Things to do in the infamous border town – and why it’s worth a visit in the first place
For a long time, Tijuana in the northwestern Mexican state of Baja California has been known for the red-light district, plastic surgery, and cheap pills. Add to this reports of violent crime and drug wars, and the city has been far from making any “top places to visit” lists.
Amid declining visitor numbers and many business catering to tourists shutting down in recent years, Tijuana has had to find ways to reinvent itself. Nowadays, the things that made it (in)famous may still be there, but there is more to TJ than meets the eye.
If you are interested in cutting-edge, farm-to-table cuisine, comfortable cantinas, and wines that can rival Northern California’s, head to Tijuana and its vicinity. Located around 18 miles south of downtown San Diego, California, the area is an easy day or weekend trip from there.
CROSSING THE BORDER
You can fly into the Tijuana International Airport, or cross the land border (la línea) at San Ysidro, a district in the south of San Diego.
The easiest way to get to the crossing is by taking the San Diego Trolley Blue Line, which originates at American Plaza and makes several stops around the city center. One-way tickets cost $2.50 and are available from vending machines at stations.
When at the border, follow signs (and crowds) to the Mexico gate, go past the turnstiles and then over the foot bridge to the other side of the highway. You will not need to show identification, but once you are past the gate, you will not be able to go back without going through US customs.
At the end of the bridge is a plaza filled with vendors and taxi drivers. Decline offers to take yellow cabs (they can be tourist traps) and keep walking straight ahead until you see the white Taxi Libre cabs. A ride around Avenida Revolución, the main drag of the nearby tourist zone, should cost you around 50 pesos or $5 (read more in travel tips below). It is common to ask about the price and agree on it before getting in the car.
Tijuana’s culinary scene is starting to be noticed internationally, thanks to a new wave of innovative chefs and the abundance of high quality, fresh local ingredients. From street food to high-end restaurants, you can eat very well there. Here are a few examples:
- Misión 19 – Named the country’s best new restaurant by Travel + Leisure Mexico, this fine dining establishment is reason enough to visit Tijuana. Misión serves Baja Mediterranean cuisine – traditional Mexican dishes combined with flavors typical of this Mediterranean-like coastal region. Ingredients are locally sourced from Tijuana and San Diego markets and farms, and the wine list consists of bottles from the nearby Baja California Wine Country. Chef’s tasting menu of four, six, or eight dishes is the best way to experience the restaurant. Location: Misión de San Javier 10643 Zona Urbana Río (2nd floor of office building)
- Caesar’s – This elegant restaurant and bar on Avenida Revolución has been in business since 1927 and is home of the famous Caesar salad (the salad is believed to have been invented three years earlier by the restaurant’s original owners). Order the ensalada and watch how it’s prepared table-side, using whole leaves of Romaine lettuce. Location: Revolución 1927, Zona Centro
- Tacos Kokopelli – Gourmet meets street food at this taco stand, operated by a crew of three, including one Tijuana Culinary Art School alumnus. Kokopelli specializes in grilled seafood tacos served with homemade salsas (vegetarians have the option of portobello mushroom tacos). Location: Avenida Ocampo, between the 8th and 9th street. Open from 10am until 4:20pm Tuesday-Saturday.
The Sixth Street (Calle Sexta) in the center of Tijuana has evolved into a hip nightlife destination, filled with beer and mezcal bars. To experience a more classic cantina, try El Dandy del Sur (Calle 6a 2030), in operation since 1957 (twenty years at the current location). This dim-lit bar has a timeless vibe and attracts an eclectic crowd. Tropic’s Bar (Calle 6a 2027) is a down-to-earth hangout frequented by both veteran patrons and a young crowd. The jukebox has everything from Mexican regional bands to European rock.
- Most taxi drivers and businesses will accept US dollars. However, you may not get the most favorable exchange rate due to rounding (e.g. 50 pesos is about $4, and not the $5 you would pay instead).
- When walking down Avenida Revolución, arm yourself with “no, gracias.” The street is lined with vendors selling souvenirs and they will try to get you in their stores. But once you say no and keep walking, they will not press further.
- Crossing the border back to the US involves a lot more hassle. Lines are long and you may stand in one for several hours before reaching customs. You may be approached by locals offering to take you on a shuttle bus for about $12 per person. Depending on the day, this may cut your wait time by an hour or more, but it’s not a rule.
- If you choose to stay overnight, I recommend Palazio Azteca (Blvd. Cuahutémoc Sur no. 213). It has comfortable rooms and bathrooms, an outdoor pool area, and is located a short cab ride away from Avenida Revolución and Misión 19.
- The San Diego Trolley operates on an honor system, but tickets do get checked. To avoid fines, make sure you have a valid ticket or pass before you board.
Have you been to Tijuana? What was your experience like?