Ever since I watched the Netflix Chef’s Table episode with Enrique Olvera, featuring the vibrant food scene in Oaxaca, I knew I had to visit this dynamic, colonial city. Oaxaca (pronounced wa-hah-kah for those of you who don't know) is located 300 miles south of Mexico City and is rich in history and culture and famous for its food, textiles and copious amounts of mezcal. This city actually reminded me a little bit of Cartagena, Colombia where every house is painted in bright colors and lush plants hang from the balconies. Over the course of a long weekend we packed in a lot of sightseeing, activities and restaurants, but I could have easily stayed here for another week, eating and drinking my way through this enchanting city.
WHAT TO DO
Explore downtown: Spend an afternoon wandering through the colorful streets of Oaxaca. Start in Zócalo, the main square located directly in the historic center of town. From there you can check out Santo Domingo Cathedral, which took more than 200 years to build and is adorned with 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leaf. If you want to do a bit of shopping, stop by Baules de Juana Cata for authentic, high quality textiles including scarfs, shirts and dresses.
Mercado Juárez: My favorite thing to do in every city is to explore the markets. Mercado Juárez is an indoor market open daily and located just a block south of the Zócalo. You can find everything from fresh flowers, handmade fedoras and brightly colored textiles to edible grasshoppers, seafood and woven baskets.
Ethnobotanical Gardens: Designed by Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, the Ethnobotanical gardens opened in 1998 as an alternative to the government’s plan to develop the site into a luxury hotel and car park. The garden is a peaceful retreat in the middle of the city and is full of hundreds of flora that are native to Oaxaca.
Hierve de Agua: A few people had recommended this place when I had told them I was visiting Oaxaca and I was immediately sold after seeing photos. Hierve de Agua - literally translated to mean “boiling the water” are a series of natural hot spring infinity pools located in the middle of the desert. It’s a bit of a trek through the winding mountains, but it’s well worth it when you take in the view.
Grab a cocktail at Quinta Real: Located in the historic center of Oaxaca, this luxury hotel was originally the Convent of Santa Catalina de Siena. Built in 1576, the stunning architecture has been carefully restored and remains displayed to this day. This is the perfect place to grab a drink and relax in the beautiful courtyard nestled among floral gardens and serene fountains.
Spend an afternoon in San Pablo de Mitla: While this city is actually famous for its archeological ruins (which are also pretty cool), San Pablo de Mitla is the perfect place to stock up on some authentic and very inexpensive Mexican textiles. Located just outside of Oaxaca, the streets are lined with dozens of artisan shops and every weekend there is a large outdoor market where you can find an array of handmade products including curtains, tablecloths, blankets and clothing.
Tour a mezcal factory: If you’re interested in the history and production of mezcal (or just want an excuse to get drunk), I suggest taking a tour with seasoned professional Alvin Starkman, where you spend the day visiting a number of artisanal factories, known in Oaxaca as palenques.
Oaxaca Textile Museum: I’m usually not a huge fan of museums, but the Textile Museum in Oaxaca features two small exhibits promoting the diversification of of designs, textures, techniques and creative processes. It also has a shop downstairs with ethically handmade goods and information about the artisans who made them.
See the Widest Tree in the World: Located just outside of Oaxaca city in the village of Santa Maria, you can find Arbol del Tule. It’s one of those weird things to check off your bucket list and you don't have to be a nature lover to appreciate the grandeur of the tree. With a circumference of 42 meters, scientists believe the tree is between 1,433 and 1,600 years old.
WHERE TO EAT
El Destilado: This was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time! El Destilado is a hipsters paradise with a very cool bar featuring hand crafted mezcal cocktails. They offer a dynamic tasting menu which features between 12-15 courses, but if that’s too much for you, you can opt for a few a la carte menu items. Everything is fantastic but if you want to try really authentic cuisine, I recommend the grilled octopus, beef tongue risotto and chicken with mole.
Itanoní Antojeria y Tortilleria: This small snack bar/restaurant has been written up in tons of magazines worldwide and is famous for their handmade tortillas. They use heirloom corn varieties to make extraordinary versions of very ordinary antojitos (small tortilla-based dishes that are the heart of the Mexican menu). Grab a seat outback on the patio or stay close to the kitchen and watch the women make fresh tortillas while you dine. Don’t forget to order a side of Mexican hot chocolate to wash down all those tacos! It’s open from 7 am - 2 pm.
Pez: This place is a great lunch spot and basically specializes in one thing: fish tacos. Located right in the city center, Pez serves up super fresh, delicious dishes and at $2 per taco you can afford to go for seconds.
Pan:am: Stop by for a morning coffee or afternoon snack at this colorful courtyard cafe. Try any of their fresh made sandwiches on in-house artisan bread or one of their Nutella filled croissants with a side of hot horchata topped with cinnamon!
Fonda Florecita: If you’re looking for a true, authentic atmosphere, stop by Fonda Florecita located inside the market of La Merced at the corner of Calle Murguia and Calzada de la Republica. With so many options, the best way to decide what to order is to check out what the locals are eating at the next table. A few things to try: tlayudas, sweet bread and guava juice.
Sabina Sabe: This place has a very local feel to it with a rustic interior and exposed brick walls. Their specialty is "picas", which are small plates to share, similar to the Spanish tapas concept. With a very fun and creative cocktail menu, Sabina Sabe is also a great place to come for a drink after dinner.
Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante: With a beautiful bright blue exterior and a light filled courtyard, Casa Oaxaca is a calming and tranquil setting where guests can indulge in a true gastronomic experience. It’s pricier than most restaurants in the city but the service is impeccable and the food is outstanding. Reserve a spot on the rooftop and try the rabbit mole, tuna toast and jicama tacos.
WHERE TO STAY
Airbnbs: There are a ton of cute and very inexpensive Airbnbs in Oaxaca. Some are located directly in town like Alvaro’s studio apartment, which is convenient if you don’t have a car. For something a little further outside the city in San Sebastian Etla, check out Lucy and Sergio’s colorful and quaint Casita de Adobe.
Hotel: El Diablo y La Sandia is a colonial house with six rooms, recently restored and located just a few blocks from the zócalo. This mid-range hotel with a quirky interior design is welcomingoasis from the busy city center.