When I travel, I love big cities. Mexico City is an amazing metropolis whose expanse blows my mind, and gets me so excited to explore. Bangkok blew my mind with how orderly and organized such a giant throng of people can be, and make the city work in their favor. Imagine my surprise when I touched down in Oaxaca City, Mexico, a small, quiet town nestled between mountains on the interior of Mexico. We landed at night, and despite it being well past dark and having fewer people than my neighborhood in San Francisco, this place was alive! The colorful buildings were washed in flood lights, and locals gathered in the streets playing music while kids ran around.
When I woke up the next morning, I saw a sleepy town slowly wake up with me, the pinks of walls the night before were bright vibrant reds, and the dim tans quickly became gorgeously saturated yellows. I quickly fell in love with this city, understanding it to be a small but mighty cultural powerhouse of Mexico. With highways being worked on every day to connect Oaxaca City to Mexico City, tourism will grow for this little respite from the giant metropolises of the Americas. Below are some of my favorite things to do in Oaxaca City, and that I am sure will stand the test of time, and the trials of major tourism.
1. Visit Oaxaca Cathedral
Gargantuan in size and sitting right at the center of town, the Oaxaca Cathedral stands as an anchor for the city. Flanked by some of the biggest agave plants I have ever seen, the cathedral opens onto a large plaza that welcomes midday vendors, and is a great place for children to play and burn off steam. The cathedral is truly a meeting point for locals and tourists alike, and the streets surrounding the cathedral have some of the most impressive gifts I have come across in Mexico. While there I was able to buy a hand-woven rug from two women, a sugar skull ornament from another man, and horchata buckets were served up to thirsty customers all day. Beautifully lit at night, this would be a pretty big attraction to miss, and would make your trip to Oaxaca City incomplete.
2. Grab an Oaxacan Chocolate Drink
The chocolate here is TO DIE FOR. Rich, thick, and creamy, Oaxacan chocolate is well known throughout all of Mexico, and any true foodie would not be able to leave the state without trying even a morsel of the delicacy. As common as a latte is in America, an Oaxacan hot chocolate is my chocolate delivery method of choice, and can be found in any café in Oaxaca City. My favorite spots to grab this delectable drink are Oaxaca en Una Taza, and Café Brujula. Oaxaca en Una Taza is a sweet little independently owned café that sits on a quiet side street behind the Oaxaca Cathedral. Paper cranes hang from the ceiling and swing back and forth in the wind, and an entire wall is covered in brightly colored paper flowers, just begging for an Instagram photo. Not just cute, but delicious too, this café serves a variety of drinks, most notably a frappe. A large frozen coffee, the baristas will also mix in the type of Oaxacan chocolate you want. Choose from about 15 flavors including rose infused chocolate, citrus chocolate, or my favorite, almond chocolate, and allow the sweet women behind the counter to prepare your drink. Take a load off and enjoy the shade in this adorable little cafe while sipping your frappe.
Your other option, Café Brujula, is more of a chain, with multiple locations in the city. When I was inside, I definitely got more of a Starbucks vibe than small town roast house feels, but that’s okay with me as long as the beverage delivers! Smooth, silky, and creamy, Café Brujula whipped up delicious drinks, including those with Oaxacan chocolate, and did so with a young, urban flair. I came here late at night and noticed it is a popular hangout for local teens, and rightfully so with the combination of old Spanish charm, and modern coffeehouse vibes.
3. Stroll through the Botanical Gardens
To this day I am still upset I didn’t get to do this. I visited the weekend of Easter, and the gardens were closed to the public the days I was there. Typical luck for me. I have perused the internet though, and have determined this to be a must-see item in Oaxaca City. Beautifully kept, and impeccably designed, this garden offers the chance to walk through a grove of cacti, and take in the amazing succulents that grow native to the area.
4. Peruse the Handicrafts of the locals at the Daily Market
There is nothing I love more than buying locally made items to deck out my house, and to carry around with a flair of “Please ask me where I bought this.” I love how unique items are, and how I have something nobody else in the world has! Every day, there is a tented area of town that sets up stalls so artisans can sell their works to travelers passing through on vacation. I was able to find an awesome handwoven clutch purse, a beautiful hand painted ornament, and desk baubles that still keep my husband entertained today. Something to note about the markets here, however, is that bargaining is not a thing. When we tried to bargain down prices on the items we were buying, artisans all but walked away from us, not even entertaining the idea of a lower price for their work. The handiwork is that good, and they know somebody will come through willing to pay full price, so make sure to shell out the cash if you really fall in love with a piece.
5. Visit the food market and grab tacos at Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Completely tucked away and easy to miss, Mercado 20 de Noviembre offers some of the best food in Oaxaca City, and is so cheap, you can afford seconds, thirds, and fourths. Make your way to the entrance on 20 de Noviembre near all of the meat stalls, and grab a bundle of onions and peppers from the lady sitting at the entrance. She has the best prices, and is so friendly, I loved giving her business. Make your way inside a few more steps and hop in line at “Andy’s” stall, he will be one of the first on the left. I found his stall by watching the locals wander through the meat hall, and seeing what they did. Most grabbed vegetables from a vendor, and hopped right in like at Andy’s. Let Andy know what meats you want (we chose chorizo and beef), and he grills them for you right on the spot. When you grab your cooked meat, head to the end of the hall, and let the ladies near a register know you are ready to sit. They will set you up with tortillas, guacamole, salsa, and other veggies, and assign you a seat with others. Note that you will be sitting with other families and people eating in the food hall, but I loved it because local Oaxacans got to see me try their cuisine for the first time, and loved chatting with me about the food I was eating. I would have eaten here more if I had had the time, but as I was on a quick getaway, one time is all I had. Feel free to wander the rest of the stalls after you eat, and grab some bread and flowers for your room!
Oaxaca City is such an amazing mixture of old meets new world charm. With upscale restaurants next door to people who have been selling wood carvings since they were children, Oaxaca City is the perfect getaway for anybody looking for culture and class, all within a 15-minute walk of each other. Soak in the sun on a rooftop deck by day, and take in the sights and smells of this town in the valley by night. You won’t regret a stop here while visiting Mexico.