by Gabrielle Antonette and Carrie Nusbaum
Considering how close (20 minutes from downtown San Diego), huge (1.7 million people in the city proper), and cool (see: pics) Tijuana is...it took an embarrassingly long time for us to get it together and explore it for the first time. We spent a day in TJ--mostly on foot--and just around the parts of the city closest to the border. We’re definitely no experts, but we had a pretty good time and were surprisingly successful at navigating without cell service, which admittedly felt like more of an achievement than it probably was.
The city feels distinctly different from the US as soon as you cross the border: the urban density, colors, architectural styles, prevalence of farmacias, delicately pruned trees, the busy-roundabouts... There’s a lot going on and a lot of details to appreciate. Going with someone familiar with the area would probably be the best way to go, but it’s definitely possible to see some cool things, eat delicious food, and have a good time as a couple of relatively unaware turistas (or however you choose to identify). Here are some details about our trip:
Parking + walking across the border:
If you follow I-5 south, you’ll eventually see a sign that says “LAST USA EXIT PARKING” (a.k.a. exit 1A, Camino de la Plaza). Get off there. There are several lots that charge between $7-15 dollars a day to park. We chose the $7 next to the Jack in the Box. Once you park, you can pretty much just follow the flow of pedestrian traffic. The sign for the border crossing is just behind/south of the trolley station and to the left if you’re facing the border. It used to be even easier to walk across, but just recently they’ve changed the process. Now non-mexican nationals have to stop at customs on the way into Mexico. The process is still pretty straight forward. You can also check the border crossing wait times if you’re in a rush or, you know, just curious. The only downside to walking is that you can't bring home, or it would be excessively annoying to bring home, a human-sized bag of cheese puffs. After crossing the border, we headed to Zona Centro/Avenida Revolucion on foot. You just have to cross the highway, then cross the river, head toward the big arch (el arco), and soon you’ll find yourself at Avenida Revolucion--the main tourist center of the city.
Wandering + eating:
Avenida Revolucion. We pretty much just walked through here on our way through town...wandering on and off the main strip as we pleased. You’ll see the sad Tijuana Zebras, probably a mariachi band or two, and if you look like tourists, you’ll get called at a lot by the many street vendors. Anywhere off of the main street is either busy with regular people running errands, or relatively quiet with your standard bodegas and cafes on every block.
Mercado Hidalgo. We walked through to this big market, indulged in some fresh fruits/coconut juice, and perused the many other local snacks/curiosities (pinatas, kitchenware, etc.).
Cecut. There happened to be a book fair with food stands when we were there. We had the best quesadilla of all time, some artisanal veggie tacos, some vegan empanadas...because why hold back? Everything was delicious and CHEAP. There are usually some movies playing, free cultural exhibits, and a little garden out back. The distinct dome also serves as a helpful landmark as you wander.
Distrito Gastronomico. We weren’t super hungry when we got there. We pretty much just walked around the hilly residential parts, peeking at the multicolored homes, but this is supposedly where TJ’s best food scene is.
Misión 19. This was one of the most popularly reviewed restaurants as far as we could tell. After wandering for the afternoon, we were feeling kind of lazy and decided to go for it. We got there in the late afternoon--no reservations--and had no problem getting seated. The food and drink were top notch, so beautiful and delicious, and compared to anything of comparable quality in the US…cheap.
Getting back to the border:
We got wifi at Misión 19 and called an Uber to take us to the border crossing. It was easy and only about $2. The wait to get back into the US varies pretty widely depending on day, time of day, and weather. Pro-tip: try not to get caught in the rain! We've gotten across in a mere 30 minutes, but of course the time it was raining, it took 2 hours.
Dress modestly and watch your stuff. It’s hard to say how safe it is exactly--we had no trouble, and haven’t heard any horror stories lately, but better safe than sorry, right?
Go hungry. The food is arguably the best part.
Download an offline map app, if you’d rather not rely on your sense of direction. We’ve used Maps.me, which lets you add bookmarks before you go, which is definitely nice to have as a backup plan.