Putting together a post about my hometown has proven to be challenging. Finding a starting point is particularly tricky since I have years of recommendations for my ever-evolving city. Luckily, two of my close friends visited us at the end of last month. It was their first time visiting San Diego, which allowed me to make a itinerary for them and firm up my recommendations for this post of must-sees.
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By air: A lovely thing about San Diego is that the airport (SAN) is right in the middle of town. In many cities the airport is inconveniently half an hour outside of town. Here, you can land right next to the bay and immediately begin sightseeing! Even the descent is scenic since you can see Balboa Park from the right side of the plane or downtown from the left side.
By land: Many freeways end in San Diego. I-5 (“the 5”) comes down from LA—we are only about 125 miles away. The 15 comes down from Las Vegas and the rest of the country. The 8 comes in from Arizona. Keep traffic in mind because a 2 hour drive between LA and SD can become 5+ hours on a Friday afternoon.
Things to Do
People usually picture the beach and Sea World when they think of America’s Finest City, but my first recommendation is always Balboa Park. Balboa Park is like our version of Central Park. It runs north-south in the center of town. It is composed of museums, cultural centers, hiking trails, athletic fields, and the famous San Diego Zoo. The zoo and each museum have entrance fees so plan out what you want to see before you go, or get the Balboa Park Pass. Have a lovely lunch or dinner at Panama 66, located just outside the San Diego Museum of Art. I recommend giving Balboa Park half a day or more.
Mission Bay Park is San Diego’s biggest park. It consists of many manmade bays and coves with explanatory names like Sail Bay and Ski Beach. Mission Beach is a long strip that runs from Pacific Beach in the north to the San Diego River in the south. It is our most pristine and tourist-friendly beach (except for Coronado beach). Belmont Park is located at the southern end of Mission Beach—you can’t miss it. It’s a boardwalk-style amusement park complete with carnival games and a wooden rollercoaster.
Stay in the heart of Mission Bay at The Dana or Paradise Point.
Oh yeah! The water! If you’re not from a coastal area, definitely take advantage of the year-round pleasant weather by taking a harbor cruise and checking out the Star of India, a ship built in 1863. While you’re downtown on Harbor Drive you can also visit the USS Midway Museum if you’re into military history. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to get the ultimate ocean experience you can even go sea kayaking and get much closer to the Pacific wildlife.
Shopping is good in San Diego too: the Mission Valley and upscale Fashion Valley malls are just a stone’s throw from each other. More importantly, there are all the wonderful small businesses tucked in each neighborhood (see below). Pack an empty tote bag to carry home all the treasures you’re sure to pick up.
You’ll hear San Diego regularly described as a “city made up of neighborhoods” and this is certainly true.
The Gaslamp Quarter is directly north of the Convention Center and is always bustling with people who work downtown and tourists. I’ll confess that I don’t know a ton of locals who go downtown regularly. Little Italy, northwest of downtown is more of a locals’ spot. Their Saturday farmers’ market is not to be missed. Most of the city’s best restaurants are clustered in this neighborhood.
Beach Neighborhoods: Each beach neighborhood has its own personality. La Jolla and Coronado are ritzy and pristine. Ocean Beach is the polar opposite filled with offbeat shops and hippies (I guarantee you’ll see a drum circle). Mission Beach and Pacific Beach give off the classic “California” vibe.
The real must-visit part of town for shopping and especially dining is east of Balboa Park. North Park, Normal Heights, South Park, and Golden Hill are all neighborhoods you have to explore. You can even stay in North Park at the fashionable Lafayette Hotel and Swim Club.
Read more: Locals’ Favorite San Diego Neighborhoods
For a more extensive look at San Diego’s neighborhoods, Airbnb has you covered.
Food and Drink
Food is a huge part of San Diego culture. For your first time in San Diego, you must make it a priority to have Baja Mexican food like fish tacos (made popular by the chain Rubio’s). For more seafood, fresh fish and chips can’t be beat, I recommend Mitch’s on Shelter Island or PB Fish Shop in Pacific Beach.
Liberty Station is a food heaven that has been exploded in recent years, featured in magazines like Sunset and Travel + Leisure. Liberty Public Market is the big food hall where you can choose from more than 20 food vendors with culinary influence from around the world. Last time I went with friends, we got empanadas, fresh pasta, jambalaya, and German sausage, and ate in the sun at the outdoor dining area.
Last but not least in the food area, Craft Beer. San Diego is the craft beer capital of America, even though other cities also try to claim the title. For the record, San Diego county has tallied over 125+ breweries. Each neighborhood is peppered with tasting rooms for particular breweries and craft beer bars like Hamilton’s, O’Briens, and Blind Lady Ale House provide the opportunity to taste from a variety of breweries. Local favorites include Stone, Green Flash, and Modern Times.
North coastal: Encinitas is 45 minutes up the coast. It is a quintessential beach town with a small Main Street area and great beach. I highly recommend a half day or more in town! Nearby is Legoland* in Carlsbad, if you have kids with you or just want to unleash the child within.
North inland: Temecula is a town known for its Hot Air Balloon and Wine Festival, above all. If you don’t happen to be in the area during the festival, you can certainly book a wine tour from San Diego* or easily do it yourself (see my post on Temecula Wine Country).
Cross the border: I hope you brought your passport because visiting Tijuana is more delicious than ever. If you’re nervous (don’t be!) you can always arrange a guided tour.* If you are a savvy traveler then I’ve already put together a list of TJ hotspots you can’t miss (one of my most popular posts ever).
San Diego is often overshadowed by big brother Los Angeles but I find it a much more peaceful and refreshing city to visit. However many days you have planned, add one more. I guarantee you’ll get addicted to the friendly folks, good food, and good weather.
Oh, and if you’re city hopping, don’t count on a red-eye out of SAN airport. Since it’s in the middle of town, no flights leave between 11pm and 6am due to a noise ordinance.
View more in my “First Time Visiting” series: Guanajuato, London, Mexico City, Paris
Photos by Staci and Doug Jackson for The Voyageer.