We went to Oaxaca without knowing what to expect.
We knew that Oaxaca was supposed to be fun and colorful and have tasty food, but that was essentially the extent of our research.
In the end, I’m glad we didn’t overthink Oaxaca: it gave the city a chance to surprise us.
Oaxaca ended up being a delightful place, and we left feeling like we could return again and again without ever running out of things to do.
Ready to start planning your own trip? Don’t miss these eleven awesome things to do in Oaxaca:
1. Taste Mole
Known as the “land of seven moles”, Oaxaca is home to endless varieties of mole sauces. The complex flavors vary with each recipe, and you’ll find yourself tempted to hop around town trying them all.
2. Visit Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is located a couple of hours outside the city–but it’s worth the drive. These “petrified waterfalls” formed from limestone are an unusual sight–even better are the sweeping views of the mountains and the cascading limestone pools that you can take a dip in if you’re so incluined.
3. Wander the Zocalo
Oaxaca’s Zocalo (or main square) is home to cafes, restaurants, giant shade trees, and oodles of balloon sellers. Come at night to grab some corn from the street food vendors and, if you’re lucky, check out one of the local performances or festivals that are often going on in the square.
4. Stop by Oaxaca’s Cultural Museum
Housed in a former monastery, the building itself is a worthy part of the museum. Thousands of artifacts are gathered in this museum, telling the story of the ethnic groups in the area both before and after the Spanish arrived.
Fair warning: the descriptions in the museum are only available in Spanish, so bring Google Translate if you need it.
5. See the Ethnobotanical Gardens
Oaxaca’s ethnobotanical gardens are beautiful, and definitely speak to the location: there are more cacti in this garden than I’ve ever seen in a garden before!
6.Visit Monte Alban
A short ride out of town will take you to Monte Alban, a once proud city set on top of a large hill. Monte Alban is believed to have been inhabited for 1500 years by many different peoples, though it was already long abandoned when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
Monte Alban is remarkably well preserved, and the views from it are astonishing–even better, a couple of places are still open for you to climb, giving you the opportunity to overlook almost all of Monte Alban from above.
7. Photograph Oaxaca’s streets
Oaxaca often comes up on lists of the most colorful cities in the world–and for good reason. The buildings here will draw your eye in every direction, and there is bright color down every street.
8. Taste mezcal
Similar to the more famous tequila (in fact tequila is a certain type of mezcal that comes from a particular region), mezcal is distilled from local agave plants.
Try some in a restaurant, or consider touring a distillery–normally samples are included in the price, and our bartender was very generous with pours after the tour.
9. Enjoy the festivals
Oaxaca is always celebrating something, normally complete with decor and parades. It’s easy to get swept up into the spirit of the festivals, and definitely stop to watch any parades that pass by.
Oaxaca’s biggest festivals are for Holy Week, the Day of the Dead in November, the Night of the Radishes in December. If you miss those, don’t worry–there are plenty more. We accidently attended the Festival of the Virgen of Guadalupe as it just happened to be going on while we were there!
10. See the Templo de Santo Domingo
No trip to Oaxaca is complete without a stop by its most famous cathedral. Located right next door to the monastery that houses the cultural museum, the Templo de Santo Domingo is beautiful and demands to be photographed–bonus points if you can get a great sunset in the background.
11. See Mitla
Once the main religious center of the Zapotecs, Mitla is one of the most remarkable ruins that we saw while in Mexico. The beauty of Mitla is in the details: much of it was built with tiny, hand-carved tiles that are used to create stunning geometric patterns on the walls–without the use of mortar.
Unlike Monte Alban, Mitla was still functioning with the Spanish arrived in the 16h century. Though much of Mitla was destroyed to build the cathedral that now overlooks it, enough is left of the city to leave you stunned in admiration for the remarkably detailed construction and design.
We heartily recommend that everyone who has the chance to backpack Mexico does so, and our time in Oaxaca definitely helped convince us of that. We adored our time in Oaxaca–visiting Mitla and Hierve el Agua quickly became some of our favorite experiences in Mexico, and we never, ever got tired of the food.
The festivals, though, were what left us curious and feeling like there were more left to discover in Oaxaca: the next time that we visit, we’d like it to be for the Day of the Dead.
Kate Storm is busy traveling the world with her husband and documenting all the adventures (and how to pay for them) on her blog, Our Escape Clause. When she’s not writing, you can normally find her on a hike somewhere gorgeous, swimming in a beautiful sea, wandering around a city, or baking one of the thousands of dessert recipes she finds on Pinterest.