Things to Do in Guadalajara
Ringed with charming towns and villages, Lake Chapala has drawn a steady stream of foreign visitors since the sixteenth century, when the conquistador Nuño de Guzman arrived on the lake’s muddy shores. In the early twentieth century, the luxury obsessed dictator Porfirio Diaz popularized the area as a vacation spot for Mexico’s middle and upper classes, and lakeside towns like Ajijic abound with storied hotels, hot springs, beer gardens, and bars.
Located roughly 50 km south of Guadalajara, Chapala is Mexico’s largest lake: 35 km wide and 120 km long. Chapala is not a swimmer’s paradise: water levels have sunk steadily over the years and the lake is murky and choked with pretty but invasive water hyacinth. Most visitors prefer to explore the lake by boats, which can be chartered at the pier in the town of Chapala. The ruined fortress of Mezcala Island, also known as Presidio, is a must-see.
The heart of every Mexican city is its cathedral, and Guadalajara is no exception. Officially known as the Basílica de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Virgen María, the Guadalajara Cathedral towers over the city’s central plazas. A mishmash of Gothic, baroque, Moorish, and neoclassical styles, the building is atypical for a Mexican cathedral, and its unusual design has made it an emblem of the city.
Since 1561, the massive cathedral has weathered eight earthquakes, two of which did serious damage. An 1818 quake demolished the central dome and towers. The distinctive tiled towers you see today date back to1854. The interior is awesome in the original sense of the word; the stained glass windows are reminiscent of Notre Dame, and 11 silver and gold altars were gifts from Spain’s King Fernando VII. But it’s not all just finery --- the cathedral also has its share of macabre relics.
Spiked with spindly spires and decorated with fine stonework, the Templo Expiatorio is one of Guadalajara’s iconic churches and a striking example of neogothic style. The first stone was laid in 1897 and construction was completed in the 1930s. Inside, the ambiance is dreamy. Graceful multilayered arches frame an altar backlit by massive stained glass windows and crowned with a giant yet simple gold chandelier. Beams of colored light cast by the stained glass cut through smoke and dust motes, and the air smells of incense, candles, and flowers.
If you walk west from the Centro Historico along Avenida Juárez, you’ll come the University of Guadalajara campus and the University of Guadalajara Art Museum. A two-story neoclassical building of white brick, the museum is designed on a cross formation and is home to two important works by Jose Clemente Orozco. The murals are located in the auditorium: Stone columns support a domed ceiling emblazoned with the dramatic "El Hombre Creador y Rebelde,” or “Man, Creator and Rebel.” Behind the lecture stage is Orozco’s famous fresco, “El pueblo y sus falsos líderes” or “The People and their false leaders.” The clever use of space creates the impression that you are inside an Orozco mural. In typical Orozco fashion, the effect is mesmerizing but slightly unsettling.
The museum also houses a rotation of traveling exhibits and a fine permanent collection with works by important Jaliscan artists such as Martha Pacheco, Javier Arévalo, and Carmen Bordes.
Across from the Guadalajara Cathedral, the Teatro Degollado looms in stony, neoclassical glory. Corinthian columns form a massive portico topped with a marble relief of Apollo and the nine muses. The length of the building’s rear wall is adorned with a stylish sculptural depiction of Guadalajara’s history; a fountain runs along the base.
The inside is even more over-the- top, with five tiers of gilded balconies and a ceiling frescoed with scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. A red-and-gold color scheme is augmented with frippery, including a fearsome golden eagle above the stage. The eagle holds a chain in its beak: as legend has it, the theater will stand until the day the golden eagle drops its chain.
The culture of the plaza, or town square, is central to Mexican life: the plaza is a community gathering place where school kids flirt, couples promenade, and everyone catches up on the latest gossip. Guadalajara contains many plazas, but the heart of Guadalajara’s historic downtown is the Plaza de Armas. The Plaza de Armas has all the trappings of a classic Mexican jardin: wrought iron benches, prim topiary, strolling vendors, and the requisite Sunday social scene.
Classical statues that represent the seasons of the year preside over the four corners of the square, which is ringed with historic buildings, including the Palacio de Gobierno, a baroque monster that houses two famous murals by the social realist artist Jose Clemente Orozco.
The centerpiece of the scene is a belle époque bandstand. A gift to the city from the dictator Porfirio Diaz, the gazebo was built in Paris in 1909, and features a hardwood ceiling that enhances sound quality.
On the north side of the Guadalajara Cathedral, you’ll find a little park that contains the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres, or the Rotunda of the Illustrious Jaliscans. Ringed by bronze statues and flowering trees, the neoclassical rotunda houses the remains of the state’s luminaries. Inside the rotunda, the coffin of Enrique Díaz de León, the first rector of the University of Guadalajara, sits in state. You’ll also see urns containing the ashes of Jalisco’s honored dead; additional empty urns await their occupants. A crypt below the floor contains the mummified remains of General Ramón Corona, who defended Mexico during the French invasion, served as a popular reform governor, and was murdered in 1889.
By new world standards, Guadalajara is an old city. This is most evident in the downtown district, with its Colonial plazas, its 400-year-old churches, and its numerous venerable old buildings, including the Palacio del Gobierno, the Teatro Degollado, and the sprawling Instituto Cultural Hospicio-Cabañas. In fact, the majority of Guadalajara’s historical attractions are within walking distance of the city cathedral.
Wandering is facilitated by pedestrian mall streets and the seven-block Plaza Tapatía, which is studded with modern fountains and sculptures. Three additional downtown plazas are excellent places for people watching, especially on Sundays, when the locals come out to flirt, stroll, and spend family time. If people watching gets old, there’s more to see: Guadalajara’s historic buildings house some of Mexico’s, and indeed the world’s, finest murals, including José Clemente Orozco’s famous frescos at the Instituto Cultural Hospicio-Cabañas.
Just south of the cathedral and facing the pretty Plaza de Armas, you’ll find the imposing governor’s palace. The two-story building is massive, baroque, and beset with snarling gargoyles, but the façade is far less interesting than the building’s illustrious history and unique interior.
The palace was completed in 1790. Father Miguel Hidalgo occupied the building in 1810, during the Mexican War of Independence. A radical priest with a taste for wine and women, Hidalgo crusaded for human rights; it was here in the governor’s palace that he issued his famous proclamation to abolish slavery. Later, during one of Mexico’s numerous small civil wars, Benito Juarez, “Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln,” also occupied the building. When opposing forces entered the city, Juarez was captured outside the palace and very nearly executed. The guns of a firing squad were lined upon him when the novelist Guillermo Prieto jumped forth to shield Juarez.
More Things to Do in Guadalajara
Once a quaint outlying village, Tlaquepaque has been swallowed whole by Guadalajara. That said, the “town” retains its identity and feels more laid-back than Guadalajara proper. Tlaquepaque was originally known as a shopping Mecca for traditional ceramics and glass, and the town still boasts some of the best high-fire ceramics in the country. In addition, the area now abounds with galleries and boutiques selling Oaxacan rugs, Guerrero masks, fine leather purses, high end jewelry, antiques, traditional clothing, and all manner of rustic furniture.
Tlaquepaque is touristy but pleasant. Many shops and galleries are housed in Colonial mansions, and the pretty town plaza is worth a stroll. If shopping gets old, check out El Parian, an enclosed plaza ringed in bars and eateries where you can order local specialties like birria, a spicy beef or goat stew. El Parian is also a good place to hear mariachis, especially on Sundays when the locals flock and sing along.
Credited with making peace, ending plagues, healing broken bones, and raising the dwindling waters of Lake Chapala, the Virgin of Zapopan is the official patroness of Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco, defender “against storms, lightning, and epidemics.” The tiny painted statue is crafted of wood and hardened corn husks. Brought to Jalisco in 1541 by a Franciscan missionary, she was the first Catholic icon to gain widespread acceptance from the region’s native tribes. In times of need, the virgin is removed from her sanctuary and paraded through the city. “The Queen of Jalisco” is credited with hundreds of miracles and civic accomplishments. When Mexico achieved independence from Spain, the new government named her “General of the Army of the State,” and, with due pomp and ceremony, dressed her appropriately in a tiny general’s sash.
Riding the Tequila Express is one of the most atmospheric ways to take in the highlights of Mexico’s tequila country, chugging through the sweeping valleys between Guadalajara and Amatitan. Hop on board the historic railway and take in the UNESCO-listed landscapes of Jalisco, the center of Mexico’s tequila industry and home to over 30,000 hectares of blue agave plantations and over 140 tequila distilleries that produce some 50 million gallons of the spirit each year.
Taking a day tour on the Tequila Express is about more than just the journey though - it’s a cultural experience that includes a visit to the famous Casa Herradura Distillery, where you can learn all about the production of the historic spirit; a buffet lunch of traditional Mexican food and an entertaining show of Mexican mariachi music and dance. Of course, you’ll also get the chance to visit the town that started it all – Tequila – where you can sample some of the region’s finest tequilas.
As the world’s oldest and largest Tequila distillery, the Jose Cuervo brand is renowned around the globe - and the family-run distillery is the top attraction of the town of Tequila, the birthplace of Mexico’s National drink. Established in 1795, the legendary distillery forms part of the UNESCO-listed landscape of Jalisco and produces up to 20,000 gallons of mixto and 100% agave tequilas per day.
Today, the Jose Cuervo Distillery is open to the public via guided tour, offering visitors the chance to learn how the juice is extracted from blue agave plants and distilled to produce a range of traditional blanco (white), añejo (aged) and mixto (diluted) tequilas. Guests can also sample a selection of fine tequilas, sip premium tequila straight from the barrel or visit the private cellars of the Cuervo family. It’s even possible to create your own customized bottle of tequila, selecting your choice of spirit and designing your own personalized label.
One of the principal tequila-producing towns of Jalisco’s UNESCO-listed Tequila Country, Amatitán has long proclaimed itself the ‘birthplace of tequila’. Many connoisseurs agree that, despite owing its name to the neighboring town of Tequila, the fiery spirit likely found its origins closer to Amatitán, but whatever you believe, there’s no doubting Amatitán’s importance on the region’s well-trodden Tequila Trail.
The small town is home to dozens of tequila distilleries, churning out a vast quantity of mescal, mixto and 100% agave tequilas, including well-known brands like Cabo Wabo Tequila, El Jimador, Partida Tequila and Don Eduardo. Many visitors to Amatitán arrive on the historic Tequila Express railway from Guadalajara, combined with a tour and tequila tasting at the town’s legendary Casa Herradura Distillery.
With a history dating back to 1870 and a reputation for producing some of Mexico’s finest tequilas, the Casa Herradura Distillery is among the most famous of Jalisco’s many tequila distilleries. A family-run hacienda located at the center of tequila country, Casa Herradura lies just outside of Amatitan and is devoted to preserving traditional hands-on production methods alongside modern processing techniques.
The most popular way to visit the Casa Herradura Distillery is with a ride on the Tequila Express train from Guadalajara, an historic railway route set against a backdrop of blue agave fields and sweeping mountains. Exploring the vast distillery, visitors can discover the secrets of tequila production, from harvesting and crushing the agaves, to the fine art of fermentation and distillation.
Every year Mexico holds a prestigious nationwide ceramics competition. The tradition was started in 1977, and the contest has nine categories and a coveted President’s Award. If you are at all acquainted with Mexico’s fine folk art traditions, it should come as no surprise that the winning entries exhibit great innovation and a mind-blowing level of detail.
The Museo Pantaleon Panduro in Tlaquepaque houses over three decades of winning entries, and the collection is a true testament to Mexican ingenuity. Centered around a courtyard, vaulted hallways branch out into 27 galleries, where visitors can view everything from avant-garde crucifixes to the finest examples of traditional pots and dishes.
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