San Diego is called “America’s Finest City” for good reason. Warm, moderate weather, a plethora of cultural activities, stunning beaches, and good food are just some of the reasons to visit what is, in my opinion, the gem of the West Coast.
I lived in San Diego from 1999 to 2003 when I was a student at the University of California, San Diego. Perched on top of the cliffs in La Jolla, overlooking the ocean, UCSD was truly paradise. But the rest of San Diego is nearly as amazing, and in this guide we will just scratch the surface of what there is to do, see, and eat there.
Yes, this is pretty much the view from UCSD. Jealous? Photo courtesy of Walter Solomon
The bad news: the San Diego airport is a small one for a city of its size, and while direct flights to the east coast are common enough, international transoceanic flights are basically all from Los Angeles. The reason? The airport is just outside downtown, meaning a building-scraping approach. Which brings us to the good news: getting from the airport to just about anywhere in the city is less than a half hour drive, and often significantly shorter.
If you’re combining San Diego with a trip to other places in California, it is only about two hours’ drive from Los Angeles, or an hour and a quarter from Orange County and Disneyland.
Ok, yes, San Diego kind of has a trolley system, and a bit of a light rail. But really, to get around you’re likely to need a car – or Uber and its ilk – unless you just want to stay in a single central location like downtown and Balboa Park (more on the park later). Rush hour traffic can be bad, especially going in and out of the triangle made by Interstates 5, 805, and 8. And if it’s raining, San Diego drivers are notorious for lousy wet weather driving. Just be careful.
The city is fairly spread out, though most things you’ll want to do will be between Downtown and La Jolla along the coast. Yes, there are some exceptions, but think of this area as your home turf.
What to Do
There is truly a lot, but let’s divide activities into culture and nature for the purposes of this article.
Any dive into culture starts with Balboa Park, one of the finest urban parks in the world. It has museums, gardens, the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the Old Globe Theatre, and so much more! Some things are free; some cost money. All are worth their admission fees, and advance tickets combining sites can save you money. I could spend an entire weekend here – the zoo alone is an all-day affair – and still not see everything. My favorites? The Japanese Garden, which has a fee but can also be seen from the tea house above, the International Houses, a collection of small country-themed huts on one side of the park only open on weekends featuring fun food and cultural activities, and the Speckels Organ Pavilion, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ which has free concerts. If you go to San Diego and skip Balboa Park entirely, you didn’t go to San Diego.
The San Diego Botanical Garden in Balboa Park. Photo courtesy of Akima Cornell
If you are coming with children, a couple of amusement parks are worth a mention: SeaWorld in Mission Bay and Legoland in Carlsbad.
San Diego is known for being a military town, with huge Navy and Marines presences. If you’re into military history, the USS Midway Museum is right along the downtown promenade. How often do you have the chance to explore an aircraft carrier?
If nightlife is more your style, downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter has some of the best restaurants and bars in the city, with a nice vibe. Or, if you’re a morning person, Little Italy’s farmers market is not to be missed!
If you want to get out into the fresh air, San Diego has a myriad of amazing outdoor adventures for you. Water sports junkies can head to Mission Bay for jet skiing and the like, or if you prefer to power your own craft, kayaking is awesome both in La Jolla for its sea caves and Coronado for the view of downtown across the harbor.
Prefer to see the ocean from above? Try the Torrey Pines Glider Port for a hang gliding lesson. Or hike the tip of Point Loma at Cabrillo National Monument.
As for beaches, San Diego doesn’t have the wide sandy vistas of Orange County, but La Jolla Shores is a pleasant area with a nice playground for kids, and the Pacific side of Coronado is stunning! If you want the more sandy beach volleyball sorts of places, North County (Carlsbad/Oceanside) is your best bet.
The view from Cabrillo National Monument
Where to Stay
San Diego is a huge city, with every possible brand of hotel at every possible level of elegance. If you don’t plan to have a car, stay downtown. The Marriott Marquis at the Marina is gorgeous, or for a bit more mellow of a stay, try the DoubleTree in Little Italy, literally at one end of the aforementioned farmers market.
Want elegance? You can try the Hilton Torrey Pines on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, or stay at the iconic Hotel Del Coronado (known locally as the Del).
Looking for a bit of a budget deal? My personal hotel of choice on most of my trips is the Holiday Inn Express in Old Town, a mere ten minutes from downtown or the airport.
The Doubletree is right next to this amazing farmers market in Little Italy!
What to Eat
San Diego is a great food city, and lucky for you, I wrote a whole separate article on it! Check it out!! To sum up, make sure to have Mexican food, especially fish tacos and California-style burritos. San Diego Mexican food is truly the best!
Fish tacos to die for
Other Useful Information
Weather in San Diego really depends on where in the city you are. At UCSD, just walking the two miles from the coastal side to the inland side could change the weather from overcast and 65 degrees Fahrenheit to sunny and 80. Inland areas like La Mesa can be quite hot, while coastal areas can be unseasonably cool if the marine layer is in.
When I was in college, crossing the border into Tijuana, Mexico (“TJ”) was as easy as showing your drivers license and walking across. Today, that’s much harder, though Mexico is still a fun day trip. You’ll need passports, international auto insurance if you drive across, and patience to wait in what can be long lines. If you want to make it a nice long weekend, drive down to Rosarito Beach, or even all the way to Ensenada.
San Diego is one of the top cities in the country for craft microbreweries, and it is totally possible to have a beer weekend. Ballast Point is my favorite local brewery. Or Karl Strauss.
The USS Midway
Of everywhere I’ve lived, San Diego might be my favorite city. There is really nothing bad about it, and so many amazing things to do, see, and eat. Often forgotten on California trips in favor of San Francisco or Los Angeles, I hope this guide will make you remember San Diego and add it to your getaway!
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