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If visiting Guadalajara is not on your list of things to do in Mexico, then you’d better add it and put it at the top. This city encompasses an intense diversity that will satisfy every desire you have while on vacation, from culinary dreams to fantastical views, from exclusive shopping experiences to historical sightseeing.
For me, this city also represents a personal connection. I must have been four years old at the time, and all I remember from my first trip there are bright colors and watching a hummingbird from my aunt’s kitchen window. Even now it still seems like a magical moment.
After my last trip, I have so much more to report on about Guadalajara than my aunt’s kitchen. We visited my great-grandmother’s house, where my mom lived for a few years with her sisters. We sat in their classrooms of the 14 de Enero, where my mom and her siblings went to primary school. We got way too many scoops of ice cream at Bing, where they used to get ice cream after school.
Guadalajara has so many things to do!
While these outings had particular sentimental value to myself, we also experienced everything we could in the city. Guadalajara easily makes the top of the list of my favorite cities in the world; it has everything you could ever want out of a city, if not within city limits, then only a short drive away.
Taking a trip to Guadalajara will prove that Mexico is so much more than poor villages and beach resorts. During a week here, we spent each day in what seemed like a different realm, each ranging from metropolitan dreamscape to mountainous getaway.
Here’s a list of the things you absolutely cannot miss out on when you go to Guadalajara.
1. Visit the Centro Historico
Located in the heart of Guadalajara, the Historical Center preserves some of the foundational buildings of the city that house historic, cultural, and political artifacts. Here, we walked through City Hall, where we sat in one of the courtrooms as my aunt, who’s an actress and history teacher, theatrically recounted Mexico’s foundational history.
The Centro Historico is the first place to go to if you are looking for culture and history, as you can roam through building after building that has stood there since the Mexican Revolution.
2. See a show in the Teatro Degollado
At the Centro Historico, we also had the chance to go to a folkloric dance show, where they showcased the different music, costumes, and dances of all the states of Mexico. The recital was held at El Teatro Degollado, a famous theatre built in the mid 1800s.
Built with pillars and carved statues on the outside, it mirrors the depiction of upscale theatres in books and movies on the inside with gold painted pillars and red velvet tapestry.
3. Go shopping
In Guadalajara, you will find many malls much like the ones you will find in the United States. However, you might be surprised to know that one if its shopping centers is luxurious enough to rival the shopping experience you can find in Europe.
Andares is a modern, outdoor, and upscale mall landscaped with palm trees, tropical flowers, and koi ponds. It features stores ranging from common to exclusively expensive. Before you go, make sure your credit card is accepted in Mexico as it would be awful to get there and not be able to buy anything … though I myself mostly just stuck to window shopping.
4. Spend an afternoon at the park
Guadalajara has an amazing outdoor culture. We spent half a day at the Metropolitan Park — Parque Metropolitano de Guadalajara — and it was lovely. It was green everywhere; the park was covered in umbrella-shaped trees and tropical flowers. There were runners out, and families spending the day at the park together. The park includes a walking route, a biking route, a playground, and more.
Of course, any of the many other parks in Guadalajara are also worth visiting, like Technology Park and Blue Water Park.
5. Eat Mexican food
As a member of a Mexican family, I am critical of Mexican food to the point of being a snob. I have taken trips to Mexican beaches where, while turquoise ocean was met with pristine white sand, the food was touristic and more American than anything else. So take me seriously when I say that I had some of the best Mexican food I have ever had in my life in Guadalajara.
Though I spent a lot of the trip thinking about tacos, it was hard to miss them too much because every place we went to had amazing food — especially the desserts. Everywhere you go, you find Mexican ice cream or raspados, which are essentially snow cones saturated with natural flavors.
Not only will you find familiar flavors like strawberry and mango, but you will also find tropical fruits like tamarind. Personally, my favorite is mango topped with a salty and spicy mix called chamoy, but I highly recommend trying new flavors.
While we were out at fancier restaurants, we mostly had flan, a traditional Mexican custard. However, at one restaurant, we found jericalla, which I had never heard of. This dessert is essentially the Jalisco version of flan, and it is to die for.
The thing about our stay in Guadalajara is that we were always eating. Between the restaurants, food stands, and ice cream carts all over the city, there was always the temptation, and since we were only there for a week, we could not say no.
Of course, apart from the incessant portions of Mexican ice cream, it wasn’t all unhealthy. In fact, in Guadalajara, you will find many fruit and vegetable carts that will keep you satisfied until your next meal. These carts come with your basic watermelon, pineapple, berries, but also include guayavana, limas, papayas, and more.
The vegetables include corn (even better with cream, chile, and queso fresco on top!) and other traditional vegetables, but you can also try something a bit more unique. Personally, I was surprised to learn that cactus (nopal) is not only edible, but is a very healthy and typical staple in Mexico.
6. Eat at the best restaurants in Guadalajara
Clearly, the food experience is an important part of the experience. We went to so many great restaurants that it was hard for me to keep track of them all. However, I asked a native to list the best restaurants in Guadalajara. According to my cousin who lives there, the following are the best restaurants in Guadalajara:
Tequila is not technically from Guadalajara, but from the nearby town of Tequila (day trips are popular, by the way). Still, many people attribute it to Guadalajara, as the plant that's used to make the alcoholic drink is also grown there. La Tequila serves gourmet Mexican food that features their take on traditional dishes found in Guadalajara.
To be sure, their namesake isn’t for naught, as they have a wall of tequila that, according to my cousin, is the most tequila you can ever imagine: “thousands and thousands and thousands of bottles of tequila.”
Karnes Garibaldi holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest food service, but it is equally famous for its delicious food. Their featured dish is carne en su jugo, or meat in its juice. It’s a traditional Mexican dish made in most households in Mexico, and most locals would consider it comfort food.
Tortas y Tostadas La Morenita del Santuario
La Morenita del Santuario has achieved a place within the gastronomy of Guadalajara. My cousin emphasized the fact that you should not leave Guadalajara without trying a torta ahogada. This Mexican sandwich, whose name means “drowned sandwich,” is a staple of Guadalajara. As you might guess from its name, the specialty of that sandwich is that it is covered in salsa, typically made out of chile de arbol. Be cautious when trying it, though, because it is spicy!
According to the restaurant, El Abajeño is “the right place to enjoy the perfect mix of atmosphere, flavor, and company.” They serve a wide variety of traditional and grilled dishes, as well as homemade drinks.
Casa Antigua is located in a classic house built in the 1800’s. Here, you can appreciate the classic Mexican architecture and enjoy a traditional Mexican meal while being serenaded by a mariachi. Eating here will give you an authentic Mexican experience.
7. Tour Tlaquepaque
Tlaquepaque, an artisan area that used to be its own town, but has been engulfed into Guadalajara as the city grew. Here, you can find handmade art, antique houses, and great food. This is a great place to buy souvenirs to remember your trip or to bring back to your friends.
In Tlaquepaque, you will find everything from handmade pipes to expensive artwork. You will also find the above-mentioned El Abajeño and Casa Antigua restaurants here.
8. Tour Chapala
If you head an hour southeast of Guadalajara, you can go to Chapala. Chapala is a town nestled between rolling hills and covered in tropical greenery on the edge of a great lake.
Here, we went on a boat ride around the harbor as my mom recounted the times she came here with her siblings, parents, and grandparents on the weekends. It is also one of the many places we got ice cream; three cones from two different carts, the second purchased before the first had melted.
9. Tour Tapalpa
Tapalpa is a bit of a further drive, about two and half hours southwest, but it will lead you to pine-covered mountains that you would expect to see in Switzerland, not Mexico.
Here, you can go ziplining through the forest, horseback riding through the hills, walk through the old brick buildings, and look over a gorgeous view of the valley.
10. Go to the beach
If you hadn’t noticed, Guadalajara is in the perfect location because it is close to everything, and the beaches are no exception. There are beaches there where locals often head to for a weekend away, such as Manzanillo, Acapulco, and Colima. We drove a bit farther, all the way to Puerto Vallarta, my favorite beach.
Here, the sea meets the jungle in a perfectly humid climate in which tropical flowers thrive. We went on a Banana Boat — an inflatable banana-shaped raft where passengers sit on top and hold on tight while being pulled by a jet ski — swam with dolphins, got kissed by a sea lion at the pool in our hotel, and went on a pirate ship excursion that lead us to a hidden beach where we snorkeled for a few hours. The tourist options are as plentiful in Puerto Vallarta as the authentic ones.
To me, Guadalajara is not only a beautiful place to visit, but it is an ideal place to live. This trip has left me dreaming about going back and fantasizing about moving there for good.
With its diverse attractions, both historic and new, tropical and mountainous, folkloric and modern, you will never be bored here. Visiting Guadalajara will leave you questioning everything you’ve ever learned about Mexico, as well as experiencing everything you ever wanted to.