Casey Siemasko

Oaxaca City has long drawn artists and creative minds to her bright, cobbled streets, and just one visit to the enchanting colonial city is all it takes to see why. Located in South-western Mexico, Oaxaca oozes with old-world charm, pre-Colombian ruins, and fascinating indigenous traditions. What’s more, Oaxaca is considered to be the culinary capital of Mexico, characterised by flavours like sweet and spicy chocolate, decadent moles, and smooth (but potent) mezcal.

Oaxaca City is safe and best explored at leisure on foot, with ample time for stops at quaint coffee shops and mezcal bars along the way. The most magical hours are early morning when most locals have yet to arise, and after dusk when the Zocalo (Central Plaza) comes alive with lights, sounds and colours.

Where to stay

Once a crumbling building, today Hotel Azul is one of Oaxaca’s premier contemporary boutique hotels. Designed in collaboration with several renowned Mexican artists, no detail has been left unaccounted for. With a sweeping central courtyard, rooftop bar and terrace, contemporary art gallery featuring local Oaxacan artists, and an authentic Mexican restaurant, Hotel Azul serves as the perfect base from which to explore enchanting downtown Oaxaca.

An 18th-century pre-Colombian building converted into a romantic, seven-room hotel, Casa Oaxaca is perfectly located in the heart of Oaxaca while still feeling worlds away from outside civilisation. Amenities include an elegant pool, large patio, and on-site spa. Don’t miss the restaurant’s unique cooking workshops with Chef Alejandro Ruiz.

A stay at this quaint bed and breakfast feels just like you’re visiting long-time friends. Just one block from the Zocolo, Casa de Las Bugambilias has simple but lovely renovated rooms, a two-course gourmet breakfast, and a warm, welcoming ambience. The well-stocked library and rooftop terrace are nice additional touches.

Casa Oaxaca | Photo: Dan Moore

Casa Oaxaca | Photo: Dan Moore

Things to see and do

An indigenous Zapotec village turned Spanish enclave, the centuries-old neighbourhood of Jalatlaco is as serene as it gets. Within easy walking distance from the Centro Historico, Jalatlaco boasts a distinct romantic charm. Besides visiting the stately Temple of San Matias Talatlaco, there’s not much to do here. Yet that’s in large part why it’s the perfect place to get lost ambling along the quiet cobblestone of the local neighbourhood.

While there are plenty of artsy cafes, unique museums, and historic churches to keep you busy in the heart of Oaxaca, there are a few day-trips that shouldn’t be missed. Start by exploring Hierve el Agua, otherworldly petrified waterfalls in the middle of a mountainous desert. An hour-long hike provides panoramic views of the 100-foot mineral rock formation. At the top of the cliff, the mineral spring water forms a natural infinity pool, perfect for a dip while overlooking the dramatic desert scenery.

Archaeological buffs shouldn’t miss a trip to the historic site of Mitla. The Zapotec ruins date back to 1200 AD and boast an incredible amount of detail, including unique stone mosaics and original preserved dyes.

Mezcal | Photo: Dan Moore

Mezcal | Photo: Dan Moore

Eat, drink and be merry

As the culinary capital of Mexico, it should come as no surprise that Oaxaca abounds with mouth-watering adventures. Start your tasting spree at Los Danzantes, one of Oaxaca’s premier gastronomic experiences. Located in a 16th-century open-air building, Los Danzantes features innovative takes on classic creations. Don’t miss the cheese fondue served with mushrooms and Oaxaca’s favourite crunchy ingredient: grasshoppers.

Oaxaca is known as the “land of seven moles”; you’ll want to try at least a red, green and brown version while you’re there. The restaurant at Casa Oaxaca Hotel is an excellent place to start your mole tasting. For late-night eating after a few too many mezcal tastings, nothing hits the spot like a crispy tlayuda. These giant tortillas are filled with beans, meat, and various veggies, and are crisped to perfection at any of the city’s various street stalls.

Finally, it’s impossible to visit Oaxaca without venturing into at least one or two coffee shops, whether it’s simply to refuel or to ignite your own creative flair. The Oaxacan Coffee Company is small but pleasant, serving mouth-watering coffee and locally produced chocolate. Alternatively, Cafe Brujula is a large and colourful venue with specialty roasted coffee and a fantastic breakfast menu.

Many Mexicans are now opting to trade in their tequila for organically grown mezcal. And in Oaxaca, the heart of mezcal production, you’ll find plenty of hip locales to sample the smooth liquor. Start your night at Los Amantes, an intimate bar with high-quality mezcal. If you’re lucky, you might even rub shoulders with Mexican celebrities while you’re there. Once you’ve warmed up, move to Candela; located in a refurbished colonial building, it’s one of Oaxaca’s favourite spots for Latin dancing. And if you’re after something a bit more rowdy, Oaxaca does, in fact, have a popular gay strip club: La Costa.

Cafe Brujula | Photo: Dan Moore

Cafe Brujula | Photo: Dan Moore

Where to shop

The oldest market in Oaxaca is the Benito Juárez Market, just a few blocks south of the Zocalo. Here you’ll find local Mexican ingredients, chocolate, spices, and a wide array of odds and ends. For arts and crafts, the handicrafts market, or Mercado de Artesañas, is open daily and offers heaps of leather goods, native textiles, handicrafts, and ceramics.

For high-quality handmade rugs, visit the gallery of the Chavez family: Fe y Lola. This Oaxaca gallery sells the finest hand-woven wool and textiles from local Mexican artisans. Casa de las Artesanias is also worth a visit for its large selection of quality works. Keep an eye out for alebrijes, intricate hand-painted Oaxacan folk art sculptures.

If you’re lucky enough to visit Oaxaca on a Sunday, venture out to the nearby Tlacolula Sunday Market. Locals come from the surrounding villages to set up their stalls and sell their wares. Whether you’re looking for street food, mezcal, or handicrafts, you’ll find it all at exceptional prices here. Better yet, you’re unlikely to bump shoulders with many (if any) other foreigners.

To the beach

The state of Oaxaca is blessed with a stunning and somewhat undiscovered coastline. If you’re keen to add a tropical beach getaway to your trip to Oaxaca City, you can’t go wrong with colourful Playa Zipolite. Once considered a destination for budget backpackers, today Playa Zipolite is popular with gay men, and known for its nude beaches, as well as clothing-optional Nude Bungalows and Spa.

For such a small and laid-back beach town, Playa Zipolite boasts a surprising array of world-class restaurants. Don’t miss brunch at Orale Cafe. This French cafe is renowned for its authentic French toast, memorable quiches, and extensive coffee list. For dinner, make a reservation at La Providencia. The Mexican fusion cuisine is on a par with the best restaurants in Mexico City, yet at a fraction of the price.

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