Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village; San Diego’s diverse downtown neighborhoods are filled with personality—and local finds. These pedestrian-friendly enclaves are the epicenter of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene, and craft beer boom.
Start your own sampling in North Park, the neighborhood bordering Balboa Park’s northeast side. Near the corner of 30th Street and Upas Street, enjoy classic and modern French bistro fare and a wine list with extensive French and Californian vintages at The Smoking Goat, or wing it at local favorite Carnitas’ Snack Shop (the menu changes daily depending on fresh produce and other ingredients available that day). Hip art abounds in this trendy neighborhood; it’s the place to be for galleries, street musicians, and elaborate murals. If you’re in town in early May, don’t miss the neighborhood’s annual Festival of Arts, which features live art demonstrations, music performances, and purveyors of local beer and food.
In the East Village, locals savor top-tier tacos and cocktails at Lola55, which has a Michelin Bib Gourmand award under its belt. Or pay a visit to the two-level, 7,600-square-foot Storyhouse Spirits distillery and restaurant to sample some of their house-distilled vodkas and gins, along with Oysters Storyhouse, their signature take on oysters Rockefeller, or bourbon-spiked Distiller’s Onion Soup.
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 (Barbusa and Civico 1845 are two standouts), also has chic shops housed in bungalows, as well as plenty of sidewalk cafés and pizzerias along India Street. Two particularly buzzworthy spots are Juniper and Ivy and Kettner Exchange—both number among the city’s Michelin Bib Gourmand winners. To really get a sense—and taste—of the neighborhood, book a Little Italy food tour, or, if you’re in town for a Saturday, stroll through the Little Italy Mercato farmers market.
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. True to its roots, there are many options when it comes to Spanish and Mexican cuisine; Casa Guadalajara has a fountain-adorned courtyard and live mariachi music.
Insider tip: Leave your car in the parking lot and take advantage of San Diego’s excellent system of trains and trolleys that crisscross the city.
As if all that sunshine weren’t enough, San Diego is a waterfront city with top-notch restaurants and beautiful ocean-sprayed vistas (often at the same time), neighborhoods that are steeped in history and culture, and beer that's perfectly hoppy to enjoy after a day of Southern California fun. Whether you’re spending a few days indulging in the myriad of aquatic pastimes that are available at the Mission Bay Aquatic Park, the world’s largest of its kind, or exploring the inland offerings of the city, San Diego will not disappoint.
Read on to discover some of those culinary standouts, including the ones with the most relaxing and photo-worthy waterfront settings. Find out about the can’t-miss shops and hangouts in key neighborhoods such as the Gaslamp Quarter, the East Village, North Park, Old Town, and others, and learn how you can leave your car—and parking worries—out of your daily plans and get around via the extensive system of trolleys, light rail, trains, busses, and water taxis.
Not every culinary experience that San Diego offers is in a restaurant, of course. Get a rundown about the annual Latin Food Fest, and the year-round foodie extravaganza that is Liberty Public Market, a former naval complex that now houses over 30 high-end food and drink vendors. There’s also essential information about nearby La Jolla, SeaWorld San Diego, the Maritime Museum, San Diego County’s famous slew of craft breweries, Torrey Pines Gliderport, and tips on how to get the most out of the annual Comic-Con International: San Diego event.
In short—if you’re a fan of amazing weather, exceptional dining experiences, unbeatable outdoor recreation options, and great shopping, you’ll find yourself smiling in San Diego.
Growing up in the San Diego area, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins spent a lot of time with her aunt who was a restaurateur in Tijuana. By the time she become a chef herself, Zepeda-Wilkins knew a lot about the diversity of cuisine in Mexico, and the culinary traditions that straddle the border. It made her a natural as the chef de cuisine at Javier Plascencia’s celebrated Bracero in San Diego’s Little Italy (which has since turned into a different restaurant), before she went on to open El Jardín, a regional Mexican restaurant at Liberty Station in Point Loma. We asked the former Top Chef contestant for some of her favorite spots in California, around San Diego and beyond.
Where do you live? I live with my husband, daughter, and son in Chula Vista.
Why there? It’s where we found a dream house with land—we felt so lucky to find it in California as it is challenging to find that kind of turf—and we bought our first house.
Who or what is your greatest California love? My kids! And the Pacific Ocean: I feel more myself when I am near any body of water.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we are flighty or always carefree.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? You can’t shovel sunshine.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? Driving to the snow in the winter and eating pie in Julian before ending the day eating an ice cream cone while walking on the sand in Coronado.
Time for a road trip—where are you going? I’d go north to Big Sur and camp on the beach with my kids. I’d make them get up early with me so I can get a coffee at Big Sur Bakery. During the day, we can hike and explore the cliffs, and get inspired by the ocean. There’s such happiness in cooking on the beach for meals, so we would have all we need at and around our little campsite.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? Well, I imagine a lot of people would say In-N-Out here, but I would have to say Stardust Doughnuts in Imperial Beach, which is a small beach town next to Coronado where I grew up. Their glorious cinnamon rolls are probably my favorite pastry.
How do you define California style? Light and deceivingly simple (sometimes the most simple-appearing things take the most amount of work). Function over fashion on all accounts. Where you can go into a restaurant with flip flops and sand in your hair and no one judges you.
Best California song? I have to say “California Love” by Tupac. I grew up in the ’90s and rap and hip hop played a huge role in my adolescence. They don’t make them like Tupac anymore, but he was educated and calculated in delivering his bars. When he gives San Diego a shout out, it makes me cry to this day.
How would your California dream day unfold? I’d wake up at Hotel Del Coronado (I’m on a staycation) and I’d take some time lying in bed, just hearing the waves crash a bit, before going on a run with the morning mist filling my lungs. I’d go all the way out to the Navy SEAL base and then run back.
I’d head over to El Jardín early and take my time harvesting the vegetables and herbs from the garden to play with for specials. There’s a real magic to being able to light up my Santa Maria Grill and smell the fire, and seemingly the restaurant too, come to life before my eyes. The aroma of smoke has always been a favorite of mine, second to freshly baked bread. And then service: I legitimately love cooking for other people and can’t wait to welcome more people to our El Jardín home.
On a slope above its sparkling bay, San Diego got its start in 1769. That’s when Father Junípero Serra, founder of California’s mission chain, built a permanent Spanish settlement, located just a few miles from today’s downtown high-rises. That heritage is honored at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where rustic wooden and adobe structures surround lively Old Town Plaza.
The living-history park re-creates life during the early 1800s, when California was part of Mexico (it didn’t become a U.S. state until 1850). More than 20 buildings dating back to 1821 have been beautifully preserved, and many house working businesses. Racine & Laramie, San Diego’s oldest smoke shop, sells cigars, tobacco, and stationery, just like it did in 1868. The shelves at Rust General Store are lined with old-timey merchandise and charming gifts—local honey, bulk teas, chocolate cordials, soaps, and apothecary goods. On the plaza’s edge, shoppers can browse colorful Mexican handicrafts in the Bazaar Del Mundo, a cluster of open-air stands and small boutiques. Shops peddle Mexican copperware, hand-crafted Mexican tiles, nostalgic candies, roasted nuts, and root beer.
Old Town has a wealth of dining options, too. For guacamole, margaritas, and a festive scene, head to the lush garden at Casa de Reyes. It’s right next to the plaza stage, where every weekend you can listen to strolling mariachis or watch vibrantly dressed folklorico dancers. Barra Barra Saloon is the spot for specialty tacos and happy hour cocktails. The 1827 Casa de Bandini houses The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant, serving afternoon tea on weekends in its Victorian dining room.
Several Old Town museums are worth a visit. The grand 1829 adobe known as Casa de Estudillo, with 13 rooms built around an enclosed courtyard, was once the home of a Spanish aristocrat. Stop in to see the print room and the editor’s office in the San Diego Union Museum, the original office of the San Diego Union newspaper. Take a look at the stagecoaches and horse-drawn carriages at the Seeley Stable Museum, or the telegraph machines and 1867 Concord Coach at the Wells Fargo History Museum.
Old Town’s most infamous structure is likely the 1857 Whaley House on San Diego Avenue, just outside the park borders. Featured on TV shows like America’s Most Haunted, the city’s oldest two-story brick building once served as a courthouse where public hangings took place. Is it haunted? Decide for yourself on a daytime or nighttime guided tour.
Film buffs know the Hotel Del Coronado as a backdrop in the Marilyn Monroe movie Some Like It Hot, but this luxury resort has been a star among Southern California resorts since it first opened in 1888.
For more than a century, this designated National Historic Landmark with its Queen Anne–style red turrets has attracted U.S. presidents, dignitaries, and, indeed, plenty of movie stars to Coronado Island, a 15-minute drive from downtown San Diego. Today, the 757-room resort, known to locals just as “the Del,” sits on 28 acres of private, pristine beachfront property, blending old-school luxury with high-end accommodations and modern amenities.
Stay in either the main Victorian building, loaded with historic charm, or the more contemporary Ocean Towers. If you plan to plant yourself poolside, get a room in one of the California Cabana buildings. For larger groups or families, the spacious Beach Village suites feel like a home away from home—if your everyday home is a luxury beach house that’s just steps from the sand.
At Del Beach, you can take a surf lesson, play volleyball, or just lounge the day away on a plush daybed while enjoying beverage service. A nighttime bonfire in the sand is a popular resort tradition—and now you can order up artisanal pizzas, s’mores, and more to nosh around the fire pit. During the day you can also take a tour of the hotel grounds (complete with stories of resident ghosts) or even join a seaside painting class. Don’t leave without visiting Spa at the Del for themed body treatments, like the Mindful Waves Massage or the Some Like It Hot Stone Massage.
Kids ages 4–12 will love the resort’s DelVentures activity center, where they can participate in programs like Mermaids & Pirates camp. For a fun activity for the whole family, rent bikes (or a surrey) at PeDels and explore the island, which has more than 15 miles of dedicated bike paths. Follow the Silver Strand to Imperial Beach and back for an 8-mile coastal cruise.
Or you can just soak up the scenery from one of the seven dining options, all with ocean views. Hotel del Coronado’s signature restaurant, 1500 OCEAN, showcases fresh seafood like Pacific Opah Crudo and oysters, while the Sunday brunch in the Crown Room is nothing short of legendary, with multiple carving stations, a huge seafood spread, and a Bloody Mary bar.
With lively neighborhoods, an internationally renowned craft beer scene, and one of the world’s most beautiful urban parks, there’s a whole lot of San Diego to explore beyond its famous beaches. Experience this dynamic city as you prowl the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter and see the exotic animals at the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park.
Stay in a stylish Gaslamp Quarter hotel
To find the most happening spots in San Diego, sometimes you have to look up. That’s certainly true at the Pendry San Diego, where the rooftop Pool House lets you bask in the city’s perfect weather by day and a cool lounge scene after dark. Stop into Provisional, the hotel’s combination restaurant and marketplace, for all-day dining and to shop for housewares.
Explore San Diego’s hottest entertainment district
Proving that the hip and historic are hardly incompatible, the Gaslamp Quarter combines beautifully restored 19th-century buildings and 21st-century nightlife. Dine on chef Leyla Javadov’s innovative (and healthy!) cuisine at Café 21, which features live music every day. Or check out the action on all three levels at The Tipsy Crow, a sports bar, pub, and club all in one.
Stroll El Prado in Balboa Park
Lined with museums housed in elaborate Spanish Colonial Revival buildings inspired by landmarks in Spain and Mexico, El Prado is the romantic heart of Balboa Park. The dazzling films at the San Diego Natural History Museum’s The Subaru 3D Experience will transport you into the planet’s most spectacular natural settings. Or lose yourself in an exotic world of cycads, orchids, and ferns at the historic Botanical Building. (And don’t forget to take a selfie along its lily pond.)
See the menagerie at the San Diego Zoo
Sure, you’ll find lions and tigers and bears, but the San Diego Zoo also has its beloved koalas, viewable at eye-level from an elevated walkway as they munch on eucalyptus. Catch glimpses of African penguins, baboons, crocodiles, and leopards at the newest exhibit, Africa Rocks, and for one of San Diego’s best views, ride high on the Skyfari Aerial Tram—also a great way to get across the zoo’s lush and verdant 100 acres.
Eat chicken fried by a celebrity chef
Proving that there’s more to the Little Italy district than pasta, former Top Chef winner Richard Blais takes fried chicken and eggs to a whole new level at The Crack Shack. Hang out on the patio at this rustic chic spot and play some bocce, then bite into such irresistible sandwiches as the Coop Deville (fried chicken, pickled chilies, lime mayo on brioche) or The Royale (chicken sausage, egg, and smoked Cheddar on an English muffin). And don’t forget the deviled eggs.
Raise a glass at Ballast Point
Celebrated for its West Coast–style Double IPAs, San Diego is consistently ranked as one of America’s top craft beer cities. Order up a flight and taste your way through some of the city’s best brews at Ballast Point’s Little Italy brewery, tasting room, and restaurant. Make a reservation in The Kettle Room, where the prix fixe menu features dishes perfectly paired with Ballast Point beers.
Located in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter, The Pendry San Diego isn’t just a luxury hotel—it’s an experience. Step inside and you’ll find a buzzing social scene fueled by the property’s six (!) in-demand restaurants and bars. While discerning travelers may visit for the first-class accommodations in the heart of downtown, locals know The Pendry as the place to be, any night of the week.
Built in 2017, every inch of the property feels positively posh thanks to a mix of unexpected details, from the Moët and Chandon champagne vending machine (the first in Southern California) to the ultra-luxe Fili D’oro bedding in the 317 guest rooms. Despite the first-class touches, the overall atmosphere is SoCal chill.
The stylish rooms feature chic custom furnishings and calming colors inspired by San Diego’s beach and surf culture, and many offer stunning views of the city skyline and sailboat-dotted harbor. If soaking up the region’s year-round sunshine is on the top of your agenda, reserve the Cabana Pool Suite, complete with direct access to the pool and a wet bar—perfect for group gatherings. Be sure to check the hotel’s website for special offers to amplify any occasion or sample one of Spa Pendry’s ocean-inspired treatments.
What really sets The Pendry apart, though, is the spectacular food-and-drink scene, which brings together some of the city’s most celebrated chefs and cocktail crafters under the same roof. You’ll find modern coastal cuisine at Lionfish, seasonal dishes and gourmet coffee at Provisional, small plates and poolside drinks at The Pool House, craft cocktails at Fifth & Rose, local microbrews at Nason’s Beer Hall, and an upscale nightlife experience at Oxford Social Club.
While you may be tempted to never leave, The Pendry’s location is ideal for exploring the city’s eclectic neighborhoods. The funky East Village (home to Petco Park and the San Diego Padres) and beautiful waterfront are just a few blocks away, and the food-and-drink hotspots of Little Italy and North Park are both within a 5- to 10-minute drive.
Some museums boast of being living history, but the Maritime Museum can attest that it is floating history. Located along downtown San Diego's Embarcadero, the museum is a collection of seafaring vessels, from large sailing ships to old-school yachts and Navy submarines that you can explore—and sometimes even ride on short voyages.
The museum focused primarily on one historic ship, the Star of India, when it first opened in 1948, but today comprises 11 permanent exhibits and a variety of rotating exhibits. The Star of India still makes a good place to start your visit: The iron-hulled 1863 sailing ship is a State and National Historic Landmark and the oldest active ship in the world. Military buffs will also love the USS Dolphin, the U.S. Navy submarine that holds the record for the deepest dive. Lookie-loos, meanwhile, can’t resist the Medea, a steam yacht from the Gilded Age.
“Visitors often remark about how the Maritime Museum of San Diego is unlike any other museum they’ve visited,” says Dr. Raymond Ashley, president and CEO of the museum. “Each vessel is like a time machine into a different world—going from ship to ship is like going on a series of voyages through time.”
You can even take some of the exhibits out for a spin, ranging from a 45-minute ride around the harbor on the 1914 Pilot boat, the oldest working boat of its kind on the West Coast (tickets are $10 with admission to the museum) to a tour of San Diego’s military history in a Vietnam-era Swift Boat that will take you under the Coronado Bay Bridge and pass by some of the many naval bases of the area (tickets range from $10 to $28, with museum admission). Both tours To go further back in history, go on a four-hour ride on the San Salvador, a replica of the ship that explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542. There’s also the Californian, a replica Gold Rush-era “revenue cutter” that has the distinction of having been named the Official Tall Ship of the State of California. Climb aboard for a public adventure sail lasting anywhere from a half-day to longer than a week; you can haul a line or man the helm, or just watch as the crew darts about the rigging to set and furl the sails.
Kids especially love this fresh-air museum, even if they never leave the dock. “It’s a fleet of working ships that they can explore, rather than a hushed building full of artifacts,” says Kelli Lewis, Director of Development. “Just stepping on board—smelling the wood tar and salt, feeling a faint roll of the deck, and gazing aloft at the sails—brings depth and realism to children’s imaginings.”
The yearly arrival of Comic-Con International brings legions of fanboys and fangirls to San Diego every July for a celebration of swords, superheroes, and sci-fi fare.
The annual convention, which got its start in 1970, now ranks as one of the largest events of its kind in the world, attracting more than 160,000 attendees to the San Diego Convention Center and surrounding Gaslamp Quarter every summer. What originally began as an event catering to comic-book fans has grown into a massive, multimedia affair that attracts top Hollywood studios and television networks looking to connect fans with the next (or current) blockbuster or hit series. For one week every July, downtown San Diego turns into fandom central.
Whether you’re attending for the first or 20th time, or are simply looking for the best people-watching spots, these tips will make your Comic-Con experience a memorable one.
Comic-Con events you don’t need a badge for
The number of events happening outside the convention center grows every year, and many of the pop-up attractions don’t require a pass to attend.
Local breweries often get in the spirit with events like Hop-Con: The Wootstout Festival, which celebrates San Diego's status as the center of the nerd universe. Given San Diego's reputation as “the Craft Beer Capital of America” with more than 150 breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs calling the county home, the team-up of local breweries and the Comic-Con crowd is a natural fit.
The schedule of events is updated frequently—right up to and throughout the show, in fact—so keep an eye out for information about fan parties and meet-ups being held during the week, as many of them are open to the public. Many of the media outlets covering the show will host (or cohost) parties and after-hours events during the convention, with details provided on their websites, their booths inside the show, or at pop-up locations around the convention center. Bookmark the Unofficial Blog’s Guide to Comic Con and the Comic-Con Blog for the most up-to-the-minute schedules of events.
Where to go for the full Comic-Con experience
Much of the area surrounding the San Diego Convention Center will be in full-on Comic-Con mode throughout the show, but there are a few local landmarks you’ll want to visit to make your experience complete.
The claim to fame for Kansas City Barbeque, which is located a few blocks north of the convention center, is that it’s where the famous Tom Cruise “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” scene from Top Gun was filmed. Even if you’re not a fan of the 1980s flick, the popular bar and restaurant provides excellent people-watching opportunities from its patio, which happens to sit along one of the main routes to and from Comic-Con.
A trip to Comic-Con isn’t complete without a stop at Tin Fish Gaslamp on Sixth Avenue. Famous for its fish tacos, the restaurant is another popular gawking location that offers a great view of both the Comic-Con crowds and the harbor, and you’re likely to spot more than a few comic creators and guests of the show enjoying a quick bite during the weekend.
On that note, if you’re looking to hobnob with Comic-Con royalty, the surrounding hotel bars and lounge areas are popular meeting places for the show's guests and attendees once the convention center closes its doors each day. The common areas at nearby hotels like Manchester Grand Hyatt can offer a great opportunity to extend the Comic-Con experience after the sun goes down.
What to look for inside Comic-Con
If you’re fortunate enough to have a badge to the convention, check the Comic-Con website for the show’s schedule of programming, which is typically released two weeks before the show and tends to be updated as changes occur. Below are a few must-sees, regardless of what you’re planning to do during the show.
Hall H is where all the big movie studios reveal footage and make major announcements, so you typically have to line up extremely early—sometimes a full day—to gain access to particular events. In recent years, the Comic-Con staff have occasionally issued wristbands to attendees lining up far in advance of Hall H events, so it's worth asking Comic-Con staff (either via email in advance or on-site when the show starts) about the best way to ensure you'll get a seat this year.
The annual Comic-Con Masquerade costume contest is typically held on Saturday evening during the show, and attracts some of the most creative cosplay artists you’ll find at any convention. Sure, you’ll see a mass of Spider-Man and Harley Quinn costumes wandering the halls, but these elaborate costumes will rival anything you’ll see in a blockbuster movie.
If you’re looking for your favorite comic artists and illustrators at the show, make your way to Artists’ Alley. Many artists take commissions at the show, and some even do free sketches.
Finding your own Comic-Con HQ
If you don’t already have accommodations booked for the show, the challenge of finding a hotel room could prove difficult—but not impossible. Check Comic-Con’s website for the latest information on availability. The site gives a list of participating hotels and tells you the current status of those offering special Comic-Con rates and room packages.
Given the early rush to reserve as many rooms as possible, there will typically be quite a few cancellations in the lead-up to the show. Call hotels directly to enquire about room availability—the hotels farthest from the convention center are likely to free up earliest. When investigating room availability, keep San Diego's mass transit system in mind—the downtown trolley heads east and south to La Mesa, National City, and Chula Vista, while the Coaster connects to North County beach towns Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, and Oceanside. Both are viable options to reach the convention center without driving, with more potential for hotel availability.
Helpful Comic-Con tips
• If you can wait to buy souvenirs (and it’s not in danger of selling out), do it on Sunday. All the vendors will be motivated to sell the last of their merchandise so that they won’t have to ship it home. If you want to buy anything exclusive to this year’s show or commission an artist for a drawing, however, do so as early as possible.
• Bring these essentials for a comfortable experience: A refillable water bottle, poster tubes to protect any art you buy, sunscreen (in case you end up waiting in line outdoors for an event), an extra phone charger and battery, and comfortable shoes.
• When you do need a break from the crowds, venture outside the main convention hall in the direction of some of the smaller panel rooms, and you’ll find some relatively quiet hallways with space to sit on the ground and possibly an outlet for charging your phone.
He is the greatest American soccer player of all time and one of the two or three best players in Major League Soccer history. Landon Donovan’s 57 career goals and 58 assists for the U.S. men’s national team are both records, he has hoisted the MLS Cup on six separate occasions, and he has scored more World Cup goals—five—than any other Yank.
Donovan is also a world-class fan of Southern California’s many charms—and he speaks from experience. Born in Ontario and raised in Redlands, Donovan established himself as a superstar with the Los Angeles Galaxy and now lives in San Diego with his wife, Hannah Bartell, and their son Talon. Since retiring from professional soccer in 2016, Donovan has worked as a color commentator for Fox Sports and is part of an ownership group seeking to bring an MLS franchise to America’s Finest City. Here are some of his favorite spots in the Golden State.
Where do you live? San Diego
Why there? My wife grew up in San Diego and we moved here about a year ago, to be closer to her family.
Who or what is your greatest California love? I have many California loves: the sun, the beach, the people, the food, the willingness of the people to be open minded.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we are laid back and not tough enough. We are certainly laid back in nature but there is a resilience and toughness to Californians that is underappreciated.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? That we are unabashedly pro-California. We believe that there is nowhere else in the world like California and are not shy about letting people know it.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? Eating ice cream near any of our beautiful beaches during any month of the year. We have the unique ability to eat ice cream cones in 70-degree weather in the middle of December and I love it.
Time for a California road trip. Where are you going? [There aren’t] many drives more beautiful than the drive up the California coast on Pacific Coast Highway. Malibu, Morro Bay, and Big Sur are musts. There are hundreds of places to stop along the way and enjoy the beach, wine, sunshine, etc.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? I would mandate that you get a fish taco in San Diego, stop by Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, have lunch at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, and go wine/food tasting in Napa.
Best California song? "California Love” by Tupac. When I traveled a lot as a young soccer player, I would listen to that song on the airplane ride home to remind me of my beautiful home state. It will forever be etched in my mind.
How would your California dream day unfold? My dream day would definitely revolve around food. I would begin in San Diego and get a breakfast burrito from Roberto’s and eat it on the beach in Del Mar. I would then take a two-hour drive north to Oak Glen (on the way to Big Bear) and go apple tasting up in the mountains. Around lunchtime, I would head west to Manhattan Beach and have oysters at Fishing With Dynamite. After that, I would head north to Santa Barbara and spend the night there.
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. 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 flavor 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 the 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 liquor license and imbibe while you browse—grab a beer from specialty craft shop Bottlecraft (24 rotating beers on draft and 500 bottles for sale).
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 Olala Crepes, or the colorful 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.
Tom DeLonge is a Southern Californian through and through. The Poway native grew up skateboarding, surfing, and skiing, and while still in high school, formed Blink-182, the platinum-selling rock band, which he fronted until departing in 2015. In addition to churning out hit songs with Blink, like “All the Small Things,” the lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter formed a second band, Angels & Airwaves, and later, an entertainment company called To the Stars. His interest in science led to another creative turn, writing the children’s book The Lonely Astronaut on Christmas Eve, and partnering with other authors to inspire a newfound appreciation of the unsolved mysteries of the universe. DeLonge shares what he loves most about his home state.
Where do you live? Near the beach in San Diego. I love the energy.
Why there? My company, To the Stars, is there, my kids’ schools are there, and the sunset is there too.
Who or what is your greatest California love? My greatest love for California is the diversity of climate and topography: trees on one end, deserts on the other, and a beach that stretches along both.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we all use [words like] “rad” and “gnarly”… that is Southern California only. It’s ours. No one else can have it.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? That anything is possible, from the arts to technology. Building a new way of expressing yourself and your mind…a better life is possible here.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? Mexican food. 100%.
Time for a road trip. Where are you going? Usually the desert, like Joshua Tree National Park, to see the stars at night. It’s so close and so vastly different [from] most other views.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? Again, Mexican food. It has all [the] essential vitamins. I love the street tacos from The Taco Stand, in Encinitas on Highway 101.
Best California song? "California Girls" by The Beach Boys. It speaks volumes about our most popular asset, the beach and the youthful energy that is present when you grow up here.
How would your California dream day unfold? Wake up in the mountains and get a warm coffee, drive two hours down to the desert and take a hike, then drive two more hours to the coast, and the beaches in San Diego’s North County, to watch the sunset ignite into a flurry of colors—and with a Mexican beer in hand.
Got a boat? That’s the only way you’ll get a better view of San Diego’s waterfront skyline and twinkling bridges than the one you get from Coasterra Modern Mexican restaurant, the third Cohn Restaurant Group offering on the city’s Harbor Island. (The other two are the successful Island Prime and C Level.)
Every table in this multilevel dazzler—and the special event space for up to 500 guests that actually floats above the water—has a view that will have you Instagramming throughout your meal, especially if you’re there at sunset. “Table 408 outside, right at the tip of the pentacle over the water—that’s my favorite table,” says chef and Cohn Group partner Deborah Scott. “When the sun begins to set, there’s a shell-like color lighting up the buildings downtown. And it keeps changing—it’s like a nonstop slideshow, with tankers and sailboats going by.”
Even after dark, the 28,000-square-foot, $15 million restaurant is an eye-catcher. Sit at Coasterra’s bar, order a Deb’s Coconut Margarita—made with Olmeca Altos reposado tequila, coconut cream, lime juice, and a coconut-salt rim—and take in the restaurant’s sleek, contemporary styling. “I like minimalist design, and that’s what you see here,” says chef Scott, who had a strong hand in creating the feel of the space. “There aren’t any Mexican blankets or piñatas—it’s dramatic and open.”
Yearning for traditional Mexican fare? There are a few tacos and enchiladas on the menu, but most of Coasterra’s dishes are creative twists on Mexican classics. Ceviche gets an upgrade with bay shrimp and blue crab, roasted tomato salsa, mango, and cilantro. Dipping sauces for fresh-shucked oysters include pickled onion-habañero mignonette and fire-roasted cocktail sauce. A classic surf-and-turf becomes a spectacular stacked presentation of black angus carne asada topped with chimichurri, chipotle-garlic butter, pinto beans, Mexican rice, flour tortillas, and a half Maine lobster.
All told, Coasterra serves up a hard-to-beat combo of sophisticated design, deliciously eclectic dishes, and a world-class view.
Mission Bay and San Diego Bay trim the edge of the city like sparkling gems, and the 4,600-acre Mission Bay Aquatic Park is the centerpiece of it all. No matter your experience level, there’s some kind of water activity at this sprawling aquatic wonderland that will fit the bill. Dozens of outfitters such as those at the Aquatic Center at Santa Clara Point can get you out amidst the blue via every imaginable conveyance; kayak, stand-up paddleboard, motorized watercraft, sail boat, or kite board. For a more novel approach, board the Bahia Belle, a Mississippi River–style paddleboat, snuggle aboard a romantic Venetian gondola, or try jetpacking to skim across the water like James Bond.
If you prefer a cruise experience, Hornblower and Flagship Cruises let you get a millionaire’s view of the bay on scenic tours, as well as dinner and brunch cruises and whale-watching tours. If you are in the area over the 4th of July, you’re in for a treat, as San Diego Bay hosts Big Bay Boom, the largest fireworks display in the county. In winter, it hosts the Parade of Lights, which kicks off at Shelter Island and finishes up at the Coronado ferry landing. The free parade features about 80 seriously tricked-out boats and draws huge crowds along the shoreline.
Mission Beach, the narrow strip of land between Mission Bay and the Pacific, is a chockablock 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 Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and FlowRider Wave House, as well as rock climbing, bumper cars, miniature golf, and arcade games. Mission Bay also has 27 miles of water’s-edge pathways, perfect for strolling and biking, and at the end of South Mission Beach Park you can cast a line from the Mission Beach jetty and maybe catch some dinner. While in the area, set aside a day or two to experience SeaWorld San Diego, the largest aquatic park of its kind.
Insider tip: Dogs are allowed on Fiesta Island only, which closes at 10 p.m.
The craft brewery explosion came pretty early to San Diego, and the San Diego Brewers Guild now has more than 130 breweries. The city was named the “Top Beer Town” in America by Men’s Journal, and the New York Times proclaimed that it “is rapidly becoming the country’s best craft beer scene.”
First, taste the brews at some of the best-known producers: Karl Strauss Brewing Company, which begun in 1989 by and was named after co-founder Chris Cramer’s cousin (who just happened to have been a master brewer from Germany), and Stone Brewing Company, which has its massive headquarters, complete with beer garden, in Escondido as well as several stores, a farm, and pubs at PetCo Park, Liberty Station, and the San Diego Airport.
Don’t miss craft brewers Lost Abbey (famed for its bottle-conditioned ales), AleSmith (focusing on English-style ales), Ballast Point (brewers of such seasonal beers as Habanero Sculpin IPA and Curry Export Stout), and Green Flash, who all get rave reviews from locals and international beer wags alike.
Those better-known names barely scratch the surface. If you want to visit a brewery that isn’t immediately recognizable to your friends back home, there are too many to list here, but a few standouts include Belching Beaver Brewery, Societe Brewing Company, Pizza Port (don’t be thrown by the name—it’s a top-notch brewery that serves pizza at five locations), Alpine Beer Co., Wild Barrel Brewing, Coronado Brewing Company, and Mother Earth Brew Co.
Beer tours, like the ones offered by Brewery Tours of San Diego, Scavengers Beer & Adventure Tours, and the entertaining Brew Hop, are big here too. The tours are an excellent way to sample craft beers at various locations while someone else does the driving—and shares brew-centric insights and information along the way.
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, snorkeling, and made-for-sunset firepits, as well as an adjacent playground for kids. Head out onto the waters with one of the local operators, like La Jolla Kayak or San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours, and paddle or snorkel among La Jolla’s marine denizens, from colorful 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 a 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, colorful 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 longtime 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, in 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, go see a future Broadway hit at La Jolla Playhouse, located on the University of California San Diego campus. Co-founded by Gregory Peck in 1947, the theater has been the birthplace of a long list of crowd-pleasing and Tony Award-winning hits, from The Who’s Tommy and Thoroughly Modern Millie to Jersey Boys and Come From Away. Come for one of its Page-to-Stage performances to watch (and offer feedback on) works still in progress. You can even bundle in a dinner of fresh seafood or a Kobe burger at the theater’s on-site James’ Place, helmed by acclaimed sushi chef James Holder.
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.
Traveling from south to north, start in peaceful Coronado, and relax at the Instagram-worthy Bluewater Grill, housed in the historic former Hotel del Coronado Boathouse that was built in 1887 as a chart house.
Casual lunch? San Diego Pier Café on the waterfront serves hearty cioppino and crunch-perfect fish and chips. Also downtown on the Embarcadero, there’s Sally’s Fish House & Bar 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, and Coasterra Modern Mexican’s 28,000-square-foot presence on the water, with views to match, is nothing short of a San Diego al fresco-dining mecca.
If you want tunes, try Humphrey’s Restaurant on Shelter Island; check the calendar for live music slated for its outdoor amphitheater. Also on Shelter Island is Bali Hai Restaurant, which offers Polynesian cuisine (seafood prepared with such ingredients as coconut milk, ginger, lime, tamarind and tropical fruits) as well as extensive vegetarian and gluten-free menus. In nearby Point Loma, check out Point Loma Seafoods, which specializes in homemade hickory-smoked filets served on hot sourdough bread and has been an institution since 1963. Two blocks away is Brigantine Seafood & Oyster Bar.
Finally, head up to La Jolla for brunch at Brockton Villa—the Crab Ipanema Eggs Benedict won’t disappoint. Right around the corner is George’s on the Cove, which Open Table has rated one of the 100 best al fresco restaurants in the country. The multi-level views are incredible, and what may be their signature offering—fish tacos on the terrace—has earned it a dedicated following.
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 tidbits 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 Il Fornaio Coronado 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 the Embarcadero. 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. The Cabrillo National Monument, established in 1913, commemorates his discovery on the point of Point Loma in San Diego.
Start at the visitor center, where short films and ranger talks offer interesting insights into Cabrillo and his history. Walk to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which has been restored to reflect what lighthouse life was like for lightkeepers and their families in the 1800s.
But locals (and sage visitors) also know that this tip-of-land perch offers astounding views of the San Diego skyline and the seething Pacific. Hiking trails twist through 660 acres/267 hectares of coastal habitat, so it’s easy to strike out on your own for even more panoramic beauty.
The 2.5-mile/4-km Bayside Trail looks out to San Diego Bay, and the easy Coastal Tidepool Trail takes you to some of the best tidepooling in California (look, but don’t touch). Visit in late fall or winter for the best viewing opportunities, when low tides occur during daylight hours. Keep an eye out for multiple tidepool species, which range from periwinkle snails and acorn barnacles to anemones and sea stars, in a variety of different intertidal zones.
Look for the coastal defense systems the city put in place in World War II to fend off the Japanese Navy. From mid-December to late March, the bluffs—and specifically the Whale Overlook—are a great place to watch migrating Pacific gray whales. If you forget binoculars, a limited number are available at the visitors center.
Most kids love boats, so you can imagine how excited they get about a really, really big boat. Downtown San Diego’s USS Midway Museum is just that: a retired aircraft carrier that is now permanently docked and open to visitors along the city’s Embarcadero. The deck of the enormous ship is covered with naval aircraft from World War II through 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 downtown 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, HMS Surprise (the floating star of Pirates of the Caribbean 4), and the Californian, a replica of a Gold Rush-era revenue cutter and the Official Tall Ship of the State of California. 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.
Once you’re back on land, don’t forget to stop for a smooch or a silly pose in front of the Unconditional Surrender statue, inspired by the famous photo of a soldier and nurse at the end of World War II. Walk farther along the waterfront and you’ll see more artwork that salutes San Diego’s military community, like the bust of Admiral Sprague at the Battle of Leyte Gulf Memorial and the Military Tribute to Bob Hope, honoring the movie star’s long stint entertaining troops.
The sprawling city of San Diego may best be explored by rental car if you plan to see from downtown up to coastal North County. But if you plan to focus your stay in certain areas or want to just venture out for the day, consider San Diego’s many transportation options, listed below.
In summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day), 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 (downtown); you get on, you get off, where and when you want.
Transportation from downtown San Diego to numerous coastal attractions and communities is easy—leave your car and parking hassles at the hotel and take one of the Coaster trains for a relaxing ride to the water; a round-trip to the North County enclave of Oceanside (the furthest point) is $11 for adults and children age six and up. Another option is the Sprinter light rail system that runs east-west, connecting the craft beer hubs of Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos, and Escondido. (A regional day pass, good for this system as well as buses and trollies, is available.) The system runs every 30 minutes and costs $2 per one-way ride for adults, and children under six ride for free.
Water Taxis and Ferries
The topography of San Diego Bay is famously intermingled with water, but that is no obstacle. San Diego Water Taxi offers on-call transportation between downtown and Coronado Fridays through Sundays. And on weekdays, from downtown’s Broadway Pier, 15 minutes on Flagship Cruises’ ferry sees you to Coronado as well. And have some fun with your terrestrial transport.
GoCar Tours-San Diego has a fleet of three-wheel, convertible mini-cars for two—each complete with a GPS-guided tour of downtown San Diego and adjoining neighborhoods.
Along the downtown waterfront and in the Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages. Downtown you can also look for the iconic bright red San Diego Trollies (one-way fare $2.50, as well as buses for $2.25) as they ply to and from key locations in the city and also head for places like Old Town and Mission Valley.
Much of the city—including neighborhoods such as North Park and Little Italy—are easily explored on foot. Once you find yourself in one of them—the Gaslamp Quarter alone has over 100 restaurants, bars and nightclubs, for example—you may not want to go anywhere else. One good way to make the most out of your time on foot is by booking a guided walking tour; there are several in the Gaslamp Quarter, and others are offered by We Love Tourists, TourGuideTim, and San Diego Urban Adventures.