Best Things To Do in Oaxaca
Oaxaca contains a lot of what you'd expect from a city vacation – a bustling square with coffee shops, restaurants and bars (the Zócalo), gorgeous churches (Templo de Santo Domingo) and interesting museums (Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca). But on top of these, Oaxaca offers travelers the chance to visit a UNESCO World Heritage site at Monte Albán and the infinity pool to beat all infinity pools at the Hierve el Agua.
Updated May 17, 2017
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Oaxaca's main square – formally referred to as the Plaza de la Constitución de Oaxaca, but colloquially called the Zócalo – is a must-see. Skirted by cafes and eateries and bounded by the Palacio de Gobierno (the State Government Palace) on its south side, the Zócalo is a prime spot for people-watching, picking up a souvenir or two and watching day fade into vibrant night. Thanks to its leafy landscaping and many trees, it's also a relaxing place to cool off in the shade. Plus, the Mercado Benito Juárez sits just minutes from the square.
Recent visitors gushed about the Zócalo, saying it's a nice spot for an afternoon coffee or an evening margarita. Others suggested visiting at night when the Zócalo fills with live music. You'll find the Zócalo in the heart of Oaxaca; it is free to enjoy at all hours of the day (though businesses operate on their own hours). For more information, check out Visit Mexico's website.
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Dating back to 1555, the Templo de Santo Domingo acted as a convent and church before being used as military barracks in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the convent portion of the building contains the Santo Domingo Cultural Center's Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca and botanical garden. But the real feast for the eyes is the church itself, which is outfitted in baroque design, applied in gold leaf and other rich materials. And don't forget to look up: The domed ceiling is covered in medallions featuring Catholic martyrs.
Even visitors who have traveled extensively and seen many of the world's most beautiful churches say the Templo de Santo Domingo wins the prize. The ceiling, they say, is unparalleled.
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The Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca is a regional culture museum that walks visitors chronologically from ancient times all the way to modern-day Oaxaca. Other halls are thematic, featuring Oaxacan medicine, music, language and pottery – and show that much of the cultural traditions have endured. One of the museum's real gems is the "Treasure of Tomb 7," a cache of delicate gold jewelry, precious stones and carved bone discovered in a Monte Albán tomb. Keep in mind that the museum's signage is in Spanish, though there are audio tours available in English. Visitors should also take some time to visit the museum's gift shop, which contains a diverse collection of books on Oaxacan architecture and art.
Some recent travelers said they almost didn't add the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca to their itineraries, but were pleased they did: Many were pleasantly surprised with its offerings, citing the stunning architecture and the fascinating and well-executed exhibits. Recent visitors also recommended popping by the museum's gift shop and enjoying the second-floor balcony's view overlooking the botanical garden.
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Monte Albán, literally "White Mountain," contains the preserved ruins of a Zapotec city. Travelers will find pyramids, temples, plazas and more atop this mountain, which rises 1,300 feet above the floor of the Oaxaca Valley. For a deeper understanding of the city, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, travelers can book a tour guide on-site. Keep in mind that the official licensed guides will wear a badge from the Mexico Secretary of Tourism.
Many travelers give Monte Albán top marks for its preserved structures and the accompanying museum, but they also highly recommend wearing comfortable shoes and bringing plenty of water since this outdoor attraction gets hot. Other travelers recommend booking a tour with an English-speaking tour guide, since the bilingual or trilingual tours can get a little long. Though, if you want to see the site at your own pace (and save a little coin), you'll find informational signs are posted in English, as well as Spanish.
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Hierve el Agua – Spanish for "the water boils" – are natural mineral springs located on a clifftop, about a 90-minute drive from Oaxaca City. Along with swimming in the warm springs, visitors can hike on paths above and below Hierve el Agua's petrified mineral falls.
Recent visitors raved about the beautiful views and warm springs, though they warn that travelers should be prepared for some strenuous hiking and strong sunshine. Some recommend hiring a tour to serve as both the transportation and guide, which can be booked at most Oaxaca City hotels.
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The Andador de Macedonia Alcala or Calle Macedonio Alcala, as it's sometimes known, is a pedestrian-friendly street that connects the Templo de Santo Domingo and the Zócalo. This north-to-south route is a great way for travelers to orient themselves with the city, especially since many of the top things to do are located in close proximity to it.
Recent visitors call it a lovely walk, punctuated by Colonial architecture, interesting shops and restaurants, the sound of music, and little to no motorbike or vehicle traffic. It's also extremely well-lit and feels very safe, according to other travelers.
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To get a taste of Oaxaca, visitors should head to the Benito Juarez Market (Mercado Benito Juárez). Different stalls purvey everything from crickets and mole to grilled meats and homemade tortillas to mezcal and cheeses. Stalls also contain handicrafts and souvenirs.
Most travelers say the Benito Juarez Market is a great place to grab lunch, sample local specialties and get an authentic Mexican market experience. Others say the market feels a bit touristy, but that it's still an interesting place to stop by.
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