating exhibits but also stunning architecture, making them ideal spots for photography.
Here are some of the top museums to visit:
- Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art: This museum, created by renowned Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, showcases an impressive collection of pre-Hispanic art. It’s a must-visit for anyone interested in ancient Mexican civilizations and art history.
- Museum of Oaxacan Cultures (Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca): Housed in the beautiful Santo Domingo Monastery, this museum offers a comprehensive overview of Oaxacan history and culture, from pre-Hispanic times to the colonial period. The exhibits include a wide array of artifacts, textiles, and art.
- Oaxaca Textile Museum (Museo Textil de Oaxaca): If you are interested in textiles, this museum is a treasure trove. It displays a rich collection of traditional Oaxacan textiles and offers insights into the techniques, dyes, and patterns used.
- Contemporary Art Museum of Oaxaca (MACO): For art enthusiasts, MACO presents a range of contemporary art exhibitions. It’s a great place to see the work of local, national, and international contemporary artists.
- Museum of Oaxacan Painters (Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños): This museum is dedicated to the work of Oaxacan painters, offering a glimpse into the region’s vibrant and unique art scene.
10. Put your Catrina make-up on!
La Catrina is an iconic figure in Mexican culture, especially during Día de los Muertos. By participating in this tradition, you’re immersing yourself in Mexican culture and experiencing a centuries-old tradition that celebrates and honors the deceased.
Applying Catrina makeup is an artistic endeavor. It allows you to express yourself creatively through the intricate designs and patterns typical of this makeup style. Each design can be unique, reflecting personal artistic tastes.
The Catrina makeup has deep symbolic meaning in Mexican culture, representing the duality of life and death and the acceptance of mortality. Engaging in this tradition can offer a deeper understanding of these concepts.
Catrina makeup is visually striking, making it great for photography and memorable photos of your time in Oaxaca. This is ultimately one of the most unique things to do in Oaxaca that captures the essence of your cultural experience.
💀 If you are not visiting Oaxaca during day of the dead, you can still do the Catrina make-up experience and take pictures around the city, just for fun!
11. Explore the Jalatlaco and Xochimilco neighborhoods
Jalatlaco is known for its narrow cobblestone streets, colorful houses, and vibrant murals. This quaint and picturesque neighborhood exudes a unique charm and character that’s a delight to explore.
Both neighborhoods have a deep cultural history. Jalatlaco was once a village of tanners and artisans, and its history is reflected in its architecture and local traditions. Xochimilco, with its pre-Hispanic roots, showcases a different aspect of Oaxaca’s rich cultural tapestry.
The streets of Jalatlaco are adorned with beautiful murals and street art that reflect the local culture and contemporary social issues. These artworks offer a visual feast and great photographic opportunities.
Compared to the bustling city center, Jalatlaco and Xochimilco offer a more tranquil, laid-back atmosphere. If you are looking for non-touristy things to do in Oaxaca, this area is away from the typical tourist crowds.
These neighborhoods boast a variety of local eateries, cafes, and street food vendors. They provide an excellent opportunity to sample authentic Oaxacan cuisine in a more relaxed setting.
👉🏽 See also: Mexico Insider’s 27 essential Oaxaca restaurants
12. Learn how to make alebrijes
Alebrijes are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures, and these workshops offer a unique glimpse into this captivating art form.
They are a significant part of Mexican folk art, and attending a workshop offers a deep insight into this cultural tradition. You’ll learn about the history, symbolism, and significance of alebrijes in Mexican culture.
Most workshops provide a hands-on experience, allowing you to participate in the creation of an alebrije. This might include carving, painting, and assembling your own piece, which can be a very satisfying and creative process.
The process of making an alebrije encourages creative expression. You get to choose your own colors and patterns, making your creature as whimsical or realistic as you like.
Traveling with kids? The alebrije workshop is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca for families.
🪅 By attending a workshop, you are directly supporting local artisans and their craft. This kind of responsible tourism helps to sustain traditional arts and provides economic benefits to the community.
13. Visit a traditional palenque for mezcal
A palenque is where mezcal, a traditional Mexican spirit, is produced. Visiting one offers an up-close look at the mezcal-making process, from the harvesting of agave plants to the distillation process.
This hands-on experience provides a deeper understanding of this complex and artisanal process.
Mezcal tastings allow you to sample different types of mezcal, which can vary greatly in flavor depending on the type of agave used, the production process, and the region it comes from. It’s an excellent opportunity to develop an appreciation for the nuances of this unique spirit.
Unlike commercial mezcals, the mezcals produced in small-scale palenques often aren’t available widely. This means you’ll have the opportunity to taste unique mezcals that you might not find elsewhere.
Palenques are located in scenic areas outside of Oaxaca City, offering a chance to see the beautiful landscapes of the region. Personally, I think that the Palenque experience is extremely unique so make sure to add this to your list of things to do in Oaxaca!
🥃 Many palenques in Oaxaca are family-run operations that rely on traditional methods, and your visit helps sustain their craft.
14. Do a mezcal tasting with mole pairing
Mezcal and mole are both quintessential elements of Oaxacan cuisine, each with a rich history and complexity of flavors. Pairing them allows for a unique exploration of tastes and culinary traditions.
Mezcal tastings reveal the spirit’s surprising diversity. You’ll learn about the different types of agave used, production methods, and how these factors influence the flavor profiles of mezcal. This appreciation can enhance your overall experience of Oaxacan cuisine.
Oaxaca is known as the “land of seven moles,” each with distinct flavors and ingredients. A mole pairing introduces you to these varieties, showcasing the depth and versatility of this celebrated sauce.
If you don’t have time to visit a palenque, you can still experience one of the most incredible things to do in Oaxaca without leaving the city! Many bars offer basic mezcal tastings.
🥃 I would say that mole is an acquired taste and not everyone is fond of it. But my friend who’s a mezcal sommelier does this really cool pairing activity – you should definitely go!!!
👉🏽 See also: 24 best mezcal bars in Oaxaca City
15. Discover the Zapotec culture of Oaxaca
The Zapotecs are one of the earliest civilizations in Mesoamerica, with a history that dates back over 2,000 years. Learning about their culture, achievements, and legacy offers insight into the pre-Columbian history of Mexico.
Oaxaca is home to several important Zapotec archaeological sites, including Monte Albán and Mitla. These sites, with their pyramids, tombs, and intricate stone carvings, are testament to the architectural and astronomical prowess of the Zapotec civilization.
Visiting Zapotec communities is one of the best cultural things to do in Oaxaca. It offers a chance to see how traditional practices and modern life coexist. It’s an opportunity to learn directly from the people who maintain and evolve their cultural practices in the present day.
The Zapotecs have their language which is very fascinating to me since the whole country speaks Spanish. Oaxaca still maintains this cultural heritage!
The Zapotecs are renowned for their traditional crafts, such as weaving, pottery, and woodcarving. You can go to a workshop and try making these crafts yourself!
16. Visit El Tule and Mitla
Tule is a small, quaint town where visitors can experience the slower pace of traditional Mexican life. The town square and local market offer opportunities to explore local crafts and cuisine.
The main attraction in Tule is the famous El Arbol del Tule, one of the largest and oldest trees in the world. This massive Montezuma cypress is estimated to be over 2,000 years old and is revered for its immense size and the intricate shapes that can be seen in its trunk.
Mitla is known for its unique archaeological site, which was an important religious and ceremonial center for the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. Unlike other ruins in Mexico, Mitla is famous for its intricate geometric mosaics, which adorn the walls and structures.
The site offers insights into the advanced architectural and artistic skills of the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec people. The town itself is still inhabited by their descendants, maintaining rich traditions and customs.
Tule and Mitla are some of my favorite things to do in Oaxaca. I’ve been here many times and I still keep visiting!
✨ Tip: You can combine Tule and Mitla with a visit to Hierve El Agua as they are close to each other!
Join our all-inclusive trip to Oaxaca!
We do this every year as a group trip where you will get a chance to meet fellow travelers while exploring Oaxaca in the most local way(with us!)
17. Go to the Monte Alban Archaeological Site
Monte Alban is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important pre-Columbian archaeological sites in Mexico. It was the ancient capital of the Zapotecs and later inhabited by the Mixtecs, playing a crucial role in the region’s history for over a millennium.
The site boasts impressive architectural achievements, including pyramids, temples, plazas, and an observatory. The grandeur and complexity of these structures are a testament to the advanced urban planning and architectural skills of the Zapotecs.
Located on a mountaintop with sweeping views of the Oaxaca Valley, Monte Alban offers stunning vistas. The strategic location chosen for its construction provides insight into the strategic and ceremonial importance of the site.
The site is known for its unique carvings and hieroglyphs, many of which are still visible on the structures and stelae. These inscriptions provide valuable information about the site’s history and the people who lived there.
📜 Monte Alban is easily accessible from Oaxaca City, making it a convenient day trip for travelers (26 min by car). The minimum recommended time to explore is 2 hours.
18. Explore the nightlife in Oaxaca
Oaxaca City has a vibrant nightlife, offering a variety of experiences that cater to different tastes and preferences. The city’s nightlife is known for its laid-back, culturally rich atmosphere rather than high-intensity clubbing scenes typical of larger cities.
But you can still go clubbing as there are many clubs that are open til late (see our Oaxaca nightlife guide!)
Oaxaca is famous for mezcal, and its bars and mezcalerias provide the perfect setting to sample this traditional spirit. Many places offer a wide selection of artisanal mezcals, often accompanied by knowledgeable staff who can guide you through the tasting experience.
The city has several venues for live music, ranging from traditional Mexican and Oaxacan music to more contemporary genres. There are also cultural performances that may include folk dances and other local arts.
I understand that clubbing may not be part of your things to do in Oaxaca list but there are many other things to explore at night.
Oaxaca’s culinary scene comes alive after dark, with restaurants and cafes serving a range of local and international cuisines. If you get hungry in the middle of the night, there will be food on the streets until 5 AM!
🥳 Oaxaca’s nightlife is a great opportunity to socialize with both locals and fellow travelers. If you want a local experience, hop on this Oaxaca nightlife tour on a pick-up truck!
19. Hike Sierra Juarez
The Sierra Juárez is one of the lesser-known things to do in Oaxaca. It is known for its stunning landscapes, including lush forests, rugged mountains, and scenic valleys. The area offers a chance to experience some of the most beautiful and untouched natural scenery in Mexico.
This region is a biodiversity hotspot, home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, some of which are endemic to the area. Hikers can witness a range of ecosystems and potentially spot unique wildlife.
The area offers a variety of trails, ranging from easy walks to challenging hikes, catering to different skill levels and preferences. Some trails lead to beautiful viewpoints, waterfalls, and remote villages.
The Sierra Juárez has a range of microclimates, making it an interesting destination any time of the year. Different seasons offer unique experiences, from lush greenery in the rainy season to clearer skies and distant views in the dry season.
20. Eat in all the street food stalls
Oaxaca is often referred to as the culinary capital of Mexico. Its street food scene offers a wide array of dishes, many of which are unique to the region and reflect the area’s rich culinary heritage.
Food is a significant part of Oaxacan culture as you can see in many shows on Netflix. Oaxaca is always the star of Mexican cuisine!
Street food in Oaxaca is generally very affordable, offering delicious and high-quality options for every budget. Prices start at $1.50 USD and this is one of the most cost-effective way to try a wide variety of dishes!
You can’t say you’ve been to Oaxaca without trying street food so add these to your things to do in Oaxaca City list!
🌮 My friend Victor is a local in Oaxaca and has this super affordable street food tour in Oaxaca! He will show you around his favorite places, most of it, you won’t find on the internet!
21. Enter the carne asada hall (pasillo de humo)
The Carne Asada Hall in Oaxaca, often referred to as a part of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, is a famous food section within this bustling market, celebrated for its authentic Oaxacan grilled meat experience.
The hall is lined with numerous stalls grilling various meats, including beef, pork, chorizo, and chicken. The aroma of the grilling meat is a significant part of the experience.
You typically choose your meat from a vendor, who then grills it to order. You can often select accompanying items like tortillas, salsas, grilled vegetables (such as onions and peppers), and other traditional sides.
The food here is generally affordable and the portions are generous, making it a popular choice for a filling and flavorful meal. Actually, the plates are very big so it’s good for sharing.
🥩 Tip: Mind you, if you stay long, you will smell like the barbecue smoke. Some of my friends didn’t like this so if you are the same, just go for a quick stroll to see the barbecue show!
22. Attend a black pottery workshop: most unique things to do in Oaxaca
One of the best cultural things to do in Oaxaca is to attend a black pottery workshop. Black pottery is a traditional Zapotec and Mixtec art that has been passed down through generations. Learning about this craft offers insight into the rich cultural heritage of Oaxaca.
Many workshops offer a hands-on experience where you can try making your own pottery. This practical experience is not only enjoyable but also gives you a deeper appreciation for the skill and effort that goes into each piece.
You’ll learn about the entire process of making black pottery, from the extraction and preparation of the clay to the firing and finishing of the pieces. This often includes the traditional method of burnishing the clay to give it a distinctive shine.
🏺 By participating in a workshop, you’re supporting local artisans and helping to keep traditional crafts alive. Many of these artisans are from families that have been involved in pottery making for generations.
23. Learn about Oaxaca’s chocolate and cacao culture
Oaxaca has a rich tradition in cacao and chocolate, integral to its culinary and cultural heritage. Cacao has deep historical and cultural roots in Mexico. A workshop can provide insights into its traditional importance and how it has been used over centuries.
Workshops often take you through the entire chocolate-making process, from roasting cacao beans to grinding them and turning them into chocolate. This hands-on experience offers a deeper understanding and appreciation of chocolate.
You’ll have the opportunity to taste different types of chocolate, understanding the nuances in flavor profiles based on bean variety, origin, and preparation methods.
Many workshops in Oaxaca use traditional methods for making chocolate, like grinding cacao on a stone metate. This gives you a unique glimpse into how chocolate has been made for generations.
🍫 Want to make your own chocolate? It’s a fun and interactive way to engage with the local food culture! You can participate in this local’s cacao masterclass. Families with kids love this activity!
24. Discover Oaxaca’s most popular dish: mole
Like I said, mole is an acquired taste but if you are adventurous with food, I really recommend you give mole a shot!
Mole is celebrated for its intricate blend of ingredients, which can include chilies, spices, herbs, chocolate, nuts, fruits, and more. Each mole has a unique flavor profile, ranging from sweet and savory to rich and smoky.
Oaxaca is famous for its variety of moles, each with its own distinct character. Common types include Mole Negro, Mole Rojo, Mole Amarillo, Mole Verde, and more.
Mole is typically served with meat, rice, and tortillas. Tasting different moles with various dishes can enhance your understanding of pairing and how mole complements different foods.
😋 A mole tasting activity is an opportunity to explore these different types and find your favorite. Who knows, you might end up liking it!
25. Go to a traditional Oaxacan cooking class
Oaxaca is famous for its unique and diverse culinary traditions, including dishes like mole, tlayudas, and various types of tamales. A cooking class offers the opportunity to learn these recipes from local chefs or cooks.
Cooking classes are typically hands-on, allowing you to actively participate in the preparation of dishes. This hands-on approach is a great way to learn cooking techniques that you can replicate at home.
Many cooking classes include a visit to a local market to purchase ingredients. This is an experience in itself, offering a glimpse into the vibrant market culture of Oaxaca and the chance to learn how to select the best local produce.
At the end of the class, you usually get to enjoy the meal you’ve prepared, providing a satisfying (and delicious) culmination to your efforts.
👨🏽🍳 My friend Baldo hosts the coolest traditional cooking class in Oaxaca. He will also show you their organic garden where you will get all the ingredients for the cooking class!