San Francisco and Los Angeles usually rise to the top of everyone’s standard big cities to visit, but if you keep cruising just a little farther south, you’ll be happy to find yourself in California’s third notable big city encircled by beach towns and chill vibes. A great balance if you’re like me and get a little overwhelmed by large doses of city life.
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San Diego is full of super active locals, urban hotspots, great surf, plenty of entertainment, and you’re so close to the Mexican border you can almost smell the fresh tortillas and tequila being poured in Tijuana just a 40-minute drive away.
Best Time to Visit San Diego
Summertime boasts the most consistent good weather. However, the best surf is in the winter—December to March. And, if you’re into whale watching, the season is December to April for gray whales and June to September for blue whales.
The weather is never really going to be too extreme either way though, so unless surf is your main goal, maybe aim for spring (being mindful of spring break) or early fall to avoid larger amounts of tourists and students.
For a more detailed explanation of weather and events in San Diego, check out this article on US News.
Top Things to do in San Diego
There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors as well as urban culture. Check out a variety of animals at San Diego Zoo. You can even create your own itinerary on the website so you don’t miss your favorites! The zoo is right next to Balboa Park, where you can spend an afternoon or an entire day getting lost checking out the museums, gardens, galleries, and performances. Some attractions are free, some cost a little extra but no matter your budget, you won’t be disappointed.
You can also climb aboard the Star of India, the world’s oldest active clipper ship, or go whale watching on America, a 139-foot yacht, as a part of a visit to the Maritime Museum in San Diego Bay. Then peruse around Seaport Village for shopping or dining right on the bay.
Check out the Gaslamp Quarter for Victorian architecture and lots of hip bars, galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and gastropubs. Little Italy is just north of downtown and is the perfect place if you wish to find yourself with an espresso in hand at a cool café.
If you’re a little more drawn to the ocean and it’s inhabitants, check out Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla. Look out for SEA Days, where you or your kids can meet and interview researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Admission is under $20, parking is free, and you don’t have to stress over the moral debates that may ensue when considering it’s more amusement-focused alternative, Sea World.
The many neighborhoods of San Diego all have their own unique flavor. If you have the time, cruise the 59-mile scenic drive along the coast in search of the hidden gems that each area has to offer. Make sure to stop off at the Mount Soledad monument in La Jolla for a great viewpoint of the entire city to get a good bird’s eye view of the entire city.
Make your way to La Jolla Cove to check out local shops and watch the seals bathe in the sun. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, there’s snorkelling, kayaking, or even scuba diving tours offered from here.
Just north of La Jolla is Torrey Pines State Reserve where you can explore cliff side trails and gardens right on the Pacific Coast.
Discover the beauty of this sweet little island starting with the view from Coronado Bridge. The island is full of wealthy but quaint neighborhoods, nice beaches, cute shops, and of course the world-class Hotel del Coronado.
Go check out the happy hour at Coronado Brewery and take a walk on the beach or rent bicycles and cruise around for an afternoon. Check out this article on Go California for more highlights from Coronado.
Look into Tourmaline, a surfing-only beach which is a great place to learn and is therefore rather packed on the weekends. For more family-friendly swimming beaches, aim for North Pacific Beach where there is more parking available. You can also enjoy an afternoon of fishing right from Crystal Pier.
If you visit Pacific Beach, you’ve got to take a stroll on the boardwalk at sunset. There are lots of cheesy bars all along the boardwalk and even some fun rooftop bars. As soon as the sun goes down, though, head to Garnet Avenue for the rest of your evening. It’s full of hip bars and restaurants, which will be full of college age kids in the summer. Check out San Diego Magazine’s Neighborhood Guide to Pacific Beach.
This is the spot for all of your hippie needs. If you feel like surfing, this is a good spot to rent a board or even find an instructor. Take an affordable but challenging yoga class at Indie Yoga just off the main strip. Check out The Black on Newport Ave mainly for their cool bookstore in the back featuring great reads about surf, music, philosophy, travels, and the psychedelic scene in the sixties. From there, explore the beach, walk down the pier, grab a burger from Hodad’s, and scope out a good happy hour spot.
Even better, try to get to Ocean Beach on a Wednesday to check out the farmer’s market from 4-8pm year round. There’s typically a group of flow artists and fire dancers that gather in the park closer to the beach during the farmer’s market as well.
Where to Stay in San Diego
For budget travelers and backpackers, head straight to Ocean Beach Accommodation . Can’t beat the free breakfast and chill vibes. Uber and Lyft make it affordable enough to check out the rest of the city from here too.
La Jolla Cove Suites is a great beach front base in a slightly upscale neighborhood to explore La Jolla Cove and the aquarium.
A more luxurious beachfront option can be found at Catamaran Resort right on Mission Bay in Pacific Beach.
An experience in itself can be found at the famous Hotel del Coronado. Probably only ideal if you plan on sticking to the island and downtown San Diego area.
If you only have a short amount of time but have enough money, look for a hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter or near the convention center. This will put you right downtown among all the urban action.
Find and book these hotels on our favourite accommodation search website: Booking.com
Then, of course, there’s Airbnb. For downtown check out this chic little urban treehouse.
Don’t have an Airbnb account yet? Sign up now and receive a discount to put towards your first Airbnb stay!
Where to Eat and Drink in San Diego
Ask a local where their favorite California Burrito or favorite street taco is and you’ll probably get a different answer every time. But ask someone near where you’re staying anyway and go there. Or check out this article for 10 killer taco joints in San Diego County.
Maybe try to balance out the grease and carbs from that meal with a super healthy acai bowl, which can be found at basically any café for breakfast or an afternoon snack.
The craft beer scene is plentiful in San Diego. Visit Ballast Point, Green Flash or even Stone Brewing Company if you’re up for the drive to Escondido. Head to Barrel Republic in Pacific Beach if you enjoy tasting a lot of different beers. They have a pretty unique system set up where you can walk around pouring tasters for yourself! Now that’s freedom! If you make it to the Gaslamp Quarter though, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to taste local craft beers no matter where you end up. Here’s a great list of top restaurants in Gaslamp Quarter from San Diego Restaurants featuring summaries, ratings, and if there’s outdoor seating available or not.
North Park is a quirky neighborhood where you can find all sorts of great foodie options. Visit The Milk Bar—their tagline is literally ‘Beer. Milk. Cookies.’ Need I say more? The Milk Bar is attached to Streetcar Merchants where you can find all kinds of fried chicken options. Weird combo but is definitely a unique experience.
If you’re in Pacific Beach, you’ll definitely find yourself on Garnet Avenue. For brunch, check out Crushed and their yummy mimosas. Maybe hit Iron Pig Alehouse for cheap pints at happy hour and delicious pulled pork. About 6 blocks south of Garnet and a block from the boardwalk is The Local, which is another great spot for happy hour with lots of space indoor and outdoor for big groups.
Ocean Beach has my favorite farmer’s market but there’s a different market to explore every day of the week. San Diego Farm Bureau lays it all out so you can support local farm efforts no matter where you’re at.
Don’t miss out on a finer dining experience though, at C Level or Island Prime, two restaurants sitting on stilts over San Diego Bay with an amazing view of the city skyline. For lunch or happy hour, go to C Level; for dinner, make a reservation at Island Prime.
How Much Time Do You Need in San Diego
2-3 days could be great to explore sections of San Diego, like Coronado Island and downtown for example. However, to get a better feel of San Diego and to embrace the mellow vibes outside of the downtown area, I wouldn’t visit for less than a week.
Here’s a 2-day itinerary for exploring the highlights of San Diego for those that really are short on time though.
Author’s Bio: Kellie is a traveling bartender, jeweler, writer, and fire dancer. She loves more than anything to visit a new place and to just sit and watch life happen around her; especially in places with sunshine and thriving music and art scenes. Typically traveling on a budget, she’s got a good feel for how to enjoy a place for less but also appreciates the times when it’s worthwhile to splurge. Follow her adventures on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and on her blog Nomadic Nymph.
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