Oaxaca is on the tip of every wanderluster's tongue these days. Far from the beaten paths of Cabo and a departure from beloved Tulum, Oaxaca promises something of Mexico many of us haven't quite tasted yet. Authenticity feels like the word.
You don't need to remember the seven regions of Oaxaca or speak one of its 57 indigenous languages; you can easily appreciate its 1,500-year history in the Zapotec pyramids, the agave-studded desert, the otherworldly mineral springs, and the gilded cathedrals that provide the backdrop for its vibrant culture.
Here you'll find artisan villages packed with maker families going back generations as well as modern art galleries; you'll taste heirloom masa and sample the menus of master chefs. National Geographic designated the colonial city in southwestern Mexico as one of the top places to travel in 2018 and, as soon as you walk down its cobblestone streets, you'll understand why.
Things to Do in Oaxaca
Meet the makers: Oaxaca is surrounded by many villages known for their beautiful handicrafts. Perhaps none are so vibrant as Teotitlán del Valle, famous for its handwoven textiles patterned with all natural dyes. See the whole process, and take home something special. // lonelyplanet.com
Mingle with the people: There's always something going on at Zócalo, a public park and plaza that hosts political protests, outdoor concerts, religious processions, and art festivals. A perfect place to eat street food and people-watch. // pps.org
Learn the history: Located inside the beautiful former convent of Santo Domingo, Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca is your go-to for a crash course in Oaxacan cultural and historic history. Guided tours are available in English. // Closed Mondays; inah.gob.mx/es/
Get the shot: About a two-hour drive outside Oaxaca's historic city center, Hierve El Agua is the site of natural mineral springs and calcified waterfalls that will take your breath away. // instagram.com/explore
Necessary ruin: The ancient and expansive ruins of Monte Albán mark what was once the political hub of the region. Book a guided tour, and be sure to bring your camera and a hat. ABOUT 60 PESOS // whc.unesco.org
Shop till you drop: La Casa de las Artesanias is the perfect place to stock up on souvenirs and gifts, with a dozen or so rooms filled with brightly colored folk art, pottery, wool rugs, woven bags, leather goods and more—all made by artisans in nearby villages and offered at reasonable prices. // casadelasartesanias.mx
Get thee to church: You can't miss Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the stunning baroque cathedral with an intricately carved exterior and interiors and painted and gilt to the hilt. // things-to-do-in-oaxaca.mx
See all the cacti: Located in the former convent behind Santo Domingo, Jardín Etnobotánico is a massive botanical garden WHICH houses thousands of native plants, from heirloom crops to cacti. Admission is granted as part of a two-hour tour. // bgci.org
Just try to hug the world's stoutest tree: Located in the town of Santa María del Tule, about 30 minutes outside Oaxaca, El Árbol del Tule, a Montezuma Cypress tree estimated to be 1,500 years old, is the world's fattest tree at 140 feet in circumference (and still growing!). It shares grounds with an old church—not that you can see that.
Eat + Drink in Oaxaca
Breakfast like a champ: Boulenc Pan is like the Tartine of Oaxaca—the artisan bakery turns out fluffy croissants and loaf after loaf of the best bread you'll have in Mexico. // soypapa00.wixsite.com/boulenc
Eat your traditions: Casa Oaxaca is the area's original white tablecloth joint, and it is still booked every night. Fresh salsa is made at your table, as is the trademark stone soup. Try something out of the ordinary, like black molé, duck tacos, rabbit tea, or steak fillet with grasshopper sauce. // casaoaxacaelrestaurante.com
Roof it: At El Destilado, a trendy restaurant and bar owned by "gringos" from California, you can have a high-caliber culinary experience. If you're not ready to commit to a 1,400-peso tasting menu, check out the rooftop taqueria. // eldestilado.com
All the masa: Beloved by visiting chefs, Itanoni is where the masa is. Large comales turn out fresh, hot heirloom tortillas; also order tamales, memelas, enmoladas, quesadillas, tetelas, and more. // yelp.com
Splurge on the tasting menu: Feast on sophisticated interpretations of traditional dishes, such as suckling pig tacos or wild boar Coloradito, with Pitiona's six- and nine-course tasting menus. Beverage pairings are optional. // pitiona.com
Drink at the source: Mezcal is to Oaxaca as wine is to Napa Valley. With Mezcal Educational Tours, you'll see fields and fields of cultivated agave and visit the local palenques (distilleries). Guide Alvin Starkman, a longtime resident of Oaxaca and an expert in mezcal, offers personalized treks through the hills of Oaxaca and the process of making its signature, intoxicating drink. // mezcaleducationaltours.com
Find hipster coffee: Cafébre is the place for single origin pour overs, almond milk cappuccinos, and avocado toast, not to mention free WiFi, funky decor, and courtyard seating. // facebook.com/Cafebre.Oax
Next level mezcal tastings: A swanky tasting room or "library" as the name suggests, Mezcaloteca is a reservation-recommended institution dedicated to teaching you all you need to know about enjoying the finer side of mezcal. // mezcaloteca.com
Mezcal with friends: A favorite among locals as well as tourists, the rooftop at La Mezcalerita is open all day, serving pitchers of pulque (a beverage made from the fermented sap of a maguey plant), inexpensive cocktails, a long list of mezcals, and simple snacks. // facebook.com/lamezcalerita
Where to Stay in Oaxaca
Downtown colonial: Quinta Real is centrally located among the corridors of a 16th century Dominican convent and features straightforward suites, an elegant restaurant, a courtyard pool, and lush gardens. For an added taste of Oaxacan culture, this boutique hotel offers Friday night buffets of traditional fare along with time-honored dances from Oaxaca's seven regions. // Starting at $160 USD; quintareal.com
Spa on: Hotel Hacienda Los Laureles is your destination if it's a traditional temazcal (sweat lodge) you seek. The spa here also offers aromatherapy massage and a solar-heated jacuzzi. Rooms are pretty and bright; there are also onsite cooking classes, and horse trails and a golf course nearby. // Starting around $150 USD; haciendaloslaureles.com
In modern fashion: Lovers of Mexican culture and modern luxury will feel right at home at Hotel Los Amantes. The two-story colonial structure offers comfortable rooms, an in-house art collection, and a spacious terrace with panoramic views of Santo Domingo and its historic surroundings. Rent a bike from the front desk to see the city from a new perspective. // Starting at $175 USD; hotellosamantes.com
Quirky cool: The family-owned B&B El Diablo y La Sandia steers slightly south of conventional and offers hearty meals and warm hospitality within the adobe walls of a renovated colonial home. Colorful rooms are decorated with regional handicrafts and have patio views; indoor and outdoor community spaces offer ample room for sipping hot chocolate or finishing postcards. // Starting at $70 USD; eldiabloylasandia.com
This article has been updated since it was originally published in 2018.