Ultimate 3 Day Oaxaca Itinerary for Families

Landmark Santo Domingo Cathedral in historic Oaxaca city center
Image by depositphotos.com

Visiting Oaxaca City, Mexico soon? Then you’re going to need an epic Oaxaca itinerary — and that’s just what you’ll find here. There are so many things to do in Oaxaca City, from historic sites and restaurants to museums and botanical gardens, and you’re about to discover them all.

Oaxaca City is the capital of Oaxaca State, and the top destination in it. There’s an airport just 30 minutes from downtown (Oaxaca International Airport; code: OAX), so it’s easier than you think to visit Oaxaca, Mexico. Once you arrive, the city is a feast for the eyes, with colorful colonial buildings at every turn.

In addition to its beauty, Oaxaca is very family friendly. In fact, the majority of Mexico is! It is part of the culture that kids, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all go on outings together, so if you’re traveling to Mexico with kids, you’ll find a very welcoming country.

Without further ado, let’s get to this three-day Oaxaca itinerary for families. It includes all the must-see sites and must do activities, so you and your family have an epic time in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

3 Day Oaxaca Itinerary, Day 1

Centro Historico (Historic Downtown Oaxaca)

Woman with a basket in ethnic traditional Mexican dress
Image by depositphotos.com

You’ll want to begin your Oaxaca trip by getting to know downtown. This is the main artery of activity, and it almost feels like there are things to do on every street. 

Start the day with a stroll through the Zocalo and Plaza de la Constitución, which is basically the Town Square. Here, you’ll see the Oaxaca Cathedral (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption), the largest church in Oaxaca.

There are also a few cafes around the park to grab a coffee or quick bite to eat. Day and night, you’ll find vendors selling balloons and small toys that will make your child’s day. These will also make for a great souvenir, so they remember Oaxaca forever.

Next, walk to the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman, a Baroque church from the 16th century. While the church is beautiful, the real highlights here are the Oaxacan Culture Museum and Oaxaca Botanical Gardens. Both are located in the Santo Domingo Temple complex.

Botanical Garden Oaxaca
Botanial Garden. Credit: Shelley Marmor

This 2.5-acre garden boats hundreds of plants, trees and succulents that come from all over Oaxaca state. Note: Due to the fragility of the botanical garden’s ecosystem, you can only visit with a guided tour. There are tours in English all week, for $100 pesos per adult (about $5 USD), but children aged 0 to 12 are free. The tours last about 1.5 hours.

To round out your day in downtown Oaxaca City, don’t miss Calle de Macedonia Alcala, a pedestrian-only street. It is one of the most photogenic, colorful streets in town. The street is lined with art galleries, boutique shops, cool cafes and authentic restaurants. 

What to Eat in Oaxaca City

Oaxaca old town street
Oaxaca old town street. Image by depositphotos.com

Oaxaca is known as the Foodie Capital of Mexico, so this is the perfect place for even picky eaters. The kids will love experiencing the Paseo de Humo, or Smoke Alley, in Mercado 20 de Noviembre, a market in downtown.

This is one of the best markets in Oaxaca City, so you can shop here for souvenirs to take home, and also get some delicious cheap eats. Smoke Alley is a favorite of locals and visitors alike, and it’s even a fun experience for the kids. 

Paseo de Humo in Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a smoke-filled row at the market where you pick your own meat and veggies and pay a la carte. Everything is cooked to order over charcoal, to impart a delicious smoky flavor.

Some other Oaxacan food specialities you’ll want to try include:

  • Tlayudas (pronounced tuh-lie-you-dahs): Sometimes called a Mexican pizza
  • Mole (pronounced moe-lay): A thick sauce that’s spicy and a bit sweet
  • Oaxacan Tamales: Tamales cooked in a banana leaf
  • Quesillo (pronounced kay-see-yo): The famous Oaxacan string cheese
  • Nieves (pronounced nee-yev-vays): Sorbet
  • Tejate (pronounced tay-ha-tay): An ancient chocolate and corn beverage known as “the drink of the gods.”

3 Day Oaxaca Itinerary, Day 2

Hierve el Agua: Waterfall & Pools

Hierve El Agua
Hierve El Agua. Credit: Shelley Marmor

If you’ve seen any Oaxaca photos, you may have seen Hierve el Agua, which means “boiling water.” While there’s not actually boiling water, there are thermal pools, hot springs and a famous waterfall (that’s actually not a waterfall).

Hierve el Agua is located about 1-1.5 hours outside from Oaxaca City, way up in the mountains. The easiest way to visit is by rental car or paying a taxi for the day. You’ll have to negotiate a day rate with a local cab driver, but this is a common practice.

Depending on your negotiation skills and how long you want to stay at Hierve el Agua, figure about $50-75 USD for the day. If you’re not renting a car, this is the best option since the taxi will drive you there, wait for you, and drive you back to Oaxaca City when you’re ready.

There are a few things to do at Hierve el Agua, like hike to the bottom of the “waterfall,” and swim in the pools. 

You see “waterfall” in quotes because there isn’t falling water — though it does look like it. Hierve el Agua is actually a petrified waterfall; one of only a few in the world. The water here is mineral-rich, and over centuries as it dripped down the cliff-face, the minerals have built up and now it looks like falling water.

You can see the two “waterfalls” at Hierve el Agua from the top of the hill, or you can do the hike down to the bottom. It’s an easy loop hike, and the trail is about one-mile-long (1.6 km). It usually takes about an hour in total, and you’ll probably see other families while hiking. 

Once you get back to the top of the hill, you’ll want to cool down in the pools. The water here can be on the warm side but isn’t usually hot. The local people say it has mineral properties, so it will really soothe your muscles after hiking, and the kids will just love being able to swim. 

Hierve El Agua Pools
Hierve El Agua Pools. Credit: Shelley Marmor

After Hierve el Agua, head back to your hotel in Oaxaca City to freshen up. If you want to have a nice dinner, there’s Casa Oaxaca, Criollo, El Destilado, Los Danzantes and Catedral Restaurant. For a more casual option, check out Tlayudas Libres or Lechoncito de Oro. Both spots have the best street tacos in Oaxaca.

3 Day Oaxaca Itinerary, Day 3

Monte Alban Ruins & the Oaxacan Art Towns

Monte Alban Oaxaca
Monte Alban. Credit: Shelley Marmor

Oaxaca has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Prehistoric Caves of Yagul and Mitla, the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley, which spans Oaxaca State and Puebla State, and the Historic Center of Oaxaca and Archeological Site of Monte Alban.

This itinerary covers both places mentioned in #3 on that list — Downtown Oaxaca City and the ancient ruins of Monte Alban.

Located 30-45 minutes by car from Downtown Oaxaca City, you won’t want to miss Monte Alban, which has the best ancient ruins in Oaxaca. You’ll want to head there early so you beat both the crowds and the heat, as there’s minimal shade to be found.

Monte Alban
Monte Alban. Credit: Shelley Marmor

The kids will love climbing the pyramids and structures and exploring this ancient site which is one of the best places to experience Oaxaca’s prehispanic history. From atop the pyramids, you’ll have an epic birds-eye view of the Oaxaca valley towns below.

This is a larger site, so plan for three hours, but you likely won’t need a full day at Monte Alban. If you have your rental car, you can explore the neighboring artisan towns, each famous for making just one craft.

There’s San Bartolo Coyotepec, a Oaxcan small pueblo famous for its barro negro, meaninr “black clay.” This is the famous Oaxaca black pottery, which you’ll likely have seen for sale in shops throughout Oaxaca City.

There’s also San Martin Tilcajete, the fantastical land of Oaxacan alebrijes. Alebrijes (pronounced al-lay-bree-hays), one of the most beloved types of Mexican folk art, are hand-carved wood figures that are then hand-painted in bright colors.

They combine two or more animals into a hybrid chimera creature that some say serves as a spirit guide. If your kids have seen the Pixar movie Coco, Pepita is an alebrije, and they will absolutely love seeing the alebrijes being made by real-life artisans in San Martin Tilcajete.

In this pueblo (small town), you can visit the shops where artisans make them. In some shops, everyone from grandparents to young children participate in the process. Make sure to be on the lookout for your favorite alebrije, as no two are alike.

Wrap Up: Ultimate 3 Day Oaxaca Itinerary for Families

There really is a lot to do and see in Oaxaca! With three days, you can cover a lot of ground, but also enjoy some leisure time. This itinerary covered all the Oaxaca must-see sights, so you’ll really feel like you’ve experienced this magical city in a short time. 

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Shelley Marmor
Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world. She visited Mexico City in 2018, fell in love at first sight, and never left the country! To date, she has traveled to half the states in Mexico, and now lives in Oaxaca. She runs four Mexico sites, Travel Mexico Solo, Travel To Merida, Travel To Oaxaca and Tulum Travel Secrets, to help visitors plan their bucket-list Mexico trip.