Enjoy Oaxaca with kids
Mexico’s Oaxaca de Juárez, the main city in Oaxaca state, is a wonderful place to travel as a family. The city is small enough so you can easily get around, but large enough to have lots of options for family friendly activities. Plus, Oaxaca is known for being a safe destination. Here are some fun and simple ways to enjoy Oaxaca with kids, from our own experience as a traveling family.
Before you go to Oaxaca with kids
Here are our two top tips for things to do before you travel Oaxaca as a family:
1. Try to learn at least a little Spanish, but don’t worry about not being fluent.
Our family is definitely not fluent in Spanish. However, we stayed in Oaxaca de Juárez for about 2 weeks, and could always get by just fine. Prior to visiting Mexico, all of us, including the kids, learned some Spanish through Duolingo. We also used Google Translate to help us with anything else we need. Knowing at least some of the language was a big help. Combined with smiles and laughter, we could always get things figured out with folks we were trying to communicate with.
2. Download the Didi Rider app
Similar to Uber or Lyft in the US, or Grab in Asia, Didi is a ride app used throughout Mexico. We didn’t have a car in Mexico. Instead, we used Didi exclusively to arrange taxis and ride shares. We could arrange a car with a few taps, and we always knew the price range of what we were supposed to pay. The app can be tricky when it comes to credit cards, so we suggest setting it to cash. From our rental to the zócalo, for example, Didi always said we could expect to pay 60 to 70 pesos, and that’s always how the ride worked out.
3. Check out our Oaxaca with kids travel video
1. Explore the central square, the zócalo
The heart of Oaxaca is the zócalo, or central square. Live music, tourist information booths, rows and rows of tent stalls selling apparel and crafts: You’ll find all this, along with crowds of people hanging out around the fountains and outside the Catedral Metropolitana de Oaxaca. The zócalo is lively yet relaxing. Yes, there will be crowds, but there’s plenty of space. There’s also a distinct absence of hustle and bustle, which makes it much easier to navigate the square with kids.
We enjoyed wandering around the various fountains. Plus, the Catedral is generally open for visitors to wander through, though while of course being respectful toward those who have come to pray or worship. We found the Catedral to be beautiful, with a color and joy that somehow wove seamlessly with the quiet reverence in the space.
Or, as Connor put it, “The church is a mix of beautiful and spooky.”
You can also find tasty cafés and restaurants throughout the streets of the zócalo and behind the Catedral. We especially enjoyed Del Jardín. The prices were a decent budget for the four of us, and there was a mix of Oaxacan food along with other foods, such as some savory burgers with richly flavored sesame buns, that made it easy for each of us to enjoy lunch.
The zócalo is also the site of many local events, so don’t be surprised if you see someone setting up a mic or a stage, and feel free to kick back and enjoy the show.
2. Enjoy local food, drink, and shopping at Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre
Oaxaca’s markets are full of crafts and cooking, and make a wonderful outing for families. Just south of the zócalo, you and your family can spend at least a day, or many days, exploring and enjoying the two main markets, Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre:
Mercado Benito Juárez
The size of a city block, Mercado Benito Juárez is packed with vendors and stalls, selling everything from apparel to food.
We view markets as a great opportunity for the kids to practice both their Spanish and their pesos management. They carried a bit of cash, from their allowance, which they could spend as they wanted on things like treats or knickknacks or such. Talking with vendors not only helps them practice their Spanish, it builds confidence talking with adults and getting across what they need to communicate. Plus, it’s great experience to have to understand how much something costs, work on getting out the correct cash, and counting out the change that comes back.
Mercado Benito Juárez is also home to excellent food and drink. Along the back of the market, a row of small restaurants serves up various Oaxacan food. People will be offering you menus and gesturing toward their seats. But take your time. All the food is amazing, all the places should be safe to eat and drink at, and you won’t make a wrong choice. It’s a great place to try your first tamale with mole negro, a Oaxacan staple. We also picked up some quesillo, or traditional Oaxacan cheese, to use back at our rental.
Especially keep an eye out for the tejate. Head to La Flor de Huayapam for this foamy cacao drink. It’s floral, chocolatey, and so satisfying in the Mexican heat.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
For more food, though, head just south of Mercado Benito Juárez. While food is part of MBJ, at Mercado 20 de Noviembre, food is what this renowned market is all about. If you’ve been drooling to try the Grilled Meat Market, M20dN is where you can place your order and then wait for it to come back to you, steaming and grilled to perfection.
For families, this is a great space for the kids to try out samples of different foods, from fresh tortillas to fried grasshoppers (called chapulines). Snack and dine on various Oaxacan foods—and don’t forget to pick up a few things to take back to your room or rental for when hunger kicks up again later.
3. Drink hot or cold chocolate at Mayordomo
Oaxaca is renowned for its love of good food and drink. And whether hot or cold, the drinking chocolate of Oaxaca is a delightful way to experience Mexican chocolate.
We especially enjoyed the welcoming cafe and chocolate shop Mayordomo, located just off the zócalo near the mercados mentioned above. Aster especially enjoyed the cold chocomil, essentially a cold chocolate milk, but more full of chocolate flavor than sweetness.
We also tried hot chocolate, mixed with your choice of milk (leche) or water (agua). Mixed with a traditional molinillo, an intricate mixing baton made of wood, the chocolate is prepared and served tableside. The mixed, whipped chocolate takes on additional flavors and aromas, unlocked from the aeration just like decanting a bottle of red wine.
“That’s a good price for some good chocolate,” said Aster.
4. Wander the Jardín Socrates and get ice cream at the plaza
West of Oaxaca’s zócalo and up some steps into a walled plaza, the Jardín Socrates is part of a larger church complex called the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, or our Lady of Solitude. Also the home of the Plaza de la Danza, or Plaza of Dancers, this is another spot where you never know when you might find yourself at a public event, concert, or dance show.
More importantly, the walled area just outside the cathedral is home to several covered sit-down restaurants that sell different types of nieves, or iced sweets, such as ice creams and sherbets.
“It smells like goodness,” said Connor.
Just like the cafés inside the mercados, you’ll see folks by the entrances of each ice cream café, holding out menus or gesturing you to their seating areas. Take your time. Most offer similar treats, typically ice creams or fruit-flavored ices and slushees (and don’t worry, the “tuna” you’ll see on many signs does not refer to the fish, but to a tasty cactus fruit).
Aster chose our neveria for us based on it having a balloon with Ladybug from Miraculous on it. After exploring parts of the central town, the zócalo, and gardens, a wee sit-down with a frozen treat makes a lovely break in the day.
5. Buy from the street vendors
That’s right. Don’t fear the street food. In the neighborhood where we had our rental, throughout the day different vendors would come through on bike carts or in vans, calling out their wares.
Remember: Regular people who live here buy from the street vendors. They care just as much about their health and the health of their families as you do about yours.
The nieve man who came down our street every day around 1:30? If we were home, the kids would take some pesos, dash down the stairs to the street, and wait to hear his song. We got to where they were asking, ordering, and paying all on their own.
The green limon was tangy and refreshing. The vanilla, mild and flavorful. But our favorite? The nuez, or walnut. Complete with chewy-crunchy nut pieces, the slight bitterness made this sweet treat all the more gratifying.
Tamales, tortillas, and more, some of our most memorable snacks and meals came straight from the vendors who made their rounds every day. It was a wonderful way to get to know part of the neighborhood, some of the people who live here, and to give the kids a chance to practice their Spanish and manage their pesos. And every dish was enjoyable—and safe.
6. Learn about Oaxaca’s amazing biodiversity during a tour of the Jardín Etnobotánico
After Indonesia, Mexico has the most biodiversity in the world. And the part of Mexico that has the highest concentration of amazing plant life?
Yup: Oaxaca. Located in the Santo Domingo monastery, with thick walls that go nearly 8 meters deep into the ground, the Jardín Etnobotánico is full and lush with Oaxacan plant life. Yet even though there are fascinating plants, large and small, everywhere you turn, the Jardín’s botanical bounty represents only about 10% of each individual plant species that grows in Oaxaca. Not bad for a state about the size of Minnesota in the USA, or Portugal in Europe.
Visitors to the Jardín must go on a guided tour. It’s also well worth it: Guides are knowledgeable about history, culture, botany, and more. The Jardín’s website gives details on when they run tours in different languages, including English.
For us, visiting the Jardín introduced us to plants we’d never seen before, or showed us different—often larger—versions of plants we were familiar with from travels in the southwestern US. The wee monstera plants Jodie was fond of growing at home? The ones here could have taken up an entire room. The kids especially loved a fan palm they found, where each frond was big enough to use as a hammock.
7. Take a half-day trip to Monte Albán
Dozens of recognized indigenous cultures have called Oaxaca home for thousands upon thousands of years. One culture, the Zapotec, was especially good at terraforming area hilltops into cities. One of the best preserved and most studied, Monte Albán, is located only about 20 minutes southwest of Oaxaca. The hilltop city, complete with vast grassy fields and the stone remnants of massive stepped pyramids, makes an ideal family half-day trip.
You’ll go on an organized tour to safely explore the ruins. Research and excavation are ongoing, so not all areas are open to the public. Whether observing plants important to the Zapotec or climbing to the top of a staircase and looking out over the vast Oaxacan countryside all around, Monte Albán gives perspective on the vast applied knowledge of the Zapotecs, from astronomy to engineering. It’s a fascinating way to gain perspective on an ancient culture that’s alive and well in Oaxaca today.
Where to stay in Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca is a wonderful place to explore with kids
You can find so many things to do in Oaxaca with kids. From in-town excursions to incredible day trips, Oaxaca is full of vast history, thriving modern culture, and incredible food and drink. We loved how safe we felt there as a family, and how easy it was to get around the city and explore its cathedrals, markets, gardens, and yes of course, its many cafés, restaurants, and street vendors.
We found so many ways to explore and enjoy Oaxaca with kids. Our time in the city gave us an amazing introduction to Mexico, to Oaxaca, and to new ways we could travel and explore together as a family.