• Ashlea J. Russell

What To Do In Oaxaca City (2022)

Updated: Feb 7

The state of Oaxaca is widely regarded as the cultural centre of Mexico. Often overlooked by tourists in favour of the glitz and glam of the Yucatan, Oaxaca is an incredible place to get a taste of “The Real Mexico”; and where better to start than the city itself, Oaxaca City, also called Oaxaca de Juárez. Best known as the home of Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), it can be difficult to know what to do in Oaxaca City when the festival isn’t in full swing so here are my top picks to explore Oaxaca City.

A historic church sits atop a hill with cacti and blue skies in Oaxaca City.
Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Oaxaca City

1. Monte Alban, Archeological Zone

2. Mezcal

3. Mole at Los Danzantes

4. Shopping for Handmade Goods

5. A Few Things to Know Before You Go

Monte Alban Archeological Zone

It would be an actual sin to visit Oaxaca City and not visit Monte Alban. Monte Alban is a very important [and impressive] Pre-Columbian archeological site that dates back to the 6th century BC. I’ve visited many archeological sites all over the world and few compare to this one. The sheer size of the site is astounding and what we visit today only represents 10% of the original site.

An archeology team is working in the ruins of Monte Alban.
Archeology Team Working at Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Many sources say to just grab a taxi and have a wander around but I don’t recommend that. In the days of Covid the site is actually limited to only 400 entrants a day. Taxi drivers will be happy to take you up the mountain but a line of vehicles forms before the site opens every day so you will either find yourself running up a metre or standing on a very hot, very steep hill amidst the vehicles waiting for access.

A guide with a straw hat points with a walking stick over the mountains of Oaxaca.
Hector the Private Guide Explaining the Boundaries of the Site, Monte Alban, Oaxaca

I decided to book a local guide on a private tour which cost $1,200 pesos [$55USD/$70CAD] for two people. This included a private English-speaking driver in a modern air conditioned SUV, entrance to the site and Hector, our certified guide. The Mexican government takes their history very seriously, so they offer a licensing program for tour guides that requires guides to prove extensive knowledge about history and historic sites before they are able to hold tours. Hector has been guiding at Monte Alban since the early 90s and there was nothing he didn’t know. You will spend an hour being guided around the spectacular site and then you’ll have another hour or so to explore on your own before being returned to the city. Make sure you bring water and sunglasses because it gets hot on the mountain during the day.


A trip to Oaxaca is never complete without trying some mezcal. Although mezcal is made from agave it is not tequila, it doesn’t taste like tequila and unlike tequila, you don’t take it in shots. Also known as “the Elixir of the Gods” this unusual liquor was born in Oaxaca and more than 70% of the global supply comes from this state. In Oaxaca City bars that specialize in this drink, known as Mezcalerías, can be found just about anywhere and they usually have something for everyone. Whether you prefer your drinks fruity, sweet, salty or tart, or even just neat there is a drink for you.

A yellow cocktail in a glass of ice rimmed with red grasshopper salt.
Mezcal Cocktail with Grasshopper Salt

If you are interested in really finding your feet with mezcal a great place to start is Mezcaloteca. This intimate spot is by reservation only, they have limited hours and they do book up a week or two in advance, so you’ll want to plan ahead. You can choose tastings of 3 – 5 mezcals and the experience lasts about an hour. There are many flavour profiles within mezcal so a tasting is a great way to figure out which speed is right for you. Tastings range from $320 – $410 pesos [$15USD/$19CAD - $19USD/$25CAD] per person and this includes a bottle of water.

For a bit of a more social experience check out Expendio Tradición. The extensive mezcal and cocktails menu gives lots of opportunity to experiment with mezcal. The vibe almost feels like a cool, modern speakeasy with a modern twist and they offer lots of great Mexican dishes to snack on.

Expendio Tradición bar in Oaxaca City with colourful streamers reaching from roof to roof.
Expendio Tradición, Oaxaca City

If you find yourself out near the Oaxacan Coast you’ll want to make sure you take a tour with Puerto Mezcal Tours. A tasting includes 10 varietals and roundtrip transportation, check out the full experience here.

Mole at Los Danzantes

If there is one food that defines this region, is it definitely mole [pronounced MO-leh]. Oaxaca is actually referred to as “the land of the seven moles” so when I was heading to Oaxaca, I made it a mission to have a mole tasting. Mole is one of the most important dishes in Mexican cuisine. The name comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua people, the largest indigenous group in Mexico and it literally means “sauce”. A simple name, for a complex dish. Traditionally it can up to a few days to make a mole and each family or cook has their own unique blend of ingredients so you could probably have a mole a day and never taste them all. Before visiting, I did a lot of research about where to eat in Oaxaca City and where to find the best mole and I feel confident when I say Los Danzantes is where you want to be.

The bar at Los Danzantes restaurant made of colourful recycled metal and plastic bottles.
Los Danzantes, Oaxaca City

Los Danzantes is just unlike any other restaurant I’ve visited. They seem to tread the line between fervent tradition and the avant-garde with ease. The restaurant itself is a large, rustic, stone patio with a tented roof. Birds fly freely over the walls and wander the floor of the restaurant, accompanied by warnings to please not feed them.

The menu ranges from octopus to pork shank and everything in between but I came here for the Degustación de Cinco Moles Oaxaqueños [Tasting of Five Oaxacan Moles]. You choose your protein from the list, I opted for grilled organic chicken breast and it comes beautifully presented with five small pots of mole. This dish is actually intended to be a sharing platter but since I ordered it as my main meal they offer to bring me some tortillas to make little mole tacos, which I happily did. The five moles included are mole amarillo [yellow mole], rojo [red mole], chichilo, negro [black or chocolate mole] and manchamanteles [tablecloth stainer mole – no, really it means tablecloth stainer].

An iron dish with sliced chicken breast surrounded by five small pots of colourful mole sauces and wooden spoons.
Degustación de Cinco Moles Oaxaqueños | Tasting of Five Oaxacan Moles, Los Danzantes, Oaxaca City

This wasn’t just a meal, this was an activity. When my lovely server explained what each of the moles were I had an idea of which ones I would like and which ones I’d probably only taste once but I was wrong. This is a flavour rollercoaster and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in food.

Shopping for Handmade Goods

My final pick for spending time in Oaxaca City is doing some shopping. As I travelled around Mexico I would visit different mercados [markets] and almost everything I picked up and purchased actually came from Oaxaca. The merchants are quick to show the difference between something handmade and something machine made to demonstrate the quality that comes from the crafts of this region. Items are produced by families, women, indigenous groups, charities and even in some cases prisoners, as a means of boosting their economy and bringing money into the hands of the individuals who live in Oaxaca. The quality of what they produce is indisputable and travelling around Mexico it became easy to spot the Oaxacan products in the mercados because the standard is so high. In addition to handmade goods, Oaxaca is also a great place to find silver products. Mexico produces over 80% of the world’s silver supply and the variety of what you can find here is dizzying and for really reasonable prices.

Silver Rose Ring
Silver Rose Ring

I recommend starting at the Mercado de Artesanias [Artisan Market] just a few blocks from the Zócalo [town square], this market is great for handmade clothing, linens, bags, etc. When you’re done here make your way to 20 de Noviembre and head back in the direction of the Zócalo. Along the way you’ll find the Mercado 20 de Noviembre which is a local food market and then the Mercado Benito Juárez which has everything you could think of. Inside, the market is a maze of rows upon rows of merchants selling anything you could be looking for and outside the streets are lined with even more vendors. The merchants here are a little bit pushier than what I found in other parts of the country so be prepared to say “no gracias” hundreds of times. This is also somewhere you can haggle on price, especially for larger items like handbags and hats. The merchants were often quick to discount themselves and begin the barter process. It is a common misconception that it’s the norm to barter in Mexican markets. Most places list their prices and function as a regular store would but in Oaxaca it was more common to negotiate on price. With that being said, Mexico much like the rest of the world has taken a hit during the pandemic so while it is culturally acceptable to barter a bit, I would encourage you to find a price you think is mutually fair, rather than just driving the price down as far as you can. After all, these people are just trying to make a living.

A wall of colourful handmade bags hang in a market stall.
Handmade Bags at the Mercado, Oaxaca

A Few Things To Know Before You Go

Oaxaca City has been and remains to be an important centre in Mexico and this includes politically. When I look at pictures of Oaxaca City I see the colourful banners and charming vibrant buildings and while this is true there is another side to it. For the last few years, the Zócalo has been home to encampments of a well-known displaced indigenous group. This means the centre of the town is filled with makeshift tents, political signage and unfortunately the main square is used as the bathroom for the encampments. There is also an apparent political charge behind the street art which can be found on walls all over the city and it is not uncommon to see political demonstrations. For example, during my time there the garbage collectors had gone on strike resulting in mountains of waste on every street corner. This is also a place to be conscious of how you dress, especially the ladies, as they are more conservative and some places will actually refuse entry for exposed knees, shoulders and cleavage.

Vibrant street art showing gold rays of light shooting from a woman's mind.
Street Art, Oaxaca City

Compared to other parts of Mexico I would not encourage walking around Oaxaca City at night especially if you are a woman or travelling alone. There are a few strips that are quiet bustling and well-lit but much of the city and bars close down before midnight and it’s a good idea to be at your accommodation rather than wandering around. Oaxaca City is an interesting and vibrant place however this was the only place where I was followed [in broad daylight] and felt any amount of danger during my time in Mexico. I do not say this to deter you but rather to encourage you to manage your expectations and exercise additional caution and awareness of your surroundings while exploring this interesting place.


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Travel Writer, Ashlea J. Russell, She Roams About
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