Insiders Guide to Oaxaca

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I am often asked about my favorite places in the world, and often a conversation occurs where it doesn't cross my mind to mention my beloved Mexico; the motherland, my parents home country.

Although my parents home state is vastly different, the culture and food, the people and varied landscapes remain the same and make it a favored destination of mine year after year. Yet of all the spots I claim to conocer oh so well, Oaxaca. However, a place I have only made a small dent of all the thrills and frills of this amazingly vibrant, colonial city with rich indigenous roots.

There is no doubt that Oaxaca will always hold a near and dear place to my heart. It's the significance of a closing chapter in my life, yet welcoming a new horizon, a new chapter if you will. This charming town with Mexican hospitality and endless corazon is also the heart of Mexican cuisine.

After falling in love with its storied and cobbled streets, the vibrant culture, colors, sounds, tastes, and the amazingly hospitable climate. It’s a place with bustling marketplaces, lively fiestas, and beautiful folk art traditions and fascinating history.

It is time to teeter into the unknown, this way by way of Oaxaca. Ready to discover some of the hidden (and not so hidden) gems?

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DORMIR [to sleep]

Casa Oaxaca is the charming little hotel with a quirky heart-shaped pool, stands on its own two feet, with its mixture of colonial architecture with modern touches. Be sure to eat at the restaurant here, it’s been touted as one of the best. Taking up residence in this architecturally stunning and historically fascinating 19th century Oaxacan mansion is Casa de Sierra Azul. This is also a place my group stayed, and enjoyed the 17 high-ceilinged rooms to choose from, each one decorated in a classy yet simple style, with colorful accents. Casa de las Bugambilias is just one of three guest houses that they run in Oaxaca and is well located only one block from the famed Santa Domingo temple. It's personal touches and traditional Mexican artesanías within each of the 8 rooms.

COMER [to eat]

When it comes to food and drink, Oaxaca will not disappoint because this is one of Mexico's best foodie destinations, and many of the regional dishes date back to pre-Hispanic times. Its culinary offerings include a wide variety of corn-based dishes, and the local gastronomy also makes good use of the vast array of chiles grown in the state. Mole sauces are a specialty; you'll hear about seven different moles, but there are in fact more. Oaxaca is a significant mezcal producing center, and tasting the endless varieties is a favorite pastime.

Don’t miss out on the street food in Oaxaca. You’ll find many street foods stands throughout the city. Forget about gourmet restaurants: these stands are where some of the city’s best food is served, and the friendly banter of your dining companions will be hard to beat. From Elotes y Esquites (Mexican Street Corn) to Chapulines to fresh mango with chili, there’s plenty to pick from.

Origen Oaxacan herbs and chiles, ceviches and risottos converge on the menu of Origen, the restaurant of Top Chef Mexico winner, Castellanos Reyes. The creation of their dishes is based on tradition; it is enough to try the unforgettable language in Mole Chichilo to realize the office of the cradle of chef Castellanos.

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Come for the fantastic breakfast 
in the leafy garden, stay for a conversation with Alejandro Ruiz, the amiable chef. of Casa Oaxaca Café. The sprawling food market of Central de Abastos Mercado is an excellent place for lunch, with dozens of vendors preparing meals on the spot. Between Juárez Maza and Calle de Victoria. Enrique Olvera’s new restaurant, 
Criollo, serves creative spin on classic Oaxacan dishes in a modern space with an outdoor dining room.
 Run by the talented Chef Pilar Cabrera, Restaurant la Olla is an unpretentious restaurant offering Oaxacan specialties. Head to the upper-level dining room, which is more spacious than the ground floor, with artwork by local artists. The moles are delicious, but to start, order the squash blossom soup.

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Los Danzantes has three restaurants scattered across Southern Mexico, but the one in Oaxaca is locally considered to be outstanding with equally impressive cocktails. Get out of the city and pay a visit to the distillery as well. For 
 education in Oaxaca’s signature spirit, book 
a tasting at this bar/classroom in the city center for Mezcaloteca. There 
are nearly 100 varieties on 
offer.. 
Graciela Ángeles Carreño’s distillery is a farm-to-glass operation at Mezcal Real Minero. Tour the agave crops before settling into the tasting room.

Mexico is perhaps not the most well-known coffee producing country, but in Veracruz, Chiapas and Guerrero in particular, there are quality beans being produced. However, what about colonial Oaxaca? Your coffee options are not limited in this historic, quaint and vibrant city. El Volador, Cofetarika, and Alma de Café are worth checking out.

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HACER [to do]

Wander through the Historic Center of Zócalo. Oaxaca City was built for the wanderer; winding streets take you high up above the center with views over the Oaxacan skyline, and cobbled paths lead you to cafés you wouldn’t ordinarily have found in a million years. The multi-colored façades of many of Oaxaca City’s houses and edifices only add to this charming town. You’d be hard-pressed to visit Oaxaca and not stop by the Museo de las Culturas at least once, given that it’s located next to the famed Templo de Santo Domingo in the 17th century converted monastery. Even if you’re not big on museums, this one does have some cool exhibits you should check it out for the location alone. The large open windows frame the surrounding Ethnobotanical Garden, creating some literally picture perfect views.

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Explore the art galleries throughout Oaxaca is a must. While Mexico City takes the title for the most museums, Oaxaca is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to art galleries. From smaller independent ones that you can dip in and out of as you wander the cobbled, winding streets of the city to the larger more famous ones that display pieces from renowned artists, the art scene in Oaxaca is absolutely one of the things you must see. Visit the mezcal distilleries. The spiky agave plants whose piñas (hearts) harvested to roast, mash and ferment, it became clear why this is one of the most excellent mezcal you’ll taste.
 Chef Pilar Cabrera of Restaurant la Olla, also offers cooking classes through Casa de los Sabores. For more fun experiences, check out Airbnb Experiences, where you’ll find unique cooking classes, tours, gallery walks and so much more.


Updated May 2019