If you are interested in travel, food, or culture, you’ve surely heard about the buzzworthy destination of Oaxaca.
Very few places in the world are so jam-packed with art, culture, history, architecture, amazing food and drink, and beautiful nature.
Many people plan long weekend trips to this city only to realize that three days may not be enough to explore the wide variety of things to do, see, eat, and learn.
By creating a more in-depth guide to Oaxaca, we hope that others can plan a trip that digs below the surface in a more profound way.
Who are we?
Arturo is an architect who has lived in Oaxaca almost his entire life, and has generations of Oaxacan family members before him. He studied history and architecture and is obsessed with all things art and design. Oh, and also tacos.
Susan, originally from New Jersey, is a travel blogger who fell in love with Oaxaca on her first visit over five years ago. While spending three years traveling abroad, she continued to return for months at a time, and finally decided to make it home about a year and a half ago. As an ex-fashion designer, she has always been enamored by the textiles, and the artistic atmosphere that permeates the region. Oh, and the food and mezcal.
What this guide includes
Arturo will take you through some history and then together, we’ll dive into our best recommendations for what to eat and drink, historic sites to visit, markets to shop, museums to explore, artisans to learn about, and natural sites to tour.
We’ll share the must-dos, and if you subscribe to the newsletter below, we’ll send some insider tips to help you get off-the-beaten path.
But first, some history for context.
5 things that shaped Oxaca's history & tourism
Oaxaca is one of the few states in Mexico that has conserved its history, gastronomy, and culture in a unique and special way.
Here we have a saying that Oaxaca is a time capsule where the colors, flavors, and sounds are different from the rest of the country, and are conserved similarly to when the first Zapotec settlers arrived.
We’ll begin by sharing how the history of Oaxaca and its inhabitants begins, including historical events that left a mark on the culture.
The conquest of Mexico
- Tzompantil: During Mesoamerican times, human skulls were preserved and placed on public display using a wooden rack called the tzompantli. Today, Mexico continues to honor and commemorate those who have passed away by preparing altars on Day of the Dead.
Huitzilopochtli: The Mesoamerican people celebrated the birth of Huitzilopochtli, a god of war represented by the Sun, known for human sacrifice, and also known for deciding that Tenochtitlán should be the capital city of the Aztecs. Today, Mexico honors and commemorates the celebration of birth every year on Christmas.
- Tonantzin: In pre-Hispanic times, people ventured on a pilgrimage to Tepeyacac hill to honor the virgin fertility goddess Tonantzin, also known as Mother Earth. Today, every year on December 12th, thousands gather at Mexico City's Basilica to commemorate La Virgen de Guadalupe and celebrate her representation as the Blessed Mother of Mexico.
Capillas: Mestizo architecture also heavily influenced Mexico’s open-air chapels, known as capillas. Starting from the Spanish Conquest there were two types of colonial architecture: one focused on interiors, with its temples and cloisters, and the other focused on a series of exterior spaces, like atriums, chapels and open chapels. The exterior-architecture style was originally influenced by indigenous people who were accustomed to worshiping their gods in open spaces and courtyards. Some real life examples include: La Capilla de Teposcolula and Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo de Yanhuitlán.
Gastronomia: In gastronomy, cultural exchange played a significant role since the Europeans introduced lemons, apples, grapes, wheat, barley, oats, rye, spinach, lettuce, and sugar cane. In turn, the Mesoamericans introduced the Europeans to potatoes, pumpkins, chiles, beans, tomatoes and avocados.
The Porfiriato time period was defined by vast socio-economic inequality, modernity and technological advances. The affluent families became richer, while the poor became poorer.
Ninety-five percent of Mexican families worked in fields without being able to own anything, while landowners made sure their workers would never be able to pay their debts.
Porfirio Díaz Mori was a native Oaxacan and a military expert who became the President of Mexico seven times. This gave him 30 years to bring modernity to Mexico with the motto of "order and progress", influenced by French Positivism.
The railroad was the best means of transportation at this time, and it was one of the first public works that Díaz carried out as president. He was able to shorten the trip from Mexico City to Oaxaca from 14 days by wagon to 14 hours by rail.
This innovation activated trade between Oaxaca, Puebla and Mexico City, promoting the tianguis or market days: in Etla on Fridays, Oaxaca City on Saturdays, Zimatlan on Wednesdays, Zaachila on Thursdays, Ocotlán on Fridays, and Tlacolula on Sundays.
At the same time, in early 1893, the English company Read & Campbell which managed the construction of the railway, was also hired to build the roof of the Benito Juárez market.
The Porfiriato time period also brought electricity available to the public, the telegraph, the Escuela Normal (university for teachers), and the Macedonio Alcalá theater.
Earthquake of 1931 on January 14
Around 8 p.m., an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude shook Oaxaca for three minutes and 10 seconds, resulting in the worst tragedy in the city’s history.
This tragic event caused the population to decrease by 30 percent, both due to the deaths that occurred and the subsequent migration of survivors who had lost everything in the disaster.
Two days later, the famous filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein arrived in the city as he was preparing to shoot the movie "Viva México!" and was able to document the tragedy.
The following year, the governor of the state, concerned about the morale of his people, met with a committee to create a celebration for the 400th anniversary of the city. This would later be known as the annual Guelaguetza celebration.
The first incarnation of the Guelaguetza celebration took place in two parts: the regional exhibition and the tributes to the state’s indigenous groups.
The regional exhibition contained a complete directory of producers from the state of Oaxaca and the products that they sold, like medicinal herbs, coffee, mezcal, fruits, artisan work, and more. Each one of the 473 exhibitors or vendors had a stand that reflected the style of their region.
The tributes to the state’s indigenous groups consisted in an event that took place in three acts:
First Act: A young woman was selected to represent the pride of being indigenous, she was referred to as Señorita Oaxaca.
Second Act: Delegations from each area of the state parade their traditions and distributed their regional products like fruits, mezcal, or coffee.
Third Act: Señorita Oaxaca gave a ribbon to other young women to deliver to their delegations as a symbol of brotherhood, and the celebration was closed with the release of white doves.
The following year the same event would be repeated, renaming it Guelaguetza, and continuing the tradition on the hill of Fortin. Although the Guelaguetza has changed in structure over time, it remains to be the most important yearly celebration in Oaxaca.
The 1994 highway
The landscape in the state of Oaxaca is one of the most rugged in the country, formed by three mountain ranges: Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre Oriental and the Sierra Atravesada.
Creating a barrier on all sides, this made it difficult for the first settlers to trade with other regions, but at the same time, it also made each region culturally unique and independent because it was difficult to make contact with each other.
In 1994, the government finished the federal highway that connects Oaxaca with the city of Puebla and Mexico City, reducing travel time to about 6 hours by bus and 5 hours by car.
This brought greater communication and commerce to the city of Oaxaca, allowing the international airport to increase traffic and trade.
The Teacher's Protests of 2006
2006 was a year in which the city was hijacked by a movement that some defended and others criminalized.
It all started 20 years earlier, during the governorship of Heladio Ramírez López, when a letter was signed at the national level claiming that the state of Oaxaca was the only state in the country that would not accept federal intervention for school administration. Therefore it would be left to the SNTE and Section 22—the national teacher’s union—to make educational decisions.
In Mexico, the educational system is intertwined with politics. Almost all teachers in the country are members of unions and the unions can be quite powerful. When these unions decide that there are changes that must be made, like better pay for teachers, or improving rural schools, they perform strikes and blockades with the goal of incentivizing the government to give in to their demands.
During this time period, Section 22 had made more demands in educational matters, like secure jobs for teachers, and better pay and benefits from the government.
In 2006 the governor-elect, Ulises Ruiz, determined that he would not yield to these requests because for years before that, the city had struggled with blockades and marches by the teacher’s unions, and children stopped having classes for weeks until the government gave in.
So, the teachers decided to carry out a sit-in in the Zocalo (central square). This continued for 14 days until the governor used force to evict them with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The teachers, outnumbering them, responded with sticks and stones. The attempted eviction ended with 11 teachers being detained, but the teachers maintained and strengthened the strike by taking control over more streets and government buildings.
The sit-in lasted about 5 months, until the end of October when the president sent the federal forces to evict and liberate the city. This ended the sit-in but not the conflict, and did not create a solution to the teacher’s demands.
This event resulted in the entire economy being paralyzed, especially since a large portion relied on tourism.
It wasn’t until 2011 that tourism began to return and thrive in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca has played such an important part in the development of Mexico, with important figures in all areas: politicians such as Benito Juárez, Porfirio Díaz, the Flores Magón brothers; writers such as Andrés Henestrosa, Natalia Toledo; musicians like Macedonio Alcala, Alvaro Carrillo; actors like Lupita Tovar, Mayra Serbulo; and painters such as Rufino Tamayo, Rodolfo Morales and Francisco Toledo.
This has attracted international artists and promoted, among other things, the consumption of local heirloom (non-gmo) corn, and the need to learn the Zapotec language.
Oaxacan food culture has also become world famous. A lot of tourism revolves around the cuisine and learning more about mezcal. In fact, many chefs, bartenders, and foodies visit the city to learn new cooking techniques.
Oaxaca’s culture of art and creative thinkers also continues today. Artists are highly esteemed and supported, whether they are traditional artisans, or artists working with contemporary or experimental mediums and subjects.
With its dramatic landscapes, traditional food, drinks, artistic lifestyle, and its people, Oaxaca has always been a cultural hub, attracting tourism more and more since the 1970s.
Over the last few years this tourism has grown exponentially and it’s now the leading industry and drives the local economy.
10 delicious things to eat in Oaxaca
Now that you have some background on Oaxaca’s history, let’s dive into one of our favorite subjects—the amazing food culture.
Arguably the most famous dish in Oaxaca, mole is complex, delicious, and varied. There are seven types of mole in this region and many varieties have 20-30 ingredients.
These dishes take a lot of time and care to prepare and are traditionally eaten for special occasions and holidays. But if you’re visiting Oaxaca, you’ll want to be sure to taste at least one of the famous moles during your trip.
The most common variety is mole negro, a rich and thick sauce that is both savory and sweet. This mole consists of several types of toasted chiles, garlic, onion, ginger, plantain, tomato, tomatillo, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, toasted bread, tortillas, chocolate, sugar and more.
Arturo’s Pick: A variety of moles at La Escondida
Susan’s Pick: Mole Negro at El Biche Pobre
This popular Oaxacan street food is filling, full of flavor, and best consumed on a plastic stool next to a street stand. Tlayudas consist of a large (sometimes very large) crispy tortilla covered in a layer of lard, bean paste, mounds of quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), and often shredded lettuce, tomato, and avocado.
The tortilla is then folded in half and grilled to perfection over a fire (or sometimes served open face, as above). You can order this sencilla (simple) or with a side of tasajo (thin beef steak), chorizo (spicy pork sausage), or cecina (spicy thin pork).
Arturo’s Pick: Tlayuda con Tasajo at La Chinita
Susan’s Pick: Tlayuda con Tasajo at Las Animas
The definition of empanada seems to differ across all of Latin America. In Oaxaca, an empanada is a folded tortilla with a filling of your choice, usually chicken and mole amarillo.
This piping hot snack will literally burn your mouth if you can’t make yourself wait a few minutes for the mole sauce to cool. You can find this common antojito in markets, street stands, or almost anywhere you see cooking over a comal.
Arturo’s Pick: Empanadas de amarillo at Tacos del Carmen
Susan’s Pick: Empanadas de amarillo at Tacos del Carmen
How do you feel about bugs? In Oaxaca, grasshoppers are a common and delicious snack. They’re first toasted and then seasoned with salt, chile, and/or lime. Salty, crunchy, and earthy but also full of protein, this bite is great in between meals or with a cold beer (think salty peanuts).
Arturo’s Pick: Chapulines con limón y ajo (lime and garlic) from a woman selling from a basket in Benito Juarez Market, at the corner of Monte Alban hallway & Lambityeco hallway on the northeast entrance.
Susan’s Pick: Whole chapulines con chile y limon (chili powder and lime) from one of the stands selling chapulines in Miguel Cabrera Street, just outside the east entrance of Benito Juarez Market.
Memelas are a typical breakfast food, served hot off the comal. The tortilla is slightly thicker than normal, topped with a thin layer of lard and a bean paste.
It’s topped with crumbled queso fresco (fresh cheese) or quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese). You can order them sencillo (as above) or with a guisado topping of your choice.
Common memela toppings are chorizo con papas (spicy sausage and potato), tinga de pollo (stewed spicy chicken), or champiñones (mushrooms). They’re most often eaten at the local market or from a street stand.
Arturo’s Pick: Memelas con salsa pasilla y tasajo from Memelas Doña Mago
Susan’s Pick: Memelas con chicharrón prensado from Antojitos Regionales la Guerita in La Merced Market
Barbacoa, or barbecue, is most famous in the nearby town of Tlacolula. Head to their market and you’ll find stall after stall of steaming vats of this tender spicy stew.
Barbacoa is traditionally slow cooked in the ground. The meat is usually lamb or goat, but you can find beef versions in street carts in Oaxaca city. Typically the meat is put in the ground surrounded by agave leaves and slow cooked for many hours.
It’s eaten either already served on tortillas as tacos, or in its broth as a stew (with tortillas on the side).
Arturo’s Pick: Tacos de barbacoa and consome (soup broth) from Tacos Mario, street cart at 503 Murguia Street
Susan’s Pick: Tacos and consome from Tlacolula Market
Oaxaca is a very diverse state, in climate, geography, and in food. The Istmo region, in the far southeast corner of the state, has a distinct style of cuisine.
One of the most famous dishes from the Istmos are crunchy, flavorful garnachas.
Garnachas are small and thick fried tortillas topped with shredded beef, salsa, crumbled cheese, and pickled vegetables like cabbage and carrot.
Arturo’s Pick: El Rinconcito Istmeno
Susan’s Pick: El Son Istmeno
Tasajo is uniquely Oaxacan and found in just about every restaurant and street stand. This thin dried beef is grilled and served alongside tlayudas, memelas, chilaquiles, enchiladas, or on its own as a main dish.
Arturo’s Pick: Restaurante El Milenario in El Tule
Susan’s Pick: Grilled tasajo (or you can order a variety of smoked meats like tasajo, chorizo and cecina) in El Pasillo del Humo (Smoke Hall) in 20 de Noviembre Market
Tamales are popular all over Mexico, but tamales Oaxaqueños are unique in their texture and presentation. These tamales are steamed in banana leaves rather than the typical corn husk. This leaves the corn masa more moist and sticky. The most popular version is mole negro—a tamale that contains chicken and black mole sauce. Tamales are most often eaten for breakfast and can be found in markets and street carts all over the city.
Arturo’s Pick: the corner of Armenta y Lopez Street and Colón Street, outside “Modatelas” store
Susan’s Pick: Tamale stand just inside the western entrance of Sanchez Pascuas Market
If you’re eager to try more Oaxacan mole, enmoladas shouldn’t be missed. This saucy breakfast dish is similar to enchiladas, but features the rich mole negro. Enmoladas are rolled tortillas filled with shredded chicken or quesillo, and drowned in black mole sauce. They’re then topped with a bit of crema, sliced onion, cilantro, and crumbled fresh cheese. They’re most often eaten as a late breakfast and are common in markets and traditional restaurants.
Arturo’s Pick: Enmoladas con tasajo at El Tio Guero
Susan’s Pick: Enmoladas with chicken (or platano for a vegetarian version) at Cabuche
shop palo santo
5 Oaxacan Drinks to Enjoy
Tejate is one of the most famous and delicious drinks in Oaxaca. This non-alcoholic beverage dates back to pre-hispanic times and is still made by hand from recipes passed down from generation to generation.
The drink is made from toasted maiz, fermented cacao beans, flor de cacao, and toasted mamey seed. These ingredients are ground into a paste and then kneaded by hand as water is added. This gives the drink its white, foamy top. It’s traditionally sipped out of jicaras (dried gourds). Tejate’s birthplace is in the nearby village of Huayapam, but you can also find it in the city center in markets.
Arturo’s Pick: Street stand in Huayapam, corner of La Paz Street and La Union
Susan’s Pick: Flor de Huayapam in Benito Juarez Market
Oaxaca’s chocolate is famous, but it’s not typically eaten, rather it’s drunk as a hot beverage. This prehispanic drink is still often made in the traditional way, grinding the cacao beans on a stone metate, then mixing the paste with water, heating it, and whisking it with a wooden molinillo.
Arturo’s Pick: Rito Chocolateria
Susan’s Pick: Chocolate Mayordomo
Atole corn isn’t just for eating. Atole is a hot drink that is usually sipped in the morning or at night. It’s made from corn flour that’s cooked with hot water. Spices like cinnamon are then added, followed by sugar, and sometimes milk. There are dozens of varieties of atole, ranging in consistency and in flavor. The common thread is that this is comfort food.
Arturo’s Pick: Street stand in front of the ADO bus station at the corner of Niños Heroes
Susan’s Pick: Itanoni
Champurrado is a variety of atole, but one of the most common in Oaxaca. This atole contains chocolate. It’s a bit like a mix of Oaxacan hot chocolate and simple atole.
Arturo’s Pick: Street stand in front of the ADO bus station at the corner of Niños Heroes
Susan’s Pick: Las Tlayudas de Mina y Bustamante, Bustamante 322
A list of Oaxacan drinks wouldn’t be complete without coffee. The beans grown in the mountainous regions here are delicious. There are many great coffee shops where you can sample them—either in typical coffee incarnations like Americanos or in third wave coffee processes like Chemex.
Arturo’s Pick: Cafebre
Susan’s Pick: Caracol Purpura
5 best places to sip mezcal in Oaxaca
Mezcal Palenque (Farm Distillery)
This culinary destination is not just famous for its great food, but also the delicious and complex mezcal that Oaxaca is known for. When you visit Oaxaca, you definitely should take some time to learn about this traditional and special liquor.
The best way to learn about mezcal is to see the process from start to finish at the source. Schedule a tour of one of the best traditional mezcal palenques (farms and distilleries) so you can see how the agave plants are harvested, cut, roasted, smashed, fermented, and then distilled.
Most traditional mezcal palenques only offer tours in Spanish, so if you need an English translation, we recommend hiring a guide in the city, like Las Bugambilias Tours. A few of the best mezcal palenques to visit are Mezcal Macurichos, Gracias a Dios, or Lalocura. Be sure to message or call ahead to schedule your visit, or ask your guide to arrange it.
After a trip to the palenque, it’s time to deepen your knowledge of the history of mezcal, varieties of wild agaves, and differences in flavors. Make a reservation at Mezcaloteca for a tasting with an expert. Even if you have a good base knowledge of mezcal, you’ll still learn a lot of new things, and taste delicious varieties from all over Mexico while you’re at it.
Another great mezcaleria with knowledgeable bartenders is Mezcaleria Cuish. There are two locations, one just north of Santo Domingo on the Andador (tourist pedestrian street), and one in the south of the centro. The southern location is roomy, pretty, and a great place to hang out and ask questions. If you’re visiting at night, we recommend ordering a taxi for safety.
You can also purchase bottles here at a great price and quality, and you’ll receive a stylish agave poster as a free gift.
Continue your mezcal journey at In Situ, a cozy and intimate tasting room with a great selection of mezcals. Sit at the bar to ask questions, or in the loft above. You can request tastings of multiple varieties, or regular mezcal pours.
Los Amantes La Mezcalería
Finally, you might enjoy the kitschy, cozy, and cute tasting room at Los Amantes, just steps from Santo Domingo. This brand of mezcal has many varieties, including wild agaves like Tobala and Cuishe. Enjoy your tasting as a street musician serenades you with traditional Mexican ballads.
5 important historical sites to visit in Oaxaca
Monte Albán was one of the most important cities in all of Mesoamerica. Founded by the Zapotecs around 500 B.C., it was their capital and at its peak had up to 35,000 habitants. This impressive site contains many pyramids, plazas, temples, and tombs. Add in the sweeping views of the valley below, and this is definitely one of the most important and impressive sites in Oaxaca.
Mitla is another important pre-hispanic archaeological site, with a totally different history and style from Monte Alban. Mitla was a city that came to power after the fall of Monte Alban in 750 A.D. and continued to be the Zapotec central hub until the arrival of the Spanish.
This site is famous for its distinct form of geometric carvings. They are well preserved and unique high-relief designs that are carved into the stone, or added as panels that create a mosaic. The name of the town originally comes from the náhuatl word “Mictlan,” which means “place of the dead,” which makes sense because the site features underground tombs where powerful leaders and priests would have been buried.
Mitla is a town with its own belief system and worldview. Its Zapotec name, Lyobáa, means “resting place”, as this was believed to be the final destination for all spirits. In this belief, death is an extension of life, and life originates from the suffering of death.
Temple of Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo was one of the first important convents in Mexico. Its construction began in 1570 and lasted 90 years. Belonging to the order of the Dominicans, it is a clear example of the Mexican Baroque both in its facade and in its interior.
It was declared a historical monument in 1933 and currently houses the Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca, which contains 14 permanent exhibitions (more on this museum below).
The plaza in front of the church is one of the most important meeting points in the city and is usually filled with street vendors, locals, and tourists.
Plaza de la Constitución/ Zócalo de Oaxaca
The city square was originally designed by Juan Peláez de Berrio, but years later Alfonso Garcia Caso took this reference to start mapping the entire city.
The Zocalo has undergone a series of changes in history, but since 1901 it has been designed as we know it today, with a central gazebo and its laurel trees from India.
In 1967, the government cleared out the merchants that gathered on two sides of the zocalo and created a passage under the gazebo to relocate the vendors. This corridor was called “the passage Lic. Alberto Canseco Ruiz.”
Today you can stroll and enjoy the shade of its giant trees, sit in one of the restaurants, or simply enjoy the sunset accompanied by the songs of street musicians.
Temple and ex-convent of Cuilpam de Guerrero
Dedicated to Santiago, Apostle of the Dominican order, Cuilapam de Guerrero was one of the first convents in Oaxaca. It was built in the 1530s to evangelize the population of the region with an open chapel. The temple has a Plateresque-style façade and the temple roof was never completed.
Cuilapam is named after Guerrero, former president and hero of Mexican Independence, as this was the site of his execution. Guerrero is credited with the phrase, “la patria es primero,” which translates to "the homeland is first". His remains rest in the Angel of Independence in Mexico City.
5 local markets to shop in Oaxaca
The best way to get to know a destination is through their local markets, so we definitely recommend visiting a few during your trip to Oaxaca.
Benito Juarez is the most central and popular market for tourists, but it still teams with life and great things to see, smell, taste, and purchase.
Stroll through the northern aisles to browse textiles and artisan work, and then make your way to the western-most aisle for stand-after-stand of beautiful leather huarache sandals, bags, purses, belts, hats, and more.
Then weave your way through the central aisles to see fresh produce, ice cream stands, women selling tejate (scroll above to the food section), queserias (cheese vendors), mezcal stands, and much more.
If you have the chance to get out of town, visiting a traditional village market is a special experience. You’ll see people in typical dress, find a plethora of artisan work native to the surrounding areas, and everything from live animals for sale, to farm equipment, clothing, home goods, and more.
Head to Tlacolula on market day (every Sunday) to see one of the most bustling and traditional village markets in the Oaxaca valley. Be sure to try the village’s famous barbacoa while you are there and keep your eyes peeled for fresh pulque.
Tlacolula market also has an amazing array of artisan work including woven rugs, red clay ceramics, textiles, and colorful woven baskets.
Another great traditional market is in Ocotlan on Fridays. This is in a different part of the Oaxaca central valley, south of the city, so the artisan work and general offerings differ a bit from Tlacolula in the eastern valley.
In Ocotlan you’ll find colorful painted ceramics from this region, alebrijes from nearby San Martin Tilcajete, textiles, black clay ceramics, hats and more.
La Merced is located just on the edge of the Centro, but has a local market feel. You can find delicious prepared food here like memelas, tamales, and bubbling chilaquiles. There is also fresh produce, carnicerias (butcher shops), steaming tortillas, corn masa, and anything else you might want to make a tasty homemade meal.
To browse a wide array of artisan work in a store that is owned by the many artisans who sell their wares, head to Colectivo Huizache. This coop houses works from 70 families in just about every category of art in Oaxaca. Here the artisans are paid fairly for their work, and you’ll find some of the most beautiful examples of ceramics, textiles, sculptures, jewelry, and more.
5 museums to visit in Oaxaca
Oaxaca is filled with great museums, but these five focus on the history, culture, and art that makes Oaxaca the city that it is.
Museum of Cultures
The Museum of Cultures is located inside the Santo Domingo complex. Not only is this museum filled with so many artifacts, artisan work, and exhibits explaining the history and culture of Oaxaca, but it’s housed in a gorgeous ex-monastery. You can get an up-close glimpse of the colonial architecture, vast central patios, impressive archways, and the lush ethnobotanical garden behind the museum. The museum contains 14 permanent rooms from the Pre-Hispanic, Colonial, Independencia and 20th century periods.
The Ethnobotanical Garden, located directly behind Santo Domingo and the Museum of Cultures, is a museum unto itself. This isn’t an ordinary botanical garden—the plethora of plant life inside was carefully curated to tell a story about Oaxaca’s history and culture.
These are important plants to this biodiverse state, like the predecessor of corn, agave plants that have a multitude of uses, and trees that have deep cultural significance.
Another amazing thing about the garden is that it contains plant life from all over Oaxaca state, the most diverse state in Mexico. All of the microclimates across the mountains, valleys, and tropical regions mean that the variety of flora is astounding, yet they all thrive here in the garden with careful attention to their location and care.
Keep in mind: Guided tours are required for all visitors.
Rufino Tamayo Museum
Rufino Tamayo was one of the most important modern Mexican painters of the 20th century. He started this museum in his home city of Oaxaca to share his private collection of art that inspired his works. This impressive collection is focused on pre-hispanic art from various parts of Mexico and is fascinating to explore.
A fun fact about the colonial building it’s housed in: The second floor balcony in the front of this building used to be an important daily meeting place in the 18th century. The city dwellers would gather here to hear the daily news announced from the balcony.
Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo
The CFMAB was created by painter Francisco Toledo to promote and share the art of photography with the community. He donated his private collection including the works of great Oaxacan and international photographers such as Alvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Tina Modotti, and Mary Ellen Mark, to name a few. Currently the center has 18,000 photos available to the public.
Textile Museum of Oaxaca
Oaxaca is famous for textiles, so it’s only natural to want to learn about the rich and varied tradition of weaving and embroidery here. The Textile Museum of Oaxaca features permanent exhibits showing textile styles and techniques from all over the state. They also feature fascinating rotating exhibits of textile art with traditional and modern influences.
5 artisan works you must see in Oaxaca
One of the most special things about Oaxaca is the rich traditions of artisan work, passed down from generation to generation.
Many pueblos are famous for a particular type of artisan work, so you can visit and learn directly from artisans in the community. This is also the best way to support artisans, by buying their work directly from them, or from a co-op that is run by the artisans, so that they receive fair pay.
Most of these towns have workshops open to the public to view the process first hand.
Keep in mind: For all the below recommended workshops, it’s a good idea to call ahead for an appointment, and bring an English speaking translator if you don’t speak Spanish.
Some of the most famous textiles are woven rugs from Teotitlán del Valle, a small town about 45 minutes from Oaxaca City. It’s worth noting that the types of textiles and techniques to create them differ throughout the state of Oaxaca.
In Teotitlán del Valle, you’ll find dozens of workshops filled with large wooden looms where the artisans weave their creations. Many artisans here retain the tradition of dying the wool with natural dyes.
We highly recommend a visit to the workshop of Jacobo Mendoza Ruiz and María Luisa Vásquez de Mendoza.
They can give a demonstration on how the wool is cleaned, spun, and then dyed with dozens of natural ingredients like indigo, the cochineal insect, and sapote fruit. They are also expert weavers, and Jacobo has won national awards for his work.
Jacobo Mendoza Ruiz
Avenida Benito Juárez #91
Teotitlán del Valle
Beautiful huipiles (traditional blouses), skirts, belts, panchos, and scarves are just some of the traditional textiles you can find throughout the state of Oaxaca. One of the most interesting workshops to visit is the taller of the Navarro sisters in Santo Tomas Jalietza. This multi-generation family uses the traditional technique of weaving by backstrap loom. The technique is impressive and the result is gorgeous. One of the sisters, Crispina Navarro, has won national awards for her intricate work.
Crispina Navarro Gómez
Benito Juárez # 42
Santo Tomás Jalieza, Ocotlán, Oaxaca
Ceramics are also an important and widespread tradition in Oaxaca. Three towns in particular are most famous for this type of work, and each for a different style.
San Marcos Tlapazola is the best town to visit and see red clay pottery. San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for their unique style of matte black pottery. And finally, Atzompa is famous for their green clay pottery, among other styles.
The workshop of Rufina and her family in Atzompa is a fascinating place to visit to see their beautiful pottery, but also to learn about their sustainable oven. This oven runs on recycled cooking oil.
Rufina Ruiz Lopez
(951) 210- 7399
Santa Maria Atzompa, Oaxaca
Alebrijes are a unique and surreal work of art that is made in the town of San Martin Tilcajete. They are fantastical wooden creatures painted in bright vibrant colors and designs.
These dream-like sculptures are carved from copal wood and often have intricate patterns painted on them. Visit the workshop of Jacobo and Maria Angeles, a pair of the most accomplished and celebrated alebrije artisans in Oaxaca. (See example in the embedded Instagram post)
Woven Palm Leaf Goods
Another beautiful artisan work prevalent throughout Oaxaca are the straw rugs, baskets, and accessories made from woven palm leaf. You can find these items in every market, as well as sold by vendors on the street in the Andador (tourist pedestrian street).
Look for the traditional woven baskets with stripes of color woven alongside the natural palm leaf. You’ll also find tapetes, or woven straw mats from small to large sizes, and in rectangular or circular shapes.
There’s a wide variety of woven straw bags in every shape and size, as well as straw hats to shield you from the sun. You’ll find them in any market, but there are beautiful versions in Benito Juarez market just inside the northern entrance, and in the western hallway.
3 beautiful paces to enjoy nature in Oaxaca
Hierve el Agua
The most impressive natural site in Oaxaca is a series of natural springs that have trickled over the edge of these mountains for thousands of years, creating calcified formations that resemble waterfalls.
The result of this phenomenon is incredible. Add on the picturesque hot springs above, and the sweeping views of the rolling mountains in this remote part of the state, and you’ll be blown away.
Sierra Benito Juarez
The Sierra Norte mountains rise quickly from the valley base just north of the city. Oaxaca sits at just over 5000 feet, and the Sierra Nortes rise quickly to about 10,000 feet.
You can escape the hot afternoon Oaxacan sun to this temperate and fresh mountainous zone. The Sierra Nortes are filled with huge pine trees that grow alongside agaves the size of small cars. This area is filled with nature, as well as a few small traditional villages.
Benito Juarez is one of the towns in a cooperation of villages called the Pueblos Mancomunados. These villages band together to offer ecotourism for visitors. You can take guided treks between the mountains of these towns, stay in local cabanas, and eat meals prepared by local families.
Benito Juarez also has a famous suspension bridge with an incredible view over the mountain valley.
San Jose del Pacifico
In between Oaxaca city and the tropical coastline, you’ll find the small town of San Jose del Pacifico. This village is tucked high in the mountains at 8400 feet in a remote area with beautiful rolling mountains.
San Jose del Pacifico became famous for its tradition of psychedelic mushrooms. The indigenous people here use these mushrooms from the region for spiritual and religious reasons. It’s also a place of great natural beauty for hiking and ecotourism.
How to get around Oaxaca
Oaxaca is easy to navigate without a car. Everything in the historic center is within walking distance, or a quick taxi ride away.
If you want to go on a day trip to Hierve el Agua, or a pueblo, there are many tour agencies that organize daily tours and make the trip simple.
You can also hire a guide and do a customized tour. In general, hiring a guide is a good idea, if you don’t speak Spanish. Otherwise, you can take public transportation like buses and colectivos (shared taxis), hire a private taxi for the day, or rent your own car.
How long to spend in Oaxaca
The comment we hear from almost all visitors is, “I wish I had more time!”
Many tourists are surprised to find that there is just so much to do here: from food, to mezcal, artisan workshops, local markets, museums, historic sites, and nature.
The absolute minimum stay should be four full days, but you will likely feel rushed and plan a return trip.
You can easily spend a week vacation here, doing day trips to pueblos, artisan workshops, and nature sites mixed with days in the historic center visiting museums, eating great food, and shopping markets.
We also know many people who have chosen Oaxaca for a sabbatical or extended stay and filled months with cultural activities, workshops, day trips, and more.
Our love for Oaxaca
Despite our different connections and histories with Oaxaca, we both have a deep love and appreciation for this place.
For Arturo, Oaxaca is a city unlike any other, it is magic. It is time stopped in colors and flavors, where time passes in another way, not slower or faster, but with an intensity that only those who have come to Oaxaca can understand. That is why I feel lucky to be Oaxacan and I could not understand my life without Oaxaca.
For Susan, the high regard for art and tradition is energizing, the celebratory atmosphere is contagious, and the people are warm and kind. It’s a place that constantly inspires. We still find new things to explore—great taquerias, lesser known archeological sites, traditional pueblos, and off-the-beaten path swimming holes, to name a few.
Most visitors and tourists we’ve met start planning their return trip before they’ve even left. That’s just about the strongest recommendation we can think of.
Oaxacan architect passionate about the history and culture of Oaxaca. Arturo is a designer specializing in furniture and interior design. He is the founder of design studio Canseco Studio and Perrito de Mercado tours. When he's not in his workshop, you can find him crossing the city by bicycle, creating illustrations, or eating street tacos.
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