Oaxaca City is a destination that took a long time to get on my radar—even as a Mexican—but once it did, I was shocked that I hadn’t visited it sooner. Oaxaca City is a much smaller city if compared to somewhere as massive as Mexico City, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of fun things to do in Oaxaca City, Mexico.
I have to be honest, at first, I was a bit worried I would get bored of such a small city—it has a population of around 300,000— however, there are lots of things to do in Oaxaca, City itself, as well as a variety of unique Oaxaca tours you can take out of the city as a day trip.
To give you a good base to prepare for your trip to this colorful city, here is our list of 10+ essential things to do in Oaxaca City:
10+ Things To Do In Oaxaca City For First-Time Visitors
Explore the colorful Historic Center of Oaxaca City
Strolling through the bright-colored streets of the Oaxaca City Historic Center should definitely be the first thing you do when you arrive in the city.
The charm of Oaxaca City is that is so small and walkable that you can easily cover all of the Historic Center in one day, which I know, can sound boring, but I think that knowing that the city doesn’t expand that far out gives you the chance to slow down and discover everything you find in your way, go into the small boutiques, stop at different cafes, check out the street markets.
That’s why, strolling through the Historic Center is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca City, especially to get a feel of the place and then plan how your next days will go.
Admire the iconic Church and Convent of Santo Domingo
One of the most emblematic buildings when it comes to Oaxaca City has to be the Church of Santo Domingo, the imposing green-ish structure standing in the heart of the city.
Green, you said? Yes! The Church of Santo Domingo was built with massive pieces of green Cantera, a unique stone that is native to Mexico, which is what gives the whole building a very distinctive green hue.
Definitely, something you won’t see anywhere else, which is why stopping by to admire the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo is one of the essential things to do in Oaxaca City.
Also, there is a little plaza right in front of the church with lots of seating space under the shade of the trees, something worth remembering if you are visiting during the hot summer months.
Walk along the charming Andador Turístico
Walking along the Andador Turístico is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca City since is a traffic-free street in the heart of the city where you can peacefully wander around and explore the area.
If you stroll slowly through it you can easily spend a few hours here, jumping from boutique shops to coffee shops, browsing the little street market stands, trying out street food snacks, and maybe stopping by a small museum somewhere along the way.
It’s also a great street to take at night if you have to get anywhere since is very well-lit, and there are normally people around.
Do as locals do and enjoy some mezcal
Tequila’s smokier cousin, mezcal, is the liquor that Oaxaca is known for since the state is the biggest producer in the country, that’s why doing a mezcal tasting is one of the top things to do in Oaxaca City.
As soon as you arrive in Oaxaca City you will find no shortage of tour promoters offering trips out of the city to visit mezcal distilleries, and while that is also fun and recommended, you do not need to go that far out to enjoy a drink, you can have a mezcal tasting at any time of day inside Oaxaca City.
If you really want to go all in and taste different kinds of mezcal, you could visit one of the many small businesses in the city, like El Ultimo Trago, where you will be guided through the tasting.
Or if you can’t get on board with sipping this smoky liquor by itself but still want to be involved, you can visit Mezcalogia, a mezcal bar that also offers mezcal-based cocktails, an easier way to dive into the mezcal world.
Try delicious local dishes at Mercado Benito Juárez
Mexican cuisine was recognized as a cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2010, and Oaxaca is the heart of Mexican cuisine, so if one thing is sure, is that in Oaxaca you will have some of the most delicious food you ever had in your life, and the best place to start your Oaxaca foodie adventure is at Mercado Benito Juárez.
Benito Juárez market is an indoor market with lines of very casual food stalls where locals gather to eat during their midday break, the food is amazing, and all for ridiculously good prices—a whole lunch with flavored water included costs 50 pesos.
Visiting Mercado Benito Juárez is one of the best things to do in Oaxaca City to get a taste of the world-renowned Oaxacan cuisine.
During my first visit to Mercado Benito Juárez, I followed the crowds and sat down where there were the most locals, mostly construction workers, and ordered memelitas, doughy disks with beans, chorizo, and cheese on top, I kept ordering this dish wherever I went during my stay in Oaxaca but honestly none of them were as good as those I had the first day at the market.
So make sure to not skip it!
Explore the buzzing Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Just across the street from Mercado Benito Juárez you will find another big market, Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which in contrast with the food hall of Benito Juárez, this market focuses more on produce and general goods.
I highly doubt you will need to buy any produce while in Oaxaca City, however, one of the main reasons why I think is worth it to visit Mercado 20 de Noviembre is to buy a bag of coffee beans from Pluma de Oro, some of the highest quality coffee Oaxaca has to offer, whether it is for you or as a souvenir.
Go souvenir shopping at Mercado de Artesanías
Speaking of souvenirs, one of the best things to do in Oaxaca City to get good quality Oaxacan products, and at the best price, is to visit the Mercado de artesanías, the city’s handicrafts market.
Throughout the whole city, particularly at the plazas, you will find a variety of stands selling very similar items to each other, colorful cloth bags, embroidered blouses, table runners, and more, but at the Mercado de Artesanías you will find unique designs, more options of types of products, and cheaper than they are at the city center
I consider the Mercado de Artesanías a must-do in Oaxaca City to stock up on all kinds of beautiful textiles and local handicrafts to take home as gifts or souvenirs.
Marvel at the unique green Cantera church: La Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Soledad
If you can’t get enough of the green church of Santo Domingo, I have good news for you, Oaxaca has another green church for your viewing pleasure, la basílica de Nuestra Señora de Soledad.
This green Cantera church is a little bit further out of the way from the City Center, but still within a very comfortable walking distance, right next to it there is a very picturesque little plaza, and if you go up the stairs at the back of the plaza you can get a good viewpoint of the whole pistachio colored structure.
Visit the vibrant Barrio Jalatlaco
One of the absolute best things to do in Oaxaca City is to visit the artistic Barrio Jalatlaco, one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in the whole country.
Jalatlaco, a quiet residential pocket of Oaxaca City, looks straight out of a coloring book, with brightly colored walls, full-blown murals on the front of residential houses, intricately painted scenes outside small businesses, and papel picado dangling from the lamp posts— it is by far my favorite area of Oaxaca City to explore.
Even though the area is mostly residential, you can still find a variety of cozy coffee shops and small restaurants in the neighborhood, as well as a nice park and a quaint little church.
Shop for unique products at the artisans’ market at Plazuela del Carmen Alto
One of my favorite discoveries during my trip to Oaxaca City was this small artisan outdoor market located right off of the Andador Turistico at the street plaza “Plazuela del Carmen Alto“, where you can find a unique variety of items for sale that you will not find anywhere else in the city, like handmade jewelry, handwoven bags, linen clothing items, pressed flowers art pieces and much more.
Definitely one of the best things to do in Oaxaca if you are looking for a unique souvenir.
Take a tour of the Ethnobotanical Garden and admire the iconic massive cacti
If you are looking for inspiration for your trip to Oaxaca City you will surely come across this image of people standing in front of incredibly tall cacti, which has become a bit of an emblematic image of visiting Oaxaca City, and you can find this view at the Ethnobotanical garden.
However, this is not just a shallow photo opp, the only way to visit the garden is with a guided tour, which takes you slowly through the gardens and explains the history of the local flora and how the ancient civilizations in this area used them, the tour ends with the stunning view of massive cacti growing tall behind a man-made pool.
Besides being a beautiful place to take iconic Oaxacan photos, the tour is also very interesting and a good way to learn more about the area, definitely a top thing to do in Oaxaca City, for the curious traveler, and let’s not pretend, also for the photo.
Take a day trip from Oaxaca City: Monte Albán, Hierve el Agua, Teotitlán del Valle, Mezcal distilleries
Another one of the best things to do in Oaxaca is to take a day trip out of the city and explore some of the other incredible things Oaxaca has to offer, such as visiting the handwoven wool rugs workshops in Teotlitlán del Valle, marveling at one of the most unique natural wonders, the petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua, visiting the heart of the Zapotec civilization in Monte Albán, or a traditional mezcal distillery, the options are endless.
All of these activities are very easy to do from Oaxaca City, there are a variety of companies that offer very similar itineraries, so just choose whatever covers most of what you already want to see.
During our stay in Oaxaca City, we did two different tours with Aviaco and had a great experience overall, just pack a lunch and stay away from the tour buffets, they are never that great. (If Leo still works there as a tour guide, make sure to get him, he was amazing!)
I hope this list of the best things to do in Oaxaca City helps you better prepare for your trip to this charming Mexican destination. As always, let me know if there are any other questions that you might have. Have you been to Oaxaca City yet?