Mexico’s most notorious tourist destination is reinventing itself—and it’s seriously cool.
We know you’ve heard of Tijuana, a city that, up until recently, hasn’t needed an introduction—or, maybe we should say, a reintroduction. Sitting directly on the United States–Mexico border, Tijuana developed as a bawdy “Las Vegas South” reputation for American tourists, becoming the country’s capital of vice, cheap pleasures, and tequila-soaked mischief and letting its cultural riches fall by the wayside.
Now thanks to a number of major cultural shifts taking place in the city and along the border, that reputation may as well be ancient history as far as local residents are concerned. After tourists stopped streaming into the city in the mid-2000s due to a temporary uptick in drug-related violence and border tightening procedures, Tijuanenses reinvigorated their city on their own terms, igniting a long-dormant cultural explosion. These days, although the border remains tight, visitors are returning to a much safer city, only to find that it has become a cultural haven bursting with Mexico-centric food, drinks, art, and design.
One of the biggest signs that the times are changing is the opening of the city’s first boutique hotel: One Bunk Tijuana, which will start taking bookings in early March this year. Formerly the derelict Hotel Lafayette, the rebuilt and remodeled OneBunk crowns the city’s main drag, Avenida Revolucion, and is operated by the border-straddling, binational hospitality company, LWP Group, based in San Diego. There is an in-house barber, a store featuring Mexican-influenced design pieces from Object MX (which also has a full store across town), and a casual lobby bar that serves mezcal and local craft beer. Guests can choose among nine smart and chic, modern rooms outfitted in a minimalist-industrial vibe. Each features either bunk beds or a standard queen, and all guests look out on La Revu, as Tijuanenses call it—the view of the city and United States beyond.
It needs to be said: Tijuana is a city for eaters. Fish lovers will feel right at home and should head to La Corriente Cevicheria Nais, a restaurant that is rightly famous for its red snapper tostada, although the secret favorite is the “Taco Kalifornia,” a sort of Sonoran-style seafood taco with shrimp and Anaheim chilis. Keep the party going at the adjoining mezcal bar, El Tinieblo, a dark, intimate party den that brings in tasteful electronic DJs. Because there’s no such thing as enough tacos, a visit to “Taco Alley” is a must and is best experienced on a street food tour with the folks at Club Tengo Hambre (mezcal shots included). The minibus also stops Telefonica Gastropark, a veritable wonderland of food trucks serving quality dishes far above your standard food truck fare.
Mision 19 is the product of Javier Plascencia—a well-known chef who dared to start a fine dining revolution in Tijuana six years ago. The restaurant is still creating inventive new dishes from Baja California’s bounty of sea and land, and the tasting menu is the best way to experience it. For other formal dining options, the sit-down experiences at Oryx Capital—which hides the Nortico speakeasy in the back—and Verde y Crema are delicious and creative. Don’t miss the suckling pig at the former and the octopus and lentils at the latter.
Drinkers are in luck in Tijuana, but these days, it’s all about quality over quantity. Along with elevated Baja-style cuisine, craft beer is another recent obsession in the city. Plaza Fiesta, formerly a mall of nightclubs, has become the one-stop shop for new brews, where visitors can hop from tasting room to tasting room and sample brews from Cerveceria Insurgente, Border Psycho, Mamut Cerveza, and more. Across from the famed dive Dandy del Sur, and mere steps off of Revolucion, La Mezcalera is a hipster hole-in-the-wall known for its mezcal flights. For cocktails with a view, head to the roof of Cine Tonalá, then go downstairs to catch a show at Tijuana’s first art house movie theater.
Tijuana has also become a center for high art and design. Head to the fine art gallery, La Caja Galeria, to see featured artists from Tijuana, Mexico, and Latin America including Jaime Ruiz Otis, a Mexicali-born visual artist who uses recycled trash from the region’s many factories to create his work. Casa Duhagon, which is just across the street from OneBunk and down the block from Cine Tonala, is a temple to interior design. Principal Mariana Postlethwaite not only designed all the furniture in the store, but she also doubles as an architect. A fierce supporter of the arts, she features local artists at Casa Duhagon, such as abstract painter Nuria Pujol-Caire. Design lovers on the hunt for hard-to-find vintage pieces and one-of-a-kind modern Mexican furniture should get in touch with artist and designer Seth Sullivan, who grew up in Tijuana and continues to live there with his wife.
Of course, visitors can find glimpses of the “old” Tijuana: Donkeys painted like zebras still roam Avenida Revolucion, the red light district attracts people from all over, and Caesar’s is still churning out the Caesar salad it claims to have invented, to rave reviews. But focusing on the old, clichéd Tijuana means missing out not only on everything new but also, more importantly, on the true soul of Mexico’s most underrated city. Object MX’s Veronica Hernandez sums it up best, explaining, “Art and food have become a way for us in Tijuana to figure out our relationship with the border. It opens a dialogue and permits us, as Mexicans, to define who we are through our experiences.” With a healthy influx of visitors from both sides of the border, it seems this new age in Tijuana’s story is poised to stick—spring breakers need not apply.