Tijuana, Mexico is my favorite weekend getaway from Los Angeles. Everybody who lives in LA spends weekends in Palm Springs or Joshua Tree, but doesn't realize that for the same two hour drive they could visit an entirely different country.
I recommend getting together a few friends and spending two nights in Tijuana, although if you don't have that much time, you can do it in one night. If you're spending the weekend coming from Los Angeles, you should drive down Friday early afternoon or evening (try to avoid doing the drive during rush hour, it can take up to 5 hours for the 2 hour trip.)
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
1. Don't forget your passport! If you have a US passport card, bring that instead of your passport book. You need a passport to return to the US from Mexico. Although I have witnessed several people get back in with just their drivers license and/or birth certificate, that situation is a hassle that you should avoid by getting/finding/replacing your passport (and get the passport card too while you're at it... its very handy to not have to carry and risk losing your actual passport and you get to go in the often quicker Ready Lane when you return).
2. Walk over the border, don't drive! Drive to San Ysidro and exit at the LAST USA EXIT. There we always park at BAJA MEX Insurance/Parking. It costs about $20 for a 24 hour period to park on weekends and only $6 for 24 hrs on weekdays. In my experience this is a safe place to park, and you can also change dollars into pesos here so you have some cash for a taxi when you cross the border. This lot is also conveniently located directly next to a new shopping center with a Peet's Coffee, Panda Express and a PUBLIC RESTROOM. Go there and use the toilet.
Walk towards the overpass and follow the signs to the pedestrian border crossing. It takes you over the freeway, over some trolley tracks, up a slight hill and through a crazy turnstile that says MEXICO. There's now an actual immigration counter when you cross, last year you literally just walked through the turnstile and you were in Mexico without having to talk to anyone.
*You can drive if you really want to, but the main reason we don't is the very long line that you'll have to wait in to drive back into the USA. This line often takes 4+ hours. Also it is recommended that you get supplemental insurance when driving in Mexico because your auto insurance most likely won't cover you out of the country.
3. Take a taxi or an UBER! The Hyatt recommended using the yellow cabs. There's a taxi stand when you cross and they accept dollars or pesos. A ride to anywhere your hotel will be should cost $8 or less (even for 4 or 5 people). So if they say $15 they are charging you the "tourist price", you can pay it since it's still cheap or just walk to another taxi and pay less.
UBER is in Tijuana, so regardless of where you are or where you are staying you can Uber anywhere you want to go! All of our Uber drivers have been great, and the rides are EXTREMELY AFFORDABLE ($2-$10 per ride with all of the rides within the downtown area below $4).
4. Hotels: I've stayed at the Hyatt, Hotel Ticuan and Hotel Palacio Azteca, which I had pre-booked online on booking.com. These ran about $100 a night for a 4 person room. The neighborhood the Hyatt is in is near several high-end restaurants and American chain businesses. It wasn't an especially interesting neighborhood, but for a first timer in Tijuana you may feel comfortable at a well rated hotel in this quieter neighborhood. Hotel Ticuan is off of Ave Revolution, the main strip of Tijuana where there are lots of bars, restaurants and tourist shops. Revolution is a bit loud and a little grimey, but its where you'll have to go if you want to actually experience Tijuana. I will probably look to stay in this neighborhood again next time I visit, Hotel Ticuan was ok but I feel like theres probably a better option.
5. Crossing the border back to the USA: Going into Mexico is easy, getting back into the states is the hard part. And its not hard, it just may have you standing in a long line depending on what time you're trying to return. There is a new border facility called PedWest which is making the process much speedier, and you can check the wait times online before you go: CBP Border Wait Times
Think of when most people are returning to the US from Tijuana; at rush hour and Sunday afternoons. If you avoid these times you won't have to wait very long. When I crossed recently at midday on a Sunday and on a Tuesday night I encountered no line whatsoever. Show your passport, answer the question "what were you doing in Tijuana", whatever other questions the border agent asks, and you'll be on your way! When you're back in the US of A you'll see where you had parked your car, it'll be a 2 minute walk away.
WHAT TO DO IN TIJUANA
1. Spend a day at Albercas El Vergel Waterpark! (Open between March and October) : Forget what you may assume about a waterpark in Mexico. This park is the waterpark of your childhood dreams, the kind of park that may have existed in the USA before the 1980s when fear of lawsuits had all the fun slides and rides removed- the ones that were too fast, too jarring, that sent you flying through the air and landing hard on your butt, where the risk of a minor injury was high, but major fun was insured. You'll be laughing so hard that you'll barely notice that your body hurts. If you're not one for a bruised bottom you can hang out in the wave pool, the lazy river, or under a cabana drinking a michelaeda followed by a pina colada and a half dozen $2 tecates.
-To get here, take a taxi or Uber from your hotel. The ride is about 10 minutes and you'll feel like you're being driven to the middle of nowhere. Fear not, the waterpark is off the freeway in a sparsely inhabited area just south of the Tijuana airport.
-The park costs the equivalent of $5-$8 USD depending on the conversion rate. Bring USD or Mexican Pesos for your entrance, drinks and food.
-Bring your swimsuit, a towel, sunblock and maybe some sandals. They also sell all of this there if you forget something. There are attended lockers for rent where you can lock your stuff.
-The tortas (Mexican sandwiches) are delicious.
2. Eat and Drink!: Eating in Tijuana is delicious and affordable. If you're looking to eat at nicer restaurants, a popular area is the Centro gastronómico, out of downtown around the Marriott and Hyatt hotels. One of our favorite spots is Caesar's downtown on Ave Revolution, an old-timey upscale restaurant with photographs on the wall of Tijuana when the restaurant opened in the 1920s. Caesar's was where the Caesar salad originated, and they make an excellent caesar salad at your table while you watch.
Our new top favorite place to eat is Telefonica Gastro Park, a collection of food stalls and food trucks in a cosy outdoor area. Here you can eat artisan quesadillas, vegan tacos, Mexican fusion ramen, bbq, and delicious Mexican food made with a lot of care and very fresh ingredients. On our last weekend we ate dinner here twice and went back for breakfast before crossing the border.
Next time I'm in Tijuana I plan to check out Norte Brewing Company. This brewery is at the top of a parking structure off of Ave Revolution in downtown Tijuana and comes very highly recommended. Mamut is another recommended brewery.
3. Buy souveniers at Los Mercados Artesanias: This is the best place to buy Mexican blankets, ponchos, hats, ceramic Bart Simpson coin banks, and all sort of other colorful knick knacks. The prices are significantly lower than on Avenue Revolution, and the vendors are friendlier and more willing to haggle. This market is also cool because some shops are the workshops where the vendors are making the products they're selling.
This market is conveniently located right before the PedWest border crossing, so you can stop by on your way out of Tijuana.
4. Check out the Red Light District (...or not): There are a lot of strip clubs in Tijuana, and several of them are actual brothels. If this is something you are curious to see, go for it. Hong Kong is a crazy multi story club/brothel where there seems to be more dancers than there are customers on a busy weekend night. Be warned; things can get very raunchy here with sex shows and audience participation. If you're out in this area at night, be aware of your surroundings and belongings, stick together with your friends and try not to be loud and visibly intoxicated. On a recent trip one friend had her phone stolen and a couple of drunk friend were stopped and harassed by the police.
It has been recommended to go to Amnesia club if you want to go to a legit strip club that is not a skeezy brothel. I have not been, my interests when I visit Tijuana are limited to food and waterslides.