Oaxaca Travel Guide

How the laid-back mountain town in southern Mexico became one of the West’s hottest cultural destinations—with a little help from mezcal

Maya Kroth
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Urban Spirit

In low-key Oaxaca (both the name of the state and its capital), traditions span centuries, even millennia. However, the new Oaxaca is a city so abuzz with creative energy you can hear it 3,000 miles away in mezcal bars from Seattle to West Hollywood—where it seems as if everybody is either just back from or about to go on a trip to this cradle of agave. Here, you can stay at a bougainvillea-covered B&B and toured the pre-Columbian archaeological site at Monte Albán. You can watch chocolate being ground at the shops on Calle Mina, eat your way through the markets, and dine in white-tablecloth restaurants dishing up regional moles from recipes handed down for generations. You can also taste mezcal—tequila’s smoky sister, a spirit distilled from fermented, fire-roasted agave—which has become the hottest drink on the U.S. bar scene. ­

Oa­xaca has evolved from hippie to hipster and is fast becoming the destination del día for the international creative class. Tourism is up by nearly a third since a decade ago, with travelers drawn by the deepening mezcal culture, innovative new restaurants, a thriving contemporary art community, and charming boutique hotels carved out of restored colonial buildings. But instead of abandoning its history to chase trends, the latest generation of artists and entrepreneurs is striking a delicate balance: using the past to inform the future and define its modern soul.

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Present Perfect

Nowadays, upmarket hotels stand as evidence that money is, indeed, pouring into Oaxaca. But the buildings are not showy new constructions; they’re human-scale rehabs of existing structures that fit seamlessly into the streetscape. This is modernism, Mexico-style, where new motifs are juxtaposed against the exposed brick, smooth whitewashed walls, and graphical floor tiles of old. As fancy hotels have multiplied, so too have the number of mezcalerías and regional palenques. Today’s most coveted bottles are those made in the traditional way, without slick marketing or expensive equipment. In the downtown area alone, there are more than a dozen tasting rooms, boutiques, and bars.

For all its festive parades and bustling plazas, Oaxaca is a city of inte­riors, of private courtyards glimpsed through momentarily open doors. Behind one of them, a craft brewery is cooking up a batch of IPA, and the wafting aroma of warm cereal mingles with the wet-dust smell of the rain, another sign of 21st-century trends encroaching on 486 years of tradition. This captivating blend of old and new is replicated everywhere. Yet despite the innovation, authenticity and tradition are still lionized. Oaxaca transcends trendiness; its allure is eternal.

Below are some of our favorite spots to check out in the city.
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Archivo Maguey

Come to this “mezcal archive” for educational tastings, regional cuisine, and live music. facebook.com/archivomaguey.

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Casa Estambul

Located in El Centro Histórico, this hot spot comes alive at night with art, music, and mezcal. Order an Aperol spritz made with the agave spirit. facebook.com/casaestambul.

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The dining room from rock-star chefs Enrique ­Olvera and Luis Arellano showcases seasonal local ingredients in a tasting menu of contemporary Mexican food that changes daily. criollo.mx.

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Winner of Top Chef Mexico 2016, Rodolfo Castellanos does a contemporary deep dive into the cuisine of various regions of the state at Origen, which opened in 2011. origenoaxaca.com.

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El Destilado

With chef Julio Aguilera at the kitchen’s helm, El Destilado features multicourse menus of cheffy dishes (like quail with granola and smoked crema) paired with Mexican wines (including sake), uncertified small-batch mezcal, and more. ­eldestilado.com.

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El Tendajón Agavería

The perfect spot for an afternoon snack with local beers, mezcal cocktails, and pulque. +011 52 (951) 285 6299.

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Tired of tortillas? This courtyard restaurant is all about bread-based brunches, from tortas made with focaccia, ciabatta, or baguette to sourdough-crust pizzas. boulenc.com.

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Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán

The Baroque structure dating back to the 18th century is one of the city's architectural icons.
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Museo de Arte Contempo­ráneo de Oaxaca (MACO)

Oaxaca’s contemporary art museum presents work by top Mexican and international artists, from ­Cindy Sherman to ­Jaime Ruiz Otis. museomaco.org.

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Museo Textil de Oaxaca

Learn about traditional weaving methods through workshops, see the latest in contemporary ­textile art, or—at the very least—peek at pictures of the striking courtyard. museotextildeoaxaca.org.
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Turista Gráfico

Delve into street art and the indie creative scene on a bilingual walking tour of the city’s printmaking workshops, including Hoja Santa studio (pictured), dedicated to works by women. facebook.com/pasaportegrafico.

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Guide Omar Alonso (pictured at the Museo de la Filatelia, the city's stamp museum) leads ­private tours on which you get to meet market vendors, mezcaleros, and artisans. $150 U.S./person; oaxacking.com.

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Hilo de Nube Oaxaca

The modern, concrete-clad fair-trade store offers traditional ­embroidered garments called huipiles, made in the village of San Juan Guichicovi and other neighboring communities. kichink.com/stores/hilodenubeoaxaca.

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Tienda Q

Crafted items for the home and art installations are featured at this multiroom shop. +011 52 (951) 514 8880.

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Colectivo 1050°

Oaxacan artisans work together to design handmade clay mezcal cups, lamps, and other functional objects sold in this small shop. 1050grados.com.

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Hotel Los Amantes

Find jacuzzi rooms, rentable ­cruiser bikes, and a rooftop restaurant and bar at this boutique stay from the owners of the eponymous ­mezcalería. From $209 U.S.; ­hotellosamantes.com.

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Hotel Azul de Oaxaca

One of Oaxaca’s first contemporary design hotels features a fountain installation by painter and sculptor Francisco Toledo, a rooftop bar overlooking downtown, and a patio landscaped with cactus native to the region. From $190 U.S.; ­hotelazuloaxaca.com.

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Casa Antonieta

One of the town’s oldest buildings now serves as a charming six-room hotel just two blocks from the zócalo. From $103 U.S.; casaantonieta.com.