So you’ve already beach-hopped along the Riviera Maya, followed the hipsters to Mexico City and Instagrammed your way through San Miguel de Allende. Where to next? The southern Mexican town of Oaxaca de Juárez, or Oaxaca City, is picturesque, walkable, filled with fascinating natural and cultural history, and—not least—home to an abundance of really, really good food. Here, 11 things you need to do when you visit (because trust us, you’ll want to).
Climb Up to the Best Views in the City
You’ll definitely want to spend some time wandering the colorful streets, and if you’re up for something more strenuous, head up to Auditorio Guelaguetza. Perched atop a hill overlooking the city center (you’ll climb the stairs to see for yourself), the futuristic-looking venue hosts the annual Guelaguetza festival, a celebration of Oaxaca’s indigenous cultures, every July.
There’s art everywhere in Oaxaca, ranging from painters and artisans selling their wares in parks to institutions focused on photography, textiles, Oaxacan painters and more. Keep an eye out for the many galleries focused on printmaking and graphic arts, along with large-scale murals scattered around the city.
Have a Corn-Centric Meal
At Itanoní, the first thing you see when you walk in is cooks shaping dough (made from corn ground on-site) and cooking it on wide comales. Settle in at one of the open-air picnic tables for corn in all forms, like triangular stuffed tetelas, hearty pozole, and tascalate, a creamy, milk shake-esque drink made from roasted maize, chocolate, pine nuts, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar and achiote (an earthy spice). It’s only open until 4 p.m. (and 2 p.m. on Sundays), so plan accordingly.
Visit a Petrified Waterfall
Here’s a little something for your Insta followers back home: Hierve el Agua, two striking rock formations created by mineral-rich natural springs. Not only do the sharp drop-offs make for some dramatic photo backdrops, there are actually pools you can swim in. Pro tip: We recommend hiring a driver and making a day trip of it, with stops at the traditional Tlacolula market and one of the area’s many mescal distilleries.
Have a Whimsical (and Affordable) Tasting Menu
Back home, we tend to reserve tasting menus for special occasions. But at the delightfully laid-back El Destilado, six courses will set you back less than $50. (There are also nine- and 12-course options.) Our meal included a taco served on a leaf of oreja de léon (a local herb), oxtail-stuffed chile relleno and orange-mezcal Jell-O. (There’s also a great happy hour if you feel like going the à la carte route.)
Stroll Around an Ancient City
A quick 20-minute trip from the city you’ll find Monte Albán, the 2,500-year-old site of a pre-Columbian city that once served as an important hub for the Zapotec civilization. The entire complex—which includes pyramid-like platforms, stone carvings depicting sacrifice victims (!) and two courts used to play an ancient ball game—is set atop a hill, with sweeping views all around.
Stuff Your Face at a Food Market
Come hungry to Mercado 20 de Noviembre: The market is packed wall to wall with stalls hawking everything from fresh-squeezed juices to pastries and breads. You can’t leave without trying a tlayuda: a giant, crispy tortilla spread with refried beans and topped with quesillo cheese, lettuce, avocado and your choice of meat. If you notice smoke wafting from the back hallway, follow it to find a dozen vendors grilling carne asada, spicy pork and chorizo, which you order by the basketful along with sauces and toppings to make your own tacos.
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Learn About the Local Flora
Get to know the region’s native plants at Jardín Etnobotaníco de Oaxaca. Hidden behind high walls on the site of a former monastery, the garden is only accessible by guided tours (English tours are at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), but once inside, you’ll be surrounded by all manner of agaves, cacti and other culturally significant plants (and, in spring, flowering plumeria trees). Stick around to explore the adjacent cultural museum.
Mole is serious business in Oaxaca—the state is actually nicknamed “the land of the seven moles.” Among the varieties (all of which are known for extra-long ingredient lists) mole negro is the darkest, chocolatiest of all and one of our favorites was at Cabuche, in the form of enmoladas: tortillas filled with chicken and smothered in mole (and topped with cheese, natch).
Hang Around Historic Sites
Aside from the grand architecture of the structures themselves, several of the town’s most notable sites—including churches and the Zócalo (main square)— serve as places where artisans, street-food carts, performers and locals converge. Don’t miss the ice-cream vendors outside Basílica de Nuestra de la Soledad, where you can find local-specialty flavors like leche quemada (burnt milk) and tuna (no, not the fish—prickly pear).
Drink on a Rooftop
Most of the buildings in the historic city center are only two or three stories, which means that once you get to a rooftop you can pretty much see for miles (or at least catch a nice breeze). Hit up the swanky Los Amantes for views of the iconic Santo Domingo church or La Mezcalerita for an extensive selection of the agave spirit, plus lively vibes and complimentary blankets if it gets chilly.