Ready to plan your trip to Oaxaca City, Mexico? Oaxaca is among the top Mexico travel destinations, especially for cultural travelers and food lovers. The Oaxaca itinerary in this article will help you maximize your time in “The Foodie Capital of Mexico.”
Oaxaca (pronounced waa-haa-kah, in case you weren’t sure) has a lot to offer visitors. There are three Oaxaca UNESCO World Heritage Sites, bustling mercados, colorful colonial buildings, gorgeous nature, and local artisan villages, and this itinerary takes you to all of them.
Oaxaca Itinerary – The Ultimate City Guide
Ready to get to this ultimate Oaxaca itinerary, so you discover the must see, must do, and must eat places in Oaxaca City, Mexico? Let’s dive in, but don’t miss the Oaxaca City FAQ at the end of the article, so you know how to best plan your trip.
Day 1: Centro Historico & Oaxaca Zocalo
On your first day in Oaxaca City, spend some time getting to know the town’s layout on this Free Walking Tour. It will give you a chance to get to know the lay of the land in Downtown Oaxaca City (Centro Historico) and the Zocalo (Main Town Square), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Oaxaca City has a flourishing street food culture, so be on the lookout for tlayudas (also called Mexican pizza), quesillo (Oaxaca string cheese), tetelas (triangular-shaped hand pies), tamales oaxaqueños (tamales cooked in banana leaves), nieves (sorbet), and tejate, a prehispanic chocolate and corn drink that’s served cold, and very refreshing on a hot Oaxaca day.
For the adventurous eaters, make sure to sample one of the most popular Oaxaca delicacies: chapulines (pronounced chap-pull-leen-es). These small grasshoppers are sold by the kilo, and served in a bag so you can snack on them throughout the day, just like popcorn, nuts or candy.
If Mexican grasshoppers aren’t your idea of a delicious snack, head to the local markets for some non-insect foods. Mercado 20 de Noviembre is part-market, part-food hall, so you can go to each vendor and try whatever you’d like, and also do some shopping.
After eating, head to the Zocalo (Town Square) to see the Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca (Oaxaca Cathedral), the biggest church in Oaxaca City. Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Plaza), the area surrounding the church, is the perfect place to relax on a park bench and spend some time people-watching.
Next, head to the nearby Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. This 16th century Spanish church was made in the Baroque architecture style, and a must see. Located on the temple grounds, don’t miss the Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña (Oaxaca Culture Museum) and Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (Oaxaca City Botanical Gardens).
Note: This 2.5-acre garden features Oaxaca’s native flora and fauna, with hundreds of plants, trees and succulents to see. It has a sensitive ecosystem, so you must visit with a guided tour. They offer tours in English a few times a week, for $100 MXN ($5 USD) per person.
Up next, you’ll want to make your way to Calle de Macedonia Alcala, a pedestrian-only street in downtown that’s perfect for photos, shopping and eating. This popular street is lined with colorful buildings, art galleries, hip bars and yummy restaurants, and is a central hub of activity in Oaxaca City.
You’re probably getting hungry again by now, and since you’re in Oaxaca, you must try the authentic Oaxacan mole (pronounced moe-lay). Here are a few great restaurants where you can sample mole: Las Quince Letras, Los Danzantes and Cabuche.
Nowadays, many people are familiar with mole negro (black mole), there are actually seven types of mole. These include mole colorado (red mole), mole verde (green mole), mole poblano (orange mole) and mole amarillo (yellow mole) — and you can try them all in Oaxaca.
Day 2: Hierve el Agua & Oaxacan Mezcal
If you’ve ever seen photos of Oaxaca City, you’ve likely seen some of Hierve el Agua, with its petrified waterfalls and infinity pools. Hierve el Agua literally translates to “boil the water,” and though the water isn’t actually boiling, there are thermal pools with mineral-rich water that you can soak in.
Located about 1.5 hours southeast of Downtown Oaxaca City, it’s best to head to hierve el agua early in the morning; they open at 9am. Between the mineral pools and the hike down to the bottom of the petrified waterfall, there’s a lot to see at Hierve el Agua, and you’ll want to spend about four hours there to do it all.
The best way to get there is via rental car, and it’s an easy drive up the mountain to hierve el agua. You can also take the camioneta (shared pick-up truck), or hire a private taxi driver for the day. This is a great option if you aren’t renting a car because the cab driver will wait for you in the parking lot, and then drive you back to your hotel when you’re done for the day.
As one of the most-visited places in the Oaxaca City area, Hierve el Agua gets very crowded. If you want to take some Instagram photos without any other people in them, get there exactly when they open at 9am so you beat the tour buses.
In addition to the hot spring pools, which the locals say have healing minerals, the other noteworthy things to see at Hierve el Agua are the “waterfalls.” You see quotes around the word waterfalls because they really aren’t waterfalls; though they do look like it.
From far enough away, it appears as though water is cascading over the cliff-face, but this is just an illusion. This effect was created over centuries, as mineral-rich water trickled down the cliff. Over time, the minerals from these water drops accumulated, and now it appears as though there’s waterfalls at Hierve el Agua.
There are two waterfalls here, a small one and a large one. You can see the small one from the top of the hill, but for the best views of the large one, you’ll need to hike down to the bottom. It is a relatively easy, 1.6-mile (2.5 km) loop trail that takes about 1.5 hours to complete.
When you make your way back up the mountain, you’ll arrive at the hot spring pools. These mineral pools make for the perfect place to enjoy a soak after the hike. If your muscles are hurting, the mineral-rich water should alleviate some of the pain.
After Hierve el Agua, you can head back to Oaxaca City to freshen up for a night out. As the capital of mezcal in Mexico, you must try some local Oaxacan mezcals. Mezcaloteca, which is part-mezcal school, part-tasting room, is the ideal place to learn about it and try some of the best locally-made artisanal mezcal in town. (Note: Reservations required.)
After a few drinks, you’ll probably want a nice dinner in “The Foodie Capital of Mexico.” If you want to splurge, head to Casa Oaxaca. For the best experience, make a reservation a few weeks in advance for one of the rooftop tables, at what many say is the best Oaxaca restaurant.
Day 3: Mitla & More
Your third day in Oaxaca begins in the Mitla pueblo magico (magic town). Never heard of a Mexico pueblo magico? This prestigious title is awarded to small towns with noteworthy characteristics like historic significance, unique cultural traditions and untouched natural beauty.
San Pablo Villa de Mitla, usually just called Mitla for short, a small town that has prehispanic ruins. It is unique for an archeological site in Mexico because there’s no tall pyramids. Rather, the temples at Mitla are shorter and have intricate stone carvings and colorful geometric designs.
The word mitla is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word, and is derived from mictlán, meaning “a place of the dead.” In the past, Mitla served as a holy burial site for the Aztec, Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations, and only important nobles, warriors and clergy were allowed to be buried there.
The Mitla Ruins and city of San Pablo Villa de Mitla are about an hour south of Oaxaca City by car. You’ll want at least three hours to explore the buildings, ruins and the town itself. After you’re done, you can begin the drive back to Oaxaca City, but you’ll want to include some stops along the way.
The first place to check out is El Rey de Matatlan, a mezcal distillery where you can see the entire farm-to-table mezcal process. They have a free mezcal tour where you’ll learn about everything from the agave plant harvest, to the process of actually distilling the mezcal. At the end of the tour, you can sample the mezcal and even buy a bottor (or two).
Next, head to Teotitlan del Valle, a pueblo in Oaxaca. This one of the so-called Oaxacan artisan towns, which are small villages that each make just one artisan craft. In Teotitlan del Valle, they make tapetes (hand-woven Zapotec rugs), which are among the most famous Oaxacan handicrafts.
Many of the local master rug-makers open their facilities to tours, so you can see the whole weaving process. After hand-dying the wool, these master artisans use a giant loom to create their hand-made rugs, and no two are identical. After your tours, you can even buy the rugs directly from the artists, and many even offer shipping for an additional fee.
The final stop is the pueblo of Santa María del Tule, home to the famous Arbol del Tule. The Tule Tree holds the world record for the largest tree trunk in the world, so you’ll want to make sure to see it while there’s still daylight to really appreciate how massive this tree is.
El Tule is a 2,000-year-old Montezuma cypress tree. It measures in at 46-feet in diameter (14 m), and takes about 30 full-grown adults with their clasped hands and standing in a circle to wrap all the way around it.
Day 4: Monte Alban Ruins & Artisan Villages
There are a total of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Oaxaca, Mexico: 1) Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla, 2) Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley, which spans both Oaxaca state and Puebla state, and 3) Historic Center of Oaxaca and Archeological Site of Monte Alban. This itinerary includes two of the three, and on the final day, you’ll visit the Monte Alban archeological site. Check out 42 Amazing Ancient Ruins of the World
Monte Alban is the most important of all ancient ruins in Oaxaca. It is located just 30 minutes by car from downtown, and a must see on any Oaxaca City itinerary. You’ll want to head there as early as possible, so you can beat the crowds and also beat the heat from the midday sun.
The Ruins of Monte Alban are located on top of a mountain, and there’s basically no tree cover nor shade. This can make for a very sweaty outing, especially if you plan to climb the pyramids. To avoid the heat as much as possible, plan to arrive at 8am when they open.
To give yourself enough time to walk around and climb all the structures and pyramids, allow for about three hours at Monte Alban. From the higher elevation points at the site, you’ll have some stellar views of the Oaxacas valley towns below, including Oaxaca City.
After you’re done at Monte Alban Ruins, check out the nearby Oaxaca artisan towns so you can shop for authentic souvenirs made by local crafts-people. Not far from the ruins, head to San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca. This small village is known for its barro negro, the famous black pottery from Oaxaca. Also, check out Amazing Historical Sites In the World – That We’ve Seen
People from San Bartolo Coyotepec have been making black pottery since the 1950s. The first person to make it was Doña Rosa. She started to polish the pottery before firing it in the kiln, which gave the finished product its signature black matte finish. Today, the tradition continues, but it was Doña Rosa’s who put her pueblo on the map.
The last art town is San Martin Tilcajete, the fantastical land of the Oaxacan alebrijes (pronounced al-lay-bree-hays). Never heard of an alebrije? They are brightly-colored hand-carved wood figures, and one of the most beloved forms of Mexican folk art.
Alebrijes combine two or more animals into a hybrid creature, which some say serves as a spirit guide, akin to a Native American totem. If you’ve seen the Pixar movie Coco, the characters Dante and Pepita are both alebrijes.
The first alerije was made by Mexican artist, Pedro Linares, who gave them the name alebrije (a made-up word). His artistic legacy lives on in the Oaxaca artisan town of San Martin Tilcajete, where you can see them being made in local shops, and buy the very own you alebrije.
Oaxaca City Travel: Frequently Asked Questions
Where is Oaxaca City?
Oaxaca City is the capital of Oaxaca state, located in the Southern Mexico region. It is about 285 mile (460 km) south of Mexico City. Oaxaca state borders Chiapas state on its eastern side, Guerrero State to its west, and Veracruz and Puebla states to its north.
About 160 miles (258 km) south of Oaxaca City, you’ll find the Riviera Oaxaqueña (Oaxaca Riviera). There are so many beach towns in Oaxaca to check out, but with a four-day itinerary, it’s just not possible; you’d want at least a full week to see Oaxaca City and the beaches.
How do I travel to Oaxaca City?
Oaxaca International Airport (code: OAX) is located about 20-30 minutes by car from downtown. There are very few international direct flights, but you can easily find connecting flights through the Mexico City Airport, Monterrey Airport, Guadalajara Airport and Tijuana Airport.
You can also take the ADO bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca City. ADO is Mexico’s largest bus company, with a fleet of luxury-class buses. There are day and overnight trips available, but some prefer the overnight trip as the drive takes 6-7 hours.
Should I rent a car in Oaxaca?
Getting a rental car in Oaxaca City is the easiest way to see a lot of sites during your four-day trip. To follow the Oaxaca itinerary in this article exactly, a rental car is the way to go. The best place to get one is the Oaxaca Airport, and you can pick it up right after you land. Check rental car comparisons at CarRentals.com
How’s the Oaxaca weather?
Oaxaca City is a desert, so when visiting, expect hot, dry days, but then cool, crisp nights. Weather in Oaxaca can vary by about 20°F from day to night, so you’ll want to pack layers, and don’t forget to bring a jacket which you’ll use each night when the sun goes down.
When is the best time to visit Oaxaca?
Though Oaxaca City is in the desert, it rains pretty heavily from about May to September; though the other months are basically rain-free. For the best weather, visit during the months of October to April, which is the dry season in Oaxaca.
Final Thoughts: Your Ultimate Oaxaca Itinerary
There’s so much to do and see in Oaxaca City — one of the most interesting travel destinations in Mexico. On a four-day trip, you can cover a lot of ground if you’re renting a car because public transportation in Oaxaca isn’t super efficient.
Keep in mind that you can get around by public transport, but you’ll sacrifice a lot of your travel time doing so. If neither option sounds appealing, there are also plenty of tours, and you can book them from local agencies in the Zocalo once you arrive.
What from this Oaxaca itinerary caught your eye? We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know in the comments down below.
Author Bio: Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world! She has been a full time expat living in Mexico since 2018 and helps travelers plan their ultimate Oaxaca trip through her Travel To Oaxaca site.
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