From our first time crossing the San Ysidro/Tijuana border 2 years ago, we’ve made well over a hundred more trekking through northern Baja. Exploring the delectable Baja-med culinary scene, riotous sporting events and nightlife, vibrant street arts and of course the warm and inviting “Tijuas” residents has inspired this check list for things to do while in TJ.
To begin, if traveling through the border town of San Diego I’ll walk you through with transportation as well as travel tips for an enjoyable, smooth experience
First, with Tijuana being a city with over 1.6 million residents and bordered to the busiest land crossing in the world “The San Ysidro Port of Entry,” it’s best to travel with an awareness of self and surroundings. I personally have only had my cell pickpocketed once in a pub which was unfortunate but otherwise experienced only positive travels. So here it is:
- Dress casual
No need to flash value when traveling. Dress with minimal brand, jewelry and keep valuables zipped in backpacks or bags if possible. I usually travel with a cinch-to-close gym/ball bag which can’t be opened unless I take off of my shoulders. I wear a $20 Casio watch and a bracelet I bought through a street vendor and usually a plain t-shirt and shorts.
Bring American dollars and Mexican pesosCredit/debit cards can be used in many places but of course cash is king. If using cards at a restaurant, typically a staff member will bring a card machine to you. Try to use cards without foreign transaction fees if possible. Pesos can be exchanged at current rate on both sides of the border but usually get a better rate on the U.S. side. Everyplace I’ve visited has accepted U.S. dollars but not all places have large amounts of change so its a good idea to keep small bills on hand. Also you may not always get U.S. dollar change back but no worries, it can always exchange back at a currency exchange, just be aware of the exchange rate as to not lose money value. One last tip being pre-cautionary yet I haven’t had a problem with it, I keep my money stashed in two areas on my person. Just in case something did happen, I would have a backup. (Mexican Uber and most transactions will show Mexican peso amount with the common $)
- Passport highly recommended
Recently you could cross with a state ID and birth certificate but the Mexican border is starting to crackdown on this. I’ve definitely brought friends visiting across with just a state ID back and forth many times but on occasion you will be brought for brief questioning.
- Respect the locals and culture
There’s nothing worse than having locals come visit your home town to cause a roucous and leave a mess. Be respectful and follow local laws.
- Always inquire prices upfront
Best bet unless written on a menu at a sit-down restaurant ask prices on food, drink and taxi services before agreeing to anything. Uber is a best bet if traveling by car with a set price that is half the price of a U.S. Uber but cabs have general pricing that can fluctuate depending on drop off points. Many bars will run you a tab but as accidents happen and if your tab can be joined with others where you pay for more than you bargained for. If buying rounds or cubetas (buckets of beers) pay per round.
- Download google translate Spanish language as well as google maps for offline. Useful if data usage is low or slow (FYI: most carriers offer options for international travel but t-mobile runs just fine off of telcel network)
- Reaching the border may seem like a task if unfamiliar but there are a few awesome options to get there within an hour from downtown San Diego.
Uber/Lyft: both equally quick and usually run around $20-$30 depending on demand (surge pricing) use either MTS trolley station or San Ysidro Garrita El Chaperral as drop off points. Both about a half mile from each other and walking across usually takes about 10-15 minutes.
Driving: if driving you have a few choices. Driving across is an option and doesn’t take long, at least compared to driving back, maybe 10 minutes to cross. Just be sure to have either Mexican insurance which you can buy online for about $30 for the day or drive at your own risk. I’ve personally never had a problem without insurance as I’ve had my ID and registration checked when pulled over. Drive at your own risk without though. If driving to the border to walk across which I suggest, park in one of many gated parking lots $8-$20 depending on weekday/end or free street parking within designated times. I use Virginia ave close to the border and have always found a spot.
MTS trolley: A pass can be bought at a station or just download the app (easiest). There are different trolley stops throughout San Diego but at some point you want to be going south on the blue line. The destination will be San Ysidro and will cost $5 for a day pass and take about 45 minutes from downtown. The last stop is steps from the border.
Once across, Uber is the best option getting around unless you’d like to walk and explore. Uber costs half of what you’d pay in the states, you can request English speaking drivers if you’d like and also can pay in cash as well.
Now to my top 10 things to do!
- Paseo Chapultepec: This plaza is in the heart of Zona Rio Urbana, the urban center of TJ. It’s a collection of restaurants with a few favorites. One is Cabanna, a casual seafood (mariscos) with a twist. The Kesitos Cabanna (shrimp tacos) are amazing as well as the átun azul (poke) app. On the backside of this restaurant are two more restaurants similar concept to each other, Bodega 8 and Don Luqueño. Bodega being the more sit down upscale where Luqueño more hi-tops and a bar, upscale casual. Both fantastic seafood menus but I usually go for the cocktails. The Smokey old fashion is a favorite and with the infusion of white oak smoke along with the show would easily be a $20 cocktail in the states running at about $6 here.
- Casa Plasencia: If you’re looking for a top notch Baja-med scene, this just may be the ticket. With a family history in hospitality and some of the top restaurants in Tijuana, Javier Plasencia is a known name in Baja as well as Mexico. Here you’ll find full service, fine dining with a more casual upstairs (sportier) and the classic dining hall main floor. Dishes that come to mind are the gambas al ajillo, (shrimp in a garlic, butter and chili sauce) a risotto with short rib and and their paella. Don’t forget the table side Caesar salad service which Tijuana is the claim to invention of this salad. With a large selection of wines from the Baja (Valle de Guadalupe) and prices a third of the price in the states this is a definite must stop.
- La Justina: the food is great but the bar is the place to be. A passionate staff pushing the boundaries on cocktails while reinventing many classics is just the beginning. Mila, one of the bartenders has been there every time I’ve visited and really does an outstanding job. With freshness in mind your drink may take a few minutes but all made with love. Bartenders choice will be a custom-to-you drink with a few inquiries on what interests you and the rest up to the professionals.
- Plaza del Zapato/Plaza Fiesta: Plaza el Zapato (square of the shoe) is what most will refer to visiting which is technically the shopping mall connecting to Plaza Fiesta. Plaza Fiesta is a collection on breweries, bars and restaurants two-levels that take up half of the city block. To get from place to place you wander through a winding cobblestone alleyway. Day time can be quiet besides venders dollying cases upon cases of beer but at night the place comes alive. Green Witch being the most popular and loudest of venues will pack up so much, especially on the weekend that you can barely squeeze yourself in. Recommendation: visit during happy hour (usually 3-6) and cubetas (buckets of 10 beers) run around $8. Regular buckets run about $20 which is still a steal. If your into great DJ’s most circuiting Mexico and South America, the south entry area of Plaza Zapato has a happening club, Wherehouse that really puts out. Amazing house.
- Toros de Tijuana (Baseball): Depending on the season, the toros may be playing and a definite visit. Personally I’ve been to over 100 U.S. baseball games and had lived blocks from Wrigley field for a time as well. Nothing compares. The Toros are a minor league, AAA division that boast players from the states and Mexico. The stadium, Estadio Gasmart is located in South East TJ and for about $10 can be reached easily by Uber. Tickets are only a few dollars and TBH I’ve been to quite a few games and have been let in for free most of the time. The stadiums noisy, vendors selling everything from hotdogs, pizza, cotton candy, nachos and more. Firework shows and comic sideshows during the game are common. The surroundings of the field are lined with more vendors. Dedicated beer vendors in orange jackets wait for the next fan to raise their hand and within moments they have your order. Two beers in a cup, chamoy (a savory sauce on the rim) with tajin if you’d like for a whopping $4. After the game they always have a Banda (Mexican Sinaloa music with brass, drums and singing) and everyone continues to drink, dance and carry on.
- Dantes Gastromed: a beautifully decorated restaurant downtown TJ with greenhouse windows throughout, hanging plants galore from the high ceilings adds to the garden feel. The chef takes a different approach with infusions of all sorts playing on classics. I’ve had about everything on the menu and (breakfast is great but prefer the dinner menu myself) usually go for the grilled octopus which usually comes whole on a repurposed finished log end. Definitely grab a Carajillo while stopping through too. It’s a classic Mexican iced espresso drink with Licor 43 (Spanish orange, vanilla liqueur). So good and a great way to finish up.
- Public House: a craft beer bar, chic yet inviting with local Baja beers on tap as well as many flagships from the San Diego area. If looking to grab a bite their signature burger blows my mind every time. The quality, the blue cheese and I suppose the atmosphere collectively contribute to the charm of this off-the-main-road beer garden. Tucked away to the side of the pub is a European seating picnic table setup for a relaxing social hour.
- Albercas El Vergel: the coolest water park in the area (unless you have time for Las Cañadas a couple hours south) that’s seriously so much fun. Steep blackout slides, a rope swing, wave pool but best of all three slides that launch you 20+ feet above water before your hopeful graceful landing. While I’ve never witnessed any accidents here they do serve 32oz beers for $5 so play with caution. Entry is $7 for the day, lockers can be rented and being in south east TJ using uber is the way to go. Weekends can fill up but midweek non-peak times can leave you nearly a full park to yourself.
- Telefonica Gastro Park: a variety of food stands in downtown TJ with a large common area picnic style setting for eating out or indoor. Also available for lounging are stadium step seating to get an overview of this popular spot. You can seriously find just about anything here from Ramen to local wines, of course tacos, mariscos and craft beers.
- Playas de Tijuana: Playas (beach) are as west as you can go in TJ which you’ll travel through a small mountain pass about 12 minutes west of the border. Just an FYI, if Ubering ($6) use Letras de Tijuana as a destination. From experience, just using playas de Tijuana brings you into a mountainous neighborhood close to playas but with no access to the beach. Letras de Tijuana will be as close to the Mexican-American border with artwork all along the border wall. The boardwalk along the beach is like an artists collective. Different mediums of expression line the walkway with businesses and houses along as well, many on stilts overlooking Islas Coronado. Los Arcos de Playas de Tijuana are a grand stone staircase towered by large arches and close by one of my favorite stops, Mariscos Rubens y Charlies. It’s casual dining with an ocean view, suggestion is to take the steep staircase to the second level crows nest eating area to really get the best view of the beach. Fresh oysters for $8 a dozen and ceviche for days with $1 beers (Tecate, the local popular golden lager). Mariachi and Banda groups pop in from time to time for a pay to play with live entertainment. Up and down the beach you’ll find churros, elotes (corn with mayo, chili, lime and crumbled cheese) and fresh fruit, particularly mango with chili for just a few pesos.
There are so many other things to do in and around Tijuana that of course everything couldn’t make it in a top 10 list. From the time moving here until now I’ve scoured the web with questions as well as places to visit and most of these places came to me organically through word-of-mouth wandering through the city. If you just stick to Avenida Revolucion or Calle Coahuila you’ll run across your fair share of tourist attractions as well the largest Red Light District in North America. It’s interesting yet quite touristy. La Justina, which is on the list runs off of Avenida Revolucion which is a for sure stop but definitely step outside of the foreigner catered spots and get a more authentic taste of Tijuana while being just minutes away from the border.
Lastly crossing back into the states has been made easier since the recent opening of Garita El Chaparral crossing. It’s a zigzag ramp that leads to a long corridor and then a spiral ramp into the U.S. side. Sunday’s and Monday mornings have been the busiest to my experience. This crossing is the quickest back into the states with usual crossing times 15-45 minutes if by foot. The old crossing a half a mile east can be quick but is hit or miss. Driving across can be the longest wait returning without a SENTRI or Global Entry quick pass ranging from 45 minutes to a couple hours. Unless you don’t mind sitting in traffic and like to have control of your travel by vehicle suggestion is to park and cross by foot.
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