Oaxaca City may be the capital of one of the country’s poorest states but it is a dynamic city. It offers a long-established art scene, Baroque churches, the best markets, and a vibrant cafe culture thriving in verdant courtyards and shady squares. It’s not too quaint though and has a little underbelly that you can have a good poke at in a mezcal-fuelled haze, or just enjoy some of the best regional cuisines. Oaxaca is as lively as it is architecturally stunning.
Oaxaca’s a brief six hour drive from Mexico City: small, great food, lively fiestas. The whole city engulfs itself into a party spirit in the lead up to Christmas. As with much of continental Europe Mexico celebrates Christmas on the Eve. With every church rustling up a display and a float the rag-tag, dingly-dell processions each make a beeline for the zocalo, late into the evening.
La Noche de Rábanos. On the 23rd of December, the radishes come out to play in some enactment of the Little Shop of Horrors. Left in the ground for months past their harvest date these radishes grown into huge beasts which are then modelled into the grotesque and bizarre – from mariachi scenes to Aztec warriors.
The Oaxaca Culture Museum – cool and calm.
Every plant indigenous to the region. Oh I do LOVE a botanical garden…and we know what a wily way the Mexicans have with a cactus!
Santo Domingo Church – a rap star’s dream. Gold, and then some.
The textiles from Oaxaca’s Teotitlán del Valle are among the most celebrated of Mexican artesanía and on display at the new Museo Textil de Oaxaca. It’s of equal architectural interest.
The recently renovated, converted convent just behind the textile museum firmly puts the message out that Oaxaca is not a chocolate box heritage town but one investing in resources for locals. Amazing library spaces, modern cafes and gallery spaces.
The city’s new stamp museum, Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca is a surprisingly modern and engaging resource. It’s really a graphic designer’s dream. Londoners look and weep at the divine Mexico City 1968 Olympics logo all over the stamp sets.
I name this blighter the Man o’ War chilli – bad news. They call me Asbestos Mouth, but this was the hottest thing that’s ever slithered down my throat. It was game over for about 3 hours. But looking around at my fellow diners’ reaction, they were gobbling them up like they were stuffed olives.
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre is the place for Oaxacan staples, frequented by all kinds of people. A smoke-filled covered alley is lined with carne asada – grilled meat – vendors. It’s a mildly chaotic experience which takes at least one meal to learn the drill: procure your meat from one stall, your veg from another and your tortillas from a passing trader. Walk your tray of carne down the line of grills and they’ll call out bids to cook it. Keep the faith because this will be one of your best dining experiences.
Marvel at the chilli selection. And the wall of chillis.
Casa Azul is a modernised hotel built around two courtyards. One of the city’s leading artists, Francisco Toledo introduced a fountain running through the space. Warm and helpful staff, reasonable rates.
If you have a more substantial budget, gorgeous ninety room Camino Real is situated in a 1500s convent. Bougainvilleas tumble down each wall around the colonnaded restaurant and bar.
Casa Oaxaca is the uber restaurant in town. Totally top tastes. This is where you’ll get that this is it feeling.
It won’t be too long into your trip until you realise so much ‘Mexican’ food you’ve tried is actually Tex-Mex slop. Oaxaca is a great place to get to grips with the cuisine, and you could start here.
Mezcal is the naughty, southern sister to tequila. Do it properly in this little bar, purveyors of hangovers since 1935.
We started at a gay bar…then ended up in a uniquely Mexican tranny bar. It’s a small city, but not that small.