Oaxaca city guide: stay, eat, drink and shop

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tthis is where Oaxaca’s creative energy is buzzing, whether you’re perusing underground art, following a street protest or gallery hopping in whitewashed museums. Indigenous culture is proud to be seen in high-end restaurants that riff on traditional ingredients; as you enter a local market means sampling cooling pre-Columbian-era cocoa drinks, and perhaps a handful of roasted grasshoppers. Beyond the city limits are ancient pyramids for playing archaeologist amid crumbling rocks.

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Oaxacan days tend to lapse into dreamy rhythms, set in the background by the spectacular natural surroundings. The densely forested Sierra Madre Mountains surround the city, where the early mornings ignite a chorus of tropical birdsong, the afternoons are slow siesta and the cool evenings draw families to stroll the shady squares. Here’s how to explore this ultra-hip yet laid-back regional capital.

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Monte Alban, the ruins of the Zapotec civilization in Oaxaca

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What must we do

Enjoy the local art

Work by contemporary artists from Oaxaca and beyond clashes strikingly against the genteel, restored colonial mansion that houses them as the Museum of Oaxacan Painters (£1). The smaller (and free) Manuel Álvarez Bravo Photographic Center has excellent temporary exhibits set around a shaded, plant-filled courtyard. For something a little more rugged, head to Espacio Zapata, a gallery of sculpture, serigraphs, stencils and murals that are staples of the street art scene.

Dive into living indigenous traditions

The 950 plant species in Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden represent just 10 percent of Oaxaca’s extraordinary biodiversity, but wandering these walled grounds is about more than just native flora. It’s all about gardening as cultural history, with plots devoted to traditional medicines and staple foods in the region. One hour tours cost £2 in Spanish and £4 in English.

While many woven works of art can be found in every market here, the very best tapestries are on display at Oaxaca’s free-to-visit Textile Museum. In a restored 18th-century mansion, the museum has everything from hand-woven carpets to multimedia installations that blend weaving tradition with contemporary design.

See the pre-Columbian culture

Just 9km from downtown Oaxaca is the UNESCO-listed archaeological site of Monte Albán (£3), which was inhabited by Olmecs, Zapotec and Mixtecs for some 1,500 years. Think stepped stone pyramids, ball courts, temples and hilltop palaces with commanding views over the Oaxaca Valley.

To learn more about what was inside, check out the treasures of silver, gold and precious stones discovered in Monte Albán’s magnificent Tomb 7, now on display at the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures in downtown Oaxaca (£3). Housed in an elegantly converted convent, the collection hops through the ages, ranging from Zapotec grandeur to the arrival of Europeans and Mexican independence.

Taste the local spirit

For a deeper sense of Oaxaca’s signature drink, mezcal — which is distilled from maguey, a type of succulent agave — makes a pilgrimage to one of the city’s encyclopedic tasting rooms. There are nearly 200 varieties at In Situ Mezcalería, where the staff will guide you through a personalized tasting. Or make a reservation in advance for a reverent small-bottle tasting at the library-like Mezcaloteca.

A room in the Casa Antonieta hotel, Oaxaca

(Casa Antonietta)

Where to stay

Hostal Central’s sunny, plant-covered patio is an eternal gathering place, making it a favorite among travelers seeking socializing. A premium breakfast included in your rate offers a rotating menu of hearty Oaxacan fare, while private single rooms with a shared bathroom start from £20; a bunk bed in a four bed dorm costs from £11, B&B. hostalcentraloaxaca.negocio.site

Built in one of the oldest homes in Oaxaca, the Casa Antonieta combines historic architecture with a hip sensibility. Carefully chosen handicrafts abound in nine unique rooms and suites, some of which open onto meditation gardens. Doubles from £114, room only. casaantonieta.com

Desert chic reigns supreme at 12-room boutique hotel Escondido Oaxaca, with clean lines of adobe and ahuehuete– wooden furniture. Designed by renowned Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, the hotel combines a historic facade with a newly built brutalist tower. The rooftop pool and pergola bar beckon on warm afternoons, while the ground floor ‘culture space’ has been designed with remote workers in mind. Doubles from £200, B&B. escondidooaxaca.com

Traditional food at Terraza Istmo

(Terraza Istmo)

Where to eat

Next to classic Oaxaca wart sauces and steamed tamale street snacks, Levadura de Olla’s menu features “protected” plates – such as traditional stew made from blossoms of the colorín tree – that risk being lost from the region’s culinary repertoire. Order a selection of dishes with some chilled pozontlea frothy cocoa drink served in a traditional cup called a jicara.

Rooftop terraces are an Oaxaca specialty, but climbing the stairs to Terraza Istmo feels like a secret let in. Hidden above a nondescript hotel, the restaurant specializes in dishes from the Oaxaca Isthmus region, such as oven-baked shrimp and meat stews spiked with tropical fruits.

A double wart tasting at Restaurante Coronita includes all seven traditional thick sauces of Oaxaca, usually served with fish or chicken – from chocolate mole negro to spicy-sweet mole amarillo. It’s a showstopper, and the menu also features a long list of Oaxacan classics, such as: tlayuda flatbreads and quesadillas filled with the aromatic herb epazote.

open air neverias (ice cream parlors) with quirky local flavors fill a small square next to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. A classic combo is creamy, smoky leche quemada of “tuna” sorbet made from cactus fruit, but spicy versions with chili are crowd pleasers. while each never will do when it boils, 172-year-old Neveria Malena is never without a queue, and for good reason.

With a cocktail menu built around local ingredients, Selva Oaxaca Cocktail Bar has a sexy jungle speakeasy feel, all polished brass and tropical foliage. Sip on the leafy green signature Selva creation for an herbal jolt of flavor courtesy of hi santa (Mexican pepper leaf), chili liqueur, agave syrup and mezcal on barrel maturing.

Dive into any market and you will see rainbow assortments from aguas frescas – refreshing drinks scooped from tall glass jars. Buried in the lively Mercado Benito Juárez is the nearly hundred-year-old Casilda Aguas Regionales stand, where locals come for a drink horchata with tunaa sweet rice milk cooler enriched with prickly pear cactus fruit.

Where to shop

Covered markets are an Oaxaca highlight that excites souvenir-hunting travelers while locals pick up provisions. Find a little bit of everything at Mercado Benito Juarez, or delve into the vast wholesale area that is Central de Abastos.

Chic takes traditional crafts in abundance in downtown boutiques. Slip on shoes embroidered with wild designs by local artisans at Zipak Na Calzado Artesanal, then browse beautiful rustic clay wares at the Colectivo 1050° pottery cooperative.

Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo

(Fundacion Alfredo Harp Helu Oaxaca)

Architectural highlight

Modernist architecture of glass and metal enlivens a restored 16th-century Dominican monastery in the Centro Cultural San Pablo, with rotating exhibitions highlighting local artists.

Bolts and nuts

What currency do I need?

Mexican pesos.

What language do they speak?

Spanish.

Do I have to tip?

10 percent for good service.

What is the time difference?

Six hours behind the UK.

How should I move?

The compact historic center is ideal for exploring on foot. For nearby excursions, private taxis are affordable and preferable to local traffic in a rental car. Public transport includes collective taxis, local buses and minibuses, and is efficient but busy and at times adventurous. For a long journey from Oaxaca, opt for the comfort of air-conditioned commercial bus lines.

What is the best view?

Catch the sunset from Cerro del Fortín hill that overlooks the city – grab a taxi downtown and watch the city’s buildings turn luminous gold.

Insider tip?

Don’t be put off chapulines, the fried grasshoppers that are culinary here. Crispy, salty and rich in protein, locals know them as a delicious crunchy, savory drink.

Chapulines (fried grasshoppers) for sale in Oaxaca

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

getting there

Are you trying to fly less?

Occasional freighters go from European ports accessible by train (Le Havre, Rotterdam) to Veracruz, Mexico. From here it is an eight hour bus to Oaxaca, via Córdoba.

Good with flying?

British Airways and Aeromexico fly direct from the UK to Mexico City, from where it’s a 6.5 hour bus or 2.5 hour flight to Oaxaca.

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