Posted: 6/23/23 | June 23rd, 2023
Oaxaca is one of my favorite cities. From the moment I first visited, I knew this was a place I would return to again and again and again. I’ve been half a dozen times now, even leading tours around the city.
Located in southwestern Mexico in a valley surrounded by craggy mountains, Oaxaca has been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec peoples. Today, it’s a center for food, mezcal production, and artisan textiles and pottery, and features a rich history, owing to places like Monte Albán and Mitla.
Take all that history, food, and drink, and package it in a place brimming with colorful buildings, scenic rooftop restaurants and bars, unique street art, and picturesque parks, and it’s no surprise so many people — myself included — love Oaxaca.
Since I’ve visited this city a lot, to help you plan your trip, I put together this five-day Oaxaca itinerary. It covers all the highlights, my favorite things to see and do, and some off-the-beaten-path activities too!
Table of Contents
Oaxaca Itinerary: Day 1
Take a free walking tour
One of the first things I do when I visit a new place is take a free walking tour. They’re the best way to see the main sights, get introduced to the culture, and meet a local who can answer all your questions and give you tips.
My favorite company here is Oaxaca Free Walking Tour. They offer free daily tours that show you the hidden gems and what life is like for residents. I can’t recommend them enough if it’s your first time here. Just make sure to tip your guide at the end!
See the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán
While in downtown Oaxaca, don’t miss stopping in this complex, which features a 17th-century Baroque Roman Catholic church, a cultural museum, and a botanical garden. Originally used as a Dominican church and monastery, this photogenic site was later used as a barracks and military building during Mexico’s revolution (1910–1920) all the way into the 1990s.
While here, see the Museo de las Culturas, which is home to all kinds of religious and pre-Columbian artifacts. The “Treasures of Monte Albán” exhibition showcases over 400 relics from a Mixtec tomb that is one of the most important burial sites in Mesoamerica, including a skull covered in turquoise, carved bone objects, weaving tools, and jewelry made of gold and jade. It is by far one of the best things to do in town. Expect to spend a couple of hours in the entire complex.
C. Macedonio Alcalá S/N. The Museo de las Culturas is open Tuesday-Friday 10am-3pm. Admission to the church is free, while the museum is 85 MXN.
Wander the city and admire the street art
Oaxaca has a wealth of street art, ranging from political pieces commenting on social issues to murals focused on indigenous culture and history. The areas of Xochilmilco and Jalatlaco are two of the best for murals. You can also join a street art bike tour offered by Coyote Aventuras (850 MXN) for an even more in-depth look.
Try a street-stall hamburguesa
After a busy day of exploring, feast on an hamburguesa for dinner. It’s a burger topped with a hot dog, sliced cheese, Oaxaca cheese, ham, pineapple, lettuce, tomato, and jalapeño. I know it’s weird to include this but trust me, you’ll want one. And it’s not made for Gringos and tourists either. Locals devour these. It started here. You’ll see stalls all over town but Cangreburguer near Santo Domingo sells one of the best.
Oaxaca Itinerary: Day 2
Explore Mercado 20 de Noviembre
This 19th-century covered market has many kinds of delicious street foods and fresh, local produce. It’s also my favorite in town. Named after the start date of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, this huge market has everything and is really good for grilled meats. Also nearby is the Mercado Benito Juárez. It has a bunch of food stalls and shops worth browsing if you have more time.
20 de Noviembre 512. Open daily 7am-9pm. Admission is free.
Stroll through the Botanical Garden
Located in the former convent in the aforementioned Santo Domingo de Guzmán complex, the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca was founded in 1994 and opened to the public in 1999. Spanning six acres, it features plants from across the state (many of which have been transplanted here, since the garden is so young). In addition to the flowers, trees, and cacti that dot the garden, there are also sculptures and works of art.
Admission is by guided tour only and there is only one English tour per day (offered at 11am), which has only 25 spots and fills up quickly so be sure to arrive early to grab your spot.
Reforma Sur, Ruta Independencia. Open Monday-Saturday 10am-3:30pm. Admission is by guided tour only. Admission (including the tour) is 50 MXN for Spanish tours and 100 MXN for English ones.
Learn about mezcal
I love mezcal (which is one of the reasons why I love Oaxaca). This is the birthplace of mezcal, a spirit distilled from agave. Unlike tequila, which is also made from agave, when making mezcal, the heart of the plant is cooked in a pit in the ground before it is crushed. Then water is added, and it’s allowed to ferment. Since the plant is cooked, mezcal has a much smokier flavor than tequila.
If you want to learn more about this popular (and delicious) spirit, Rambling Spirits runs the best mezcal tours in Oaxaca. Go with them if you want to learn more. Their guides have incredible knowledge and can take you to places the bigger tours can’t. I learned a ton on this tour and highly recommend it! Most tours leave after lunch so it’s a perfect way to spend the remainder of your day.
Additionally, you can pop into one of the many mezcalerías in town to taste and learn more about the region’s favorite spirit. My personal favorites are Los Amantes Mezcalería, Mezcalogia, Tres Hermanas, Mezcalería In Situ, and Comere.
Oaxaca Itinerary: Day 3
See Monte Albán
This site is a pre-Columbian UNESCO World Heritage Site located just 15 minutes outside town (with regular shuttles to and from downtown). Founded in the sixth century BCE, Monte Albán was one of the earliest Mesoamerican cities and an important sociopolitical and economic center for almost a thousand years.
Start your visit by stopping in at the museum, as it’ll give you context, especially if you’re not on a guided tour. Then, wander the sprawling site at your leisure, climbing ancient Zapotec pyramids and admiring the tombs, terraces, and canals that span several miles. The site takes about 2-3 hours to visit, depending on your pace. Bring a hat and sunscreen, as there isn’t much shade.
Ignacio Bernal S/N, San Pedro Ixtlahuaca. Open daily 10am-4pm. Admission is 90 MXN.
Take a food tour
Upon returning to the city, explore the culinary scene with a guided food tour. Oaxaca is considered one of the most important hubs for gastronomy in Mexico. My favorite tour company is Oaxaca Eats, which runs several tours, most of which last around four hours. You’ll get to sample over 20 dishes and learn a ton about the food and its history. It’s one of the oldest food tour companies in town and run by a lovely local woman with a passion for food.
Tour prices vary but expect to spend 2,000 MXN.
Oaxaca Itinerary: Day 4
Swim at Hierve el Agua
Hierve el Agua is one of Mexico’s most beautiful natural sites and a sacred place for the indigenous Zapotec people. These petrified waterfalls seem frozen in time — and they practically are, as they’ve been in the making for thousands of years. As water from natural springs flows over the side of the cliffs, the minerals from the water create rock formations, much in the same way that stalactites form in caves. Bring your swimsuit, as you can bathe in the natural and manmade pools at the top!
In addition to admiring the calcified cliffs, there are also hikes in the area, which is a good way to get away from the crowds.
Open daily 7am-6:30pm. Admission is 50 MXN.
Another historic site that I think is a must-see, this pre-Columbian UNESCO World Heritage Site was one of the main religious and spiritual hubs for the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec people. Used as a sacred burial ground and believed to be a gateway between the realms of the living and the dead, Mitla was built in 850 CE but was mostly destroyed by the Spanish in the mid-16th century. However, some buildings were left intact (some of which date as far back as 400 CE), which you can explore on your visit to the archaeological site, which stands out from other Mesoamerican ruins due to the mosaics covering the tombs and walls. It’s another site I always take people to see when I guide them around the city.
Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-4pm, Sunday 10am-2pm. Admission is 90 MXN while skip-the-line tickets are 160 MXN.
Oaxaca Itinerary: Day 5
On your last day, pick and choose from a handful of activities, depending on your budget and travel style:
Visit Oaxaca’s artisan towns
Scattered throughout the state of Oaxaca are small folk-art villages, where you can meet artisans, see how traditional goods are made, and bring back a souvenir of your travels if you choose. Each village specializes in a different craft: Teotitlán del Valle is known for its textiles, San Bartolo Coyotepec for black pottery, and San Martín Tilcajete and San Antonio Arrazola for (brightly colored fantastical animal sculptures), to name just a few.
Experience a temazcal
On your last evening in Oaxaca, wind down at a temazcal (meaning “house of heat”), a traditional Zapotec sweat lodge. You’ll sit in a small domed hut that becomes increasingly warmer. You’ll rub everything from clay to fresh fruit juices and peels on your skin as you heat up, cooling down by dunking yourself in cold water. It’s a very meditative, spiritual experience with numerous health benefits.
Visits usually last an hour and cost around 600 MXN.
Wander the Sunday market
If you’re in town on a Sunday, be sure to visit Mercado Tlacolula, one of the most popular markets in the region. It’s been in operation for centuries and is a good place to buy local crafts, produce, food, and everything in between. It’s located 45 minutes outside of town, so you’ll need to drive there or take the bus, but it’s absolutely worth the journey. Thousands of people come here, and there’s tons of amazing food to try. Don’t skip the barbacoa (stewed meat) and chicharrón (fried pork rinds)!
Admire the world’s widest tree
Just 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the center of Oaxaca, in the humble town of Santa María del Tule, is the world’s widest tree. Estimated to be 1,500-3,000 years old, this Montezuma cypress (Mexico’s national tree) has a diameter of about 14 meters (46 feet) and is a magnificent sight to behold.
Oaxaca quickly becomes a favorite of everyone who visits and a lot of people ending up coming back over and over again. There’s a lot to see and do here. This itinerary is jus ta general outline as there are tons of little museums, churches, experiences, and markets you can find on your own.
Use this itinerary to see the highlights and fill in the rest of your time with some wandering!
Book Your Trip to Mexico: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner. It is my favorite search engine because it searches websites and airlines around the globe, so you always know no stone is left unturned!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as it has the largest inventory. If you want to stay elsewhere, use Booking.com, as it consistently returns the cheapest rates for guesthouses and hotels. Three of my favorite places to stay are:
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancelations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it, as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- SafetyWing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those 70 and over)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use!
Want More Information on Mexico?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Mexico for even more planning tips!