Tijuana – famous for late-night hedonism and last minute border runs. A place where the usual rules don’t apply and no one checks your ID. From 1920s prohibition-dodgers looking for a drink, to San Diego college kids sneaking away for a Saturday night, Tijuana has always been just across the border, offering temporary escape.

An empty street lined with palm trees with an arch at one end under a blue sky dotted with pink clouds
Avenida Revolución, Tijuana's main artery is the perfect entrance to the city's many culinary and cultural treats © Jason Najum / Lonely Planet

Today, Tijuana is redefining itself. “TJ”, as it’s known to locals, is one of Mexico's fastest growing cities, increasing not only in size but creative and commercial appeal. Less than 20 miles from San Diego, its proximity to the US border has made Tijuana attractive to multinationals looking for skilled labor, Mexicans searching for opportunity and Americans in need of a more affordable cost of living.

While still reliant on tourism and foreign investment, Tijuana is growing out of its tourist town infancy. With a growing technology sector and a burgeoning cultural and gastronomy scene, this former party town has become a self-sustaining Mexican city that is carving out its own identity and apparently bright future.

Two boys in red t-shirts stare through a wall of steel bars heavily covered in graffiti with chicken wire on the top
The ever-present US/Mexico border fades into the backdrop as you explore © Jason Najum / Lonely Planet

Border Town

You see it as soon as you step out of the airport doors. La frontera. La linea. The wall.

The end of the Mexican-American war in 1848 drew a line from the Pacific across the Baja California peninsula. The area up to then had been mostly Spanish missions and cattle ranches (and before that home to the indigenous Kumeyaay), but this new international demarcation immediately transformed the character and evolution of the region. Tijuana has always been a border town.

The origins of the city’s name are unconfirmed but popular theories trace it either to the Kumeyaay word Tiwan (by-the-sea), or to Tía Juana (Aunt Jane), a mythical provider of food and shelter to travelers.

The first wave of visitors came in the 1880s during California’s land boom. Prohibition attracted still more people, with casinos and bars and brothels luring both boozy day-trippers and Hollywood elites.

cars line up under glaring lights
San Ysidro on the Mexico/US border between San Diego and Tijuana is one of the busiest border crossings in the world © Karen Kasmauski / Getty Images

Now Tijuana is home to the world’s busiest land border crossing. In 2017, over 16 million pedestrians and nearly 50 million vehicle passengers crossed at San Ysidro, a port of entry located smack-dab in downtown TJ.

The border looms. Perpetually. At night, a row of huge spotlights shine along the edge of the city; a glowing, glaring, piece of politics so perennial that it’s become just another part of the skyline. During the day, the heavy rusted metal follows you as drive into town, silently herding you south.

The bus station is called La Linea (the line). There’s a Bar La Linea and even a Pharmacy La Linea. The border is such a fixture in the daily lives of Tijuaneros that unless migration is directly affecting you, it becomes just another part of the decor, going mostly unnoticed as you get along with your day.

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You'll find shops and restaurants along the touristy Santiago Arguello © Jason Najum / Lonely Planet

Like a Local

Tijuana presents visitors with a pleasantly surprising paradox – a town built on tourism that isn’t overly touristy. Of course there are souvenir shops and margarita specials catering to fresh-faced arrivals, but they’re mostly on the streets closest to the border and fade quite quickly.

Start at the Tijuana Arch, a shining monument at the northern end of Av Revolucion. Located on the city’s main entertainment thoroughfare, just a few blocks from the border, the arch is a good spot to get oriented. Almost immediately to your right is the pedestrian Santiago Arguello, a few blocks of cute but touristic promenade.

Done with this quick detour, get back onto Av Revolucion and into the action. Here you’ll find a full range of eating and drinking options. Fresh roasted beans and café-cool at Container Coffee Roasters; secret art galleries and homemade sausage tacos at Salchichas de Casa Molina Buenrostro; and meals prepared tableside at Caesars, a landmark where the Caesar salad was invented (seriously).

Half full glasses of beer in multiple hues sit on a bar lined with sitting men
Tijuana has a budding and innovative craft beer scene just waiting to be tapped into © Norte Brewing Co.

Tijuana also has an impressive selection of craft beer options, with Norte Brewing Co offering city and sunset views and Teorema/Lúdica Tasting Room hosting two local breweries in a hipster-chic atmosphere. Or go off-strip to Cerveceria Insurgente for award-winning brews.

Notice that most of the patrons are locals. Tijuana’s strong manufacturing and service industries are helping solidify a Mexican middle-class with disposable pesos. Hang with Tijuaneros while drinking Micheladas and listening to 80s retro at the grungy Zebra Mexican Pub; get your Latin dance on at the Las Pulgas mega-club; or browse haute-cuisine food trucks at the hip Telefonica Gastro park

For daytime entertainment check out the Tijuana Cultural Center, an impressive multipurpose venue for art, music and theater. Also swing by Mercado Hidalgo to experience an authentic Mexican market or Pasaje Rodriguez for street art and local vendors.

A man cooks on in a roadside stand while a woman holds a plate of tacos
Tijuana is filled with culinary choices, but nothing compares to the street tacos © Jason Najum / Lonely Planet

Street Eats

Spend time in Tijuana hunting for street food. For travelers on a budget, Mexico’s street carts are a godsend and Tijuana has some great ones. The trick is to venture off the main boulevards, so peek down a side street or explore a parallel artery and you’re sure to find these gastronomical gems.

First, some basics. Adobada is spice-marinated pork loin, often roasted Middle Eastern style on a spit. Asada is usually skirt of flank steak. Al Pastor is similar to adobada, but depends on the vendor so ask for visual confirmation before ordering. Vegetarians and vegans keep an eye out for carts filled with rows of metallic pots, as they'll often have options sin carne (without meat).

These taco stands are communal gathering spots that offer an authentic taste (pun intended) of local life. Even if someone in your party prefers higher-end cuisine, milling around the street corner and dipping into the spreads of chile sauces and fresh condiments is a Mexican experience that shouldn’t be missed.

A man shucks oysters behind a giant pile of oysters and a plethora of sauces
Tijuana takes full advantage of its seaside locale with cheap and tasty roadside seafood © Jason Najum / Lonely Planet

Border Beach

About 15 minutes from downtown, the beach is easily reached by taxi, Uber, or the city’s mini-buses. On weekends you’ll find local residents strolling the boardwalk and picnicking on the beach. There are plenty of eating options along the promenade, many with great sunset views. Cafe Latitude 32 is a particularly chill spot for good coffee and people watching.

This beach borough sits on the western edge of the city, wedged against the Pacific and the border. Here is where you can best see and actually touch the border wall, as this portion is open to the public with many spots covered in mural-style art. 

People practice yoga on the beach
Families picnic and residents practice yoga on the beach in the shadow of the border © Jason Najum / Lonely Planet

As you put your hands on the infamous barrier, you’ll hear kids playing in the waves and bohemian locals holding jam sessions. There’s even beach yoga just a few steps away. A relaxed and disarming atmosphere defines this part of the border – there are no guards, just families taking photos.

Here is where the wall ends, just trailing off into the ocean, like it almost wasn’t there.

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