Months after visiting, the magic of Oaxaca City is still with me. There’s just something about this incredible city that lingers in your memory – be it the foodie scene, the mezcal, the artisan goods, the ancient sites, or honestly, just the general energy of this place. So, if you’re lucky enough to be experiencing it for yourself, here are some of the fabulous things to do in Oaxaca City that have shaped my memories of this dreamy destination.
One of the fascinating things you can do in Oaxaca City is visit this ethnobotanical garden. Housed in the former monastic gardens of the Church of Santo Domingo, this beautiful oasis opened in 1998 after a campaign by artists to use the space for showcasing Oaxaca’s native flora.
Some of the plants are so rare and impressive (such an enormous cactus that is thought to be over 100 years old) that the gardens can only be viewed during morning guided tours of up to 25 people. Tours in English are only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I recommend at least 30 minutes early to ensure you nab one of the spots.
My favourite feature of this tour were the insights into how vital Oaxaca’s role as the most biodiverse region in Mexico has been. For example, the earliest examples of corn and squash were found in this state. They also have a plant that literally acts as soap! You wet the berry, rub it and it produces a soap-like substance, for cleaning clothes etc.
This place is a must-visit for any gardeners and plant parents visiting Oaxaca.
Monte Alban absolutely can’t be missed for any ancient history nerds (like me). It was one of three pyramids I visited on my Mexico adventure – in addition to Cholula near Puebla and Teotihuacán near Mexico City – but it was the main one that gave me that WOW moment.
Monte Alban was one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, founded around 500 BC. I loved that this site had clear information about each section, so I understood the importance of everything from the tombs to the sports fields. I found it incredibly humbling to be in the presence of these ancient ruins; it reminded me of how small and insignificant our individual lives are in the grand scheme of things.
These beautiful archaeological ruins are only 9km from Oaxaca City. I caught a shuttle bus with Autobuses Turisticos, who run a service every hour until around 1pm for 100 pesos. You can find them opposite Hotel Rivera del Angel on Francisco Javier Mina.
Make sure you bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat, as there is little to no shade on this enormous site. Also, wear super comfy shoes, as one of the best things about Monte Alban is you can climb all those stairs!
As with most touristy cities, there are a bunch of different walking tours in Oaxaca City that you can try. As a bit of a history and culture nerd, I am so pleased I opted for Around Oaxaca City with Suleyma, who provided a detailed insight into the traditions, food and areas that make up this historic area.
Su is a translator, academic and all-around ray of sunshine, so the two-hour tour was packed with a multitude of information and insights. This walking tour is ‘free’, which means you tip Su at the end for whatever you feel it was worth. I highly recommend joining Su’s tour at the start of your stay in Oaxaca to get a locals perspective (and recommendations) about the city.
With its name meaning ‘the water boils’, Hierve el Agua is a popular day trip from Oaxaca City. Jaw-dropping views complement the naturally-formed warm mineral pools and petrified waterfalls.
I was unsure whether to include this as something to do or miss because parts of this experience were amazing, and other aspects were a little underwhelming. I visited during the dry season (December-April), when the low rainfall means the pools are shallow and, to be honest, a little grim. However, it apparently is a much more lush and lovely experience during the rest of the year.
What I liked about this experience were the lovely views and the trip there. You can join a tour to travel to the remote site in comfort, but I went a more local route. It added to the experience, especially as the trip takes about two hours each way (so make sure you allow time for this, especially if you want to also visit the ruins at Mitla in the morning).
First, catch a bus to Mitla from the Estadio Eduardo Vasconcelos baseball stadium. You’ll spot camionetas (mini-trucks with covered wagon-style back) with signs saying Hierve el Agua when you arrive. It’s an intimate, bumpy, but enjoyable experience with great views and good vibes. I bonded with a bunch of other solo travellers on the ride out, so I found it a lot of fun. I think the journey of bus + truck costs around 200 pesos return, so very affordable compared to the tours, which are around four times that price.
One of the best tips that Suleyma from Around Oaxaca City gave me was to climb up to the lookout above the city just before sunset and enjoy the incredible views.
El Mirador del Cerro del fortín isn’t anywhere fancy – it’s simply a place on the side of a highway leading out of Oaxaca. However, this particular spot has views all the way across the valley where this beautiful city is located. You can walk up there either along the highway or up from one of the steep roads that lead up from Panorámica del Fortín (I recommend going down this way, into the city for dinner or drinks after).
The Oaxacan region is brimming with beautiful handcrafted items and folk art. From eye-catching black pottery to the brightly coloured Alebrijes (sculptures of mythical creatures), your can’t go anywhere in the city without encountering a shop or stall selling something handmade in the region.
While you can buy something traditional, there are also many modern designers, artists, and creatives whose work can buy in this vibrant city. I opted to buy these beautiful earrings from a local designer Gaby Vilchiz from her shop and get compliments every time I wear them out. So, make sure you take a little bit of Oaxaca with you when you go, as it will undoubtedly be something you treasure forever.
This museum was closed due to Covid when I visited Oaxaca, unfortunately. Rufino Tamayo was a famous Modernisty artist born in this city in the late 1800s but rose to fame in Mexico for his paintings and prints in the mid-20th century. He was a contemporary of Diego Rivera and was known for his large-scale murals and eye-catching colours.
Tamayo opened the museum in 1974 after personally restoring the beautiful building it is housed in. Over 1,000 pieces of pre-Hispanic art featured inside was the personal collection of Tamayo and his wife, Olga, that they had sourced over the previous two decades. Apparently, this place is a bit of a hidden gem in Oaxaca City, and I hope one day I get the chance to see it.