Hawker-crowded streets lined with tacky souvenir shops, a seedy nightlife, and donkey-painted zebras: these are just some of the things that once made Tijuana unappealing to travellers. However, with a thriving craft beer scene, an emerging urban art scene, and world-class Mexican cuisine, Tijuana’s impressive cultural revival may just have put it back on the map.
Yes, really! Not many know this, but the famous Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana during the 1920s Prohibition era. Caesar’s Restaurant—an elegant dining room filled with sepia photographs, dark wood decor and black and white tiles—still uses the same simple recipe (consisting of cos lettuce, parmesan, olive oil, egg yolks and lemon juice) created by its founder Caesar Cardini almost 90 years ago. The pièce de résistance? The waiters prepare and serve the delicious salad right at your table. If that’s not worth a trip to Tijuana alone, then we don’t know what is.
Following in the tracks of its brewing neighbour San Diego, Tijuana is slowly establishing itself as a big player in the craft beer scene. While many breweries in the city serve the ever-popular hoppy IPAs, they’re also experimenting with their own ingredients and techniques to create beers with a true Mexican flare. To get involved, head to Plaza Fiesta, where, in place of seedy nightclubs, you’ll now find a cluster of top-class brewery tasting rooms.
Tijuana is considered by many to be one of the taco meccas of the world. Put it this way: visitors cross the border just to have lunch in the city. If you only do one thing in Tijuana, head to a street called Las Ahumaderas (also known as ‘Taco Alley’) and fill yourself silly with any of the taco street stalls there. They won’t disappoint.
Like any major town in Mexico, at the heart of Tijuana lies a bustling food market. At Mercado El Popo you’ll find hundreds of waist-high wicker baskets filled with dried Mexican chilis, as well as cheeses, exotic fruits and home-made sweet treats. This is a great place to learn about local produce, shoot some great photographs and stock up on fresh (and very cheap) goodies.
Leading Tijuana’s cultural revival are the super hip coffee shops popping up along Avenida Revolución. What once used to be Tijuana’s seediest strip, today is slowly changing into the city’s most vibrant street. In between the craziness, you’ll find little gems like Container Coffee Roaster (which roasts Mexican coffee beans just behind the counter) and Intervalo Cafe serving up Mexico’s best quality coffee in a modern, laid-back setting reminiscent of European coffee shops.
In recent years, Tijuana’s urban art scene has exploded into life and added a much-needed burst of colour to its streets. Pasaje Rodríguez, an alley filled with coffee shops, Oaxacan food stalls and tiny craft shops, is testament to this. The walls here are covered with brightly coloured graffiti murals, many of which powerfully comment on current political and human rights issues; a must-see while in Tijuana.
Ok, so Tijuana may have some strange things going on still, but that’s its charm, right? For example, the zebra-painted donkeys along Avenida Revolución – although many are quickly disappearing – are still around, and actually have a fascinating history. A tourist attraction here for almost 100 years, it’s considered by many to be part of Tijuana’s heritage. For just a couple of dollars, you can put on a “Tijuana” sombrero and poncho and pose for a souvenir photo with the donkey. It’s a little odd, but an only-in-Tijuana experience.
It may be what once put people off coming here, but Tijuana has managed to clean up its act and, if you’re a party person, this might just be your dream come true. When the sun sets (and even before then), Avenida Revolución bursts into life with cheap drink deals, blaring reggaeton, and regular karaoke sessions. It may not be the world’s most glamorous night out, but a few free tequila shots later and you’ll think it’s the best place ever.
Tijuana has always had a solid street taco game, but in recent years talented chefs have refined the city’s culinary scene with cool gastro parks and delicious fusion restaurants. While you’re here, be sure to check out Telefonica Gastro Park, a re-purposed yard filled with eight food trucks ranging from Japanese and Italian to Mexican and Argentinian, as well as top restaurants such as Mision 19, La Justina and El Taller.
In Playa de Tijuana – the city’s closest beach – you can catch some rays, watch the sunset or take a dip right on the border between San Diego and Tijuana. Where else in the world can you say you’ve taken a swim on the US/Mexican border?