The best things to do in Oaxaca, Mexico

CNN  — 

Between its mountains and its beaches, the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico is a treasure trove of beautiful views and outdoor activities. But thanks to its capital and some of its lesser-known villages, it’s also an art and food destination.

The country is deeply steeped in traditions stemming from the country’s 16 indigenous groups as well as its Spanish colonial past. It’s these traditions that make it a draw for the nearly 650,000 tourists that visit the state each year, according to Adair César of the state’s tourism board.

For those who want to explore a Mexico that offers the best of many worlds and that’s outside of typical hot spots, Oaxaca has a little bit for just about everyone.

Here’s our guide of the best things to do in various places in Oaxaca state:

Oaxaca City

Learn about Mexico's colonial past at the Templo de Santo Domingo.

Start in Oaxaca City, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a cultural hub. The city’s colonial architecture, colorful buildings and cobblestone streets yield picturesque views that make it unforgettable.

Art lovers will want to visit the Oaxaca Textile Museum – where a small but impressive collection of rugs, clothing and other textiles showcase the artistry of the craft – and the photography museum Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo.

Then, an entire day can be spent at the beautiful Templo de Santo Domingo, a 16th-century Baroque-style church and former monastery, where guides share the city and church’s Spanish colonial past, and next door at the 2.3-hectare Jardín Etnobotánico (Botanic Garden) de Oaxaca, where you can learn about the region’s native plants.

Two popular events here are Día de los Muertos festivities – the city goes all out, with events, music and altars all around the city from late October to early November – and Guelaguetza, an annual festival in July showcasing indigenous cultures and dances from around the state.

For anyone interested in food, visit two of Oaxaca’s markets, Mercado de la Merced for empanadas and Mercado 20 de Noviembre for carne asada. Among the many great restaurants, La Teca offers traditional Oaxacan cuisine while La Biznaga focuses on traditional food with a modern twist. Always go for the mole; try all seven of them while you’re here – it’s a specialty in the state.

Don't miss a trip to one of Oaxaca City's outdoor markets.

Try happy hour at Cocina Bar Agavero for cocktails and La Popular for beer and wine, and visit Mezcaloteca for a mezcal tasting. The latter requires a reservation but is well worth it.

For a great bed and breakfast, try El Diablo y La Sandia, but those who plan on staying for several weeks or months can find short-term apartments at Al Sol Studios and Apartments.

From Oaxaca City, head to Teotitlan del Valle, a sleepy town at the foothills of the Sierra Norte mountains with a vibrant textile market and dozens of rug shops. Nearby town Tlacolula also has a must-see Sunday market with dozens of stands of food, handmade goods and even live animals.

If nature is more your thing, head to nearby Hierve el Agua, a beautiful natural spring where you can enjoy swimming and impressive views or Yagul, an archeological site and former city of the Zapotec civilization.

Oaxaca Textile Museum, Miguel Hidalgo 917

Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo, Calle de Manuel Bravo 116

Templo de Santo Domingo, Calle de Macedonio Alcalá

Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, Calle Reforma

Al Sol Studios and Apartments, La Carbonera #701 Centro, Oaxaca City, +52 951 51 69073

El Diablo y La Sandía Libres 205, Centro, Oaxaca City +52 951 514 4095

La Teca Violetas 200 Mezcaloteca, Reforma No. 506

La Biznaga, Gral. Manuel García Vigil 512

La Popular, Calle de Manuel García Vigil 519

Mercado de la Merced, 207 Nicolás del Puerto

Mercado 20 de Noviembre, 20 de Noviembre 512

Cocina Bar Agavero, Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 409/A

Sierra Norte

The sunset is one of the most beautiful things to experience in Sierra Norte.

The forested mountains of Sierra Norte are quietly tucked away an hour and a half away from Oaxaca City.

The region is home to dozens of tiny villages, many of which operate eco-tourism sites situated among canyons, waterfalls and panoramic lookouts. Visitors can stay in cabins and campsites.

The site of Ecoturixtlan is particularly cozy, with a fireplace and a cafeteria with local foods. In Cuajimoloyas, try the 3,280-feet-long zipline that overlooks the tiny mountain town. Then explore about 62 miles worth of hiking and mountain biking trails. In Benito Juarez, visitors can also participate in culinary workshops with local residents.

Ecoturixtlan,16 de Septiembre and Revolución, Ixtlán de Juárez, +52 951 553 6075

Cuajimoloyas and Benito Juarez, Expediciones Sierra Norte

M. Bravo No. 210-A, Oaxaca City, +52 951 514 82-71

Oaxacan coast

A Oaxacan sea turtle on the shore.

It’s known as a beautiful, relatively low-key paradise. Puerto Escondido, the largest city on Oaxaca’s coast, features several beaches and a bustling nightlife. In November, surfing festivals bring lots of visitors. Hotel Santa Fe and Sunset Point Resort are popular lodging options.

Playa Zicatela is known as one of the best surfing spots in Puerto Escondido, and Sabor a Mar offers must-try seafood there. Bar La Langosta Loca is also a local favorite.

If you’re feeling adventurous, visit Zipolite, one of Mexico’s few nude beaches, where a laid-back attitude is almost required, and stay at Hotel Nude or camp in a hut or hammock at Lo Cósmico.

For those who prefer taking in the nature and biodiversity, protected coral reefs can be explored at Huatulco National Park. At the National Mexican Turtle Center, you can see the release of sea turtles into the ocean from March to November. Puerto Angel and San Agustinillo are also quiet towns that are great for hanging out with locals and enjoying the scenic views.

Sunset Point Resort, Calle Vista Del Sol, +52 954 100 5283

Hotel Santa Fe, Calle del Morro, +52 800 712 7057

Sabor a Mar, Avenida del Morro

Bar La Langosta Loca Av Marina Nacional

Hotel Nude, Av. Roca Blanca, +52 958 584 3062

Lo Cósmico, Camino a Shambhala

National Mexican Turtle Center, Carretera Puerto Angel- San Antonio Kilometro 10, +52 55 5449 7000

Huatulco National Park, Bahías de Huatulco, +52 1 958 587 0849

Julissa Treviño is a Texas-based journalist with work in BBC Future, Racked and Smithsonian magazine.

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