Exploring Baja California has become one of our favorite weekend getaways. Living in San Diego, it’s only a short drive down to the border, yet being in Mexico feels like a whole new world. It’s inexpensive, the food is incredible, and best of all, we get to experience new cultures and ways of life.
Because of the sheer amount of attractions, planning a trip to Baja California can be a daunting task. It’s approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Tijuana to Cabo, making Baja California even longer than the state of California. And while many tourists jump at the chance to fly to Cabo for a relaxing vacation in paradise, there is plenty to do in northern Baja California.
After exploring the many beautiful regions of Baja California, we’ve found what we think is the perfect Baja California itinerary: Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada. These three cities will help you really experience what this diverse peninsula has to offer.
The best part about this itinerary is that it’s only a total of 1 hour and 42 minutes of driving. Yet despite the relative closeness of these cities, you get to experience three cities with very different feels. Tijuana has an urban feel with a thriving food and beer scene, Rosarito has the relaxed vibe of a small beach town, and Ensenada is very much a combination of the two.
Regardless of which city you’re in, you’re sure to experience amazing food, kind people, and great value. And since these three cities are so close together, this itinerary is perfect for someone who is new to Baja California or Mexico. You’ll never be more than a few hours from the border, and these cities are more accustomed to tourists/visitors so they have great hotels and restaurants for you to enjoy.
Day 1: Tijuana
Tijuana is one of Mexico’s hidden gems that is hiding in plain sight. Tourists never seem to consider Tijuana since it’s gotten a bad rep in recent years, but don’t let that stop you from venturing to this lively city. We’ve had nothing but positive experiences in Tijuana, just make sure to stay in the main downtown/beach areas and stay out of the Zona Norte.
Things To Do In Tijuana
One of the best ways to enjoy Tijuana is by exploring the Playas de Tijuana–the beach! Tijuana has a beautiful beach, accompanied by a lengthy boardwalk with shops and restaurants. We recommend you stop and have a drink or a bite to eat overlooking the ocean. The views can’t be beat.
Another great thing to do in Tijuana is visit the Tijuana Cultural Center, or CECUT. There are always great art and cultural exhibits going on at CECUT, and there is even an iMAX where you can watch educational and local films. Plan your visit around one of the many festivals to enjoy the street food and drinks located in tents surrounding CECUT.
Tijuana’s Craft Beer Scene
Many are surprised to learn that Tijuana has a thriving craft beer scene. Craft beer only recently started becoming popular in Tijuana, but the breweries that have appeared are very high caliber. Coming from San Diego, we have very high expectations for craft beer and we’ve been pleasantly surprised by every beer we’ve tried in Tijuana.
One of the most popular places to try out Tijuana’s craft beer scene is Plaza Fiesta, a strip of local craft breweries. Our favorite brewery in Plaza Fiesta is Tres Fuegos Cervecería, which is a cool bar located on the second floor and has lots of comfy seating and a cool interior style.
Another fantastic way to experience the thriving beer scene in Tijuana is by paying a visit to Telefonica Gastropark. I can’t emphasize enough how cool this place is–there’s beer, food trucks, awesome places to sit, a suspended net you can hang out in…It’s a Tijuana experience that you can’t miss.
Where To Eat in Tijuana
And of course, it wouldn’t be a trip to Tijuana without trying the incredible food. While there are a ton of great places to choose from, we recommend you try Alma Verde for breakfast, Caesar’s for lunch (the original creator of the Caesar salad!) and La Espadana for dinner. Each of these places is sure to knock your socks off.
Also, the food trucks at Telefonica Gastropark (which we mentioned above) can’t be missed. Regardless of which food truck you select, you’re sure to have some of the best tacos of your life. Don’t worry, there is covered outdoor seating to enjoy your meal.
Looking for a full list of the many great things Tijuana has to offer? Check out our blog post on 16 Incredible Things To Do In Tijuana, Mexico.
Day 2: Rosarito
Many people have never heard of this tiny little beach town on the coast of Baja California, but don’t let that fool you. Rosarito is home to some incredible restaurants and amazing things to do, so plan on spending at LEAST a day here to enjoy the beaches and sunshine.
Where to Eat in Rosarito
Surprisingly, two of our all-time favorite Mexican restaurants are in Rosarito. The first is a casual lunch spot called Tacos El Yaqui. You know you’re about to eat something delicious the moment you get in line. The scent of carne asada wafting from the outdoor grill smells heavenly, and it definitely draws in a crowd from the street. Be patient if there’s a long line, because the tacos are worth it. Order two perrones with everything on them, and thank us later.
The second incredible Mexican restaurant in Rosarito is called El Nido. Located centrally on the main street of Rosarito, El Nido specializes in authentic Mexican food, steaks, and seafood. Regardless of what you order, you’re sure to have a delicious meal in a restaurant who’s interiors feel like the Amazon Rainforest. Bonus: Don’t forget to check out the secret wine cellar downstairs! Ask your server about it.
Lastly, if you are looking for a delicious breakfast spot, try Pancake Republic. This unassuming cafe has some of the most incredible pancakes we’ve ever head. The Hawaiian pancakes, pictured above, are the perfect way to start out a day of lots of walking.
Things To Do in Rosarito
Many of the great things to do in Rosarito revolve around the beach, which features a long pier. Head to Playas de Rosarito and you’ll find an array of activities, our favorite of which is ATV’ing on the beach. Head just south of the pier and you’ll see a row of ATV rentals waiting to be taken for a ride. And at about $10 USD for a 30 minute ride, it’s a bargain.
Another great thing to do in Rosarito is visit the Popotla Fishing Village. This tiny village has some of the best seafood that you can get, and the prices are a bargain. Head over to Restaurant & Bar Popotla for a gourmet seafood meal at a fraction of the price that you would expect.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the nightlife scene in Rosarito. Since this beautiful beach town is so close to the border, the bars and clubs are very popular among visitors. Head to Papas & Beer for delicious drinks and an opportunity to dance the night away.
Looking for the full list of things to do in Rosarito? Don’t forget to check out our blog post on 19 Amazing Things To Do In Rosarito, Mexico.
Day 3: Ensenada
Ensenada is further into the Baja Peninsula, and for that reason you’ll get a much more authentic Mexican experience. The population of Ensenada is about 522,000, or roughly half the population of Tijuana. Since it’s a fairly large sized city, you’ll find plenty of great restaurants and things to do in Ensenada.
Where to Eat in Ensenada
Ensenada is famous for it’s food stand scene, so don’t be shy about trying the food offered from little stands throughout the city. Many of them offer the most delicious and gourmet food that you can find in the city, including the ultra-popular La Guerrerense.
If you feel like more of a sit-down restaurant, try El Mesón de Don Fernando. They offer delicious salads and soups (try the tortilla soup!) if you feel like having a lighter lunch or dinner.
Things To Do In Ensenada
Exploring everything that Ensenada has to offer is best done on foot, since much of the attractions are located centrally downtown. Explore along Av Adolfo Lopez Mateos for many of the good restaurants or shopping.
Head down to the waterfront and visit Ventana al Mar, the cozy waterfront park that hosts live music in their outdoor venue “Concha Acustica”. There are also often farmers’ markets set up here, so you can do a little shopping and purchase local goods from the vendors.
There is also excellent wine tasting in Ensenada, since Valle de Guadalupe (one of Mexico’s main wine producing regions) is right down the road. Bodegas de Santo Tomás is a great place downtown to get you started, since there are stores to buy wine, as well as a beautiful wine tasting room if you want to try some of the wines before you buy them.
You can’t visit Ensenada without also exploring La Bufadora, the marine geyser located on the coastline just outside of Ensenada. This natural phenomenon is caused by wind and water being trapped in sea caves, causing it to erupt overhead onto onlookers.
Curious to learn more about La Bufadora? Read our blog post La Bufadora: Exploring Ensenada’s Marine Geyser.
There is so much more to see in Baja California than just Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada, but this itinerary is a great start at discovering everything that Baja California has to offer. Many of the people you will encounter don’t speak English, so don’t forget to brush up on your Spanish before you leave.
Remember to convert your money into pesos and bring plenty of cash with you, since many of the places you will go to are cash only. Also, remember to be cautious when visiting Mexico. While Baja California is very safe for tourists, it can be best to leave your car in a parking garage overnight just to ensure it isn’t stolen.