Forget the margarita-soaked Mexican beaches of Cancun and Acapulco—if you look inland, you’ll find a city so wonderful it’s deemed magical (“Pueblos Magicos”) by the Mexican government: Oaxaca.
It lies about six hours southeast of Mexico City, and boasts a unique mix of natural beauty, architecture, culture, historical relevance, cuisine, and hospitality. Oaxaca doesn’t disappoint on any front.
The colonial city was once a market town, and you can still get lost for hours admiring the colorful handicrafts in cheap markets all over the city. But you can also explore pre-Columbian ruins and baroque churches, dine out at incredible restaurants and nosh on chapulines (fried grasshoppers), and, of course, get drunk on mezcal sourced from the surrounding mountains—all in a four-day weekend.
Whatever you do, make sure you come to Oaxaca with your appetite: This city is known as the mecca for Mexican cuisine (and we’re not talking about the kind of Mexican cuisine you order off Seamless). If you follow this Thursday night through Sunday night itinerary, it’ll turn everything you think you know about Mexico on its head.
Where to Stay
Oaxaca City’s rich history carries over to its hotel culture. You can just as easily stay in a former convent (Quinta Real) as you can a 19th-century colonial mansion (Casa de Sierra Azul). If you can score one of its seven rooms, Casa Oaxaca is consistently ranked one of the top hotels in the city thanks to the staff’s impeccable service. Hospitality is also tantamount at El Diablo y La Sandia, two quirky boutique hotels rolled into one property and run by a mother-daughter duo. And Hotel Azul has been turned from a derelict building into a design hotel with stunning views over Oaxaca from the rooftop terrace.
All of these hotels are within walking distance of central Oaxaca, where the majority of the tourist sites are located—and walking is definitely the best way to get around.
Thursday: A Taste of True Mexican Cuisine
Evening: Even if you’re not staying at the hotel Casa Oaxaca, make a reservation ahead of time for Casa Oaxaca the restaurant—the OG spot for haute cuisine. The menu features seasonal ingredients from the state of Oaxaca’s eight regions; the cuisine is seasoned with an aromatic mix of Mediterranean and Oaxacan herbs. Linger over mole negro with guajolote, rice with chepil and fried bananas, or a rack of lamb with red chichil, chayotes, and ejotes.
Friday: Dive into Mole and Mezcal
Morning: It makes sense to start your visit at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, housed in a 16th-century former monastery. Spend a couple hours tracing the history of Oaxacan civilization, all the way from the 14th century (seeing treasures excavated from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán—Oaxaca’s most important archeological site—is a highlight) to present day. After, stroll through the lush Jardín Etnobotánico next door and the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, which opened its doors in 1608 but was turned into military barracks in 1866.
Afternoon: In a city that’s known as “The Land of the Seven Moles,” you can’t go home without taking a cooking class. At El Sabor Zapoteco, chef and instructor Reyna (who’s worked with Top Chef Master Rick Bayless) will lead you through several hours of cooking traditional Zapotec dishes, from tortillas to, yes, mole.
Evening: Before dinner, head out for a mezcal tasting. Mezcalerias are all over the city, but try to make your way to Del Maguey—it’ll cost you, but damn is it smooth. Mezcaloteca is a reservations-only tasting room, offering three exclusive blends. Tucked in a tiny, upstairs bar is another (probably the most famous) mezcaleria, In Situ Mezcaleria, which offers 180 artisanal Oaxacan mezcals. La Porfiria, on the other hand, is newer on the scene and offers mezcal shots served with chapulines (fried grasshoppers, remember? It’s a thing here.).
Soak up all that alcohol with some high-end local food to end the night. You may have seen chef Enrique Olvera, a Mexico City native, on Netflix’s second season of Chef’s Table. In addition to his two restaurants on the World’s 100 Best list, he opened Criollo last year, serving up a seven-course tasting menu (and then some) featuring local and seasonal ingredients in a courtyard dining room. Considering his status as one of the great chefs of the world, you’ll definitely want to snag a reservation.
Saturday: Step Back in Time
Morning and afternoon: Grab a car for the 25-minute drive out to Monte Albán, a pre-Columbian city that was inhabited for 14 centuries. The indigenous Oaxacan civilization never assimilated into Aztec or Mayan rule; instead, Monte Albán was home to Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs over the years. It’s considered a Zapotec archeological site—that civilization lived there from 500 B.C to 850 A.D. before eventually abandoning it.
Monte Albán is now a UNESCO site. Spend some time wandering around the astronomically aligned pyramids, terraces, dams, and canals still visible—there’s clearly thoughtful city planning at work. On the way home, it’s worth stopping by Mitla, which was settled from 100 to 1521 A.D. and is considered Oaxaca’s second-most-important site, to see its elaborately carved walls.
Afternoon: Take a late lunch at Cabuche, a tiny, festive restaurant serving up street food staples; you have to try the pozole. Then, seek out a temazcal (Casa Oaxaca has one if you’re staying there, or head to Ceviarem Temazcal). Essentially a sweat lodge, temazcal is a Zapotec ritual complete with shamans chanting and bunches of basil used to smack out toxins. You’ll leave feeling thoroughly refreshed after a day in the sun.
Evening: Sit down for dinner at Mesón Jalatlaco, a two-in-one restaurant with half the space specializing in seafood and the other in smoked meats. And guess what: There’s more to do at night than drink mezcal (although you can do that again, too). Head for cocktails at the artsy Casa Estanbul (fun fact: This house was a gentleman’s club in the 1920s), or beers at Txalaparta Hookah Bar, which often features live sets from Mexican DJs. At La Tentación, you can order a triton (5 liters) of beer, and La Santísima Flor de Lúpulo has the honor of being the city’s favorite nano-brewery (it’s seriously tiny).
Sunday: Brave the Mercados
Morning: Oaxaca is slow to wake up on Sundays, so sleep in, then brunch hard outside at San Pablo Restaurante, which serves incredible huitlacoche-filled crêpes. It’s also located within the San Pablo Cultural Center, a 16th-century Dominican monastery worth exploring after you’re sated. If you’re not in the mood for a leisurely meal, indulge in cuernos (sweet bread filled with chocolate, apple and cinnamon) or chilaquiles at PAN:AM, arguably the best bakery in the city (the lines prove it).
Afternoon: It’s time to head to the markets. Mercado Benito Juárez is the most popular one, housing a maze of stalls that sell everything from folkloric fabrics to pre-prepared mole powders. Adjacent, you’ll find Mercado 20 de Noviembre, where the goods lean more towards artisanal, with hand-crafted huaraches (leather sandals) and elaborately embroidered blouses ringing up at unfortunately touristy prices. Mercado la Merced has too many food stalls to count, and vendors at Voces de Copal for Alberijes are known for their carved spirit animals whose design is native to Oaxaca. The state of Oaxaca is the most diverse and indigenous region of Mexico—17 languages including Spanish are still spoken, and you’ll hear many of them in these markets.
Evening: Tuck into one final Oaxacan meal at Origen, where chef Rodolfo Castellanos prepares dishes with local ingredients, like a sweetbread sope topped with fresh squash blossoms, roast duck breast with mixtec wheat and red pepper, and, of course, chicken with mole. Oaxaca is also known for its spicy hot chocolate, so track down champurrado (hot chocolate mixed with corn flour and spices) before you go home and toast to a trip well done.