Known for its vibrant city streets and strong mezcal cocktails, Oaxaca (pronounced waa-haa-kuh) is quickly becoming the hottest destination for all kinds of explorers. Whether you’re traveling solo, as a couple, with friends, or with family, there’s plenty of fun, food, and desert sunshine for everyone. For the latest installment of ELLE Escapes and our September issue, we traveled to Oaxaca de Juárez to check out the gorgeous landscapes and find some local gems, with model Georgia Palmer as our fashionable guide. Here are the top spots to check out while you’re in the capital of Mexico’s southern state.
When I sent pictures of Oaxaca to my family back home, they first remarked how authentic everything looked—because it is! In fact, Oaxacan businesses have special guidelines preventing them from using large or obtrusive signage that might diminish the pristine beauty of the city. That often makes the shops appear closed by U.S. standards, but once you step inside, there are hidden treasures everywhere you look. Walking around the colorful streets of Andador Turístico, the main walkway with street vendors, is the best way to soak in your surroundings, and find souvenirs you weren’t necessarily looking for (but appreciate nonetheless).
Oaxaca is rich in cultural activities, and the craftwork and artistic scene is certainly one to watch. There are galleries and museums all over, but if you’re into surrealist art in particular, then the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños is a lovely respite to explore. Housed in a former mansion, it doesn’t have a permanent collection, but rather temporary exhibitions that are free or donation-based to view.
While the city itself is gorgeous, its botanical garden is Instagram heaven. Housing flora and cacti that are native to various parts of Oaxaca, the garden is a nature preserve only accessible via guided tour. You’ll have to plan ahead to book, so if you want to secure those likes, you should definitely make time to visit.
Los Danzantes was the first restaurant recommended to me before my trip, and upon stepping inside, it’s obvious why. The restaurant doesn’t have a traditional roof, but instead is totally open, with a comforting breeze that rolls steadily through. The food and drinks are, by many reports, the best in the city, and the ambiance is unbeatable. Reservations are strongly encouraged; if you manage to nab one, order the chintextle octopus and Elegant Stranger mezcal cocktail. You won’t regret it.
A rooftop restaurant overlooking the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Casa Oaxaca is another restaurant that locals and tourists alike will tell you visit pronto. The kitchen uses homegrown and locally produced ingredients to create dishes that are artistic and authentic at the same time. Meat lovers won’t want to miss the rabbit, lamb, and beef-centric creations.
A gastronomical and architectural experience in one, Criollo allows you to immerse yourself in the best of Oaxacan ingredients and cooking methods. Both traditional and innovative, worldly and local, the restaurant is a truly unique creation by international chef Enrique Olvera. If carefully planned and sourced multi-course meals are your thing, this is the spot to try. Your eyes, stomach, and spirit will all be well-fed by the time you leave.
Conveniently located above Los Danzantes, Selva overlooks the Andador de Macedonia Alcalá, aka the bustling pedestrian walkway in the center of the city. The immaculate vibes match the bar’s carefully crafted cocktails, characterized by their therapeutic and relaxing properties. It’s the perfect place to visit on its own, or for after-dinner drinks.
For a true dive bar experience, Bar Ilegal is the place to go. With their own brand of sustainably crafted mezcal and weekly special events, it’s the ideal spot to let go of any and all pretense and tap into your wild side. Even if it’s your first time in Oaxaca—or Mexico, for that matter—it’ll feel like you’re at your favorite neighborhood bar.
La Cueva Oaxaca
La Cueva offers more of a chill ambiance for those looking for a more intimate setting. Although technically a wine bar, the menu is much more interesting than you might think. Ever heard of Mexican sake? It’s a must-try during your visit, made complete with guest bartenders and an array of local live musicians.
Boutique hotels seem to be a Oaxacan specialty—you really can’t go wrong. Hotel Azul offers a quiet courtyard oasis, with minimalist rooms designed by local artists. The rooftop terrace overlooks downtown Oaxaca and offers a bar service from 5 P.M. to 8 P.M. Cheers to that.
Hotel Sin Nombre (translation: hotel without a name) feels like a spa retreat, in the best way. Converted from a 17th-century home, with accents of North Africa and décor from local artisans, the hotel pays homage to Oaxaca’s Afro-descendent cultures. Its restaurant serves vegan and organic meals, while each room offers a unique setup designed for relaxation. It may not have a name, but it’s pretty much got everything else.
Further out from the city center in the trendy Reforma neighborhood lies Casa de Arte, a gallery and hotel that celebrates the vibrancy of Oaxacan art. The property only has seven rooms for a small, intimate feel, as well as a pool and restaurant that are so incredibly picturesque, you’ll hardly believe they’re real until you’re standing in front of them.