As Baja California’s lone Pueblo Mágico, a town designated by Mexico as an historic, cultural attraction, Tecate also boasts the fastest, easiest border crossing back into the U.S. In fact, seasoned travelers to the Valle de Guadalupe often make the hour drive to Tecate just to avoid the much busier crossing through Tijuana.
The picturesque city, located about 40 miles from downtown San Diego, is worth stopping by whether you’re entering or leaving Baja California or just as a day trip on its own. Start your morning with its world-famous pan dulce, experience casual Baja cuisine — including some must-try tacos — drink a Tecate beer in its birthplace, and take in the highland scenery along Mexico’s Puerta Norte wine route.
If this itinerary seems too ambitious to do in a day, plan an overnight stay in one of the area’s acclaimed resorts or ranches, knowing that a short border queue is just minutes away.
9 a.m. — Start With Something Sweet
Tecate is one of the best cities in all of Mexico for pan dulce, or Mexican sweet bread, baked in wood-burning ovens using regional ingredients. Fidel Martinez, the baker at Panadería Reina Victoria, creates heavenly pan dulce using flour from Mexicali, high-end butter from Real del Castillo, dairy from local ranches, and cooking oil produced in Baja California. Try a budín de dulce de leche, a barrita de mantequilla, or one of the soft, fluffy conchas, and if you happen to be visiting after the new year, grab the best Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings bread) you’ll find anywhere. In any case, buy an assorted box of sweet breads to take home for breakfast the next day.
10 a.m. — Try Mexican-Style Steak and Eggs
One of the most popular breakfast spots for locals, El Ciclo, is under the direction of chef Daniel Flores who cooks up tempting chilaquiles, fancy steak and eggs, and omelets filled with Mexican shrimp sauteed in butter, garlic, and dried red chiles. Get the chilaquiles chipotles, tortilla chips drowned in a smoky, tangy chile chipotle salsa, with an arrachera steak — a marinated, thick, cut of beef — or the la cazuela, a skillet of spicy, fried potatoes, refried beans, crispy bacon, and tender arrachera topped with eggs. If you’re really hungry, there’s a 400-gram rib eye served with fried eggs.
11:30 a.m. — Wine Taste Along the Ruto del Vina
One of Mexico’s biggest players in natural wines, Bichi, is located on the Téllez family ranch, where it produces biodynamic wines using old vines from recently recovered vineyards of local Misión and Rosa del Peru grapes, plus tempranillo and carinena. Other winery of note to visit before heading back to town include Vinicola Encino de Piedra, Cava y Productos Mediterráneos Garcia, and Vinos Tanama.
1:30 p.m. — Lunch on an Outdoor Patio
At Lugar de Nos, or a “place for us”, chef and owner Mariela Manzano, a graduate of the Tijuana Culinary Art School, specializes in her own brand of Baja California cuisine. Inside the warm and welcoming restaurant feels like a cozy bodega while the rustic, light-filled outdoor patio is cooled by hanging plants. Pair a glass of zesty Casa Magoni Manaz with tacos of jamaica (hibiscus) and requesón (fresh cheese) and a seared tuna tostada. The menu, which features many local ingredients, also extends to pastas and pizzas.
3:30 p.m. — Take a Scenic Drive With a Taco Pit Stop
Visit the nearby town of La Rumorosa via a beautiful, winding road through ochre hues of mountainous terrain that, despite the legends and tall tales, is a pleasant drive. Along the way, check out El Vallecito, a Kumiai archaeological site, geo park Casa de Piedra, or wineries like Vinícola Rosa de Castillo, Viñas San Valentín, and Cas Veramendi. An obligatory stop is at Tacos Lalo for La Rumorosa-style tacos al vapor, tacos steamed in turquoise enamel pots and filled with chicharrón, potatoes, or beans and dressed with lots of shredded cabbage and mild red salsa.
6 p.m. — Break for Beers and Shots
Founded by Don Raul Mateus in 1957 and now run by his grandson, Alex Mateus, Bar Diana is a city landmark and the oldest cantina in town. For locals, it’s an institution that has welcomed civic politicians, construction workers, educators, factory workers, and entrepreneurs alike to a place where the beers are just as cold for rich and poor. Cool off with a shot of well tequila and a can of Tecate rojo or perhaps a michelada.
7:30 p.m. — Sample Baja Surf and Turf
One of the newer restaurants serving Baja cuisine in Tecate, Ensamble 43 opened its doors in October of 2019 with provincial surf and turf dishes. At the end of 2021, Michoacán-born chef Javier Méndez took over the modern-rustic space, set with leather banquettes and steel and glass dividing wall that connects to a tranquil patio. There are a half-dozen raw bar items, including a citrus-marinated ribeye steak tiradito, a black shrimp aguachile stained and spiced with charred chiles, and beet ceviche that can be made vegan. Méndez also excels at abalone sopes and his riff on “fish of the day,” an Ensenada classic. Heartier plates include mesquite-grilled steak, suckling pig tacos, and pancetta al pastor.
9:30 p.m. — End the Night With More Wine
Tecate is not known for its nightlife, but if you happen to be in town on a Friday or Saturday night, there’s no better way to end an evening than enjoying a bottle of Mexican wine at Vinoteca, a romantic wine garden. Snack on some regional cheeses with Emevé Armonia de Tintos, a ruby red blend, or an herbal, fruity blend of carignan and syrah from Cuatro Soles. Norte 32 Tezinano cabernet sauvignon is a house favorite, as is an iced bottle of L.A. Cetto’s Primavera, a cab rosé to sip on after a long day of adventuring.