24 Hours in Tijuana – A Guide

Tijuana town once you cross the pedestrian overpass

Tijuana, also known as “TJ” is a Mexican city that shares a border with the San Diego area via the San Ysidro border crossing.  As Baja California’s largest city, it’s the starting point for those venturing down the Baja Peninsula as well as a popular day/weekend trip for others. On our last trip to San Diego, we decided to visit Tijuana for an overnight stay. In this post, we share information about walking across the USA/Mexico border, and where to eat, drink and stay in Tijuana.  

Why Tijuana?

Telling people you’re visiting Mexico in general often elicits negative comments (mostly based on irrational opinions) so try telling people you’re going to Tijuana and you’ll hear all kinds of horror stories and the general consensus is you should avoid visiting. Tijuana is notorious for its bad reputation that stems from periods of cartel violence, with the most recent period from 2008-2010.

San Ysidro Border Crossing back into the USA
San Ysidro Border Crossing back into the USA

Currently, the news indicates that homicide rates are increasing while tourism is booming. According to figures listed in this Vice article, 11.5 million tourists visited Tijuana in 2017 and this number is projected to increase by 9% by the end of 2018. One longtime resident, Javier Plascencia fled to San Diego at the height of the violence and carnage but returned in 2010 after the cartel wear ended to open his restaurant, Misión 19 to try to revamp Tijuana’s image and promote gastronomy in the city. In the Vice article, Javier acknowledges the violence while advocating for culinary tourism in Tijuana: “Violence will always exist in a border city with so many drugs,” Plascencia cautioned. “You have to get used to it and take care of the tourists.” There are opposing opinions about how safe Tijuana is for tourists but the general consensus is that it is pretty safe overall if you don’t go looking for trouble.

Tijuana Town
Tijuana Town

Overall, people can understand why you’re willing to visit Mexico if you’re visiting the beach but a city with Tijuana’s is a harder sell to the average tourist. During our past visits to San Diego, we had always been curious about making the trek to Tijuana but never did. Recently, we watched “Tijuana Taco Crawl”, an episode of the PBS cooking show “Mexico – One Plate at a Time” with Chef Rick Bayless and this piqued our interest in visiting Tijuana due to our love of tacos and how much we enjoy spending time in Mexico. We then proceeded to do some research, and found an interesting article in the New York Times “Through a Tijuana Turnstile and Into Tacos and Tortas” that also ignited the travel bug to visit. Further research informed us about Tijuana’s thriving craft beer scene and since the Canadian Dollar was doing well against the Mexican Peso, we planned our trip and off we went.

Our room in San Diego at the US Grant, Luxury Collection Hotel
Our room in San Diego at the US Grant, Luxury Collection Hotel

As we were getting ready to leave our hotel in San Diego, I’ll be honest and say that the fear of the unknown and stress of walking across a border that’s been in the news due to illegal immigration and strengthening of border security recently had us reconsidering our decision to visit Tijuana as planned but we got into our Uber and made our way south to the San Ysidro border crossing.

Crossing the Border:

Of all the things that worried us about making this trip, crossing the border was at the top of the list because of all the information and lack of information out there. Here are a few tips that we can attest to:

Pedestrian West (also known as Ped West) crossing at San Ysidro
Pedestrian West (also known as Ped West) crossing at San Ysidro
  • Getting To/From the border:
    • San Diego Trolley: You can take the Blue line trolley from/to downtown San Diego. It runs every 15 minutes or so, takes 45 minutes and costs $5 per person each way. You can buy a ticket at a machine or download the Compass Cloud app to purchase 1 and 30 day passes.
    • Taxi or Uber/Lyft: One of these options will take you to the Ped West border crossing very easily. We recommend calling your Uber/Lyft from the Outlet Mall when you come back into the USA by the roundabout to make it easier for the driver.
  • Documents: We are Canadians and brought our passports, Nexus cards, and driver’s license. If you do not have Nexus, Global Entry, or Sentri, plan to be in line 3+ hours if you are crossing on a Sunday.
  • Bathrooms: There are bathrooms where you enter Mexico within the facility and after you’ve cleared US customs in the USA. I did not see any bathrooms as we were walking into the USA where people were waiting in line.

Into Mexico:

After extensive research, we decided our best option to cross the border at San Ysidro would be at “Ped West”. To get to the “Ped West” crossing near the Outlet Mall, we took an Uber from downtown San Diego and arrived within about 20 minutes at 10:30. Overall, the trip was very quick but as we got closer to the drop off location, there was a lot of traffic and horns honking.

We got out of the car and walked towards the facility where we walked through turnstiles and hallways. I had read somewhere that you need to fill out an “Official Entry Immigration Form” but this was not the case; the agent called us over to the desk, looked at our passports, and let us go by. We did have to put our belongings through an x-ray machine for screening though.

Before we knew it, we were out of the border facility and by the walkways that would take us into town to the popular and tourist hub around Avenida Revolución. The walkways to get to the main town are alright but you will encounter unpleasant smells at times and areas where people are selling items both peacefully and by touting. Thankfully, this part of the walk takes less than 10 minutes.

Into the USA:

We had heard that crossing back into the USA was more difficult, if only because of the long lineups where one can find themselves for hours, especially on Sunday. As we had to be at SAN – San Diego Airport to catch our flight that was departing at 14:30, we left our hotel for the San Ysidro Ped West border crossing around 09:30. Despite plugging in Ped West into the Uber, our driver dropped us off at the main border crossing and we had to walk about 7 minutes to the Ped West border crossing entrance.

As we walked up the spiraling ramps and walkways, we passed what appeared to be hundreds of people queuing in the regular line. As we have Global Entry and Nexus, we kept walking to get to the SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) line. We approached the US CBP agent to get access to the SENTRI line and handed him our passports and were told that we needed a Global Entry card for ground crossing; passports are only accepted for Global Entry at airport kiosks. At this point, panic set in, but thankfully, our Nexus cards were accepted and we were ushered to the SENTRI line where we were asked a few questions and granted re-entry into the United States within 30 seconds.

After we left the US CBP facility, we walked over to the outlets and grabbed an Uber to take us to the airport.  

Tijuana Town’s Tourist Hub – Avenida Revolución:

It took us about 10 minutes walking to reach the area known as Avenida Revolución.  Avenida Revolución is the central hub of activity for locals and tourists but it is more geared to tourists with many pharmacias (pharmacies) selling cheap prescription drugs, dive bars and restaurants, and the Zebra painted donkeys that are a popular tourist attraction.  We have noticed that this area is undergoing a transformation and becoming more modern and hip: there are breweries, cafes, restaurants, lifestyle shops, new condos, and a movie theatre called Cine Tonala that plays Mexican indie films and other films in a bar and restaurant setting.

Craft Beer Scene:

Perhaps due to its close proximity to San Diego, a pioneer in the craft beer movement, Tijuana has numerous breweries of its own and the beers can be enjoyed in their tasting room or at one of the craft beer bars in town. We were only here for 24 hours so we didn’t get to try as many as we wanted but the ones we did try were all great experiences; from the quality and types of beer to the friendly and clean tasting rooms, it was impressive. We were also very impressed at how everyone wanted you to enjoy the beers and were generous with sampling, something we didn’t take advantage of though. For more information about the places we visited, check out our 24 Hours in Tijuana – The Craft Beer Scene post.

Max having a beer at Bierhalle
Max having a beer at Bierhalle

The Food:

From low-key taco stands to modern and hipster’sih food truck gardens, and high end dining, you will need more than 24 hours to sample all of it in Tijuana. Don’t make the same mistake we made, skip your hotel breakfast and head straight for Taco Alley or Tortas Wash Mobile! By the time we were hungry and arrived at Tortas Wash Mobile, it was sold out and closed for the day! For more information about the places we visited, check out our 24 Hours in Tijuana – Where to Eat post.

Telefonica Gastro Park, an urban food garden
Telefonica Gastro Park, an urban food garden

Where to Stay:

Tijuana doesn’t have as many hotel options as San Diego and so we struggled with making our choice between:

  • Luxury boutique hotel – K Tower Hotel: An adult’s only hotel with a nice rooftop pool in the quieter financial district.
  • Western chain – Tijuana Marriott Hotel: A standard business oriented Marriott hotel in the financial district with a small outdoor pool.
  • New and hip micro hotel – one bunk: A small hotel with 9 rooms, hostel style, with private bathrooms on Avenida Revolución, where it can get quite noisy.
The rooftop pool at the K Tower Boutique Hotel
The rooftop pool at the K Tower Boutique Hotel

Since we were only spending one night, we opted to splurge and stay at the K Tower Hotel because of its nice rooftop pool, rooms with balconies, and close proximity to things. On our next stay, we would consider staying at the Marriott or one bunk to save money and try something different. You can find out more about our stay at the K Tower Boutique Hotel in our review.

Walking in Tijuana:

We were not quite sure what toe expect and had initially expected to take Uber a lot more, but after walking across the border and into town, we had a chance to get a feel for the place and decided to walk around everywhere; we ended up walking close to 10 kms on Saturday alone!

A flower shop on the street
A flower shop on the street

In some of the things we read, people made comments about lack of sidewalks and holes but we didn’t encounter any of this; we found it quite easy, enjoyable and safe to walk around. On Saturday, we pretty much walked from the border crossing to our hotel with no issues. If there is one thing that made us a little nervous is we had our small weekend backpacks with us which we felt made us standout as tourists. We did decide to wear very casual and slightly old clothes as to not draw further attention though and we would recommend not wearing lots of jewelry and carrying around expensive designer bags.

English and Spanish in Tijuana:

If there is one thing we were surprised about in Tijuana, it’s the lack of English menus. Since we are used to visiting touristy beach destinations, we are used to getting English versions of the menu but this is not the case in Tijuana. In some cases, we really had to push ourselves to translate and speak in Spanish as English was not an option. Rather than ask if people spoke English, we struggled in Spanish and if they responded in English, we’d continue in English. We believe that non-Spanish speakers can come to Tijuana and get by but we would recommend using an app to help translate or brushing up on some common phrases and words.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Tijuana and think that people who enjoy food and drink, would enjoy themselves here too. That being said, we understand people’s hesitance to visit but think there is reward in coming to Tijuana, especially for those who visited before it started to change. We came to Tijuana with an open mind and vowed to be honest about whether or not we enjoyed it, and we did. 

We have never crossed at the San Ysidro border until now but we always find border crossings a little tense; the militarization of this crossing that’s heavily guarded with sirens going off in the distance can make you feel a little anxious and unsettled. We can’t compare how it was in the past but it was very emotional for me due to the images I’ve seen in the news when the border was closed recently. After crossing into Mexico and walking into town, you do experience a form of cultural shock due to how things change.

A mural in Tijuana
A mural in Tijuana

Tijuana is a city but some parts of it feel like some of the dusty Mexican towns we have visited, and while we do agree it is not an architecturally beautiful place, there is culture and street art that add to its atmosphere in a positive way. Tijuana, like other places is Mexico is a fun place to visit but there is sadness and hardship that we can’t even begin to fully feel or comprehend because we get to leave and come home when our vacation is over (we have felt this in other places like Indonesia and Thailand). We even feel for the American people who make the crossing regularly to buy their prescription medication for a lot cheaper because they don’t have healthcare plans like we do in Canada. It’s really hard to not become aware of your privilege when you make this journey.

The rooftop patio at Insurgente Brewing on a Saturday night
The rooftop patio at Insurgente Brewing on a Saturday night

If you can get beyond the fear and the sadness though, you will be welcomed by Tijuana’s friendly residents who have a lot of kindness to share. You’ll also enjoy spending time in the places they visit, where they get to enjoy their lives too, regardless of what’s happening at the border and beyond. On Saturday afternoon, we were walking down a street where we heard piano music and saw two parents waiting outside during their child’s lesson; our eyes met for a brief second and we smiled at one another and said “Hola” and it’s moments like this where you realize that we’re all enjoying the same sunny day in Tijuana Mexico.  We will be back for sure, if only because we enjoyed our first visit and there are a lot of other things we want to see, experience, and taste. Hasta luego Tijuana, muchas gracias para todo!

Have you ever crossed the border into Tijuana and back into the USA? If so, do you have any tips or information to add? Did you enjoy visiting Tijuana?

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