Oaxaca is Mexico’s mezcal heartland and mole mecca, its capital of textiles and an epicenter of ceramics production. But the proud city—the largest in the southern state of the same name—is revealing itself as a fountain of inspiration for creatives, especially designers (the fashion set too, though not without scandal). Some starchitects agree, having left their mark with stylish boutique hotels, and colonial buildings converted into art centers and museums. Indeed, the sensory stimulation one experiences in Oaxaca is unlike any other destination in Mexico. Here’s our guide for what to do and where to eat, shop, and stay in Oaxaca.
WHAT TO DO:
Museo Textil de Oaxaca: One of the greatest dedications to Mexico’s textile heritage, the admission-free Museo Textil de Oaxaca is housed in a restored palacio right in the historic center. Its impressive showcase includes more than 5,000 locally procured artifacts that span centuries of textile-making tradition, as well as a calendar of film screenings and workshops. Don’t sleep on the gift shop for its selection of handicrafts—it's worth the browsing. museotextildeoaxaca.org
Centro Cultural San Pablo Academic: Billionaire Alfredo Harp Helú’s philanthropic foundation spent nearly $10 million to convert this former Dominican convent into an arts and culture hub. The interiors were updated in 2012 by Mexican firm Taller Mauricio Rocha + Gabriela Carrillo with removable metal scaffolding, glass-encased reading rooms, and multifunctional areas for exhibitions and performances.
Monte Albán: Take a taxi to one of the world’s richest Mesoamerican archeological sites, just 20 minutes from the center of Oaxaca. The ancient Zapotec civilization flattened an entire hilltop to create the Monte Albán complex of stepped pyramids, palaces, an observatory, and a ball court. Just as impressive are the 360-degree vistas of the surrounding valley seen from the UNESCO-designated vantage point.
Museo MACO: This historic 17th-century mansion was once inhabited by noble families who carved their coat of arms into the façade. The House of Cortes was eventually acquired by the government, who turned it into a museum. Today, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca contains 16 recently renovated exhibition spaces for Mexican and international contemporary paintings, sculpture, photography, and more. museomaco.com
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK:
Central de Abastos: The bustling food section of Oaxaca’s largest market is where you go when you need food, and a lot of it. It’s like a voluntary leap into quicksand made of chocolate and mole. Navigating the chaotic pathways is a near-impossible task for non-locals, so enlist guide Omar Alonso, the self-proclaimed “Oaxaking” and street-food connoisseur, to lead your culinary walking tour through Central de Abastos. You’ll dine at majority-women-owned food stalls for local specialties like barbacoa (slow-cooked goat soup), tlayuda with pig’s head, and tangy pulque (a drink from fermented agave sap). oaxacking.com
Criollo: Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol and NYC’s Cosme masterfully collaborated with fellow Mexican chef Luis Arellano to manifest a sophisticated epicurean compound that hones in on fine Oaxaqueña flavors. Enjoy the seven-course tasting menu, which changes daily and with the seasons, inside an old colonial house that architect Javier Sánchez revamped with a boho-contemporary eye. Best of all is the scent of fresh-made tortillas churned out from the restaurant’s four wood-burning ovens. criollo.mx
Itanoní: Corn-obsessed Amado Ramírez Leyva created this humble antojería (a small-plates restaurant) to highlight four varieties of maíz criollo, heirloom corn. The vegetable is omnipresent on the menu. To see why this is Alice Waters’s favorite spot in Oaxaca, order the tetelas (triangular corn pockets) stuffed with aromatic hoja santa leaf and melty cheese from Chiapas, memelas with beans, and chicken pozole. Wash it all down with a glass of tascalate, a cold chocolate and maize drink.
Sabina Sabe: It’s rare to develop feelings for a bar you’ve just met, but Sabina Sabe’s phenomenal cocktails will have you returning nightly. The buzzy restobar and mezcaleria sits behind a bright green façade in the town center, serving a menu del día of creatively executed picas (small plates) perfectly suited for a pre-dinner bite or midnight snack.
WHERE TO SHOP:
Gaayu’: Local entrepreneurs cocreated Gaayu’ (“five” in the indigenous Zapotec language) as a mini-emporium to promote emerging Oaxacan designers in fashion, art, and home interiors. The new shopping destination opened in 2019 with a quintet of brands including designer Araceli Huerta, textiles from Coyuchi Artesanía Fina, and hand-painted jewelry from Vishui Vishui.
Lanii: Though a discerning curation of Oaxacan crafts is on display at Lanii, it’s the boutique’s hand-woven palm bags and backpacks with leather handles that are considered the main draw. Home goods, edible treats, and embroidered apparel with Tlahuitoltepec motifs may also find their way into your suitcase. lanii.com.mx
Colectivo 1050º: Oaxaca is famous for its ancient style of artisanal pottery made from unique clays: barro negro and barro rojo. Colectivo 1050º was founded by nonprofit Innovando La Tradición as a collective and marketplace for regional ceramicists to sell their work. No need for bubble wrap—the exclusively fair trade, handmade goods can be shipped to the U.S. 1050grados.com
Mezcalillera: Don’t leave Oaxaca without a bottle of your favorite smoky agave elixir, which you’ll discover after a sampling session at this intimate mezcaleria. This shop has an exceptional selection, from super rare distillers like El Sabia Eterno to mainstays like Montelobos. If the counter by the entrance is tight, head upstairs to the breezy bar on the top floor. instagram.com/mezcalillera
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel El Callejón: Though it’s sited in one of Oaxaca’s oldest districts, this 12-room boutique property tastefully incorporates contemporary accents within the rustic adobe walls. It’s a hotel best suited for those who prefer being slightly removed from the bustle of the historic district but still within walking distance to a wealth of attractions. You’ll look forward to breakfast in the dry-lush courtyard every morning. hotelelcallejon.com
Hotel Azul: Centrally located Hotel Azul will please visitors who are seeking design-savvy interpretation of old-world charm and baroque colonial aesthetic. The 18th-century building was delicately restored by firm Tres Manos Arquitectura, and its attractive suites were expertly designed by a robust team of Mexican talent. Common spaces, from the rooftop bar to the Spanish-style courtyard, boast an extensive collection of local modern art. hotelazuloaxaca.com
Casa Criollo: Chefs Olvera and Arellano helped design this new two-bedroom villa inside their Criollo compound. Although Oaxaca’s most desirable eatery is just steps away, the accommodation feels far removed from any public areas, especially with its built-in sauna, pool, and private terrace. Daily breakfast comes from Olvera’s kitchen, so you know it’s going to be good. airbnb.com
Casa Oaxaca: For a more traditional upmarket hotel also with a culinary emphasis, book a room at Casa Oaxaca near the Zócalo plaza. Along with minimalist interiors and a restaurant helmed by one of Mexico’s most acclaimed chefs, the pool is a particularly appealing retreat on steamy afternoons. Rooms are stylish, with four-poster beds and courtyard-facing windows. For reservations, search here.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest