Oaxaca has the bluster and range of a sizeable city, which it is. Even the historic downtown (only a fraction of the urban area) shows considerable diversity, from swank European-style cafes to stately squares to blaring market districts.
Day 1: Ramble Oaxaca
Oaxaca is an excellent city for leisurely rambling, and if you’ve just flown in, we recommend a day to get in tune with the city’s laidback yet elegant vibe. Drink espresso or fresh-squeezed orange juice in the shady zócalo (plaza), hit the market food stalls in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre for lunch, and shop for rugs, shoes, hand-embroidered clothing, folk art, or local delicacies at the Mercado Benito Juárez. For dinner decide between tacos at a zócalo stand or fine dining at one of the many high-end restaurants that offer traditional Oaxacan cuisine such as mole negro or squash blossom soup.
Day 2: Historical Oaxaca
Spend the morning exploring the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán (located high on a hill above the city), and then get a feel for post-conquest history by visiting a few of the capital’s many cathedrals and museums. We recommend the Basilica Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, dedicated to Our Lady of Solitude, the patron saint of Oaxaca. The decor inside is over-the-top lavish, and a small attached museum is full of odd artifacts collected during the church’s 300+ year history. For a true Oaxaca experience, stop at one of the ice cream stalls clustered in the nearby square—the vendors are famous for their local flavors such as mezcal and tuna (cactus fruit). And no visit to Oaxaca is complete without learning a little bit about the city’s most famous son, Benito Juárez, whose rise from poor Zapotec orphan to president of Mexico is only rivaled in panache by his dramatic legacy of reform. To get in the know, visit the Museo Casa de Juárez, which contains relics from the man’s early days and will also give you a glimpse of day-to-day life in 19th century Oaxaca.
Day 3: Road Trip
Drive 13 km east of Oaxaca (if you don’t have a car, catch a colectivo, or group taxi) along highway 190. Stop in Santa María del Tule to see the giant and ancient Árbol del Tule, which is somewhere between 2000 and 3000 years old. Proceed next to the Mitla, where you can explore ancient Zapotec ruins and lunch at an authentic comedor (eatery). From Mitla you can catch another colectivo to Hierve el Agua, site of thermal springs, ancient irrigation canals, and a dramatic “petrified waterfall.” After such a busy day, you may be in need of more refreshment. Luckily, the winding road back to Oaxaca is peppered with tiny, traditional mescal distilleries—stop in to taste Oaxaca’s famous agave liquor straight from the barrel and get a mini tour of the facilities, which typically feature old-fashioned copper stills and burro-powered grinding wheels.