Located in southern Mexico, Oaxaca is a UNESCO World Heritage City. Its rich heritage includes Zapotec, Mixtec and Spanish cultures, and it’s also an important landmark in Mexican history, established as a colonial city in 1532. The city is in Oaxaca state, where former president Benito Juárez, the great 19th-century liberal reformer and statesman, was born and raised. When he died in 1872, the city’s official name was changed to Oaxaca de Juárez.
1. Explore the Centro Histórico. Enjoy Oaxaca’s laid-back atmosphere at the zócalo (center plaza) and andador turístico (tourist walkway), or on one of its colorful streets (pictured). The beautiful Santo Domingo Cultural Center is also located here. Admission is 57 pesos ($4.40). Closed on Mondays.
2. Savor a tlayuda. The traditional tlayuda is one of Oaxacans’ most popular dishes. Made of a large, slowly cooked corn tortilla, it can be messy but fun to eat. Try it at Las Tlayudas de Libres on Libres 212. Opens every day at 10 p.m.
3. Visit Monte Albán. Founded between 500 and 100 B.C., Monte Albán was the center of Zapotec culture in the Oaxaca Valley until A.D. 1325. Its well-preserved ruins are near the city and make an excellent day trip. At the top, you’ll get a magnificent view of the Oaxaca Valley.
4. Try some mezcal. This smoky, agave-based alcohol has its roots in Oaxaca. There are plenty of mezcalerías to choose from, but among the best are La Cucaracha (Porfirio Díaz 301A), where you can enjoy live music, and Café Central (Miguel Hidalgo 302).
5. Taste Oaxaca’s famous mole. Mole is a thick sauce made of spices, nuts, chilis, and chocolate. There are seven types: rojo, negro, amarillo, chichilo, verde, coloradito and almendrado. Some restaurants, such as Los Pacos (Abasolo 104), offer a sample of each.
6. Take a cooking class. If you want to try some of Oaxaca’s special cuisine at home, cooking classes at Casa de los Sabores (Reforma 402) will give you a tasty lesson in making regional specialties like mole and gorditas.
7. Check out nearby villages and local markets. Teotitlán del Valle is one of the best places to shop for Oaxacan textiles. For alebrijes, fantasy-inspired wooden figures, visit Arrazola. Oaxaca’s own Mercado Benito Juárez offers local products like chapulines (edible grasshoppers), chocolate, Oaxacan cheese, and local crafts.
8. Stroll through the Jardín Etnobotánico. Take a guided tour of the lovely botanical gardens just behind Santo Domingo Church to learn about the plants and cacti native to the state of Oaxaca. Tours are offered in Spanish daily, and in English on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
9.Take in a Lucha Libre match. Mexicans love wrestling, and Oaxacans are no exception. Arena Ray Alcántara (Lucero 100) showcases matches with amateur and professional wrestlers. Matches are held every other Sunday. 100 pesos ($7.70).
10. Enjoy La Guelaguetza. On the first two Mondays of July, this impressive festival celebrates the music, dance and costumes of the seven regions of Oaxaca. A smaller version can be seen any time of year at Hotel Camino Real (5 de Mayo 300, Centro), Fridays at 7 p.m. 365 pesos ($28.10).
View a slideshow of Oaxaca. All photos courtesy of Carin Zissis.