The best things to do in Guadalajara, Mexico

CNN  — 

Situated at the heart of Jalisco state, the birthplace of tequila and mariachi, Guadalajara is not only Mexico’s second city, it’s also just about as authentically Mexican as you can get. Yet too many visitors overlook this big city with small-town charm and youthful appeal.

What to know

Guadalajara is Mexico's second-biggest city, yet gets way fewer visitors compared to the capital.

Guadalajara is highly navigable on foot, which is good because the city’s subway system consists of just two limited coverage lines and a third that’s been in construction for years and looks no closer to completion.

Getting to the land of the tapatíos (people from Guadalajara) is slightly more streamlined, with direct flight routes available from both east and west coast US cities, including L.A. and New York.

And when should you visit? September sees both Mexican Independence Day on the 16th and the International Mariachi Festival in the weeks prior, while October welcomes the month-long, city-wide celebration of arts, food and culture at the Ferias de Octubre.

Meanwhile, November’s Feria Internacional del Libro (the world’s second biggest book fair) is chock-full of events.

However, the weather is favorable year-round in the city of eternal spring.

What to do

As with most Mexican cities, its logical to start your exploration from the historic center. In Guadalajara, almost all the notable historic buildings fan out from four pleasant plazas, each with their own distinct appeal.

Sit on a wrought-iron bench next to the Palacio de Gobierno in Plaza de Armas; admire the façade of the iconic twin-spired cathedral and its sunshine yellow color scheme from Plaza Guadalajara.

Teatro Degollado is one of the many historic buildings in the city center.

Just off of Plaza Liberación is the 19th century Teatro Degollado with its ornate mosaic depicting the nine muses and sturdy Corinthian pillars; finally, learn about influential people from Jalisco state (and cat watch) alongside the Rotunda de los Jalicienses Ilustres.

Moving further east, the 18th century UNESCO-listed Hospicio Cabañas, which houses some spectacular José Clemente Orozco murals, shouldn’t be skipped, and while you’re in the area, stop by Latin America’s largest indoor market, the Mercado San Juan de Dios.

Browse the multi-level complex of leather products (ground floor), your standard tourist tat like keychains and magnets (everywhere) and knock-off shoes and clothes (second floor). Half the battle is not getting lost.

Hospicio Cabañas is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

For art, the ever-evolving Travesía Cuatro showcases some excellent contemporary up-and-comers from around the world, while Zapopan’s Galería Curro dabbles in displaying unconventional, multidisciplinary work. Either way, both serve as a nice reminder that Mexico’s capital isn’t the be all and end all of the country’s art scene.

If you’re looking to get a break from the city, head northeast to the Barranca de Huentitán or northwest to the Bosque Colomos. Soak in the views or go for a hike at the former and feed the squirrels in the Japanese garden at the latter.

Palacio de Gobierno, Avenida Ramón Corona 31, Centro, 44100 Guadalajara, +52 33 3668 1825

Catedral de Guadalajara, Avenida Alcalde 10, Centro, 44100 Guadalajara, +52 33 3613 7168

Teatro Degollado, Calle Degollado, Centro, 44100 Guadalajara, +52 33 3614 4773

Rotunda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres, Avenida Miguel Hidalgo, Centro, 44100 Guadalajara

Hospicio Cabañas, Calle Cabañas 8, Las Fresas, 44360 Guadalajara, +52 33 3668 1642

Mercado San Juan de Dios, Avenida Javier Mina 52, San Juan de Dios, 44380 Guadalajara

Travesía Cuatro, Avenida de la Paz 2207, Americana, 44160 Guadalajara, +52 33 3615 2694

Galería Curro, Boulevard Puerta de Hierro 5210, Puerta de Hierro, 45116 Zapopan, +52 33 3611 1967

Barranca de Huentitán, Periférico Norte Manuel Gómez Morín, Tetlán Río Verde, 44720 Guadalajara

Bosque Colomos, El Chaco 3200, Providencia, 44630 Guadalajara, +52 33 3641 3804

What to eat and drink

Order the local favorite "Carne en su jugo" at Karne Garibaldi

Guadalajara is categorized by casual dining rather than Michelin stars, although both Alcalde and La Docena Oyster Bar did make the Latin America Top 50 Restaurant List in 2017.

Even so, the Mercado de Santa Tere in the neighborhood of the same name makes for a quintessential stop, where you can dive into Mexican classics like deep-fried, sauce-doused quesadillas.

If you’re looking for an equally casual, café breakfast then Piggy Back, with its white and pastel color scheme, should make your itinerary. Grab a table outside, order a giant plate of chilaquiles washed down with a latte.

Alternatively, especially if you’re a coffee fiend, exploring the swathe of cafés which dot the cool, on-the-rise Americana neighborhood wouldn’t go amiss.

La Docena's oysters are not to be missed.

For something a little more regionally specific, and to shift that tequila hangover, tortas ahogadas (literally, drowned sandwiches) are the obvious choice.

While everyone claims to have the best in the city, as long as they encase the deep fried carnitas, fresh onion and radish filling in Guadalajara’s trademark crusty birote bread roll you’re good to go.

For something equally as tapatío in flavor, but slightly less messy, the speedy service at Santa Tere’s Karne Garibaldi is a must.

Carne en su jugo (‘meat in its juice’) might not sound so appetizing, but this combo of beef bacon and broth, especially when topped with those oh-so-Mexican additions of lime, onion and cilantro, is a winner.

By night, you can’t go wrong with strolling down the lively 15 blocks stretch of Avenida Chapultepec.

Populated with skateboarding teens by day, it really comes alive at night with impromptu dance tutorials, market stalls, and more affordable bars than you have time to visit.

But for something more than commercial Mexican beers, head to Casa Trapiche just two blocks off Chapu—as it’s known to the locals—for some craft ale tasting flights, or down to De La O for tiki culture and innovative pulque cocktails.

Alcalde, Avenida México 2903, Vallarta Norte, 44690 Guadalajara, +52 33 3615 7400

La Docena Oyster Bar, São Paulo 1491, Providencia, 44640 Guadalajara, +52 33 3817 2798

Mercado de Santa Tere, Calle Andrés Terán 524, Santa Teresita, 44600 Guadalajara

Piggy Back, Avenida Justo Sierra 1819, Centro, 44100 Guadalajara, +52

Karne Garibaldi, Calle Garibaldi 1306, Santa Teresita, 44600 Guadalajara, +52 33 3826 1286

Casa Trapiche, Calle Gabriel Ramos Millán 146, Ladrón de Guevara, 44600 Guadalajara, +52 33 3825 4762

De La O, Argentina 70, Americana, 44160 Guadalajara

Where to stay

When it comes to bunking down in Guadalajara, you’re spoiled for choice thanks to the plethora of artsy, boutique properties that have sprung up in recent years, as well as the traditional, stately classics that seem to have been on the scene forever.

For a swanky stay in one of Guadalajara’s coolest colonias, Lafayette (which edges onto Avenida Chapultepec), book a room at Casa Fayette. Housed in a renovated ’40s building, an era whose legacy is reflected in some of the stylish décor touches, this three-star design hotel makes up the only Guadalajara entry in Grupo Habita’s impressive portfolio.

Villa Ganz's design is heavy on the floral touches.

Alternatively, just a few blocks away there’s Villa Ganz, which sells itself on being the first boutique hotel in the city. However, the décor is distinctly more traditional, with sweeping staircases, plush floral sofas and suites named for Juan Rulfo characters.

Casa Fayette, Calle Miguel Lerdo de Tejada 2308, Lafayette, 44160 Guadalajara, +52 33 3679 2000

Villa Ganz, Calle Manuel López Cotilla 1739B, Lafayette, 44160 Guadalajara, +52 33 3120 1416

Escape the city

Tlaquepaque is known for its rich (and delicious) tequila history.

For an easy escape, head 20 minutes outside of Guadalajara to Tlaquepaque’s historic center.

Stroll the wide, walkable streets strung with multicolored bunting and lined with restaurants, boutiques and art galleries, browse for tiles at Cantú and grab a tray of boiled vegetables topped with crema, cheese and chili from Jardín Hidalgo (it’s better than it sounds).

Next, head to El Parián in the evening for a live mariachi show. There, order a cazuela (citrus fruits, juices and tequila). More soup bowl than mug, you’ll only need one.

And there’s no visiting Guadalajara, without heading into the tequila heartlands. If you’re feeling flush, you can take the José Cuervo Express or do it yourself with an hour and a half bus ride from the Central Camionera Vieja, Guadalajara.

Take some time to explore the José Cuervo factory courtyard, before joining a distillery tour at the Orendain factory where you’ll get a comprehensive tour, complimentary tastings and a jaunt on a novelty tourist bus.

Cantú, Calle Francisco de Miranda 60, Centro, 45500 Tlaquepaque, +52 33 3635 5981

Jardín Hidalgo, Guillermo Prieto 29, Centro, 45500 Tlaquepaque

El Parián, Calle Juárez 68, Centro, 45500 Tlaquepaque

Central Camionera Vieja, Calle Los Ángeles 218, San Carlos, 44460 Guadalajara

Tequila Orendain, Tabasco 208, Sauza, 46400 Tequila, +52 374 742 0208

Lauren is a travel, food and drink writer, specializing in Mexico and Latin America. Follow her inane inner monologue on Twitter at @laurencocking or read her blog Northern Lauren.