Mural inside the famous Caesar’s Restaurant and Hotel. Photo: Tripwellness.
Most Mexican cities wrap around a main square. A church sits on one side and municipal buildings on others. That’s not true for Tijuana – which makes it an intriguing place for visitors from both sides of the border. Where is the there there?
It’s flung across the city from the Playa to the new airport, from the circling gate you walk through at the border to the southern reaches where roads lead to the Valle or coastal villages.
Visiting Tijuana is like a treasure hunt.
You may need a guide, a knowing friend, but certainly a good map to point to and a smattering of Spanish phrases to help your explorations.
Here’s some suggestions centering on a few more traditional and historical remnants of the city. In upcoming posts I’ll explore more recent trends in food and play.
Tijuana Cultural Center. Photo: Elaine J. Masters
One strategy is to visit the Tijuana Cultural Center first and move on from there to other neighborhoods. The wide galleries, theaters, fountains, plazas and architecture form a vibrant, proud heart for the city.
Tijuana Cultural Center courtyard. Photo: Elaine J. Masters
If you’re lucky a festival will fill the outdoor area with tents and food. A towering, central globe houses an Imax theater with state of the art technology. Many of the live performances, from theater to Opera and pop stars, are free. The Center features historical artifacts from the Indian ages, a 1/4 sized Spanish Galleon to re-created arches from the heady Casino days. Special exhibits open eyes to new visual arts.
Fountain and photo from the golden days of the Agua Caliente Casino.
Outside a petite Aquarium full of Baja sea creatures is set alongside the Botanical Garden. Authors speak, musicians play and children create art in workshops throughout the garden. The Cultural Center offers a full immersion in the spirit of the region.
Mariachi family playing on Sunday morning in Santa Cecilia Plaza. Photo: Tripwellness.
That rarefied atmosphere may leave you literally hungry for more and the famous foods of the area are abundant in the Zona Centro district. In Santa Cecilia Plaza, a block from the towering downtown arch, you’ll find a walking lane crowded with restaurants and shops. There are families of Mariachis, dancers and lots of shopping. When I visited there were very few gringos to be seen.
Michoacan stew served in a Molcajete at La Tradicion. Photo: Elaine J. Masters
La Tradicion has a large, shaded patio and serves some of the best local fare. Try the Michoacan Stew and don’t fill up before dipping fresh tortillas in the juices gathering in the bottom of the Molcajete. Around the corner is the home of the Caesar Salad. While Caesar’s has changed locations along the boulevard over the years you wouldn’t know it.
The bar and service are first class inside Caesars. Photo: Tripwellness
The walls are filled with pictures of famous visitors, paintings are set into ornate frames and chandeliers pose overhead. The bar is long, carved and its wood burnished darkly. An impressive, classic Italian espresso machine (no longer working) looms over the bartender. A new machine springs to life on demand nearby.
Caesar salad ingredients at the ready. Photo: Tripwellness
The service is courtly. Your salad will be prepared table side and the menu features many specialties. Don’t leave before you study the history on the walls.
Inside Pasaje Rodriguez. Photo: Trip Wellness.
Take a walk and explore several passages in the area. During Tijuana’s long ‘dark night’ the arts struggled when tourist dollars dried up and young artists took over Rodriguez Alley with their music, murals and food. You can find Pasaje Rodriguez running from Av. Revolucioon to Av. Constitucion between Calles 3era and 4ta in Zona Centro.
El Popo market. Photo: Tripwellness.
A market Pasaje that is more traditional is El Popo, located at the corner of 2nd St and Ninos Heroe. The stacks of cheeses, fruits, santeria statues and candles, will have your senses reeling.
Guayabera shirts at the Hand Art shop. Photo: Tripwellness
If you were looking for a quality shirt or blouse there is a shop (Ave Revolucion 931 A between Third and Fourth Street) where the owner, Jack Doron, will point out the best details for choosing a man’s Guayabera, a woman’s blouse or dress. He’s been doing so since 1955. With luck he’ll show you his collection of sculptures in the back.
Hand Art owner and part of his sculpture collection. Photo: Tripwellness.
The light is dimming but you wonder what’s left of the glory days when Hollywood royalty would gamble and drink at the casino in the 1920’s? Do the locals still go there to play? There are several casinos but the largest, the original site of the Agua Caliente Casino and Racetrack, still stands. It’s a date night or business destination with restaurants, lounge acts and bars. Greyhounds run on a portion of the original horse track into the late evening and a new, modern stadium looms nearby. The casino’s a swank, teeming place but there’s no glint of the original Art Deco glamour.
Remnants of the old casino days inside El Museo. Photo: Tripwellness.
Your scavenger hunt could end downtown at an unassuming, corner bar and restaurant, El Museo Restaurante (Avenida revolucion 506.) Just past the tables on the street look up at a grand, pale green light fixture. It’s a relic from the original casino.
Line up the shots! The rattlesnake tequila at El Museo. Photo: Tripwellness
While tourists and revelers order Margaritas, notice the glass cases. Peer into pictures and wander to the back dining room where memorabilia from the original casino days has found a dusty rest. El Museo probably houses the largest, remaining public collection from the original decadent days.
All is not lost. Before you head back across the border or to your hotel, toast to the old and new Tijuana. For luck try a shot of tequila from the bar top tureen with it’s coiled, marinated rattlesnakes. If not, the Margaritas are delicious. Salut.
If you go:
Hand Art – Quality traditional clothing.
La Tradicion – Regional fare and breakfasts.
Caesars – Home of the Caesar Salad.
The Placio Azteca – Near Agua Caliente Casino
Thanks for the tour and tips from Senor Juan Saldana and the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau
My father owned the Hotel Comercial on Avenida Revolucion and my brothers and I were bellboys there. We lived in Imperial Beach, across the border. We “lived” Tijuana!
What adventures you must’ve had. Thanks for the comment! I can’t wait to return.
Wow, Tijuana has really cleaned up and with a cultural center, gorgeous – I must visit again!
Yes, Noel, I hope you do visit Tijuana again. There’s some great groups leading insider day trips too. Will write that up soon.
I love Mexico. I would gladly take all of the food!
Oh the food, region by region, is spectacular. So much to learn there – taste and drink too!
This sounds much more like my idea of Mexico than Cancun was when I visited. I love places that have retained a bit of history and gone through some hardships too. You get the feel of a culture when its a little less touristy. The food and margaritas sound delicious. Thanks for sharing
Thanks, Kate. I’m with you and love places that retain a bit of history and endurance. Cancun has some treasures but they need to be ferreted out and it’s still hard to escape the resort mentality. I just surrendered to it and then had a great time!
Fantastic overview of Tijuana. I actually never considered visiting until I read your article. Very interesting and informative, and your photos are excellent!
Thank you, Marilyn. I hope you get the chance one day to check out Tijuana and the area.
Wow! I haven’t done a lot of traveling in Mexico so I haven’t been to Tijuana. You did a wonderful job taking us there. I’d love to try the Michoacan stew sounds delicious!
Thanks, Sue. That stew comes in so many varieties and special spicing. You’d love it.
That market looks so tasty! I imagine it’s very easy to get lost in all the bright colors and wonderful smells. This is a great list with all kinds of suggestions! Thanks for your post.
Thanks, Beth. I hope you get to visit one day.
You sure gave your readers a “taste” of life South of the Border. Looks like a great day trip or overnight from San Diego. Looks like the city has a vibrant food scene.
Thanks, Irene. There’s an incredibly vibrant food scene in Baja Norte and Tijuana specifically. More on that to come.
While I’d love to visit Mexico (and Central/South America in general), it’s not somewhere that I could visit in the near future. It doesn’t mean that I can’t plan though 🙂 Thanks for this post, I’m putting Tijuana in the list for places to consider.
Glad to hear. I know it’s a big world. Tijuana is my neighbor and a quick mulit-cultural hit for my wanderlust since I can cross in less than an hour!
I’ve always been weary of visiting Tijuana, but this post made it look a bit friendlier than all the rumors make it out to be. I’ll have to reference this when I finally make a trip!
I’ve written about crossing the border safely and easily before (http://www.tripwellgal.com/crossing-into-tijuana-travel-tips-safety-fun/) There are also several groups you can join for day trips or longer. A small group is great fun too – you don’t have to worry about getting lost or the next stop!
I was there many years ago and clearly remember walking a few blocks in on the road from the border. It was incredibly crowded with Gringos shopping at overpriced souvenir shops and restaurants. So we walked a couple of blocks over and it was a completely different city, more like the one you describe.
It’s often that way in touristy areas – you find more authenticity and locals a few blocks off the main avenues. I hope you get to explore more of TJ one day.
Great piece ,enjoyed very much your article very much .it paints a very positive picture of Tijuana but the address of Hand Art is Ave Revolucion 931A between third and fourth street , I very much appreciate your article on the store thank you
You are most welcome. I hope to return with friends soon and definitely spend more time in your shop.
I’ve never been but this is such a lovely post which gives a real flavour of a place which seems absolutely fascinating (and full of so many varied things).
Thank you,Sarah, for the kind words. I hope more people can experience all the variety of Tijuana.
I haven’t been to Tijuana since I was 18! This is inspiring me to go back! 🙂
Hi Melissa, I hope you do get a chance to explore Tijuana and the region.
beungs back memories of being here! Great post!
Glad to hear that you’ve visited Tijuana. Don’t know what time it was but the city is in the midst of quite a revival. I hope you get to return one day.
I have been dying to make a roadtrip down to Tijuana. This is just want I needed! Any tips on getting across the border and back?
Hi Karilyn, Glad to hear that you’re considering a trip to Tijuana. Driving in the city takes patience but the streets are well marked and there’s several fine highways. Take a look at the tips: http://www.tripwellgal.com/crossing-into-tijuana-travel-tips-safety-fun/
Thanks for these tips – we’re driving the length of the US from Alaska down to SanDiego soon so may just extend our drive into Meixco. Thanks for the tip about starting at the cultural center – noted!
Glad to hear that you’re planning a road trip south. I hope you’ll connect when you hit San Diego (Facebook: Tripwellness) and check out my tips on crossing the border: http://www.tripwellgal.com/crossing-into-tijuana-travel-tips-safety-fun/
Tijuana seems like such a bustling place! But I see what you mean by having someone with you who speaks the language!
I don’t speak Spanish, outside of a few phrases, and visit regularly, with friends, groups but most often on my own. Language always helps but doesn’t have to keep you from visiting a place, as I’m sure you know.
Refreshing to read a positive take on Tijuana !
Thanks, Dave. Tijuana’s definitely got it’s high and low aspects. I like to stay positive when there’s so much good to discover.
Wow, what a different picture you have painted here. Thank you so much. I had a very different opinion about it before and I love to have that idea put aside.
So glad to hear that. There’s an ingrained vision of Tijuana that’s due for revision. I hope you get to visit one day and spend time in the region.
I´ve never been to Mexico, I hope to make it some day. Tijuana looks great the way you´ve portrayed it. Definitely worth a visit. The photo with the cheese got my mouth watering.
Tijuana, like so many border cities, is a mashup of high and low. That’s a big part of its allure for me and makes it fun to keep discovering new places, tastes and more of the rich culture.
I love your description of Tijuana being like a scavenger hunt – never thought about it that way but so true!
Thanks, Jennifer. I’ve been going there for decades and keep discovering new, cool and tasty places. Glad you enjoyed.
Border towns have a charm and style all of their own – but they can keep the rattlesnake brew – ewww, did you drink it?
I did try the rattlesnake tequila but just a sip. It was too early and I actually prefer Mescal.
Tijuana gets such a bad rap for its seedy side. This is a wonderful counterpoint. The Cultural Center looks to be a gleaming beacon and I loved the vintage elements in the Agua Caliente and Cesar’s.
Thanks, Betsy. Tijuana is big churning city and has its own personality. San Diegan visitors are sometimes taken aback at how different it is and yet so close to the States. That’s one of the big pluses to my mind.
Love it! The market looks so vibrant!
The market was incredible. Just wish the pictures I took of the vendors turned out. Everyone was so friendly.