Visiting Tijuana – Treasures of culture and food

Mural inside Caesars. Daytrip to Tijuana. Tripwellness.
Mural inside Caesars. Daytrip to Tijuana. Tripwellness.

Mural inside the famous Caesar’s Restaurant and Hotel. Photo: Tripwellness.

Most Mexican cities wrap around a main square. A church sits on one side and municipal buildings on others. That’s not true for Tijuana – which makes it an intriguing place for visitors from both sides of the border. Where is the there there?

It’s flung across the city from the Playa to the new airport, from the circling gate you walk through at the border to the southern reaches where roads lead to the Valle or coastal villages.

Visiting Tijuana is like a treasure hunt.

You may need a guide, a knowing friend, but certainly a good map to point to and a smattering of Spanish phrases to help your explorations.

Here’s some suggestions centering on a few more traditional and historical remnants of the city. In upcoming posts I’ll explore more recent trends in food and play.

Tijuana Cultural Center, Tijuana Day Trip, Tripwellness

Tijuana Cultural Center. Photo: Elaine J. Masters

One strategy is to visit the Tijuana Cultural Center first and move on from there to other neighborhoods. The wide galleries, theaters, fountains, plazas and architecture form a vibrant, proud heart for the city.
Tijuana Cultural Center courtyard. Tijuana day trip. Tripwellness

Tijuana Cultural Center courtyard. Photo: Elaine J. Masters

If you’re lucky a festival will fill the outdoor area with tents and food. A towering, central globe houses an Imax theater with state of the art technology. Many of the live performances, from theater to Opera and pop stars,  are free. The Center features historical artifacts from the Indian ages, a 1/4 sized Spanish Galleon to re-created arches from the heady Casino days. Special exhibits open eyes to new visual arts.
Fountain from the original Agua Caliente Casino. Day trip Tijuana. Trip Wellness

Fountain and photo from the golden days of the Agua Caliente Casino.

Outside a petite Aquarium full of Baja sea creatures is set alongside the Botanical Garden. Authors speak, musicians play and children create art in workshops throughout the garden. The Cultural Center offers a full immersion in the spirit of the region.
Mariachi family. Day trip Tijuana. Tripwellness.

Mariachi family playing on Sunday morning in Santa Cecilia Plaza. Photo: Tripwellness.

That rarefied  atmosphere may leave you literally hungry for more and the famous foods of the area are abundant in the Zona Centro district. In Santa Cecilia Plaza, a block from the towering downtown arch, you’ll find a walking lane crowded with restaurants and shops. There are families of Mariachis, dancers and lots of shopping. When I visited there were very few gringos to be seen.
Michoacan stew at La Tradicion. Day trip Tijuana. Tripwellness

Michoacan stew served in a Molcajete at La Tradicion. Photo: Elaine J. Masters

La Tradicion has a large, shaded patio and serves some of the best local fare. Try the Michoacan Stew and don’t fill up before dipping fresh tortillas in the juices gathering in the bottom of the Molcajete. Around the corner is the home of the Caesar Salad. While Caesar’s has changed locations along the boulevard over the years you wouldn’t know it.
The bar and service are first class inside Caesars. Day trip Tijuana. Tripwellness

The bar and service are first class inside Caesars. Photo: Tripwellness

The walls are filled with pictures of famous visitors, paintings are set into ornate frames and chandeliers pose overhead. The bar is long, carved and its wood burnished darkly. An impressive, classic Italian espresso machine (no longer working) looms over the bartender. A new machine springs to life on demand nearby.
Caesar salad ingredients at the ready. Day trip Tijuana. Tripwellness.

Caesar salad ingredients at the ready. Photo: Tripwellness

The service is courtly. Your salad will be prepared table side and the menu features many specialties. Don’t leave before you study the history on the walls.
Inside Pasaje Rodriguez. Day trip Tijuana. Trip Wellness.

Inside Pasaje Rodriguez. Photo: Trip Wellness.

Take a walk and explore several passages in the area. During Tijuana’s long ‘dark night’ the arts struggled when tourist  dollars dried up and young artists took over Rodriguez Alley with their music, murals and food. You can find Pasaje Rodriguez running from Av. Revolucioon to Av. Constitucion between Calles 3era and 4ta in Zona Centro.
El Popo market. Day trip Tijuana. Trip wellness.

El Popo market. Photo: Tripwellness.

A market Pasaje that is more traditional is El Popo, located at the corner of 2nd St and Ninos Heroe. The stacks of cheeses, fruits, santeria statues and candles, will have your senses reeling.
Guayabera shirts at Hand Art.

Guayabera shirts at the Hand Art shop. Photo: Tripwellness

If you were looking for a quality shirt or blouse there is a shop (Ave Revolucion 931 A between Third and Fourth Street) where the owner, Jack Doron, will point out the best details for choosing a man’s Guayabera, a woman’s blouse or dress. He’s been doing so since 1955. With luck he’ll show you his collection of sculptures in the back.
Hand Art owner and part of his sculpture collection

Hand Art owner and part of his sculpture collection. Photo: Tripwellness.

The light is dimming but you wonder what’s left of the glory days when Hollywood royalty would gamble and drink at the casino in the 1920’s?  Do the locals still go there to play? There are several casinos but the largest, the original site of the Agua Caliente Casino and Racetrack, still stands. It’s a date night or business destination with restaurants, lounge acts and bars. Greyhounds run on a portion of the original horse track into the late evening and a new, modern stadium looms nearby. The casino’s a swank, teeming place but there’s no glint of the original Art Deco glamour.
Remnants of the old casino days inside El Museo

Remnants of the old casino days inside El Museo. Photo: Tripwellness.

Your scavenger hunt could end downtown at an unassuming, corner bar and restaurant, El Museo Restaurante (Avenida revolucion 506.) Just past the tables on the street look up at a grand, pale green light fixture. It’s a relic from the original casino.
 The rattlesnake tequila at  El Museo. Day Trip Tijuana. Trip Wellness

Line up the shots! The rattlesnake tequila at El Museo. Photo: Tripwellness

While tourists and revelers order Margaritas, notice the glass cases. Peer into pictures and wander to the back dining room where memorabilia from the original casino days has found a dusty rest. El Museo probably houses the largest, remaining public collection from the original decadent days.
All is not lost. Before you head back across the border or to your hotel, toast to the old and new Tijuana. For luck try a shot of tequila from the bar top tureen with it’s coiled, marinated rattlesnakes. If not, the Margaritas are delicious. Salut.
If you go: 
Hand Art – Quality traditional clothing.
El Museo – Restaurant and bar with remnants from the old Casino
Agua Caliente Racetrack and Casino – History and location
The Grand Hotel – in Zona Rio
The Placio Azteca – Near Agua Caliente Casino
Thanks for the tour and tips from Senor Juan Saldana and the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau
Travel Notes & Beyond                                               


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