All About Guadalajara – Mexico
It’s only fair to start this article by confessing that Guadalara turned out to be not my favorite city in Mexico. In fact, it’s pretty close to the bottom of my list!
Despite that, I did manage to have a great time during my 10-day stay, in great part due to my fab hostel (more later). And there are certainly some things worth seeing and doing in/near the city.
The main issues with Guadalajara for me were the lack of beautiful historic architecture and the huge amounts of traffic, poor road conditions and crowds. Guadalajara is really more like a modern, slightly grungy city full of thousands upon thousands of shops selling clothing, shoes, electronics and other daily needs. Excessively commercialized. It could be a modern city anywhere in the world.
In the city’s historic heart, I noticed the lack of beautiful architecture within minutes of arriving. It surprised and puzzled me.
Yes, there’s a huge, lovely cathedral. And it’s set on, not one, but four large stone plazas. Historic Teatro Degollado is there and a very wide, long pedestrian plaza/road thingie that leads to the large Neo-Classic Instituto Cultural de Cabanas.
But aside from that and a few scattered historic churches & museums, Guadalajara is chock-a-block full of ugly, boxy 1960s and 70s style buildings, all filled with modern stores. Eewww!
I found out why during my hostel’s free city walking tour. Turns out that Guadalajara’s leaders during two phases of its recent history decided to demolish huge swaths of historic buildings to ‘modernize’ the city. Oh.
The goal of one of those massive demolitions was to create wider roads and the huge public stone plazas I mentioned earlier. That happened, not too surprisingly, in the 1950s…thus the horrid 1960s architecture filling up what used to be blocks and blocks of grand 300-500 year old buildings.
Best places to visit in Guadalajara
Having said all that, luckily, Guadalajara’s leaders did retained a few gorgeous buildings and churches. In particular, the Cathedral, Templo Aranzazu, Teatro Degollado and Instituto Cultural de Cabanas, all of which have stunning interiors.
Instituto Cultural de Cabanas also has one of the best museums I’ve seen in Mexico, with at least 10 large rooms full of paintings, including a few pieces by each of Mexico’s most famous artists. Museum of Modern Arte also features great changing exhibitions of contemporary art by prominent artists.
Three special neighborhoods on the outskirts of Gaudalajara are also popular, interesting places to visit. They are Tonala and Tjakalauqe to the southeast, and P… to the northwest.
I fully intended to visit all of them. But the traffic/road/bus situation turned me off from going to any of them. After my horrid bus trip to Tequila I just stayed downtown and off all buses.
Day Trip to Barranca de Huentitan
Several great day trips can be made from Guadalajara. Just on the edge of the city is one of Mexico’s largest, most stunning canyons – Barranca de Huentitan.
You can visit the canyon two ways. The easiest is to catch a special MacroBus to the canyon ‘Mirador’ – viewpoint. The trip takes only 15-20 minutes and entrance to the viewpoint area is free. It features a park with walking trails along the top edge of the canyon. It takes about 15 minutes to walk each way, with several look out points.
Secondly, you can join a tour or take a different city bus, one hour, to the canyon hiking access point. From there, you hike steeply down into the canyon. It’s a 10 km / 6.2 mile round trip hike, with a suggested 5-hour time frame.
You need to take plenty of water and sun protection. And you’d better go as early as possible since the temperatures get up into the 90sF / 33-35C by mid afternoon. The sun is incredibly intense and direct when there’s no cloud cover.
I also suspect there might be some theft problems at the canyon, since it’s recommended to not wear valuable jewelry, be careful with cameras, and go on weekend mornings (when there’d be lots of other people around). You can also join a hiking tour of the canyon.
Despite my best intentions, I didn’t hike the canyon. I had some serious heat issues in Guadalajara that scared me from undertaking such a strenuous hike. I also got totally fed up with the long, hot bus trips through the city.
Guadalajra Traffic & Road Conditions
Which brings me to my second major issue with Guadalajara: traffic and road conditions. As Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara sprawls out in all directions for miles and miles and miles.
Head out in any direction from the center and you’ll be rolling through ugly low-end suburbs, shopping plazas & malls, warehouses & factories, mechanic shops & auto dealerships for ages. It regularly takes an hour or more to reach the edges of the city, all the time inching along through Ick.
To make matters worse, most of the roads are in poor condition, leading to very bumpy rides. In Guadalajara’s intense heat, make that ‘very hot bumpy rides’. On a bike, it’s more like jarring rides.
Day Trip to Tequila
Another great day trip from Guadalajara is the town of Tequila, where – ta da – the alcohol, Tequila, originates. You can join a tour, take a special train trip or go independently on public buses.
The town is cute; there are Tequila museums; and distillery tours are great fun. But beware that getting to/from Tequila is rather ridiculous.
The town is located only 50 km / 35 miles from Guadalajara, but it takes an astounding 2 ½ – 3 hours to get there! Talk about bad, frustrating traffic!
So if you despise inching along highways and crowded roads as much as I do, you might be better off taking the Tequila train trip or else staying overnight in Tequila en route to another destination. At least that way you’ll only have to suffer the road trip once.
Cycling in Guadalajara
However, I did have a fabulous time in Guadalajara anyhow. My great Hostel Huespedarte, situated just three blocks from the cathedral and plazas, gives out free bicycles to guests and also has Netflix! Yippie!
I was in heaven, despite the city. I cycled several days. And I watched at least one movie every night I was there.
Like many cities in Mexico, Guadalajara closes a major city road to traffic every Sunday for the sole use of cyclists and pedestrians. In this city, Calle Juarez/Vallarta is used. It’s one of the widest and longest in the city.
I greatly enjoyed cycling in Guadalajara on Sundays, both on the dedicated cycling road and on other side streets that were traffic-free those days.
Suggestions for Guadalajara
In regards to visiting Guadalajara, my suggestions to travelers are:
To see gorgeous historic architecture and great museums, you’re better off heading to other cities and towns in Mexico. In particular, I’d recommend Mexico City, Puebla, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Campeche.
If you’re heading to/from nearby Pacific coast beach destinations like Puerta Vallarta or Sayulita, Guadalajara could be worth a couple/few days as a break en route to other places.
If you’re into partying and bars, Guadalajara’s Chapultepec Avenue area is supposed to be great fun.
Overall though, in my opinion, just about every other city and town in Mexico is better than Guadalajara. One visit was enough for me.
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