Oaxaca vs Mexico City: Battle of the Best Mexican Cities

Last Updated on May 19, 2024 by Ashlea J. Russell

Can’t decide between Oaxaca vs Mexico City?

So you’ve decided to go to Mexico – great choice! But when you look for places to visit you’re getting some mixed messaging.

Oaxaca City is all the rage, but other people are raving about how underrated Mexico City is. You’ve got a dilemma.

The truth is Mexico City and Oaxaca City are very different places, that offer very different experiences. And while they’re both worth visiting the battle of Oaxaca vs Mexico City really depends on what you’re looking for.

Oaxaca vs Mexico City: The Battle Of The Best

Obviously, I think Mexico is incredible, which is why I’ve dedicated myself to travelling Mexico and writing about it for people like you!

So in this battle, there are no losers.

In the battle of Oaxaca vs Mexico City it comes down to what you want out of your trip.

Both Oaxaca and Mexico City are worth your time but they offer different experiences. In an ideal world, time and money would be no object and you could freely roam without constraint. But for most of us that’s not real life.

We want to make sure we’re spending our time and money in the places that are best for us.

If possible, I recommend visiting both Oaxaca City and Mexico City on your trip. But, if that’s not an option or you’re not sure how much time to spend in each place, I’m here to help.

I’ve broken this battle down into a few helpful categories to give you all the information you need to decide which city is best for you.

Best For Things To Do

An important part of any trip is making sure your chosen destination has plenty of things to keep you occupied.

Both Oaxaca City and Mexico City offer plenty of activities and day trips. But when it comes down to it, Oaxaca City just can’t compete with the sheer volume of things to do in and around Mexico City.

Things To Do In Mexico City

Mexico City has the most museums of any city in the world! With almost 200 museums and galleries to choose from, it’s easy to keep busy with these alone.

There are impressive large museums like the National Museum of Anthropology, home to the Aztec Sun Stone, and the Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum which is hugely popular with art fans.

  • Most of the museums have limited displays and information in English. If you have a special interest in one of the larger museums, consider joining an English language museum tour to improve your experience.

When it comes to things to do in Oaxaca vs Mexico City, it's hard to compete with the huge variety of activities in Mexico City.
Aztec Sun Stone in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

But there are also an array of smaller museums that cater to some niche interests. There’s a chocolate museum, a tequila and mezcal museum (with an on-site cantina for those of Mexican drinking age), a museum of torture, a museum for shoes, the list goes on!

In addition to more museums than you can shake a stick at, Mexico City has Chapultepec Park (twice the size of Central Park and it has a castle), an enormous pyramid you can hot air balloon over, markets, parks, a hidden jazz bar, a (probably) haunted doll island, and more!

Mexico City is worth visiting for the endless possibilities of things to do. I spent weeks here and I still have so much to uncover. No matter what your interests you won’t struggle to fill an itinerary for Mexico City.

Things To Do In Oaxaca City

Oaxaca City doesn’t have as much variety for things to do vs Mexico City. But there are still a few outstanding activities here. Even if you only have a few days in Oaxaca you’ll want to fit these in.

Oaxaca is the birthplace of mezcal, so although Mexico City has the museum, Oaxaca is the centre of the mezcal universe. A tasting at a mezcaleria is a rite of passage in this part of Mexico.

  • Mezcal is not tequila! If you have a stomach-turning memory of tequila you’re trying to suppress, don’t worry. Mezcal has a wide flavour profile and tastes nothing like tequila.

The other thing that’s outstanding in Oaxaca City, and honestly was my main reason for going in the first place, is Monte Albán Archeological Site. Sure, Mexico City has Teotihuacán, but Monte Alban is just incredible.

I took a tour to Monte Albán from Oaxaca City and it remains to be my favourite archeological site I’ve visited.

One of the best things to do in Oaxaca is visit the archeological site of Monte Alban.
Monte Alban is truly gorgeous and huge!

I think what makes Monte Albán so special is the size of the site, the incredible mountain-top location, the number of structures, and the fact that’s it’s not busy.

All of these things work together to create a magical experience. It’s the sort of place where you can feel the history and easily imagine what life would been like here in the heyday.

But Oaxaca isn’t all mezcal and ruins. There’s also some beautiful churches, a petrified waterfall, Ethnobotanical Gardens, excellent markets, traditional food tours and cooking classes.

🏆 Winner: Mexico City🏆

Best For Culture

My favourite part about travelling is immersing myself in other cultures and Mexico is great for that. Almost everywhere in Mexico has a strong cultural identity, with the exception of the major tourist spots like Cancún.

But what people don’t always realize is that Mexico doesn’t have just one singular culture.

A colourful history of various civilizations, indigenous groups and European influence has brought us to the Mexico of today. And while Mexican culture can be found all over, it’s hard to compete with Oaxaca when it comes to traditional and indigenous culture.

Culture In Oaxaca City

Oaxaca is widely regarded as the cultural capital of Mexico and this is mostly due to the prominence of Indigenous groups and customs.

With 16 different Indigenous groups registered, Oaxaca State has one of highest percentages in the country of Indigenous people, at almost 50% of the population. And these Indigenous cultures are everywhere!

All it takes is a walk through Oaxaca City to start to see the culture at every turn. It’s totally common to see people, especially women, in traditional clothing selling handmade goods or food in the streets and markets.

But remember, Oaxaca isn’t Disneyland, people here aren’t dressed up to amuse the tourists, this is their life.

  • It can be tempting to take pictures of locals in their beautiful, colourful clothing but it’s important to be respectful and ask permission.

And it’s not just clothing you’ll notice! Oaxaca has oodles of Indigenous art in museums and as street art, and festivals and dance happen throughout the year.

In the battle of Oaxaca vs Mexico City, Oaxaca wins when it comes to culture.
Oaxaca is known for beautiful, high quality, handmade goods

Oaxaca is also known for producing high quality handmade goods which are my kryptonite. I’ve bought bags, a top, a hat, serving spoons, coin purses, a scarf, rings, and more. The quality is undeniable and the prices are always very fair.

And of course, we can’t talk culture without mentioning the traditional food. Traditional Oaxacan food is very easy to come by in Oaxaca City. Street vendors, markets and restaurants alike serve up traditional dishes round every corner.

Culture In Mexico City

Where Oaxaca is steeped in tradition, Mexico City is the modern Mexico. If Oaxaca is rooted in the past, Mexico City is forging forward.

Mexico City vs Oaxaca City feels like a world apart. This is a place where the ancient and modern coexist beautifully, where impressive modern museums house important ancient artifacts.

Mexico City is where modern Mexico is on full display.

There is a distinct youthfulness to Mexico City. A wave of chefs, artists, and entrepreneurs are breathing new life into Mexican traditions here and the results are incredible.

Being the centre of Mexico (figuratively and it’s literally the geographical centre of the country), the culture in Mexico City is a blend of cultures found around the country as well as influences from other places such as Europe.

A stroll past the patios of Condesa and Roma will have you wondering if you’ve stepped through a portal to Paris. Meanwhile in the Centro Histórico lies the ruins of the Templo Mayor, just off the Zócalo. 

🏆 Winner: Oaxaca City🏆

Best For History & Architecture

Mexico is old! With a history reaching back over 10,000 years it’s a history-buff’s paradise.

Oaxaca has been inhabited for thousands of years so of course there’s history here. But much of the culture is traditional and much of the architecture is Colonial.

Mexico City on the other hand has variety, which is why this round goes to Mexico City.

History & Architecture In Mexico City

Mexico City is the historical hub of Mexico. There are countless museums, theatres, monuments and sites here of historical significance.

From the Aztec ruins of the Templo Mayor to protected historical areas like San Ángel and Coyoacán, and even Chapultepec Castle, a former castle turned National History Museum, there is so much history here.

And if you’re into architecture, Mexico City will not disappoint.

Museo Soumaya in Polanco is like looking at a space ship

Porfirio Diaz, the former President of Mexico loved Paris so much he wanted to make Mexico City more like it. It was through this quest that a Mexican-French fusion of architecture now known as the Porfirian style was born.

This style marries French, Mexican, Moorish, Roman and Gothic architecture to create a beautiful style unique to Mexico City.

Paseo de la Reforma was designed to mimic the wide boulevards of Paris like the Champs-Élysées and French architecture can also be found across the city.

If you’re an architecture buff, take a walk through Roma to see the gorgeous Art Deco buildings. You’ll also want to check out the library at the university (UNAM), the Museo Soumaya and architectural homes like Casa Gilardi.

History & Architecture In Oaxaca City

Oaxaca City itself dates back to the late 1400s and it has remained largely unchanged since then. Even after an earthquake destroyed half the city it was rebuilt in its traditional Colonial style.

Colonial architecture is simple yet beautiful, in stark contrast to the ornate and grandiose structures of Mexico City. Much of the beauty in Oaxaca’s architecture is hidden inside.

In Mexico City the architectural beauty is on display vs Oaxaca City where it is often hidden from the road.
This is the beautiful courtyard at my hotel in Oaxaca

From the road most of the buildings in Oaxaca are simple and plain. At night after businesses close it’s hard to tell where the restaurants and shops even are.

But when you enter the buildings they are usually much larger and open inside, often with inner courtyards that are tucked away from the street.

Places like the Textile Museum of Oaxaca are a good example of the unexpected beauty in Oaxaca.

While the city has lots of Colonial history, the most interesting historical experience here is definitely Monte Albán Archeological Site which dates back over 1,500 years.

For history and architecture lovers Oaxaca has a small but meaningful offering.

🏆 Winner: Mexico City🏆

Best For Food, Drink & Nightlife

For a lot of people food and drink can make or break a trip. I’m one of those people 🙋🏻‍♀️. This category was a tough one to call because the food, drink and nightlife in Oaxaca City vs Mexico City are night and day, but they’re both great in their own way.

So in the interest of diplomacy, this one’s a tie.

Food, Drink & Nightlife In Mexico City

I have spent weeks in Mexico City and I have never had a bad meal, or drink for that matter! The standard in Mexico City is just so high, regardless of the price point you’re at. This is the true beauty of Mexico City: variety.

Mexico City is home to four of the world’s top 50 bars for 2022. It’s also home to fantastic local cantinas and watering holes where a cold beer costs $45MXN [$2.25USD/$3.10CAD] and comes with a snack.

Mexico City is home to four of the world's top 50 bars for 2022.
Montparnasse cocktail at Cityzen Rooftop Kitchen.

  • Visit Cityzen Rooftop Kitchen for fantastic and really reasonably priced cocktails and snacks with the best view in the city.

When it comes to food, it doesn’t disappoint either. Mexico City has some of the world’s most renowned restaurants liked the famed Pujol and Maximo.

But you don’t have to spend a fortune for good eats here. Mid-range restaurants like Blanco Colima offer some of the best dishes I’ve ever had (try the manchego cheesecake) without breaking the bank. And we can’t forget about the street food!

Elotes, esquites, tacos el pastor, churros, Mexico City has it all. The street food here is the best I’ve had anywhere in Mexico.

  • Follow the golden rule! If you see a lot of locals around a street vendor, that’s probably a great place to eat.

And whatever your flavour for nightlife, Mexico City has it. Cantinas, live music, dancing, cocktail bars, clubs, pubs, sports bars, gay bars, rooftop patios, streetside patios, there is always something happening here.

Food, Drink & Nightlife In Oaxaca City

Oaxaca City isn’t the bustling metropolis of Mexico City. With a population of just over 725,000 compared to Mexico City‘s mammoth population of over 22 million, there’s just less going on in Oaxaca.

But what Oaxaca offers, it does really, really well. For example, Oaxaca is the best place in the world to get Oaxacan cuisine.

I know, groundbreaking right?

UNESCO is best known for designating World Heritage Sites like ancient structures but they also have a designation that covers nonphysical intellectual wealth, such as folklore and tradition.

In 2010 UNESCO declared traditional Mexican cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is because of places like Oaxaca, that continue to grow ancient ingredients and prepare them in traditional ways.

In the battle of Oaxaca vs Mexico City, Oaxaca wins the award for best traditional cuisine.
5 Mole Tasting with organic chicken breast.

Oaxaca is also known as the land of the seven moles so if there’s every a place to try mole, it’s here! If you’re not familiar, mole is a thick sauce made from as many as 30 ingredients. Each family typically has their own mole recipe that is handed down from generation to generation and the varieties are huge.

One of my favourite things I did in Oaxaca City was a mole tasting at Los Danzantes, in my opinion the best restaurant in town. There’s also a variety of traditional street food worth trying like tlayudas and tejate.

But, the jewel in the Oaxaca crown has to be mezcal. This complex spirit originates from Oaxaca and more than 70% of the world’s supply still comes from here. Mezcalerias are everywhere offering tastings, creative cocktails, and a variety for every taste.

  • Mezcal is not tequila! It’s meant to be sipped and savoured. The flavours are hugely different so do a tasting to find out which ones you like.

Make sure to get started early though, because Oaxaca doesn’t have much of a nightlife. Most places close down around midnight and some are as early as 9pm-10pm.

🏆 Winner: It’s a Tie!🏆

Best For Solo & Female Travellers

In the battle of Oaxaca vs Mexico City, when it comes to solo and female travellers there’s a clear winner for me. I have visited both cities as a solo female traveller and the experiences were the opposite of what I expected.

I thought as a solo traveller I’d be more comfortable in a smaller city like Oaxaca City, than in an enormous city like Mexico City but the opposite is what happened.

The clear winner for best city for solo and female travel has to go to Mexico City.

Solo & Female Travel In Mexico City

Mexico City is truly gigantic. In fact it’s the largest city in North America and sixth largest in the world. So you’d think this isn’t a great place for solo or female travellers but it’s actually amazing.

One of the main things I consider as a solo female traveller is how safe I feel in a place. I have a built in alarm system that goes off in my head anytime I sense danger and this just didn’t happen in Mexico City.

Some years ago Mexico City elected a female mayor who worked to implement lots of features to make Mexico City safe for females. And a lot of these features benefit everyone. Here’s a few of the safety features below:

  • Well lit parks and sidewalks
  • Female only public transport areas
  • Secure CDMX app to hail taxis and track transit
  • Panic buttons on traffic lights connected to CCTV
  • Panic button in the secure CDMX app
Mexico City is a fantastic place for solo female travellers because it is safe and there is so much to do.
Enjoying some much deserved elotes on the streets of Coyoacán 

During my weeks in Mexico City I was never harassed, bothered or felt watched.

Another thing that makes Mexico City fantastic for solo and female travellers is that there’s so much to do! There’s always something going on and the people are very friendly.

Many of the younger adults (20 – 40 years old) speak at least some English and are eager to get to know you, give recommendations and sometimes even show you around.

I met a local in Mexico City who took me to all sorts of awesome local places I never would have found as a traveller and this local insight made my trip that much more special.

Mexico City is also very easy to navigate. The transit system is colour coded, Uber in Mexico City is always just a few minutes away, bicycles are available for hire, and it’s super walkable.

  • Mexico City is walkable within individual neighbourhoods. The city is sprawling so walking from one area to another can take hours. Make your way to a neighbourhood by Uber or transit and then explore on foot.

Mexico City is lively well into the night so there are always people around, even after dark.

Solo & Female Travel In Oaxaca City

Oaxaca City was somewhere I had heard about from everyone I met. People were always going on about how amazing it was and how I just had to go, so I was a little surprised when I arrived and it didn’t seem to be as described.

Contrary to my experience in Mexico City, I didn’t always feel totally safe in Oaxaca City. Oaxaca is the only place in Mexico where I’ve been followed and harassed.

On my first full day in Oaxaca City a man followed me for about 20 minutes until I ducked into a store and waited for him to leave. I was fine, but the experience made me uneasy in the city.

  • Oaxaca City is very traditional so females should be extra conscious of clothing choices. It’s best to cover shoulders and knees, and be aware of cleavage.

This is also the only place in Mexico where a taxi driver tried to overcharge me. This happened so often I eventually just decided to walk everywhere.

Oaxaca is a politically charged city and the only place I didn't feel totally safe in Mexico.
Politically charged street art is common in Oaxaca City

I also noticed that the locals in Oaxaca were less receptive to visitors than anywhere else I’ve been in Mexico. Where people will normally smile and say hello, most people in Oaxaca did not.

It’s worth noting that Oaxaca is a very politically charged city and there are often demonstrations and protests going on.

The zócalo in the heart of Oaxaca City has been an encampment for displaced indigenous people for the last few years. And when I was visiting Oaxaca the garbage collectors were on strike which meant there were mountains of garbage on every corner.

It’s possible that these ongoing issues impacted the mood in Oaxaca City but I didn’t feel totally welcome as is usually the case in Mexico.

With safety concerns, the fact that it’s more difficult to meet people and that there’s less to do here, Mexico City takes this category.

🏆 Winner: Mexico City🏆

Summary: Oaxaca vs Mexico City

As you can probably tell, the battle of Oaxaca vs Mexico City isn’t a simple one.

Which city suits you better will depend on your interests and the sort of trip you’re trying to have.

Oaxaca is a fantastic destination for traditional culture and Colonial architecture, but Mexico City is an incredible destination for solo and female travellers who want lots of things to do in a vibrant and exciting city.

Mexico City has become one of my favourite cities on earth and is somewhere that deserves at the very least three or four days of your time. Oaxaca City is a smaller, quieter city that can be explored thoroughly in two or three days.

Whichever city you go for, I hope I was able to help you choose the right fit for you.