Travel Destinations

Monday, May 18, 2015

10 Things to Do in Tijuana (That Don’t Involve Tequila)

Downtown Tijuana Shopping Passageway

Historically Tijuana has been a drinking mecca.  Tijuana’s proximity to Southern California cities like San Diego and Los Angeles and its legal drinking age of 18 meant Tijuana was a popular place for the under 21 crowd to come for drinking and clubbing.  Tourism from the United States to Tijuana dried up for years when stories of crime and drug wars filled the news.  Now Tijuana is a safe place to visit again, and the implementation of a passport requirement means the demographic of the traveler looking for a day trip or weekend trip to Tijuana has shifted.  Tijuana’s streets are no longer overwhelmed with rowdy underage drinkers.  Now they are being strolled by couples and families looking for things to do in Tijuana that celebrate Tijuana’s beauty and culture. 

Tijuana Cultural Center

Tijuana Cultural Center

The Tijuana Cultural Center is the most important center for culture in northwest Mexico.  Founded in 1982, the Tijuana Cultural Center portrays the culture of Mexico close to the border.  The center has art galleries, a botanical garden, an aquarium, an IMAX theater, a performance hall, and an outdoor area that is a great place for events, festivals, and outdoor exhibits.  There is constantly something going on at the Tijuana Cultural Center.  The center hosts concerts, theatrical productions, movies, documentaries, and many other events, some of which are free to the public and others of which require paid tickets.  The Tijuana Cultural Center also showcases a number of exhibits, again, some of which are free and others for which there is a charge.

Tijuana Cultural Center Massimo Listri Exhibit

During our visit, the Tijuana Cultural Center was featuring a beautiful exhibit of the works of Massimo Listri, a photographer of interior spaces like libraries, churches, and palaces, some of which you may recognize from your own travels.  The Museum of the Californias is a permanent exhibit covering different times in the history of the Baja peninsula including European explorers, missions and missionaries, the Mexican Revolution, and more recent history.  Did you know Tijuana had an airplane factory in the 1920s?  We also visited an exhibit featuring the art of local Baja artists.

Plaza Saint Cecilia

Plaza Saint Cecilia Downtown Tijuana

Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music, and music is what can be found in Plaza Saint Cecilia.  This is where the locals go to hire mariachi bands for their parties.  While we were walking through we got to see two young people performing the Mexican hat dance for a large crowd. 

La Tradicion Coffee Plaza Saint Cecilia Downtown Tijuana La Tradicion Quesadillas Plaza Saint Cecilia Downtown Tijuana

Plaza Saint Cecilia is a colorful reminder of old Tijuana.  This is where Tijuana was founded in 1889.  In addition to the music, this pedestrian street, the oldest street in Tijuana, also has a number of restaurants, bars, and shopping kiosks.  We had a wonderful breakfast at Restaurante La Tradicion.  La Tradicion is a family-owned restaurant opened in 1997 which prides itself in being a restaurant of the people.  La Tradicion’s owner Martín Muñoz is also the president of Tijuana’s restaurant association. 

La Tradicion Molcajete Plaza Saint Cecilia Downtown Tijuana

I was introduced to a new dish for me, and La Tradicion’s signature dish, molcajete.  Molcajete is named after the vessel in which it is served.  A molcajete is a Mexican stone tool similar to a mortar and pestle.  In this sizzling dish, there is chicken, tender beef, tequila shrimp, chorizo, cactus, queso fresco, and all sorts of other delicious ingredients that blend together to make a dish bursting with flavor.

Mercado El Popo

Mercado el Popo Downtown Tijuana

Near Plaza Saint Cecilia is the Mercado el Popo, a traditional market located within the alleys of a downtown Tijuana block.  Here you can buy fruits, vegetables, cheese, herbs, spices, piñatas, prayer candles, and anything else you might desire.

Pasaje Rodríguez

Pasaje Rodríguez Downtown Tijuana

A block away from the Mercado El Popo is the Pasaje Rodríguez.  While Plaza Saint Lucia is old Tijuana, Pasaje Rodríguez is new Tijuana.  The new generation took over this alley and filled it with art and trendy shops selling records, clothing, and books.  Pasaje Rodríguez really took me by surprise and I hope to see more places like this in Tijuana.

Downtown Tijuana Shopping

Hand Art Store Downtown Tijuana Shopping

When walking around downtown Tijuana it is guaranteed that you’ll be approached by ten different men selling the exact same silver necklace for a dollar, a necklace that is sure to turn your neck green while in the process of falling apart.  But there is some good shopping that can be done in Tijuana.  An example is the Hand Art Store, a store that has been around since 1955 and sells items handmade in Mexico in the traditional ways.  When shopping in downtown Tijuana, keep on the lookout for stickers in the window pronouncing the shop as being on the Outstanding Host list created by CeturMex and the Baja Secretary of Tourism.  These shops have been around for decades and provide honesty, quality, and service.  If you are looking for a silver necklace, the Emporium Plateria and The Silver Mine are on the Outstanding Host list, as well as other shops selling leather goods, wine, chocolates, and more.

Caesars Restaurante Bar

Caesar's Table Side Caesar Salad Downtown Tijuana

Caesar’s Restaurante Bar is a downtown Tijuana institution which has been around since 1927.  Did you know the Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana?  Well it was, and this is the restaurant where it was invented.  There are conflicting stories of exactly when and how the Caesar salad was invented and who invented it.  But there is no dispute that Caesar’s is the home of the Caesar salad, and you can still order it prepared table-side. 

Caesar's Roasted Beef Bone Marrow Downtown Tijuana

While Caesar’s is an institution, it is also a modern fine dining establishment.  Caesar’s has been owned by the Plascencias, Tijuana’s famous culinary family, since 2010.  This means the restaurant is both historic and really, really good.  In addition to the Caesar salad, we had roasted beef marrow and a Mexican combination plate of grilled beef tenderloin, cheese enchiladas, and Chile Relleno.  Caesar’s also brews their own pale ale.

Playas de Tijuana

Playas de Tijuana Ocean View Playas de Tijuana Boardwalk

Playas de Tijuana is an area I only explored for a couple hours but would love to explore more in depth.  These are the beaches of Tijuana.  Playas de Tijuana is not full of sun-worshiping tourists but is rather mostly filled with middle-class families of Tijuana out for some family fun.  The beach can be reached by multiple staircases that lead down from the street and a wooden boardwalk provides a walkway to stroll along the sand.  Between the street and the boardwalk are multi-storied buildings, some housing restaurants and bars selling cold beers and fresh seafood, some housing private homes, and some vacant and ramshackle. Along both the street and boardwalk are colorful examples of street art.

Families Speaking through the US-Tijuana Border Fence Playas de Tijuana Playas de Tijuana Border Fence

At the northernmost point of Playas de Tijuana is where fun and relaxing beach community turns into sad dose of reality.  Here is where you can see the colorful fence that separates Mexico from the United States, which extends 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean.  This area is called Friendship Park / El Parque de la Amistad, a meeting place where families, friends, and loved ones come to meet, separated by a fence.  It was heart wrenching to witness these tearful meetings

GSalinas Vinos de Mexico

GSalinas Vinos de Mexico Tijuana

If you’re having a weekend getaway to Tijuana, enjoy wine, but won’t have a chance to get down to the Valle de Guadalupe, you can taste some of Baja’s great wines at GSalinas Vinos de Mexico.  This little shop carries some of the best wines the Valle de Guadalupe has to offer.  In addition to Mexican wine, the shop also sells mezcal and Baja craft beers.  GSalinas is family owned, having been started by the patriarch of the family 50 years ago, and is both a shop and tasting room.

Caliente Casino

I’m not much for gambling, but if you like hitting the tables or the machines, Caliente Casino is a large casino catering to all of a gambler’s needs.  The casino also holds Greyhound races every night and they are currently building a soccer stadium.  There is also a good restaurant and bar in the casino, Mujeres Divinas Restaurant Bar.  (While this article is about the Tijuana that doesn't involve tequila, Caliente Casino's restaurant does serve one of Tijuana's weirdest shots of tequila.)

El Trompo

El Trompo Tijuana

El Trompo is something to do in Tijuana only if you have little kids. But for the kids this is a fun museum to visit with six interactive rooms that allow kids to both have fun and learn.  Kids can play with bubbles, look at animals, learn about plasma, play learning games, create things in workshops, and do lots of other fun stuff.

Where to Stay in Tijuana

A visit to Tijuana can be either a weekend trip or day trip from San Diego.  It’s always fun to be able to take a two-nation vacation.  If you decide to overnight in Tijuana, be aware that Tijuana is not a city of luxury hotels.  The accommodations in Tijuana are not as luxurious as those we had during our Ensenada weekend getaway or at the historic Rosarito Beach Hotel.   However, one option for a safe, clean, and comfortable Tijuana hotel is Hotel Palacio Azteca.  The hotel is a short nine-minute drive to downtown Tijuana and an 11-minute drive to the San Ysidro border.  Hotel Palacio Azteca has a pool, a restaurant whose head chef was amongst the first graduating class of Tijuana’s Culinary Art School, and a bar. They will also book tours for guests, including whale watching, culinary, and wine tours.

Hotel Palacio Azteca Pool Tijuana Hotel Palacio Azteca Room Tijuana

I remember the years, long ago, when it wasn’t unusual for families to cross the border on a whim for shopping and dining in Tijuana.  Happily those days are back and there are plenty of things to do in Tijuana to keep friends, couples, and families entertained for the day or the entire weekend.

Thank you to Descubre Tijuana for hosting our weekend getaway to Tijuana and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.

Travel the World: 10 things to do in Tijuana for a day trip or weekend getaway.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.