Oaxaca was the reason for our visit to Mexico and a city I had been wanting to visit for some time. The population is only about 300,000 to Mexico City's almost 9 million, and I definitely felt that the four days we spent there was more than enough -- Two to three full days would be enough to see most of the highlights. I was also really looking forward to the food (Oaxaca is home to mole and is celebrated as one of the best "foodie cities" in Mexico), but we were disappointed in comparison to what we've had in the Yucatan and Mexico City. Still, the city is beautiful and worth a stop.
What We Ate
Cafe Volador. Oaxaca is famous for its coffee, and this cafe is a shining example. It's a tiny spot with only a few seats, selling whole coffee beans as well as the usual selection of specialty drinks. Centrally located near our hotel (Casa Conzatti, also highly recommended), we stopped here almost every morning for a latte and a mocha.
Cafe Brujala. Another Oaxacan cafe with several locations, this one is more popular among tourists and was D's favorite spot (he is much more of a coffee conoussier than I am). They also sell coffee beans by the pound.
Oaxaca En Una Taza. This cute cafe near the city center serves up dozens of varieties of hot chocolate; my favorite was the almond flavor, but they also offer options such as peanut and chile. You can buy bars of chocolate to take home to try and replicate the experience.
Museo de Nieves. Also conveniently located close to our hotel, this ice cream spot serves both traditional helado and shaved ice, with multiple tropical flavors to choose from. I had fresa con leche (strawberry with milk), which was delicious. They will let you try flavors before choosing.
Sabina Sabe. One of the fancier places we ate at, this mezcal bar (the liquor for which Oaxaca is famous for) serves up delicious cocktails and so-so food. A good place to sample the local alcohol in a hip environment.
Tacos Senor Rodeo. This is a very typical taco stand in the less-touristed area of town. Since we were overall not overly impressed by the food, this was a welcome return to what we've come to expect from traditional Mexican food. Cheap, simple, and delicious.
Itatoni. Another out-of-the-way restaurant, but worth a visit. They serve a variety of quesadillas, tostadas, and a stuffed tortilla dish called tetelas, which I have seen only in Oaxaca.
Maria Alejandra. This is a food stand in one of Oaxaca's main markets (20 de Noviembre, the other being La Merced) serving up typical Oaxacan dishes, and the site of one of the best meals I had in the city: simple enchiladas verdes. They had just the right amount of tang, and were more flavorful than most of the other meals, whether on the upper or lower end of the price spectrum, that I had in Oaxaca. The market is open 7am to 9pm daily.
What We Did
Templo de Santo Domingo. One of the most famous buildings in Oaxaca and well worth a visit. It's located smack dab in the center of the city, and the ceiling inside is ornately decorated with religious images. I'm normally not one for churches, but found this one impressive.
Hierve el Agua. This is one of the day trips we did from Oaxaca, about an hour and a half drive from the city. We did a package tour of sorts that also stopped at a mezcal brewery and a rug-weaving business, as well as an overpriced buffet for lunch. Hierve el Agua itself is an impressive natural site home to several petrified waterfalls (one of only two such locations in the world, the other being in Turkey) as well as natural pools at the entrance.
Well worth the cost and trouble to get there. We spent about an hour hiking around the site with our guide (including some questionable scrambling up steep rocks) before cooling off in the pools.
Voces de Copal. One of the most captivating parts of Oaxaca was the ubiquitous presence of wooden figurines known as alebrijes, which were invented after their creator had a fever-induced nightmare involving the strange beasts. They are now found mostly in Oaxaca and Mexico City, and range from cheap souvenirs sold on the roadside to several-hundred-dollar works of art.
Voces de Copal is a gallery/coffee shop which showcases several local artists as reasonable prices. We also visited the nearby alebrije-manufacturing town of Arrazola, which is tiny, hot and not worth the trek except for one beautiful gallery (Taller de Angelico Jimenez).
Where We Stayed
Hotel Casa Conzatti. This was a great find - centrally located, well-decorated, good service and decent price at around $60/night. Highly recommended.
Overall, Oaxaca is worth a visit, but I would make it a shorter trip combined with Mexico City or perhaps the beaches along the coast, which we did not visit. It's only about an hour's flight from the capital, so it's easy to add on as a weekend-long excursion.