Your overwhelming first impression of TJ will be an infinite supply of insane junk piled up everywhere with aggressive jerks trying to charm, swindle, or intimidate you into buying it. Well, junk is a big part of the TJ experience and one man's junk is another man's treasure. If your kid might like a huge plaster Bart Simpson or switchblade comb or $20 watch that says 'Rolex' and looks fairly passable, go for it. But there is good, serious shopping in Tijuana--some real bargains on certain items. No need to change money--dollars happily accepted here.
Of course there are fireworks that would give Saddam Hussein second thoughts, and switchblades and Cuban cigars, and over-the-counter codeine and all that--but sooner or later you have to cross the border. Best stick to legal goods that are a good buy. Leather, embroidery, Mexican liquors, handicrafts, cutlery, woven goods are all good bets.
EVERYBODY is selling leather. Prices vary--and you have to haggle for anything. Just walk away and hear the price coming down as you recede. But it's a good buy anywhere. A nice leather bag that might cost $90 in the states can be had for $25, okay $20, for you $16, today only $12, how much do you want to pay? And some of the stuff just can't compare to anything available north of the border. Like leather Tweety Bird baseball hats. Sleek leather jackets with the logo of your favorite team stitched on in leather go for under $200. Examine closely, drive a hard bargain. Remember that all your friends are expecting you to bring them some trinkets from Mexico.
On the West side of Revolucion by Sanborns is Hand Art--THE place to buy embroidery. They have gorgeous blouses, unbearably cute little dresses, sumptuous tablecloths--all hand embroideried at prices that are ridiculously cheap by US standards. English spoken, too. Don't worry about little girls going blind from their needlework--purchase of labor-intensive crafts helps support village people (no, not THOSE VIllage People) who need the money.
Handcrafts can get out of hand. You can steal a stained glass window, a wrought iron bedframe, a life-sized paper-mache giraffe, a basket big enough for Alladin to hide in--but how do you get it home? The better shops take care of that for you, of course. And the better shops are tucked in among the 'junko loco' places on Revu. You'll know when you walk by and look through the window and see a bunch of incredibly beautiful furniture or decorations. HIGHLY recommended is the big circus tent-looking place right by the Jai Alai palace at 7th. Good prices and here you can actually see some work being done. Huichol indians in their native dress (colorful pajamas and hats with dingle-balls) doing their beadwork, maybe a weaver doing a blanket or wall-hanging (your name woven in for a price). Other than that, it's a scavenger hunt.
Tequila and Kahlua are cheaper here, but so are most LOCAL brands of rum and brandy. But remember, only one liter per adult when you hit customs. And only one carton of the cigarettes, which cost about a quarter of the US price. For something different, try Rompope, an eggnog liquor and fairly cheap. Cheap drunks try a bottle of 'Cana', sugar-cane based everclear that is like 98% alcohol and costs about $2 a liter.
Blankets are everywhere, of course, and you can't beleive anything anybody says about them. Search out nicer wool blankets in places you can walk into, they'll still be cheap. Everyone has rows of gleaming knives, but look past the barbarian killing empliments and you'll see good prices on useful sports, kitchen, and pocket knives.
Also check out duty-free bargains on everything from Lalique crystal to european perfume in the big import shops--'Sara's' is the big one, but there are several along the drag.
And if you find yourself going home with some money left, don't panic. There will be hawking bizarro wares right up to the border crossing.