Has a place ever spoken to you so deeply that you leave feeling changed? This year, Oaxaca did that for me, first on a sourcing trip to Oaxaca City, and then a few months later, a return trip to its magical coast. Oaxaca's mystery, vibrancy, layers upon layers of art, food, culture, and history make it one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.
Not only is Oaxaca City visually stunning from every charming courtyard to sun-bleached zocalo, something about it spoke right into my soul. The vibrant colors of the textiles and 17th-century stucco buildings are rivaled by the warmth and kindness of its locals, eager to introduce you to its rich history and culinary traditions.
We went to Oaxaca in search of the handmade ceramics and hand blown glassware that it's known for, and it more than delivered. As we wondered from shop to shop and visited small family-run workshops, we experienced an awakened curiosity for the artistic traditions of Oaxaca's diverse indigenous communities.
Of course, you don't have to be on a research trip to fall in love with Oaxaca. Anyone who visits is sure to find wonders around every corner, eat more molé and fresh tortillas than ever thought possible, log an incredible number of miles on foot (nearly everything is walkable), and sip great coffee or spicy mezcal at every meal. It may speak to your spirit in a way that's hard to shake, so be forewarned: while this Oaxaca City travel guide might convince you to book a long weekend, you’re destined to be back.
Scroll on for our top recommendations, and for a taste of Oaxacan design and artistry in your own home, don't miss our recycled hand blown wine glasses and tumblers—they're just in from Oaxaca and we know you're going to love them as much as we do.
Where to Stay
Part of the Grupo Habita hotel group, Escondido Oaxaca was our home base for the trip, and it was basically perfect. Located right in Centro, the hotel is a beautifully-designed blend of history and modernism. Whether you stay here or not, be sure to watch at least one sunset while sipping a mezcal margarita on the lush rooftop terrace.
Our friends stayed at Casa Antonieta, and we were thankful for a reason to make it our second home, stopping by for cocktails on the terrace and snacks at the charming light-filled restaurant, Muss Café. Housed in one of the oldest buildings in Oaxaca City, dating to 1529, it has that certain character that can’t be replicated in newer construction, though the thoughtfully-designed rooms and beautiful design details fill it with modern comfort.
What to Do
Some of the greatest moments from our trip happened when we didn’t plan, walking around the streets of Centro, popping into shops that caught our eye, people-watching, and snapping photos of beautiful buildings covered in flowering vines. Go ahead, get a little lost.
Explore on foot
I learned from experience that the best way to soak up Oaxaca City is to carve out several hours just to walk, explore, and be guided by your curiosity. Start in the zocalo around stunning Santo Domingo church, then pop into the textile and ceramics shops that speak to you.
Tour Monte Albán
Sure you can take a taxi to this ancient Zapotec city, but hiring a local guide to fill us in on the incredible history of this archaeological site, founded around 500 B.C., was worth every penny. Hearing the stories and meaning behind the pyramids, tombs, and ancient carvings brought it to life in a way that I never would have appreciated on my own. Monte Albán opens at 8am, and the earlier you arrive, the more chance you have of beating the hot sun.
Explore the Interior of Templo de Santo Domingo
Templo de Santo Domingo is the iconic church in the city center that you’ll pass by countless times during your trip. It’s free to enter the church, and if you plan ahead, you can reserve a spot in one of the guided tours of its Botanic Gardens, which I highly recommend. There are several guided tours a day, with a few each week in English.
Indulge in Nieves
Hope you saved room for an ice cream, because come 5pm, the Nieves vendors come out all around the city center. It’s one taste you’ve got to experience when visiting Oaxaca City. Nieves is artisanal hand-churned ice cream that’s more like sorbet than traditional American ice cream. It comes in refreshing flavors like mango, hibiscus, and cactus fruit.
Visit Teotitlán del Valle
Teotitlán del Valle is a small village outside the city that epitomizes why Oaxaca is the capital of Mexico’s artisan craft scene. You can book a guide to take you to the village through many hotels or travel agencies—our incredible guide Angie took us to family-owned workshops where we could watch artisans weave vibrantly-hued rugs, hand-dye wool with natural materials like flowers and herbs, and create beautiful beeswax candles into sculptural forms. Many of the artists bring a contemporary point-of-view to historic Zapotec designs. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime, can’t-miss opportunity while you’re in Oaxaca.
Where to Eat
Levadura de Olla
Words can’t describe my love for Levadura de Olla, quite possibly my favorite meal of the entire trip. Everyone told us that the tomato salad was an absolute highlight, and they were right. 26-year-old chef/owner Thalía Barrios Garcia has created a menu rooted in the cuisine of her hometown in Oaxaca’s southern mountains, and her food is at once fresh and smoky, vegetable-forward and deeply nourishing. We sipped crisp white wine from Mexico and dug into sweet potato-filled tamales as the female cooks turned out fresh corn tortillas on the nearby comal. More than any other meal I’ve had in recent memory, everything about dinner at Levadura de Olla made me really, really happy.
Criollo is one of the most visually stunning restaurants I’ve ever set foot in. Helmed by Chef Enrique Olvera (of Pujol in Mexico City), this is definitely one of the pricier meals you’ll have in Oaxaca, but it’s a unique experience that I would recommend for any first-time visitor to the city. You enter through a colonial mansion, and are led into an expansive courtyard with minimalist wood furniture, lush flowers, and bunnies and chickens roaming the property. The 6-course menu is elevated but speaks to Oaxacan tradition. Prepare to eat a lot.
Casa Oaxaca is one of the best restaurants in Oaxaca City, so definitely make time for a dinner there. Thanks to the stunning setting and incredible food, it’s as beloved by locals as it is by tourists and travel experts. Request a seat on the terrace overlooking the church, and prepare your appetite for a parade of Oaxacan seafood dishes, molés, grilled meats—and for dessert, an incredible coconut flan that I’m still dreaming about.
Head to beloved bakery Boulenc for breakfast—we went almost every day! Hop in line at the counter bakery to grab pastries and a cold brew latté, or grab a table and order from the menu—highly recommend the breakfast sandwich served on a house-made english muffin. Share a flaky, sugar topped Nudo pastry for dessert.
Las Quince Letras
Run don’t walk to Las Quince Letras for lunch. A trusted local recommended this spot as one of his favorites, and I’m so glad he did. We sampled three types of molés and devoured corn tortillas made by hand on the comal in the center of the restaurant. It was fresh, nourishing, and I wanted to go back and try everything on the menu.
Since Oaxaca is the birthplace of mezcal, it’s no secret that everyone here is obsessed. The ultimate mezcal tasting happens at Mezcaloteca. Make a reservation at this incredibly “library” of over 100 types of mezcals, and your group will have the place all to yourself as Rodrigo guides you through an hourlong history of mezcal in Oaxaca, as well as how to experience it for maximum enjoyment. You won’t want to leave without buying a bottle to take home.
Grab lunch at delicious vegan restaurant Hierbe Dulce—the food is surprisingly satisfying whether you’re vegan or not. We sat on the very warm courtyard (seriously, try to grab a spot near a fan) and had tostadas topped with pickled vegetables, new twists on guacamole, iced horchatas, and mushroom tacos.
Book a table at Selva for artisanal cocktails made with Oaxacan ingredients. Might as well go with a mezcal drink, like the green Selva cocktail described as a “rainforest in a glass.”
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
For a casual meal, head to this bustling market in the city center. Pull up a chair and have perfect carne asada cooked right in front of you, with peppers, onions, and (of course) handmade tortillas to wrap it all up in.
Our Favorite Shops
Oaxaca City is full of pottery, textile, and home shops—there’s an incredible fusion of traditional folk art and modern design. Here are a few not to be missed:
After breakfast at Boulenc (see above), wander next door to Suculenta, aka the tiny grocery store of my dreams. Stock up on artisanal Oaxacan chocolate and jars of salsa macha to pack in your suitcase.
My favorite place to go for handmade ceramics is Colectivo 1050°. Don’t let its small size fool you—it’s packed floor to ceiling with a stunning array of handmade pieces made by artisans around Oaxaca, and perfectly embodies this blending of past and present.
Huizache is a huge shop with traditional embroidered clothing and textiles, ceramics, and other artisan goods
Los Baules de Juana Cata
Los Baúles de Juana Cata is a tiny gem of a shop with the most beautiful Oaxacan-made tablecloths and napkins
Marchanta is the shop I wish we had in the states—gorgeous clothes and bags with sculptural shapes and arresting patterns from South American designers.