Tijuana has many different faces – it’s at once a raucous spring-break destination and a wild, escapist fantasy land. The city, in Mexico’s northwest, features in so many films and TV shows that, for many, it’s taken on a legendary aura: the town where no matter what your vice, you can get away with it.

But there’s more to Tijuana than that. With new restaurants popping up across the city, it’s becoming a serious contender for one of Mexico’s best gastronomic destinations and has an exalted art scene to match. Here’s everything you need to know before a trip.

Tijuana is best known for nightlife, so where should I go?

Mexico’s state drinking age of 18 and Tijuana’s proximity to Los Angeles and San Diego means it’s a mecca for young American boozers. But although this vibe certainly remains – there are enough free-pouring dive bars to satisfy the most demanding frat-squad – Tijuana’s bar scene is evolving to include gorgeous watering holes and stylish cocktail bars.

Head to La Justina for Tijuana’s top cocktails, run by San Diego’s fabulous Snake Oil Cocktail Company — the Labios Rios cocktail comes strong and garnished with fiery red chillies. Eating here is an equally exciting experience — try the octopus tostaditos as a dreamy bar snack.

Plaza Fiesta, an old (and slightly dated) outdoor mall is without doubt the best place for local brews. El Depa is small and kitsch, but the beer selection is vast and well-worth sampling. When you get hungry head downstairs to El Tigre for sophisticated cocktails and sriracha fries.

For beer with a super local soul, head to Mamut Cerveza on the newly spruced-up Passaje Rodriguez. This venue sells brews for $1.18 a bottle with the aim to making craft beer accessible to all.

Baja California is also known for its blossoming wine scene, and luckily the Valle de Guadalupe is just an hour from Tijuana.

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And what should I eat?

Tacos tacos tacos. Why eat anything else in Tijuana? Visitors to the city should hunker down on one of the bright red stools at a street side taqueria at least once.The Mazateno is regularly voted the number one taqueria in the city – locals swear by the chilli shrimp taco and the super cheesy enchiladas.

Tio Pepe Tacos is also a residents’ favourite – the tasty potato tacos come with a heaped serving of fresh cabbage carnitas and the meat options are sumptuous too. For something a little different, head to Kokopelli which serves up octopus pesto tacos and squid ink ceviche – it’s one of the rising stars of Tijuana’s foodie scene.

The city is also the place to come for super-fresh mariscos (seafood). Run from popular food hall Food GardenErizo is the brainchild of the city’s most famous chef, Javier PlascenciaIn 2013 the Food Garden grew out of the Distrito Gastronomico and became a new home for some of Tijuana’s busiest street vendors.

There’s fine dining on offer too. Mision 19 is Plascencia’s flagship restaurant and elevates border food to next-level luxury. The design here is sleek, and typical Baja Californian ingredients are crafted into dishes such as roast suckling pig, beef tablitas and grilled octopus.

mision 19, TijuanaTrontnort/Flickr

What else is there to do in the city?

Art-lovers will find plenty to do in Tijuana. The city is fast reinventing itself as a creative hub, with bustling studios and loud and proud street art.

First-timers should make a trip to the Tijuana Cultural Center, a large, bulbous building worth visiting for the architecture alone. Framed against a deep-blue sky, the terracotta-coloured building dominates the riverside: inside, the cool, dark space hosts talks, dances, ensemble performances and photography exhibitions. Out back, there’s a peaceful botanical garden complete with Aztec-style statues.

To see work at a more grassroots level, head to La Caja Galeria, or the Box Gallery, which shows work from Tijuana artists in old warehouse buildings.

Hipsters can while away hours along the Passage Rodriguez. The walls here are brightly sprayed with graffiti and block-coloured murals, and the area has been redeveloped to house a microbrewery, a trendy southern restaurant called Voodoo Stu’s, record stores, bookshops and a bike shop. Del Chopo records is a music-lover’s paradise, with LPs stacked floor to ceiling and an ambient soundtrack on the stereo.

Tijuana street art Jay Galvin/Flickr

What can I buy to take home? 

Die hard souvenir hunters can still find the sombreros, cheap bottles of tequila and brightly embroidered throws if they want – but there’s much more to be snapped up.

Nuclear Waste Underground is an alternative shopping destination in Tijuana’s Zona Centro. As well as records, it sells punky clothing and has a piercing shop on site.

Design-buffs should head to Object. The store opened in 2014 and is a contemporary take on Tijuana’s Mestizo culture. It sells beautifully hewn pieces by local designers and craftspeople: a row of Sebastián Beltrán’s lamps glow over attractive leather handbags and wooden easy chairs.

An outdoor shop in Tijuanaxiquinhosilva/Flickr

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