Growing up in Connecticut, all I knew about Tijuana was that it was the place where Marissa Cooper overdosed in an alley and almost died. God, The OC was such a great show.
And as a San Diegan for the past 6 years, all I knew about TJ was that none of my friends liked the idea of going there. The ones who grew up here, including Ryan, and had gone all the time as kids, had spent the past 15 years hearing how bad it had become. And whether they grew up here or not, no one was really sure what there was to do on the other other side or why it was something that couldn't be done, if not better then at least safer, here in San Diego.
But slowly, over the past year, more and more of our friends and friends of friends started taking day trips to TJ and telling us just how much our neighboring city has evolved.
With it's blossoming reputation as a foodie destination, it's vibrant art community, and it's deeply discounted tequila (watch out, you can only bring back 1 liter per person!), I was determined to make it to TJ before my 30th birthday as part of my 30 Before 30 list. And since our first trip in January, we've been back several times already!
So to encourage more San Diegans to head south of the border, I've put together an easy little Tijuana daytrip guide. I say easy because all of these places are located on or very near to Av. Revolución, Tijauna's main street... essentially TJ on training wheels. Vaminos!
How To Get There
Take a trolley, take a car, take an Uber... there's plenty of cheap and easy ways into Tijuana. If you drive, take the 5 to the last US exit, Camino De La Plaza, turn right or left and park in one of the paid lots for $7-10 bucks. You can also park in the parking lots for the San Ysidro outlets at your own risk... if you come back after dark, chances are you will get towed.
For the trolley, you'll want to be on the Blue Line to Tijuana. Trolley passes are $3 and drop you off right at the entrance to Mexico. The last trolley home leaves a little after midnight. Once you park or get off the trolley, be sure to exchange your dollars (the rate is better on our side) and then head to the pedestrian walkway to Mexico.
Once You're In Tijuana
When you come out of the border station, you will be shuttled out to a taxi pickup zone where you can negotiate a $5 or 90p cab ride to Av. Revolución. But you can also enjoy the safe 10-15 minute walk too! Just hug the sidewalk to the right as you come out of the border station, cross the traffic waiting at the border, and keep walking towards the big metal arch.
What To Do
One of our friend Jason's favorite stops on the walk to Revolución is the Museo de Cera Tijuana. Also known as the Wax Museum. This weird little museum is a fun way to kick off your Tijuana day trip and costs virtually nothing: only $1.50 or 20p to get in.
Along the walk, you can also pose with the Tijuana Transformation mural, savor a Mexican Coke from a corner store, or pose with one of TJ's famous zonkeys (poor zebra-striped donkeys)... for a price, of course.
Where To Eat Lunch
Once you're in TJ, you can't really go wrong with any of the Street Meat vendors on Revolución. Ultimately, that is one of the perks of going to TJ - tasty street tacos. But if that's not your thing, then you're in luck, because Tijuana is becoming quite the foodie haven.
For a classier meal, stop at Caesar's, which is a great lunchtime stop for it's air conditioning and it's Caesar salads. Because believe it or not... the Caesar salad was actually invented at this restaurant. To this day, the waiters make your salad at the table, so grab a seat, order one of their house-brewed pale ales and enjoy!
What Not To Do
Formerly famous as a place for underage Americans to get shitfaced, there are still plenty of sketchy bars that also double as PTSD-inducing nostalgia for 30-somethings. We heard the siren call of 2-for-1 drinks plus a shot at this dump, whose name I honestly could not discern, and found it irresistible.
Inside, we had to walk over standing water to a dark staircase and upstairs to a patio still destroyed from the night before. There were beer bottles and half-empty glasses everywhere, chips all over the place, and don't even ask about the bathrooms. Places like this exist on every block and aren't really worth it unless you're trying to get blackout drunk.
But were it not for this place, we wouldn't have found the adorable Deck 22... there is an advantage to height in Tijuana. Most of the best kept secrets are hidden from street view.
Where To Shop
When it comes to Av. Revolución, there's not really anything worth buying except for food and alcohol. Quality tequila is often half the price in TJ that it would be in the States. I bought a $70 bottle of Don Julio 70 for $30! I've also heard that if you cook a lot, vanilla is a great purchase when in Mexico. Cheese and chocolate are favorites as well.
Or, if you're drunk, you can pop into any little leather shop and buy a beer holster for $10. Which is what we did and the shop owner kindly offered us a shot of one of the smoothest tequilas I've had in a long time!
Where To Day Drink
When we were sitting at the shitty no-name bar, we noticed some hipster staples on a rooftop across the street. Pallet furniture, living walls, astroturf... sold. This bar turned out to be Deck 22, a great day drinking spot, with an indoor space, an outdoor patio, and an awesome DJ playing outside. We stayed here for a few beers and caught our first glimpses of the sunset.
Another great place to day drink is Mamut Brewery Co., another hidden location, with an nondescript entrance. Mamut is just a half a block off of Av. Revolución on Carrillo Puerto y o Tercera, or as we call it, 3rd Street. If you turn onto Tercera and walk halfway down the block, you'll see a balcony and below it to the right, will be the entrance.
Where To Get Dinner
Our friends Bonnie and Jason told us about this place, which they'd dubbed the Hipster Cafeteria, right on Revolución next to a souvenir shop. It's real name is Colectivo Nueve and it sits at the end of a short alley whose entrance is on Revolución. The alley opens up into a cluster of little food places and a bar (with AC!) including an amazing pizza shop, Santa Brigada, empanadas, and sushi to name few.
Colectivo Nueve is especially great when you have friends with all different tastes... everyone can pick their own style of food and come together to share a meal and a beer at one of the communal tables.
Where To Get The Best Cocktail Of Your Life
It is with the deepest sadness that I share that Tijuana's best bartender, and by far the absolute best mixologist whose creations I have ever had the pleasure of drinking, Mila Meza of Tijuana's La Justina restaurant and bar, is leaving TJ for Mexico City this summer. Mila has the kind of mixology talent that restauranteurs can only dream of... she's a natural and the first person who has ever truly made me consider cocktail creation as an art form.
As I mentioned, sadly she is headed out to Mexico City to pursue new adventures, but that doesn't mean you still can't get a taste of her art at La Justina. Her protege, Juan Pierre, is taking over La Justina's Mila-created cocktail menu and does not disappoint. Ask for the Bartender's Choice, suggest some flavors that you enjoy and a base liquor, and 110p later, you will have the best cocktail you can ever imagine in front of you.
La Justina's is a must stop in TJ and of all my Tijuana favorites, feels like the strongest indicator of what's still to come from our bustling neighbor!
Some Final Tips
- Avoid going on Sundays - everything is more or less closed on Sundays, since this is mostly a day for church and family.
- While places will take cash, the exchange rate is so awesome right now, you'll end up getting a better deal if you have pesos.
- Don't forget to tip! 10-20p per drink is normal.
- Take the San Ysidro pedestrian walkway back to the US. It opened in 2016 and is by far the sketchiest-looking (it's all scaffolding) but fastest route back to the US.
- Be smart! Tijuana is safer than you've probably been told, but like any city, especially any foreign city, you want to stay alert, cover your drinks and be aware of your surroundings at all times.
Have you been to Tijuana? What are some of your favorite places there?