Kevin and I visited San Diego for the weekend and decided to do a quick day trip across the border into Tijuana (check out our top-rated 1-day itinerary here). Kevin humored me with my Tijuana idea… As he responded something along the lines of “Oh, Tijuana? If you want to go, I guess…” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. The last time he visited was over a decade ago — when Tijuana was still favored by the Spring break crowd in search of cheap Tequila shots. But a lot has changed in a decade. And while Tijuana still attracts those looking to party, over the past few years it has built up a culinary and craft brewery scene. But even more surprising, it has a massive cultural institute displaying renowned local and international artists. Even I was shocked — and I’m the one who did all the research!
If you’re an adventurous traveler like us, Tijuana is a must stop. Here are our top 5 recommendations —
5. Strolling Through Tijuana’s Past in Plaza Santa Cecilia
No trip to Tijuana is complete until you check out Plaza Santa Cecilia. Okay, it’s touristy. Like really touristy… But you’ll feel like you officially arrived in Mexico as mariachi bands try to blast over each other and you fight your way past all the street hagglers.
Performers take center stage here — with bands and comedy acts (at one point, Kevin and I almost got pulled into the act but we ran away… very fast!). You’ll also find cheap Mexican restaurants along the street. Though we recommend skipping these for some other recommendations later on in our list. This is one of the oldest parts of Tijuana — you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see colorful flags flapping above. If you hit this spot last on your itinerary, it’s easy to walk back across the border by following the signs for the PedWest crossing (the new border crossing that took us less than 10 minutes to get through customs!). As you walk out of Mexico, be sure to turn around to snap a photo of the iconic Tijuana arch, which represents the gateway to the city.
4. Keeping it Cool as a Hipster in Pasaje Rodriguez
After years of decline caused by the drug wars, Tijuana’s corridors were places you didn’t really want to spend much time hanging out. In fact, Pasaje Rodriguez was once a pretty seedy place according to some of the people we chatted with. But back in 2010, a group of artists and local business owners came together to lower the rents so independent shops and creative types could move in.
Located just 5 minutes walking South from Plaza Santa Cecilia, Pasaje Rodriguez is another surprising must-stop. The blink-and-you-miss-it alley is just off the main drag of Avenida Revolucion or Zona Centro. When we walked inside, it was like being teleported into a different world. There are microbreweries, independent bookstores, vintage record shops and trendy boutiques.
Kevin and I found things we both enjoyed and he doesn’t even like to shop! Keep an eye out for the murals along the passageway painted by local artists. It’s hard to even imagine this place being dicey today with all these shops packed with young and seemingly well-to-do hipsters.
3. Tasting the Original Caesar Salad
No stop to Tijuana is complete without visiting Caesar’s Restaurant. The place is one of the oldest establishments in the city and full of history. Past owner Caesar Cardini allegedly inventing the Caesar salad. He originally ran a restaurant in San Diego but decided to move South of the border once prohibition hit. The story goes that Cardini came up with the Caesar salad over 4th of July when the kitchen nearly ran out of food. They scrounged together ingredients – anchovies, lettuce, eggs, etc – and tossed together the salad table side with flair.
The restaurant fell into major disrepair but after a massive renovation the restaurant was re-opened in 2010. The inside feels like a classic 1920s Hollywood hotspot with black and white checkered tile floors, dark mahogany ceiling and bar and vintage photographs.
Our recommendation though is to get a seat on the outdoor patio. And of course, you need to order the caesar salad. And enjoy the show!
2. Eating Even More at Telefónica Gastro Park
Kevin and I love food trucks. A staple of the late-night food scene in LA, the food truck revolution is taking off in Tijuana in a big way. But unlike LA, where you often need to chase down these places on Twitter or Instagram, Telefónica Gastro Park takes out the guesswork with all the trucks together in this hidden spot.
Even our cab driver had no idea where it was – and it took a few friendly locals in the neighborhood to help direct us. Located behind telephone company in downtown Tijuana (hence the strange name!), inside you’ll find more craft breweries, and local chefs cranking out barbecue, fish tacos, vegan curry and even ramen!
We ordered a few things but the standout by far was the pulled pork sandwich from Humo. You’ll also want to grab a bottle of the local craft beer called Witbier Tiniebla from the separate bar inside (located at the back of the park). The pilsner is light and refreshing on a hot day.
1. Perusing Art and History at the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT)
The Tijuana Cultural Center (or simply called CECUT by the locals) is a massive museum complex that is a little confusing at first. It’s not just one museum – but a collection. We first checked out the art museum that regularly has special exhibits ($3 USD a ticket) as well as the “Museo de las Californias” (a museum about the history of Baja at $1.50 USD).
While the main art and history halls were very impressive, we’d pass on the main aquarium ($2.25 USD) where its displays are mostly empty. I joked that I’ve seen better fish tank at my dentist office! But if you have time to kill, why not? We certainly had fun since you can climb under the tanks so it looks like you’re inside.
As you can see, not only does Tijuana have a lot to see and do but it’s also incredibly affordable and food you can’t beat. Other top stops include the higher-end Mision 19, open air food stand Tacos El Franc and trendy Verde Y Crema. Go with an open mind, a sense of adventure and you’ll have a blast. Oh, and come hungry!