Tijuana is Mexico’s fifth largest city, located just across the border from San Diego, California.
I am spending some time in San Diego again and one of the things I love to do is take a day trip to Tijuana. It’s a one day vacation to a different country with a different culture, a different language and delicious food!
Now I’ll admit Tijuana is a typical border town and not the most beautiful place on earth. Some Americans will even tell you it is dangerous and you shouldn’t go. But if you know where to go and use common sense the way you should always do when traveling to a new place, then Tijuana makes for a fun trip filled with good food, cheap beer and great (souvenir) shopping!
How to get to Tijuana from San Diego
Getting to Tijuana is easy and budget friendly if you know the tricks. Finding parking along the border can be difficult and expensive so if you are staying in San Diego your best choice is hopping on the blue line of the trolley and exiting at the last stop: San Ysidro Transit Center. The fare is US$ 2.50 for a one way ticket or US$ 5.00 for a day ticket. Once you exit the trolley you will see signs pointing to Mexico immediately.
I recommend you exchange some money before leaving the USA since the currency exchange is better in San Diego. US$ 20 will probably be enough for food and drinks or US$ 50 if you want to do some shopping as well (bigger stores take credit cards). You will find very obvious signs for money exchange right outside the San Ysidro Transit Center.
The walk from the trolley to the border takes you less than 5 minutes. Everyone has to show their passport so do make sure to take it with you. Customs usually only ask you what you will be doing in Mexico. If you plan on staying more than 7 days you will have to pay a permit that costs US$20- $26 depending on your nationality.
Areas worth visiting in Tijuana
Centro translates to Center or Downtown. Most people visiting Tijuana spend their day in downtown Tijuana which is centered around one large avenue: the Avenida Revolución (map).
Although Zona Rio is the real downtown of Tijuana, Avenida Revolucion remains the historic center of the city and its very soul.
The easiest way to get to downtown Tijuana if you don’t want to deal with over priced taxis is to walk. The walk from the border to downtown takes less than 30 minutes and you will see many signs pointing you in the right direction.
If you do want to take a cab you will have to bargain since they will probably want to charge about US$ 15 while a reasonable price is US$ 5 for up to four people. Most taxi drivers speak English so it won’t be difficult to bargain and get a fair deal.
What not to miss in downtown Tijuana
If you’re into people watching have a drink in Praga Coffee House. If you want to enjoy a great meal and sip on tequila, try Cesar Restaurant. Walk along Pasaje Rodriguez (map) to check out murals by local artists and have a beer at Mamut Brewery. Take the elevator of the parking lot along 4th street up to the 5th floor to find Norte Brewing and enjoy a great view while sipping on their hoppy Penthouse IPA.
Head to 2nd street for some hot chocolate and the typical mole tamales at Casa Cacao. Along 6th street you’ll find all the cool kids drinking in divey cantinas where you are still allowed to smoke inside. Try Dandy del Sur, the oldest one in Tijuana, who has great 2 for 1 specials from Sunday to Wednesday. Walk half a block up on Avenida Revolucion to find Colectivo 9, a trendy collective of small eateries offering international cuisine. Walk up a little further and you’ll find the two newcomers to El Centro: Cine Tonala (a trendy little cinema with a great roof terrace) and Teorema/Ludica Tasting Room.
The best tacos are not found on touristy Avenida Revolucion. Head to Calle Madero for that, which is located between 6th and 7th street. The tacos there are great but most taqueros (taco vendors) speak little English so point at what you like or test your Spanish skills!
A cool new spot I discovered on my last visit to Tijuana is the Telefonica Gastro Park. Located on Avenida Melchor Ocampo it’s only a short walk from the far end of Avenida Revoucion. This trendy food truck park offers a wide variety of things: from cool twists on Mexican food (I never knew vegan tacos could be so delicious!) to high quality burgers, good coffee or just a simple beer.
2. Playas de Tijuana
Playas de Tijuana (map) (meaning “beaches of Tijuana”) is the westernmost borough of the municipality of Tijuana, Baja California.
The Boardwalk in Playas de Tijuana is a circuit of four miles of interconnected pedestrian bridges from the Azteca Park to the border with the United States of America. Here you can see the Mexican-American border (a wall) run into the Pacific Ocean. Along the boardwalk you will see diverse murals, shops from local artisans and a wide variety of Mexican snacks to try. On the main strip you will find a variety of fresh seafood restaurants serving fish tacos, oysters, shrimp cocktails, ceviche, or aguachile at affordable prices.
3. Zona Rio
Zona Rio (map), located East of downtown Tijana, is Tijuana’s business district. It is packed with traffic and plenty to do. Tucked inside Plaza Rio Shopping Mall is one of Tijuana’s most exciting projects: Food Garden. Food Garden is not your typical food court. Instead of food chains, they offer stalls run by young chefs with different culinary proposals that are unique to Tijuana and the region.
Across Plaza Rio you will find Plaza Fiesta, which is a densely packed area of drinking establishments. In 2014 there was a strong shift by the local craft beer scene to exhibit their beers in unique tasting rooms. With 10 different tasting rooms from breweries around the region, you can taste over 100 different beers on any given day.
Next to Plaza Fiesta you will see Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana’s answer to a farmer’s market. Mercado Hidalgo is where locals and tourists come to experience a little bit of the real Mexico. Cenadurias (Mexican cafes), fruit stalls, vegetable stalls, spicy candy, piñatas, mole paste, tortilla presses and a never-ending assortment of spices from all over the country can be found here. Don’t miss the coffee shop in the middle of the market with a chapel on the second floor: it is very inexpensive and uses only Mexican coffee beans for their coffees.
Tijuana may be a city with very little traditional Mexican culture due to its short history, but what little the city has can be found in Zona Rio. This is where you find the Cultural Center, or Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) – La Bola for locals. Inaugurated in 1986, CECUT has grown over the years. Currently it houses a 3 story hall called El Cubo (The Cube) with rotating national and international exhibits. A permanent exhibit detailing the history of Baja California and Tijuana can be found next to El Cubo, alongside a botanical garden and an aquarium. The sphere itself (La Bola) is an IMAX dome screening natural or cultural documentaries.
Located south-east of downtown Tijuana, this nice and more upscale side of town is centered around Sonora (map). It’s the Avenida Revolucion for those who have landed a stable 9-5 job. Paseo Chapultepec is a two-story modern mall here with various restaurants such as Cabanna, a bar and grill focusing on fresh seafood. Next door you will find Barezzito with their Thursday night ladies night for all young bachelors. Or try Club 54 if you’re looking for bottle service. Just a little bit further up the street you’ll find Pub de la Chapu, a favorite among the locals with a typical Irish bar feel and sports games showing most nights. If you make it all the way up the street you will most likely find someone celebrating their birthday at Cafesito Saverios, a tiny cafe serving the best Italian food in the city.
5. Caliente Casino and Caliente Stadium
Casinos run deep in the history of Tijuana, they were the reason Frank Sinatra, Rita Heyworth and Al Capone allegedly visited the city during its early boom. Caliente Casino (map) hosts greyhound races every day for eager patrons waving their winning tickets.
Next door to the casino the same owner built Caliente Stadium for his soccer club “Los Xoloitzcuintles de Tijuana”. Seating 30,000 people, the atmosphere during any match is electrifying and beers go for less than US$ 2 – need I say more! Next to the stadium you will find Galerias Hipodromo, a shopping mall with several restaurants and bars on its second floor – perfect for a quick appetizer and beer before the game.
Tijuana has enough to offer!
As you can see Tijuana really does have enough to offer to make a perfect day trip from San Diego or a nice weekend break.
But, if you want to see the “real” Mexico I recommend not spending too much time in Tijuana. Venture further into the country to get a real taste of Mexico with all its history, culture and friendly people.
This article was created with help of Tijuanawalkingtour.com because of their great local knowledge. Thanks guys, I appreciate all your tips! Do check them out if you are interested in a tour of Tijuana.
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