By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
It’s one of the most frequently asked questions about Oaxaca, the UNESCO World Heritage Site: “I’m flying into Oaxaca City on the way to the beach (usually Puerto Escondido or Huatulco), and will be there for only a day, so what should I see?” The answer is straightforward enough, but the sand, sun and surf crowd doesn’t want to hear it: “You’re making a big mistake only spending 24 hours in Oaxaca, so change your itinerary.” But there’s a secondary, substantive reply for the unmoved: “Pack the most noteworthy sights into a single day.”
Itinerary for Spending 24 Hours in Oaxaca
The following schedule is not etched in stone, and in fact contains options which address different interests which may dictate preferred sights to visit. Aside from the Monte Albán ruin, every sight and restaurant is downtown and therefore easily accessible on foot.
7:30 – 8:30 a.m. Enjoy breakfast at your hotel or B & B. Regarding the latter, often breakfast service does not begin until 8:00 a.m., in which case consider foregoing the free meal and eating in a regular restaurant.
8:30 – 12:00 p.m. Walk to the Santa Domingo Cultural Center, or take a taxi or the dedicated bus line to the Monte Albán ruin. If there are any must-see ruins and museums in the state, these are the two. Both bus and taxi to Monte Albán are fast and easy. Each sight takes a couple of hours to see, going at a leisurely pace.
12:00 – 2:00 p.m. There are several market options in Oaxaca City. It’s important to visit at least one which includes a good selection of handicrafts, and another frequented by mainly locals shopping for meats & fish, fruits & vegetables, breads & pastries, and dry goods such as clothing. The main downtown marketplaces in Oaxaca’s centro histórico are the Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre markets, across the street from each other. Close by is the Mercado de las Artesanias, for local crafts such as textiles (cotton woven products, wool rugs known as tapetes, and embroidered blouses, dresses and shirts), pottery (terra cotta, green glazed, barro negro, etc.) and hand carved and painted wooden figures (alebrijes).
2:00 – 4:00 p.m. Many museums and businesses close for siesta, usually between these hours, some remaining closed until 5:00 p.m. Thus, one’s time is maximized by holding out until 2:00 p.m. before stopping for lunch. Choices include eating on the zócalo which provides an opportunity to soak up downtown pageantry, or at middle of the road restaurants popular with both tourists and Oaxacans alike, such as La Biznaga, Las Quince Letras and La Olla.
4:00 – 6:30 p.m. It’s important to visit at least two of the main Dominican churches in downtown Oaxaca. Santa Domingo is the most impressive, so consider it a high priority. Others which you may in fact walk by in the course of the day are the Cathedral and El Templo de La Soledad. For baroque, amble into San Felipe Neri, where Mexico’s native son, Oaxacan Benito Juárez, was married. You’ll also have time to appreciate one of the smaller museums, so choose from the textile museum, the stamp museum, and the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. Each of these can be visited in about 40 minutes.
6:30 – 7:30 p.m. It’s still too early for dinner, at least by Oaxacan standards. Your options include sipping a premium blend coffee (i.e. at Nuevo Mundo, La Brújula or Café Antigua), sitting outside at Jardín Socrates for a dish of refreshing nieve (water and milk based sherbets), or sampling a couple of mezcals while learning about production and tasting notes (i.e. at Mezcaloteca, In Situ, or any of the dozen or so other mezcalerias peppering the downtown core)
7:30 – 8:30 p.m. It’s time to return to your accommodations to freshen up before dinner.
8:30 – 10:30 p.m. Higher end dinner options include Los Danzantes, Casa Oaxaca, Origen and La Pitiona. It’s best to read several online reviews before choosing since opinions about restaurants are extremely subjective.
Discuss Final Details of Your Oaxaca Visit with Lodging Manager or Concierge
Your hotel or B & B will provide you with a complimentary map of all major downtown Oaxaca sights, including the foregoing. Time permitting, have a brief chat with the manager or concierge and have him note the location of each stop you hope to make. It’s also advisable to confirm days and hours of closures, since some sights are open only six days a week, and many close for siesta for two or three hours. If your accommodation provides value added service, you should be able to email in advance of your visit, to pin down many details of your whirlwind tour of Oaxaca.
Alvin Starkman has been advising tourists to Oaxaca for over two decades. If “stuck” in Oaxaca for a second day, consider taking one of Alvin’s Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (firstname.lastname@example.org).