Oaxaca City: Where to Eat and What to See in This Mexican Food Lovers' Paradise
You know you’re enjoying yourself too much when the restaurant manager comes out and says, “Ladies, you’ve ordered too much food. Let’s dial it back a bit.” (as translated by my Spanish-speaking travel partner on this trip, Cristal Dyer, aka the Tofu Traveler).
We’ve just spent four perfect days eating ourselves silly in Oaxaca City, capital of the state of Oaxaca, which is also famous for its beautiful handicrafts and colonial architecture. Cristal and I share our ridiculous adventures in this captivating city in the Postcard Academy podcast episode: Mexican Food Lovers’ Paradise: Oaxaca. Subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast to hear our whole conversation (Apple podcasts | Stitcher | Google Play).
Here are some ideas on how to spend four or five amazing days in Oaxaca. If you can, stay longer. I’m toying with the idea of moving there, at least temporarily. If Oaxaca City were near the beach, I’d never leave.
How to get to Oaxaca City
If you’re flying into Mexico City, from there you can take an internal flight to Oaxaca for as little as $30 on Interjet or Volaris. Once you arrive, you could take a taxi to the historic center, but why not choose the colectivo? This shared van service only costs $80 Mexican pesos, which is less than $5 USD, and it will drop you off wherever you’re staying. Pay for this inside the airport at the taxi area and show the receipt, along with your address, to the driver outside. There’s an ATM in the airport where you can collect money.
If you’d rather bus it to Oaxaca from Mexico City, you can can find luxury service with ADO, which comes with bathrooms, tons of space, reclining seats, wifi, air conditioning, and even films to watch during the journey. There are several options you can take, with platino service being the highest quality. Take a direct, 7-hour bus ride from Mexico City’s TAPO bus station.
What to do in Oaxaca
Visit the Stamp Museum. If you know Spanish, you can come to the Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca to read other people’s mail, including letter’s from Frida Kahlo to her doctor. This museum is surprisingly modern and free, with a peaceful courtyard to hang out in.
Tour the Ethnobotanic Gardens. Across from the Stamp Museum, you’ll find the the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. Once part of the Santo Domingo Church, it’s also been used as a garbage dump and shooting range by the Mexican army. Do an English-speaking tour, offered at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (show up at least 30 minutes in advance to secure a spot). You'll learn about agave, which is used to make mezcal, and other ingredients you’ll be eating while in Oaxaca.
Go inside the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. More than 60,000 sheets of gold leaf cover the inside of this Baroque church, which dates back to the 1570s. During the revolutionary wars, the military took over the church and Dominican monastery, which today serves as a cultural museum worth visiting. The monks’ former garden is now the Ethnobotanic Gardens. If you’re into museums, you might also want to check out the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Taste mezcal. Cristal, my partner in crime on this trip, used to hate mezcal because she thought it was too smokey. I had never tasted it because I’m a luddite who usually sticks to whiskey or wine. However, La Mezcaloteca opened our minds. At the tasting, we each tried five different mezcals, with our host, Bastian, a French chap in love with mezcal, selecting a different one for us to progress to according to our taste buds. This place intimidated me at first because the silent, library-like atmosphere was all hipster seriousness with no music or laughs. But by the end we were drunk on non-smokey mezcal and the experience won us over.
Wander aimlessly and eat street food. Cristal first mentioned Oaxaca to me in the second episode of the Postcard Academy podcast, which was all about travel deals. I’d been dreaming about Oaxaca’s vegetarian delights ever since, but had no idea how lovestruck I’d be by the vibrant pink and yellow and turquoise buildings. If you’ve ever wandered the streets of Murano and Burano while in Venice, this is the Mexican version. Don’t miss the Xochimilco and Reforma neighborhoods.
Dance in the zócalo. When we walked through this main square our first evening, I thought we’d lucked out and arrived during a festival. We saw clowns, kids running around, live music, salsa dancing. Turns out, this was just a regular Sunday night. If you’re too shy to dance (but, hey, you only live once and you’ll never see these people again), you can chill at one of the sidewalk cafes and watch the goings-on.
Hike up to the Lookout. Gaze up into the hills and you’ll see a covered outdoor arena, the Auditorio Guelaguetza. A walk up here will reward you with a nice view of the city, and if you come here in July, you can buy tickets to the Guelaguetza celebration, where the 16 different cultural groups from all over the state of Oaxaca dance in traditional costume in the arena. If you’re into festivals, then you might also want to visit at the beginning of November for the Day of the Dead festivities.
Take a cooking class. American expat Susana Trilling moved to Oaxaca years ago and opened a cooking school that includes a market tour. She also wrote Seasons of My Heart, A Culinary Journey through Oaxaca, Mexico and hosted a TV series of the same name for PBS. Her classes earn rave reviews, but you’ll find plenty of other options, including ones closer to the historical center of Oaxaca City.
Buy locally-made handicrafts in the local shops and markets. You will want to pack an extra suitcase for all the woven blankets and bags you can buy here, at prices so cheap you’ll think you read the price tag wrong. You can find these handicrafts in many boutiques or the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. For Mexican spices, coffee, and other local items, have a wander through the massive Mercado Benito Juárez.
Read ‘Que Pasa Oaxaca.’ This helpful site lists local events, places to stay, Spanish schools, and more.
What foods to try in Oaxaca
flor de calabaza — Cheese-filled squash flowers.
quesillo — Chewy, white Oaxaca cheese.
mole — Oaxaca is called ‘the land of the seven moles,’ a sauce using chile peppers and an average of 20 other ingredients. The most popular mole (pronounced mo-lay) in Oaxaca is mole negro, which uses chocolate and takes hours to prepare.
tyludas — Known as Mexican pizza, these tortillas are layered with beans, cheese, avocado, and meat if you’re into that. Delicious! And obviously insanely filling.
nieves — A cross between ice cream and a snow cone. Try the Oaxaca Kiss flavor at Museo de las Nieves.
pulque — An ancient, low-alcohol beverage made from fermented agave.
michelada — Beer mixed with lime juice, hot sauce, and sometimes other ingredients served in a salt-rimmed glass.
Where to eat and drink in Oaxaca City
Mercado Orgánico El Pochote — Come to this hidden food market for lunch Wednesday through Sunday. My chile relleno, cactus salad, and rice was simple and out of this world. A few artisans are also there all week.
Café Brújula — If you need both a wifi and caffeine fix, had here for your coffee. Actually, there are so many cute coffee shops in Oaxaca, you should really hop around.
Calabacitas Tiernas — This mostly-vegetarian restaurant serves customers in a relaxing courtyard and is a nice place to escape the sun. Try the prefix lunch then explore the gift shop.
La Biznaga — The tasty restaurant where we got in trouble for ordering too much soup. We wanted to marry our cheese soup and mushroom quesadillas. The drinks will knock you on your bum.
Los Danzantes — Known as one of the city’s more upscale restaurants, you need a reservation for a seat in this ceiling-less dining room. Eating below the stars felt magical as we loaded up on bread, which I don’t normally do, but the spreads were too good to resist. Cristal’s vegetarian lasagna was the best dish at the table.
Casa Oaxaca — I’m not sure why this place isn’t as busy as Los Danzantes because it’s just as good. They ground fresh salsa at our table, and who doesn’t love that? In fact, they made two versions because some of us wanted ours without chapulines (grasshoppers). Those who did eat the chapulines said they tasted like hay, which I guess is an acquired taste.
La Chole Salón — At the end of the podcast, I accidentally call this place ‘La Chloe.’ Cristal loved the local vibe and her gigantic michelada, which looked like a beer stein of margarita. This place was too loud for me and I left as soon as possible. Another place to try michelada: Salón de la Fama, one of the oldest cantinas in Oaxaca.
In Situ — You’ll find almost 200 different types of mezcal here. If this overwhelms you, maybe do a tasting at La Mezcaloteca first so you know what you like.
Mezcalarita — This place is famous for its pulque, though a local told us this isn’t ‘real’ pulque. Regardless, it’s a fun place to drink, especially on the rooftop.
Day trips from Oaxaca City
Monte Albán — Visit the pyramids where the Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs ruled for 1,500 years, going back to 500 B.C. You could take a bus here, but why not make life easy for yourself and do a day tour that also takes you to Arrozola, where you’ll see craftspeople decorating wooden spirit animals; the Basilica of Cuilapan, ; and the Doña Rosa Workshop, where you’ll see how they make the shiny black barro negro pottery. Several tour groups make this circuit. We booked ours through Casa Angel Youth Hostel. Someone picked us up and the all-day tour, which cost $250 Mexican pesos included a great lunch buffet.
Hierve el Agua — “It's known as the petrified waterfall,” Cristal notes on the podcast, “it's a natural infinity pool. You can swim and the water is quite cool and nice refreshing during the middle of the day. But on the side of it, the water that's been cascading down the fall has slowly calcified and it looks like a waterfall that's been stuck in motion over time. It's very beautiful to see and it's amongst this beautiful desert landscape, so it's quite dramatic. You can do some hikes around the area.There's a colectivo that you can do, or a lot of the tour agencies that offer a full-day tour to Hierve el Agua also go to another ruin called Mitla, and they also visit a mezcal factory and some other textile areas.”
Microfinance tours — Visit local communities and learn how women are using microloans to develop their businesses. This is a great way to learn about Oaxaca’s indigenous cultures while contributing to a loan program that’s enriching the lives of these communities. This full-day tour includes lunch and transportation.
Mercado de Tlacolula — Find a tour group going to this open air food and craft market, held every Sunday about 45 minutes outside the city.
Where to stay in Oaxaca City
I hadn’t stayed at a youth hostel in years and years. Even as a youth I didn’t like it. But per Cristal’s recommendation, we stayed at Casa Angel Youth Hostel on this trip and I absolutely loved it. From the fantastic free breakfast, free wifi, plenty of places to charge phones, and overall chill vibe. I assumed their would be group bathrooms, but instead their were plenty of individual showers and you can even choose a single room with your own bathroom. They’ll probably want you to reserve via Hostelworld.
If you just can’t do the hostel thing, you can rent an Airbnb, which is usually my preferred form of accommodation. If you’re new to AirBnB, you can get $35 worth of travel credit if you sign up using this link.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 7 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.