The Beatles’ classic song “With A Little Help From My Friends” plays quietly throughout the coffee shop as Victor Armenta, a barista, whips together a cappuccino. A pleasant blend of Spanish and English echoes off the walls as I snack on some fresh fruit. I’m at Café Aquamarino in Tijuana, Mexico, about to get on my way to explore destinations around the city.
“Tijuana used to be what people think it is, but it has changed a lot,” Armenta tells me. “Years ago, there was a lot of crime, but it has grown a lot.”
The general consensus about Tijuana’s reputation was reflected in my friends’ reactions when I️ told them about my trip. Instead of messages like “sounds great” or “have fun,” I️ was told to “please be careful.”
But the reputation of Tijuana precedes the reality, and many people overlook the fact that the city is easily accessible, fun, cheap and, most importantly, a safe day trip. Here’s what I recommend for a fun-filled day in Tijuana, Mexico.
After walking across the border (you can drive and leave your car in San Diego or opt for the train) start your day off at Playas de Tijuana, Tijuana’s beachfront area. You can Uber there from the U.S.-Mexico border. My ride was 87 pesos, or $4.68. After grabbing breakfast at one of the numerous cafes along the beach, walk down the boardwalk and soak in the sun. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of the beach, where a wall separates Mexico from the U.S.
The Mexican border has been in the news almost daily for about two years now, with prototypes for a new wall already on display. However, Tijuana has been dealing with the reality of a wall along the beach since 2011. Though controversial, the wall itself is an attraction. Murals and paintings of names, faces and abstract art cover the border wall. Along with messages of unity in English and Spanish, bi-national gardens grow between the poles, and loud music blares as families laugh and walk along the divide. This is in stark contrast with the U.S. side of the wall, which is full of security cameras, border patrol vehicles and tense silence.
After making your way through playas all morning, you’re probably looking for lunch. Look no further than Taqueria Franc in the downtown area of the city. You can grab an Uber there from the beach for about $5, sit down and watch as your tacos are made from behind the counter and the meat is carved in the center of the restaurant.
I chatted with some students from the University of California, San Diego, who were also eating at Taqueria Franc, and they agreed: These are the best tacos in Tijuana.
If for some reason you can’t make it there, fear not: Taco carts line Tijuana’s streets and similar restaurants are all around.
After lunch, make your way to the Tijuana Arch. Modeled after the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (but much smaller), it serves as a gateway to the center of the city and most of the main attractions of downtown. Walk down the famous Santiago Arguello, a pedestrian path lined with shops, mariachi bands and flags waving in the wind. From there, you can explore the various walkways where food, souvenir and clothing vendors have set up shop, and boutique shops are nestled in side streets. Products are usually a fraction of what they’d be in the states. And of course, pick up some of Tijuana’s famous street food.
After dinner at Oryx Capital Gastropub, one of Tijuana’s hottest restaurants – which offers fusion food with a Mexican flare – make your way to Tijuana’s newest bar, Norte Brewery. Established in 2015, the brewery replaced a bankrupt strip club. To get there, you’ll have to take an elevator to the fifth floor of a nondescript parking lot. Enjoy a cheap pint while you take in the rolling hills of Tijuana at sunset. After that, Uber back to the border and walk across – with the day you’ve had, you’re sure to be back soon.
How to get To Tijuana (without a car):
Take Amtrak Pacific Surfliner from Anaheim to San Diego ($28), San Diego blue line trolley to the San Ysidro international border ($2.50 one way), then walk across the border.
What you need:
Passport, pesos (you can change your money at various spots on the border, though some places will take U.S. dollars)
What to do:
- Playa de Tijuana
- Zona Centro – downtown Tijuana
- Tacos, tacos, tacos
- Tijuana Cultural Center – a fascinating history museum covering many aspects of Mexican history, with specific information regarding the Baja California area
Where to eat:
- Cafe Aquamarino (Paseo Costero 1342)
- Bresca Coffee Bistro (Calle Flores Magon 643)
- Taqueria Franc (Blvd. Sanchez Taboada 9013)
- Oryx Capital Gastropub (Blvd. Agua Caliente 10750)
- Mision 19 (Mision de San Javier 10643)
Where to drink:
- Norte Brewery (type this in on your GPS and find the parking lot it is located in)
- Dandy del Sur Cantina (Flores Magon 8274)
Where to stay:
I did this as a day trip, but you can easily turn it into a weekend trip by staying at one of the boutique hotels or apartments listed on airbnb.com, starting at $30 a night.