Last Updated on July 8, 2022 by Paroma
Headed to Mexico and wondering how to spend three days in Oaxaca? No need to worry cause I have the perfect 3 days Oaxaca City itinerary curated just for you! From the very best attractions to the yummiest of food and drinks, this Oaxaca City guide covers both culture and cuisine, showcasing the very best of south-central Mexico in 3 days.
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Why spend three days in Oaxaca?
Oaxaca, one of the 31 states in Mexico, lies in the south-central part of the country. The state is primarily known for its Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations and is widely considered to be Mexico’s food capital for it’s unique, complex Mexican cuisine, bursting with flavor. Known widely as the land of moles (those complex Oaxacan sauces that will send you drooling), Oaxaca is the culinary epicenter of Mexico and should be at the very top of your list if you’re a foodie.
Although the state of Oaxaca encompasses Oaxaca city (capital), small towns and also beaches, this guide to spending three days in Oaxaca exclusively focuses on the Oaxaca city, including a completely separate post on Oaxaca city food guide for all budgets because the food here is so diverse and delicious that it deserves a standalone guide of its own. Seriously, if you’re ever visiting Mexico with at least 2-3 weeks in hand, you need to include this gastronomic capital of the country in your 2 weeks in Mexico itinerary.
How to get to Oaxaca City?
During our visit to Mexico, we flew into Oaxaca City from Mexico City via Aero Mexico. Even that short flight of 1.5 hours was delayed by an hour and we did find the domestic terminal and flight times in Mexico to be quite chaotic. You could take the bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca City which is a much cheaper, but takes a lot longer, i.e. about 7 hours to get there. You can find out all the transportation options to Oaxaca City from CDMX right here.
Where to stay in Oaxaca city?
Old town part/ Zone 1 of Oaxaca city, unlike the sprawling Mexico City or the resort infested Yucatan peninsula, is a relatively small area which is totally navigable by foot. There are many beautiful hotels in Oaxaca and you are best advised to make your reservations in Zone 1/Zona Centro, which is the closest from the airport and near Plaza de la Constitución or Zócalo (city plaza).
We stayed at the centrally located Hotel Trebol, which had beautiful rooms, great wifi and complimentary breakfast. Trebol boast of old Spanish colonial style architecture and is decorated with traditional Oaxacan handicrafts. I highly recommend this hotel in Oaxaca city for a comfortable stay and convenience of sightseeing.
Public Transportation: How to get around Oaxaca City on a 3 day visit
Given the cobbled streets and narrow alleys, it’s best not to rent and drive around in Oaxaca city. Granted the cabs don’t have meters and you have to kind of rely on the cabbie’s word for the fare, but because we used a cab only a few times and the exchange rate was favorable for the US dollar, we did not mind. We did spot a few buses, but they seemed pretty sparse.
Honestly, Oaxaca city is pretty walkable and its best to explore everything on foot within Zone 1. At least for us, most of the attractions were within walking distance, since we were right next to the Zocalo. A pair of sturdy footwear and you can fearlessly roam around everywhere, even till late at night (it’s pretty safe). Finally, always get a taxi voucher from the official taxi stop at the airport for your shared taxi. Our hotel called a cab for us on our way back to the airport.
Best time to visit Oaxaca
We visited in November and I recommend you do so too! Late Fall/early winter is still pretty mild weather in Oaxaca and you will enjoy the city more once the Dia de los Muertos crowds have dispersed. Summer is really hot in Oaxaca with temperatures rising above 80F (27C).
Is three days enough to explore Oaxaca?
3 days is clearly not enough to see the whole state, but if you concentrate on Oaxaca City, then you can get a lot covered. Oaxaca City (Zone 1/Zona Centro) may be small but there is so much to eat and see that 3 days will pass by in a jiffy! You could also tag in half a day trip to Monte Alban to see the pre-Colombian ruins and enjoy the change in scenery.
The best things to do in Oaxaca in three days
A) Explore the architecture of Oaxaca City
There are so many things to do in Oaxaca in 3 days, but the easiest place to start off is by simply taking in the architectural splendor of Oaxaca city. If you’ve been to Old San Juan or read my previous travel post on Puerto Rico, you will get a major bout of nostalgia in this off the beaten path guide to Oaxaca city.
The beautiful buildings and homes lining the street adorned with a rainbow of colors and boasting of colonial Spanish style architecture, seem straight out of a street scene in Old San Juan. Add to this the narrow stone cobbled streets, painted street signs and banners and you have rows and rows of postcard worthy scenes laid out in front of you.
The quaintness and old charm of Oaxaca city, the shops in the tiny lanes, the beautiful local boutiques and restaurants big and small tucked in every corner provide a visual treat, everywhere you go.
B) Shop till you drop in Zona Centro
Shopping is definitely one of the best things to do in Oaxaca city since it is renowned worldwide for its arts and crafts, the most prominent ones being its rich tapestry of weaving, textiles, pottery and the most famous of all, wooden figures called “alebrijes” which consist of whimsical creatures (mostly animals) that are then painted with intricate designs.
There are many independent stores along the cobbled alleys of Oaxaca city selling many of these items, but your best bet in terms of price, supporting local artisans and getting a wide variety of handicrafts on display is at co-operatives or artisans collective selling a mind-boggling array of traditional arts. The three places where we shopped the most were Mujeres Artesanas de las Regiones de Oaxaca,La Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca and the most famous of all, Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca on Avenida Independencia.
Besides getting several wooden figurines, a few garments, cloth slippers and wooden jewelry boxes, we also snagged two wooden Mexican masks from an antique store which accepted dollars, much to our delight. We also found a few other cute boutiques and a textile store in the surroundings selling local handmade items and garments.
C) Admire the churches
Oaxaca city is famous for its churches and a visit to the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán is a must if you are wondering what to do in three days in Oaxaca. A former monastery founded in 1575 by the Dominican order, this Baroque style building is a visual wonder and boasts of a highly decorated interior comprising of more than 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leaves.
The interior is dazzling, but the exterior, with its etched domes, towers over its surroundings. Right next to it is the former monastery garden called the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, which is maintained over 2.32 hectares of land by the state government. The church was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987 and is one of the major attractions of Oaxaca city.
The church stands amidst a plaza where festivities and parades begin or come to an end, such as the one we saw one night for the Virgin Mary. Other churches, although less resplendent, are the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, which we either marveled at from outside or peeked in.
D) Explore the museums in Oaxaca City
Oaxaca has several small museums, of which we chanced upon the textile museum in one alley and spent some time in the Cultural Centre of Oaxaca, which is actually the monastery of the Santa Domingo church now repurposed into a museum housing several artifacts from the pre-Columbus era, contemporary paintings on world political ideologies and political movements in Oaxaca, exhibits on Oaxacan socio-political life and origins and Oaxaca history.
A walk up to the second floor and you will get to see the botanical garden and a spectacular view of the domes of the Santa Domingo. The descriptions of all the exhibits are solely in Spanish so if you are really keen on learning more, better get a guide or enquire for an English audio guide equipment.
The textile museum was tricky to find because although all the guidebooks and websites clearly mention the presence of the textile museum of Oaxaca, Google maps says otherwise and takes you straight to its namesake somewhere in Mexico city. Oaxaca is known for its varied styles of textiles and looms and so when we stumbled upon an art fair in an alley that was right next to the museum, we took some time to wander around to discover the different styles of weaving and the arrays of beautiful shawls, skirts and blouses on display.
E) Go on a Day trip from Oaxaca city: Visit to Monte Alban
The ruins of Monte Alban (White Mountain), a mere 6 miles from Zocalo are a must visit and can be either reached via a cab ($ 120-150 pesos) or via buses and make for an excellent day trip from Oaxaca and should definitely be on your list of things to do when spending 3 days in Oaxaca.
Like the Mayans on the Yucatan peninsula and Aztecs in what is present day Mexico City, the pre-Spanish conquest era saw the Zapotecs in this part of the country and their organized city ruins are still in Monte Alban, sprawling across huge expanse of a region nestled atop a low mountainous range.
It is one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and continued to be the socio-political and economic center for the Zapotecs for about a 1000 years. The city was founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC and lost its importance as the seat of power towards the end of the Late Classic period (ca. AD 500-750) after which it was mostly deserted.
You can hire a tour guide outside the ticketing booth for a more immersive experience, but we had no such luck in doing so; thus we simply wandered around and read the bilingual signs. Half a day can be easily spent around the ruins and this being the closest historic spot to Oaxaca city, comes highly recommended. Moreover, since the ruins are spread out, it does not feel crowded at all. A fantastic view of Oaxaca city can be seen from atop the ruins, some of which you are allowed to climb.
F) Eat your heart out with street food, fine dining and everything in between
Oaxaca is the culinary capital of Mexico and the land of magical moles flowing from wherever you go. From street food to cafes to fancy dining and market places, you will be surrounded with decadent chocolate, mole lathered food and string cheese to keep you satiated but wanting more. Read my complete Oaxaca food guide to book your seats and plane tickets ASAP!
G) Enjoy the art scene and murals of Oaxaca city
Oaxaca has a very vibrant and edgy art scene, so much so that the whole movement seems kind of misplaced in this quiet little town. But it makes its presence felt via the many print shops in and around Avenida Independencia and there is a printmaking workshop and art walk from time to time, which we seemed to have missed narrowly during our visit.
I highly recommend going on an art walk or at least a self guided mural tour (see details below) if you are looking for artsy things to do during your 3 days in Oaxaca. We did manage to visit some very cool print shops and a small exhibit at the Institute of printing and graphic design where we were greeted with rows of edgy and might I add, racy prints and photos, heavily influenced by Japanese Anime and Manga.
The mural scene in Oaxaca is pretty impressive as well and you can download a Google map showing the different locations of the murals (most are walkable from the Zocalo). Although we found quite a few that had been whitewashed or painted over, there were several very eye popping ones that we encountered. Overall, the art scene in Oaxaca left us pretty flabbergasted, albeit in a nice way, because it is nowhere as subdued as the rest of the city.
Other posts that may interest you: list of some other attractions and ideas for day trips from Oaxaca, my guides to Mexico city , day trip from Guadalajara to Tequila and Tulum in Riviera Maya.
That brings me to the end of this 3 days in Oaxaca itinerary with my top things to do in Oaxaca City. Hope you enjoyed this post and have found plenty of ideas on what to do in Oaxaca in 3 days!
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