A Guide to San Diego, California
There’s a reason - or, a few reasons, San Diego is named America’s finest city. It has a lot to offer, namely incredible food, beautiful beaches, and a near perfect climate. Last summer, I spent a little over a month getting to know (read: falling in love with) the city. It was a month of beach days, failed surf attempts, filling up on tacos, filling up on Italian food (keep reading!), sunsets unlike I’ve ever seen, cultural landmarks, and if we’re being honest, shaking the sand out of my sheets. It was truly great while it lasted, and so I wanted to create this guide for a selfish reason: so that I can relive it all, and for a selfless reason: so that I can share it with you all and hopefully inspire you to visit some of the places listed below.
Before you go
The weather is perfect. With its average year-round temperature falling between 60-70 degrees, and just 98 cloudy days per year (most of which will be throughout May and June), there’s no shortage of beach days in San Diego, which is good because there’s no shortage of beach either (heeeeey 70 miles of coastline).
Getting around is relatively easy with San Diego’s trolley system and Coaster Train. If you’re staying close to the city’s downtown area, the trolley (which looks like a red train - not an actual trolley) is a great option. Its three lines run throughout the city, on an average of every 15 minutes. If you’d like to make your way out of the city and visit the nearby coastal towns, the Coaster Train connects San Diego with Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, and Oceanside. There are about 20 trains that run on weekdays and on weekends.
It neighbors Tijuana. Maybe you’re good at geography and I don’t have to point this out. Maybe you’re not. In any case, here I am telling you that Mexico is a hop skip and a jump away which means two things: (1) you should definitely plan a day trip, and (2) the closer you get to the border, the better the tacos. To get to Tijuana, you can take the trolley to the last stop and walk across the border, or you can drive to the Pedwest Crossing (a pedestrian-only crossing) with a nearby paid parking lot.
What to do in San Diego
La Jolla Cove Nestled in the cliffs of La Jolla, is its picturesque cove where visitors come to watch the seals and sea lions. A narrow little walkway leads visitors out into the water and offers even better views of the puppies of the sea. Definitely walk down it for the full effect and definitely make sure to bring a change of clothes because the waves are big you’ll definitely get wet.
Sunset Cliffs Named for the sheer cliffs that runoff from the residential neighborhood and into the Pacific, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is one of the most scenic places in San Diego. Visitors can follow the trails woven throughout to explore its caves, vistas, seemingly private beaches, hidden at the base of the cliffs, and rock formations. Also, needless to say, it’s a pretty stellar place to watch the sun go down.
Hike Torrey Pines Easy to moderate trails wind through San Diego’s Torrey Pine’s Natural Reserve and look over the Southern California coast. With desert landscapes, rigid cliffs, and an ocean view, it’s one of the most scenic places in San Diego. A state beach lies at the bottom, so don’t rush off before checking it out.
Encinitas This bohemian little beach town is fully equipped with all the surf shops, yoga studios, and Mexican restaurants one person could want. It leads with a dreamy 1960s flair and has everything from Botanic Gardens to boutique spas and seriously great shopping. The beaches aren’t bad either. What I mean is, the beaches are beautiful and favored among surfers - especially Swami’s State Beach, an internationally known surf spot where you can also admire the tide pools during low tide.
Coronado Head over the bridge (or take the ferry from the between the Broadway Pier and the Convention Center) to Coronado and you’ll almost immediately feel time slow down. You’ll be greeted by a slower paced community, one of America’s greatest beaches, and beautiful skyline views of San Diego. A couple tips: 1) Coronado Beach is a popular place to surf (or learn to surf). If you’re interested in getting out in the water, you can rent a board from Little Sam’s downtown. 2) It’s also a popular place for stingrays. Don’t let this deter you, but just remember to occasionally shuffle your feet in the water to keep them away.
Balboa Park Before San Diego was even San Diego, that is, before it was even developed, there was Balboa Park. It’s the first reserved urban park the country has known, and certainly one of the most impressive. With its abundance of attractions, such as a theater and multiple museums, it really has more than you could ask for in a park. I feel compelled to give a shoutout to my personal favorite part, the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages. Each cottage is dedicated to a different country, so walking through that part of the park is like taking a trip around the world. Think: Epcot on a (much) smaller scale.
The San Diego Zoo Tucked inside Balboa Park is 100 miles dedicated to one of the country’s most impressive zoos. The San Diego Zoo is home to over 3,700 animals. There’s a number of special experiences, guided tours (by foot/bus), and opportunities to interact with animals (hot tip: on Saturday’s and Sunday’s you can feed the giraffes!) Be sure to arrive early in the day to avoid crowds.
The Gaslamp Quarter is one of the city's oldest neighborhoods lined with nineteenth-century buildings. It’s also where people go to drink. And then drink some more. And then a little more. All in all, it’s architecturally a cool place to see, and there are plenty of clubs and bars to keep you busy on a night out, but if it’s culture you’re after, you might want to look elsewhere.
Where to eat And drink in San Diego
Civicio 1845 A semi-recent addition to San Diego’s Little Italy, Civicio 1845 offers impressive lunch, dinner, and vegan menus. The owners are from Calabria, the food is locally grown, and the wine list is extensive.
Bencotto Italian Kitchen Pasta Lovers (hello, everyone) this is for you. Choose your own adventure with their various sauces and homemade pasta types. Listen, if you’re anywhere near this place, you have to go. It’s been voted Best Italian Restaurant in San Diego 4 years in a row, and there's a whole neighborhood dedicated to Italy, so, that’s saying something. PS. If zucchini blossoms are featured on the menu when you’re there, you’re gonna want to get them.
Buona Forchetta Located in the charming neighborhood of South Park, Buona Forchetta is a must. Owned by Italians, the menu is authentic and deliberate offering items like arancini, sardine insalate, and all the wood-fired pizza one could want. Also, they serve pizza in a jar, because, why not?
La Puerta Is a dimly lit Mexican restaurant/bar with its walls subtly dedicated to the members of the 27 club, and the menu to old family recipes. The atmosphere is cool, and the food is good, making it a popular choice for those in the Gaslamp Quarter, especially during happy hour.
The Lion’s Share Let’s just say if I lived in San Diego, I’d be a regular here. The restaurant, adorned in eclectic art, is somewhat of a well-kept secret. Their cocktails are out of this world delicious, and the menu features unique items such as camel tacos and wild boar bolognese. It’s equal parts cozy and unique, making it a truly a memorable space, perfect for intimate dining.
Craft & Commerce Possibly the coolest restaurant in Little Italy? This place is trendy and fun and not to be missed. The with walls are decked with taxidermy and books, The drink selection is imaginative, and the food is delicious. Order the Ass Man (It’s a drink, GUYS) and Brussels sprouts and you’ll be good to go.
False Idol Nestled in the back of Craft & Commerce (just past the entrance) is a retro tiki bar/speakeasy. The decor is kitsch and the drinks are strong. Entry is monitored, and you’ll likely have to wait in line for a few minutes, but it’s well worth it.
Oscar’s Mexican Seafood There are multiple locations throughout San Diego including Pacific Beach, North Pacific Beach, and East Village. The restaurants themselves are pretty no frills, but the food is MUY bien. Whether you go for the tacos, burritos, or ceviche, you can’t miss. But go for the tacos…the octopus tacos.
En Fuego Should you find yourself in Del Mar, you’ll want to stop here. On Monday evenings, prices drop for a wide selection of food and drinks, and their Tuesday evenings are dedicated to $5-8 taco options. Make your way downstairs to the open atrium for a casual and fun dining experience.
Where to stay in San Diego
The Pearl Hotel This chic vintage-style boutique hotel is reasonably priced and located just minutes away from the airport. Its restaurant, Charles & Dinorah, is open for dinner, serving locally sourced cuisine. They’ve also seriously leveled up in amenity department with their saltwater pool, rainforest showers, and weekly movie nights. There’s also a pet fish in every room. Fun!
Cosmopolitan Hotel Doubling as a National Historic Landmark, The Cosmo Hotel is just a quick commute from Balboa Park. It’s antique furnishing, affordable price, and open-air restaurant all contribute to its 4-star rating, but its the historic quality that sets it apart. The building itself has been around since the late 1920s. AKA it’s seen some stuff. Book room 11 at your own risk. It’s said to be visited by the ghost of the original owner’s youngest daughter, Ysadora.
Hotel del Coronado Or The Del, as the locals call it, is a historic hotel, and the largest wooden structure in the US. Located right on Coronado Beach, it overlooks the Pacific and features pretty much every amenity imaginable. It has an underground shopping center, three pools, beach rentals with food and drink service, a full-service spa. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s much more of a splurge, but even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth a visit.