For a city that's not only northern Mexico's financial and cultural centre, but also one of the busiest tourist destinations in the world, TIJUANA doesn't try awfully hard to make a good initial impression. In many ways, the dust and dirt evident at first glance are a decent indication of its character. Decades of catering to its northern neighbour's vices and poor civic planning have taken their toll, and Tijuana's relative youth – it wasn't officially founded until 1889 – and prosperity are belied by cracked roads, endless graffiti and an air of indifference.
But if you can get past the grit and the tourist pandering near the border, you'll discover a place much smarter than it looks. Buoyed by the region's duty-free status and its legion of maquiladora assembly plants, Tijuana is among the wealthiest cities in the Mexican republic. This promise of available work has increased its population, and enterprising newcomers have breathed life into the city's restaurant industry, using cultural institutions like Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) as a breeding ground for home-grown artistic and cultural movements. Downtown, beyond the areas where most tourists venture, the modern concrete and glass buildings wouldn't look out of place in southern California.