An Insider’s Guide: Mexico City or Guadalajara?
Guadalajara or Mexico City? Tapatíos or chilangos? It’s an age-old question for the big-city lover planning to visit Mexico, as these are the two biggest urban areas in the country. Fun fact: I’ve lived in both of them. In fact, I still live in one of them. So, I thought it was about time I gave you some more of my unsolicited insider opinions on topics no one asked about and, in this post, I’ll be definitively (although most definitely not exhaustively) answering the question ‘which is the best city in Mexico?’ once and for all – Mexico City or Guadalajara?
In terms of things to do and see, there’s not much I can tell you about Guadalajara. I know that it’s a city rich in museums, galleries, city centre parks and traditional markets, but how much of that did I truly explore when I lived there? Not that much. In fact, I wouldn’t even claim to have scratched the surface of the attractions Guadalajara has to offer, given that all I did was get high and dive head first into the wonderful world of beer drinking and/or gallivanting around the country.
Mexico City undoubtedly has more to do, in an objective sense. After all, it’s the capital city with the most museums in the world (more than 150, reliable sources tell me) and the art scene is constantly described in the press as up-and-coming (I wonder if it’s ever gunna come, because it must have some mad blue balls by now), it’s home to the biggest urban park in Latin America (Chapultepec) and has some of Mexico’s most famous indoor and outdoor markets.
So, objectively, there’s more to see in Mexico City. However, it depends if you like to be utterly overwhelmed with options or suitably satisfied with equally exceptional offerings. Either way, let me narrow down the options to just three for each city, obviously excluding the classic ‘explore the historic centre’, because if you’re not planning on doing that already I really can’t help you.
Top 3 Things To Do in Guadalajara
- Go out on Chapu | Avenida Chapultepec, Guadalajara
Chapu is short for Chapultepec, and I’m talking about the Guadalajara avenida, not the Mexico City bosque. You have great nightlife in the historic centre in Guadalajara, from traditional cantinas to gay bars, but my favourite nightlife spot was always Chapultepec. The whole avenue is lined with bars, cafés and restaurants and on Saturday’s they set up a market in the central reservation which makes for great pre- or post-drink browsing. Plus, there’s always some kind of weird performance art or dance show going on. Basically, there’s never a dull moment on Avenida Chapultepec. The only crying shame is that my favourite taco stand is no longer there. RIP taquiquesos, I’ll never forget you.
- Bosque Colomos | Avenida Patria, Providencia, Zapopan
A short bus ride from the centre of the city (it’s technically in nearby Zapopan), Bosque Colomos is essentially Guadalajara’s answer to the Bosque de Chapultepec and is a great place to run, wander and explore. They also have these mini peanut vending machines that you can invest a few pesos into if you want to feed the squirrels.
- Visit the traditional mercados
Guadalajara is full of great markets to wander around, from the roaming street tianguis that descend on the city on different days of the week, to the famous indoor market San Juan de Dios (Javier Mina 52, San Juan de Dios). It’s a bit touristy, sure, but it’s also got plenty of products to check out, from leather to tequila. I also recommend the Mercado de Santa Tere (Andrés Terán 524, Santa Teresita) if you’re looking for some of the best food in Guadalajara. No, seriously, I love it.
Top 3 Things To Do in Mexico City
- Explore the barrios
This sounds like a cop out answer, that’s just acting as a catch all option. Kind of, yeah. But also, in many ways, no. Nothing makes me sadder than when travellers come to Mexico City and exclusively hang around in Roma and Condesa, perhaps leaving to take a quick look at the historic centre. Sure, those neighbourhoods are quirky, cool and have a lot to offer, especially in terms of food, art and literature, but they also provide a skewed representation of what Mexico City truly is. Instead, dip into as many neighbourhoods as you have time for and get a balanced perspective on life in the capital. I recommend Santa María la Ribera for unexpected surprises, Narvarte if you want to step back in time and Ciudad Universitaria if you want to relive campus life.
- Get coffee in Coyoacán
If you leave Mexico City without drinking coffee at Coyoacán’s Café El Jarocho (Cuauhtémoc 134, Coyoacán) you have failed. Order a moka. Alternatively, Café Negro (Centenario 16, Coyoacán) has one of the best cappuccino frappes I’ve ever tasted.
- Check out the museums
I’m not a huge museum fan to be perfectly honest, but even Mexico City has museums that suit my tastes. I really enjoyed, and even wrote about, my visit to the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia (Avenida Juárez 8, Centro), and I’ve heard the interactive economy museum, a.k.a. the MIDE (Calle de Tacuba 17, Centro Histórico), is supposed to be really good fun. Honestly.
Both Mexico City and Guadalajara are two of the country’s top spots for both street food and fine dining. Sure, not many places can come close to the weird, wonderful and delicious dishes of Oaxaca, but in my opinion, the food in Guadalajara just edges out the food in Mexico City. The latter might have some typically chilango creations, like tortas de tamales (carbs on carbs on caaaarbs, son) and they definitely have better gorditas, but Guadalajara has crispy lonches served on the typical birote bread and hangover busting tortas ahogadas.
Here are my top three places and foods to eat in Guadalajara and Mexico City, in no particular order. Bear in mind that this list is nowhere near exhaustive, and that it basically just includes my own subjective faves.
Top 4 Places to Eat in Guadalajara & What to Order
- Mercado de Santa Tere | Andrés Terán 524, Santa Teresita
I’ve already mentioned it. THAT’S HOW MUCH I LOVE IT. You have to eat in this local indoor food market, because the deep-fried quesadillas at the Fonda Mariquita stall hold a special place in my heart, and honestly? I’ve still not had better. Get a chicken and mushroom combo or go for the flor de calabaza (squash blossom) if you don’t eat meat.
- Karne Garibaldi | Garibaldi 1306, Santa Teresita
This Santa Tere restaurant (can you tell I used to live in that neighbourhood?) holds the record for the fastest serving time in the world, so if you’re starving and in a rush, there’s really no better place to go, because my god will you leave feeling full. The staple dish of Karne Garibaldi is carne en su jugo, or ‘meat in its juice’. It sounds repulsive, but it’s basically a delicious, liquid-y broth full of meat to which you add fresh onion, salsa and coriander. Go all out and order frijoles and guacamole too.
- La Minería | Avenida de las Américas 1361, Ladrón de Guevara
Hidalgo state supposedly has the best pasties in the country but my paste eating experiences at Guadalajara’s La Minería throws that claim into doubt. These are THE BEST pasties I’ve ever eaten, and I’m British. You can’t go wrong with the flaky pastry and fresh-out-of-the-oven fillings of the tuna or mushroom pastes.
- Polo Norte | Avenida México 2200, Ladrón de Guevara
OK, OK, you may have noticed that this is entry number four but the food in Guadalajara is great and this is my blog, so I can do what I want. You have to go to this ice cream shop/ restaurant and, no messing around, order a limonada con agua mineral and a sopa Azteca. Essentially a tortilla soup, it comes in a lightly spicy, tomatoey broth, with crispy strips of tortilla, cheese, cream, avocado and cubes of panela cheese. IT’S. SO. GOOD. (Fun fact: I once took an Uber straight from the airport to Polo Norte, just for this soup).
Top 3 Places to Eat in Mexico City & What to Order
- Tamale stand | Calles Marsella y Dinamarca, Juárez
I would go as far as to say that my favourite Mexican food is the humble tamale. Regularly translated as ‘stuffed corn parcels’, English doesn’t really do justice to the delicious-ness of this food. My favourite tamale stand in the city is located in Colonia Juárez on the corner of Calles Marsella and Dinamarca and I highly recommend the salsa verde Oaxaqueño version. They also sell some really great, spicy chicken chilaquiles there too.
- Comida corrida | Various citywide locations
Translating to ‘fast food’, comida corrida is far better than any McDonald’s rubbish and is cheaper to boot. You can usually find comida corrida, which typically consists of a three-course meal (soup, main accompanied by rice, spaghetti or salad, and pudding, plus agua fresca) for way under MXN$100 in fondas across the country. In fact, if I pay more than MXN$70 for great comida corrida I’m surprised.
- Mercado de la Merced | Calle Rosario, Merced Balbuena, Venustiano Carranza
Known for being one of the best places to buy fresh food in Mexico City, Mercado de la Merced also great for pre-cooked offerings. Choose the stall that tempts you most and go nuts. I had quesadillas when I went (don’t forget to order them with cheese in Mexico City, because it doesn’t come as standard), but you can get anything from gorditas to pambazos and everything in between. Top tip: if there’s no-one that looks like a local eating there, steer well clear.
If you like nightlife, you’ll love both Mexico City and Guadalajara. Honestly though, I’m far more au fait with the bars and clubs in the latter than the former, because…I’m old and prefer to stay at home now, rather than go to bars. Also, the size of Mexico City sometimes puts me off travelling for an hour just to get drunk, when I could be home in my pyjamas with a beer. But enough about my old soul tendencies, here are my completely subjective recommendations for nightlife in Mexico City and Guadalajara.
Top 3 Places to Drink in Guadalajara
- El Rey/ Chacal/ Salmon | Bernardo de Balbuena, Ladrón de Guevara
This is a bit of a cheat entry, but all these bars are literally right next to each other on Calle Balbuena. Open-air Chacal is the place to be if you want to dance, but be warned that it gets crowded fast. There is usually no cover and beers cost MXN$30. Salmon is the place to go for live music, as they often have live bands and DJ sets. It’s bigger than Chacal and has more seating options but can be a bit pricier and sometimes charges cover. El Rey is the skinny sibling sandwiched between the other two and is the bar you want to start the night in, as they have reasonably priced beer and mezcal combos you can take advantage of. Don’t miss the pizza stand (Pizza Rila) opposite.
- El Parián | Calle Juárez, San Pedro Tlaquepaque
Technically located in Tlaquepaque, El Parián is actually a cluster of restaurants all centred around a bandstand where mariachis often perform. This is a great drinking destination in Guadalajara because you can try out cazuelas, huge clay bowls that are basically a mixture of tequila, grapefruit, orange and lime juice, plus heaps of fresh fruit.
- Unplugged Whisky Bar | López Cotilla 2233, Arcos Vallarta
One of my favourites when I lived in Guadalajara, not least because I lived down the road from it, Unplugged was always a reliable option that usually had a live band playing classic pop and rock. If my memory serves, women used to have an open bar on Thursdays, but you now have to pay around MXN$100 in exchange for an iconic red solo cup, which allows you open bar access all night. Totally worth it.
Top 3 Places to Drink in Mexico City
- Traspatio | Córdoba 150, Roma Norte
Traspatio is one of those typically hipster Roma watering holes, that’s located in what looks to have once been someone’s backyard, but it has a nice atmosphere, isn’t wildly overpriced for the area and also serves food. I think I had a choripan when I went, but really, you want to go here for atmospheric evening drinks, bathed in the glow of a thousand fairy lights.
- Cultural Roots Reggae Bar | Calle de Tacuba 64, Centro Histórico
I’m not big on the historic centre of Mexico City, but one of the best bars in the city has to be Cultural Roots Reggae Bar, a three-level behemoth tucked away on one of the most well-known streets in the capital. Filled with dreadlocked Mexicans, suitably edgy outfits and a hell of a lot of weed, it’s also incredibly cheap considering where you are. I think a caguama (either Indio or Carta Blanca) costs around MXN$60. Do what we did, and spend your night on the terrace, where it’s quiet enough to actually speak to one another. Oh, and the artwork that litters pretty much every wall is pretty impressive too.
- Pulquería Insurgentes | Insurgentes Sur 226, Roma Norte
Pulquería Insurgentes is one of Mexico City’s best spots to drink pulque but they also offer beers if you’re not a fan of the often off-puttingly viscous Mesoamerican drink. I’ve only been on a Sunday afternoon (and stumbled across a great two for one offer on pulques and curados), but I’ve heard it really comes alive at night.
Neither Mexico City nor Guadalajara is short on appealing nearby attractions that make for ideal day trips, whether you like quaint pueblos mágicos, outdoor activities or archaeological ruins. Here are what I consider to be the top three attractions close to Mexico City and Guadalajara, easily reachable for a speedy visit.
Top 3 Attractions Close to Guadalajara
- Tequila | Tequila, Jalisco
Perhaps Mexico’s most iconic pueblo mágico, Tequila is located just an hour and a half long bus ride away from Guadalajara (although you can also take the much more all-inclusive and expensive train), and is easily one of the area’s best day trips. There is plenty of hidden art tucked away in the centre, the church is drop dead beautiful and, of course, the place is rammed with tequila distilleries of which you can take guided tours. I’ve been there twice (in fact, you can read my guide to Tequila here), my tour of the Orendain factory was excellent, and a quick browse of the José Cuervo shop is obligatory.
- Guachimontones | Carretera Estatal 604 Guadalajara-San Marcos KM 56, Teuchitlán
Visitors rarely think to go to Guachimontones, if they’ve even heard of it in the first place, which is odd considering it’s one of the country’s most unique archaeological sites. Dominated by round pyramids, there’s also an on-site museum and some great panoramic views to be had. About a three-hour bus ride from Guadalajara, it’s totally underrated and well worth the visit.
- La Barranca de Huentitán | Belisario Domínguez 4446, Dr Atl
If you like hiking, go north to the Barranca de Huentitán. I’ll be honest, I’ve only ever gone in a car, with people who know where they’re going, but the metro system will also drop you off at the entrance point. There are steep cobbled paths and even hot springs, if you know where to look. Plus, the views from the top are Instagram worthy.
Top 3 Attractions Close to Mexico City
You can’t leave Mexico City without going to Teotihuacán’s Pyramids. Literally iconic, they’re super close (around an hour by bus) and are something everyone should see in their lifetime. Don’t be like me and go on an empty stomach and without water though, because if the altitude doesn’t get you, then your own idiocy will. Eat well, take water and wear suncream. Oh, and go early obviously or you’ll be surrounded by tourists in day-glo t-shirts ruining your photos.
- Peña de Bernal | Peña de Bernal, Bernal, Querétaro
Easily up there in one of my top five pueblos mágicos, Bernal is home to the world’s third biggest monolith, the Peña de Bernal. While I didn’t climb to the top, I did pay someone to drive me up to get a cracking view of it and that was more than enough. The actual town is really lively and wholly picturesque too.
- Toluca | Toluca, Estado de México
The underrated state capital of the State of Mexico, Toluca was actually a surprising destination for me. Only about an hour or two’s drive from Mexico City, it’s known for chorizo, the multicoloured houses and the honestly jaw-dropping Cosmovitral (Avenida Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, Toluca), as well as for being home to the Nevado de Toluca. My advice is go early in the morning to climb to the top of the Nevado and wander round the lakes, before heading to the city to try some chorizo and wander round the historic centre. A visit to the Cosmovitral is obviously a must.
One thing people frequently freak about when it comes to Mexico is the perceived danger. Is Mexico City safe? Can I travel to Mexico City as a solo female traveller? Is Guadalajara run by cartels? Is it even worth going to Mexico City or Guadalajara? Why don’t I just go to Cancún?
Well, even though I’ve written before about not feeling entirely safe in Mexico City, that has a lot to do with the area I work in. In the well-trodden tourist zones and central spots, you’ll be absolutely fine. The main safety issues to watch out for are basically the problems you’ll find in any big city – pickpocketing, theft and tourist scams. Keep your valuables hidden (or leave them behind) and be aware of your surroundings.
As for Guadalajara, the same advice applies. Weirdly enough, even though I’ve (touch wood) been fine in Mexico City thus far and mugged in Guadalajara, I still feel safer in the latter. Even so, you want to stick to the main areas, keep an eye on your surroundings at all times and exercise common sense. After all, while there is definitely a skewed perception about the dangers lurking in Guadalajara and Mexico City, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
So, Mexico City or Guadalajara?
Honestly? Guadalajara will always have my heart, even though every time I return to the place I used to call home, it seems like a seismic shift has taken place. By that I mean, it feels so overwhelmingly familiar and yet entirely unrecognisable at times. There are some new bars and a restaurant or two that I hadn’t seen before dotted around, and the places I used to hang out aren’t as popular as they used to be.
Plus, many of the people I used to hang around with in Guadalajara have, for the most part, moved on. In fact, rather ironically, quite a few of them live in Mexico City.
That’s not to say that Guadalajara won’t forever be my fave though (it was once my home) and maybe everything would be different if my visits weren’t flash in the pan, hit-all-my-favourite-food-stand affairs. (Seriously, all I do when I go back is eat and I will forever maintain that Mexico’s best food is contained within Jalisco).
Mexico City, on the other hand, is the place I currently call home and, let me tell you, I hated it at first. I felt unsafe, out of place and friendless, although I’m certain that feeling lingered longer than was necessary because of my absolutely ridiculous work schedule the first few months I was here. I’m still not a total convert, and I don’t see myself living here forever. Life in the city (or, perhaps, this city) is just too stressful, too messy, too…everything. There are no half measures in Mexico City. Having said that, I like it far more now. I feel like I know the lay of the land a bit better, I have friends, I do feel more (dare I say?) at home here in recent months.
I’d still move back to Guadalajara in a heartbeat though.
But which do you think is Mexico’s best city – Mexico City or Guadalajara? Let me know in the comments!