The first time we heard about Oaxaca was in 2010. Brent was living in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC and Kim was visiting, taking a break from grad school in Michigan. We decided to try out a new restaurant. While we couldn’t pronounce Oaxaca, its regional cuisine was the star of the show.
Located in the southern area of Mexico, inland, Oaxaca isn’t as known as Cancun, Baja, Tulum, or Cabo. But what it’s lacking in coastal vibes, it more than makes up for in its rich cultural heritage, culinary scene, and charming colonial architecture.
To be honest, Oaxaca was an add-on city for us. On our first Mexican sourcing trip we wanted to visit multiple cities and we read that Oaxaca was a haven for authentic regional products. Conde Nast Traveler even went as far as to call it the “craft capital of Mexico.” So, like most things in this business, we jumped in with two feet.
Day One: Oaxaca on Foot
We arrived midday, after a short flight from Mexico City. As you’ll find with most Mexican airports, there are plenty of people with signs offering you a ride, so it’s best to know your transportation plan before you arrive.
We took the Colectivo Taxi from the airport. You’ll find a small booth right before the exit (with a lighted sign reading TAXI) where you can pay the equivalent about about $10 USD and get a spot in a shared van. Depending on how many people are in the taxi with you, it should take anywhere from 25-35 minutes to get into the city.
After dropping our bags we were eager to get out into the sunshine. We roamed the streets for a few hours, getting oriented and scoping out places to eat (priorities, am I right?). Definitely pack some walking shoes. While you could get by with sandals, we averaged 15,000+ steps a day.
Our first stop was Mercado de Benito Juárez. This was one we’d researched before coming and where I’d recommend going if you want to explore accessories, textiles, wood carvings, or other gifts. In addition to handicrafts, there’s also a large food hall and floral and spice stalls. It’s busy, so keep your personal items close to you.
Our hotel recommended a few different spots for our first dinner. We attempted to visit Los Danzantes, but with a two-hour wait, we made our way down the street. Pro tip: many restaurants have the same or a similar menu for lunch, so come early to avoid the crowds.
As we turned the corner at the Santo Domingo Cathedral, right in the center of the city, we saw several dining options and made our way up. Vaca Marina had a lovely rooftop area, with incredible ambiance and views of the cathedral lit up at night.
As we sipped on our cocktails and enjoyed a fresh batch of guacamole (with grasshoppers, as the locals recommend), I felt the ground shaking a bit. Then our table started to move. I noticed people standing up and moving towards the edge of the rooftop. And then I heard the siren. Brent was completely oblivious the whole time and it took us both a good ten seconds, looking around for cues on how nervous we should be, to realize what was happening. We later found out that it was a 5.3 magnitude earthquake in southern Oaxaca State.
There was no damage, and apparently this was more of a frequent occurrence than we imagined. Life went right back to normal.
Because we were visiting during Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, the town was alive. The city was abuzz with preparations for the holiday with many processions and performances. We strolled the streets after dinner with vendors and musicians setting up at 9:00 PM.
On the way back we stopped into Zipak Na to browse their interesting collection of embroidered shoes. You won’t find anything like these back in the U.S.
Before we turned onto our street, we visited a shop where a young woman was weaving. It was incredible to watch her creating textiles on the spot and gave us new appreciation for the term handmade.
Day Two: Eating Through the City
While we would have loved to take it easy this morning, we had to be up and ready for a shoot with a photographer we’d booked to capture our sourcing experience. And with the heat of the day, we wanted to get the bulk of our purchases back to the hotel before noon.
Meeting at the Santo Domingo Cathedral on a Tuesday, we discovered a pop up market close by. We strolled as the vendors set up and got to talking with our photographer. Turns out while he was in town he was going to be documenting that day’s Oaxacking Food Tour—the one we couldn’t get into because it was full. With one phone call, room was made. We were officially in for the afternoon tour.
We spent the rest of the morning exploring shops in the Centro, including Huizache. You’ll recognize this storefront by the massive jaguar heads affixed to the balconies overlooking Ruta Independencia. It’s a great place to shop for artisan pieces that are well made. The pottery was much higher quality than what we bought in a street stall the day before.
We stopped for some fresh fruit at a roadside stall before dropped our haul back at the hotel. On to the food tour…
While there are many food tour options in Oaxaca, Oaxacking is the most well known. His popularity shot up when he toured Phil Rosenthal on Somebody Feed Phil in 2022.
What we weren’t prepared for was 5 hours of eating and walking.
The tour was extensive. From a private, by-rental-only restaurant with a female-led staff and chef to the Mercado de Abastos on the outskirts of the city to a stop at Criollo, we ate and drank on repeat.
At one of the ten stops we were served a fried meat. We weren’t told until after we ate it that it was…fried cow brain. If that makes you queasy, I definitely recommend insisting on knowing what you’re consuming before it’s in your belly.
This was a long day and while there was more we wanted to do, once we showered there was no getting us back out of the hotel room. An early bedtime was in store before finishing our sourcing and exploring the next day.
Day Three: Shopping Local
The last day of a trip tends to go two ways: you’re scrambling to get to the things left on your list or you do absolutely nothing. I’ll let you guess which one we chose.
While we had already purchased most of what we could ship back, this day was about personal enjoyment. We still had restaurants to try, a mezcal tasting to partake in, and clothing boutiques to visit.
We started the day slow, enjoying Oaxacan coffee and reading in the courtyard before heading to Mercado de las Artesanias. This market was smaller than Benito Juarez and focused solely on artisan-made goods—primarily clothing and pottery.
The star of the day was our mid-afternoon meal at Casa Oaxaca. This is a restaurant that everyone talks about, so rather than risking a long wait again we chose to visit at 3:00. It was here we finally got our fill of mole.
Probably the most famous food in Oaxaca is mole negro. It’s a complex sauce made from chocolate, chilies, and spices, usually served on top of chicken or turkey. We also indulged in guacamole made tableside and say yes to adding in chapulines. Chapulines are grasshoppers that are commonly toasted and seasoned with salt, chili and lemon. They’re abundant in this part of Mexico and an affordable source of protein.
Leaving Casa Oaxaca, we turned to the left and found Origen Textil. I’d been following this small clothing boutique on Instagram and was thrilled to visit. While the shop was small, they had plenty of the hand-dyed tunics I’d been eyeing ad the variety was much larger than what was offered online. It’s worth mentioning that they offered 10% off when you paid with cash, though they didn’t charge an extra fee for credit card as they do in many other places throughout Mexico.
As we made our way through the streets, we stopped at another independent market next to Galeria Art on the popular and buzzing Macedonio Alcalá Street. This is where Brent finally enjoyed his mezcal tasting while I browsed the vendors and grabbed a very large michelada.
Mezcal is often compared to its more well-known cousin tequila, as both are made from agave plants and involve a similar production process. The differences between them come from the variety of agave used (tequila only uses blue agave) and the way the agave is roasted (mezcal agave is roasted underground in pits). These two factors give mezcal that smokier earthy flavor.
You’l find plenty of places to do mezcal tastings, but if you want to go more in depth there are also mezcal-specific tours offered that take you to distilleries.
For our last hurrah, we ventured out for a late dinner. Without a destination in mind, we retraced our steps taken over the last few days and landed on Ocote Cocina. I opted for another round of tacos while Brent ordered pizza. The service and food were amazing. It seemed like a place that you could hang out for hours without the staff hurrying you out.
What We Missed in Oaxaca
There are many places that are worth seeing once. Oaxaca is different. This is a place we’ll choose to return to again and again. In our first three days we only began to scratch the surface of what it has to offer.
Honestly you could spent 3 days roaming the streets, lingering over meals, reading, enjoying a mid-afternoon nap, and and exploring the art and shopping scene. It’s a great place to go without a plan—small enough and walkable, you could easily wander until you find something you’re interested in.
When we return, here are some things we plan to add to our itinerary:
- Monte Alban, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the location of the capital of Zapotec people and dates back to 500 BC. It is one of the oldest civilizations in the Americas. Today it’s a well preserved archaeological site.
- Teotitlan Del Valle, located about 30km from Oaxaca city center, is where most of the rugs are made that are sold in Oaxaca and across the country. There is a museum as well as many vendors selling their wares. Buying a tapete rug from this region ensures that the person who made it is the one who profits. Most hotels should be able to help set up a transfer if you’re not interested in renting a car.
- Puerto Escondido is Oaxaca state’s most popular beach area. About 6-7 hours by car away from Oaxaca, known as the “Mexican Pipeline”, it’s a laid-back surfer town with many beachside bars and seafood restaurants. Getting there requires a bit of planning and logistics, so this is a stop you’ll need to have on your list before you arrive.
- Hotel Escondido was another highly rated hotel in Oaxaca. While it’s further from the city center than where we stayed, its beautiful layout and rooftop top (a rarity) add to its appeal. We love how many boutique hotel options there are across town—you really can’t go wrong.
There are a few last points to keep in mind that’ll help you arrive prepared. Unlike Mexico City, ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft aren’t available anywhere in Oaxaca State. You’ll want to book a shared transfer at the airport and, if you choose to leave the city center, we recommend booking a private transfer, which are widely available. Our hotel called a taxi for us back to the airport, which was a straight shot with no issue.
If you need to change money to pesos, the easiest place to do so is at Banco Azteca. You will need your passport and when we visited, there was a limit of $300 USD to pesos per day, per person.
Oaxaca is a place I’ll recommend to anyone interested in food, culture, and history. I never felt unsafe and there was plenty more to see, do, and buy.