Travel Guadalajara, Like a Mexican Local

Guadalajara is the city of contrasts. While this capital of Jalisco isn’t on the tourist trail, Guadalajara gives you plenty of reasons to be.

As Mexico’s second city and the birthplace of mariachi, you can revel in the quintessential Mexican spirit, without missing a cosmopolitan heartbeat. It’s the kind of city where you start your evening at an award-winning restaurant, catch a charrería (Mexican rodeo), and finish the night belting out ‘Guadalajara, Guadalajara’ in Mariachi square. Guadalajara truly has it all, and none of it disappoints.

Much like Mexico City–only warmer–Guadalajara is about sifting out the cultural corners and leafy plazas from the urban sprawl. Nestled among it all is street art jostling world-class galleries and museums, what you’d expect from a city of 4.5 million residents.

Foodies will be equally lured to the gourmet dining options–including top 50 Latin American restaurants, Alcalde and La Docena Oyster Bar–as the scrubbed-down restaurants serving local specialties, like tortas ahogada (drowned sandwhiches) and birria or carne en su jugo (meat stews). Football fans aren’t left behind, with Guadalajara hosting two teams: Mexico’s most popular club, Chivas (Club Deportivo Guadalajara), and their rivals, Altas.

Competing for attention is Guadalajara’s collection of grandiose churches, revealing the city’s historical reputation as one of Mexico’s most Catholic cities. But today, values have progressed, along with a raging nightlife and political art scene. Today you’ll find a fiery storm of national and social murals painted across the city by famous muralist José Clemente Orozco.

But the best gems of Guadalajara are its colorful, quaint neighborhoods that feel more like small-town Mexico than a bustling city. In Zapopan or Tlaquepaque, half a day slips by just absorbing the lively street life and colonial architecture.

Today, what makes up the ‘greater Guadalajara’ was once small, distinct towns – now municipalities – which each retain their unique flair. You’ll still hear local Tapatíos, as Guadalajara’s residents are known, refer to the areas separately – whether they were born or live in Zapopan, Tlaqapaque or, specifically, Guadalajara, referring to the center of the city.

With comfortable weather–being the ‘city of eternal spring’– and the pacific Coast just three hours away, young professionals and expats are increasingly making Guadalajara a permanent fixture. On the weekends, they hang in the city’s cultural heart, Colonia Americana, and stroll along the 15 blocks of Avenida Chapultepec with street markets, free performances, palms and jacarandas, and colonial mansions.

When you’re done being awed by ostentatious architecture and grand murals, the town of Tequila is one hour away. That’s when the real party starts, although Guadalajara has plenty of swanky bars and dining to pull you away. Farther afield you can continue your trip to the resort town of Puerto Vallarta, or chill at the low-key beach village of Sayulita.

Closer yet is Mexico’s biggest lake, Lake Chapala; the tiny lakeside town of Ajiic is the perfect option for a quick city break, just 45 minutes away. You can absorb the vibrant mosaics all around the pueblo, before taking in Chapala’s own street art on almost every corner.

Even if at first you were reluctant to visit Guadalajara, you’ll leave feeling like you’re missing out on discovering so much more. And, we’ll be honest – you are.

Interesting facts about Guadalajara

It’s the birthplace of Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro, whose film ‘The Shape of Water’ won best picture in 2018.

Many museums are closed on Mondays, and usually close early on Sundays, so check opening times before you go sightseeing.

1. Hospicio Cabañas

Most head to the Instituto Cultural Cabañas (Tues to Sun, 10am–6pm) to gawk at the 57 murals by local artist Orozco–considered one of the ‘three greats’ of Mexican muralists, next to Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. Beyond that, you’ll find yourself in a maze of fixed and changing art exhibitions. The complex itself is an impressive 2.34 hectare sprawl of corridors, fountains and courtyards–no less than 23!–which has become a UNESCO site for its unique design and harmony between indoor and outdoor space. Complete with a coffee shop if you need a break.

Out front, the plaza has two exhibitions of whimsical chair sculptures–La Sala de Los Magos and Los Magos Universales–by Jaslico-native artist Alejandro Colunga. Sitting in these surrealist bronze chairs is truly worthy of a social media post. In the adjoining plaza, you can spy a bridge that crosses above the road. Underneath, you’ll find San Juan markets.

2. Guadalajara’s Historical Centre

Head to the city’s central four plazas and you’ll find yourself in Guadalajara’s beating heart. Locals wander the pedestrianized streets at all times of the day–and night–browsing street market stalls and just soaking in the architectural history.

From Liberation Square (or Plaza Guadalajara), you can take in the yellow stone façade of the twin-spired Guadalajara Cathedral (or Catedral de la Asunción de María Santísima, 9am–8pm). Next door in the Government offices (Palacio de Gobierno, 9am–7pm), see the murals by Orozco, then take your picture with the Guadalajara sign once you exit on Plaza de Armas. Across from the cathedral’s entrance, at night you can watch the changing lights of the ‘Rotunda de los Jalicienses Ilustres’, guarded by statues of influential artists, architects and philosophers from Jalisco state. It’s here you’ll find the ‘City Museum’ showcasing Guadalajara’s history and even a woolly mammoth skeleton, while the Museo de las Artes Populares de Jalisco displays the best local crafts from Jalisco (Tues to Sun, 10am–5pm).

Give yourself a couple of hours to float from plaza to plaza and just soak in the grandeur stone buildings.

3. Theatro Degollado

This neo-classical building is an emblem of Guadalajara, and its imposing columned façade is easy to spot off the city’s main plaza. Inside hides an ornate mosaic showing the nine muses. At night, the theatre hosts international and local performances of concerts, ballet, opera and plays, otherwise, the theatre is open to visitors from 10am–2pm.

Walk around to the back of the theatre to see ‘Plaza Fundadores’, with a grand 21m-long fountain with a frieze depicting the city’s founding characters. Commemorating the site of the city’s final establishment, the work alludes to the city’s name, which comes from the Arabic or Moorish word, ‘Wad-al’jidara’, meaning ‘river of stones’.

4. Zapopan

The 17th-century Basilica of Zapopan is a pilgrimage site – and so should you make the effort to visit this striking complex. The ‘Virgin of Zapopan’ is known for her miracles, even prompting a visit from Pope John Paul II. Look out for a small statue made with corn stalks, which was a common material when Zapopan was a major producer of corn. Part of the basilica is dedicated to the Huichol Museum, showing the art and culture of the local indigenous people, and another part is dedicated to the Museum of the Virgin, where you can see the many offerings over the years. On 12 October, since 1734, a large procession has taken place as the image of the virgin is carried from Guadalajara Cathedral (starting 6am) to the Basilica, among the fanfare of vendors, mariachi, dancers and worshipers alike.

The surrounding streets of Zapopan still retain the heart of a small-town pueblo, with colorful colonial architecture that makes you want to see more. There’s the small contemporary gallery of Museo de Arte Zapopan, the Municipal Cultural Center with fine art exhibitions, more churches, and the Municipal Palace, with a mural by Guadalajara artist Guillermo Chavez Vega. Most the sites pivot around Plaza del Arte (Art Plaza) which is adorned with three sculpture and stone arches. The local government has a great website explaining all the sites.

Don’t miss the town’s old entrance, Arco de Ingreso a Zapopan, an imposing stone arch of 20m at one end of Paseo Teopitzintli. This is a great street to stop for a coffee and soak in a different era. On Saturdays, an artist and antique street market lines the sides of Andador 20 de Noviembre. You can combine a half-day in Zapopan with a stop-off to Bosque Colomos, about 10–15 minutes away. 

5. San Juan Markets

It may not be the prettiest market you’ve ever seen, but Mercado San Juan de Dios is the biggest in all of Latin America. Finding your way through the labyrinth is half the battle, as is haggling for a good deal on the large array of local specialties, such as leather and ceramics. Don’t forget to climb up to the second or third floors to admire the architecture.

6. Tlaquepaque

No matter how little time you have in Guadalajara, the 20-minute drive to Tlaquepaque is a must-do thing in Guadalajara. Walk the colorful ‘Calle Independencia’ lined with colonial architecture, art sculptures, elaborate artisanal shops and restaurants tucked into shady courtyards. All under the crisscross of fluttering Mexican flags overhead, or whatever is the street decoration of the month. San Pedro festival, around end of June, is when the town really livens up.

You’ll find two imposing churches–San Pedro and El Santuario de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad–on the main Jardín Hidalgo, named after Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the ‘Father of Mexican Independence’ (spot his statue in the square). It is especially lively on the weekends, even at night, with families grabbing a bite from the numerous market stalls. Beside it is the boisterous, good-time El Parián mariachi plaza. Enter the enormous rotunda of restaurants to watch mariachi compete for your attention. Order the local drink ‘cazuela de tequila’, which is served in a clay bowl and is a refreshing mix of citric fruits with a shot of tequila poured on top. Tlaquepaque is also known for tejuino – a thick, pre-Hispanic drink of fermented corn – and tepache, a drink of partially fermented pineapple, brown sugar and water.

If you head there in the day, you’ll have time to visit the Ceramic Museum (Tues to Sat, 10am–6pm, until 4pm Sundays), or see the extensive collection of hand-painted tiles in the shop Cantu or Mercado de Artesanias. As one of the most important pottery producing towns in Mexico, there are plenty of stores and workshops to see the local handicraft. To buy hard-to-find tequila brands, Nuestros Dulces has one of the biggest collections of local tequilas (Calle Juarez 154).

Centro Cultural El Refugio, an ex-psychiatric hospital with a dark history, can be explored in the day – or at night with a scary tour (in Spanish). It’s also worth popping into the gallery-shop of artist Sergio Bustamante to see his whimsical sculptures and jewelry. If you’ve got more time, check out the changing exhibitions at Pantaleón Panduro, or shop for local artworks at Galería Alejandro Calvillo.

7. MUSA and Templo Expiatorio

The University Museum (Museo de las Artes de la Universidad de Guadalajara, Tues to Sun, 10am–6pm) deserves a visit for several reasons: the grandeur French renaissance architecture, inspiring exhibitions and, in the middle of it all, a semi-circle lecture hall with muraled frescos by Orozco, ‘Pentafásico’ Man and The Country and its False Leaders. And it’s free.

One block from MUSA, you’ll find the Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, one of the best examples of neo-Gothic architecture in Mexico. Walk behind the pulpit and you’ll discover an underground–although relatively modern–crypt.

From here, you can wander through Parque Revolución, until you find yourself on the pedestrian Andador Coronilla, with sculptures, street art, and studios offering art classes. You’ll see straight up that this is the artsy neighborhood, with large murals and graffiti painted on the sides of houses. You can find gems like the first-floor Primer Piso Jazz Club.

8. Mariachi Squares

If you’re in Guadalajara on the weekend, you might catch a few mariachi hanging around Guadalajara’s small Mariachi plaza in hope of being hired. There’s a few restaurants along the side, as well, where you could eat and order a few songs yourself.

If you want a better Mariachi atmosphere, the trek to El Parián Plaza in Tlaquepaque is worth the effort.

9. Urban Art

A few blocks from Plaza Armas, you are invited to climb and take a selfie shot with the giant head sculpture–Árbol Adentro–by artist José Fors, inspired by a poem by Octavio Paz. It rises four meters from the street of Paseo Fray Antonio Alcalde, between Calle Independencia and Juan Manuel. It was the one of the sculptures inaugurated under the city’s ‘Public Art–Urban Colossuses’ project, joining the likes of Jose Dávila’s Sculptural Ensemble in San Jacinto Park, and Reminiscencia by Rafael San Juan on the east end of the Matute Remus Bridge. Driving around you might spot the rest, such as Las Tres Gracias by Sergio Garval, Pluma by Pedro Escapa or Sincretismo, by Ismael Vargas.

If you want to feel overpowered by public art and experience Mexican modernism, head to Parque Gonzalez Gallo. The abstract yellow trusses by Guadalajaran sculptor Gonzalez Gortazar (1972) are so large a whole family could take refuge in their shadows.

There are more artistic gems to discover as investment is driven to beautify the city. The municipality of Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, 30km southwest from the capital, is trying to win the Guinness World Records for the largest mural in the world, aiming for 40,000sqm of frescoes. Boa Mistura, a Spanish art collective, also finished a Huichol-inspired (the indigenous people from Jalisco) project of almost 5,000sqm in the poor neighborhood of Colonia Infonavit Independencia.

10. Go Green

Northeast of the city is the Barranca de Huentitán, a 600m-deep canyon that drops down to the Santiago river. Hike along the river and you’ll stumble across thermal baths (no changing facilities, so bring a towel or come in bathers). Otherwise, you can take in the incredible vistas at the Mirador (viewing platform).

West of the city sits 35,000 hectares of the Bosque La Primavera, full of pines, oaks and cacti, plus the odd deer, coyote, armadillo, bobcat or the ever-elusive puma. There are sites to camp, cycle, horse ride, or bathe in hot springs coming up from volcanic soil.

If you want something closer to the city, try Bosque Colomos, with its art sculptures, a Japanese garden–you might even catch a quinceañera photoshoot­–and marked running tracks. There’s also the Centro Cultural Casa Colomos, with art classes, concerts, exhibitions and more. Parque Agua Azul is closer to the historical centre and also offers a number of gardens, exhibitions and some animals for kids.

11. Follow The Local Art Trail

Museo de Arte Raúl Anguiano (MURA, Tues to Sat, 10am–6pm, until 3pm Sun) hosts some of the best modern art exhibitions in Guadalajara. You’ll be exposed to a diverse and interesting collection of artists throughout its three exhibition spaces.

The Travesía Cuatro is an ever-evolving, contemporary art gallery, housed in a former residence designed by renown Mexican modernist Luis Barragan. Zapopan’s Galeria Curro caters to more unconventional work. You can also find interesting projects like the art ‘‘laboratory’’ of PAOS, which hosts residencies and exhibitions in the studio of Modernist muralist José Clemente Orozco. Some local talent to watch on the contemporary-rise include: Jose Dávila, Gonzalo Lebrija and Jorge Méndez Blake

12. Tequila

It’s only an hour from Guadalajara until you’re immersed in blue-agave bliss, but there is much more to this small 17th-century, UNESCO town than Tequila tasting – although that should be the focus if you want to discover hard-to-find tequilas. Quaint churches, distillery visits, barrel-shaped bus tours, the free Tequila and Mariachi Museum, and shopping for the typical local clay mugs is just the start. As the sun goes down, the town squares liven up as people stagger the streets with tequila cocktails in hand, as if you’ve stumbled into the biggest street-town party you’ve ever seen. Above it all you’ll see performances of ‘voladores’, or dancers who ‘fly’ down from on top of a pole.

You can also visit La Cata, with a wide array of Tequila tasting and detailed explanations, or La Capilla (the Chapel), which is the oldest bar in town, or Cantaritos El Guero, an open-air bar in Amatitan. And don’t forget to take a peek into the Town hall, with a mural painted by Manuel Hernandez showing the significance of the agave plant in pre-colonial times.

The typical–although some say touristic–way to arrive is by the ‘Tequila train’, offered by Herradura (which goes to Amatitán, just before Tequila) and Jose Cuervo (the oldest distillery in Tequila, with some 200 years, although you return by bus). Food, drinks, and a Mexican mariachi fiesta are included. You can otherwise book comprehensive tours of several distilleries, the largest being Casa Sauza (or go by their ‘Tequila Express’ bus tour) and Casa Orendain, with tastings and a novelty tourist bus. If you drive, you will also find some distilleries along the road with open doors, otherwise, you generally need to arrange a private tour–a couple weeks’ in advance–if you have a particular brand in mind.

Pick the train if you’re looking for all-day, boozy fun, but it’s just as easy to drive yourself if you want freedom to add a few other stops to your itinerary, like the circular pyramids of Guachimontones. Small tour companies also offer guided visits to several distilleries in the same day, if you want more contact with the long-standing families that have produced tequila in this region for up to six generations. You can get an idea of where the distilleries are located on this map.

13. Guachimontones

There are only two known sites in Mexico–and the world–that have circular pyramids, and Guachimontones is the biggest of them (the other, smaller Cuicuilco pyramid is in Mexico City). Located near the town of Teuchitlan, around one hour west of Guadalajara, these 2,000 year old pyramids are now a UNESCO World heritage site. It’s easy to drive to these pyramids and the town of Tequila in the same day, and still be back in Guadalajara for dinner. The site is small, but the uniqueness of these round pyramids and the views across the valley make it worth your time. There’s also the quaint Teuchitlan at the bottom of the hill, for those who want a taste of small-town, local Mexican life.

Where to Eat in Guadalajara

The culinary scene in Guadalajara is one of its best selling points. Bars, cafes and restaurants offer up everything from humble to high-end dishes, with many traditional plates and unusual beverages unique to Jalisco state.

The top award-winning restaurants are Alcalde and La Docena Oyster Bar. With Alcalde’s 12-course tasting menu only costing 60–70 USD, it’s hard to find a reason not to go.

There is also a strong presence of fine dining options, such as Huseo or I Latina, followed by Bruna, Allium, Lula Bistro, and Anita Li.

The three brunch hotspots are Cafe P’al Real, Boulangerie Central and Piggy Back. The buffet brunch at Santo Coyote isalso popular, even during the week.

Santa Tere’s Karne Garibaldi is known for its ‘carne en su jugo (meat in its juice), while La Chata usually has a long line of locals outside. Similarly, Birrieria las 9 Esquinas is a classic for traditional dishes.

Mercado de Santa Tere: Besides being a popular neighbourhood to stay, the local market of the same name is a great stop for a quintessential Mexicao market food.

Cantina La Fuente is a classic bar, with arched ceilings, a pianist in the center, and plenty of opportunity to sing along with the lcoals.

Neighborhoods: Where to Say in Guadalajara

There are many hotels around the historical center, although many people to stay in the classier neighborhoods, such as upscale Colonia Lafayette, with international galleries and French baroque colonial mansions. Americana and Chapultepec neighborhood are also popular, with many trendy restaurants and bars, while leafy Chapalita is a little farther out.

Santa Tere and Providencia are not to far from the historical center, and Mexicaltzingo is one of the oldest.

Puerta de Hierro, a high-end commercial district on the northern outskirts of the city

When to Visit Guadalajara?

The town heats up during the International Mariachi Festival, usually held in the weeks before Mexico’s Independence Day on 16 September. The city-wide, month-long Ferias de Octubre gives you a chance to experience local food, art and culture. Not to be outdone by the world’s second biggest book fair–the Feria de Internacional del Libro–held in November.


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