Oaxaca (pronounced wahhah-kah), the capital of the southern state of the same name, is Mexico at its best. Its photogenic cobbled streets are lined with perfectly preserved colonial buildings and beautiful churches stand watch over graceful squares, while museums and art galleries pay tribute to thousands of years of history and strong regional traditions. The country’s gastronomic capital, Oaxaca is home to a complex cuisine and an ever-growing collection of innovative restaurants. There’s enough to do, eat and see to fill weeks, but here’s the best of the city packed into one long weekend.
The historical centre of Oaxaca is compact, making it easy to navigate on foot. Drop your bags off at the hotel and walk off the jet lag by exploring the city streets. Start at the Zócalo – the city’s main square – and make your way to the humming Mercado Juárez, where the air is thick with smoke from barbecues sizzling with sausages and nopales (slices of cactus).
Take a seat at one of the many street eateries and order a tlayuda – the Oaxacan equivalent of a calzone – an oversized tortilla stuffed with cheese, beans and salsa, then folded in half and grilled. For the adventurous, a local favourite snack, chapulines (crispy fried grasshoppers) are tastier than they look, while a cold chocolate drink made with the famous Oaxacan chocolate is a treat.
After lunch, head towards the 16th-century Santo Domingo Church, one of Mexico’s most lavishly ornamented Baroque churches and easily the most attractive building in the city. Next door, the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca houses some beautiful treasures, such as a 500-year-old human skull inlaid with turquoise mosaics, and its rooms look out over the cacti of the Ethnobotanical Gardens (jardinoaxaca.org.mx), which are worth a stroll.
At dusk the square in front of the church fills with families and street food vendors selling things like elotes – chargrilled corn on the cob slathered in sour cream, cheese and chilli powder – and nieves – snow cones flavoured with papaya and tamarind juice. Have a snack and park on the steps to people watch before making your way to Restaurante los Danzantes (losdanzantes.com), one of the city’s most popular restaurants (book ahead) for its contemporary take on Oaxacan cuisine – think giant chillies stuffed with with huitlacoche (corn fungus), goat’s cheese and mashed plantain.
The best way of getting a handle on Oaxacan gastronomy is by trying your hand at making some specialties. Spend half a day with chef Gerardo Pinelo of La Cocina Oaxaqueña (oaxacancuisine.com) cooking up dishes such as mole amarillo with yellow chillies and tamales stuffed with squash flowers and chapulines, starting with a visit to the tourist-free Abastos Central Market to buy (and taste) ingredients.
The majority of Mexico’s 9999 (a spirit similar to tequila which is distilled from agave plants) is made in the state of Oaxaca, and a trip to the city would not be complete without sampling the tipple. At the blink-and you’ll-miss-it tiny Los Amantes Mezcaleria (losamantes.com) you can taste their hand-distilled and oak-aged mezcal accompanied by detailed explanations from the knowledge-able barman.
La Popular (facebook.com/lapopularoaxaca) draws an arty crowd of locals who come for the relaxed atmosphere, tasty ceviche and the tacos washed down with a jug of mezcal margarita. In Mexico, you’re never far from great live music, and Oaxaca is no exception. Bohemian hangout El Nuevo Babel (lanuevababeloaxaca.blogspot.com) is the best place to catch bands playing everything from cumbia and jazz to regional folk music.
Start off the day with a cortado made with beans grown in the state of Oaxaca at Café Brujula (cafebrujula.com) before hopping in a taxi to drive 10km out of town to Monte Albán, where the ruins of the 2 000-year-old capital of the Zapotec civilisation lie. You’ll have time to wander around the stone temples and the museum and get back for lunch at the unpretentious La Olla
(laolla.com.mx), where the blue corn quesadillas, pumpkin flower soup and interesting salads are delicious.
In the afternoon, delve into Oaxaca’s art world: there’s the small but well-curated collection of pre-Columbian art at the Museo Rufino Tamayo, exhibitions of largescale contemporary Latin American works at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (museomaco.com) and traditional and modern Oaxacan textiles displayed together in the design-conscious Museo Textil de Oaxaca (museotextildeoaxaca.org.mx). Take in the golden hour light over Santo Domingo from the rooftop of Praga Bar (and then head downstairs to check out the live music) before finishing off the weekend at La Biznaga (labiznaga.com.mx), where a pretty courtyard is the setting for a slow-food feast of nouveau-Oaxacan dishes.