Interior of the cathedral // © 2014 EnriqueLopez-TamayoBiosca
Feature image (above): Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria Santisima // © 2014 Shutterstock
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Though Guadalajara is a business powerhouse that doesn’t rely heavily on tourism, the major metropolis is home to notable and carefully preserved architectural treasures. Having been struck by many earthquakes over the centuries, building height in the city was traditionally capped at two stories. So despite its more than 1.5 million residents, Guadalajara has the breezy, welcoming feel of a smaller destination.
The city’s historic center, about a half-mile long, is easy to explore on foot, and sights here offer travelers a glimpse of the region’s eventful history. Seen from above, the historic district resembles a Christian cross made up of plazas, with Guadalajara Cathedral at its center. The cathedral, also known as Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria Santisima, has had its towers rebuilt six times because of earthquakes. As a result, the present-day Neoclassical structure has Gothic towers covered in colorful glazed tiles, offering an eye-catching mixture of styles.
The cathedral was a significant site during the Cristero War of the 1920s, a clash that began when Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles tried to limit the influence of the Catholic Church, eventually resorting to murdering priests and rebellious Catholics. Guadalajara Cathedral was a place of refuge, although the priests who oversaw religious ceremonies were in constant threat of having soldiers barge in and slay them on the spot. Today, guests can tour a large chamber underneath the altar, where imperiled religious leaders hid. The chamber has an entryway to a tunnel wide enough for a waiting horse and carriage, which the priests used to flee.
Directly outside of the cathedral lies Plaza de Armas, also known as Plaza Mayor. While there’s something of a scandal connected with its Belle Epoque-style sculptures, which depict a variety of nude women only a stone’s throw from the cathedral, travelers will find locals and tourists relaxing on benches and listening to live music here.
Another highlight of the historic district is Rotonda de los Jalisciences Ilustres, or Circle of Heroes, a landmark that honors distinguished figures of Mexican society. Among the 27 men and woman buried in the rotunda are painter Jose Clemente Orozco and historian Francisco Jose Clavijero.
Set one block from the cathedral, the Palacio de Gobierno, or Government Palace, offers more historical intrigue. Here, visitors can view the fascinating mural Orozco painted in 1937, a visual commentary on the tangle of “isms” — communism, capitalism, fascism — vying for power in the years leading up to World War II. On a tour of the area, our guide pointed to a bullet hole in the tower’s clock — a relic from the Mexican Revolution. Who fired the shot varies from legend to legend, but most stories point to guerilla leader Pancho Villa.
After a few hours on our feet, we took a break at La Fuente, one of the city’s oldest cantinas known as “the cantina with the bike” by locals. Left relatively untouched over the years, it is a popular watering hole for many of Guadalajara’s most powerful citizens. Legend has it that one day a postal worker dropped into the cantina and imbibed until he was hopelessly drunk. When he couldn’t pay his bill, he left his post-office bike as collateral and said he’d return soon. That was in 1957, and the bike is still there, hanging on the wall of the cantina.