luna guide: oaxaca city, mexico

Oaxaca City is so beautiful. Alongside the physical beauty–of bountiful blue skies and bougainvilleas, cobblestones and colonial buildings–there is a strong indigenous presence in the city’s culture and people. Then add in the stellar street food and markets, tacos and tlayudas–and Oaxaca takes it another level.

I stayed in Oaxaca for a month to visit friends and study Spanish. Even though I was there for a while, I didn’t get to some of the most popular tourist spots, like the ruins of Monte Alban or the petrified waterfall Hierve del Agua–opting for museums and wandering around the city and writing this guide in cute cafes, instead.

Whether you’re in Oaxaca to study Spanish, do an artist’s residency, hang out, or just to check it out for a couple of days, this list has some great recommendations and tips for you.

Note: if you are interested in studying Spanish, I can recommend the school Ollin Tlahtoalli. The teachers are engaged and knowledgable about Oaxaca. You can study for as little as a week, or extend to a month as I did. The teachers cater to your level and interests–if you’re lucky, your teacher will take you out on excursions to museums and markets. If you’d rather stay in, they offer classrooms and a cafe on-site, too. The price depends on whether you take private or group classes. In my case, they hovered around 160 pesos–9 or 10 USD–an hour for very small group classes.

Jump to: where to stayrestaurantsstreet foodcafes and places to workmuseumsshoppingtransportation and getting in/out

Where to stay:

The area I stayed in is called Xochimilcho, which I LOVED. It’s just north of the main city center, so it’s less touristy while remaining in comfortable walking distance. The neighborhood runs alongside some (very dry) aqueducts and shines with the same colorful buildings that you’ll find in the Centro, cool street art, and many of my favorite restaurants and cafes.

If you are in Oaxaca for a short time, you may want to stay in the Centro district for convenience, as almost all the museums and tourist attractions are located. There is also Jalatlaco to the East, which I didn’t get to check out that much but appears similarly cobblestoned and colorful.

I ended up finding a place I liked on Airbnb and arranging to stay with them for a month. If I were looking for a cheap option, I’d probably opt for the hostel Azul Cielo. For something a bit nicer, I’d look for a place with a pool to cool off in, such as Hotel De La Parra.

Restaurants:

I’ve separated my food recommendations into two parts: sit down restaurants here and street food in the next section. In Oaxaca, my food intake was split pretty evenly between the two (with some welcome home-cooked meals at my friend’s house too). There would some days, though, where two out of three meals consisted of street tacos–which is great for your mouth and your wallet!

Chepiche – beautiful morning spot in a tree-filled courtyard in Xochimilcho. They have great options for every kind of brunch person: there’s pancakes with tropical fruit, challah french toast, and avocado toast with salad. For the heartier breakfast fans, there’s about five or six Mexican brunch options, from chilaquiles to huevos rancheros. Gets rightfully busy, even on weekdays. Pictured below (top right).

Ancestral Cocina Tradicional – only ate here once, but it’s a great spot to go for lunch or dinner. Also located in a lovely shady courtyard in Xochimilcho, not far from Chepiche. They offer, as the name suggests, very traditional Oaxacan foods, done very well. The kind of spot to take your mom and dad for dinner. Pictured below (left).

Marisqueria Neptuno – this is a little seafood spot tucked away by Jardí Conzatti. It has a traditional Mexican vibe, with waiters in white shirts and prompt service. I really liked their tostadas, which aren’t the cheapest ever but offered a huge portion of juicy shrimp. A great find for a city that’s not known for its seafood. Pictured below (bottom right).

Calabacitas Tiernas – for the vegetarians and vegans, and everyone else who wants to eat more vegetables in Oaxaca. Located to the northwest of the city center. Their menu offers light salads and soups, yummy juices, and dishes you can’t find elsewhere like veggie green curry and a falafel plate. This cafe also contains a cool bookstore (more on that below!) and a small health food store.

La Popular – buzzy yet casual spot for a light Mexican lunch, or dinner and drinks with friends. Think tostadas, tacos, and mezcal margaritas. Two locations on the same street, conveniently located in the center near all the attractions.

Ramen-Ya – hip spot with good ramen and Asian starters in a minimalistic open courtyard (nice courtyards are a thing in Oaxaca, for sure). Perfect if you are staying in Mexico a bit longer and start craving Asian food. The prices are higher than, say, a casual lunch spot, but still pretty on par with the other restaurants listed here.

Boulenc – this spot is famous for their baked goods (bakery is next door), pizza, and cocktails in–you guessed it–a cool multi-level courtyard. It has more of a hip, industrial vibe than other spots in Oaxaca. I actually only had drinks there and never tried the food, but I will next time! You can expect a wait here during busy times.

Street food:

I complied all the spots below into a Google Maps list – found here – for easier navigation and food-finding purposes :)

Tortas La Hormiga – this busy truck can be found on the southeast corner of Jardín Conzatti. They’re a very popular stand for good reason. You can get a torta (a Mexican sandwich on light crusty bread) with a choice of filling and load up on the omnipresent condiments of pickled carrots, cauliflower, and jalapeños for under 30 pesos, all day.

Taquería Las Cazuelas – my friends really hyped up this place before I went and it lived up to all my expectations! They are some of my favorite tacos I’ve ever had. Their specialty is tacos cooked in cazuelas, which appear to be a certain kind of ceramic vessel–you can expect an assortment of soupy and stewy tacos. To find them: look for the white stands directly across from the ADO bus station. They’re the second stand from the right.

Tacos y Consomé – I kept walking by this guy on the corner of Calle Reforma and noticing how good it smelled! Stopped to check it out one day for lunch, and yes, it’s good. He sells juicy barbacoa tacos and small bowls of consomé topped with onions and chilis and lime to enjoy on street-side plastic stools.

Elotes y Esquites in Parque El Llano – this lady sets up most evenings in El Llano, the main park in Oaxaca, to sell elotes and esquites. You’ll be able to spot her with the line that quickly forms! Unlike some other stands, her corn is fresh and flavorful. The esquites are like a slightly spicy, tangy corn soup in a cup.

Other things – there are a couple places I haven’t tried yet that are really popular and look good. I put them on the map, too–Lechoncito de Oro for nighttime pork tacos, and Memelas San Agustin for Oaxacan lunch options. There’s also fresh cut fruit with chili salt to be found all over the place–my favorite one is outside the CFE ATM on Calle Reforma.

Cafes and places to work:

The cafe scene in Oaxaca is pretty great. There are cafes all over the place so its not hard to find your favorite spot.

A few things I loved–almost all cafes here offer Mexican chocolate in addition to coffee. This is typically a lightly sweetened cacao drink mixed with water or milk–great for when you are already caffeinated but want something warm to drink! Second, almost all the cafes have coconut, almond, or soy milk (leche de coco, almendra, o soja in Spanish). And lastly–I love how the cafes in Oaxaca are open all day. Some are even busy into the evening.

Filémon – with tattooed baristas and fixies parked out the door, this cafe in Xochimilco may leave you wondering if you’ve left Bushwick or Brunswick after all. This became my go-to spot for getting a good coffee or chocolate and hanging out or writing. The wifi is good, there’s places to plug in, and the lovely people working there make you feel like a regular in no time!

Oaxaca en una taza – ‘Oaxaca in a cup’ is a cute spot in the Centro, conveniently located by the tourist hotspots and the main church. They have ample outlets and decent wifi, it’s cool inside, and–important–there are good croissants.

Mondo Café – decent coffee and good apple pies (pay de manzana in Spanish) in a bright little spot. I liked the friendly vibe, the staff tends to play good music, and the wifi is fast–for the laptop crowd, though, there’s only one spot with a plug.

Cafébre – this place offers pourovers, Aeropress, cold brew, and the usual espresso drinks. It’s not my favorite place to work as it gets very hot in the day, but it’s a good spot in the Centro to get a coffee.

San Pablo Cultural Center – if you want to really get stuff done, while absorbing some culture, architecture, and quiet vibes at the same time–this is the place. This is a large-ish center that falls between categories, as it contains a library, art galleries, and a cafe Brujula, too. Pictured above.

The research library ‘Juan de Cordová’ is inside a beautiful modern building with small galleries below. It’s a great place to work or browse some books on Oaxaca, with free wifi and bathrooms, comfy chairs, plentiful plugs, and a cool environment. Next door/inside the same complex as the Textile Museum–more on that in the museum section.

Museums:

Oaxaca has benefited hugely from the benefaction of several successful locals–artists and businessmen alike, who have supported the cultural scene and opened several institutions throughout the city. The main benefit for a visitor is that there are lots of museums for such a small place, and because they’re free and nearby, you can visit them all–even if it’s not a museum you’d normally check out.

These include Museo Textil de Oaxaca (in the San Pablo center), Museo de la Filatelia (a stamp museum, very cute and surprisingly interesting), and Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Those are the main ones I visited–they’re all in the city center, about a ten minute walk from each other–but I’m sure there are some other goodies, too!

Museum of Contemporary Art (aka MACO) – this is a small museum with rotating exhibitions. To give an idea of what they show, when I went there was an interactive display imagining what dark matter sounds like, an exhibition of oil paintings by a Mexican artist, and an exhibition of Oaxacan film archives upstairs. 20 pesos entry.

Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo – hosted in a beautiful colonial building, displays some of the artist Rufino Tamayo’s collection of pre-Hispanic art. This museum emphasizes the art part–not anthropology–as a way of legitimizing the craft of Mesoamerican civilizations. 90 pesos entry for foreigners.

Centro de las Artes de San Agustin (aka CASA) – located 20ish minutes outside of Oaxaca City in the town of San Agustin Etla. When we went there was no exhibition up but still enjoyed it greatly as a way to get out of the city, admire the space, and walk around the beautiful grounds.

Shopping:

Markets – Oaxaca is pretty famous for its markets. The main ones for tourists to check out are the Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which are located right next to each other in the southern part of the city. I actually didn’t spend that much time there and some of the goods are very mass-produced looking, but they’re easy to check out and eat something or drink a tejate in. If you’re up for more of an adventure, we also went to the Mercado de Abastos–this is one of the most interesting markets I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot! It’s MASSIVE and sells everything. I’d do a little research first–perhaps find a guide if you can–and make sure to exercise some caution to avoid getting lost or pick-pocketed.

Marchanta – on a very different vibe from the markets, this is a high end boutique with designers local to Oaxaca and from Mexico City. Very cute. Interesting to take a look at, even if you’re not buying anything, to gauge what people are creating here!

Tienda Q – a slightly larger boutique with a similar vibe, errs even more on the high end/creative side than Marchanta.

Amate Books – a good bookstore in the Centro with some interesting topics and a decently large selection of English books. Especially good if you are looking for translated English books by famous Latino authors.

La Jícara Libreria – if only my Spanish was better, so I could buy some books here! This bookstore is attached to the restaurant Calabacitas Tiernas (or vice versa). From what I could see, they have an amazing selection of poetry, feminist and cultural studies, and other radical writings–as well as children’s books and postcards. It’s a Spanish language bookstore, so if you’re like me, you’ll have to just enjoy browsing there. Pictured above ( bottom left).

Transportation and Getting In/Out:

I walked the whole time I was in Oaxaca–while there is public transport and you can certainly grab a cab at night, I didn’t have to take a taxi or a bus the whole month I was there! It’s an easy walking city as the center is a grid. With Google Maps as your friend, you’ll be fine to walk around. The city is surprisingly bike friendly, too.

From Oaxaca, you can get to the coast with a notoriously windy bus ride or a short flight over the mountains. As mentioned above, the ADO bus station is centrally located, super easy to navigate, and has amazing street food across from it…you can take a bus to or from Mexico City very easily from here, or just go for the tacos :)

I hope this guide was helpful for you and you have a beautiful trip in Oaxaca!

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