What to Know Before a Visit to Oaxaca City

Dreaming of mezcal and mole? Us too.

Macedonio Alcala Street
Macedonio Alcala Street, Oaxaca | Gonzalo Azumendi/Stone/Getty Images
Macedonio Alcala Street, Oaxaca | Gonzalo Azumendi/Stone/Getty Images
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My first trip to Oaxaca was over 17 years ago, and I can still recall the newness of those sights and smells: a cacophony of vendors hawking their wares as I wandered the labyrinthine Central de Abastos market; the bright, smoky, herbaceous aromas of my first, second, and third mezcal; the crimson stains on the hands of a wool weaver as she demonstrated the natural dying powers of the cochineal insect. The city made an indelible impression on me, and after repeat visits over the years, I finally took the plunge and moved here permanently. I feel privileged to call this welcoming city my home. 

My number one tip for your first trip to Oaxaca? Be open. Oaxacans are friendly, and the best way to connect with them—and with the city’s seemingly endless cultural riches—is to mirror their warmth. From logistics like getting around and not getting ripped off at the ATM, to must-try street food and where to find the best mezcal bars, here’s how to do Oaxaca right.

dia de los muertos parade
Parades, altars, music, and marigolds fill the streets during Día de los Muertos. | Jan Sochor/Contributor/Getty Images News

The best time to visit Oaxaca

For sunny skies and perfect temperatures, aim for mid-October through April. It just so happens Oaxaca’s major festivals take place during these months, including the spectacular Día de los Muertos celebrations on November 1 and 2. Hotels and Airbnbs will be pricey this time of year; personally, I love the summer rainy season, when the surrounding mountains turn a lush green and accommodations are more affordable. Find an amazing Airbnb in Oaxaca City.

Greet people like a local

Across Mexico, especially in smaller cities and towns, strangers still greet each other when they pass on the street. It’s important to learn three key phrases before you come to Oaxaca: “buenos días,” for morning salutations before noon; “buenas tardes,” from 12 p.m. until dark; and “buenas noches,” for evening greetings. Pre-pandemic, the beso—one kiss on the cheek—was an important way to say hello and goodbye to friends and family (mostly between two women, or a woman and a man). The verdict is still out on if this heartwarming custom will endure.

Tips for exchanging money in Oaxaca

You’ll find the best exchange rates at ATMs, and the machines surrounding the zócalo, or main square, are reliable. My best ATM withdrawal tip? When the bank’s exchange rate pops up, choose to decline the offered rate. It will force the machine to offer you your home bank’s exchange rate, which is always better. 

Trying to pay with large bills in Mexico can be an issue. Even with a $100 bill (approximately $5 USD), vendors often raise their hands apologetically because they don’t have change. You’ll have to be strategic about breaking larger $200 and $500 bills: my preferred way to do this is to grab a snack or a drink at an Oxxo or Pitico—sort of like the 7-Elevens of Mexico, which usually have change. Otherwise, make sure you always have some $20 and $50 bills on hand, as well as plenty of 2-, 5- and 10-peso coins.

Tlayuda + mezcal = the perfect dinner. | Marcos Castillo/Shutterstock

The deal with tipping

Some of Mexico’s most celebrated restaurants are here in Oaxaca. There’s Criollo, owned by Chef Enrique Olvera of famed Mexico City spot Pujol, along with perennial favorite Casa Oaxaca, whose stunning terrace looks out over the Santo Domingo church. Eating incredibly well at these high-end establishments doesn’t have to break the bank, considering the exchange rate averages about 20 pesos on the US dollar. 

With that in mind, visitors should be sure to pay it forward. “If you eat at a restaurant or get a cocktail in one of Oaxaca’s super cool bars, tip your waitstaff or bartender well—15 to 20 percent,” says Aaron Robinson, a fellow expat who owns the city’s first and only tiki bar, Aloha Oaxaca. “Servers live off tips.”

Make sure you eat on the street

Incredibly delicious—and incredibly cheap—meals can be found at the puestos, or food stalls, lining the streets of Oaxaca. Popular dishes include tlayudas, massive corn tortillas griddled to perfection and stuffed with melted cheese and meats; empanadas, pockets of steaming masa filled with rich stews such as yellow mole; and, of course, tacos of various stripes. 

Looking for the best street food? Scouring for online reviews isn’t how it’s done. Use the powers of observation to scope out which puestos draw the longest lines of in-the-know locals. Look for crowded quesadilla and empanada stands around lunchtime (2-4 pm), and lively tlayuda and taco stands starting around 7pm.

Stop by El Cortijo | El Cortijo - La Mezcalería

Sample some agave

No trip to Oaxaca is complete without a thorough sampling of mezcal. The agave-based spirit is produced in various Mexican states, but reaches its highest expression here in Oaxaca. As the local saying goes, “Para todo bien, mezcal; para todo mal también” (for everything good, mezcal; for everything bad, too). 

Like wine, mezcal comes in a staggering variety of styles and flavors, ranging from “de pechuga,” a luxury type infused with fresh botanicals and fruits, to smoky, herbal, floral, or earthy tastes. The best way to find a mezcal you like is to try a sampling, leaning on a trusty bartender to help you hone in on your preferences. Some excellent spots around town to learn about mezcal include Mezcaloteca, Archivo Maguey, In Situ, Cuish, and El Cortijo

Getting around Oaxaca City

Oaxaca is extremely walkable; within the historic center, most bars, restaurants, museums, shops, and markets are reached easily on foot. After living here a few months I was able to learn the bus routes and now I use them all the time; if you’re traveling longer distances, you can’t beat the 8-peso fare. Still, the routes can be inscrutable. “They’re so esoteric you need to be a local to have a clue which one to get on and where to get off,” Robinson says. 

Instead, stick to the yellow cab companies that drive around town, which are very safe and reliable. They’ll take you most anywhere in the city for a flat 50-peso fare. If you’re looking for an Uber-style ride, download the DiDi app to call a cab straight to your location.

Take a day trip

While you could spend weeks just gallivanting around Oaxaca City, much of the region’s charm lies in nearby pueblos which boast well-preserved traditions that are not to be missed. Teotitlan is the place to find hand-woven, naturally dyed wool textiles, while Ocotlán is an important center of traditional black pottery. For a dose of history, Mitla and Monte Alban are home to stunningly well-preserved archaeological ruins. And don’t forget about Matatlan, where you can find a variety of mezcal distilleries and stock up on bottles to bring home. 

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Lauren Rothman is a Mexico-based food and drinks writer. Check out her collection of food snapshots on Instagram at @laurenoliviarothman.