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 began 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 with fans about the next (or current) blockbuster or hit series. For one week every July, the centre of San Diego turns into fandom central.
Whether you’re attending for the first or the 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 pass for
The number of events happening outside the convention centre grows every year, and many of the pop-up attractions don’t require a pass to attend.
Local breweries often get into the spirit with events like Hop-Con: The Wootstout Festival, which celebrates San Diego's status as the centre 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 combination 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 co-host) parties and after-hours events during the convention, with details provided on their websites, at their stands inside the show and at pop-up locations around the convention centre. 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 streets north of the convention centre, 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 on 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 people-watching location that offers a great view of both the Comic-Con crowds and the harbour, and you’re likely to spot more than a few comic creators and guests of the show enjoying a quick bite during the weekend too.
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 centre closes its doors each day. The common areas at nearby hotels like the 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 pass for 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 film studios reveal footage and make major announcements, so you typically have to queue up extremely early—sometimes for a full day—to gain access to particular events. In recent years, the Comic-Con staff have occasionally issued wristbands to attendees queuing up well 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 the Saturday evening of 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 film.
If you’re looking for your favourite 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 accommodation 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 book 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 furthest from the convention centre are likely to regain availability the earliest. When investigating room availability, keep San Diego's public transportation system in mind—the central tram heads east and south to La Mesa, National City and Chula Vista, while the Coaster connects the city with the North County beach towns of Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad and Oceanside. Both are viable options for reaching the convention centre without driving, with more potential for hotel availability.
Helpful Comic-Con tips
• If you can wait to buy souvenirs (and they're not in danger of selling out), do it on Sunday. All the vendors will want to sell the last of their merchandise so that they won’t have to take 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, sun cream (in case you end up queuing outdoors for an event), an extra phone charger and battery, and comfortable shoes.
• When you 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 corridors with space to sit on the ground and possibly a power socket to charge your phone.
As if all that sunshine wasn’t enough, San Diego is a waterfront city with top-notch restaurants, beautiful and ocean-sprayed vistas (often at the same time), areas that are steeped in history and culture, and perfectly hopped beer 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 largest of its kind in the world, or exploring the inland offerings of the city, San Diego will not disappoint.
Read on to discover some of those outstanding culinary venues, including the ones with the most relaxing and photo-worthy waterfront settings. Find out about the can’t-miss shops and hangouts in key areas such as the Gaslamp Quarter, the East Village, North Park, Old Town and others, and discover how you can leave your car—and parking worries—out of your daily plans and get around via the extensive system of trams, light rail, trains, buses and water taxis.
Not every culinary experience that San Diego offers is in a restaurant, of course. Find out 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 upmarket food and drink vendors. There’s also essential information about nearby La Jolla, SeaWorld San Diego, the Maritime Museum, San Diego County’s famous collection of craft breweries and 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.
Film buffs know the Hotel Del Coronado as a backdrop in the Marilyn Monroe film 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 US presidents, dignitaries and, indeed, plenty of film stars to Coronado Island, a 15-minute drive from central San Diego. Today, the 757-room resort, known to locals just as 'the Del', sits on 28 acres of private, pristine seafront 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 have a surfing lesson, play volleyball or just lounge the day away on a plush lounger while enjoying drinks service. A night-time bonfire on the sand is a popular resort tradition—and now you can order up artisanal pizzas, s’mores (toasted marshmallows squashed between biscuits) 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.
Children aged 4–12 will love the resort’s DelVentures activity centre, where they can participate in programmes like the Mermaids & Pirates camp. For a fun activity for the whole family, rent bikes (or a pedal car) at PeDels and explore the island, which has more than 15 miles of dedicated cycle 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.
Boasting old-world ambience and a foodie-magnet restaurant, San Diego’s Fairmont Grand Del Mar manages to have it both ways—both cutting-edge and timeless.
The hotel first opened in 2007, tucked in an upscale residential community just outside Del Mar, the north San Diego County beach town that’s home to the Del Mar racetrack with easy access to La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve, and even LEGOLAND California. The palatial, rosy-pink hotel was designed in homage to Addison Mizner, the California-born architect primarily known for his early 20th century work in Florida—Mediterranean Revival hotels and homes in Palm Beach and Boca Raton.
Certainly, the Grand Del Mar lives up to its standard of old-fashioned luxury. The long driveway into the 400-acre resort is flanked by the gently rolling terrain of the Tom Fazio-designed golf course. Walk into the sumptuous lobby and you can enjoy afternoon tea service on the elegant couches or in the dark-wood-lined library. Wander a little farther and you’ll happen upon the Spa, with its classical aesthetics and decadent menu—like the Decompression Treatment, which includes an organic rosemary scrub, a massage, and a hydrating body wrap of goat butter while you bob around on a floatation bed.
Upstairs, the 249 rooms and suites have European-style soaking tubs, pillow-top beds with Pratesi linens, and balconies that overlook the resort gardens, the golf course, or the neighbouring Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve.
Lounge by one of the four pools (including a children’s pool with wading area), take a trail ride from the resort’s equestrian center (for ages 7 and up), or play a round of golf—but life here can easily evolve around mealtimes. Beyond the lobby’s tea service and the espressos in the Cent’Anni Café, go to the hotel’s Amaya for Italian-accented California cuisine, or its Clubhouse Grill for a decadent burger or the duck confit grilled cheese.
The culinary centerpiece of the hotel, however, is Addison. Notable for being Southern California’s only Five Diamond and Forbes Five-Star restaurant, Addison is helmed by Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef William Bradley, who blends artisanal cooking with contemporary French cuisine—delectable art on a plate. The three- or four-course prix fixe tasting menus might feature kampachi fish cured in sake, mussels in green curry and coriander, or calotte de boeuf (ribeye cap to steak lovers) with escargot à la dijonaise—all finished off with a chocolate tart with crème de cassis. The wine cellar, placed deliberately in the center of the big-windowed restaurant, boasts a selection of wine roughly 3,500 strong.
With lively neighbourhoods, 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 is most famous for its beloved koalas and pandas, animals that are only found at a few select zoos worldwide. 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 fuelled by the property’s six(!) in-demand restaurants and bars. While discerning travellers may visit for the first-class accommodations in the heart of downtown, locals know The Pendry is 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 colours inspired by San Diego’s beach and surf culture, and many offer stunning views of the city skyline and sailboat-dotted harbour. 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 neighbourhoods. 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 central San Diego's Embarcadero, the museum is a collection of seafaring vessels, from large sailing ships to old-fashioned yachts and Navy submarines that you can explore—and sometimes even take a short voyage on.
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 ones. 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 US Navy submarine that holds the record for the deepest dive. The curious, meanwhile, won’t be able to 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 harbour 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 in the area (tickets range from $10 to $28, with museum admission). To go further back in history, take a four-hour trip 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 half a day to longer than a week; you can haul the sheets or man the helm, or just watch as the crew darts about the rigging to set and furl the sails.
Children 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 artefacts,' says Kelli Lewis, director of development. ' Just stepping on board—smelling the wood, tar and salt, feeling the faint roll of the deck and gazing aloft at the sails—brings depth and realism to children’s imaginings.'
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 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 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.
1. Where do you live? Near the beach in San Diego. I love the energy.
2. Why there? My company, To the Stars, is there, my kids’ schools are there, and the sunset is there too.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. What is your favourite Golden State splurge? Mexican food. 100%.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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 colours—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 panorama 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 of this multilevel dazzler—with a 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 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 Mexican shrimp and bay scallops, Pacific sea bass, lime, orange zest, roasted tomato salsa, and cilantro. Dipping sauces for fresh-shucked oysters include pickled onion-habañero mignonette and fire-roasted cocktail sauce. Classic surf and turf becomes a spectacular stacked presentation of a beef short rib topped with Oaxacan mole, a lobster-risotto cake, grilled asparagus, and a lobster claw.
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 adorn the edge of the city like sparkling gems, and the 4,600-acre Mission Bay Aquatic Park is the centrepiece of it all. Regardless of 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 on the blue via every imaginable conveyance; kayak, stand-up paddleboard, motorised watercraft, yacht 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 jet-packing 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 offering dinner and brunch cruises and whale-watching tours. If you're 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 begins at Shelter Island and finishes at the Coronado ferry landing. The free parade features about 80 seriously elaborately adorned boats and draws huge crowds along the shoreline.
Mission Beach, the narrow strip of land between Mission Bay and the Pacific, is chock-a-block with surfing shops, t-shirt stores 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 rollercoaster 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 walking and cycling, 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 only allowed on Fiesta Island, which closes at 10 pm.
Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village; San Diego’s diverse city centre districts 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 area bordering Balboa Park’s north-east 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 favourite Carnitas’ Snack Shop (the menu changes daily depending on the fresh produce and other ingredients available that day). Hip art abounds in this trendy neighbourhood; 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 district’s annual Festival of Arts, which features live art demonstrations, music performances, and purveyors of local beer and food.
In the East Village, locals savour 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.
In South Park (east of Balboa Park), find whimsical clothes and jewellery at Junc.Life Boutique, or enjoy an artichoke po’ boy (Louisiana-style filled baguette) or Wizard Bowl salad at vegetarian bistro Kindred on 30th Street.
Food, craft beer, boutique shopping and live music are all part of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, the part of town that tends to keep things hopping ‘til the small hours.
Little Italy, known for (you guessed it), Italian restaurants (Barbusa and Civico 1845 are two of the best), also has chic shops housed in bungalows, as well as plenty of pavement cafés and pizzerias along India Street. Two particularly noteworthy places 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 area, book a Little Italy food tour, or, if you’re in town for a Saturday, wander through the Little Italy Mercato farmers' market.
If you fancy 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 car park and take advantage of San Diego’s excellent network of trains and trams that criss-cross the city.
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.
La Jolla is (so many) different things to different people. Posh shopping? Browse the boutiques along Girard Avenue. At La Jolla Shores, surfing, snorkeling and white sand beaches with made-for-sunset fire pits (and an adjacent park playground for the kids). Kayaking? Explore the sea caves; like everything else in La Jolla, placed in perfect proximity (La Jolla Kayak will take you there). Broadway quality productions? The La Jolla Playhouse. World-class art (with an equivalent view)? The La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Kid-friendly aquarium? Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the world renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is one of the best. Hiking to the wind-whisper of Torrey Pines among 809 hectares of ocean front preserve? Golfing among the same whisper? Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and Torrey Pines Golf Course. A place to hang after the sun goes down? How about next to the fireplace at Mustangs & Burros at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel, or the famed Marine Room right on the beach at La Jolla Shores? And don’t leave, because you have to start the next day with buttermilk pancakes and coffee and a bluff-top view at Caroline’s Seaside Café.
With the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay on 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.
Travelling 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 in the city centre, on the Embarcadero, there’s Sally’s Fish House & Bar and The Fish Market, two more places to try for a fresh catch of the day with waterfront views.
Across San Diego Bay, head to Harbor Island and Tom Ham’s Lighthouse (yes, it really is housed in a lighthouse). Nearby, Island Prime makes the most of the view with floor-to-ceiling windows and an over-the-water terrace, 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 the live music slated for its outdoor amphitheatre. Also on Shelter Island is Bali Hai Restaurant, which offers Polynesian cuisine (seafood prepared with ingredients such 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 specialises in homemade hickory-smoked fillets served on hot sourdough bread and has been an institution since 1963. Two streets 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. Around the corner is George’s on the Cove which Open Table has rated as one of the 100 best al fresco restaurants in the country. The multilevel views are incredible, and what may be their signature offering—fish tacos on the terrace—has earned a dedicated following.
Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community of Coronado feels like a private world surrounded by perfect beaches, including the ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. As well as 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 reception area and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; guides share anecdotes of 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 perfect 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. Hire one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant ocean-front mansions and well-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 such as Il Fornaio Coronado and Peohe’s have extensive views of San Diego’s city-centre skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can be heavy, 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. 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/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). 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 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. The U.S.S. Midway Museum is just that: a retired aircraft carrier that is now permanently docked and open to visitors along the downtown waterfront. 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 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.
The sprawling city of San Diego may best be explored by hire car if you plan to see from the city centre right 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.
City Centre Shuttle Buses
In summer (from Memorial Day (end of May) to Labour Day (first weekend in September)), a few dollars will get you an all-day travel pass on the Big Bay Shuttle, which has eight stops along the bay front from Harbor Island to the South Embarcadero (city centre); you can get on and off wherever and whenever you want.
Transportation from central 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 town of Oceanside (the furthest point) is $11 for adults and children aged six and up. Another option is the Sprinter light railway that runs east-west, connecting the craft beer hubs of Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos and Escondido. (A regional day pass, valid on this line as well as buses and trams, is available.) The trains run every 30 minutes and cost $2 per single ticket for adults, and children under six travel 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 the city centre and Coronado from Friday to Sunday. And on weekdays, from the city centre's Broadway Pier, a 15-minute journey on Flagship Cruises’s ferry will see you in Coronado as well. Or have some fun with your terrestrial transport.
GoCar Tours-San Diego has a fleet of three-wheeled, convertible mini-cars for two—each complete with a GPS-guided tour of central San Diego and the adjoining areas.
Along the city centre waterfront and in the Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages. In the city centre you can also look for the iconic bright red San Diego Trollies (a single fare is $2.50; buses are $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 areas 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 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.