Far from Mexico’s well-trodden tourist trail, the colonial city of Guadalajara is one of this vast nation’s most overlooked destinations. In the western state of Jalisco, Guadalajara is Mexico’s second-largest metropolis, and the birthplace of two of its most emblematic exports: tequila and mariachi music. It is sunnier and less overwhelming than Mexico City, while offering better value for money and a more “Mexican” experience than gringo-orientated resorts of the Yucután peninsula.
Proud Tapatíos, as Guadalajara’s 4.5 million residents are known, take hospitality seriously and love to showcase the very best of their culture. The city’s historic centre houses its most obvious attractions, such as the twin-towered cathedral and the labyrinthine Mercado San Juan de Dios, Latin America’s largest indoor market. The stately Hospicio Cabañas, a former orphanage with fiery murals by José Clemente Orozco, is Unesco-listed and worth a visit, along with the Zapopan district’s imposing stone archway and majestic 17th-century basilica.
Once considered one of Mexico’s most Catholic and conservative cities, Guadalajara has grown increasingly progressive and is now famed for its gay scene. Its cultural heart today is lively Colonia Americana, with its weekend street markets and free concerts held on broad avenues lined with palms, jacarandas and colonial mansions.
Every turn reveals more bars, cafes and restaurants that combine to make Guadalajara’s culinary scene arguably its strongest selling point. From humble taco stands to high-end establishments, visitors can gorge on a broad range of traditional dishes and strange beverages that are often unique to this corner of the country.
Thomson flies direct from Gatwick and Manchester to the nearby resort of Puerto Vallarta from under £500 return, with some real bargains to be had if booked last minute. Guadalajara also serves as a cultured and palate-pleasing excursion from Mexico’s lush Pacific coast.
WHAT TO DO
Watch a football match
Guadalajara is home to two football teams: Club Deportivo Guadalajara, aka Chivas, the most popular club in Mexico; and their fierce rivals Atlas, whose sole league title came in 1951. Chivas play at the Estadio Chivas, a sleek, modern bowl on the city’s western outskirts, but for a better atmosphere head across town to Atlas’s Estadio Jalisco, a rustic behemoth surrounded by dive bars and street-food stands in a working-class neighbourhood. Don’t miss the local derby, el clásico tapatío, if it coincides with your visit. Atlas tickets costs from £2.50; Chivas tickets from £4.
• atlasfc.com.mx, estadiochivas.mx
Go shopping in Tlaquepaque
With its colourful, pedestrianised streets, Guadalajara’s Tlaquepaque neighbourhood still has the feel and charm of small-town Mexico. If you’re looking for souvenirs, delve through the heaps of pottery, leather goods, painted skulls and blown-glass ornaments in the upstairs artisan market beside Plaza Parián. Then grab a cup of tejuino – a thick, pre-hispanic drink made from fermented corn – from a street vendor and marvel at the surrealist sculptures in the Sergio Bustamante art gallery, and the psychedelic beaded animals sold outside by the Huichol people.
Hike the city’s outskirts
Guadalajara’s north-eastern perimeter is marked by the Barranca de Huentitán, a rugged canyon with an average depth of 600 metres. Visitors can hike down to the Santiago river or just enjoy the stunning landscape from the Mirador (viewing platform). Alternatively, just west of the city lies the 35,000-hectare Bosque La Primavera, a pine, oak and cactus forest home to deer, coyotes, armadillos, bobcats and even a few elusive pumas. Here you can camp, cycle, ride horses and bathe in hot springs that bubble up from the volcanic soil.
No stay in Guadalajara would be complete without a day trip to the nearby town of Tequila, the home of Mexico’s potent national spirit. An hour’s drive north-west of the city, Tequila sits in a volcanic valley lined with endless rows of blue agave, the spiky crop from which the spirit is distilled. The family-owned Jose Cuervo company offers a train ride and tour of its 200-year-old distillery, including traditional snacks and as much tequila as you can handle throughout the day, from £75pp. Nearby Casa Sauza runs similar tours by coach, for £47pp.
• mundocuervo.com, tequilaexpress.mx
WHERE TO EAT
Karne Garibaldi, Santa Teresita
A local institution, Karne Garibaldi has just one main on the menu, carne en su jugo: a warming bowl of minced beef and crispy bacon in meaty broth. Season it with onion, lime and coriander and enjoy the soft corn tortillas and famous house beans on the side. Karne Garibaldi holds the Guinness Record for the world’s quickest service, and the waiters will lay out your meal within 13½ seconds of you taking a seat. A medium serving is £3.50.
• Garibaldi 1306, karnegaribaldi.com.mx
Ahogadas Betos, Santa Teresita
Don’t leave Guadalajara without trying the fiery local hangover cure, the torta ahogada. Meaning “drowned sandwich” this is a crusty sourdough baguette stuffed with succulent chunks of pork leg and doused in so much spicy salsa that you need a spoon to eat it. In the “Santa Tere” district west of the centre, Ahogadas Betos offers a fine twist on the traditional torta, using pork shoulder swamped in a tasty consommé instead of leg bathed in tomato-based sauce. The walls are lined with sepia photographs of Guadalajara’s early days and the tortas, which cost £1.50, are served on rustic clay plates.
• Pedro Buzeta 757, on Facebook
Birrieria Las 9 Esquinas, Centro Histórico
On the nine-cornered plaza from which it takes its name, Las 9 Esquinas is a great place to try birria, a hearty meat stew native to Jalisco state – it’s made with mutton here. The menu also features classic dishes from other parts of Mexico, such as cochinita pibil from the Yucatán, an acidic, slow-roasted pork dish, or chicken with mole poblano (from Puebla), a rich chocolate and chilli sauce. Mariachi bands often troop in to serenade the diners in this brightly decorated spot. A bowl of birria costs £5.
• Cólon 384 esquina Galeana, las9esquinas.com
A new restaurant run by the acclaimed chef Francisco Ruano, Trasfonda serves gourmet takes on traditional Mexican dishes in a stylish converted house. Be bold and try the guacamole with grasshoppers and the mouthwatering aguachile (uncooked prawns marinated with lime and chilli). Mains from £3.35 to £10.30.
• Lerdo de Tejada 2031, on Facebook
Tacos Charlie, Jardines Universidad
With its red plastic chairs and yellow plates, unpretentious Tacos Charlie offers superb service to a loyal clientele. There’s a world of wonderful tacos to try in Mexico, but few are more enjoyable than Charlie’s Jalisco-style tacos de barbacoa. Made with slow-braised beef packed into crunchy corn tortillas, they make a perfect breakfast or lunch. Tacos cost 55p each.
• Avenida Naciones Unidas 5040, on Facebook
Palreal, Arcos Vallarta
You won’t find better coffee in Guadalajara than at Palreal, a leafy, laid-back cafe run by award-winning baristas. A cup of locally sourced coffee will set you back £1.70 to £2.55, while a glass of Mexican wine costs about £2.50. Don’t pass up the opportunity to match it with Palreal’s speciality snack, the lonche de pancita. This heavenly baguette – filled with crispy shredded pork belly, green salsa, refried beans, avocado, red onion and fresh coriander – may be the best £3.80 you ever spend.
• Lope de Vega 113, on Facebook
WHERE TO DRINK
Patan Ale House, Colonia Americana
Mexico’s craft beer scene has exploded in the past five years, with more than a dozen microbreweries popping up in Guadalajara alone. Sample the best local cervezas at Patan Ale House, a new haunt conceived as a cross between a Berlin beer hall and a California tap room. Patan boasts 24 ales on tap and a roof terrace, which is an ideal way for taking in Guadalajara’s warm evenings, while the DJ spins rock and indie classics. A pint will cost £3 to £6.
• Morelos 1281, Colonia Americana, on Facebook
Pare de Sufrir, Colonia Americana
One of the city’s most iconic and beloved bars, Pare de Sufrir stocks a vast selection of mezcal, tequila’s stronger and smokier cousin, as well as lesser-known agave-based spirits such as raicilla and bacanora. With its vivid murals, fairy lights, eclectic DJs and live sets by cumbia and rockabilly bands, it is a hipster’s paradise and a mecca for mezcal lovers. A generous shot costs about £2.
• Calle Argentina 66, on Facebook
Pigalle, Colonia Americana
A dark, classy establishment that specialises in bitters-based cocktails, Pigalle manages to create a classic speakeasy feel without resorting to gimmicks like secret entrances or passwords. The low-wattage bulbs suspended above the long wooden bar bathe the brick walls in a crimson glow, while the mix of retro blues, rock, jazz and Afrobeat makes you feel like you’ve strolled into a Quentin Tarantino film. Cocktails range from £3.50 to £5.50.
• Robles Gil 137, on Facebook
Cantina La Occidental, Centro Histórico
The Mexican equivalent of your local pub, a cantina is a cheap, traditional and homely place where friends gather to drink and talk for hours. With live bands playing Cuban trova and bolero music on Thursday and Sunday nights, La Occidental has a lively but never intimidating atmosphere and feels like a set from the 1950s golden age of Mexican cinema. Beer comes in huge, bowl-like glasses called chavelas for £1.50; shots of tequila from £1.70 to £3.80. Waiters bring complimentary snacks with every round of drinks.
• Nueva Gallicia 911, on Facebook
WHERE TO STAY
Casa Fayette, Lafayette
Conveniently located in the leafy Lafayette neighbourhood, right next to fashionable Colonia Americana, Casa Fayette is a chic, modern hotel with a rooftop spa and poolside bar. Recent guests have included Noel Gallagher and Game of Thrones author George RR Martin. The restaurant serves self-styled “comfort food” such as braised pork shank or beef short ribs, all made with organic, locally sourced ingredients.
• Doubles from £95, casafayette.com
Casa Pedro Loza, Centro Histórico
Built in 1848, this converted mansion is just a five-minute stroll from Guadalajara’s cathedral and central plazas. The 12 rooms are all stylishly and uniquely decorated and the roof terrace offers stunning views of the city’s oldest district. The restaurant serves Mexican and international dishes.
• Doubles from £66, casapedroloza.com
Hostel Hospedarte Chapultepec, Colonia Americana
Hostelworld named this place Mexico’s best hostel in 2014, and it’s not hard to see why. Ideally located just off the hip Avenida Chapultepec, Hospedarte has a relaxed vibe, with bright murals and inviting hammocks slung in the garden and on the roof terrace. It has a kitchen and bar and the affable staff organise regular barbecues, pizza nights, walking tours, pub crawls and salsa evenings.
• Dorms from £7, doubles from £22, hospedartehostels.com
Quinta Real, Vallarta Norte
An elegant, colonial-style hotel in an affluent neighbourhood full of good restaurants, the Quinta Real, part of a national chain, has grandiose stone walls, columns and archways, and a floodlit courtyard filled with plants and trees. The 73 spacious bedrooms are furnished with antiques, and the service is excellent.
• Doubles from £108, quintareal.com