Visiting Tijuana, Mexico

//Visiting Tijuana, Mexico

Visiting Tijuana, Mexico

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.

Avenida Revolución – the main street in Tijuana’s tourist zone

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.

San Diego Trolley is the easiest way to get to the US-Mexico Border near Tijuana

FOOD

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)

Fine dining at Misión 19 – Chef’s tasting menu consists of four, six, or eight courses

Wine at Misión 19 comes from Guadalupe Valley near Tijuana

  • 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

Table-side preparation at Caesar’s Restaurante, home of the Caesar salad

Ensalada Caesar

  • 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.

DRINK

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.

Vintage charm at El Dandy del Sur

TRAVEL TIPS

  • 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.

Stores on Avenida Revolución

[mappress mapid=”17″]

Have you been to Tijuana? What was your experience like? 

By | 2015-02-01T19:43:23+00:00 December 14th, 2012|CITIES|52 Comments

About the Author:

avatar
Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.

52 Comments

  1. avatar
    Andrea December 14, 2012 at 1:41 am

    I may be Canadian, but I’ve never been to Mexico! I think it’s the #1 winter destination amongst the people from my country….I’d love to visit but would have dismissed TJ without a second thought… until now! Thanks for the fresh eye view!
    Andrea recently posted..Dried Cranberry and White Chocolate BiscottiMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 14, 2012 at 11:38 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Andrea! I wanted to go to TJ because of all the things I’d heard about it, just to see for myself. But I never thought I’d have one of the best meals of my life there (Mision 19)!

  2. avatar
    Jeanette December 14, 2012 at 1:56 am

    A fantastic overview of Tijuana! Makes me want to head there tomorrow. I had no idea the Caesar salad was invented there! I’m definitely taking your advice on getting there from San Diego on my next visit, as it sounds super easy and inexpensive:)
    Jeanette recently posted..Thankful for Family TimeMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 14, 2012 at 11:36 am

      Thanks, Jeanette. I didn’t know about the salad either! My biggest surprise was that they used whole leaves instead of shredding them. I liked that a lot.

  3. avatar
    @mrsoaroundworld December 14, 2012 at 3:20 am

    What a nice article about a place I hated! I seriously didn’t see this side of Tijuana. The restaurants look fab!
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..My date with the Three Wine MenMy Profile

  4. avatar
    Anisha December 14, 2012 at 7:50 am

    I went to Tijuana from California and loved it! The edginess, vibrancy & strong Latino culture (food, drink & music) is really exciting! Want to go back

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 14, 2012 at 11:33 am

      I like your description of TJ! And very much agree. :)

  5. avatar
    Jaillan Yehia (@SavoirThere) December 14, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I would love to go to Mexico but I must admit I had thought of Tijuana as a border town with little to offer, and low brow as it may seem I actually associate it with the TV Show The OC as it’s where one of the main characters has an overdose! It’s interesting to hear that there is another side to it, and that such great food is available too!
    Jaillan Yehia (@SavoirThere) recently posted..6 Stylish Things To Do Near Paphos, CyprusMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm

      I always heard stories of college kids from SoCal going there to drink etc. But I didn’t know that TJ was one of the wealthiest Mexican cities per capita, that it was growing fast, and had this whole foodie scene emerging. It’s amazing to see this transformation.

  6. avatar
    Matthew Hirtes December 14, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    The closest I’ve got to Tijuana was San Francisco. I intend to get a whole lot closer next time after reading your post. Great article, Pola.
    Matthew Hirtes recently posted..San Andres: Northern ExposureMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 14, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      I’m happy to hear that, Matthew! Thank you. I will be writing about San Diego too – definitely a place worth visiting in the area.

  7. avatar
    Aaron December 14, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    Great foodie and drink pics. I’ve spent time in San Diego and Chula Vista just north of the border, but have never though of venturing over. Your post makes it more intriguing. :) Thanks for sharing!
    Aaron recently posted..California: The View from Marin Headlands.My Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 14, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      Ha, I heard and saw the name “Chula Vista” so many times, but didn’t get to go there. The food and drinks were excellent – the chef’s tasting we did came with wine pairing. I will remember it for a long time! :)

  8. avatar
    TheTuscan (@anylatitude) December 14, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    I’ve been a few miles from Tijuana. I slept in a motel not far away from the border. I remember seeing a hill with a huge Mexican flag on it.
    The following day I was in a hurry and decided not to enter Mexico. I new the reentering process could take hours and I didn’t want that spending a few hours in Tijuana resulted in wasting an entire day.
    TheTuscan (@anylatitude) recently posted..Rural pictures of RomaniaMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 14, 2012 at 6:10 pm

      Yes, going back can take half a day… I know which flag you’re referring to – it’s how I knew the trolley was getting close to the border. :)

  9. avatar
    Traveling Ted December 15, 2012 at 8:43 am

    Great tips and great that you are showing the other side of Tijuana: a much maligned town.
    Traveling Ted recently posted..Georgetown, Guyuna photo essayMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 15, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      I’m interested to see how it keeps on evolving.

  10. avatar
    In Mozart's Footsteps December 15, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Pola, What a great blog. You give so much great information. Tijuana is not on my list of places to see soon, but maybe it should be! You make it easy to visit. David
    In Mozart’s Footsteps recently posted..Vienna’s Magnificient KarlskircheMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 16, 2012 at 3:15 am

      Thank you, David! Tijuana can be a good starting point for exploring northern Baja. If you find yourself in the area some time, I recommend Ensenada – a cute coastal town – and the nearby wine country.

  11. avatar
    Cristina December 16, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Mexico… I never visited it! Wine and food look great!!!
    Cristina recently posted..#Milano, Miret (@zurichvienna) and IMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 16, 2012 at 12:06 pm

      Food in Mexico is quite amazing! I recommend the country to every foodie. :) I hope you get to go at some point – the colonial cities especially are beautiful.

  12. avatar
    Tim December 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I like this essay. Definitely a different perspective of Tijuana for sure. :)
    Tim recently posted..CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEARS CELEBRATIONS IN THAILANDMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 16, 2012 at 3:33 pm

      Thank you, Tim! I went to TJ to see its other side, and I’m happy to share the experience.

  13. avatar
    Belinda Beckett December 17, 2012 at 4:25 am

    I love it that you’ve written about an underdog city like Tijuana. Never been, though I enjoyed Mexico City, which gets a similarly bad press. If you’ve got your ‘positive-tinted’ glasses on you can always find the ‘sizzle’ in any destination … even Algeciras in Spain, which, if you’ve ever been there you’ll know is a tall order!

    Belinda recently posted The Sizzle in Algeciras http://belindabeckett.com/sizzle-in-algeciras/
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    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 17, 2012 at 9:52 am

      Hi Belinda. Thanks for stopping by and your thoughtful comment! I just saw your Algericas post and really enjoyed it. It’s very true that with the right frame of mind, you can have a good time even the less glamorous destinations. And as for Mexico City, I love it for its hectic vibe and the incredible food. :)

  14. avatar
    the lazy travelers December 17, 2012 at 11:05 am

    when the hubs and i were visiting family in san diego, his aunt was adamant that we not venture into tijuana. thanks for showing a different side to the city!
    the lazy travelers recently posted..four days in switzerland: an ode to the swiss railMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 17, 2012 at 11:27 am

      It seems to be a common sentiment. Happy to show the brighter side of TJ!

  15. avatar
    Kieu December 17, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    I admit, I never did make that journey from Cali to Tijuana when I was younger. But I hear it’s an up and coming place, not the same as it was 10 years ago and I would love to visit and explore their culinary side. One day..
    Kieu recently posted..Tasting Hungary in BudapestMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      I know you guys would cover the food scene very well! :)

  16. avatar
    Ian Wright December 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Excellent work, Pola. Thanks for going against the popular mythology and spreading the word about the Tijuana revival! :-)

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 17, 2012 at 5:15 pm

      Your words mean a lot. Thank you, Ian!

  17. avatar
    Fiona December 18, 2012 at 5:30 am

    Wow – i never realised Tijuana was only 18 miles from San Diego! I like how you’ve shown a different side to the city. I remember being basically terrified before visiting Mexico City, Oaxaca and the Chiapas, it was all perfectly fine though, the people were so friendly and lovely and the dfood was delicious. :)

  18. avatar
    Rosemary Scott December 18, 2012 at 7:13 am

    This is a great guide – loved learning where ceasar salad originated :-)

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 18, 2012 at 11:16 am

      Thanks, Rosemary! I was happy to learn that too. :)

  19. avatar
    Jetting Around December 18, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Oh, you’ve been to Mexico City, Fiona? How nice! I’d love to go back and try some more of its fabulous food. And I felt perfectly fine there in Oaxaca too. :)

  20. avatar
    The Real Tijuana December 18, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    The Caesar salad predates the Hotel Caesar by several years. It was popularized by the restaurant Caesar’s Place on the ground floor of the Hotel Internacional. The brothers Caesar and Alejandro Cardini made so much money there that they built their own place, the Hotel Caesar, two blocks south.

    Our yellow cabs have traditionally been the tourists’ taxi; the taxis libres were created recently to serve the needs of Tijuana’s residents. While it is unfair to characterize the yellow cabs as a tourist trap, your advice to agree on the fare before getting into the cab is well-founded because all taxis, the world over, can be tourist traps. The one exception in Tijuana is the smaller yellow cab marked “taxi económico”, which charges fixed prices posted (in pesos) on large signs at their cab-stands: if these cabbies charge you more than the posted price, they have to pay you five times what they tried to charge you.

    U.S. citizens who visit Tijuana do not need a passport to return home, contrary to government propaganda, but they do need some patience because of those long lines at U.S. Customs. The vans that offered to take you across for $12 don’t always save time; they normally charge $5 but their price goes up as the line gets longer, and they’ve been known to drop their passengers off at the Otay crossing when the bus line at San Ysidro is also very long. Instead, it’s easier, faster, and cheaper to hitch a ride from Avenida Revolución with Mexicoach.

    We hope you were inspired to plan a return visit.

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 18, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      Thanks for visiting JA and sharing your local perspective!

      I agree that taxis all over the world can be a tourist trap, and it’s best to do research beforehand. We had a very good experience with Taxi Libre though and I’m happy to recommend it to others.

      We were on a large bus and that day it was a life savior, as the line was really long (weekend traffic)! Other than that, crossing the border went quite smoothly.

      I would certainly love to visit Baja again (we also went to Ensenada and the wine country), I feel there is so much more left to see! When we do, I can imagine that there will be another stop in TJ. :)

  21. avatar
    Cassie December 27, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Wow, we were just in San Diego and didn’t even think of going to TJ! Mexico is my favorite country and I’m always telling people how safe it is to travel there “as long as you aren’t going near the border”. Perhaps I should reconsider this. I’d love to go down and check out the new food scene. I LOVE mushroom tacos–great rec. for us vegetarians :)
    Cassie recently posted..Foto Friday | Pigeons Take Flight Over Bolívar Square, Bogotá, ColombiaMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around December 27, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Mexico is one of my favorite countries too! I hope you get to check out TJ’s amazing food one of these days (veggie options are there for sure).

  22. avatar

    […] I bought tickets from Tijuana to Ensenada – a coastal town in Mexico about 70 miles south of San Diego, CA – I was […]

  23. avatar

    […] route to Ensenada can be an experience in itself. The town is easily accessible from Tijuana on the US border via ABC buses – the ride is about 1 hr 45 min long and takes you along the […]

  24. avatar

    […] during a bus ride along the Pacific Coast, south of Tijuana Before I bought tickets from Tijuana to Ensenada – a coastal town in Mexico about 70 miles south of San Diego, […]

  25. avatar
    JenChicago March 12, 2013 at 12:40 am

    I just found you on Twitter and I live in Chicago too!

    I have no idea Tijuana was so fascinating! Growing up in Texas, I think I took Mexico for granted.
    JenChicago recently posted..Addison Red Line: Hop Off And Stay A Few Hours #ThingsToDoMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 12, 2013 at 12:47 am

      Happy to connect with another Chicagoan. :) Thanks for stopping by, Jen.
      Tijuana is certainly one of my nicest travel surprises. I would gladly go back and see more of it, along with Baja.

  26. avatar
    Pablo March 12, 2013 at 3:20 am

    Tijuana is actually where my dad lives. I’ve been there I don’t know how many times. It has its waves with tourist traffic for sure.

    The one thing I can always count on though is the food. I’m pretty sure I gain like 10 pounds every time I go visit him. I just can’t stop myself! haha

    • avatar
      Jetting Around March 12, 2013 at 10:47 am

      I hear you, the food there is incredible. :) I can never resist Mexican dishes!!

  27. avatar
    My three travel regrets : Jetting Around February 5, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    […] off the mainstream travel radar (I’m glad I didn’t listen to warnings against visiting Tijuana), or… not traveling […]

  28. avatar
    laura January 8, 2015 at 8:34 am

    My family live in San Diego and I have never made it across to Tijuana. I love proper mexican food so I really need to make the trip!
    laura recently posted..These Are NOT ResolutionsMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around January 15, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      Do it, Laura! :) It’s so worth it for the food. I have a feeling Tijuana will only get more popular as a foodie destination.

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