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Craft beer, food trucks, gourmet cheese and street art… Thinking Brooklyn, San Francisco or Portland? Think again. We’re talking about Tijuana, Mexico. Long-known as a dingy, sketchy border town with prescription-free opiates, crime and donkey shows, Tijuana has gone to great lengths to transform its reputation. So much so, in fact, that it’s becoming one of Mexico’s must-visit destinations.

Make no mistake, Tijuana is still a little rough around the edges. But investment, slow gentrification and the rise of more adventurous tourists has led to a small cult following of creatives looking to explore this once-dangerous destination. The rise of craft breweries, small coffee shops and a burgeoning art scene was followed by luxury condos and a $60 million rapid transit bus system. It’s never been easier or more attractive to visit TJ (as it’s affectionately known by folks in Southern California).

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Exploding culinary scene
Tijuana has always had a foodie history, to some extent. It’s rumored to be the birthplace of the Caesar Salad, but most definitely has always been home to sinfully good Baja-style fish tacos. In the last few years, however, all things craft and small batch have started to trickle their way into Tijuana and it has become one of the best spots in Mexico to sample truly innovative cuisine.

“Baja gastronomy is unique and vital to any conversation of Mexican cuisine, featuring loads of endemic ingredients and a growing consciousness and demand for organic regional produce,” says Zachary Rabinor, founder and CEO of Journey Mexico, a luxury destination management company that specializes in curated travel to Mexico. “Tijuana has been a culinary destination for many years. Now thanks to the Baja cooking movement and new and creative Mexican chefs that are expanding their restaurants and menus to the US, we’re seeing a renewed interest.”

According to Descubre Baja California, the secretary of tourism for Baja California, 32% of tourists visiting the region are moved by gastronomy. In fact, Northern Baja produces more than 80 percent of all of Mexico’s craft beer. There are 103 food trucks, 24 gastronomic patios and the area is the producer of 90 percent of Mexican wine (yes, wine).

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Tijuana’s Cheese Trail
Besides cotijillo cheese and the occasional Tex-Mex shredded blend, what do you really know about Mexican cheese? Turns out, a trip to Tijunana will fill in the gaps. Two oval swamps give the name to the region El Valle de los Ojos Negros, just outside Tijuana, which is famous for its cheese and wines. Visit the artisanal cheese cellar of the Ramonetti family, who has been manufacturing cheese for four generations. Pair this with wines from the Bodegas de San Rafael, one of the first wineries in this part of Mexico.

Flickr CC: xiquinho

Local art
Once a city notorious for its late-night, seedier sides of culture, Tijuana is exploding with innovative, higher forms of art. Travelers can explore an abandoned market that was converted into the Passage Rodriguez as part of the Centro Historico’s revitalization. There are also independent cultural centers like El Lugar del Nopal, Las Tablas Theater, ArTe Casa Cacho, Tj Art & Rock Cafe, Dionisio Cafe and the Estacion Teatro.

One of the best examples of culture in Tijuana is, without a doubt, the Tijuana Cultural Center, which shows off the history and culture of the Baja California Peninsula.

But, no doubt, one of the best ways to take in the artistic side of Tijuana is to walk the streets. The city acts as a canvas to show off the urban art scene that has grown a massive following here. In fact, walking along Avenida La Revolution (La Revu) gives travelers the opportunities to take in the murals, graffiti art, and visual expositions.

Where to stay
You don’t have to commit to a flight ticket to get yourself to Tijuana. The city is entirely doable as a day trip from San Diego. In fact, the San Diego Trolley is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to get there as it takes you directly to the border crossing. If you’re driving, keep a lookout as you approach the border for the many parking lots, then walk across the border. If you’re driving across the border, you may end up waiting in an especially long traffic line. And you’ll have to take your own vehicle, as rental cars are not allowed to cross the border.

If you do decide to spend the night, there are several cheap hotels worth your time. Real del Rio Hotel is a modern, comfortable and clean hotel with a gym, rooftop sundeck, and a restaurant and bar. Plus it’s a five-minute drive from the border. (Tip: Go there for Sunday brunch). Each room has a flat-screen TV and air conditioning. From the hotel, travelers can easily walk to Plaza Commercial Rio Square in less than 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, Hotel Baja, a relatively new lodging just off La Revo’s main drag, is a simple, modern and borderline hipster approach to Tijuana hotels. Just off El Popo Market, it has rooms with air conditioning, free Wi-Fi, and each room has its own patio. It’s basic but comfortable, and very safe and friendly.

Tagged: Mexico

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Meagan Drillinger

Meagan Drillinger

Meagan is a New York-based travel writer, though if you give her a plane ticket today she'll be somewhere else tomorrow. Her focus and passion is Mexico, but her travel wishlist never seems to get any shorter.

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