Oaxaca City Guide: Where to stay, eat, drink and shop in Mexico’s sultry cultural hub

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JHere’s the creative energy bubbling in Oaxaca, whether you’re browsing underground art, following a street protest, or touring galleries in whitewashed museums. Indigenous culture is proudly on display in upscale restaurants that draw inspiration from traditional ingredients; while slipping into a local market means sampling refreshing cocoa drinks from pre-Columbian times, and maybe a handful of roast grasshoppers. Beyond the city limits are ancient pyramids to play archaeologist amid crumbling stones.

Oaxaca’s days tend to turn into dreamy rhythms, against the backdrop of its spectacular natural setting. The densely forested Sierra Madre mountain range surrounds the town, where early mornings ignite a chorus of tropical bird song, afternoons are slow to siesta, and cool evenings draw families to stroll on shaded places.. Here’s how to explore this ultra-hip but laid-back regional capital.

Monte Alban, the ruins of the Zapotec civilization in Oaxaca

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What to do

Admire the local art

Works by contemporary artists from Oaxaca and elsewhere clash strikingly against the restored and distinguished colonial mansion that houses them as Museum of Painters of Oaxaca (£1). The smallest (and free) Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center has excellent temporary exhibitions organized around a shaded, plant-filled courtyard. For something more gritty, head over to Zapata Spacea gallery that presents sculpture as well as screen printing, stencils and murals that are a staple of the street art scene.

Immerse yourself in living Aboriginal traditions

The 950 species of plants in Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca represent only 10% of Oaxaca’s extraordinary biodiversity, but wandering these fortified lands is not limited to the native flora. It’s about gardening as a cultural story, with plots dedicated to traditional medicines and staple foods of the region. One-hour tours cost £2 in Spanish and £4 in English.

While woven artwork abounds in every market here, the finest tapestries are on display in the self-guided Oaxaca Textile Museum. Inside a restored 18th-century mansion, the museum features everything from hand-woven rugs to multimedia installations that combine traditional weaving with contemporary design.

Learn about pre-Columbian culture

Just 9 km from downtown Oaxaca is the UNESCO World Heritage Site Monte Alban archaeological site, inhabited by Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec peoples for around 1,500 years (£3). Imagine stepped stone pyramids, ball courts, temples and palaces atop a hill with sweeping views of the Oaxaca Valley.

To learn more about what lay inside, see the treasures of silver, gold, and precious stones unearthed in the magnificent Tomb 7 of Monte Albán, now on display in central Oaxaca. Oaxaca Museum of Cultures (£3). The collection is housed in an elegant converted monastery and hopscotch through the centuries, ranging from Zapotec grandeur to the arrival of Europeans and Mexican independence.

Taste the local spirit

For a deeper meaning of Oaxaca’s signature drink, mezcal — which is distilled from maguey, a succulent type of agave — take a pilgrimage to one of the city’s encyclopedic tasting rooms. There are nearly 200 varieties to In Situ Mezcaleria, where the staff will guide you through a personalized tasting. Or make reservations in advance for a respectful small-batch bottle tasting at the library Mezcalotheque.

A room at Casa Antonieta Hotel, Oaxaca

(Antonita House)

Where to stay

The sunny and vegetated patio of Hostal Central is a perennial hangout, making it a favorite among travelers looking to socialize. A top-notch breakfast included in your rate features a rotating menu of hearty Oaxacan dishes, while private single rooms with shared bathrooms start from £20; a bunk in a four-bed dorm costs from £11, B&B. hostalcentraloaxaca.negocio.site

Built in one of the oldest houses in Oaxaca, the Casa Antonieta fuses historic architecture with a hip sensibility. Carefully chosen handcrafted objects abound in nine unique rooms and suites, some of which open onto meditation gardens. Doubles from £114, room only. casaantonieta.com

Desert-chic prevails at a 12-room boutique hotel Escondido Oaxacawith clean lines in adobe and ahuehuete– wooden furniture. Designed by famed Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, the hotel combines a historic facade with a newly constructed Brutalist tower. The rooftop pool and pergola bar invite warm afternoons, while the downstairs “grow room” is designed for remote workers. Doubles from £200, B&B. escondidooaxaca.com

Traditional cuisine at Terraza Istmo

(Terraza Istmo)

Where to eat

Alongside classic Oaxaca Mole sauces and steam tamale street snacks, Levadura de Olla’s menu lists ‘backup’ dishes – like the traditional stew made from the flowers of the coloring tree – which risks disappearing from the culinary repertoire of the region. Order a selection of meals including some chilled pozontlea frothy cocoa drink served in a traditional cup called jicara.

Rooftop terraces are a specialty of Oaxaca, but climbing the stairs to Terraza Istmo feels like uncovering a secret. Hidden above a nondescript hotel, the restaurant specializes in cuisine from the Isthmus of Oaxaca region, such as baked shrimp and meat stews enriched with tropical fruits.

one person to two Mole tasting at Coronita-Restaurant offers the seven traditional thick sauces of Oaxaca, usually served with fish or chicken – chocolate negro mole spicy-mild amarillo mole. It’s a must, and the menu also features a long list of Oaxacan classics, such as tlayuda herb-stuffed flatbreads and quesadillas epazote.

Open air Never (ice cream parlours) serving quirky local flavors fill a small square adjoining the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. A classic combo is creamy, smoky leche quemada with “Tuna” sorbet made from cactus fruit, but the spicy chilli versions are a crowd pleaser. While everything Never will do when it boils, Neveria Malena, 172, is never without a queue, and for good reason.

With a cocktail menu built around local ingredients, Selva Oaxaca Cocktail Bar has the feel of a sexy speakeasy in the jungle, all polished brass and tropical foliage. Sip on the signature leaf-green Selva creation for a shock of herbal flavor courtesy of hoja santa claus (Mexican pepper leaf), chili liqueur, agave syrup and barrel-aged mezcal.

Walk into any market and you will see rainbow assortments of aguas frescoes – refreshing drinks served by the ladle in large glass jars. Buried in the bustling Mercado Benito Juárez is the nearly century-old Casilda Aguas Regionales stand, where locals settle in for glasses of tuna horchataa sweet rice milk cooler with prickly pear fruit.

Where to shop

Covered markets are a highlight of Oaxaca that attract travelers looking for souvenirs along with locals picking up supplies. Find a bit of everything at Mercado Benito Juarez, or delve into the vast maze of wholesale that is Center of Abastos.

Chic revisits traditional craftsmanship in downtown boutiques. Slip into shoes embroidered with wild designs by local artisans at Zipak Na Calzado Artesanal, then browse beautifully rustic clay wares at the potters’ cooperative Collective 1050°.

San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center

(Alfredo Harp Helú Oaxaca Foundation)

Architectural highlight

Modernist glass and metal architecture animates a restored 16th-century Dominican convent at the Centro Cultural San Pablo, with changing exhibits featuring local artists.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

Mexican pesos.

What language do they speak?

Spanish.

Should I tip?

10% for good service.

What is the time difference?

Six hours behind the UK.

How should I get around?

The compact historic center is ideal for exploring on foot. For nearby excursions, private taxis are affordable and preferable to local traffic in a rental car. Public transport includes shared taxis, local buses and minibuses, and is efficient although crowded and sometimes adventurous. For long-distance travel from Oaxaca, opt for the comfort of air-conditioned commercial bus routes.

What is the best view?

Watch the sunset from the Cerro del Fortín hill overlooking the city – take a taxi downtown and watch the city buildings turn golden and glowing.

Insider tip?

don’t be discouraged chapulines, the fried grasshoppers which are a staple here. Crispy, salty and high in protein, locals know them as a deliciously crunchy and tasty snack.

Chapulines (fried grasshoppers) for sale in Oaxaca

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Getting There

Try to fly less?

Occasional freighters depart from European ports accessible by train (Le Havre, Rotterdam) to Veracruz in Mexico. From there, it’s an eight-hour bus ride to Oaxaca, via Córdoba.

Good with flying?

British Airways and Aeromexico fly to Mexico directly from the UK, from where it takes 6.5 hours by bus or 2.5 hours by flight to Oaxaca.

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