The capital of the western Mexican state of Jalisco, Guadalajara is at the heart of the second largest urban area in Mexico.
The city has monuments to match its status, like the Hospicio Cabañas, a splendid hospital complex from the turn of the 19th century, and a 400-year-old Colonial Renaissance cathedral.
Also in Guadalajara’s conurbation is the city of Tlaquepaque, featuring a charming old centre with a flair for arts and crafts and mariachi.
For a day trip, Tequila is an easy drive through fields of blue agave cultivated for Mexico’s beloved spirit.
Guadalajara also hosts the mammoth Mercado San Juan de Dios, the largest indoor market in the Americas.
There you’ll be tempted by treats like iced horchata, a refreshing rice, vanilla and cinnamon drink, and tortas ahogadas, sandwiches soaked in a chilli sauce.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Guadalajara:
The main church for the Archdiocese of Guadalajara, the cathedral is edged by four plazas that form a cross shape.
This monument has come through all kinds of catastrophes, including no fewer than seven earthquakes.
One in 1818 brought down the dome and the towers, which were rebuilt later in the century in a neo-Gothic style.
The remainder of the cathedral dates to the 16th and 17th centuries and has Colonial Renaissance architecture.
The stained glass was shipped from France, while in the chancel and various chapels are seven majestic altars, including one to Our Lady of Zapopan, Guadalajara’s patron saint.
She divides her time between the cathedral and a nearby basilica, which we’ll cover later.
A creepy curiosity is the preserved mummy of Santa Inocencia, a girl said to have been killed by her father in the 1700s.
2. Hospicio Cabañas
A World Heritage Site, this immense complex was established in 1791 as a hospital, almshouse, orphanage and workhouse.
With a large rectangular footprint, it has the same kind of format as Madrid’s El Escorial or Les Invalides in Paris.
Something interesting about Hospicio Cabañas is that everything is laid out on one level, to make it easier for the infirm, elderly and children to get around.
The man behind the design was the Mexico City architect Manuel Tolsá who embellished the complex with balustrades and arcades around 23 courtyards.
If there’s one thing to look out for, it’s the series of frescoes by José Clemente Orozco, culminating with “Man of Fire” in the dome, painted in 1936-39.
3. Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento
A shining piece of neo-Gothic architecture, this church was built over 75 years between 1897 and 1972. With dainty tracery, crockets, a rose window and mosaics in its tympana, it’s almost indistinguishable from a European Medieval building.
That is no accident, as the church’s stonework and fittings were handmade using the same methods.
The church’s clock was crafted in Germany, together with its 25-bell carillon.
When the clock chimes you can see little statues of the 12 Apostles rotating through the campanile.
The chancel and nave are lit by tall and slender stained glass windows painted by two artisans from Orléans on a template by the artist Maurice Rocher.
Once a city of its own, Tlaquepaque was engulfed by the conurbation in the 20th century, and is set just six kilometres southeast of the centre of Guadalajara.
The Historic Centre of Tlaquepaque is as pretty as it gets, with historic mansions, orange trees, colonial churches and a beautiful arcaded plaza, El Parián.
This is traced by bars and restaurants and has a bandstand at the centre, and the sound of Mariachi bands will never be far away.
Tlaquepaque is famed for these ensembles, and they’re a key part of the San Pedro festivities in June when the streets of the Historic Centre are garlanded with papel picado (paper banners). The city also has an artisan tradition, and glassware, pottery shops, candle stores, pewter forges and art galleries abound.
5. Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres
In the very centre of the city, opposite the cathedral, is a monument behind railings, paying homage to the State of Jalisco’s most prominent figures.
Designed by the architect Vicente Mendiola and built in 1952, the rotunda has 17 fluted columns without capitals or bases, arranged in a circle.
In the frieze above is an inscription reading “Jalisco a sus hijos esclarecidos” (From Jalisco to its enlightened sons). In the trough below are the tombs of 96 famous Jaliscans, while the garden around has 22 statues of some of the more distinguished personalities.
Among them are the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Luis Barragán, poet Enrique González Martínez and painter José Clemente Orozco.
6. Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan
This 17th-century Franciscan church complex is in Zapopan, eight kilometres northwest of Guadalajara Cathedral.
The basilica has theatrical colonial Baroque architecture, fronted by a gateway that has a pair of powerful Ionic columns.
Passing through to the courtyard you’ll be greeted by a sumptuous facade of scrolls and delicately sculpted reliefs, under two domed bell towers.
The interior is similarly exuberant, with fluted columns, polychrome statues, paintings and lots of gold leaf.
On 12 October the basilica witnesses Mexico’s third-largest pilgrimage.
More than a million worshippers join a procession with the Virgin of Zapopan from Guadalajara Cathedral to the basilica.
This image of Mary was carved in Spain in the Middle Ages and brought to Mexico in the 1500s.
7. Palacio de Gobierno
The seat of Guadalajara’s Municipal Council is an eye-catching neo-Colonial building completed in 1952. The facade has an arcade, pinnacles and Guadalajara’s carved coat of arms, while the interior is known for the massive murals that decorate its hallways and chambers.
These were painted by José Clemente Orozco and Gabriel Flores, another of the luminaries to appear on the Rotunda nearby.
You can pop inside to see the monumental image of the revolutionary leader Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo on the ceiling above the main stairway.
8. Plaza de la Liberación
There are four plazas around the cathedral, all with food vendors if you’re up for a tamale, taco or torta (sandwich). The largest public space is Plaza de la Liberación to the east.
This square, drawn up in 1952, is often used for free concerts and is known locally as the “Plaza de las Dos Copas”, for its two fountains shaped like wine glasses.
There’s a larger than life-sized monument to Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla symbolising his abolition of slavery in 1810. Afterwards you can drop by Plaza Guadalajara, which has an underground shopping centre, and Plaza de Armas, where there’s a French 19th-century wrought iron bandstand used in the past for rabble-rousing political speeches.
9. San Juan de Dios Market
Guadalajara has the largest indoor market in Latin America.
The San Juan de Dios Market was built in 1958, taking up 40,000 square metres and with 2,980 stalls.
These sell almost anything you can think of, be it shoes, DVDs, eyeglasses, homewares, electrical and clothing.
Tourists flock to the market’s many arts and crafts stalls, found along with fresh produce on the first floor.
Go up a level and you’ll come to the restaurants and food stalls, which are another big attraction.
One indulgent Guadalajaran speciality to taste is a torta ahogada (drowned sandwich), in which a bolillo bread sandwich is filled with fried pork (carnitas), chicken or beans and served on a deep plate flooded with a sauce made with arbol chillies, vinegar and garlic.
You can decide how spicy you want the sauce and how “drowned” you want your sandwich to be.
10. Bosque Colomos
At the boundary between Guadalajara and Zapopan is a lush 92-hectare park with more than 32,000 trees.
At Bosque Colomos you’ll meet families having picnics under eucalyptus trees and jogging trails that weave deep into the woodland.
The park has a Japanese garden for a few minutes of quiet contemplation, and at the centre is a large lake, supporting a few bird and amphibian species.
There’s a regular market for food and arts and crafts, and stables for children to try horse riding.
11. Panteón de Belén
Until the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres was built, Jalisco’s preeminent figures were honoured at this cemetery, in use from 1848 to 1896. With mausoleums, chapels, tombs and statues the Panteón de Belén is an outdoor museum of 19th-century funerary architecture.
It was planned by architect Manuel Gómez Ibarra, who also appears on the Jalisco rotunda.
A standout monument here is the Egyptian Chapel, so-called for its pyramidal roof.
The general spookiness of the cemetery has given rise to all manner of legends about pirates, monks and vampires, all now engrained in local folklore.
There are extra visitors around Day of the Dead (2 November) for daylight and creepy night-time tours.
12. Guadalajara Zoo
A swift taxi ride from the Historic Centre, the Guadalajara Zoo is rated as one of the best in Latin America and has a higher variety of species than any in Mexico.
The enclosures are embedded in well-maintained gardens, providing ample shade and equipped with added attractions like the “Sky Zoo” an aerial tramway with a bird’s-eye view of the monkey, gorilla, lion, bison and wolf habitats, and a “Masai Mara” safari experience in which you’ll get close to giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippos and ostriches.
Other family favourites are the zoo’s train, aquarium with a glass tunnel and the Antarctica Zone, where you can briefly experience sub-zero temperatures and watch playful Adélie and Gentoo penguins.
13. Parque Mirador Independencia
Just past the zoo on the northern edge of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area is the Barranca de Oblatos, a canyon cut by the Río Grande de Santiago and the most convenient hiking destination near the city.
In the 1970s a park was set up on the rim of the canyon, with sweeping vistas across the 500-metre ravine.
The most dramatic lookout in the park is from the benches at the amphitheatre where the bluffs and verdant slopes are mesmerising.
14. Lake Chapala
Under an hour south of Guadalajara is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, with a surface area of 1,100 kilometres.
The shore has consistently mild temperatures, around 22°C in any season, and this has drawn lots of American and Canadian expats to lakeside communities like Ajijic.
In this town there’s a superb market on Wednesdays, and a gorgeous waterfront park and palm-fringed promenade looking towards the mountains on the south shore.
Something to taste at Lake Chapala are charalitos, which are deep-fried minnows like Spanish pescaditos fritos, topped with chilli and lemon.
From the town of Chapala you can catch a boat out to Scorpion Island, which has food and drink stands, a couple of chapels and paths traced by lush vegetation and flowers.
The road leaving the conurbation to the northwest passes through an ocean of bluish-green spikes.
These belong to the blue agave plant, which is the main ingredient in Mexico’s most famous beverage.
Tequila is an hour away from Guadalajara and is essential, even for non-drinkers, as Tequila and its agave landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Almost every shop in the town is tequila-related, selling shot glasses and tequila sets, but if you want to cut to the heart of the industry you have to book a tour at La Rojeña, the distillery for Jose Cuervo.
This best-selling tequila brand was founded in 1795 and is still operated by the descendants of Don José Antonio de Cuervo, who was awarded a land grant for Tequila by King Ferdinand VI in 1758.