Oaxaca has recently blown up as a top foodie destination, with some of the biggest chefs from around the world heading there to learn about local ingredients and recipes.
Centro is the old town part of Oaxaca that is incredibly charming and Instagrammable with it’s old colorful buildings. In the part of Centro where most of the good restaurants are clustered, it was clean and there were almost always locals and tourists walking around so you feel really safe. Note that when you venture outside of this old town area, you don’t know what you’re gonna get. Some parts are super rich suburban areas with massive houses who have security out front. Some parts are more run down, with homeless people and prostitutes (which you don’t see in the old town area).
Oaxaca isn’t a nightlife city the way Mexico City is, so expect things to shut down pretty early on weekends and for there to be very little action after dinnertime on weekdays.
I’ve only spent a few days in Oaxaca so can only recommend what you might do if you were to head there for a long weekend.
GETTING TO AND FROM THE AIRPORT TO YOUR HOTEL
Inside the airport there will be a stand that says TAXI. You’ll pay them then get a ticket. Head outside and give the ticket to the guys working under the TAXI sign and they will tell you which van to get into. It’s basically a shared shuttle from the airport to wherever you’re going.
If you stay in Centro, a taxi back to the airport will cost 250 pesos, about $13. It’s a 20 minute drive. Getting through security is super fast so arriving 1 hour in advance of your flight gives you plenty of time to check in.
WHERE TO STAY
To be by where most of the best food is you’ll want to stay in Centro. If you don’t mind taking a short 5-10 minute cab ride to Centro, you can also stay in Reforma, where there are some amazing places to eat as well.
Casa Carmen Morelos. Located in Centro. This is where I stayed and loved the decor. The outdoor space is all white with antique art and furniture. The staff was amazingly warm and there was always someone available who spoke English. In the morning I’d leave to go to the gym and by the time I got back my room was cleaned. They serve a free breakfast every morning cooked by a local Oaxaca woman. I only did this once because I preferred exploring the area. Also, this hotel is walking distance from an awesome gym that I went to in the mornings, Calipso Fitness Center. There are two Casa Carmens in Centro. Make sure you don’t confuse the two.
Heven Residence. I didn’t stay here but heard good things. It’s right on the beach and looks incredible. I’m not a beach person though and didn’t want to be super far from all the best food (the beach is NOT by where all the best food is).
WHERE TO WORK OUT
Calipso Fitness Center. A day pas is only 120 pesos, about $6. They have pretty much every type of lifting equipment and tons of cardio equipment upstairs. The gym was nearly empty most days I worked out. Bring a towel of they’ll make you buy one (it’s cheap though).
FOOD TOUR GUIDES
oaxacking. Omar Alonso is the best food tour guide in Oaxaca. He’s the one who all the famous chefs go to when they want to learn about Oaxacan food. Book him early because he’s in high demand (his November day of the dead experience sells out by January each year). I honestly would not go to Oaxaca unless you can get a tour from him. He’s high energy and extremely knowledgeable about Oaxaca as this is where he grew up. And he gets American culture because he spent ten years in LA. He’s able to take you not only on food tours in Centro but also tours of surrounding villages. Check out his Instagram to see what he gets up to. He took me through Mercado de Abasto to eat some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Stuff I would have never found on my own because of how massive the place is and how many vendors there are to choose from. The tour lasted about 3 hours and I was stuffed by hour 2 despite trying not to finish anything I was tasting. You can tell that teaching people about food is his passion and will have a great experience. I booked him for a private tour. For me it’s worth it to pay extra to be able to have a tailored experience and go at my own pace. If you show him photos of foods you want to try he will take you to the best versions of those dishes. This is priceless imo.
Mezcal Educational Tours. This place was recommended to me by a friend of a friend but they were fully booked. The owner then recommended Tomas to me, who I used instead.
Tomas Ramirez. I booked him for a private tour of Mercado de Tlacolula and to see an artisanal mezcal distillery up in the mountains owned by . He picked me up at 9 AM and I was back by around 3 PM. One thing that was unusual is on top of this I had to pay for all my food I tasted along the way because he isn’t technically a food tour guide. Because of this, sometimes his food knowledge was inaccurate. He charged me 4,400 pesos for the experience. He’s still fun to hang out with. Very jovial and easy going. He grew up in Oaxaca and knew a bunch of people who worked at the market. The mezcal at the distillery was phenomenal though. I bought a bottle of my favorite mezcal for only 250 pesos (about $13). I regretted not buying more bottles. This quality of mezcal gets marked up by 10x once it’s sold in retail stores. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO EAT
Pitionia. My favorite restaurant in Oaxaca by far. Order the octopus and shrimp dish and the bone marrow tacos. I also enjoyed the pork chop. Everything we tasted there was delicious but those are their all-star dishes that were so good our group went back to eat them twice. We even met another group who had done the same thing. They have a rooftop. You should request to be seated there when you make your reservation.
Los Danzantes. Incredible ambiance at the restaurant and they have a gorgeous lounge / bar that opens at 7 PM, so if you time your dinner right you can slide into drinks there afterward. They make delicious cocktails. Order the fried ribeye. Trust me. It was so good we ordered seconds.
Origen. Everything here was really good. We particularly liked their insect appetizer. Best tasting chapulines I had in all of Oaxaca. Order their ceviche. The chef here won Top Chef Mexico.
Lechoncito de Oro. The best taco stand in Oaxaca. The group ate here literally every night. They’re open from 8 PM to midnight Monday to Saturday. Get their chicharron taco with special salsa. It’s crazy how cheap the tacos are. You can get 4 tacos for $3.50.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Great place to grab menudo for breakfast. Look for the stand with the biggest crowd. Make sure you add lime juice and pickled veg to it to brighten it up as the soup uses tons of cartilage, intestines, etc. I wasn’t crazy about the mole or tlayudas I had there even though I picked crowded places. Not sure if it’s my personal taste or if I just don’t like those dishes.
Casa Oaxaca Cafe. Not to be confused with Restaurant Casa Oaxaca (same owners though). This location makes an insane custom salsa with a massive number of ingredients. It’ll be one of the most sophisticated salsas you’ve ever tasted in your life.
Mercado de Tlaluca. I tried so many things here but my favorite thing was the BBQ chicken (cooked on a grill, not on a rotisserie) and rice. Find a place that cooks the rice in chicken broth and chicken fat. Such a simple meal but so tasty when you add some fresh avocado, chilis, and salsa to it. Keep in mind I’m not a tortilla fan so I will always opt for rice when given the option.
Nieves de la Soledad. Best ice cream in Oaxaca. I learned about this from @oaxacking. They have tons of interesting flavors using local fruit. My favorite flavor out of the four I tasted was nanche.
Boulenc. If you get a hankering for pastries, pizza, or sandwiches or just need a break from Oaxaca food, this is probably the most popular non-Oaxacan spot in the area. There’s an attached restaurant that has a wait because they’re famous for their pizza and avocado toast. You’ll notice that the place is packed with both tourists and locals.
DID NOT HAVE TIME TO TRY BUT WOULD GO NEXT TIME
Portozuelo. An organic farm to table experience where they show you traditional cooking methods. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Centro and they’re only open on weekends. Make a reservation in advance.
El Distilado. Have heard great things but couldn’t fit it in in this trip. Food photos look pretty bomb.
WAS NOT A HUGE FAN OF THESE PLACES
Criollo. Didn’t really eat anything that blew me away and some dishes were just very boring. The ambience is lovely. The service was poor. We were always waiting for our waiter to come by. It was weird how they didn’t have printed menus. Made it hard to remember what we were eating.
Maguey y Maiz. I think it’s fine for simple straightforward Oaxacan food but nothing I ate there tasted particularly good to me.
Restaurant Casa Oaxaca. Not to be confused with the sister restaurant Cafe Casa Oaxaca, which is way better. Don’t go to this one. The food isn’t as good as the sister restaurant. They do have a nice rooftop here though. It gets booked so make reservations.
WHERE TO DRINK
This isn’t a nightlife city the way CDMX is, but there are some cute mezcal bars. Here were some favorites.
Los Danzantes. Love the interior here. Dark, moody, and sexy. Opens at 7 PM.
Mezcaleria In Situ. Great selection of Mezcal and just a few steps away from Casa Carmen Morelo if you choose to stay there.
OTHER MISCELLANEOUS TIPS
A good rule of thumb to follow when eating street food to avoid getting sick is to eat at the most crowded places.
Bring wet naps with you when you do street food tours because your hands will get pretty sticky and dirty.
Wear a bag that you can keep on your side or in front of you. Backpacks are easy to steal from. At one point in the day I noticed my backpacks small pocket was completely open even though I never use that pocket. Someone had opened it but there was nothing to steal from it. I like these fanny packs that you can wear in front of you: @wearemandrn
Don’t keep all your cash and cards in one location on you. Spread them out. Keep something hidden in your bra in case you get mugged or pick pocketed so you can still get back to your hotel if you need to hail a cab.
Don’t use your phone in crowded areas where it’s easy for people to bump you, grab your phone, and run.
If you can afford it, explore local markets with a private tour guide. They can show you the best stuff, translate for you, teach you about local culture, and make sure you’re safe. Ideally they have a car as well so you can venture out further. This is what I did in Okinawa and it was so worth it to find some of the best food off the beaten path.
To find local food tour guides, google and check out AirBnB experiences. Ask the tour guide what the cost is for a private tour rather than a group tour and decide what makes most sense for you.
Search for and star everything you want to hit in your Google Maps app in advance so it’s easy to pull it up when you’re exploring and see where you should go.
Check days when things are open. In a lot of foreign countries, a lot of places are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Consider this when picking your travel dates. It would suck to take a weekend trip somewhere only to discover nothing good is open on Sundays.
Use the Google Translate app camera feature to point at menus and get them translated in real time.