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Since Hernan Cortes’ conquistadors came in search of Aztec gold, Oaxaca has been a favorite destination for travelers in search of natural beauty and pre-Hispanic heritage. A collection of great sights and lively attractions is waiting for you between the mountains of the Sierra Madre and the banks of the Atoyac River, from the ruins of ancient Zapotec pyramids to Neoclassical cathedrals and little country villages where some old traditions never died. Whether you’re looking for fine dining and colorful festivals, ancient temples and historic monuments, pr a beautiful landscape of misty woods, the things to do in Oaxaca give you the chance to experience some of the best of southern Mexico for yourself.
Framed by elegant mansions that date back to the 16th century, the core of Oaxaca makes a perfect hub for city life. The central plaza of the Zocalo is reserved for pedestrians to browse the sidewalk cafes or mingle under the laurel trees, and you can wander between the restaurants, monuments, and upscale hotels as you navigate the crowds of Oaxacans and tourists alike.
The place to go for a more relaxed experience close to the center of town, this neighborhood captures the atmosphere of a charming, peaceful corner of Mexico. Rows of colonial-era houses line the narrow cobblestone streets, and the restaurants dotting the barrio feature your choice of authentic local fare.
The ring of neighborhoods around Oaxaca’s biggest university give a college-town feel to the southern edge of the city. Department stores, movie theaters, and plenty of pizza places fill the triangle around Avenida Universidad, which takes you past the modern campus buildings of the university itself.
You don’t have to look far to see the blend of cultures that defined the city since the Spanish conquest. The Baroque design of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption towers over the Zocalo, and the nearby Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños shows off the work of local artists in an elegant 17th-century facade. You can try navigating the maze of stalls in the Mercado de Abastos, or get a 360-degree view of the city from the hilltop viewpoint on Cerro del Fortín. If you’re in the mood to venture a bit farther afield, get a car and head north to explore the cloud forest around Ixtlan de Juarez, or visit the monument to Benito Juarez in the little town where he was born.
Oaxaca has plenty of spectacle waiting for you, along with a team of hosts ready to help you find it. You can get the lay of the land with an insider’s perspective on a guided tour of the city, or head out to visit the striking pre-Columbian ruins of Monte Alban on a mountain standing over the town.
There’s no clearer symbol of Oaxaca’s heritage than the Guelaguetza festival, held every year in the latter half of July, and you can get a sense of its colorful mix of costume, song, and traditional cuisine with a dinner show at any time of the year. If you’re up for a ride into the country, you can meet the people who keep the region’s traditional craftsmanship alive and get a look at the grand Zapotec ruins at Mitla for another perspective on just how much this land has to show you.