A border city with a rakish reputation, Tijuana is almost a byword for earthy pleasures.
And while tequila, margaritas and sleaze are still front and centre, Tijuana’s character has changed a little since American traffic slowed because of Mexico’s cartel war.
Yes, there are grubby parts, especially if you venture into the Zona Norte.
But you can have an edifying time checking out the little arty plazas and passages that have popped up in Zona Centro, and bar-hopping at the more sophisticated Caliente and Calle Brasil.
For fun in the sun, the Pacific coast has surf breaks all down the shore, while Rosarito is minutes south of Tijuana if you just want to laze on the sand.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Tijuana:
1. Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT)
East of Tijuana’s downtown is the more affluent Zona Río by the Tijuana River.
Just next to the Plaza Río pedestrian mall is the Cultural Center, which opened in 1982. Designed by the eminent renowned architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, the centre has become a symbol for Tijuana.
The building that stands out the most is “La Bola”, the spherical structure housing Tijuana’s only IMAX cinema, premiering four high-resolution movies each year.
The centre also has a well-curated exhibition about California, which we’ll talk about next, a botanic garden, aquarium, cafe and a spacious esplanade.
One of the newer facilities is “El Cubo”, which opened in 2008 and stages international art exhibitions.
2. Museo de las Californias
The central building at the Tijuana Cultural Center houses a permanent exhibition to give you a real sense of place in California.
Stop here for a few minutes of reflection before scooting off for Tijuana’s more lurid pleasures.
The museum charts the human and natural history of the California peninsula.
On a helical ramp, you’ll begin in prehistoric times and work your way to the middle of the 20th century via the Jesuits, War of Independence and Revolution.
There are reproductions of the rock paintings found in the Sierra de San Francisco, dioramas of the Cochimí and Yuman native groups as well as examples of folk art, artefacts from the old Desert Line railroad, models of pre-Hispanic settlements, examples of New Spanish metalwork and a detailed large scale model of a Spanish carrack.
3. Avenida Revolución
Most visitors with limited time make Avenida Revolución in Zona Centro their first port of call.
Like many downtowns in the United States, Avenida Revolución is a little grimy, but is home to some real icons like Caesar’s which we’ll talk about below in “Local Food”. For roughly eight blocks there’s nothing but restaurants, souvenir shops and bars.
At the upper end is Plaza Santa Cecilia, near the Tijuana Arch and where there are roving “conjuntos norteños” musicians, dozens of outdoor stalls selling clothes and arts and crafts, and no lack of street food stands either if you’re in the mood for a huarache, tostada or quesadilla.
4. El Trompo
If you happen to be in Tijuana with younger members of the family this interactive science and technology museum will ensure a couple of hours of educational fun.
In six different halls (salas) kids can take part in wacky experiments, test their reasoning and creativity and find out about scientific concepts like electricity, weather, the human body, biodiversity and solids, liquids and gases.
A member of staff will be on hand at all times to explain each exhibit.
For even younger visitors (under six), there’s the Sala Experimenta, filled with stations that require problem solving and a little physical exertion, whether they’re building their own house, meeting farm animals or taking the helm of their own boat.
5. El Popo
There may be bigger markets in Tijuana, but El Popo is along the main tourist drag on Calle Benito Juárez (Segunda), and is somewhere to get an instant, chaotic blast of Mexican culture.
Some of the things stacked up at the permanent stalls are cured meat, sun-dried chillies, big pots filled with seeds, huge wheels of queso guerrero, fresh fruit and vegetables, preserves, cookware, candles and jewellery.
There’s freshly cooked food if you’re up for something like a taco al pastor (with kebab meat).
Generations of Americans have crossed the border to cut loose for a night or two.
Tijuana still conjures thoughts of margaritas, tequila and, yes, some of the seamier aspects of any border city.
Zona Centro and specifically Avenida Revolución are still the places most visitors go to blow off steam, whether that’s a bar, nightclub (smaller ones have no cover charge) or strip club.
If you’re just out for some nightclubbing, try to avoid ending up in Zona Norte, one of North America’s largest red light zones.
Slightly removed from the downtown, Plaza del Zapato in the more upscale Zona Río area has purpose-built nightclubs in warehouse-like buildings, while Calle Basil up the hill to the east is all about trendy cafes and bars.
7. Pasaje Rodríguez
Part of the regeneration of the Zona Centro, the Pasaje Rodríguez is a former covered shopping passage that has been taken over by young artists.
They have painted murals on the walls and metal shutters, opened stylish cafes and set up little galleries where they can show off and sell their work.
Also on the passage are bookshops, bars for live music and fashion boutiques.
Pasaje Rodríguez is intended as a collaborative environment and is the hub for cultural events like the annual art walk.
8. Playas de Tijuana
Tijuana’s westernmost borough is a residential area ending at the ocean.
So you could head out here if you want a taste of the Pacific on Mexican soil without making the trip down to better known beach resorts like Ensenada and Rosarito.
As the name suggests, Playas de Tijuana has beaches; in fact, it’s one long beach that continues south from the border fence for around four kilometres to Puente la Joya.
The sand is kept clean, the gradient is light and the waves roll in around waist height.
On weekends there will be families wandering along the Malecón (raised promenade) behind, and grab some seafood specialities like octopus with rice, ceviche, fish tacos and camarones cucaracha (shrimp with a spicy tomato and lemon sauce).
By no means everyone’s idea of fun, bullfighting is just one of those things that comes to mind when people think of Tijuana.
In truth the activity may be in decline and for good reason. Here’s why we think you should not got to a bullfighting event: Bullfighting: An Atrocity, Not a Sport
10. Plaza Río Tijuana
This sizeable pedestrian is in Zona Río by the Cultural Center.
Plaza Río Tijuana is one of the largest shopping centres in the state of Baja California, covering more than 73,500 square metres.
It was the first American-style mall in Tijuana when it opened in 1981 and offers more than 100 branches of well-known Mexican and American brands, as well as two cinema complexes and a Soriana hypermarket.
If you need a quick bite, Plaza Río has a couple of the major American restaurant chains to go with its Mexican, Italian and Chinese eateries.
11. Rosarito Beach
The beaches at Playas de Tijuana are passable, but Rosarito Beach, around 20 kilometres away, is the first real coastal resort after the border.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood Dolores del Río, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Spencer Tracey all got away to Rosarito.
The beach is a generous strip of white sand, too broad to ever feel overcrowded, and seemingly endless when the tide goes out.
The sand pitches softly into the Pacific, forming a wide band of ankle-deep water.
On the drag is the landmark Rosarito Beach Hotel from 1925, and apartment blocks, restaurants and a couple of nightspots.
Tons of activities are available from private tour companies or the waters sports centres on the beach.
There’s surfing of course, but also kitesurfing, paddleboarding, fishing and RIB trips to the Coronado Islands around 15 kilometres off Rosarito.
The coast north and south of Ensenada is lined with supreme beaches, many of which have awesome surf breaks (3 M’s, Stacks and California Trailer Park). If you’re out for nothing but relaxation there’s a straight choice between private beaches at resorts like Estero Beach where you can pay for a day pass to use the facilities, or free public options like El Punto and San Miguel (also favoured by surfers). Ensenada could also be a springboard for wine tours in the Valle de Guadalupe.
The wine tourism industry here is long-established and you can travel to the wineries on a bus tour.
If you come to Ensenada in August you won’t need to leave the town as it hosts the Grape Harvest Fiesta, when the region’s wineries set up tasting stalls and pop-up restaurants.
13. Puerto Nuevo
Not far south of Rosarito is the small coastal settlement of Puerto Nuevo, which since the 1950s has had a big reputation for its lobster.
Some 100,000 of these crustaceans are eaten at Puerto Nuevo’s restaurants each year, and they’re such a part of the local identity that a lobster festival takes place every October.
The dish to try is the lobster taco with refried beans and a flour tortilla.
Pair it with a wine from the Valle de Guadalupe for a real Baja Californian dining experience.
Puerto Nuevo also brings in surfers who come to ride a challenging beach break just north of the town.
14. Casa de la Cultura
For culture in a less touristy and more intimate setting, the Casa de la Cultura is a cultural centre in one of Tijuana’s oldest and most handsome buildings.
Designed by the early-20th century Guerrero Preciado with Ionic columns on its facade, the venue started out as a school and briefly had a military role as a “centro de organización” in the Second World War.
The building took on its present role in 1977 and has a theatre and exhibition space for painting, sculpture and arts and crafts shows.
15. Local Food
You may or may not know that Tijuana is the birthplace of the Caesar salad, invented in 1924 at Hotel Caesar on Avenida Revolución by the Italian immigrant restaurateur Cesare Cardini.
He was based in San Diego, but set up across the border during prohibition.
Ingredients for this world-famous dish are Romaine lettuce, grated parmesan, croutons, egg and Worcestershire sauce, and you can order it to be prepared next to your table at Caesar’s almost 100 years later.
We’ve mentioned lobster tacos, which are big all along Baja California.
But Tijuana also has its own signature taco (taco Tijuana), with meat, avocado and hot chilli sauce in an unusual cone-shaped maize tortilla.