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Guadalajara with its Gothic cathedral in the background

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Growing up between Texas and Mexico, I always looked forward to family visits to Guadalajara. I've never encountered a culture as rich and wholesome, as vibrant and welcoming, as that in the nearly 500-year-old Mexican city of 1.5 million.

When people typically think of taking a vacation to Mexico, they immediately think of Cabo or Cancun. Don’t get me wrong, I like Cabo and Cancun as much as the next person, but those destinations tend to lack heart and authenticity. As the fourth-largest city in Mexico and birthplace to mariachi music and tequila, this is the destination to visit when you want to feel more fully immersed in Mexican culture.

1. Guadalajara Cathedral

Located in the heart of Guadalajara and surrounded by plazas on all sides, it is nothing short of awe-inspiring. With its twin Gothic spires, it can be seen throughout the city and is one of the most recognizable landmarks. You can head out and listen to music or shop around the local street vendors at the Plaza de Armas, which sits right outside the cathedral. Being in the heart of the city, there are plenty of other attractions and restaurants surrounding the area and there’s even a contemporary theatre called Degollado nearby.

2. The Expiatorio, Temple of the Blessed Sacrament

Known for its intricate architecture and considered one of the best works of its kind in Mexico, your heart nearly stops once you step inside. After you’ve recovered from its intense beauty, you can take a stroll outside to the nearby Expiatorio park or countless cafes and restaurants.

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Stained glass rings the sanctuary of the Templo Expiatorio.

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3. Street food

I’m not lying when I say I gain at least five pounds every time I visit Guadalajara just because of the street food. My absolute favorite are the tiny tacos that you can find on almost every corner. You can either grab a quick bite at a stand, or head to a restaurant location like Tacos Providencia. It can be scary ordering tacos considering there are at least 15 different kinds. My go-tos are the tacos al pastor or asada, which are always a safe bet. If you’re feeling adventurous, locals usually go for tacos de lengua, meaning “cow tongue.”

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Tacos Providencia is a staple of the GDL dining scene.

Other street food staples are churros (deep-fried sugary goodness filled with a sweet cajeta), tortas ahogadas (a “drowned sandwich” stuffed with fried pork, covered in a spicy tomato and chili sauce and served with avocado, onions and radishes), and aguas frescas like agua de jamaica (extracted from hibiscus with a slight tartness to it) or horchata (a sweet drink made of rice, sugar, water, and cinnamon).  There are so many stands that it can be overwhelming, so scout out the area and try to find one surrounded by locals to find the best one.

5. Fútbol

Mexico is well-known for its die-hard soccer fans and watching one of the local team favorites, like Chivas, is always quite the experience. Even if you’re not a huge soccer fan, you won’t be able to stop yourself from cheering your head off and joining in on the rambunctious chants.

6. Guadalajara Zoo and Selva Mágica Amusement Park

You get the best of both worlds considered they’re located side-by-side. Spend half the day at the largest zoo in the country, with its brand-new aquarium, and the other half riding rollercoasters next door. How much better can it get?
Shopping: Did you know there are nine shopping malls in Guadalajara alone? My personal favorites are La Gran Plaza and Plaza Galerías. Enough said.

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Tourists in Tlaquepaque enjoy the beautiful architecture, stores and restaurants that this town offers.

7. A day trip out to Tlaquepaque

Eccentric and unique finds are what you’ll encounter here. Arts and crafts items are the shopping jewels, but you can find just about anything in these colorful and authentic shops. As you roam the historic streets, make sure you get a taste of this light and breezy treat—nieve de garrafa, a homemade sorbet spun in giant wooden barrels. Pro tip: In the markets, don’t be afraid to bargain for your buy. Prices aren’t set, and they usually double them for tourists.

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Street vendors sell their wares in artsy Tlaquepaque.

8. Tequila Express

If you’re looking to have a good time and learn a little something something about Mexico’s pride and joy, tequila, then hop aboard the Tequila Express. They aim to highlight the three beloved staples of Guadalajara—tequila, mariachi, and la charrería. For those of you who don’t know, la charrería is a rodeo-like event in which the men and women wear traditional, decorative charro clothing and compete in events like the typical Texan lassoing, bull riding, and roping. The one difference is that they also attempt “the pass of death,” in which the charro man jumps from his own horse onto the bareback of an unbroken, bucking horse.

As for the Tequila Express itself, you’ll board a train and embark on a tequila-filled journey (thankfully). Once you arrive, you’ll take a tour of the factory itself and see how tequila is made. Don’t worry, you’ll get tastings along the way, and kids are treated to their favorite sodas. You’ll also get to meet Cuco the donkey, who is often described as “a spoiled burrito” and loves the tourists. After the tour, you’ll be treated to mariachi music and a traditional Folkloric Ballet before your return. The party doesn’t stop when you board the train for the return trip either! Don’t forget to take a souvenir for the ride back (if you know what I mean).

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