The Mexican city of Oaxaca is famous not only for the smoky taste of its mezcal but for its cultural diversity and hip, laid-back vibe, as well as its architectural and archeological heritage. It’s a city of wide plazas, colorful murals, spice, and mezcal.

In this travel guide, we explore Oaxaca City to show you what to do and inspire you to go out and travel its cobblestone streets.

An Overview of Oaxaca City

Oaxaca city was founded in 1521 by Spanish conquistadors seeking the source of Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s gold. Founded on the historic lands of the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec peoples, the city nowadays boasts over 300 thousand people. It is the capital of the Mexican state of the same name.

It’s a place of wide plazas, placid cafes that source their coffee from the mountains not too far away, and trendy bars and mezcalerias where travelers can satiate their need for self-annihilation by drinking mezcal, a smoky spirit native to Oaxaca that is similar to tequila, as well as the occasional pulque.

The city center has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved colonial architecture and historic buildings. The most famous is the cathedral of Santo Domingo, whose bell towers preside over the city with grandiose pride and can be seen from all over the city– especially the many rooftop bars and mezcalerias. The church of Santo Domingo also houses museums that are worth visiting to learn about the cultural and historical heritage of the city.

Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range in southern Mexico, Oaxaca City is a cultural and culinary hub renowned for its vibrant arts scene, rich indigenous heritage, and colonial charm. With its cobblestone streets, colorful markets, and historic landmarks, Oaxaca City offers travelers a captivating blend of old-world charm and contemporary vitality. In this travel guide, we’ll explore the top things to do and see in Oaxaca City, along with location-specific travel tips to help you make the most of your visit.

Top Things to Do and See

Explore the Historic Center

Begin your journey in Oaxaca City’s historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage site brimming with colonial-era architecture, charming plazas, and cultural landmarks. Visit the iconic Santo Domingo Church and Cultural Center, admire the ornate façade of the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude, and stroll through the picturesque Zócalo, the city’s main square.

Visit the Oaxaca Cathedral

Marvel at the stunning architecture of the Oaxaca Cathedral, known as the Church of Santo Domingo, one of the most important religious landmarks in the city. Admire its impressive baroque façade, ornate altars, and majestic bell towers, and explore the cathedral’s interior to discover its rich history and artistic treasures. Selfies at this plaza are a must!

Next to the cathedral is also a vast museum with archeological pieces and collections from the prehispanic and colonial periods. A great place to visit if you want to learn more about the history and culture of Oaxaca!

Explore the Markets

Immerse yourself in Oaxaca’s vibrant culinary and artisanal scene by exploring the city’s colorful markets. Visit the Mercado Benito Juárez for fresh produce, spices, and traditional ingredients, browse the stalls of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre for mouthwatering street food, and shop for handicrafts and souvenirs at the Mercado de Artesanías.

Some of the best food you can find in Oaxaca City, the most authentic, will be found in the markets.

Discover Monte Albán

Venture outside the city to explore the ancient ruins of Monte Albán, an archaeological site located on a scenic hilltop overlooking the Oaxaca Valley. Explore the impressive pyramids, temples, and ballcourts of this UNESCO World Heritage site, and learn about the fascinating history and culture of the Zapotec civilization that once thrived here.

Experience Mezcal Culture

Delve into the world of mezcal, Mexico’s iconic spirit, by visiting a local mezcaleria or distillery in Oaxaca City. Learn about the production process, from agave cultivation to distillation, and sample a variety of artisanal mezcal brands to discover your favorite flavors and styles.

Remember, real badasses drink mezcal out of a jalapeño and never shoot a mezcal. It’s bad juju.

Attend Cultural Events

Immerse yourself in Oaxaca’s rich cultural heritage by attending festivals, concerts, and art exhibitions throughout the city. From the Guelaguetza, Oaxaca’s iconic folk festival celebrating indigenous culture and dance, to the Day of the Dead festivities in November, there’s always something to celebrate in Oaxaca City.

The city also boasts a lively bohemian scene where live music and cultural events are always happening.

Some Rambling & Roving Travel Tips

Famous Festivities

Oaxaca’s most important festivity is the Guelaguetza, which takes place every July and means “offering” in the Zapotec language. The festival can trace its roots back to the times when Oaxaca was a part of the Aztec empire, and which now serves as an important cultural event for Oaxaca’s indigenous population. This also coincides with the high season for the region.


Oaxaca City sits at an elevation of approximately 5,000 feet above sea level, so it’s important to stay hydrated and take it easy, especially if you’re not accustomed to high altitudes.


Oaxaca City enjoys a mild climate year-round, with warm temperatures during the day and cooler evenings. Pack layers and comfortable walking shoes for exploring the city’s cobblestone streets and hilly terrain.


Like any major city, Oaxaca City has its share of petty crime, so it’s important to stay vigilant and take common-sense precautions, such as keeping your belongings secure and avoiding isolated areas after dark.

It’s a good idea to keep up with the news of what’s going on in Oaxaca because locals have the custom of blocking traffic and streets whenever they’re protesting. It happened to us when we were last there… and the time before that.


Oaxaca City is well-served by public transportation, including buses, taxis, and colectivos (shared vans). Walking is also a great way to explore the city’s historic center, but be prepared for uneven sidewalks and steep hills. Comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots for exploring are a must in a place where you’ll be walking around… a lot!


Spanish is the official language of Mexico, but many people in Oaxaca City also speak indigenous languages such as Zapotec and Mixtec. Learning a few basic phrases in Spanish or even some from the local indigenous languages (basics like hello, please, or thank you) can go a long way in enhancing your travel experience and connecting with locals.

Oaxaca City offers travelers a wealth of cultural, culinary, and historical experiences just waiting to be discovered. Whether exploring the city’s historic landmarks, sampling its delicious cuisine, or immersing yourself in its vibrant arts scene, Oaxaca City promises an unforgettable journey through the heart and soul of Mexico.

We hope that our journey inspires you to travel Oaxaca on your own rambling and roving adventure!