If you are looking for a city that is not extremely large, but that offers a huge punch in terms of activities and culture, then Oaxaca is the destination for you. There are many things to do in Oaxaca to keep you busy — it’s one of the best places to visit in Mexico.

A visit to this southern state of Mexico begins best in the capital of the same name, where you can spend a few days admiring the sights, rummaging in the kitchen and embarking on adventures.

During a short visit to the city of Oaxaca (it is pronounced wa-ha-ka, by the way), you can walk through churches and museums, take day trips to ancient ruins, indulge in local cuisine and maybe take part in a traditional festival.

Getting Around

It is quite easy to get around in Oaxaca. You can take private taxis (a bit expensive) or rent your own car for about per day. There are also decent bus systems that you can book online with sites like Bookaway.

When we were in Oaxaca, we mainly took buses between cities, but when we were in the city, we took a taxi or took public transport if possible. There are also places to rent motorcycles if you want to save money compared to car rental.

1. Explore the Zocalo

One of the best things to do in Oaxaca is to explore the central part of the city. Known as Zocalo, this neighborhood is the best place to get an idea of the city of Oaxaca. It is also an ideal place for serious tourism.

Start on the main square and take a tour of the many famous monuments nearby. You can easily spend a whole day or two visiting the Zocalo. There are plenty of places to grab food or a drink whenever you need a break.

A visit to the Zocalo is always one of the best things to do in Mexico as a whole — it’s the best place to people-watch, relax with a drink or have a snack.

2. Visit the Templo de Santo Domingo

The highlight of downtown Oaxaca is undoubtedly the magnificent Templo de Santo Domingo. This 16th century baroque Catholic church is beautiful inside and out.

After admiring the building from the square, be sure to enter to see the magnificent golden interior. It has been used as a church, monastery and military barracks throughout history.

The Templo de Santo Domingo is open every day from 7 a.m. to 13 p.m. and from 16 p.m. to 20 p.m. except during Mass. If you’re visiting on a Saturday, chances are you’ll see a few weddings taking place.

3. Discover the Museum of Culture

After visiting the church above, you can take the time to visit the Museo de las Culturas (Museum of Cultures). It is housed in the beautiful monastery buildings of the complex and covers the history and culture of the region.

The most impressive exhibit of the museum is the treasure of Tomb 7 — a collection of precious stones and gold jewelry that was discovered in a tomb in Monte Alban.

There is also an excellent view of the city from inside the museum, which is well worth the entrance fee. Click here for directions.

4. Take a free walking tour (this should be the first thing you do in Oaxaca)

In cities around the world, free walking tours are becoming more and more popular.

The walking tour is definitely one of the best free activities to do in the city of Oaxaca. You will learn a lot about the city, its history and culture from a knowledgeable local guide and you will make new friends.

The free walking tours start every day at 10 am in front of the Oaxaca Cathedral. The tours last about two hours, giving you enough time to follow some of your guide’s recommendations on what to do and where to eat.

Although the tours are technically “free”, tips are welcome. Click here to go to the meeting point.

Another option for a great experience in Oaxaca is to join this tour with Gabriel who was born and raised in Oaxaca. During his very affordable and much-appreciated walking tour of the city, you will visit many different places in the city. Find out more here.

5. Getting lost in the markets

One of the essential things to do in Oaxaca is to get lost in the many markets of the city. Here you will find delicious local dishes at low prices as well as many interesting souvenirs.

Markets are an integral part of Mexican life, allow yourself a few hours and enjoy the atmosphere. Click here to go to Benito Juarez Market.

Another option and a great way to immerse yourself in local life in Oaxaca is to participate in this fun experience in Oaxaca. Meet Betsy (a local from Oaxaca) and explore the 3 best markets in the city: Benito Juárez, on November 20th, and the organic market of La Cosecha.

All these lively markets are known for their colors, smells, traditions, culture and, of course, food. You will taste more than 20 different types of food on this trip! Find out more here.

6. Day trip to Monte Alban (one of the best things to do in Oaxaca)

By far one of the most popular things to do in Oaxaca is to take a day trip to the ruins of Monte Alban (White Mountain). Built by the Zapotecs, it is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in all of Latin America.

Unlike the more famous ruins of Chichen Itza, you can still climb the pyramids of Monte Alban. This offers you a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside.

You can take a bus or taxi to the ruins if you wish, or sign up for a small group tour with a guide. With this highly appreciated experience, your transport and guide are included — by having a guide, you will learn a lot more about the ancient site.

* Tip: bring a picnic and have lunch in the shade, while admiring the ancient ruins!

7. Go on a hike

When you are in Oaxaca, you will want to discover the beautiful nature that surrounds the city. Leave the traffic behind and head for the mountains!

This hiking experience is a great way to get some fresh air while burning off some of the tasty Oaxacan food you ate. Find Luis and head for the hills.

During the 10 to 15 kilometer hike (depending on your abilities), you will discover Oaxaca, different types of trees and plants, and enjoy the incredible view of the Sierra Norte mountains. Breakfast is included.

8. Visit the Botanical Gardens (one of the best things to do in Oaxaca to get away from the traffic!)

If you like to see and learn about the local flora and fauna when you travel, you’ll want to be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens. Here you will be able to see many different plants native to the state of Oaxaca.

A visit to the botanical gardens is easily combined with the cathedral and the museum of culture, as they are all located on the same plot. There are tours in English on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 am. Click here for directions.

9. Participate in a Temazcal ceremony

From time to time it is good to sweat to cleanse your body of toxins. It’s even better when you can do it in an ancient Mayan celebration. That’s why you should put attending a temazcal ceremony at the top of your list of things to do in Oaxaca.

The best place to go in the city is Ceviarem Temazcal Oaxaca, but you’ll want to make sure you book a spot well in advance as they tend to fill up. This ancient ceremony is also one of the best things to do in Cancun and Cozumel, don’t miss it!

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