From pandas and koala bears at its iconic zoo, to a remarkable collection of museums and gardens, this oasis in the heart of the city has been a vibrant part of San Diego culture for a hundred years. First and foremost, Balboa Park is a horticultural marvel: the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden alone has more than 130 varieties of rose (learn more about it and the rest of the park’s greenery on free 1-hour Offshoot Tours, offered on Saturday morning).
Museums abound; local favourites include the Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Culture reigns supreme too: The Old Globe Theatre hosts its famed Shakespeare Festival each summer; live bands and outdoor film screenings abound.
All this, plus one of the world’s finest zoos. Over 3,700 animals from 650 species—many of them extremely rare— are showcased at the San Diego Zoo, with naturalised exhibits covering roughly 100 acres. Get a special look at the zoo’s three giant pandas by signing up for ‘Early Morning with Pandas’, visiting the panda viewing area before it officially opens for the day. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals bundling zoo and museum visits.
As if all that sunshine 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.
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.
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.
Film buffs will know the Hotel Del Coronado as the backdrop in the Marilyn Monroe film Some Like It Hot, but this luxury resort has been a star among Southern Californian 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 as simply '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 while the day away on a plush lounger as you enjoy the 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 enjoy 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 the 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, hire 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 centre (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 centrepiece 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 centre of the big-windowed restaurant, boasts a selection of wine roughly 3,500 strong.
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, 706-square-metre 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.
Although technically part of San Diego, the community of La Jolla feels like a destination unto itself: you could easily spend a few days in this enclave and get a full Southern California experience—along with a walkable village of hotels, shops, and cafés that possess a sophisticated vibe.
For starters, La Jolla (pronounced la HOY-uh) has a prime perch on San Diego County’s coastline. Located about 20 minutes north of downtown, La Jolla is home to the wide, white-sand beaches of La Jolla Shores, with surfing, snorkelling, and made-for-sunset fire-pits, as well as an adjacent playground for kids. Head out onto the waters with one of the local operators, like La Jolla Kayak or San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours, and paddle or snorkel among La Jolla’s marine denizens, from colourful garibaldi to (harmless) leopard sharks. To see more aquatic critters while on land, explore the Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or stand along the sea wall at beach known as The Children’s Pool, and watch a large community of seals lounge, bark, and tend to their cubs.
The seals live right next to the heart of La Jolla, the hilly village areas known as The Cove and Bird Rock. The ocean is still in plain view amid the shops, eateries, and places to stay—like La Valencia Hotel, the Mediterranean-style “Pink Lady” that once hosted World War II soldiers about to ship out, as well as Hollywood A-Listers like Gregory Peck. Shop in the upscale boutiques along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street, or dine at beloved George’s at the Cove, farm-to-table WhisknLadle, colourful taco haven Puesto, or seafood-rich Nine-Ten.
Don’t miss the cultural stops, too, like the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Warwick’s (the nation’s oldest family-owned bookstore), or the local art galleries such as Legends Gallery, where you can see out-of-the box paintings by the late Theodore Geisel, the long-time La Jolla resident better known as Dr. Seuss.
(Insider tip: Look at the unique flora around La Jolla to see what may have inspired Seuss’s whimsical plants and trees).
Some must-stops in La Jolla stretch beyond the Cove. The Marine Room, on La Jolla Shores, offers incredible “high tide” brunches and dinners where the tall waves crash into the giant windows as you eat. To the north, tee off at Torrey Pines Golf Course (which will host the U.S. Open again in 2021), next to the sumptuous Lodge at Torrey Pines, or see a future Broadway hit at La Jolla Playhouse (co-founded by Gregory Peck in 1947), the birthplace of Jersey Boys and Come From Away. Another great option: hike the ocean-view trails at the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, under the shade of the rare, long-needled pine trees that are common in this little pocket of the Golden State.
With the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay 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 2,600 square metre 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.
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 centre, 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 tide pooling 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 defence systems the city put in place in World War II to fend off the Japanese Navy. From mid-December to late March, the bluffs—and specifically the Whale Overlook—are a great place to watch migrating Pacific grey whales. If you forget binoculars, a limited number are available at the visitors centre.
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.
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 Labor 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 Italyare 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.
For a dining experience that will satisfy any craving, head to Liberty Public Market in San Diego’s Liberty Station, just three miles from the airport. Opened in March 2016, the 25,000-square-foot building (a converted Naval complex) boasts more than 30 vendors offering diverse options—from French pastries to fresh oysters to cold-pressed juice—focused on showcasing all that the city has to offer.
“Liberty Public Market embodies the unique spirit of San Diego—it’s a combination of everything that makes us such a vibrant place,” says David Spatafore of Blue Bridge Hospitality, which owns and operates Liberty Public Market. “San Diego has a rich history, buzzing dining scene, and a deep passion for locally sourced ingredients, all of which enhances our reputation as a food destination. It’s one of those places you visit to get a flavour of our amazing city.”
Many of the market’s restaurants started as popular food trucks around San Diego, such as handmade sausage shop Mastiff Sausage Company, and Stuffed!, which offers crispy tater tots and deep-fried Oreos. Other vendors focus on one specialty—like custom-cut meats at Liberty Meat Shop, artisanal cheese at Venissimo Cheese shop, or seasonal noodles at Pasta Design.
Need a strategy for how to tackle your first visit? Start with a local beverage. If it’s afternoon, try a Kryptonite (mint-infused cold brew) from WestBean Coffee. If it’s later in the day, take advantage of the market’s unique alcohol license and imbibe while you browse—grab a beer from specialty craft shop Bottlecraft (24 beers on draft and 500 bottles for sale) or sample one of 500 wines from Grape Smuggler.
Next, scout out appetizer-sized items, such as Paraná’s empanadas with homemade chimichurri sauce or FishBone Kitchen’s ceviche served fresh in a martini glass. Then, move on to heartier options, such as a lobster roll from Wicked Maine Lobster or jambalaya at Southern-focused Cane Patch Kitchen. Be sure to save room for dessert—it’s hard to pass up the colourful candy-topped cakes and massive cookies from Crafted Baked Goods, which is also home to the popular Scooped by MooTime ice cream counter.
If you prefer a sit-down experience that brings together multiple vendors, head to Mess Hall, which features a daily changing menu with recommended beer or wine pairings for each dish.
Insider’s tip: Consider visiting during Happy Hour, when nearly every vendor has a food or drink special.