Oaxaca has something for everyone. The state has the most biodiversity and cultural diversity of all the Mexican states and there is a full range of activities, which I break down into 4 main groups: History, Arts, Food and Drink, and Nature. A great source of information about what is going on around the city on any given day is Qué Pasa Oaxaca.
Articles about Activities
Oaxaca City top 5
These are the top 5 things that I recommend everyone do if you have time. The first 2 are classic tourist sites, and the other 3 are just recommendations for getting a feel for the city and surrounding area, as we see it at least.
1. Monte Albán
This is an important ruins site in Mexico and Oaxaca City spreads out below it. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are many ways to get there (tour, shuttle bus, taxi, etc.), and even if you are not into Zapotec history or looking at ruins, the view from up there is amazing. Oaxaca sits where 3 valleys meet and you can see very far down all 3 of them from Monte Albán. There is also a little cafe that serves drinks and lunch, with a nice view.
2. Botanical Garden tour (Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca)
I love gardens, but I wouldn’t normally suggest a garden tour. The botanical garden is attached to the back of Santo Domingo and used to be part of the monastery that now houses the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. This garden tour is worth doing because you aren’t just learning about some plants, but you get some history of the city and learn about how the most important plants were and are used. They form an important part of Oaxacan history. You can only access the garden with a tour, which lasts 2 hours and gives you a ton of context about Oaxaca.
There are a number of permanent markets in the city, where most people do their regular shopping. The largest market in Oaxaca is Central de Abastos, which is out on the west side of the city. It’s big day is Saturday, though there is always something going on there. It’s huge and fascinating. The central markets that are just by the zócalo are Mercado Benito Juárez, where you can buy all kinds of products, and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which is an eating market with lots of fondas you can sit and eat at, along with the bread market. There are smaller, more neighborhood-sized markets like Mercado Sánchez Pascuas (also called Carmen Alto), which is to the north, and Mercado de la Merced, which is to the east. These markets are a little less overwhelming while still giving you a good feel for what the markets have to offer. You can also get a nice tour of a market with most cooking classes that are offered. In addition to the regular markets, there are also tianguis, or periodic markets that occur on specific days in different towns. The markets at Tlocolula (Sunday), Etla (Wednesday), and Ocotlán (Friday) are particularly popular.
4. Spend time on the Zócalo
Every Mexican town, no matter the size, has a zócalo, or town square. Find your way over there and do some people watching. The evenings and weekends are particularly fun. You can park yourself at one of the many restaurants that ring it or just wander around and grab a bench. In the evenings you can grab some street food, from hamburgers to corn (esquites and elotes) and watch the kids playing. Sometimes on weekends there may also be a concert or some other interesting activity on the square. All times of day there will be musicians playing for the restaurant patrons, as well as a wealth of hawkers selling all kinds of wares.
5. Get out of the city
It’s always great to get some perspective on a city by getting out of it and into a smaller town or natural area nearby. Oaxaca provides a bunch of opportunities for this, either through the many tours offered or on your own. One of the easiest trips to make is to go to the nearby town of Tule (Santa Maria del Tule). It’s a cute little town with a landmark in the Tule Tree, which is the largest tree (by girth) in the world. It’s about a 30-minute drive to the east of Oaxaca City. Take a look at a category of activity that you’re interested in and see what kinds of things are happening outside the city proper and experience more of Oaxaca.