Tijuana, on the Baja California Gold Coast, has revamped its image and refocused tourism from the hawkers of gaudy kitsch on Avenida Revolucion, a questionable nightlife scene, and sketchy timeshare schemes, to a version that emphasizes food, culture, and the arts. Though the former aspects of the city still thrive, and if you’re feeling their nostalgic pull you won’t be disappointed, it’s the new Baja Med cuisine, boutique hotels, holistic spas, cultural attractions, and vibrant art scene that are taking center stage these days. The new Tijuana is appealing to more sophisticated travelers from hipsters to foodies to health enthusiasts.
During the 1920s, when prohibition came to San Diego, people turned to Tijuana in droves for their entertainment where drinking and gambling were both legal. Avenida Revolución became a tourism hot spot with grand casinos like the Agua Caliente Touristic Complex at the center of the action. The Agua Caliente offered “excursionists” a hotel, spa, dog track with betting, golf course, gambling casino, and even a private airport. Soon the city began to grow with the people from around the country streaming in looking for opportunities in the tourism industry. Over the years, national and world events brought an ebb and flow to tourism in Tijuana, which is currently experiencing a new influx of savvy travelers.
Baja Med cuisine was brought to the attention of the world via the new wave of television chefs like Anthony Bourdain. It is a fusion of traditional regional foods with an emphasis on seafood, chiles, and local fresh ingredients with traditional Asian and Mediterranean flavors like spices, sundried tomatoes, vinaigrettes, and aromatic oils. For the best Baja Med Tijuana has to offer, try La Querencia or El Taller Baja Med Cocina, which both feature Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero, or try Mision 19 or Erizo, which are owned and operated by Chef Javier Plascencia. Both chefs are icons of Baja Med cuisine.
Other great restaurants in the Tijuana food scene that are less expensive, but equally unique and delicious include El Mazateno (for the best shrimp tacos anywhere), Terraza Vallarta, or any of the five restaurants in the Food Garden collective on the edge of the Zona Gastronomica – Tacos Kokopelli, La Taqueseria, Los Chilaquiles, Creperie La Luna, and Pintxos. From a smoked marlin in Yucateco sauce taco to a pina taco with strawberry cream sauce, topped with almonds, you can’t go wrong at the Food Garden.
The Zona Rio is the cultural hub of Tijuana. Here you’ll find an upscale shopping district, boutique hotels, Tijuana’s oldest church – Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, Museo de las Californias, Avenue of the Heroes, the Baja Cultural Institute, and topping the must-see list of cultural experiences – the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) where visitors can take in dance shows, art exhibitions, concerts, and more; it’s the most popular attraction in Tijuana. Check the center’s schedule of events during your stay. Make a reservation for a wine-tasting at L.A. Cetto Winery, or schedule a spa treatment at Vit Spa Aguacaliente Tijuana.
In recent years, the Tijuana art ancene has trended away from more formal museum venues to intimate and independent galleries popping up in inviting pasajes, or art alleys, around the city. Such spaces usually include independent galleries with the artist often on premises, studios, bookstores, coffee shops and the like. To experience Tijuana’s nouveau art scene, visitors won’t want to miss a stroll through the local art alley of Pasaje Gomez located between 3rd and 4th Streets off Avenida Revolución beneath the Lafayette Hotel. Check out La Tentacion Gallery and Oaxaca Collective among other art shops and stands, plus the quaint Mua Café and Caesar’s Restaurant, home of the original Caesar salad. Another must-see is the newly redeveloped Pasaje Rodriguez in the downtown city center, where the artists are heavily invested in its look, feel, and future. Check out Espacio Freelance and 206 Arte Contemporaneo galleries among the other shops and cafes. Of course, visitors will also want to try to catch a tour of the city’s street murals.
Tijuana Things to See and Do
There are a few boutique hotels in Tijuana that have impressed travelers, one of which is the elegant Hotel Lucerna. The stunning hotel has both rooms and suites, plus two on-site upscale restaurants. The hotel also has a gorgeous tropical pool, a gym, wireless Internet, and 24-hour medical service. It’s conveniently located along Paseo de los Héroes at the epicenter of the Zona Rio cultural hub.
If you’re just looking for a daytrip, but want an authentic Tijuana tour that doesn’t follow the stereotypical gringo path and also ensures that you experience the new tastes, cultural, and artistic sensations of Tijuana, maybe a tour with Turista Libre would be for you. This young American journalist turned expat tour operator hails from the Midwest, but lives in Tijuana. He offers a variety of themed daytrips that you can see on his website. Drive or walk across the border yourself and head to the beaches, one of the top attractions in TJ. Be sure to stop by one of the many beach cafés for shrimp or swordfish tacos and a margarita or one of several outstanding Mexican beers. Viva la Mexico!