Oaxaca City Mexico is known as one of Mexico’s top foodie destinations. This guide covers 8 Essential things to do in Oaxaca – not to be missed from your foodie itinerary. From discovering the most authentic local dishes to exploring Oaxaca’s burgeoning Mezcal cocktail scene. We reveal the must eats as well as a cocktail that has jumped into our top 5 best cocktails in the world.
Oaxaca City Mexico is the capital of Oaxaca state in south central Mexico. The Aztecs are believed to have settled here around 1440, with the Spaniards arriving and starting work on the colonial city and its Cathedral around 1521/1522.
The state’s food history is a mix of colonial and pre-Columbian. A true fusion cuisine where Spanish cooking methods have integrated new world ingredients like chili, peanuts, chocolate, tomatoes and more into unique local dishes. Discover more about those dishes below.
The city itself exemplifies the colourful colonial style, surrounded by mountains.
So here is our list of top thing to do in Oaxaca for foodies…
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Things To Do In Oaxaca City Mexico For Foodies
Oaxaca is considered by many as the food capital of Mexico. Although we’d personally rather give that crown to Mexico City or the Yucatan, Oaxaca has a unique variety of cuisine and native produce that make it a vital part of Mexican culinary tradition, worthy of exploration.
1. Take a Oaxacan Cooking Class & Eat Mole
Taking a cooking class is always one of our favorite ways to get a real feel for a culinary region. Learn about local ingredients and get an experienced chef or cook to help you understand what goes together and why. We took the Casa Crespo cooking class through Cookly – The Authentic Cooking Classes booking site.
Before the cooking started, we took a tour of a local market with our guide & chef, Oscar, to see some of the unique produce of the Oaxaca region, such as the chili de agua (pictured below) which is one of 20 chilis native to the Oaxaca region.
We were given complete flexibility in what Oaxacan dishes we’d be making – we had a huge choice of soups, appetizers, salsas, moles and desserts. We got to make a cold avocado soup from local avocados which have soft skins you can eat. But the most famous Oaxacan food to make is Mole.
Mole – pronounced “mowl-ay” – is like a Oaxacan curry. Vegetables, like tomatoes and onions, are blended down with spices and herbs to make a sauce. Most mole sauces have between 15 & 30 ingredients. There are hundreds of types of mole, each with different ingredients going into the sauce blend, or added to the sauce after blending. So we opted to make a few different moles to try a variety.
The flying ant mole was the most unusual option. Flying ants are collected seasonally and may not be available all year round. Blending these into the sauces makes for a dark and earthy mole.
It wouldn’t be a Mexican cooking class without tortillas, right? And we made a fancy version of tortillas where chopped zucchini flowers were added to the dough.
My favourite mole of the day was also the most complicated to make. We re-hydrated chili de árbol (a mild red chili). Stuffed it with a chicken stew which we also made. Then coated it with egg and flash fried it to make the batter puff up. We then created a yellow mole to which we added sliced plantains (big bananas), pineapple and almonds. The mix of fruit and spice made this a winner.
We discovered a variety of cooking styles – mole is certainly not just a throw everything in a pot type of meal. For the rabbit mole, after reducing the blended sauce, we wrapped rabbit pieces, coated in sauce, and steamed them.
A final surprise was chocolate tamales for dessert. A traditional tamale is masa dough (from ground corn), often filled with a savoury meat and covered in tomato sauce, then steamed in a corn husk. The dessert tamale involved mixing chocolate and condensed milk into the masa dough.
The cooking class is a half day and includes a lot of food! Don’t eat too much breakfast in advance 😉 Oscar will send you the recipes by email after the class.
2. Eat Oaxacan Cheese – Quesillo
Quesillo is a white stringy and creamy cheese and is regarded as one of the best cheeses in Mexico. If you are visiting Oaxaca it’s almost impossible to miss it as it’s in every market, on most menus and included in a number of dishes – I even had a dish called “salsa de queso” which was simply a block of quesillo drowned in hot tomato sauce.
The best Oaxaca cheese we tried was as part of our cooking class (see above) but if you are not doing the class, another good one we had was at Comedor Chabelita in Mercado 20 de Noviembre.
3. Visit A Traditional Oaxaca Cooked Food Market
Oaxaca has all different types of market. Visiting a local market is definitely one of the top things to do in Oaxaca. From those selling fresh produce, to those focusing more on crafts. Although most markets have some cooked food stalls, one market, in particular, seems to be all about the cooked food…
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre (20th November Market) is like a warehouse full of small restaurants in the middle, this is where you can find a wide selection of Oaxacan meals at reasonable prices, including Comedor Chabelita, which I mentioned above. But for a unique foodie experience, head to the west side of the market, where a corridor of BBQ connects the main market hall to the street.
Here you will find vendor after vendor all grilling the most popular local meats – to be ordered and cooked by the kilo (though you can ask for smaller portions). The must try meats are:
- Cecina – Thinly sliced pork steak marinated in spices (my favorite)
- Tasajo – Big, thinly sliced beef steak, typically from rib or sirloin
- Chorizo – The Oaxacan version of the famous sausage
- Tripa – Long pieces of intestine
The BBQ should be hot and flaming so the thin meats can cook fast without drying out. Choose a vendor who has the most flames for the best meat.
La Merced Market
La Merced Market is to the west of downtown Oaxaca and is a mix of fresh produce and cooked food stalls. So we went to eat a few more Oaxacan favorites.
Estafado is simply a name for stew and could be meat or veg in a number of different sauces.
Oaxacan empanadas differ from the empanadas around the rest of Mexico. Rather than being a small fried, folded tortilla, the Oaxacan version is more like a giant quesadilla filled with the Oaxacan quesillo.
Mercado de Tlacolula: If you are around on a Sunday, there is a big out of town market in Tlacolua where locals still arrive in traditional clothes. Things get going from 5am. Take a mini-bus (collectivo) from Oaxaca. More about this market on Tripadvisor
4. Eat Chapulines (Fried Crickets)
Eating insects may not be on everyone’s bucket list. But in Oaxaca, chapulines are a staple food. Crunchy and salty, they make a great addition to guacamole, quesadillas, or just as a snack. High in protein, these salty crispy treats quickly became one of our favorite unusual snacks from all our time in Mexico.
You’ll find them in most markets around Oaxaca but the lady outside the west entrance of Mercado 20 de Noviembre had a wide selection of chapulines, each batch flavored with different seasonings. Try the lime, or chili flavored ones.
5. Learn The Story of Mezcal – Distilled Agave Spirit
Mezcal is a spirit distilled from agave. Tequila is actually a type of Mezcal, made from the blue agave in the state of Jalisco. Tequila is normally made from an industrialized process. Whereas Mezcal is still mostly made with an artisanal process where the agave is smoked and then the ferment is later distilled.
There are thousands of different Mezcals. Oaxaca is considered to be the epicentre of variety and production of Mezcal in Mexico. In Oaxaca city, there is a multitude of Mezcalerías where you can sample different styles of this high alcohol spirit (Mezcal should be over 45% ABV) as well as learn about the history and the production process.
We’ll soon be releasing a full article and podcast about Mezcal, so I’m not going to go into depth here. When you visit Oaxaca, trying Mezcal is a must. We had a great experience at Mezcaloteca. They provide reservation only tasting sessions, so you will get the full attention of your host.
Also, you can head outside Oaxaca city Mexico on a tour to visit the farms where they produce Mezcal.
6. Eat Oaxacan Pizza
The first thing to know about Oaxacan pizza is, it’s not too much like pizza… They take a giant thin tortilla, cover it in mashed beans and quesillo cheese, perhaps some salad, then they throw it on the BBQ until the cheese melts. It’s then folded over and a slab of local meat is thrown on top – chorizo, tasajo etc.
In fancier restaurants, you can get a wider variety of toppings and the tortilla is often served open, more like a pizza. But for the authentic street food version, grab a plastic chair and get a folded Tlayuda at Tlayudas Libres.
7. Try Locally Made Microbrew Craft Beer
The Mexico craft beer scene has been growing fast in the last few years. La Santisma often refers to themselves as a “nano-brewery” because this really is very small production.
8. Drink The Best Mezcal Cocktails in Oaxaca City Mexico
Our personal top choice of all things to do in Oaxaca…
For a truly modern Oaxacan drinking experience though, Mezcal cocktails are the gateway to the world of Mezcal. Pure Mezcal is intense and some beginners might find it too much. But once you blend it into a cocktail, you’ll find yourself in a whole new universe – not because of a psychedelic Mezcal worm (that’s a myth!) but because Mezcal could be one of the best cocktail spirits on the planet.
Mezcal’s inherent smokiness lends an additional dimension to any cocktail. With the chapulin cocktail (pictured above), restaurant Expendio Tradición blends fruit (pineapple), sweet (agave honey), Smoke (mezcal) and salt (chapulines) to make a killer tastebud exploder.
And this was only our second favorite cocktail. Number one was the La Conquista which blends the herbal flavor of Licor 43 (A Spanish Spirit made from 43 ingredients) with the smoky Mezcal and the sweet and sour elements of lime and orange. This was a magical cocktail!
We tried quite a few Cocktail places around Oaxaca, but we had to return to Expendio Tradición and work our way through the menu. The mixology there is a league above.
Hotels in Oaxaca City Mexico
Oaxaca’s downtown area is actually quite small and most things are less than 20 minutes walk from each other. So staying at a centrally located hotel makes it super easy to experience Oaxaca City without having to get involved in the slow moving traffic.
Hotel Azul Boutique hotel features minimalist rooms, each having a unique, personalised design. Situated inside a colonial building, you’ll feel like you are walking into a piece of Mexican history, while also being surrounded by modern comforts, contemporary art and… Giant Cacti!
Enjoy a beverage on the roof terrace.
One of the boutique rooms. Wooden shutters open up onto the charming gallery above an interior courtyard where you can enjoy breakfast. The street noise disappears as you walk through the hotel to the rooms further back. A much needed oasis of calm.
Hotel Azul is only a 5 minute walk from the famous Templo de Santo Domingo – and less than 2 minutes from Expendio Tradición where you can grab one of those amazing Mezcal cocktails!
Hotel Azul offers everything you want from a hotel in Mexico. Traditional but modern style, incredibly friendly service, and a place to escape the noise and heat of the Mexican summer.
Contact: +529515010016 or by email: [email protected]
Read Reviews On TripAdvisor.