From pandas and koala bears at its iconic zoo, to a remarkable collection of museums and gardens, this oasis in the heart of the city has been a vibrant part of San Diego culture for a hundred years. First and foremost, Balboa Park is a horticultural marvel: the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden alone has more than 130 varieties of rose (learn more about it and the rest of the park’s greenery on free 1-hour Offshoot Tours, offered on Saturday morning).
Museums abound; local favourites include the Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Culture reigns supreme too: The Old Globe Theatre hosts its famed Shakespeare Festival each summer; live bands and outdoor film screenings abound.
All this, plus one of the world’s finest zoos. Over 3,700 animals from 650 species—many of them extremely rare— are showcased at the San Diego Zoo, with naturalised exhibits covering roughly 100 acres. Get a special look at the zoo’s three giant pandas by signing up for ‘Early Morning with Pandas’, visiting the panda viewing area before it officially opens for the day. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals bundling zoo and museum visits.
As if all that sunshine is not enough, here’s a waterfront city brushed by perfect breezes, the light just right, the beer perfectly hoppy after a day of wave-and-water fun. Whether you’re stand up paddling on Mission Bay, kayaking into sea caverns along La Jolla’s idyllic shores, savouring a sweet shaved ice in Balboa Park or dining and dancing after dark in the lively Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find yourself smiling in San Diego.
Mission Bay and San Diego Bay trim the edge of the city like sparkling gems. Dozens of outfitters can get you out on the blue via every imaginable conveyance; kayak, stand-up paddle-board, motorised water craft, sail boat or kite board. For a more novel approach, board the Bahia Belle, a Mississippi riverboat, snuggle aboard a romantic Venetian gondola or try jet-packing to skim across the water like James Bond.
Cruise in style too. Hornblower and Flagship Cruises let you get a millionaire’s view of the bay on scenic tours, as well as dinner and brunch cruises.
You can have fun on land here, too. Mission Beach, the narrow strip of land between Mission Bay and the Pacific, is chock-a-block with surf shops, t-shirt joints and funky beach bars, and there’s a 3-mile oceanfront boardwalk that rivals Venice Beach for people watching. At Belmont Park, classic amusement rides include the Big Dipper wooden roller coaster. Mission Bay also has 27 miles of water’s-edge pathways, perfect for strolling and biking.
Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village; San Diego’s diverse neighbourhoods are filled with personality—and local finds. These pedestrian-friendly enclaves are the epicentre of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene and craft beer boom.
Start your own sampling in North Park, the neighbourhood bordering Balboa Park’s north-east side. Along 30th Street and University Avenue, enjoy farm-to-table cuisine and boutique wines at Urban Solace, or wing it at local favourite Carnitas’ Snack Shop (the menu changes daily depending on fresh produce and other ingredients available that day). Hip art abounds in North Park; on the second Saturday of each month (called ‘Ray at Night’), join the cool crowds along Ray Street for gallery hopping and live music.
In the East Village, locals savour gourmet burgers at Neighborhood; in South Park (east of Balboa Park), find whimsical clothes and jewellery at Junc.Life Boutique or enjoy a Hawaiian shave ice at Daily Scoop on Juniper. Food, craft beer, boutique shopping and live music are all part of historic Gaslamp Quarter, the part of town that tends to keep things hopping ‘til the wee hours. Little Italy, known for (you guessed it) Italian eateries, also has trendy-chic shops, as well as plenty of sidewalk cafés and pizzerias along India Street. And if you’re hankering for handmade, still-warm tortillas, head straight for Old Town, site of California’s first Spanish settlement, with restored adobes now housing shops and restaurants.
Microbrewing has caught on big time in San Diego, with more than 85 craft breweries throughout the region. The tidal wave began with innovative brewers like Stone Brewing Company and Karl Strauss. Now, it’s craft-y all over San Diego—in pubs, restaurants and in the breweries themselves (many offer tours). And in a growing trend, San Diego’s chefs are starting to design beer-pairing menus or foods featuring local brews. Some breweries now offer their own eateries (Stone Brewing’s World Bistro & Gardens is a stellar example).
San Diego’s brews and brewers haven’t gone unnoticed, earning international recognition. (Yes, there is a World Beer Cup; no, you cannot be a judge). AleSmith Brewing Company and Ballast Point Brewing Company are two microbreweries that have been lauded. And you don’t have to go to a brewery to taste these world-class beers: many eateries, such as Hamilton's Tavern in South Park, offer an array of local brews.
Although technically part of San Diego, the community of La Jolla feels like a destination unto itself: you could easily spend a few days in this enclave and get a full Southern California experience—along with a walkable village of hotels, shops, and cafés that possess a sophisticated vibe.
For starters, La Jolla (pronounced la HOY-uh) has a prime perch on San Diego County’s coastline. Located about 20 minutes north of downtown, La Jolla is home to the wide, white-sand beaches of La Jolla Shores, with surfing, snorkelling, and made-for-sunset fire-pits, as well as an adjacent playground for kids. Head out onto the waters with one of the local operators, like La Jolla Kayak, and paddle or snorkel among La Jolla’s marine denizens, from colourful garibaldi to (harmless) leopard sharks. To see more aquatic critters while on land, explore the Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or stand along the sea wall at beach known as The Children’s Pool, and watch a large community of seals lounge, bark, and tend to their cubs.
The seals live right next to the heart of La Jolla, the hilly village areas known as The Cove and Bird Rock. The ocean is still in plain view amid the shops, eateries, and places to stay—like La Valencia Hotel, the Mediterranean-style “Pink Lady” that once hosted World War II soldiers about to ship out, as well as Hollywood A-Listers like Gregory Peck. Shop in the upscale boutiques along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street, or dine at beloved George’s at the Cove, farm-to-table WhisknLadle, colourful taco haven Puesto, or seafood-rich Nine-Ten.
Don’t miss the cultural stops, too, like the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Warwick’s (the nation’s oldest family-owned bookstore), or the local art galleries such as Legends Gallery, where you can see out-of-the box paintings by the late Theodore Geisel, the long-time La Jolla resident better known as Dr. Seuss.
(Insider tip: Look at the unique flora around La Jolla to see what may have inspired Seuss’s whimsical plants and trees).
Some must-stops in La Jolla stretch beyond the Cove. The Marine Room, on La Jolla Shores, offers incredible “high tide” brunches and dinners where the tall waves crash into the giant windows as you eat. To the north, tee off at Torrey Pines Golf Course (which will host the U.S. Open again in 2021), next to the sumptuous Lodge at Torrey Pines, or see a future Broadway hit at La Jolla Playhouse (co-founded by Gregory Peck in 1947), the birthplace of Jersey Boys and Come From Away. Another great option: hike the ocean-view trails at the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, under the shade of the rare, long-needled pine trees that are common in this little pocket of the Golden State.
With the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay at its doorstep, San Diego defines waterfront dining. Travel the coast to get a taste—literally—of what the region has to offer along the edge of the sea.
Start in La Jolla with brunch at Brockton Villa—the Crab Ipanema Benedict egg dish won’t disappoint. Casual lunch? Anthony’s Fish Grotto (in town) serves creamy, chock-full clam chowder and crunch-perfect fish and chips. Also in town on the Embarcadero, there’s Sally’s Seafood on the Water and The Fish Market, two more places to try for fresh catch of the day with waterfront views. Across San Diego Bay, head to Harbor Island and Tom Ham’s Lighthouse (yes, it’s really housed in a lighthouse). Nearby, Island Prime makes the most of the view with floor-to-ceiling windows and an over-the-water patio. If you want tunes, try Humphrey’s Restaurant on Shelter Island; it presents quality live music in its outdoor amphitheatre. Slip away to peaceful Coronado, and relax at Mistral at Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community of Coronado feels like a private enclave wrapped with perfect beaches, including ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. Besides those soft sands, the island’s crown jewel is the Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888 and topped by russet red, castle-like turrets. Explore the lobby and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; docents share titbits on the Del’s remarkable history and guest list (including Marilyn Monroe, who starred—alongside the hotel—in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot). The Del also serves a sumptuous Sunday brunch, and the Babcock & Story bar is fine for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific. Not far from the Del, the Loews Coronado Bay Resort sits on its own 15-acre peninsula and is known both for its water sports and for being especially dog-friendly.
The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Rent one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant oceanfront mansions and tended gardens, or visit Orange Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and theatres. More shops and art galleries are located at Ferry Landing, and restaurants like Candelas on the Bay and Peohe’s have expansive views of San Diego’s downtown skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: Traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can get thick, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay to Seaport Village. Water taxis are available too.
Charged by his native Spain to explore new worlds, Spaniard explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped ashore at this tip of land in 1542, making him the first European to set foot on the West Coast. Short films and ranger talks offer interesting insights into Cabrillo and his history, and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse has been restored to reflect what lighthouse life was like in the 1800s.
But locals (and sage visitors) also know that this tip-of-land perch offers astounding views of San Diego and the seething Pacific. Hiking trails twist through 660 acres of coastal habitat, so it’s easy to strike out on your own for even more panoramic beauty. The 2.5-mile Bayside Trail looks out to San Diego Bay, and the easy Coastal Tidepool Trail takes you to some of the best tide pools in California (look, but don’t touch). Look for the coastal defence systems the city put in place in World War II to fend off the Japanese Navy. From mid-December to late March, the bluffs are a great place to watch migrating Pacific grey whales. If you forget binoculars, a limited number are available at the visitors centre.
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Most kids love boats, so you can imagine how excited they get about a really, really big boat. The U.S.S. Midway Museum is just that: a retired aircraft carrier that is now permanently docked and open to visitors along the town waterfront. The deck of the enormous ship is covered with naval aircraft from World War II to Operation Desert Storm—not just for looking at but for climbing inside and exploring, too. Other interactive exhibits include you-are-there-style recordings of real conversations between military pilots and a chance to ride in a flight simulator.
Also on the town waterfront, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is fittingly housed within one of the finest collections of historic ships in the world, including the awe-inspiring sailing ships Star of India and HMS Surprise (floating star of the films Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean 4). Coolest of all, some of the ships go sailing and whale watching, with you aboard; including a 75-minute tour of San Diego Bay aboard an aptly named Vietnam War-era Swift Boat.
In summer (between Memorial Day in May and Labour Day in September), a few dollars allows you an all-day ride on the Big Bay Shuttle, with eight stops along the bay front from Harbor Island to the South Embarcadero (in town); you get on, you get off, where and when you want. Along the town waterfront and in the Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages. In town you can also look for the iconic bright red trolley; the San Diego Trolley plies to and from key locations in the city and also heads for places like Old Town and Mission Valley. Water is no obstacle. From Broadway Pier, 15 minutes on Flagship Cruises’ ferry sees you to Coronado Island. And have some fun with your transport. GoCar Tours-San Diego has a fleet of three-wheel, convertible mini-cars for two—each complete with a GPS-guided tour of San Diego in town and adjoining neighbourhoods. And honestly, much of San Diego— neighbourhoods like North Park and Little Italy—is easily explored on foot, and once you put your foot down -- the Gaslamp Quarter alone has over 100 restaurants, bars and nightclubs—you may not want to go anywhere else.
For a dining experience that will satisfy any craving, head to Liberty Public Market in San Diego’s Liberty Station, just three miles from the airport. Opened in March 2016, the 25,000-square-foot building (a converted Naval complex) boasts more than 30 vendors offering diverse options—from French pastries to fresh oysters to cold-pressed juice—focused on showcasing all that the city has to offer.
“Liberty Public Market embodies the unique spirit of San Diego—it’s a combination of everything that makes us such a vibrant place,” says David Spatafore of Blue Bridge Hospitality, which owns and operates Liberty Public Market. “San Diego has a rich history, buzzing dining scene, and a deep passion for locally sourced ingredients, all of which enhances our reputation as a food destination. It’s one of those places you visit to get a flavour of our amazing city.”
Many of the market’s restaurants started as popular food trucks around San Diego, such as handmade sausage shop Mastiff Sausage Company, and Stuffed!, which offers crispy tater tots and deep-fried Oreos. Other vendors focus on one specialty—like custom-cut meats at Liberty Meat Shop, artisanal cheese at Venissimo Cheese shop, or seasonal noodles at Pasta Design.
Need a strategy for how to tackle your first visit? Start with a local beverage. If it’s afternoon, try a Kryptonite (mint-infused cold brew) from WestBean Coffee. If it’s later in the day, take advantage of the market’s unique alcohol license and imbibe while you browse—grab a beer from specialty craft shop Bottlecraft (24 beers on draft and 500 bottles for sale) or sample one of 500 wines from Grape Smuggler.
Next, scout out appetizer-sized items, such as Paraná’s empanadas with homemade chimichurri sauce or FishBone Kitchen’s ceviche served fresh in a martini glass. Then, move on to heartier options, such as a lobster roll from Wicked Maine Lobster or jambalaya at Southern-focused Cane Patch Kitchen. Be sure to save room for dessert—it’s hard to pass up the colourful candy-topped cakes and massive cookies from Crafted Baked Goods, which is also home to the popular Scooped by MooTime ice cream counter.
If you prefer a sit-down experience that brings together multiple vendors, head to Mess Hall, which features a daily changing menu with recommended beer or wine pairings for each dish.
Insider’s tip: Consider visiting during Happy Hour, when nearly every vendor has a food or drink special.