Way Down in Mexico: Oaxaca City Guide

Sun-drenched and utterly authentic, Mexico’s southernmost state is known for many things: the art, the indigenous-influenced cuisine, and the mezcal, oh the mezcal! Trips to buzzing Mexico City will leave you electrified, and to Baja, restored. But Oaxaca stirs the soul, transporting you to another time, another world, one where hurry does not matter and chaos does not exist.

A visit to Oaxaca, whether you’re the museum-going or take-your-time-and-chill kind of traveler, will awaken a curiosity for tradition and an appreciation for simplicity, for cultural richness, and for genuine escape.

Three days here can feel like a lifetime, and yet, not nearly enough. Here are our picks for the best places to STAY, food to EAT, and things to DO…

STAY:

If ever there was a dreamier place to wake up than the tucked-away oasis, Casa Carmen, we can hardly imagine it. Owned by Oaxacan artist Amador Montes, the four-room boutique hotel is filled with his work, from the contemporary paintings hanging over each bed, to the whimsical iron sculptures in the casa’s main lobby and communal chill-space. His eye for design reaches well beyond the art, with local textiles and artfully-placed cacti throughout, creating a beautiful yet relaxing base point for exploring the city. Start your morning with breakfast in the cozy communal lobby, and retreat to your room after a long day of sightseeing for a bath under the stars and a deep sleep in the plush white beds. (Also good to note: each room comes with bathrobes and fresh Oaxaca chocolate. Yes!)

For something more traditional, the former convent-turned-luxury-hotel, Quinta Real is simply impressive. Stepping off the sunny street into its cool, stone corridors, you feel transported to another time (and another climate). Medieval-esque furnishings blend with bright, sunny patios with a nod to traditional Oaxaca art. Our suggestion? Don’t skip the impressive breakfast spread each morning in the courtyard (which is accompanied by a live quartet), and do pencil in some time between excursions for lazing by the pool. 

New to the city as of this spring, the Israeli hotel chain, Selina, is known throughout Europe and South America for its colorful interiors, community of digital nomads, and programming that runs the gamut of cocktail-making courses to cooking demos to mezcal tours through the city’s broad streets. Selina’s airy lobby features a cafe and bar, perfect for squeezing in a little work (if you have to) or else enjoying a cerveza and a few minutes respite from the heat. Rooms are simple but well-appointed, and come with the hostel options of shared rooms if you’re traveling on a budget.

Ideally located adjacent to the picturesque Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the Baroque beauty at the heart of the city, Los Amantes offers not just location, location, location (and cruiser bikes to make use of it) but also gorgeous digs. Opened by the founders of mezcal label Amantes, they also own a teeny-tiny-yet-spectacular mezcaleria across the street, so you can properly educate yourself. Do yourself a favor and spend a sunset on the terrace, with a drink in hand and unrivaled views of Santo Domingo and the surrounding plaza — both hazy and romantic in the dusk.

EAT:

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start every day on my last trip to Oaxaca with a pastry from Boulenc. Despite all of the amazing eateries around, it’s that good. Specializing in sourdough (or masa madre) which materializes in many forms in the front bakery display, Boulenc is also known for their wide variety of real-food breakfast dishes. Simple and straightforward, you’ll be surprised by the flavors of an English muffin sandwich, a shakshuka, or a mollete (all open-faced breakfast sandwiches layered with beans and cheese). 

For dinner, make a reservation at Origen. Unpretentious and impeccable, it’s one of the hottest reservations in town for a reason. Expect Oaxaca cuisine inspired by celebrity chef Rodolfo Castellanos’ mother’s kitchen. The menu changes with the day, based on whatever’s freshest from the markets, farms, and sea that season. The sustainable kitchen is known for being local: seasonal salsas, different kinds of corn, tropical fruit, herbs, and beans mixed in rotating dishes like duck confit enmoladas with plantain, spicy shrimp tacos, and grilled pulpo. Start with the guacamole with chepiche (insect protein!) and, of course, a mezcalito — then prepare to be wowed.

Lunchtime can look a few different ways down here. At least once, and hopefully several times, pay a visit to Mercado Benito Juarez, not far from the Zocalo, the city’s main plaza. You can buy essentially anything here: woven trinkets, jarred spices, spiced chapulines (crickets), Oaxaca chocolate and coffee, or even house products. It’s a full city block, so browsing the market could take you all day. Grab a fresh juice from one of the fruit stands and get creative with the combinations. Make lunch a sampling of the many options calling out to you — literally — from the ladies preparing tortas (sandwiches), tamales, and mole. 

For something more sit-down-and-chill, head to Cactus Lonchería. You won’t find it on many to-do-lists, but this sweet little cafe is exactly the place I’d hoped to find when I tired of tamales. Apart from being absolutely adorable, the teeny space serves up quality grub. Pita pizza, chipotle chicken sandwiches, and sourdough toast piled-high with guacamole round out the modest menu, while lattes, rotating juices, and agua del día will keep you hydrated in the Oaxaca heat. My advice? Bring a book and stay a while. 

DO:

If you’re coming to Oaxaca and mezcal isn’t at the top of your mind, you should reconsider. Given all the hype the spirit has garnered in the cocktail world as of late, you likely know Oaxaca for being the home of mezcal. It has been harvested here for ages by small-batch producers and local agave farmers before being bottled and shipped around the world. There’s no shortage of mezcal bars in town, but if you’re looking to learn about the spirit, head to Mezcaloteca. Drawing from local producers all over the state, they specialize in rare, small-batch mezcal. Make a reservation and be prepared to sample. 

You could spend endless days milling around the small but culturally-rich city center, filled with galleries, shops, and markets to buzz about. But if you can, spend an afternoon or two outside of the city proper, in one of the many pueblos on the outskirts of town. Mitla has ancient pyramids you can literally walk through, and lots of souvenir stands for the inevitable shopping list you’ll make while in town. The many little towns around specialize in their own handicraft — from volcanic stone sculptures to handwoven textiles. Pay a visit to Taller Jocobo y Maria Angeles, in San Martín Tilcajete, for a lesson in the history of alebrijes, the fantastical carved animals which have become a centerpiece of Oaxaca art. Husband and wife team Jocobo and Maria Angeles have been crafting the magical figures for decades and have created a workshop and training program for local artisans to master the process, grounded in the tradition of the local indigenous people.

Another out-of-town endeavor and unassuming pueblo, San Augustine Etla, may not seem an obvious destination for art-lovers… at first. But walk up the one main street and you’ll stumble upon the main attraction in town, Centro de las Artes de San Agustín. Formerly a textile mill, it was restored and recreated as Centro de las Artes de San Agustín in 2006 by renowned Mexican sculptor, painter, and graphic artist, Francisco Toledo. The stunning tricolor sandstone building has become a cultural hub for the surrounding area. Along with hosting classes and workshops, the colossal space has two galleries (both free and open to the public) with rotating exhibits by international artists. After you browse, do yourself a favor and venture around the center’s back gardens for a proper photo op. 

Marie Salcido is a freelance writer based between Mexico City and San Francisco. Raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the middle of seven children, family has always been a top priority, though her appetite for new places has pulled her far from her Midwestern roots. Whether posted in her home cities or exploring new locales, Marie’s keen interest in people has accompanied her throughout her travels — reaffirming her belief that the more you see of the world, the smaller it gets. Find her on Instagram at @mdsalcido.

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