San Diego | ULTIMATE GUIDE
Hey guys! This is soooo long overdue; I feel more and more relieved with each strike of the keyboard! I get a lot of direct messages on my Instagram about visiting San Diego, and I usually find myself too overwhelmed to answer; it’s impossible for me to put into a message all the beauty you will discover here. In an effort to answer direct questions from some of you, as well as give a general snapshot to those in the beginning stages of trip planning, I'm going to break down WHEN to come, WHERE to stay, WHAT to see, and WHERE to eat. Let's do this!
WHEN TO COME
There really is no BAD time to visit San Diego, as our weather is consistently beautiful year round, but if you have the luxury of tailoring your vacation to certain time of year, let me give you some advice to avoid the crowds!! I have an entire blog post HERE to help you plan your visit :)
When to Visit San Diego Blog Post
WHERE TO STAY - CITY vs BEACH
Did you know that downtown San Diego doesn't have actual access to the beach? If you look at a map, it is a bit misleading; Downtown is located right on the water, but it is the San Diego Bay, not Pacific Ocean, and there aren’t access points for swimmers. Choosing between staying at the beach or downtown is a personal choice. I hope the following breakdown makes your decision easier!
DOWNTOWN ~ CENTRAL TO EVERYTHING
The Gaslamp District is the most popular neighborhood downtown. Known for its nightlife and plethora of restaurants, this is a great place to stay for a city experience! If you are interested in a more authentic downtown experience, look into Little Italy (it’s my faaav!!!). It is a quaint, bustling neighborhood filled with restaurant patios, wine bars, and a fantastic farmers market on Saturday :) I'll touch more on neighborhoods in a later post!
Perks of being downtown:
15 minutes from EVERYTHING ~ you won't need to rent a car
Near the airport
Limebikes ~ city bikes and scooters you can rent for $1 an hour to get you around the city (wear a helmet!)
Petco Park-home of the San Diego Padres MLB team
Walking distance to amazing restaurants, pubs, views, and the bay
Trolley ($2.50 each way or $5 day pass)
Why vacation in Southern California if you can't go home with a tan?! If your ideal San Diego vacation includes waking up to waves crashing, local coffee shops, and people-watching on the boardwalk, then our beach towns may be more your speed!
CORONADO ISLAND ~ 14 minutes to airport
OCEAN BEACH ~ 9 minutes to airport
MISSION BEACH ~ 11 minutes to airport
PACIFIC BEACH ~ 18 minutes to the airport
BIRD ROCK ~ 21 minutes from airport
LA JOLLA ~ 21 minutes from airport
WHAT TO SEE
READ CAREFULLY! I've included pro-tips for each of these ;)
WATCH THE SUNSET FROM SUNSET CLIFFS - With it’s rigid and shear cliff faces, this is one of the most famous and beautiful spots in San Diego. It's a common location for proposals, photo shoots, social gatherings, and picnics. It's 15 minutes from downtown by car/uber with free street parking. (P.S. alcohol is prohibited at all beaches!)
Use this address to get you there:
1100 Sunset Cliffs Blvd
San Diego, CA 92107
HIKE TORREY PINES STATE NATURAL RESERVE - This is my favorite hike in San Diego! What I love most about the reserve are the rare pine trees, unique landscapes, beach access, and (omg) the views! Torrey Pines is located north of La Jolla, so I recommend grouping the two into a single day trip (25-30 minute drive from downtown).
PARKING: There are three ways you can park to enter Torrey Pines. I always park at Torrey Pines State Beach because it is free to park, and free to walk in the reserve; the strip is located along the beach right before the park entrance. Your next option is to enter the park, and pay a $15-20 fee (depending on the season) per vehicle. There is parking by the front gate, OR you can drive to the top (we usually do this with our parents) and park near the museum shop.
PADDLE BOARD/KAYAK THE COVES IN LA JOLLA- Watch out for Sea Lions! My husband and I went through a company called Everyday California (located in La Jolla), and had an amazing 2-hour experience. They are on Groupon!
SUNNY JIM SEA CAVE IN LA JOLLA - Sunny Jim is located in an old convenience store-turned-museum-souvenier shop, called the Cave Store. They claim that this building was used as a cover during the prohibition to smuggle in alcohol and drugs from Mexico. There is a man-made tunnel from the store through the ground that was carved out over 1902-1903. The entrance fee is $5-10 (seasonal), and the man-made tunnel down can be slippery with 145 steps to the bottom. This is the only sea cave in California that you can enter by land!
The secret swing is also near here if you can find it ;)
LA JOLLA SEA LIONS - The sea lions are a great attraction for all ages. I park anywhere from La Jolla Boulevard to Pearl Street. To see the sea lions, start at Sunny Jim cave then walk along the coastline. As you pass the beautiful Clam Cave on the right, you will shortly hear (or smell!) the reason for your visit. Although there is nothing to keep you from walking right up to wildlife, I keep a safe distance; they are unpredictable, especially the mother’s with young sea lion pups and the bull males, easily identified by the lump on top of their head!
THE WORLD FAMOUS SAN DIEGO ZOO - Don't shrug off the zoo, PLEASE! I'm telling you, you've never been to a zoo like the World Famous San Diego Zoo; it absolutely lives up to its’ reputation. Your ticket includes free parking and an aerial tram ride (Skyfari) with breathtaking views of downtown. PRO TIP: if you go on a Sunday morning, you can enjoy a boozy brunch at Alfred's treetop restaurant! BRUNCH AT THE ZOO!!! Who doesn't enjoy animals with a buzz? The zoo serves beers from our local breweries like Coronado Brewing, Stone, and Ballast point around the park for you to enjoy. Also- get the kettle corn, it's our fav!
EXPLORE BALBOA PARK - Balboa Park is like our 'Central Park.' It’s location is central to the city and has a variety of attractions including: museums, the San Diego Zoo, golfing, art exhibits, festivals, and gardens. My favorite areas to explore are the Spanish Village, Cactus Garden and the Botanical Garden (which are all next to each other). The Spanish Village is the local arts district., you’ll want to visit during normal business hours so you can see all of the incredible work on display (or buy!). It is known for their rainbow buildings and cobblestone courtyard! The Botanical Garden is absolutely STUNNING! Go to the Cactus Garden around sunset, if you have time. It's a great showcase and appreciation of the beauty found in the desert. All of these are free to do, and have free parking!
LITTLE ITALY FARMER'S MARKET - Saturday’s 8 a.m. - 2 p.m. This is the BEST farmer's market in San Diego. If you're looking for local goods, coffee, and snacks, this is where you need to be. Go to the Guac Shack and order a walk-and-guac ($5 for a generous portion), and ask for the Gringo and Macho dip combo!
EXPLORE PACIFIC BEACH - Quintessential beach town! I love Pacific Beach (or, 'P.B.') for everything it embodies. This is where you want to be for a fun beach day, margaritas, street entertainment, murals, açaí bowls... the whole nine yards! This is where Shore Club and Crushed are (see below). My husband and I have spent a few days sipping margaritas on the board walk in the sunshine and it's the best!!
HIKE COWLES MOUNTAIN - the highest point in the City of San Diego! This is a moderately strenuous hike and highly trafficked. Go early in the morning, or at sunset for the best views and more comfortable temperatures. You can easily finish this hike in regular sneakers.
HOTEL DEL CORONADO - Free parking on Ocean Boulevard along the beach. I park on the beach then make my way towards the back of the hotel, where you can see the famous yard and rooftops of the Hotel Del Coronado. You are free to walk around and explore the grounds of the hotel - don't be shy! They have a small museum just past the lobby. Try to find the hidden ballroom with massive crown chandeliers! I don't recommend staying for drinks or food unless you plan to spend some money. I DO recommend their creamery because they have excellent ice-cream. If you are in San Diego in December, you need to go to the hotel for their ice-skating on the beach!
OLD TOWN San Diego - live music, margaritas, cool shops, and history! This is colonial San Diego, and is very fascinating (and haunted!). I like going in the afternoon (2-3p.m.) to visit and explore the museums, then stay for dinner to enjoy live music. They best courtyard is between Fiesta Cocina/ Temecula Oil Company with dreamy outdoor lights.
TAKE A FLAGSHIP BOAT TOUR - They offer bay/whale watching tours (there are different options), and Groupon sells ticket for half the price! Only do whale-watching if you are here in the spring (migration season). The Flagship bay tour has a rooftop bar with normal priced drinks (yay!). I prefer the 2-hour tour because you get great views of Coronado Island, Downtown San Diego, and Point Loma.
GO TO A PADRES GAME - They may not win, but the craft beers and bites are worth every penny! You can easily get tickets at the counter on game day - PRO TIP: ask for a view of downtown :) If hot dogs and beer aren't what you are looking for, they have a great selection of organic and healthy options which is unique to our stadium.
USS MIDWAY - an aircraft-carrier-turned-museum that is open to the public. It is located downtown on the bay, with spectacular 360 views on the top deck. They have their own parking lot that costs $10 for a day pass (worth it because parking in this area is competitive). I would recommend at least 3 hours for this activity.
WHERE TO EAT
BUONA FORCHETTA for ITALIAN FOOD - you can't leave without ordering the the NICOLA PIZZA (truffle oil, fresh mozzarella, and mushroom... you can thank me later). Get here BEFORE they open at 5p.m. for dinner (also open for lunch), because the wait can be up to 3 hours, and they don't take reservations. This is the type of Italian food you will tell your grandchildren about!!!
CRUSHED in Pacific Beach for the MIMOSA FLIGHTS - I canNOT say enough amazing things about them. they'll legitimately change your life...or at least your day ;) (also the soyrizo fries)!! Great for brunch, tapas, and sharing.
SHORE CLUB for the REDBULL TROPICAL SLUSHIES - This is where I take my friends when we want to day drink on the beach! Casual, beachy, and a very social spot.
MISTER A's for HAPPY HOUR - Monday through Thursday from 3-6 pm with jaw-dropping views of downtown San Diego
THE FISH MARKET/ TOP OF THE MARKET - fresh seafood on the water, and homemade margaritas!
BALLAST POINT LITTLE ITALY - aside from all the amazing beer, they also have THE BEST truffle fries in San Diego
WATERFRONT LITTLE ITALY - DIVE BAR.. cheap beer, free popcorn, packed house!
CAFE GRATITUDE for the NACHOS, omg. so good. This is an amazing vegan restaurant in Little Italy, that serves up the most flavorful and colorful food. Definitely don't leave without ordering the nachos and a smoothie.
JAMES COFFEE, CO - VANILLA LATTE or DIRTY CHIA this is actually the best coffee you'll ever have...in my not so humble opinion
HARUMAMA, SD - the CUTEST character steam buns EVER!!!! you must go and get the jelly sake, too :)
S3 COFFEE BAR - rainbow lattes, and ombre matcha late! they also have an insane avocado toast
DON CARLOS TACO SHOP - AUTHENTIC. STREET STYLE. REAL. MEXICAN FOOD in La Jolla! You canNOT come to San Diego without having tacos from a hole-in-the-wall joint, where someone's mom is cooking you fresh taco's made to order, and serving Mexican Co-ca-cola!
LOLA55 - A new and adorable Mexican fusion restaurant in East Village. Order the Lola Margarita and the Civiche.
FAIRWEATHER - This is a tiki bar for the fair-weather fans (a sports joke). With a great view of the ballpark, you can enjoy the game without actually going to the ballpark. BEST PINA COLADAS IN TOWN!