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What to Do in Guadalajara

Whether it's your first trip to Guadalajara or you've been here several times before, don't forget to include these sights and experiences on your vacation to-do list.

By AAA Travel Editor

From a tourist standpoint, Guadalajara might be the most “Mexican” city in Mexico; mariachi music and the Mexican hat dance are just two traditions that originated here. The city has outstanding plazas, museums and shopping. Nearby Lake Chapala, home to a large community of American expats, and the town of Tequila, where several distilleries can be toured, are popular day trips and one of the city’s many fun things to do.

Guadalajara is big and spread out, so unless you're familiar with the city it's easier to have your hotel or a local travel agency arrange a guided tour excursion. Check with the concierge to see what options are available. A safe and convenient way to visit downtown's major attractions is to make arrangements with a cab driver affiliated with your hotel.

Buses operated by the Linea Turquesa line (turquoise in color and with the letters “TUR” designated on the side) are an easy way to get to nearby tourist destinations like the pottery-producing centers of Tlaquepaque and Tonalá. If you’re interested in things to see nearby, these buses also will take you to the Basilica of the Virgin of Zapopan in the sprawling urban suburb of Zapopan, where a religious procession on Oct. 12 honoring the Virgin of Zapopan is a major annual event.

Begin your Guadalajara sightseeing itinerary at Plaza Tapatía . This wide pedestrian plaza is meant to be strolled at a leisurely pace. If you enjoy people watching, the best day to go is Sunday, when couples and families promenade back and forth, shop at craft markets, buy snacks from food vendors and applaud the impromptu performances of street entertainers.

Two attractions anchor the plaza. At the western end is the Degollado Theater . Built in the neoclassic style, this opera house's stone exterior is grimy from constant exposure to vehicle exhaust. But the inside is opulent—a lobby with polished marble floors and crystal chandeliers, red and gold tiered balconies and a ceiling dome decorated with murals. The Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra performs here regularly. There are often free recitals on Tuesday nights, and if you can't attend an evening performance the theater is usually open to the public from noon to 2.

At the plaza's eastern end is the Cabañas Cultural Institute , which was originally an orphanage. Among the fun things to do here is to wander through the many courtyards; the grounds are beautifully kept. The murals by José Clemente Orozco alone are worth a visit, and there are plenty of temporary exhibits on display. It's free on Tuesday.

Two blocks west of the Degollado Theater is Guadalajara's twin-towered Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady , a city landmark. Construction began in 1568, but it was not dedicated until 1618. The original towers were square; after being damaged by an earthquake in 1818 they were later demolished. Inside are venerable wooden floors and ornate altars. Visitors should remove hats or caps before entering and respect those who are worshipping.

Standing in a park on the cathedral's north side is the Rotunda of the Illustrious People of Jalisco , a monument to state-born leaders in the fields of art, science, education, politics and human rights. It was built in 1952 and originally called the Rotunda of Illustrious Men; the name was changed in 2000 when teacher Irene Obledo Garcia became the first woman honored. The circular stone structure is supported by 17 tall columns, and statues of the notables—including muralist José Clemente Orozco—are on the grounds.

Just east of this park is the Regional Museum of Guadalajara . The building, constructed in the first half of the 18th century, has an elaborate baroque facade and was originally a seminary. Exhibits in the 14 rooms include fossil skeletons, archeological artifacts from Mexico's western states, and paintings by Mexican and European artists.

Standing on the east side of Plaza de Armas is the imposing Government Palace . Step inside to see Orozco's dramatic mural of Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence, located by the main staircase; it depicts the freedom fighter brandishing a torch at shadowy figures representing slavery and oppression.

Several blocks south of the historic center plazas is the Church of Our Lady of Aranzazu , built in the mid-18th century. The exterior is rather plain, but inside is an altar of carved wood that is a magnificent example of the Churrigueresque architectural style, which goes baroque one better in terms of extravagant embellishment. Horse-drawn carriages line up in adjacent San Francisco Park, waiting to give tourists a ride. It's an excellent way to pass the time during your Guadalajara vacation.

Another church worth visiting is the Expiatory Temple , a massive Gothic-style structure that occupies a city block. Time your visit so you can see clockwork figures of the 12 Apostles, who appear to the sound of classical music at 9 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. Several blocks away is the City Museum , which commemorates the 450th anniversary of Guadalajara's 1542 founding. It's housed in another handsome colonial-era building that was formerly a convent.

At the southern end of downtown is Agua Azul Park , the city's oldest. It's divided by Avenida González Gallo, a major thoroughfare, with a bridge connecting the two sections. In addition to tree-lined walking paths this city park has orchid and butterfly houses. You pay a small fee at the entrance; it's closed on Monday. At the park's northern end is the Jalisco House of Handicrafts , where you can shop for all sorts of regional wares at fixed prices (no bargaining skills required).

Take the kids to the Guadalajara Zoo . It has an impressive collection of endangered species—Bengal tigers (including a snow-white tigress), white rhinoceroses, a Komodo dragon. There's also a herpetarium; aviaries; the Nocturnario, which houses owls, fruit bats and other animals that live in Huentitan Canyon (which the zoo borders); tropical rainforest and African savanna habitats; and an exhibit featuring a red kangaroo, wallabies and other animals native to Australia. You'll also see lots of peacocks roaming around the grounds. Board the zoo's scenic train, a trip that takes in spectacular views of the canyon.

The José Clemente Orozco Museum , a showcase for Jalisco's leading muralist, is in fact Orozco's former residence and workshop. It's located in the western part of the city just off Minerva Circle, a major glorieta (traffic circle) along busy Avenida Lopez Mateos.

If you're into pottery and ceramics, one of the fun things to do here is make the very popular day trip from Guadalajara to the nearby town of Tlaquepaque. It's a major center for high-quality handicrafts—blown glass, jewelry, textiles, woodcarvings and especially hand-painted Tlaquepaque pottery. Linea Turquesa (TUR) tourist buses make regular trips to Tlaquepaque from downtown Guadalajara. Most of the shops and galleries are along pedestrian-only Calle Independencia in the center of town. A visit to the Regional Museum of Ceramics should whet your appetite for some keepsakes to take home.

Tourist-oriented hotels in Guadalajara are grouped in the historic center and in the West End district in the vicinity of Minerva Circle. If you want a sense of history plus classically elegant surroundings, stay at the Hotel Morales Historical & Colonial Downtown Core , located within easy walking distance of the downtown plazas. A guest house owned by two sisters at the turn of the 20th century, it later was converted to a luxury hotel. For the best city views, request a room with a balcony on one of the upper floors.

Ivy-covered stone walls and Spanish colonial-style wood furniture in the spacious guest rooms give the Quinta Real Guadalajara a suitably Mexican look. It's popular with business travelers. Located in a great walking neighborhood near the historic center, the Villa Ganz Boutique Hotel has the feel of a Mexican hacienda. It's small—just 10 rooms, each one decorated differently—and the gardens are beautiful.

Next door to Expo Guadalajara and close to the World Trade Center and corporate offices is The Westin Guadalajara . This contemporary high-rise is favored by business travelers and convention attendees. The Hotel Presidente InterContinental Guadalajara offers plenty of amenities, and it's across the street from Plaza del Sol, a big open-air mall. One down side is that due to a location well away from the city center you'll probably end up taking lots of taxi rides for sightseeing purposes.

Away from the city center but in an upscale financial district, the thoroughly modern NH Collection Guadalajara Providencia is adjacent to the Guadalajara Country Club. The hotel is part of Plaza Punto Sao Paulo, a vertical mall complex that contains local restaurants, shops, movie theaters and a casino.

When it comes to dining out, Guadalajara's choices are varied, especially if you're a carnivore. At El Tango , an Argentinian-style steakhouse, chow down on high-quality cuts of beef (the salads are also delicious). Flamenco dancers entertain on weekends.

Good Japanese food in Guadalajara? You betcha. At Suehiro the sashimi presentation is lovely, and the menu also includes teppanyaki, sushi and a variety of appetizers. Service is excellent; it's one of the city’s fun places to go because the cooks show off their skills tableside. The restaurant is located outside the main downtown tourist areas, so you'll want to take a taxi.

Naturally, this most traditional of Mexican cities has some great Mexican restaurants. La Chata de Guadalajara , in the historic center (a block from Plaza de Armas) isn't much on ambience, but the line of tourists and locals that often extends out the door attests to the fact that it dishes up some of the best classic Mexican dishes—from enchiladas to chiles rellenos—in the city.

Getting There

By AirMiguel Hidalgo International Airport is about 17 kilometers (11 miles) southeast of the city off Mex. 23. Aeroméxico, Alaska Airlines, Delta, Interjet, United and Volaris offer direct flights from U.S. cities. International connections are usually via Mexico City. Numerous half-hour flights connect Guadalajara with Puerto Vallarta. Routes and direct-flight availability vary depending on the time of year, so check with the airline or a travel agency before trying to book cheap airline flights.

Airport Transportation (Autotransportaciónes Aeropuerto, ATASA) offers shared-ride shuttle van service to and from any place in the metropolitan area. Tickets are sold at a booth outside the terminal exit; fares are based on a zone system and average about $16 per person (U.S.). For details phone (33) 3688-5289. Taxis also take passengers to and from the airport; the fare to the downtown area is about $30 (U.S.).

By CarGuadalajara's location between the Pacific coast and central Mexico makes it an ideal base from which to explore Jalisco and the surrounding states of Nayarit, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Colima. Mex. 15/15-D is the major highway from the northwest; Mex. 54 from the north and northeast. Mex. 80 proceeds southwest to coastal Mex. 200, which heads south to Manzanillo or north to Puerto Vallarta. With the exception of Mex. 15-D, all of the above routes are old (free) highways.

The Guadalajara-Manzanillo toll highway, Mex. 54-D, begins at El Cuarenta, on Mex. 15 south of the city. Although the distance to Colima is not much shorter than that traveled on free Mex. 54, the toll road avoids the latter's narrow, winding stretches.

Toll highway Mex. 15-D provides a direct link between Guadalajara and Mexico City. It takes between 5 and 6 hours to drive the 540-kilometer (335-mile) route. Expect to pay around $50 (U.S.) in toll charges.

South of and roughly parallel to Mex. 15-D is old Mex. 15, a winding road that hugs the southern shore of Lake Chapala and passes through the cities of Morelia, Zitácuaro and Toluca on its way to Mexico City—a scenic but much more time-consuming alternative. The road is in poor condition in places, and driving the stretch from Morelia to Mexico City is not recommended because of safety and security concerns.

By BusThe big, modern New Bus Station (Nueva Central Camionera) is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of downtown outside the suburb of Tlaquepaque (on the way to Tonalá). Bus lines service practically every destination in the country; several of the bigger companies are connected with Greyhound Lines Inc. Cross-country buses make frequent trips between Guadalajara and border points. First-class travel compares favorably with major U.S. lines; these buses are the standard size but carry fewer passengers.

Seven terminal buildings (módules) in the U-shaped station accommodate different bus companies; some have a presence at several terminals, so you need to find the terminal associated with your specific destination. Amenities include shuttle bus service, luggage storage (guarda equipaje), places to eat, restrooms, Ladatel long-distance phones and tourist and hotel information (although the booths are not always staffed). City buses and colectivos designated “Centro” or “Central” travel between the bus station and downtown. You also can take a taxi from this station to the downtown area. Taxi tickets are sold inside each terminal building; fares are based on a zone system.

For shorter bus trips to Tequila, the Lake Chapala suburban communities or other towns within a 60-mile radius of the city, use the Old Bus Station (Antigua Central Camionera), located off Avenida Dr. R. Michel at calles Los Angeles and 28 de Enero (in the city center and just northeast of Parque Agua Azul). Also shaped like a U, it consists of two wings (salas) and has luggage storage, restrooms and food stands. There are taxi stands on either side of the terminal. Inexpensive shuttle service is provided to the New Bus Station.

Route, schedule and fare information can be obtained at two offices located on Calzada de la Independencia where it runs beneath Plaza Tapatía. Hours are daily 9-2 and 4-7.

Getting Around

City LayoutThe city is divided into four sectors; street names change when a new sector is entered. The major north-south routes are Calzada Independencia/Calzada Gobernador Curiel, which divides Guadalajara into east and west sectors; Avenida Alcalde/Avenida 16 de Septiembre, which passes through the Historic Center (Centro Histórico); Avenida Federalismo/Avenida Colón, which runs a few blocks west of Alcalde; and Avenida López Mateos, the main thoroughfare passing through a concentration of malls, upscale shops and local restaurants west of downtown.

The major east-west routes are Avenida Circunvalación, which runs north of downtown; Avenida Avila Camacho, which provides access to the northwestern suburb of Zapopan; Avenida Independencia/Avenida Industria (not to be confused with Calzada Independencia), which runs through the historic center a block north of the cathedral; Avenida Vallarta/Avenida Juárez/Avenida Javier Mina, which also runs through the historic center and divides the city into north and south sectors; and Avenida Guadalupe/Avenida Niños Héroes/Calzada González Gallo, which links points of interest in the southern part of the city.

The carefully preserved downtown historic district is the chief tourist destination. Forming a shape somewhat like a giant cross are four plazas, each offering a distinct personality: Plaza Tapatía, Plaza de la Liberación, Plaza de Armas and Plaza Guadalajara. They all surround the cathedral, the heart of the old city. Here, amid narrow cobblestone lanes and weathered two- and three-story buildings, street vendors and shoeshine boys are an integral part of the urban landscape.

Plaza Tapatía is conveniently located close to museums, monuments and grand examples of colonial architecture. It features tree-shaded parks, stone walkways and burbling fountains as well as numerous local restaurants. On Sundays, dressed-up families stroll up and down Plaza de la Liberación, just east of the cathedral at Tapatia's western end. A narrow waterway runs along this plaza, which is bordered on both sides by shops and more places to eat. A statue of Father Miguel Hidalgo shows the priest holding a broken chain, a symbol of his call to end slavery in Mexico.

Plaza de Armas, a block south of the cathedral, is the city's traditional main square, bordered on the east side by the Government Palace. Plaza Guadalajara (just west of the cathedral) was formerly called Plaza de los Laureles for the Indian laurel trees that shade it. The church on the plaza's north side, built in the mid-20th century, is one of the newer buildings in the historic center.

West and south of the historic center the boulevards are wider and the buildings taller. Along north-south Avenida Chapultepec between Avenida Niños Héroes and Avenida México—about 20 blocks west of the cathedral—are office buildings interspersed with stores and places to eat. Farther west, along Avenida López Mateos between Avenida Vallarta and Avenida Mariano Otero, are major hotels, nightlife venues and the big Plaza del Sol mall.

Two thoroughfares loop around Guadalajara. The inner Avenida de la Patria travels around the western half of the city between Avenida de las Américas and Avenida López Mateos. The outer Anillo Periférico encircles the entire metropolitan area; navigating this two-lane route can be slow going, however, due to potholes and heavy truck traffic. Glorietas (traffic circles) mark busy city intersections.

Note: Due to air pollution levels, all vehicles with Jalisco license plates must pass a tune-up test. Vehicles with out-of-state plates, however, are exempted.

Rental CarsHertz is one of many rental car agencies with offices at the airport and downtown. Be sure you fully understand the terms of any rental contract, especially with regard to insurance coverage. It's significantly less expensive to reserve before you leave home; make reservations at least 1 week in advance.

Note: AAA members enjoy discounts through Hertz for vehicles booked in the United States. Consult your local AAA club or phone Hertz, (800) 654-3080.

BusesBuses are the most economical means of local transportation, and they cover every part of town. City buses run daily every 5 to 10 minutes from 6 a.m.-11 p.m. School bus-style vehicles have the cheapest fares (about 50c U.S.), but also are quite likely to be very crowded.

Tur buses (operated by Linea Turquesa), turquoise in color and with the letters “TUR” designated on the side, cost more (about 90c U.S.) but are air conditioned, do not carry standing passengers and travel to such outlying tourist destinations as Tlaquepaque, Tonalá and Zapopan. Par Vial buses travel a central east-west route along avenidas Independencia/Hidalgo as far west as Minerva Circle (at Avenida López Mateos); from there, they double back along Avenida Vallarta/Juárez, a few blocks south.

Privately operated colectivos (minivans) cost about the same as city buses; some have their destination marked on the windshield, although routes and pick-up points change frequently.

TaxisCompared to the bus, a taxi ride in Guadalajara is expensive. Even short 10-minute rides are likely to cost at least $8 (U.S.). Rates go up at night. All cabs are equipped with a meter, but drivers can be reluctant to use them, quoting a flat fee instead; make certain you agree on a destination and a fare with the driver before entering the cab. Check at your hotel's front desk for current fares; bellboys can often assist those who don't speak Spanish.

Most cabs are found at or called from a cab stand (sitio). Sitios are located near all the major hotels and attractions. The safest option is to stick with cab drivers who are affiliated with your hotel.

ParkingOn-street parking in the city center is scarce. Public parking garages generally charge a fixed rate per hour; few are insured for customers. Parking lots charge less than garages. An underground lot is below Plaza de la Liberación, just east of the cathedral. Always avoid areas marked “No E,” “Estacionamiento Prohibido” (No parking) or “Exclusivo” (Reserved). License plates are removed from illegally parked vehicles, and a fine must be paid to retrieve them.

Public TransportationGuadalajara's tren ligero (light rail) rapid-transit system has two lines. Line 1 runs north-south along Avenida Federalismo-Colón for a distance of about 10 miles, between the northern and southern stretches of the Periférico. More helpful to visitors is Line 2, which runs east-west along avenidas Vallarta/Juárez and Javier Mina (the street name changes at Calzada Independencia). Trains run about every 15 minutes or so daily 6 a.m.-11 p.m. The fare is 7 pesos; 1-peso coins are needed to purchase tickets. Stops are marked by a “T” symbol.

Guides/ToursTour guides with name tags who congregate at the airport and bus terminal are likely to be agents on commission with hotels. The major hotels usually have a list of licensed bilingual guides. Bus tours of the downtown area as well as nearby Tlaquepaque and Zapopan are offered by Tapatío Tours. The company's red double-decker buses depart from Plaza Tapatía; phone (33) 3613-0887 for schedule and fare information. For visitors without a car, this is an easy way to experience the city and one of the city’s fun things to do.

Rides in horse-drawn calandrias (carriages) can be taken throughout the central downtown area for about $20 (U.S.) for up to four people and are a relaxing way to see the sights as well as a great option for travelers looking for fun things for couples to do. Excursions depart from the Regional Museum of Guadalajara, Liberty Market and San Francisco Park. Few drivers speak English, so you may want to familiarize yourself with the layout of the city before embarking.

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Guadalajara, JA

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Travel Information

City Population

1,495,189

Elevation

1,552 meters (5,091 feet)

Police (emergency)

Dial 911 (emergency services) and ask to be connected to an English-speaking operator if you need immediate assistance.

Police (non-emergency)

(33) 3668-0800.

Hospitals

Hospital México-Americano, Calle Colomos #2110, (33) 3648-3333 or 01 (800) 462-2238 (toll-free long distance within Mexico), and the Red Cross (Cruz Roja), (33) 3614-1269, 911 (ambulance assistance) or 01 (800) 667-4767 (toll-free long distance within Mexico), both provide 24-hour emergency service. Major hotels and the U.S. Consulate should have information regarding doctors who are on 24-hour call.

Newspapers

English-language newspapers, including the weekly Guadalajara Reporter, are available at newsstands and the Hotel Fenix, downtown at avenidas Corona and López Cotilla. The monthly Lake Chapala Reporter has information about the communities around Lake Chapala.

Publications

Sandi Bookstore, Av. Tepeyac #718 in the Chapalita neighborhood west of downtown, has English-language newspapers and books. The Sanborns restaurant chain has several area locations and also offers books, newspapers and magazines in English; the downtown branch is at avenidas Juárez and 16 de Septiembre, a block south of Plaza de Armas.

Visitor Information

A tourist information booth is inside the southern doorway of the Government Palace (Palacio de Gobierno), facing Plaza de Armas; it is open Mon.-Fri. 9-3 and 6-8 p.m., Sat. 9-1.

Currency Exchange

A number of casas de cambio (currency exchange houses) are located downtown along Avenida López Cotilla between calles Corona and Degollado, about 3 blocks south of the cathedral. Most of them post their rates, and they normally don't have the lines that banks often have. Dollars can be exchanged at branches of Banamex banks Mon.-Sat. 9-1. A centrally located downtown Banamex branch is on Paseo Degollado, 3 blocks east of the Degollado Theater. ATMs are the quickest and most convenient way to get cash; withdrawals are in pesos.

Staying Safe

The rules in Guadalajara are the same as those in any big city. At night, avoid urban neighborhoods that are away from the downtown core or other tourist areas; dark side streets in particular can be dangerous. If going out for the evening or taking a side trip during the day, it's a good idea to hire a taxi driver affiliated with your hotel. Keep an eye on personal items at all times, especially in the crowded shopping districts, and avoid wearing jewelry or carrying large sums of money. Women are not welcome in cantina bars and other bastions of heavy drinking and machismo attitudes.

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