Going Places: Guadalajara, Mexico’s Second City

While I definitely appreciate a quality all-inclusive resort on occasion (i.e. when all I crave is lounging and recharging), these days, authentic experiences offered outside the confines of a sprawling, cookie-cutter hotel are the ones checked off my travel bucket list most often.

That’s why a decision to hit Guadalajara – an often-overlooked Mexico destination, and one not overrun with tourists – was an easy one.

Prefer a visual tour? Take a peek at my guided tour through this beautiful city.

Seemingly worlds away from Cancun’s all-inclusive resort buffets and crowded beaches, Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, offers no shortage of authenticity – from charming mom and pop shops and addictive taco stands worth posting about to colourful markets, murals, and heated lucha libre matches. Here, you can experience the best of Mexican culture in its raw, vibrant glory. If you like tequila, you’re in the right place. It’s one of the things the city is known for (that, and their top-notch mariachi culture). In fact, it was Herradura Tequila – the makers of the world’s first reposado tequila – who invited me down for a taste of both the city and spirits.

Where to Stay
The lobby at the new AC Marriott Guadalajara hotel is worthy of the pages of an interior design magazine, and sets the vibe for your stay in the sleek, modern spot. In addition to talking points like massive showers with views into your suite, plush bedding that may contribute to later-than-normal wakeup times (in combination with the tequila), and floor-to-ceiling glass walls that offer prime city views in many rooms, the star of the show at this hotel is definitely the photo-worthy 12th-floor infinity pool and bar. Here, you can unwind after a day of exploring with a quality mojito, beer, or glass of crisp white wine as you take in the 180-degree views of the city below.

What to Do
In Guadalajara, horse-drawn carriages, sprawling historic squares, photo-worthy fountains, and colonial buildings juxtapose urban restaurants, cafes, and bars, offering a mix of cosmopolitan vibes and rich culture and history. If you’re looking for art and impressive architecture, you’ll definitely find it in Guadalajara and the surrounding area. The city is home to some of the most vibrant historic mural art by world-renowned muralist Jose Clement Orozco. If you’re an art student or lover of general creative expression, checking out some of these impressive works should definitely be on your bucket list. Those found within the walls of the UNESCO-listed Cabanas Cultural Center are especially notable. Guadalajara is also full of storied buildings to transport you back in time, and the stunning 16th Century Catedral de Guadalajara – a truly breathtaking spot that features neoclassical, Baroque, and Gothic styles – should not be missed.

If you have the real estate in your suitcase, you may want to take full advantage of the open-air plazas, shops, and indoor markets that fill the city. Additionally, a stop in nearby Tlaquepaque – a quaint town 20 minutes from downtown Guadalajara that is renowned for its art and colourful pottery – is a must for shoppers. Here, within its streets and outdoor markets, you’ll find handmade art, jewellery, and unique souvenirs, in addition to brightly coloured buildings, historic squares, and small but lively bars and cafes. For a young, hipster-feeling vibe, Guadalajara’s Chapultepec neighbourhood features pedestrian streets, street art, gourmet coffeehouses, cafes, nightclubs, and restaurants.

To let loose like a true local, hit up a Tuesday night lucha libre match – a must-see pro wrestling event with a long history in Mexico. Whether you’re a wrestling fan or not, this high-energy affair will offer an adrenaline rush you didn’t know you were missing in your life (even if you only experience it once). Things get pretty heated between the colourfully masked wrestlers and guests, with both groups exchanging insults and animated mockery throughout the evening. From massive servings of beer to the rowdy crowd and lively entertainment, shaking off the day of sightseeing at a lucha libre match sets the stage for a big night out at nearby bars.

The Tequila
You’ll find some of the best tequila you’ll taste at Casa Herradura Distillery, the oldest distillery in Mexico, just an hour outside the bustle of Guadalajara in the small town of Amatitan. Sprawling gardens and rolling agave fields of Jalisc throughout the peaceful, mountain-surrounded property await. Making lives easier, the distillery offers shuttle buses from Guadalajara so that guests don’t have to worry about driving after a post-tour tequila tasting. During a tour on the breezy property, you’ll learn agave cultivation techniques (and how the world’s best tequila, including Herradura, is made with 100 per cent agave), the difference between tequila and mezcal, the history of the longtime brand, and how Herradura uses only natural airborne yeasts (rather than commercial yeasts) in the fermentation of its smooth tequila.

Where to Eat
If you have a soft spot for seriously delicious grilled octopus and braised short rib, you’ll find some of the best at Hueso restaurant. The modern spot is housed in an old mansion and offers a hip, urban vibe to accompany its comforting family-style dishes. The whitewashed walls here are covered in more than 10,000 carefully sourced animal bones (all painted white), and four long communal tables help the food-sharing cause. Word of advice: don’t wait to book a reservation here.

When visiting Tlaquepaque, the breezy Casa Fuerte, a cozy restaurant complete with a greenery-filled courtyard, is a solid option for lunch or dinner. Here you’ll find an assortment of incredible Mexican food, with crowd pleasers like fajitas, braised beef, tortilla soups, and a dreamy, sizzling, and gooey pot of cheese (the queso fundido con chorizo) meant to be shared among all those in attendance. To wash it all down, go for the smooth tamarind margarita with chilli (or any delicious margarita, really). It’s not uncommon for live music to accompany your outdoor meal, completing the memorable dining experience.

Of course, you can’t visit a place like Guadalajara and not try its incredible street food. One taco stand in particular, which occupies real estate on the corner of Manuel Acuna and Pedro Buzeta, is especially renowned among locals. Here, you can choose between a variety of meat for tacos or quesadillas, the latter of which are filled with some of the most memorable cheese you’ll try. To get up close and personal with Guadalajara’s food and drink scene – from local hidden gems to bustling bars – another option is booking a food tour to get the seasoned, expert culinary intel of a local.

Guadalajara makes for a fantastic mini-vacation (I would recommend taking four to five days to explore it) if you’re in the market for swapping the typical Mexico beach vacation for a city of memorable culinary offerings, rich history, interesting architecture, eclectic shopping, and, of course, tequila.