Tijuana – in Baja California, just across the US-Mexico border from San Diego – has been quietly reinventing itself. An initiative funded by local and federal government has seen the growth of a hipster scene: boutique shops, galleries and swish cultural spaces. Across Mexico, the city is developing a reputation as one of the nation’s top gastro hubs. And alongside the pumping dance halls that have pulsed throughout Tijuana for decades, there’s now a proliferation of artsy mezcal and tequila bars, discerning drinking dens and hipster-ready hangouts.
At the heart of a complex of bars, clubs and food kiosks within a ring-pull toss of the university, Los Diablitos is where Tijuana’s students come after-lectures and remain for most of the night. The formula is simple: crowds of twenty-somethings downing huge margaritas – served in plastic pint glasses – alongside cheap, ice-cold beer and botana bar snacks, not to mention pumping music. And when you want to move on there are dozens of other options nearby.
Tall leather lounge stools, a polished granite long bar, waiters in white shirts, neckties and black aprons – Central is classic old-school Tijuana. Popular throughout the day, it’s celebrated for its daring house cocktails such the El Central, made with premium mezcal, Aperol, blond beer, watermelon and lemon fruit juices. Then there’s the Martini del Mar, with artisan Armonico Mexican gin, Dolin vermouth, lemon and Japanese dashi. There are decent Spanish-style tapas bar snacks and a seated restaurant if you’re hungrier.
This simple craft brewery and hipster botana tapas restaurant – run by star chef of the moment José Figueroa – sits in a little plaza of pubs and bars on downtown Tijuana’s buzzing Avenida Revolución. There’s a huge choice of beers – from lagers to local specials like Xocoveza chocolate stout. Insurgentes attracts a mixed crowd – beer lovers from San Diego, Tijuana students, gastronomes here to sample the excellent croquetas de quesabirri, and it’s heaving on a Saturday night.
Sitting just south of El Centenario park, a five-minute walk from the US border, Casa Badóh is a rooftop cocktail bar – with huge margaritas and skyline views – and pumping club that keeps new arrivals fueled-up and dancing ‘til morning. So much so that when the music stops, the bar morphs into a breakfast-brunch eatery serving US and Mexican standards from donuts to huevos rancheros and very strong coffee.
A classic Mexican cantina bar with bottles lined up behind the long wooden bar, fading black-and-white photos on the walls and serenading mariachis? La Cantina’s the place. The music is loud and never stops at this spot that feels like a delightful throwback to the days of Zorro. Try a long, strong margarita.