Oaxaca consistently appears on lists of Mexico’s most beautiful cities, and thanks to its well-preserved colonial architecture, there’s a strong case for it being number one. In the following Oaxaca guide, we’ll be covering the state capital’s top landmarks, from historical churches to art museums.
Oaxaca, however, is more than just the sum of its major landmarks. The city can only be fully appreciated by exploring its colorful streets, soaking up both its traditional culture and modern creative atmosphere.
The following Oaxaca guide is divided by neighborhood. Oaxaca is such a compact city, however, that the different barrios covered below are all within walking distance of one another.
For more information on reaching the city and where to stay, be sure to check the end of the article.
Some people loosely use the term ‘Centro’ to refer to both the areas around the Church of Santo Domingo and the Zócalo. But in this Oaxaca guide, we’ll be counting Santo Domingo and Centro as two separate districts. Nevertheless, they’re easily walkable from one another in about fifteen minutes.
The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán
Arguably the finest of Oaxaca’s churches, the Church of Santo Domingo is known for its baroque facade, its ceramic-covered domes and its stunning gold leaf altar.
It was named after Santo Domingo de Guzmán (1172−1221), the founder of the Dominican order. The Dominicans first arrived in Oaxaca in 1528, and the church was inaugurated in 1608 after decades of work. But the decorations wouldn’t be fully complete until 1666.
Throughout the tumultuous 19th century, the building was occupied by various rival armies, and it wasn’t until 1902 that President Porfirio Díaz would revert it to a church.
In addition to the church, the building complex also hosts Oaxaca’s flagship museum, the Museo De Las Culturas de Oaxaca. Home to many of the region’s most important historical artifacts, it was closed for years during the pandemic and was one of the last things in the city to reopen.
Fortunately, I finally managed to make it inside during a return visit to the city.
Museo De Las Culturas de Oaxaca
At the time of writing, the museum is open from 10:00-16:00 on Tuesday-Saturday, with entry costing $90 MXN. Spread across multiple floors, the exhibits cover both the pre-Hispanic and colonial periods, while the architecture itself is another highlight.
The museum’s most popular exhibit is that which showcases the findings of Tomb 7, a Mixtec tomb discovered at Monte Albán in the 20th century. It’s here that you’ll find ‘Skull with Turquoise,’ an exquisite funerary object that’s the only of its kind to have been extracted from a sealed tomb.
Other objects, meanwhile, include urns, breastplates, a rock crystal vessel, a gold mask, a gold pectoral, and codices carved in bone.
While many of the exhibits focusing on colonial art were still closed during my visit, it was still possible to explore the old monastery library, and colonial-era paintings were hanging in many of the rooms.
Furthermore, as you explore the building, you’ll get to admire things like the intricate artwork of the ceilings and altars.
It would be wise to explore the building as thoroughly as possible – not only for the architecture itself, but for the excellent views you can get from the windows and terraces.
As we’ll cover shortly, just behind the building is the Ethnobotanical Garden. But as beautiful as it is, it can’t be visited independently. And overall, the guided tours leave a lot to be desired.
While, as mentioned, the museum was closed during my initial visit, I can now confirm that the views it provides of the garden serve as an adequate substitute for taking a tour.
The Church's Surroundings
As we’ll cover shortly, the back of the Church of Santo Domingo hosts the Ethnobotanical Garden. The area in front, meanwhile, is known as the Plaza Santo Domingo, which almost acts as the city’s second Zócalo.
Furthermore, the pedestrian-only Macedonio Alcalá Tourist Corridor can be found just in front. It’s also around the church that you’ll find regular public art exhibits, artisanal markets and traditional local festivals.
That’s why I recommend most visitors base themselves near the Church of Santo Domingo rather than the main Zócalo if possible. It’s arguably the most beautiful and lively part of the city – especially during Day of the Dead.
The Ethnobotanical Garden
Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden, first established in 1998, features plants from throughout Oaxaca state, including its mountainous and coastal regions. In total, there are hundreds of different species here, though there’s a special focus on cacti.
As this space was used by the Dominican monastery for centuries, you’ll also encounter things like the remains of former water tanks, irrigation canals and ceramic ovens.
Unfortunately, the beautiful garden cannot be explored independently, and visiting as part of a tour is mandatory for all. From Monday through Saturday, Spanish language tours are given at 10:00, 11:00 and 12:00, while English tours run at 11:00. The tours last about an hour and the cost is $50 MXN per person.
The maximum number of people allowed is 25, so if there are too many visitors, you may have to wait until the next group. On the other hand, if there are too few people, the tour won’t start until enough visitors arrive.
While a guided tour is not necessarily a bad thing, this particular visiting experience leaves a lot to be desired. First of all, the staff treats attendees like children who can’t be trusted. You’ll be under constant watch and will get scolded if you’re not with the group at all times.
The only minor exception comes at the end of the tour, when guests are given a couple of minutes to pose for photos in front of the garden’s iconic wall of tall cacti.
Furthermore, the management is extremely strict about mask rules, despite the tour taking place entirely outdoors. They actually had an additional staff member acting as an observer to make sure nobody’s masks were slipping beneath their noses! To be clear, my visit took place in 2022, not 2020.
On top of that, throughout the tour, the whole group was often forced to stand directly under the hot sun as the guide droned on about seemingly every plant and species of grass within view.
Unsurprisingly, I saw several people bail early, saying that it ‘wasn’t what they expected.’ I was tempted to join them but ultimately stuck with it.
As mentioned above, rather than endure the tour, you can simply enjoy the views of the garden from the terrace of the Museo De Las Culturas de Oaxaca.
El LLano Park
Despite its compact size, Oaxaca has no shortage of public spaces where you can relax outside on a nice day. One of the largest and nicest among them is El Llano Park, situated a few blocks east of the Church of Santo Domingo.
The park is also surrounded by a few historical churches of its own, including Iglesia de Guadalupe, consecrated in 1650.
El Llano, formerly used as a zoo, now commonly hosts local events and festivals. Its main landmark is a statue of former president Benito Juárez (more below) erected in 1894.
Museo de Sitio Casa Juárez
Even for those without much knowledge of Mexican history, it doesn’t take long to notice that there’s one particular historical figure revered in Oaxaca above all the rest: Benito Juárez.
Murals, monuments and statues dedicated to the former president can be seen just about everywhere, while the city’s official name is now Oaxaca de Juárez.
Benito Juárez (1806-1872) was an ethnic Zapotec who would become Mexico’s first indigenous president. Orphaned as a child and raised by his uncle, he moved to Oaxaca city at age 12, where he attended a seminary school and studied law, among other subjects.
He would later serve as a judge and become active in liberal politics. After serving as President of the Supreme Court, he eventually became president of Mexico in 1857.
Throughout his eventful political career, he supported various reforms which limited the church’s power and gave more rights to the individual. And to this day, he remains one of the country’s most revered public figures.
As for this house museum? It’s not where Juárez himself lived, but where he worked as a domestic servant during his early days in the city. The owner of the house was a bookbinder named Antonio Salanueva.
While not the most riveting attraction in this Oaxaca guide – especially for non-Mexicans – it is at least a nice look at a 19th-century Oaxaca home. (Tue.-Sun., 10:00-19:00)
More Santo Domingo Museums
There are numerous other museums to check out in the Santo Domingo area that will delight fans of modern art. Just nearby the church is the Oaxaca Graphic Arts Institute. While not actually a museum, it features a large public art library within a historic building.
On the quirkier side is the Museo de la Filatelia, entirely dedicated to stamps from around the world (open daily from 11:00-18:00). Photography fans may want to check out the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo, dedicated to the legendary Mexican photographer (Tue.-Sun., 9:30-19:00).
In this section, we’ll be covering the attractions at and nearby Oaxaca’s Zócalo, a general area that’s commonly just referred to as Centro.
The Zócalo is Oaxaca’s central square and is accordingly surrounded by important architecture, street vendors and lively restaurants. Officially known as the Plaza de la Constitución, it was constructed in 1529 to serve as the center point of the new colonial city.
The main highlight here is the Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca, established in 1535. But it wasn’t actually consecrated until 1733. (It technically faces another neighboring plaza called Alameda de León.)
Built in the baroque style, it was constructed with especially thick walls to help it withstand earthquakes. Nevertheless, it would succumb to a few in the 16th and 18th centuries, and then again in 1931.
Like many zócalos throughout Mexico, at the edge of the square stands the Palacio de Gobierno, or the seat of the local government.
While Oaxaca’s Zócalo is indeed a must-visit and a nice place to spend some time, it has a bit of a dark side. As you’ll notice, a large portion has been occupied by tents belonging to protestors, seemingly from a local teachers’ union. Apparently, this has been going on for years.
It’s puzzling that the demonstration has been tolerated for so long, though locals seem so used to it that they hardly give it a glance. The presence of the ugly tents here is another reason why I prefer the Santo Domingo area overall.
Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Soledad
Also within the Centro area is a beautiful but largely overlooked (by foreign tourists, at least) historical church called Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Soledad.
Built between 1682 and 1690, it’s dedicated to Our Lady of Solitude, a form of Mary who acts as the patron deity of the city.
It was designed in the baroque style in a manner similar to the other churches mentioned above, and is laid out in the shape of a cross. The current interior, meanwhile, dates from the late 19th century.
The area around the Zócalo is home to a number of Oaxaca’s most significant museums. But a few of the major ones, such as the Museo de Arte Prehispánico and the Contemporary Art Museum, were closed at the time of my visit and still are at the time of writing.
Museums that you can currently check out include the Museo de Los Pintores Oaxaqueños, a modern art museum that showcases local artists (Tue.-Sun., 10:00-18:00, cost is donation based).
Nearby is the Museo de Textil de Oaxaca, entirely dedicated to local textiles, albeit with a number of modernist creations on display. While nice, it can’t quite compare with the Textile Museum in San Cristóbal de las Casas (open daily, 11:00-18:00).
Jalatlaco & Xochimilco
The Jalatlaco neighborhood, situated just east of Santo Domingo, is yet another historical district of Oaxaca, but also one of its trendiest. This is arguably the best neighborhood in Oaxaca (and one of the best in the entire country) to see colorful street art.
Oaxaca’s street art is so amazing, in fact, that we have an entire guide to it that showcases many more photos of the Jalatlaco neighborhood.
Street art aside, the district’s prominent landmark is the Church of San Matías Jalatlaco, built between 1669-1700. While considerably smaller than the other churches in the Oaxaca guide above, it’s equally as charming.
Jalatlaco is becoming one of the most popular places for visitors to stay in Oaxaca, and it’s easy to see why.
Xochimilco, located north of Santo Domingo on the other side of Highway 190, is yet another barrio that’s both historic and artsy. In fact, Xochimilco could be considered Oaxaca’s oldest neighborhood.
While the Zapotecs and Mixtecs had long inhabited Oaxaca state, establishing cities like Monte Albán and Mitla, Xochimilco was first settled in the 15th century by Aztec conquerors who came to Oaxaca from the north.
Today, the neighborhood’s most notable landmark is its aqueduct, built by the Spanish between 1727 and 1751. While no longer in use, it remains a symbol of the city.
Xochimilco is yet another place to check out high-quality public murals, which we cover in-depth in our dedicated guide to Oaxaca street art.
The Tree of Tule
Taking a break from soaking up the atmosphere of central Oaxaca, just under 10 km from town is a natural anomaly that visitors shouldn’t miss.
In the suburb of Tule is the aptly named ‘Tree of Tule,’ one of the region’s top attractions. If you’re wondering why one would go out of their way see a tree, it’s because this one just happens to be the widest tree in the entire world!
The tree has a circumference of 52 m, though due to its uneven shape, it’s difficult to accurately measure. While some have speculated that what we see is multiple trees that have conjoined together, studies have confirmed that it is indeed a single tree.
The tree is of the Montezuma cypress species and according to both local legend and science, it’s estimated to be thousands of years old. Locals say that it was planted by a Zapotec priest at least 1,400 years ago during the heyday of Monte Albán.
Nowadays, the tree is surrounded by a park, while a church has been built just nearby. To enter the fenced area, you’ll have to buy a ticket for $20 MXN. Given the Tree of Tule’s popularity, you’ll find plenty of food stalls and souvenir stands around the area as well.
GETTING THERE: If you’re staying in the Santo Domingo or Jalatlaco neighborhoods, you can find shared colectivo taxis for Tule at a bus stop to the east of the baseball stadium. This is the exact same spot from which you can catch rides to Mitla, though you should look for maroon-colored cars with Tule written on them.
If you’re staying closer to the Zócalo, you should be able to find transport to Tule from the Central de Abastos Bus Station in the southwest portion of the city. Though I only used it once, it seems more like an outdoor area where numerous buses park instead of a proper bus station.
You could also just take a tour like this one, which includes a visit to the nearby ruins of Mitla.
While I’m not a foodie traveler who visits places just for their food, many people are. And if you’re especially interested in the local food culture, there are plenty of food tours you can take during your visit.
One of Oaxaca’s trademark dishes is the tlayuda, which consists of ingredients like cheese, beans and other options like pork, placed over a spread tortilla or within one that’s been folded over. These tortillas are often crispy.
A single tlayuda is often large enough to constitute a full meal, and you’ll be able to try a wide variety of tlayudas all over town.
In total, I’ve stayed in Oaxaca for over two months and tried countless tlayudas. To be honest, I don’t quite get the hype, as I found many of them to be quite bland. But I kept trying them to see if there was something I might be missing! For what it’s worth, the best tlayuda I had in Oaxaca was at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre in the south part of town.
Another Oaxaca trademark is mole, a traditional type of red sauce that’s often served over chicken.
If you’re on a budget, Oaxaca also has some of the cheapest all-you-can-eat buffets I’ve ever encountered. You’ll find a couple of restaurants on Av Jose Maria Morelos where you can stuff yourself for as little as 70 pesos. I found the food to be of high quality considering the price.
Another place I enjoyed was the organic market called The Harvest in the Santo Domingo neighborhood, where you’ll find a wide variety of traditional food stands.
Oaxaca is also famous for an alcoholic beverage known as mezcal. I’m not a very big drinker these days and just tried it once for the experience. But if you’re into mezcal, there are plenty of ‘mezcalerias’ all over town, while there are lots of tours that can take you to well-known mezcal distilleries in the Oaxaca countryside like this one.
As mentioned in the Oaxaca guide above, the state capital is not a very large city, and as long as you’re staying relatively central, you can easily get around on foot. Many look for accommodation near the central square, or Zócalo, which is indeed a good location. Popular hotels here include Hotel Casona Oaxaca and La Catrina del Alcala.
If you can, an even more ideal location than the Zócalo would be a bit further north near the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán or El Llano park. While still very central, I consider this to be a nicer area than that of the Zócalo, (Oaxaca is so compact, though, that the two areas are just 15 minutes apart on foot.)
A popular affordable hotel around here is Posada Don Mario.
Alternatively, the neighborhoods of Xochimilco and Jalatlaco are very popular places to stay and are within walking distance of the historical center. A highly-rated hotel in Xochimilco is Hotel Fortin Plaza, and in Jalatlaco, Hotel Cazomalli Oaxaca.
Further north, Reforma is another popular district. Mision de Los Angeles would offer easy access to all of the city’s main areas.
Oaxaca is the capital of the state of the same name, and the city (officially known as Oaxaca de Juárez) is easily one of Mexico’s most popular tourism destinations.
With that being said, the city is relatively isolated geographically. While numerous bus routes exist, it will likely be a long journey no matter which direction you’re coming from.
ADO and its associated companies run direct buses from Mexico City (both TAPO and Norte stations) which last 6-7 hours. Direct buses from Puebla’s CAPU, meanwhile, take about 5 hours.
For those coming from the east, you can catch a direct OCC bus from San Cristóbal de las Casas. The ride last around 10 hours and most of the routes are night buses. You can also ride directly from Comitán, Chiapas, which takes 12-13 hours.
For those coming from Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, the journey is not a quick or easy one either. Coach buses from Huatulco take no less than 9 hours, while buses from Puerto Escondido (via Huatulco) take more than 11!
While there is a more direct minivan route from Puerto Escondido which lasts 6-7 hours, it’s not for the faint of heart. Even those not normally prone to motion sickness often find themselves regretting the nausea-inducing journey through mountainous roads. Fortunately, a new highway is being worked on, but it’s not yet ready at the time of writing.
If you’re not into long bus rides, you can simply fly. The Xoxocotlán International Airport has direct flights from cities throughout the country, along with a few from the US (Houston, Dallas and LA).