by MEGAN SPURRELL
The state of Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most important cultural hubs, and in the eponymous capital, aged traditions from the region’s many indigenous communities are its lifeblood. Everything is infused with richness and history, from complex mole dishes made with over 30 ingredients to textiles that are woven on backlooms as they have been for hundreds of years. It’s no wonder generations of chefs, artists, and architects have long felt Oaxaca’s pull, adding their own touches to the city’s patina.
The hardest part of exploring Oaxaca isn’t finding things to do—the real challenge is narrowing them down. To make sure you don’t waste a single meal, hotel stays, or even a precious hour in this enthralling city, we’ve highlighted our favorite, Can’t-miss spots below.
Where to eat
As in Mexico City, you’ll find Oaxaca’s best meals are served both on the street and as 12-course meals, with some outposts sticklers for tradition and others far more experimental. The city’s classics are still worth a visit—but be sure to book a reservation ahead of time. Secure a table at Alejandro Ruiz’s Casa Oaxaca for traditional dishes like enfrijoladas (enchiladas doused in refried beans) and cocktails with names like the “tamarind mezcalini” (which is fabulous despite the name). At Criollo, the Oaxacan outpost from Pujol chef Enrique Olvera, a daily tasting menu highlights entirely local ingredients in a pared-down setting. And visit Los Danzantes, the original upscale spot in the city, for contemporary Mexican dishes in a sweeping three-story space.
Alejandro Ruiz has also opened the new-ish Oaxacalifornia, a relatively casual seafood spot that fuses flavors from Oaxaca and Baja California (think octopus tostadas and tamales topped with mole and shellfish). Similarly buzzy is El Destilado, which might look like your standard Mexican tavern but is actually best known for one of those 12-course tasting menus worth spending a couple of hours on (the meal also comes out to around $50, a steal). Though two American expats are behind the place, the flavors are quintessentially Oaxacan, and utterly delicious.
For those curbside, change-your-life-in-one-bite kind of meals? Get Oaxaca’s ultimate street food, tlayudas, at the evening-only Libres Tlayudas Doña Martha downtown, where large crispy tortillas are toasted on sidewalk grills before being smothered in beans, Oaxaca cheese, crispy lettuce, avocado, and salsa. Also only open after dark is Lechoncito de Oro, a streetside taco truck that doles out decadent suckling pig tacos and Jarritos sodas, serving a never-ending stream of customers until late. For quick bites during the day, make a beeline for the pasillo de humo at Mercado 20 de Noviembre, where various vendors sell and prepare meat by the kilo, and you’ll find the region’s seven moles. For all of the above, bring cash.
Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find Boulenc bakery, which uses ancient grains in European baking methods to make gorgeous bread and pastries. It’s been a hub for travelers, expats, and local foodies for a while, and hasn’t lost its appeal (and if you stick around, they open their bar in the afternoon and evenings).
Where to drink
In Oaxaca, it’s all about mezcal, mezcal, mezcal. Some of the city’s best spots feel more like experiences than bars, like La Mezcaloteca, a reservations-only private bar with a library of more than 100 mezcals and educational tastings. Cocktail bar Selva, which was opened last year by the Los Danzantes team, has quickly become the spot for a refined mezcal cocktail in an equally beautiful, midcentury modern space. Mezcaleria Los Amantes, on the rooftop of the Los Amantes hotel across from the Santo Domingo cathedral, also draws in a cool crowd thanks to great mezcal, smooth cocktails, and the best sunset view in the city. At the tiny In Situ, bartenders pour a wide range of mezcal varieties they produce, and, despite a gruff demeanor, will make suggestions for an informal tasting if you ask.
If you’re looking for less frills and an only-in-Oaxaca spirit, you’ll find it at Pollos Bar, a quintessential Mexican cantina where the jukebox spits out cumbia music, the beers are cheap and cold, and the people-watching is unmatched. For more of a dive, walk through the swinging doors attached to Salón de la Fama (ignore the surprised glances you’ll likely get at first), and order a tequila or Modelo at the tiny, unassuming bar. Or, if a mezcal tasting is what you were really after, poke into Unión de Palenqueros, a dark, barrel-filled room that sells ultra-small batch mezcal from independent producers you won’t find anywhere else. Don’t be fazed if the bartender suggests an unlabeled offering in a repurposed Coca-Cola bottle.
What to do
Your time in Oaxaca is best split between the city center and day trips to the surrounding areas—after all, Oaxaca as a city is a microcosm of the diverse region at large. Start exploring the city at the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, which acts as the city center and has street vendors and events popping up around it. Behind the church is the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (botanical garden), one of the city’s main highlights, which can only be explored via guided tour, so stop by the ticket window to buy your 100-peso ticket in advance. Make sure to weave your way through bustling markets like 20 de Noviembre and Benito Juarez, for a crash course on all things Oaxaca. Be sure to wear closed-toe shoes and sample every snack you see. Museums like the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (MACO) and the Museo de Pintores Oaxaquenos (MUPO) are great stops for learning about local art, both classic and modern, and the newly-opened Toro Galeria is an exciting new hub with work from national and international artists. For shopping, spots like Marchanta Oaxaca and Colectivo 1050 are must visits (check out our Oaxaca shopping guide for more inspiration).
Outside the city, the Hierve el Agua calcified waterfall remains the most popular day trips and the trip can easily be paired with a visit to Teotitlan del Valle, a town known for its textiles (check out the Vida Nueva Women’s Cooperative shop). On the art track, the town of San Agustin de Etla is home to the gorgeous Centro de las Artes de San Agustin, which functions as an art school and contemporary museum.
To really squeeze the most out of your time in Oaxaca, tap a local guide who can take you deeper. Omar Alonso, of Oaxacking, offers food, drink, and craft tours that are customizable and totally immersive, both within the city and well outside of it. Nonprofit En Via organizes trips to visit local artisans who are part of its microloan program, and also offers Day of the Dead tours. An expert travel specialist like Stephanie Schneider at Tia Stephanie Tours or Zachary Rabinor of Journey Mexico can also help you organize any of the above, or put together a complete itinerary.
Where to stay
Oaxaca’s hotel offerings have traditionally skewed toward classic luxury, like Quinta Real, or homely, somewhat dated B&Bs. Luckily, a few openings in recent years are closing the chasm. Casa Criollo, opened last summer by Enrique Olvera on the same property as Criollo, is a dream of a rental home with crisp, whitewashed walls, artisanal details, and, of course, breakfast and snacks from the Criollo chefs. The six-month-old Escondido Oaxaca, the latest from beloved Mexican brand Habita, is another design-led hotel with a distinctly Oaxacan look and feel, and just 12 rooms right in the city center. Hotel Sin Nombre, from the co-founder of mezcal brand Gem & Bolt, is also an exciting recent opening: The restored 17th-century building, with a once-active distillery, has been totally redesigned as a minimalist escape by architect João Boto Caeiro. Grana B&B, opened in October by the owners of Chaya B&B, is an elevated but still accessible version of their product in Mexico City. Its airy courtyard recreates that same, community-driven atmosphere Chaya is known for.
Older, but still strong options are Los Amantes, smack dab in the middle of the city, and right below the brand’s destination rooftop. Book early to nab the one suite on offer—it’s truly special. At a wallet-friendly price point, the laid-back Hotel con Corazón has plenty of charm, and though its location may seem less central, it puts you just a block from Criollo.
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