Tijuana's Zona Norte is adjacent to the tourist zone in the Zona Centro, to the north, and just south of the border. This zone is primarily residential and also includes the local red light district. Prostitution is legal in this zone and very visible.
A police station in the middle of the red light district and the presence of numerous police on foot make the area reasonably safe, though if you wander into one of the many secluded pedestrian alleys you might never wander out again. Acting touristy in this zone will attract predators.
From San Diego, cross the San Ysidro border, and walk toward the arch: The arch is located at Revolucion and First Street, officially known as Calle Artículo 123. Keep walking west toward Constitucion, and you will find yourself in the Zona Norte. Stay very alert to anyone following you on this route as many muggings occur on First Street.
Turn right (north) on Constitucion, and the next street (not the alley to your left) will be Calle Coahuila, where most of the major attractions of the neighborhood can be found. The alley is Callejon Coahuila and is where most of the street prostitutes are. They are referred to locally as Paraditas.
Alternately, take a taxi, which is especially recommended if you are unfamiliar with the area or are travelling after dark.
The primary purpose of most visits to the Zona Norte involves prostitution.
Minor bars of note include:
Bars to avoid include:
These minor bars all also have "drink companions" (known as ficheras in Spanish) available, but they are much less likely to speak English than those at the major bars in this neighborhood. Some waiters may not speak much English beyond what they need to take drink orders.
Be cautious and aware while in the Zona Norte, much as you would in a not-so-nice area of any major city. Zona Norte is full of people who will take advantage of tourists who appear to be unfamiliar with the area. Often (but not always), Mexicans who speak good English in this area may be criminals or other undesireables who may have been in the United States illegally and deported back to Mexico.
In particular, police in Zona Norte can be corrupt and may target tourists and accuse them of crimes in order to extort fines (bribes) from them. Some say you should be polite but firm and not pay the "fine" and insist that they take you to see a judge, which is the only legal way they can take you to jail. Others say that it is easier to just pay the bribe and not waste time negotiating with the police. The decision as to whether to pay the bribe or politely refuse must be made individually based on each person's comfort level.
Be careful when speaking to people in the Zona Norte, as police may accuse you of attempting to buy drugs if you are seen talking with known drug dealers, even if you simply told the person you are not interested in buying drugs. Again, the "fine" issue may raise its head.
Zona Norte is generally not a location for shopping other than food, drink, drugs and "companionship". One exception is Saturdays, when there is a street market stretching four blocks on Avenida Mutualismo between Avenida Articulo 123 and Avenida Internacional. This street market has stalls selling all manner of foods, household goods, CDs, movies, tools, clothing, drugs and more.
DO NOT try to buy drugs in the Zona Norte. It is an area well known for street drug sales and the local police know most of the dealers. You WILL be busted if you attempt to buy drugs here. Keep in mind that as long as you are polite and treat the police with respect, you should be able to pay an "on the spot" fine directly to the officers. Be subtle, and thankful to them, or they will just throw you in jail.
Dining in Zona Norte is not generally considered high class. There are numerous small eateries along Calle Coahuila, and food carts which will serve street tacos and similar "finger food" on Calle Coahuila at the corners of Constitucion and Niños Heroes. Be cautious when eating from the food carts; however, a reasonable rule of thumb is that a cart that is busy, especially with native consumers, is generally more safe. The locals know where the good food is.
Alternatively, walk a couple of blocks south from Coahuila along Constitucion, and you'll find a street market flanked by a large selection of restaurants, including McDonald's and KFC. Subway has closed down, despite the big sign.
There is no shortage of places to drink in the Zona Norte. Most bars have drink specials (two-for-one is typical) until the evening hours, to generate more business.
There are many very cheap hotels in the Zona Norte, with rooms for $15-$20 a night not unheard of, though these places are as seedy as you would expect. Do not assume anything left in your room will be there when you return. Bringing your own bedsheets is probably a wise move.
In both of these two the staff are trustworthy, and you can leave your things behind the counter when you check out, and pick them up hours later when ready to return to the border.
Petty crimes such as muggings and pickpocketing can happen in Zona Norte, even during the day, so it is best if you are with someone else. And while drug violence is often not targeted at tourist, it is still better to be alert. You may unknowingly walk into the cross-fire of rival drug cartels, but this is less likely in Zona Norte than in other, seedier parts of town. Because of significant police presence, Zona Norte can actually be a safer part of town than others, with respect to violent crime, as long as you stay on the major thoroughfares and avoid the alleyways north of Calle Coahuila.
At night, however, tourists are highly discouraged from venturing off of Calle Coahuila and the Coahuila Alley to other parts of the neighborhood. Much of this area is very deserted at night, and you can be an easy target for criminals or police corruption.
One good rule of thumb is, if you are a man, to try to avoid direct eye contact with a local tough guy or young man. By "letting" him stare you down by averting your gaze you are less likely to bring about some macho confrontation, especially if the other fellow is drunk. If you are there to have fun, focus on the fun, and avoid proving your manhood to some local.
Always carry some ID with you (such as a driver's license) because the police will ask you for it if they stop and search you.
Do not walk on Baja California Street on the 'Zona Norte' if you can avoid it. If you must do so, be very careful as it is full of drug dealers.