A World Heritage city in southern Mexico, Oaxaca has a special identity that comes from indigenous cultures like the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.
They built settlements close by and still have significant minorities across the state.
Minutes from Oaxaca is Monte Albán, a lofty Zapotec city atop a ridge, and after losing a few hours in awe of its pyramids and views back to the city, you can marvel at the treasures discovered in one of its tombs at Oaxaca’s Museo de las Culturas.
Oaxaca’s historic centre is jammed with colonial-era architecture, constructed from unmistakeable grey-green cantera stone.
The food is delicious, and Oaxaca has seven different mole sauces, while grasshoppers, nutritious but daunting, are part of the local diet.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Oaxaca:
1. Monte Albán
This awe-inspiring archaeological site is 10 kilometres southwest of Oaxaca, resting on a ridge 1,900 metres in height and 400 metres over the valley below.
The top of the ridge was levelled off to form an acropolis in an almost unconquerable position.
The settlement here goes back to about 500 BC and was at the peak of its powers in the middle of the 1st millennium AD. Then, for reasons unknown, Monte Albán was abandoned in the 9th century and later, in the 13th century, was used by the Mixtec culture as a place to bury their rulers.
Some of the many indispensible sights are the North Platform, crowned with what are most likely temples; Los Danzantes, stones with Olmec reliefs of people in motion; the Southern Platform, another spectacular pyramid, and Platform J, which was a possible astronomical observatory.
Suggested tour: Oaxaca Half-Day Monte Alban Zapotec Ruins Tour
2. Museo de las Culturas
Established in 1575, the former Monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán was active from 1608 to 1857. Some of the buildings were used by the military during the War of Independence in the 1810s and for the second half of the 19th century the whole monastery was a barracks.
Since 1972 the monastery has housed a first-rate museum that presents a timeline of human history in Oaxaca across 14 rooms.
You’ll start with hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago and journey through the Zapotecs, the abandonment of the great cities of Mesoamerica like Monte Albán, the arrival of the Spanish, the emergence of a new nation in the 19th century and the lives of Oaxaca’s indigenous communities today.
Every room gallery is worthwhile, but if you only have time to skim through, be sure to see the gold jewellery, mask and the crystal vessel from Tomb 7 of Monte Albán.
3. Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán
Joined to the museum in the cloister, the monastery’s church was completed in 1731 and restored in 1993. It boasts extremely rich stuccowork that could be compared to the Capilla del Rosario in Puebla.
In the vaulted entrance you can make out a Tree of Jesse, delineating the Christ’s ancestry.
The intertwining patterns fill every surface of the interior and are traced with gold, up the flutes of columns, around the coffers in the ceiling and around the many pieces of polychrome sculpture.
The statistics behind this monument are mind-bending: More than 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold went into its decoration.
4. Museo Rufino Tamayo
Oaxaca’s Museo Rufino Tamayo was founded by its prominent namesake artist and is housed in a fine 18th-century mansion from the Viceroy period.
The museum is devoted entirely to pre-Hispanic art, which Tamayo drew on for inspiration and collected across Mexico.
In one sense you could say that the museum embodies three time periods: Pre-Hispanic for its art, Colonial for its venue and modern as Tamayo curated the exhibition and decided its colour palette.
There are more than 700 pieces in five rooms, comprising stone figurines and sculptures (check out the lifelike dogs), ceramic vessels and reliefs.
Between the Cathedral and the Palacio de Gobierno is the Zócalo, shaded by Montezuma cypresses and centred on an Art Nouveau bandstand installed in 1901. There are occasional musical performances by the Marimba del Estado de Oaxaca at this charming spot.
Those are some of many events to take place on the square, like the Grito de Dolores on the evening of 15 September.
On this night the mayor recounts a speech first given by the martyr of the War of Independence, Miguel Hidalgo.
Each line is greeted with enthusiastic shouts of “Viva!”. On 23 December there’s a more esoteric event, La Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes) when radishes are carved into weird and wondeful displays before wilting a matter of hours later.
6. Árbol del Tule
Under ten kilometres to the east is the town of Santa María del Tule at the centre of which is 40-metre-high Montezuma cypress tree.
This is of unknown age, but ranges anywhere between 1,200 and 3,000 years old.
The tree is entwined in Zapotec legends and was planted in a site with spiritual meaning, supposedly by an Aztec priest to the wind god Ehecatl.
Also noteworthy is the breadth of the trunk.
Without taking the buttresses into account, this was 9.39 metres in diameter at the last measurement, which makes the Árbol del Tule the stoutest tree in the world.
Five hundred people are able to stand in the shade of its branches!
7. Plaza de la Danza
Near the base of the Cerro del Fortín hill a few blocks west of the Zócalo is a grand series of staggered plazas with a fine view of Monte Albán from its uppermost point by the Ex-Convento de San José.
The whole square was laid out in 1959 with the local cantera volcanic stone, as a place for art exhibitions, political rallies and music performances.
In the week of the Día de Muertos around 2 November enormous sand tapestries are laid on the plaza opposite La Soledad church.
On the south side of the Plaza de la Danza you can get your hands on a traditional nieve de Oaxaca sorbet, made from red prickly pear (tuna roja).
8. Museo Textil
Founded in 2006, this museum is all about the world of textiles, with an accent on traditional Oaxacan weaving, dyeing , embroidery and beadwork.
The permanent exhibits, amounting to 5,000 pieces donated by private collectors, are all imaginatively displayed an combined with temporary shows on all aspects of clothing and textiles, from modern fashion to ancient techniques from around Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador.
The building itself is also delightful, on the corner of a row of 18th-century mansions and with a sequestered little courtyard.
Viewing these bright quilts and clothes up close you’ll be aware of the high level of craftsmanship, using techniques handed down from the Zapotecs.
9. Oaxaca Cathedral
Built from the same green-ish volcanic stone as Oaxaca’s other historic monuments, the cathedral was begun in 1535. Over the next 200 years earthquakes would require several rebuilds and the monument that greets you today was consecrated in 1733. The towers flanking the rounded pediment are even newer and date from a reconstruction after yet another earthquake in 1931. The interior decoration is all Neoclassical from the 19th century, and the centrepiece is the altar with a bronze image of Our Lady of the Assumption crafted in Italy in the days of the Porfirian regime.
10. Jardín Etnobotánico
In the 1990s this former shooting range was in danger of being turned into luxury hotel and car park before the painter and sculptor Francisco Toledo came up with the idea of planting a botanical garden.
Over 2.3 hectares there are hundreds of plant species, all of which are native: These come from arid and humid climates, temperate regions and cold mountainous zones, presenting the full diversity of botanical life.
Most exciting is the section dedicated to the Guilá Naquitz cave near the Zapotec settlement of Mitla.
The corn and pumpkin seeds found in the cave date back 7,000 years and are the oldest signs of agriculture in the Americas.
Also track down the Echinocactus Platyacanthus biznaga cactus, which could be as old as 1,000 years and weighs five tons.
Forty kilometres to the southeast is a World Heritage archaeological site at the religious centre of the Zapotec culture.
This settlement on the upper end of the Tlacolula Valley was inhabited as early as 900 BC and its apogee came between the 9th and 16th centuries.
Highly sophisticated, the Zapotecs had their own writing system and produced highly intricate geometric patterns on friezes, tombs, panels and also whole walls.
Lying low in the valley, Mitla doesn’t have the majesty of Monte Albán, but across its five cardinally aligned groups of buildings are sensational examples of frescoes and mosaic fretwork.
The northernmost Church Group is so called for the Church of San Pablo, built right on top of a pre-Hispanic platform.
12. Mercado Benito Juárez
One block from the Zócalo, the Mercado Benito Juárez is in what used to be Plaza del Marqués.
This was covered with a canopy and permanent stalls touting typical Oaxacan handicrafts and food.
The kaleidoscope of colours is dazzling, but there are a few things to keep on your radar.
For a souvenir, alebrijes are the multicoloured papier-mâché sculptures of bizarre monsters, first dreamed up by the artist Pedro Linares and now at the heart of Oaxacan and Mexican folk celebrations.
For refreshment, there’s a wide choice of stands selling juice and rich hot chocolate.
Daring souls can try worms or spiced grasshoppers (chapulines) and brag to their friends.
There are seven different types of mole paste to take home, if you have room.
If you want to dine on the spot you can pick from empanadas, quesadillas and tamales with all manner of fillings.
We recommend a squash blossom quesadilla.
13. Ex-Monastery of Santiago Apóstol
Some ten kilometres south of Oaxaca this partly completed monastery complex is raised on a hill just off the road to Villa de Zaachila.
Constructed from that green-ish cantera stone the monastery was consecrated in 1570 and has a mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Plateresque architecture.
The purpose of the monastery was for evangelism.
And the interaction between the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec populations and the Spanish caused a thrilling cross-pollination that is most visible in church’s murals: These have indigenous styles and motifs on a Christian framework.
The complex includes a basilica that was never finished, while the cloister has a museum for liturgical artefacts from the 1500s.
Suggested tour: From Oaxaca: Zaachila and Cuilapan Full-Day Tour
14. Hierve el Agua
Not far after Mitla is a natural phenomenon that you could see on the same trip.
From a distance the Hierve el Agua looks like a pair of waterfalls bubbling down a cliff face.
But when you get closer you realise that they are solid rock.
The strange concretions are created by millions of years of calcium carbonate deposits from a spring that trickles over the rock.
Hierve el Agua is one of only two examples of this phenomenon on the planet.
You can visit the site on a looped trail that guides you to the pools at the top.
People come to bathe in the water, which is claimed to have healing qualities.
On the way you’ll see some outlandish natural rock formations and canals hewn from the rock by the as long as Zapotecs 2,500 years ago.
As we hinted, Oaxaca is known as the “land of the seven moles”, all with their own colours and blend of chilli and herbs.
The most famous is mole negro, which gets its dark shade and richness from chocolate and is flavoured with an aromatic herb known as hoja santa (Mexican pepperleaf). Typically this will come with rice and grilled chicken leg, but can also be used in tamales and tacos.
And while you might grimace at the thought of chapulines (grasshoppers), they’re an abundant “superfood” for their high vitamin and protein content.
Oaxaca cheese was invented by the Dominican monks in the 16th century, using the same techniques as mozzarella, but with cow’s milk instead of buffalo.
The result is close to Monterey jack, and goes into empanadas, quesadillas and tlayudas, which are a local preparation with cabbage, grilled beef and a salsa molcajete (a tomato and chilli sauce).