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Nestled in a valley a mile high between two mountain ranges, the colonial city of Oaxaca is the state's geographic, cultural, and political center, as well the primary destination for travelers. Because of the abundance of colonial churches and monasteries and mansions in the city's center, UNESCO designated the area a World Heritage Site in 1987. By then, however, many of the city's centuries-old buildings had begun to fall into disrepair. Sensing an opportunity with this lofty new designation, the city began restoring its colonial heritage, sparking a renaissance that attracted many of the state's most creative modern and traditional artists, handicraft makers, and chefs. A mix of foreign and Mexican visitors, both bohemians and bourgeoisie, soon discovered and began flocking here. No strangers to opportunity, a bevy of hoteliers, business people, and state bureaucrats quickly moved in, renovating centuries-old colonial mansions for modern and traditional art museums and galleries, building brand-new five-star hotels for the jet set alongside remodeled old buildings as hostels for the backpacker set, opening trendy bistros serving international cuisines, some of which could easily fit in San Francisco or New York, next door to mom-and-pop restaurants and cafés that have been serving traditional Oaxacan cooking for generations. And everywhere in the city there are these contrasts, tensions, and fusions between the traditional and the modern that exemplify Oaxaca today.

If the city of Oaxaca is the state's center, then the Zócalo is the city’s center, bustling day and night with live music, mime and dance performances, arts and handicrafts displays, sidewalk cafés doing a brisk business, and occasional eruptions of political discontent. This is a place to linger or drop by often; something is always happening here or about to. The city's other premier attraction is the colonial-era Santo Domingo Church, as fine an example as any in México of the baroque architecture popular in New Spain during the 17th century. Although the church's exterior is simple, its interior is covered with ornate and gilded statues, walls, ceilings, and altarpieces. Here too, a single visit is not enough to fully appreciate the beauty of the architecture of this church and the craftsmanship that went into it.

The city's mile-high elevation ensures spring-like weather year round, making any time of the year a good time to visit. Winters are mild and dry, with pleasant temperatures during the day and cool nights. Summers are warm and wet, with afternoon showers usually capping off the worst of the days heat. Most international travelers reach the city by air, though it is easily accessible by express bus from numerous cities throughout southern and central México.

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