Planning Your Trip
Itinerary & Day Trips
Things to Do
What to Eat & Drink
Oaxaca de Juarez is a colonial city in southern Mexico, and it’s the capital of Oaxaca state. Located in a valley at some 5,000 feet above sea level, the city is surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountain chain. Oaxaca has beautiful colonial architecture, rich traditions, and delicious food. There are museums and archaeological sites to visit, as well as regular festivals. The contemporary art scene is on the rise, and there are also artisans and craftspeople making traditional crafts and folk art.
This Oaxaca travel guide will give you an introduction to this vibrant destination and the information you need to plan your stay.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit Oaxaca is in the late fall or the spring, although any time of year is pleasant.
- Language: The primary language spoken is Spanish. About 35 percent of the population also speaks an indigenous language. Zapotec and Mixtec are the most spoken indigenous languages, but there are 16 spoken in the state besides Spanish.
- Currency: The currency is the Mexican peso (MXN). Some tour companies and activities give prices in US dollars, but will usually accept either dollars or pesos.
- Getting Around: The historical center is small enough to get around on foot. If you need to go farther afield, there’s no shortage of taxis. The taxis don’t have meters, so it’s customary to agree on a price before departing. There’s no Uber service in Oaxaca, but there is an app called Didi that is similar and works with local taxi drivers (but payment is in cash).
- Travel Tip: Only upscale restaurants, hotels, and boutiques accept credit cards, so be sure to carry enough cash with you for what you need. There are lots of ATMs around the city, but if you’re heading out on a day trip, be sure to take some cash with you.
Things to Do
It’s easy to fill your days with exciting and fun activities in Oaxaca. There are enough markets, museums, and galleries in town to keep you busy for weeks or head out to the surrounding villages to learn more about the local culture. Of course, you’ll be able to enjoy the city’s outstanding food scene wherever you go. Here are a few activities to enjoy:
- Take a day trip to visit one of the surrounding villages on their market day. Be sure to buy a souvenir, sample some market food, and buy some fresh fruit to enjoy later.
- Explore archaeological sites like Monte Alban, and Mitla to learn about the ancient inhabitants of this area.
- Shop for handicrafts such as Zapotec wool rugs, alebrijes (carved wooden animals), or some Oaxacan black pottery.
- Learn how to cook Oaxacan specialties by taking a cooking class with Chef Nora at Alma de Mi Tierra.
- Take a tour of Oaxaca’s outstanding Ethnobotanical Garden, where you can discover the fascinating plant life of Oaxaca state (you can only visit as part of a tour).
- Visit the Oaxaca Museum of Cultures to see the amazing treasure of Tomb 7 found at Monte Alban archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage site .
- Head up to the Sierra Norte to do some hiking or mountain biking.
What to Eat and Drink
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s great foodie destinations, so you’re in for a treat! The traditional cuisine is based on corn and chiles and prominently features local fresh herbs. Oaxaca’s dining scene has exploded in recent years, and you’ll find lots of fantastic restaurants, many with wonderful atmospheres, beautiful courtyards, or rooftop views. Don’t shy away from street food because Oaxaca has some of the best street food in the world. At Mercado 20 de Noviembre, you can sample some of the state’s best-known dishes such as tlayuadas, memelas, tamales, chapulines (grasshoppers), and, of course, mole, a rich sauce made with chiles, chocolate, and many other ingredients.
Mezcal is the drink of choice in Oaxaca. It’s traditionally served neat, but if that’s not your style, you can try some inventive mezcal cocktails at spots like Sabina Sabe or Mezcalogia. Oaxaca also has a craft beer scene that’s on the rise, and you can try some of the locally produced brews at Santísima Flor de Lúpulo and Consejo Cervecero.
Where to Stay
There are lots of great choices of hotels, B&Bs, and homestays in Oaxaca, in all price ranges and for all tastes. Most visitors prefer to stay in the city center, so after a full day of activities, you can head back to your hotel for a little rest, then go out to dinner and enjoy Oaxaca’s evening scene without having to worry about catching a cab—everything’s within walking distance! If noise is an issue, look for a hotel on the north side of the city. In the few blocks north of Santo Domingo, there’s not much street noise at night, and you’ll still be able to walk to the sights and restaurants, but it’s much quieter than near the Zócalo (the main square). Another great option is the Barrio de Jalatlaco, a traditional neighborhood, just east of the city center. It has lovely little restaurants and cafes and cobblestone streets.
Explore our recommendations on the best hotels in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca's Aeropuerto Internacional Xoxocotlan (OAX) is a small airport about 25 minutes' drive south of the city. It receives a few international flights, but several dailies from Mexico City. Depending on where you're coming from, you may need to fly into Mexico City and take another flight to Oaxaca. Those who want to avoid the Mexico City airport can look for direct flights from Houston or Dallas to Oaxaca. The ADO bus line has clean, modern buses and connects Oaxaca to many other cities in Mexico.
Find out how to travel to Oaxaca from Mexico City by plane, bus, or car.
Culture and Customs
There are a few cultural differences and customs that you should be aware of when traveling in Oaxaca. You'll probably notice a lot of interesting people in the markets and on the streets and may want to take their photograph. It's always a good idea to ask first because some people do not like having their photo taken, although if you're in the market, it's fine to take a wide-frame shot that has people in it—just don't get in people's faces. If you would like to take someone's photo, you can ask in Spanish, "¿Puedo tomar una foto?" It's much more respectful to ask first. Learn some other Spanish phrases for travelers to Mexico so you can interact respectfully with the local people.
Mexican mealtimes are probably on a different schedule from what you're used to. Mexicans usually have their main meal of the day in the afternoon between 2 and 4 p.m. In restaurants, the server won't bring you the bill until you ask for it. Ask for "La cuenta, por favor," or make a sign of writing in the air. Generally, a tip ("propina" in Spanish) isn't included, and it's customary to add 10 to 20 percent depending on the quality of service. People usually leave a tip for the waitstaff in bars and tip in bars restaurants, but not in food stalls and markets (although you'll often find that a tip is appreciated anyway). It's also customary to tip bellhops and cleaning staff at your hotel.
A lot of people wonder if it's expected to haggle in the markets. Unlike some other places in Mexico, in Oaxaca, people don't bargain a lot. If you're planning to purchase a big-ticket item, you may want to ask around at a few different places to get an idea of what the price range is, so you know that you're not being overcharged, but in general, if you can pay the asking price for an item, it's good to do so. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico, and you can feel good knowing that you're supporting the local economy. If you're buying a few items in a market stall, it is OK to ask if you can get a discount for multiple items.
Money Saving Tips
Oaxaca is a very affordable destination. From restaurants to eating out, to picking up souvenirs, you’ll find prices are generally very reasonable. Here are some tips for saving money on your trip to Oaxaca:
- There are lots of hotels that are perfectly comfortable and very economical, so look around for a good choice.
- Street food and market food is inexpensive and delicious. Don’t be timid to try things that are new and different.
- For trips outside the city, the cheapest way to get around is by bus or colectivo. Brush up on your Spanish and carry change to pay fares.
- There are a few museums that have free admission: the Textile Museum and Centro Cultural San Pablo are free for everyone every day.
- There are often free cultural events taking place in the Zócalo or along Alcalá street in the evenings.
Encyclopedia Britannica. "Oaxaca."
Indigenous Mexico. "Oaxaca: A Land of Amazing Diversity." September 19, 2019
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. "Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán."