15 Tips for Oaxaca: The Food Capital of Mexico

Many travelers consider Oaxaca their favorite city in Mexico, and we can’t blame them. Although its pronunciation may seem challenging at first, Oaxaca is simply pronounced as “wa-ha-ka.” The charming old colonial city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the city is filled with fantastic, primarily culinary, hotspots. If there’s one place to truly savor Mexican cuisine, it’s Oaxaca.

Oaxaca enjoys a delightful spring-like climate all year round, thanks to its elevation of over 1,500 meters (4,900 feet). Evenings can get a bit cool, so don’t forget to pack a sweater.

How to get to Oaxaca?

Most travelers travel to Oaxaca from Mexico City or Puerto Escondido.

From Mexico City to Oaxaca

By plane: This is the quickest way to reach Oaxaca. AeroMexico, VivaAerobus, and Volaris provide direct one-hour flights. Volaris is often the most affordable option, and with a bit of luck, you can find a ticket that is very cheap.

By bus: The bus journey takes 7 to 8 hours, and these comfortable buses are equipped with onboard restrooms. You can check departure times and book your tickets online. Be mindful that there are multiple bus stations in Mexico City. Determine which bus station is closest to your hotel and choose that as your starting point.

By rental car: This approximately 6-hour drive takes you along a mostly straight highway.

From Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca

By plane: This is the most convenient yet also the priciest option. A flight with Aerotucan can be cheap and sometimes it can be expensive depending on when you book your flight, and there’s a luggage limit of 15 kilograms.

By bus: The (overnight) bus journey takes approximately 11 hours. This route partially goes through the mountains with numerous sharp turns, which can be nauseating. It’s a good idea to bring a travel sickness pill with you. Fortunately, the buses are quite luxurious and equipped with onboard restrooms. Check the current times and book your ticket online.

By rental car: The journey takes approximately 6 hours and largely passes through the mountains. We advise against following the route initially suggested by Google Maps as the road is not well-maintained. Instead, the road on this route is a lot better and we recommend it.

What to do in Oaxaca?

Oaxaca has many attractions in and around the city. We recommend spending at least two to three full days there.

Visit the temples of Monte Alban

Mexico is home to many ancient temple cities, but Monte Alban stands out for its uniqueness. Founded by the Olmecs in 600 BC and later taken over by the Zapotecs, it served as their capital and had an estimated population of 30,000 at its peak. The city is built on a flat mountain and features temples of various shapes and sizes arranged around a large square. While it’s wonderful to explore on your own, taking a guided tour can provide valuable insights into its rich history. Guides are available at the entrance and no advance booking is required.

Stroll the local market

Oaxaca has  many markets where you can experience the authentic local life. Two markets that should not be missed are Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. As you stroll through these markets, all your senses will be stimulated. Savor local delicacies and purchase a unique souvenir to take home. These markets are located side by side in the heart of the city.

The central square Zócalo

Zócalo is the vibrant heart of Oaxaca. Every day of the week, it bustles with market stalls, vendors, and locals. On weekends, it is even livelier and more festive. Music fills the air and people dance together. Welcome to the true Mexico!

Take a trip to the frozen waterfall Hierve el Agua

Take a break from the city and take a trip out to Hierve el Agua. This unique waterfall appears frozen in time. Its name, Hierve el Agua, literally means “boiling water.” In reality, the water originates from a hot spring and its high calcium content has formed the cascading shape on the rock over centuries. Hierve el Agua is situated atop a mountain and surrounded by mountain scenery. The breathtaking views will leave you gazing endlessly into the distance.

It is nice to take a short walk at Hierve el Agua. The Maps.me app shows this route. There is only one trail leading from the waterfall, so it is easy to find. Be sure to download the map beforehand so you can navigate offline. The round trip takes approximately 45 minutes and offers several scenic viewpoints along the way.

How do you get to Hierve el Agua?

Hierve el Agua is a 1.5-hour drive from Oaxaca. There are several ways to get there:

By rental car: We drove to Hierve el Agua in a rental car. This is a convenient option because you can leave early to beat the crowds. Be sure to follow this route instead of the one suggested by Google Maps. The route takes you through the mountains and offers impressive views along the way. Hierve el Agua opens at 9:00 a.m.

With a tour: Another option is to join a tour. The advantage of this is that you also get to visit a small village and a mezcal factory.

By bus: Taking the bus is significantly cheaper, but takes much longer. A one-way trip takes about 3 hours. If you don’t mind the extra time, catch a bus to Mitla and tell the driver you want to go to Hierve el Agua. In Mitla, transfer to a colectivo or pickup truck that will take you to the entrance of Hierve el Agua.

Visit a mezcal factory

When most people think of Mexico, they think of tequila. However, in Oaxaca, mezcal is the drink of choice. Like tequila, mezcal is made from the agave plant. The difference is that tequila is made exclusively from blue agave, while mezcal can be made from up to 30 different varieties of agave. Mezcal has a slightly smoky flavor and a high alcohol content. The production process is fascinating and no trip to Oaxaca is complete without tasting mezcal. Unlike tequila, which is often consumed as a shot, mezcal is meant to be sipped slowly.

If you want to learn more about the journey from agave plant to drink, visit a mezcal factory. Casa Mezcal Oro de Oaxaca is one of the best in the area. This tour combines a visit to Hierve el Agua with a stop at a mezcal factory.

Wander the colorful streets of Jalatlaco

Just a short 10-minute walk from the city center lies Jalatlaco, one of Oaxaca’s oldest neighborhoods. This area is distinct from the rest of the city. The houses are painted in a variety of cheerful colors, flags flutter across the streets, and cool street art  can be seen on every corner. There is little traffic and many  cafes. We stopped for a bite at Santa Hierba, a small restaurant serving delicious and healthy dishes.

Tip: For safety reasons, it is recommended to use taxis in Oaxaca after sunset.

Behold the world’s thickest tree

Just outside Oaxaca, in the village of Santa Maria Del Tule, stands Árbol del Tule, the world’s thickest tree. This giant has a circumference of 36.2 meters (118.8 feet) and a diameter of 11.6 meters (38.1 feet). Only a few other trees in the world come close to its size. For years, there was debate over whether the tree was a fusion of several trees or a single entity. DNA research has confirmed that it is indeed one tree, making Árbol del Tule one of the heaviest tree in the world.

But its thickness is not the only thing that makes Árbol del Tule unique. It is also one of the oldest trees in the world. Estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, it was already described by the Aztecs some 2,000 years ago.

Tip: If you visit Hierve del Agua, you will pass by Árbol del Tule. It’s a good idea to combine the two.

Admire the Santo Domingo de Guzmán church

Perhaps the most impressive sight in Oaxaca is the Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church. Dating back to the 16th century, the church is beautiful from the outside, but be sure to step inside. The entire interior is adorned with gold leaf and beautiful paintings.

Have a drink at a rooftop bar

Oaxaca is home to many rooftop bars where you can enjoy views of the city while enjoying a delicious drink. The area around the Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church is particularly rich in rooftop bars. While Mezcalerita Oaxaca may not have the best view among all the rooftop bars, it is a delightful spot to enjoy a drink.

Visit the botanical garden of Oaxaca

Right in the center is the old monastery garden called Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. This botanical garden showcases hundreds of plant species native to the state of Oaxaca. Visitors are required to join a guided tour to explore the garden. This is actually a good thing, as it allows you to learn a great deal about Oaxaca’s biodiversity. While it may not be the most beautiful botanical garden we’ve seen,but because you learn a lot, it’s definitely worth a visit. English-language tours start at 11:00 a.m., Monday through Saturday, and last for 2 hours. Spanish-language tours begin at 10:00, 11:00, and 12:00, Monday through Saturday, and last for 1 hour. The maximum group size is 25 people. Be sure to arrive 15-20 minutes early to secure your spot on the tour, as it can get very busy and once it’s full, it’s full.

The cuisine of Oaxaca

As we mentioned earlier, Oaxaca is considered the culinary capital of Mexico. Many of the ingredients and delicacies used in Mexican cuisine originate in Oaxaca. One of its most famous creations is mole, a sauce that comes in many variations throughout Mexico. The most well-known is black mole, made from 34 ingredients including chocolate. While this may sound unusual, the chocolate flavor is not overpowering in black mole. Another dish that originated in Oaxaca is tlayudas, a large tortilla filled with beans, avocado, and Oaxaca cheese. Yes, you read that correctly – Oaxaca even has its own cheese that is popular throughout the country.

Viewing tip: The popular Netflix series Street Food Latin America features an episode set in Oaxaca. Watch it before your visit to gain some insight into Oaxacan cuisine.

Best restaurants in Oaxaca

It should come as no surprise that Oaxaca is home to a ton of excellent restaurants. Dining in Oaxaca is a treat for the taste buds, whether you choose to eat at an upscale restaurant or a street stall. If you plan to dine at a restaurant, it’s a good idea to make a reservation a day in advance.

Boulenc – This is our favorite spot for breakfast and lunch. Google Maps will direct you to Boulenc’s bakery, but be sure to walk one door further to find the cozy restaurant. The menu features a diverse array of delicious dishes. We had breakfast there several times and were particularly fond of the shakshuka and the yogurt bowl with fresh fruit.

Pan con Madre – This bakery is located a bit further from the city center but is well worth the trip. They sell delicious fresh bread and treats like carrot cake, brownies, banana bread, and savory rolls. It’s the perfect place to stock up on snacks for a long travel day or tour.

Tlayudas la Chinita – This street food stall was featured in the Netflix series Street Food Latin America. Here, you can enjoy some of the best tlayudas, a famous dish from Oaxacan cuisine.

Los Danzantes – This restaurant offers the finest Mexican cuisine in an elegant setting. The interior is chic yet cozy and the prices are slightly higher, but the flavors are phenomenal.

Adama – If you’re in the mood for something other than Mexican cuisine, Adama is an excellent choice. This Middle Eastern restaurant serves fantastic food. You can order several small dishes to share and sample a variety of flavors.

Hierba dulce – This vegan restaurant features an unusual menu. We tried the getela de quintonil and the taco placero with potato and both were delicious.

Our favorite places to stay in Oaxaca

Besides good restaurants, Oaxaca also has a wide range of nice hostels and hotels. If you prefer to stay in a hostel, Azul Cielo Hostel is highly recommended. This cozy hostel has a cheerful decor and features a courtyard garden with plenty of comfortable seating areas. It is located about a kilometer from the vibrant city center, but guests can borrow bicycles for free.

If you prefer a small-scale hotel, Hotel Dainzu is an excellent choice. Located just two blocks from the lively Zócalo Square, you’ll be right in the heart of the city. Guests can enjoy a comfortable double room overlooking a beautiful patio filled with flowers and plants.

If your budget allows for something more upscale, consider Hotel con Corazón. This socially responsible hotel invests its profits in local education projects. By staying here, you’ll not only enjoy a pleasant stay but also contribute to a good cause. The staff is friendly, the hotel’s design is amazing, and each morning you’ll be treated to a delicious breakfast.