If the city of Oaxaca is the social and cultural center of the state, the Zócalo, a large traffic-free plaza located in the Centro, bustling with activity throughout the day and late into the night, is the social and cultural center of the city.
Originally laid out in 1529, the Zócalo and the surrounding grid of streets have changed little since. The architectural composition of the surrounding buildings, however, has changed often over the centuries, after powerful earthquakes, endemic to the region, damaged or destroyed many of the original colonial buildings, only to be rebuilt in later styles vogue at the time, the cycle of destruction and rebuilding having left a patchwork of architectures in its place.
Today, the Zócalo is enclosed on the east and the west by sidewalk cafés, spilling out from beneath portales, covered arched passageways, fronting two-story colonial buildings; on the north by the upscale Hotel Marques de Valle, as well as the imposing cathedral, a fixture on the Zócalo in one form or another since the 1540s; on the south by the Museo del Palacio Universum, a relative newcomer, built in the late 19th century in the Neoclassical style popular in that period; and from above by a broad canopy of Indian laurel trees, which, mercifully, cap off the worst of the late spring heat.
To the northwest, contiguous with the Zócalo, lies another traffic-free plaza, the Alameda de León, hosting many of the same type of activities, and, for the purposes of this guide, the two plazas are treated as one and the same.
No trip to the city is complete without a visit to one of the restaurants or sidewalk cafés on the Zócalo. The restaurants La Casa de la Abuela, master of the seven moles, and the El Asador Vasco, specializing in Basque cuisine, offer the only fine dining on the Zócalo, both perched, with great views, above the sidewalk cafés on the second stories of the colonial buildings lining the west side.
Of the five sidewalk cafés on the Zócalo, none stands out among the bunch, all offering pretty standard, if uninspired, Oaxacan fare, along with a few sandwiches, hamburgers, and other crowd pleasers, thrown in to appeal to the unadventurous culinary traveler, or, well, maybe just someone who's had his or her fill of Méxican food. That said, on the east side, the Terranova and Importador do seem to be aiming a little higher — the waiters more attentive, the presentation of the food more well thought out, and the prices slightly higher. Still, for the most part, the food isn't that much better.
But don't go to the Zócalo looking for fine dining or to sample the region’s unique cuisine — for that there are other, worthier restaurants nearby. No, go to the Zócalo to be in the thick of it — the diners crowding the sidewalk cafés, sipping hot coffee or ice-cold cervezas, meeting up with old friends, or maybe striking up conversations with new ones, students anxiously practicing newly learned Spanish on the waiters, the waiters responding with gentle patience, expats lazing away the afternoon with a good book, suddenly, a mob of people rushing for the cover of the portales, escaping an afternoon summer shower, orchestras performing classics, street musicians adroitly working their instruments, singers crooning, clowns beguiling with their antics, mimes silently telling tales, dancers reenacting ancient steps, all asking for only a few pesos for their skills and efforts, artisans displaying their creations, street vendors haggling with skeptical customers over the price of otherwise worthless trinkets, beggars desperate for a couple of pesos, their only foreseeable hope for something to eat that day, shoeshiners snapping their towels, workers relaxing, on break from their toils, toddlers, unsteady, chasing after pigeons, political protests erupting periodically, civil but often times disobedient...and the list goes on. Needless to say, the Zócalo is a place to linger or to drop by often. Something's always happening here or about to.
And lastly, in a pinch, underneath the gazebo in the center of the Zócalo, there's a subterranean public toilet, costing only a couple of pesos.