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Ever since a friend of mine told me that Oaxaca was her favorite city in Mexico, I knew I had to visit. And what better time to do so than during Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the famous Mexican holiday where Mexicans honor and celebrate their loved ones? Despite being busier than usual, Oaxaca did not disappoint. This charming town in Southern Mexico has everything you’d want for a long-weekend getaway: great weather, delicious food, a plethora of historical landmarks, incredible hospitality and plenty of history. You can easily spend a week exploring Oaxaca and the surrounds but if you’re short on time, this Oaxaca itinerary features the best things to do in Oaxaca in 3 days Enjoy!
Table of Contents
How to Get to Oaxaca
In an ideal world, you’ll arrive the evening before your first full day in Oaxaca and get a good night’s sleep. If you’re traveling from another part of Mexico, you have the option of taking a bus or driving. Otherwise, you’ll need to fly into Oaxaca. Oaxaca has a small international airport with direct flights from various cities in the United States, but there’s a strong chance you”ll have a layover in Mexico City. Either way, be sure to check out Skyscanner for some great flight deals!
Best time to Visit Oaxaca
Oaxaca can more or less be visited anytime with mostly moderate temperatures year-round. However, the best times to visit for a combination of moderate temperatures and prices is April – May (70s – 80s F) and September – mid-October (60s – 70s F). June-August, late October, and December are considered the high-season months, so the city is particularly busy. For budget travelers, November – March (with the exception of December and major holidays) is the best time to visit for budget-friendly prices although temperatures are on the cooler side (around 50s F).
Oaxaca Itinerary: Day One in Oaxaca
The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca exhibits hundreds of live plant species, all native to Oaxaca, and is a super fascinating place to see the diverse agriculture in the region. The unfortunate thing about the garden is that you can only enter with a guided tour, and guided tours in English only take place at 11 am on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Be sure to plan ahead if you’d like to visit!
Mercado de Benito Juarez
Get your camera and bargaining skills ready and make your way over to Mercado Benito Juarez, just south of the Zocalo. This market has has anything and everything you need: artisan goods, produce, clothing and more. I’m always a huge fan of visiting the local market to get a feel of what the city is all about, and this market is a great place to do so and support local vendors. Win, win! I recommend just going in and wandering around – it’s also a good place to purchase food and drink souvenirs. Of course, you should definitely try one of Oaxaca’s most famous snacks – chapulines (fried grasshoppers). They have a slightly crunchier texture than edamame and taste like whatever they’re flavored with (chile and lime is the flavor I sampled).
Lunch at 20 de Noviembre Market
Right next to Mercado Benito Juarez is 20 de Noviembre, a market primarily selling prepared food – YUM. This is where you should go for lunch – the food is delicious, home-cooked, and inexpensive. I recommend trying the tamales (sold by women holding baskets) and / or a tlayuda, a traditional Oaxacan flatbread topped with beans, cheese, cabbage, and meat. Tlayudas are huge and filling, so I recommend sharing one if you’re traveling with a buddy. I’d be very impressed if you manage to consume both a tamale and a tlayuda.
Note: My friend Susan also told me that there’s a carne asada hall in the market, but I didn’t get a chance to try it. She has actually written an extensive guide to the food at both of these markets, which you should check out here.
Mercado de Artesanias
For textiles, crafts, clothing, and more, pop into the Mercado de Artesanias. Here you’ll find an array of home goods and souvenirs plus plenty of Mexican-style clothing and accessories. The majority of the vendors come from the nearby villages, so purchasing items here definitely helps support the local economy. That being said, there’s a mix of both locally-produced items as well as mass-market items, but part of the fun is digging around for the stuff you want. You’ll have plenty of options at reasonable prices.
La Casa de Artesanias
If you’re looking for higher-quality, more expensive goods, then I recommend checking out La Casa de Artesanias. This shop is actually a collection of several, smaller shops, all focused on selling specific, hand-made items. For example, one of the shops only sells colorful, handmade shoes and sandals. Another, black pottery and a third, embroidered items. It’s a really awesome collection of items and a great place to purchase high quality goods and souvenirs (or just browse!).
Templo de Santo Domingo
Easily one of the most beautiful and ornate buildings in Oaxaca, this church is well-worth the visit. The baroque exterior is impressive but what will truly blow you away is the interior. The intricate, gold-plated designs are, in a word, spectacular. It was obviously built with careful attention to detail in every aspect, from the ceiling down to the floor. I’ve been to a lot of churches during my travels but would still recommend stopping by this one!
Dinner at El Destilado
El Destilado was easily my favorite “fancy” restaurant I ate at while in Mexico. Its tagline most accurately describes it: a contemporary take on Mexican cuisine. The restaurant offers both a tasting menu and a la carte options but I strongly recommend the tasting menu for a chance to sample a variety of creative cuisine. The meal was surprisingly filling considering the size of each dish (you can choose from 6, 9, or 12 tastings) and the service was absolute perfection – our waitress carefully explained each dish to us and answered all of our questions. Plus, she even gave us a mini goodie bag to go! El Destilado is truly a must-eat in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca Itinerary: Day Two in Oaxaca
Hierve el Agua and Mitla Tour
On your second day in Oaxaca, I strongly recommend doing an all-day “Ruta de Mezcal” (Mezcal Route) tour. Mezcal is an alcoholic drink that is almost entirely produced in the Oaxaca region but it’s not really the focus of the tour. My main reason for going on this tour (and recommending it) is Hierve el Agua, the petrified “waterfall” that’s really a limestone rock formation that resembles cascades of water. It’s even cooler than it sounds. Plus, there are mineral pools that you can soak in as well.
By taking a tour, we were able to visit Hierve el Agua plus a host of other historical sites such as the world’s widest tree in Santa Maria, the archaeological site of Mitla, a weaving factory in Teotitlán del Valle, and a mezcal distillery. It was a really fun and informative day and I would 100% recommend it for first time visitors. Book the tour here.
Note: it is possible to get to Hierve el Agua on your own but it involves taking a shared taxi (a colectivo) to Mitla then riding in the back of a pick-up truck (a camioneta) to Hierve el Agua. Choose your own adventure!
Dinner at Tlayudas Libres
You’ll probably be pretty tired by the time you get back to Central Oaxaca, so I recommend a somewhat quick dinner of tlayudas, the quintessential street food of Oaxaca. I tried them at Tlayudas Libres and they were delicious, so I recommend heading there.
So, what on earth is a tlayuda anyway? Think of it as an enormous grilled tortilla, stuffed with beans, Oaxacan cheese, lettuce, avocado, and tomatoes. You can have it topped with meat as well (I did, of course). It’s huge, inexpensive, and delicious. If you aren’t starving, you can easily share a tlayuda – I put a good dent in mine but ultimately wasn’t able to to finish it.
Oaxaca Itinerary: Day Three in Oaxaca
Located just 15 minutes by car from Central Oaxaca, Monte Alban is an archeological site from the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures. This well-preserved ancient Zapotec capital is made up of square pyramids, temples, a ball court and more. There’s even a small museum on site for those that are interested. Depending on how much background information you’d like to know, you can either go on your own or hire a guide. Allot anywhere between 2-3 hours for your excursion. Either way, be prepared to climb some stairs and wear sunscreen, a hat and comfy shoes. Make sure you bring a water bottle as well!
Lunch at Cabuche
Head back to Central Oaxaca in time for lunch at Cabuche for some delicious and fresh Oaxacan food. My friend recommends the enmoladas here (chicken-stuffed tortillas covered in a chile-chocolate sauce called mole) but I chose to eat the drool-inducing pozole instead. Pozole is Mexico’s version of chicken soup with a flavorful broth, chicken, hominy, cilantro, and more. Cabuche offers a variety of different options for a sort of “build your own pozole,” which is perfect since the dish is oftentimes made with a pork broth. I also had a steak taco on a blue corn tortilla, which was delicious.
The fresh food combined with the cozy ambiance and beautiful outdoor patio is what earns Cabuche a spot on this Oaxaca itinerary.
Explore the city center
Spend the rest of your day just wandering throughout the city center. Start at the Zocalo – Oaxaca’s central plaza – where you’ll find seemingly the entire town hanging out and bustling about. There’s always something fun and exciting going on and plenty of people watching to be had. The zocalo has everything from street performances to cute little shops to street food to random vendors. So grab a snack and stay awhile.
From there, stroll to your heart’s content. Consider stopping by one of the many small museums in Oaxaca, grabbing a coffee, or checking out various markets and shops. If you’d like to explore outside of the Centro, head north towards the charming La tiendita del barro, a collective selling artisan crafts. The neighborhood is colorful, calm, and quiet. You can head even further north toward the Reforma neighborhood and wander there. No matter what you choose to do and see, it’s guaranteed to be fun.
Dinner at Itanoni or Teocintle
Where you go to dinner depends on your mood and where you are in the city. If you’re in or around Reforma like I mentioned earlier and are in the mood for some seriously drool-worthy corn-based dishes, head to Itanoni, a restaurant specializing in corn-based dishes (every item on the menu is made of corn). The food you should try here is a bit more on the snack side: tetelas (stuffed tortilla triangles), de ese (a tortilla stuffed with a hoja santa leaf), memelas (a small, thick tortilla with toppings), and pan de elote (corn cake). Don’t forget to try tascalate, a non-alcoholic corn and chocolate beverage. The food is delicious, but the highlights are in the snacks and appetizers. If you’re after a sit-down meal instead then I recommend Teocintle. Check out reviews of Itanoni here.
Teocintle is a hidden gem of a restaurant in the center focusing on indigenous Oaxacan cuisine. There’s no set menu – the chef goes to the market every day and purchases and cooks whatever is fresh. But the food and ambiance are spectacular. For just 250 pesos, you get a 5-6 course set meal of creative takes on Oaxacan dishes combined with a relaxing and intimate ambiance. Teocintle is truly a highlight of Oaxacan cuisine and reasonably priced to boot. Check it out here.
Additional Activities and Recommendations
Mercado de Abastos (Saturday)
If you’re in town on a Saturday, be sure to check out the Mercado de Abastos, a large flea market featuring hundreds of local vendors selling food and crafts. Abastos is huge and a market where you’ll likely find more Oaxacans grocery shopping than tourists buying souvenirs. The market is bustling but a fascinating place to wander around and sample some of the home-cooked food stalls. Like any busy market, keep an eye on your belongings but overall, don’t let the Tripadvisor reviews dissuade you from going.
Take a cooking class
Oaxaca is a haven for foodies and what better souvenir to give to yourself than learning how to cook some of the amazing dishes you’ve been sampling? One of the coolest parts about this cooking class is that it also includes a market visit to shop for the ingredients; I personally love being able to see ingredients at the source before cooking. You’ll learn how to cook a variety of different dishes and the menu can be adjusted if you have any dietary restrictions. Plus, when else do you get to learn to cook from an actual restaurant chef? If hands-on foodie experiences are up your alley, you should definitely check this cooking class out. Book it here.
Go on a food tour
I don’t know about you but whenever I have some extra time in a city, I do my best to do some sort of foodie experience because what better way to get to know a city than through your stomach? Explore the historic center and sample 20+ traditional Oaxacan eats and drinks on this highly-rated tour by Oaxaca Eats. This tour is guaranteed to leave your stomach happy and your brain much more knowledgable about Oaxaca and Oaxacan food. Book it here.
Check out street art on a bike
I always find that one of the coolest ways to learn about culture and politics is through local street art. I’ve done a few street art tours myself and love them and the one in Oaxaca is no exception! What makes this one especially cool is that it’s also on bike so you get a 2-in-1 bike and street art tour combined. Plus, the guides are incredibly knowledgeable and have relationships with the local artists. This is seriously an amazing way to get out of Central Oaxaca and learn more about a side of the city that most tourists don’t experience. Book it here.
Get in touch with nature on a mountain bike adventure
Brought to you by the same company that runs the street art tour, this biking adventure is for those who want to experience the gorgeous landscapes of Oaxaca. You’ll take the scenic route amongst the mountains of Oaxaca, visiting the community of Benito Juárez, an incredible 360 viewpoint, and more. You’ll end your adventure at a small weaving collective in Teotitlán and get a chance to visit the world’s widest tree in Santa Maria. If a nature adventure is what you’re after, this is the experience for you. Book it here.
Learn everything there is to know about tortillas
The tortilla is easily one of the most important foods in Mexico and was invented in Oaxaca nearly 3000 years ago. On this tour, you’ll visit indigenous villages in Tlacolula Valley, where you’ll learn the entire centuries-old process of how corn tortillas are made from scratch. You’ll get a chance to visit corn farmers, artisans, cooks and more – and yes, a homemade lunch is included! If you’d like to learn more about Mexico’s staple food item, this is the tour for you. Book it here.
Where to Stay in Oaxaca
Oh boy did I have some hotel adventures in Oaxaca! I unintentionally ended up staying at three different hotels when I was there. The first I left due to water issues (I promise i didn’t recommend it below). The second I loved but it was fully booked for my last night in the city. Luckily my third hotel was also pretty spectacular so all is well that ends well.
Anyway, I highly recommend staying in Oaxaca Centro while you’re visiting Oaxaca (luckily the Centro is pretty small and there are lots of hotel options). Nearly everything I recommend on this itinerary is accessible on foot – I only took a handful of taxis during my trip. That being said, I specifically recommend Agrado Guesthouse. It couldn’t have been more perfect. The location was walking distance from pretty much everywhere, both breakfast AND dinner are included, and the service was truly above and beyond. Rooms were spacious and comfortable and the hotel also offers various activities for guests staying there. Seriously, Agrado is the place to be – and it’s budget-friendly as well.
Alternatively, my other recommendations are below:
Hostal Luz de Luna Nuyoo (Backpack)
Located just a few blocks from the main square, Luz de Luna Nuyoo is an intimate hostel located in a beautiful colonial house. It offers a mix of private double rooms and shared dorms, with plenty of amenities such as breakfast, Wi-Fi, linens, a cafe, and more. Plus, there’s a rooftop terrace and a few cute animals that live there as well. For a clean and comfortable accommodation on a backpacker budget, this hostel has everything you’d need.
Agrado Guesthouse (Budget-Friendly)
I’ve already raved about Agrado above, so I won’t rehash too much over here. Basically, if you’re looking for a home away from home, with home-cooked breakfast and dinner (included in the price), free bikes to use, fun hotel activities and a warm vibe, Agrado Guesthouse is for you (and my personal recommendation for where to stay in Oaxaca).
Grana B&B (Budget-Friendly)
I stayed at Grana B&B for one night while I was in Oaxaca and loved it. This newer hotel is budget-friendly with a bright and airy courtyard, spacious rooms, and delicious breakfast. It’s located less than 5 minutes from the Zocalo (town square) and the staff is incredibly friendly and helpful. The hotel is decorated with lots of local furniture and decor, offering a relaxed and beautiful oasis in the bustle of the city. Overall, this hotel is the whole package and an excellent accommodation choice in Oaxaca.
Casa de Siete Balcones Hotel Boutique (Mid-Range)
If you’re looking for an upgrade from “standard” accommodation that won’t break your bank, consider Casa de Siete Balcones, a charming boutique hotel in the heart of the city. The traditionally-decorated rooms are spacious and bright and most have a balcony attached. The staff is incredibly helpful and accommodating, the location is perfect, and the beds are comfortable. If a mid-range boutique hotel is what you’re after, this is where you should stay!
Hotel La Casona de Tita (Splurge)
If you want to treat yourself, there’s no nicer place to do it than at Hotel La Casona. This luxury hotel boasts large and comfortable rooms with gorgeous decor, eco-friendly products and A/C. Breakfast is served at the spectacular outdoor courtyard, and there’s both a restaurant and bar on-site. Plus, with only six rooms, you’re guaranteed a personalized and intimate experience. What more could you need?
What to Pack for Oaxaca
Generally speaking, there aren’t many specialty items I’d recommend for a trip to Oaxaca. In terms of wardrobe, a lot depends on when you visit. I visited during a particularly rainy week, so I packed a rain jacket and my travel umbrella. However, I’ve included a few items below that I brought along that you might not think of.
- Backpack: This backpack is hands down the best carry-on-sized backpack I’ve ever used for travel. Not only is it carry-on sized, but it’s also incredibly comfortable and easy to carry, even for a small-framed person like me. It has tons of pockets and compartments for organization, lockable zippers, and it’s weather resistant. If you really don’t think you can handle packing in a carry-on, then this one is just as comfortable but larger. You can also technically get away with using it as a carry on and the additional pack as your personal item. Win!
- Water-Resistant Daypack: For days where I’m out all day, I always carry a daypack. This daypack is great because it’s durable, water-resistant, has several organizational pockets, and folds into a tiny pouch.
- Locking Purse (optional): Oaxaca doesn’t have a pickpocketing problem and I never worried that someone would snatch something from my bag. However, I’d rather be safe than sorry, which is why I bring this handy lockable purse with me everywhere I travel. Is it the most stylish purse I’ve ever owned? No. Does it keep me from worrying about pickpockets? Absolutely. Plus, it’s surprisingly roomy – I keep my water bottle, camera, wallet, and other stuff in there and they fit no problem. If a smaller purse is what you’re after, check out this one or this one. Note: If you’d rather not purchase a purse, you can always keep your smaller valuables in this secret pocket scarf instead.
- Basic temperature regulating t-shirt: No matter what the season, you’ll want at least a few basic temperature regulating shirts, like this one. This T is specially made to be moisture-wicking, anti-odor, and offer SPF protection so it’s perfect for both the dry and wet season in Oaxaca. Plus, it doesn’t look like an exercise top but still offers a lot of the benefits of high-performance clothing. It’s cute enough to be dressed up with a cardigan or nice scarf. If you decide you love this shirt and want one with similar features, try this one.
- All-purpose sneakers: Last year, a friend of mine introduced me to Allbirds, these awesome wool sneakers that don’t make your feet sweat (even if you wear them without socks). Then I found out they’re made of Merino Wool, which explains the magic behind them. They’re cute, they’re functional, and they’re comfy AF. You can wear them to hike up a mountain or to explore a new city. They’re my go-to travel shoes and if they get dirty, I can throw them in the wash.
- Sunscreen: Even if you’ve never burned before, don’t test your luck and pack some good sunscreen. For everyday use, I use Neutrogena Clear Face Sunscreen because my skin is prone to acne. The original Neutrogena sunscreen is just as good if acne is a non-issue. Neither will leave your skin feeling gross and greasy. For the rest of me, I use the solid body stick, which works well.
- Travel Insurance: Yes, you need travel insurance for if things (hopefully don’t but often do) go wrong. I’ve been sick, needed stitches, crashed a rental car, had cash stolen and have dealt with luggage delays. Let’s just say I’ve learned my lesson about travel insurance the hard way. My go-to insurance is World Nomads cause they’re awesome and easy to deal with. Be sure to check out the different plan options to pick one that’s right for you!
- Anti Diarrheal: I have a fairly strong stomach and found that I had no issues with food and water in Mexico (unlike my misadventures in Peru). However, everybody’s stomachs react differently so I recommend bringing anti diarrheal with you just in case. Imodium is every traveler’s favorite treatment for travel diarrhea. My doctor tells me that you shouldn’t stop whatever is making you sick from leaving your system. However, I totally get that there are times where “better out than in” just doesn’t work (like on a hiking trip, for example). So bring Imodium if you’d like, but use it only when you need to.
- Travel First Aid Kit: I love that this travel first aid kit is small enough to stick in your bag but still has tons of items in it. I’d remove the scissors if you aren’t planning to check your luggage, but otherwise, this is incredibly handy, especially if you’re going to be doing outdoorsy things.
- VPN: For those of you who don’t know, a VPN (virtual private network) is a service that allows you to securely and privately route your internet through a server. Basically, it makes your internet think you’re in one place when you’re in a different one. Why do you need this? Well, if you want to access your bank account or any secure online account, the sites get super sketched out when you’re in a foreign country. NordVPN is my go-to because it works even in countries where VPNs are blocked. Yay for internet security!
- Power bank: I don’t know if I’m a phone addict or what (jk, the answer to that is an unfortunate but resounding yes) but I legit don’t understand how people can travel without a power bank. You’re out and about all day and using your phone to navigate, take photos, and who knows what else. I always carry my Anker PowerCore while I’m out. It’s light, holds multiple charges, and charges phones quickly. Win!
- Portable Travel Strip (optional): If you’re one of those annoying people charging your phone, laptop, and camera at the same time (read: me), bringing a small travel strip along makes powering your devices that much more efficient. I know I’m extra. Sorry, not sorry.
- Insulated water bottle and water purifier or water purifying bottle: I always bring a water bottle with me when I travel because single-use plastic sucks for the planet and buying lots of bottled water is expensive and inconvenient. If you’re wondering if you can drink the tap water in Mexico, the answer is a resounding no. What you can do is drink filtered, purified water. I bring along a Steripen, a UV water purifier that gets rid of 99.9% of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa and use it in combination with my CamelBak Insulated Water Bottle. This bottle is particularly awesome because it holds 20 oz and keeps water cold, which you’ll want if you’re visiting Oaxaca during summer. If you’d rather purchase an all-in-one solution, Grayl’s water filtering bottle is a great alternative so you can fill directly from the tap and drink almost immediately.
- Mexican Spanish Phrasebook: This Spanish phrasebook is more of a nice to have than a necessity. However, you might find it particularly useful if you’re traveling through Mexico independently, especially if you’re not at tourist sites.
Is Oaxaca Safe?
Oaxaca is incredibly safe, even for solo travelers. I wandered around with my friend and on my own both at night and during the day and we never questioned our safety once. I don’t know if it’s the small-town vibe or what but crime rates are low and Oaxaca is actually the safest state in Mexico. So nothing to worry about!
Other Things to Know Before Visiting Oaxaca
Transportation in Oaxaca
Getting around Oaxaca is pretty straightforward. If you stay in Central Oaxaca, almost all of the cool sites and activities are in and around downtown, making walking the preferred mode of transportation. However, if the weather sucks or you’re not spending time in the downtown area, taxis are inexpensive and readily available.
If you can speak Spanish or get some help, there are buses that will take you outside and around the city (called colectivos). However between the Monte Alban shuttle bus, the organized Hierve el Agua tour and walking, the only time I used a cab was to the airport.
To get to Oaxaca Centro from the airport, you can actually get a shared car or bus (colectivo) that will drop you off either right at your hotel or very close by for $90 pesos per person. You pay at the airport desk and go outside with your ticket, which is super convenient. Otherwise, you can take a cab to / from the city (around $300 pesos) or book a transfer ahead of time here.
Do I need a visa to visit Mexico?
North Americans do not need a visa for Mexico at the time of writing but always double check embassy websites for the latest information.
Mexico uses the Mexican peso and at the time of writing this post (January 2020), the rate was about USD $1 to $18.5 pesos. Credit cards are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATM machines for withdrawing cash. If you’d like to exchange money, the best place to do so is at the airport in Mexico City for good rates.
I hope I’ve managed to help you figure out what to do in Oaxaca in 3 days. Although you can easily spend a lot more time in the city, this Oaxaca travel guide is a perfect introduction to this Mexican town and will definitely inspire you to return again and again.
Tell me: have you ever been to Oaxaca? If not, has this post inspired you to visit?
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