The Complete Travel Guide to San Diego
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
San Diego is one of my favorite cities for several reasons. 1) The weather is perfect pretty much all the time. 2) The sunsets are incredible. 3) The food. 4) Top Gun, was filmed there. I mean I could list so many more reasons that San Diego should be on the list of places that you should venture to. I was asked to describe its vibe before and for some reason it was hard to because it has a vibe that I could only explain by actually showing you. Although I wont be able to show you the vibe, I have put together a little handy guide to help with suggestions for planning your adventure and see why I love this city so much.
So here it goes, my list of things to see, eat, and drink in San Diego.
Downtown San Diego
It's going to be hard to put together a guide for Downtown since so much is going on. I'll try splitting it up into the two neighborhoods to check out. Some general transportation tips for all of downtown: the city's light rail system makes it easy to get around without a car. You can even take a vintage trolley car that circles the downtown core. If you want to feel like a kid again, download one of the e-scooter apps and zip around downtown. All of the ride sharing apps can be used as well. The city is also very manageable to walk around, especially if you want to get some exercise in before devouring all the delicious food and drinks.
The Little Italy neighborhood is full of good food so its hard to go wrong eating here. Hang out on India Street from Cedar Street north to Juniper Street and check out any side streets for even more delicious goodies.
Things to do:
Ballast Point Brewery - This brewery has an expansive outdoor patio to relax and enjoy their beers and food. The beer list is massive, so finding something to enjoy should not be difficult, as well as a delicious looking food menu if you get hungry. As an added bonus, planes fly directly over the patio into the nearby airport which provides a cool sight to see (this will be a recurring theme throughout this post). Also check out the private patio rooms if traveling in a big group. The patio itself does not have a view of anything but it still evokes a relaxed vibe. There are also a couple other breweries in the area if want to go brewery hopping, like Bolt Brewery.
Carruth Cellars Wine Garden - This urban winery had a whimsical back garden patio placed between two brick buildings giving off fun character. Their pizza oven is also open for all to see or try any of the amazing looking charceturie boards. We enjoyed the lighter wines versus the heavier reds, but I'm also not a big wine drinker and tend to prefer the lighter wines. There are also several 'winehouses' in the area like Pali Wine Co., if want to do some wine hopping.
Market Mingling - Little Italy is also home to markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Check them out for local farm goods and artisans or grab a homemade bite to eat from one of the vendors.
Where to Eat:
The Crack Shack - This fried chicken joint is a mix of a beer garden and a restaurant with no walls (bonus is its right across the street from Carruth Cellars). The fried chicken sandwiches here were unreal and every food item (including our drinks) were devoured quickly.
Farmers Table - This restaurant is situated right on Little Italy's main plaza with food based on the farm to table concept. Their plates were a mix of American and Italian. Every dish we got we enjoyed and safe to say, there were no leftovers.
Salt & Straw - After dinner stop at this ice cream shop, where you can taste delicious takes on traditional ice cream flavors to more unique flavors (especially their seasonal flavors). When I visited their sister shop in Seattle, their seasonal flavors played on the Halloween season and some contained chocolate covered bugs (gross but cool at the same time). They even have an "Ice Cream Flight" for those like me that have a hard time choosing one flavor.
Local Recommendations - For Italian food (I mean this is Little Italy after all), take a look at Filippis (touristy though), Barbusa, Bencotto, or Civico 1845. If you want something less Italian, something along the lines of a steakhouse, checkout Born and Raised.
Little Italy is a bit tamer of a night out, but still great for some after dinner drinks.
Where to go After Dinner:
Nolita Hall - This modern meets millennial joint had a large u-shaped bar (although somewhat tight when packed) perfect for a nice casual but semi-upscale drink. Fun part about the space was the glass ceiling to view the airplanes landing at the airport next door. Look behind the bar for the rotating board giving flight information for each plane flying over, which provided a nice guessing game. In between long stretches of flights they displayed corny pickup lines you could tweet in.
Cloak & Petal - This restaurant has two trees making up the ends of the bar and were dressed as cherry trees making the pink really pop when passing by. We did not have enough time to stop in but definitely a cool looking place that would have been great to pay a visit.
False Idol - This super cool speakeasy tiki bar in the back of Craft & Commerce (another spot to visit after dinner). The drinks were a bit more 'sophisticated' tiki and less pina colada and strawberry daiquiri. But the theme in the bar was top notch and not a cheesy beach-side tiki bar, it is quite dark in there though. Pay attention to ordering one of the drinks as the bar puts on a show when its ordered. They do take in limited walk-ins so best to make a reservation.
King and Queen Cantina - This Cantina has a more youthful vibe, of all the places listed, blasting today's hits mixed with Spanish music. The bar is a bit tight on the second floor but the margaritas are delicious and huge but the best part here is the margarita flight (yes you read that right). Try five mini sized margaritas, perfect for a basic Instagram photo.
Gaslamp Quarter/East Village
The other big neighborhood to visit Downtown is Gaslamp Quarter. I would consider this area the more touristy neighborhood, so we did not spend a lot of time over here but still a lively happening area. The area is also perfect if looking more for a party night versus Little Italy's more relaxed night out. There is of course no shortage of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops to take a trip into.
Things to do:
Catch a Baseball - Right in the heart of the city is Petco Park where the San Diego Padres of MLB call home. Having been years ago its a great way to spend an afternoon/night downtown with the ability to explore Gaslamp Quarter before and/or after. Or get to the game early and participate in the Party at the Park happy hours. Also get the garlic fries and thank me later.
Chuck E. Cheese but for Adults - Try your hand at some classic and new arcade games at Coin-Op Game Room while sipping on a delicious cocktail or ice cold beverage. Venture a few blocks over and check out Punch Bowl Social. Punch Bowl Socials are restaurants mixed with all sorts of activities like bowling, karaoke and a bunch of table and arcade games. I have visited a few of these and they are always a good time and delicious.
Where to Eat:
The Donut Bar - This doughnut shop has all of the funky flavors and over the top looking donuts, and they actually taste good. The menu is extensive with classics to unique kinds, like donuts stuffed with pop tarts (what?!?!). The inside area is pretty small so do not be scared of the line out the door, its just tight so wait, it will be totally worth it.
Taquiera Los Chuchys - If you've ever had Tacos Los No. 1 in NYC (if you have not, get yourself there immediately) these are very similar in style. I'm pretty sure we all devoured ours in about ten seconds they were that good. These tacos are not like taco bell or Tex-Mex style, these are Mexican street style tacos and worth a visit.
Unfortunately we did not spend a lot of time in this area so did not get to experience a night out, but no doubt would have been amazing. Trailer Park After Dark looked like a super unique place to pay a visit along with Werewolf. There are also a couple other more Roaring 20's style speakeasy's in this area if the tiki style of False Idol did not peak your interest. There were also Pedal Tours roaming the area if want to do a unique take on a bar crawl.
Downtown Honorary Mentions
Having only a limited time downtown some things were skipped but here are some honorary mentions (some I have done years ago) to check out if they peak your interest:
USS Midway Museum - If museums are your thing, pay a visit to this retired military aircraft carrier for some navy history. Bonus right around the corner is the towering Unconditional Surrender Statue.
Maritime Museum of San Diego - Another nautical museum you can check out. Also keep an eye out for some of the cruises on their historic vessels.
Cruise - Right on the waterfront are several harbor cruises if want to see the city from another vantage point. Or drive around in your own speed boat and get downtown views from the harbor with Speed Boat Adventures.
Seaport Village - Along the lines of being touristy like Gaslamp Quarter, find a lot of small store fronts in this shopping village right on the water. Be on the lookout though, this area is posed for a refresh in the next few years.
La Jolla is 100% a must visit if visiting San Diego. It's an easy and nice day trip out of San Diego. There are a handful of things to do in the area that can easily fill a day.
Things to Do:
Selfie with the Sea Lions/Seals - Right on the rocks that make up the La Jolla cove, the seals and sea lions call home. The best part is you can climb right on to the rocks with them (per law due respect a distance from them and do not disturb them).
Shop Til' You Drop - Take a stroll through the town and check out the main shops and restaurants on the main drag of Girard Avenue. Poke down the side streets and out-coves for even more surprises.
"Hike" - Take a stroll along the Coast Walk Trail which follows the cliffs of La Jolla right along the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. The walk is easy and the views are breathtaking.
Beach, Please - Stop at La Jolla Shores Beach to spend some time relaxing on the sand and playing in the water and/or walk on the Scripps Memorial Pier.
Dude, Where's My Paddle? - Book a kayaking session through La Jolla Kayak for a trip on the water through the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. A great way to spend some time out on the ocean water viewing the colorful sea life and maybe even get a chance to enter one of the caves. If your really lucky maybe a seal or dolphin could swim by or catch a whale off in the distance like we did.
Where to Brunch:
Cody's - For a delicious brunch with a nice little view of the ocean, pay a visit to Cody's. The mimosas went down quick and the food tasted delicious and started the day the right way.
Parakeet Cafe - For a more cafe style brunch check out Parakeet and its Instagram worthy indoors. The food and coffee will be just as good as your Instagram basic photo will be.
We were only in La Jolla long enough to grab brunch and were not able to check out the lunch or dinner scene. There are plenty of restaurants though if we had visited later in the evening, so finding some good food in town should not be a problem.
Tip: If you can not fill a full day in La Jolla, a good suggestion is to mix it with spending some time in Torrey Pines as well. Torrey Pines sits high among cliffs which allows for awesome paragliding as well several hiking trails among the cliffs that take you right down to the beach. It is also home to Torrey Pines Golf Course used for the Farmers Insurance Open, which has an amazing setting sitting on top of the cliffs. Torrey Pines though is mostly a suburban town so no real downtown or anything to check out on that front, although UC San Diego does call this place home as well as the Westfield UTC Mall.
Another area I recommend checking out is Mission Beach and the neighboring Pacific Beach. I recommend adding this area due to the many activities that can be had at any point throughout the day.
Things to do:
Belmont Park - Take advantage of this boardwalk amusement park and enjoy rides on the Giant Dipper roller coaster or any of the other rides and attractions. The selection should appease everyone in your group from arcades to mini golf and rope courses to pools and kiddie rides to high stakes thrill rides. There are also several surf stores to shop in and plenty of food stands to enjoy if rides are not your thing.
Who Says Exercise Can't Be Fun? - You can also rent a bike (or roller blades) and take a cruise down the boardwalk all the way up to Pacific Beach. The paved walkway skirts right on the edge of the beach so never a bad view.
Cannonball - Check out their rooftop for drinks and not a bad view from any seat. Prices reflect their beachfront location though. I'd recommend maybe just getting a drink and enjoying the view (preferably at sunset).
Adult Playground - In Mission Bay you can kayak, stand up paddle board and rent jet skis. If you want to do something unique, cruise the bay in a Hot Tub or enjoy a nice cold one on the Paddle Pub, especially if your traveling with a group of people (21+). Similar to the popular pedal bike tours, but this one is on the water (no bar stops on these tours though). I did a similar trip on a bachelor party in Chicago and it was one of the highlights of the trip, so highly recommend doing one of these style tours.
Seaworld - Seaworld is located just down the road from Mission Beach. If Belmont Park is not thrilling enough for you, Seaworld will be able to fill that hole with their roller coasters and attractions. Pay a visit to the many aquatic and sea life exhibits as well. They even have a separate water park, Aquatica, a few miles outside of town if you enjoy the thrills of the slides and the gigantic wave pools or the relaxation of lazy rivers.
Just Beach It - At some point you will end up on a beach on your trip and this section of beach is wide and long so plenty of space to spread out and get your tan on. You will have miles of sun and sand to choose from. Its the next closest beach to downtown after Coronado, which makes it nice and easy to get to.
Where to Eat:
Pacific Beach Eats - PB has a bigger selection of restaurants than Mission Beach and only a little farther down the beach. The bar scene will also keep you going long after dinner. We did not have enough time to visit Pacific Beach, but would be an area to check out for food or a night out. If you stick to Garnet Ave you should have no problem finding some delicious food and late night party spots.
Sandbar - This taco sports bar, as I would call it, looks right over Belmont Park with a peek a boo of the beach from the second floor. The tacos were good but we had better tacos in Downtown. The other food was delicious though and the margaritas strong.
Just North of downtown is this beautiful park full of museums, gardens, trails and one of the best zoos in the world. This park though is just a stop for activities as the park has very limited places to enjoy a bite to eat or drink.
Things to do:
Day at the Museum - Your picking is a plenty for museums here. From the San Diego Air & Space Museum to the San Diego Museum of Art and the Fleet Science Center to Comic Con Museum. You can pretty much find any museum you are looking for scattered among Balboa Park. Even a historic Spanish Art Village to take home a nice homemade product reminiscent of the city's culture.
Garden State - Separating all the museums are various gardens and walking trails to take in their natural beauty. There are just as many varying gardens around as there are museums here. Also check out the Lily Pond reflecting pool for a beautiful picture opportunity.
The World Famous Zoo - The San Diego Zoo is the crowning jewel of the park. The zoo is massive, making up almost half of Balboa Park, displaying animals from all over the world. We spent the entire day there and still did not get to see every animal that calls the zoo home. Food though is expensive in the park, as should probably be expected. But the park is beautiful and well taken care of, and if there is ever a zoo to visit, this is the one. It is also worth taking a trip out to the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park, a little trip outside of downtown, where you can see even more animals as well as the open range safari they created for them. Bonus is a zipline with safari views there.
Where to Eat:
West Coast Tavern - As mentioned earlier, the park is short on food but not far outside of the park is this movie theater turned cafe. A great spot to grab brunch before heading into the park. Check out the mimosa flight they serve as well, because who doesn't enjoy a nice refreshing mimosa to start your morning.
Old town is part historic museum-part actual functioning village, displaying what life might have looked like during the birth of San Diego. The area buildings are restored and reconstructed buildings made to look like a town straight of the Spanish Old West. Some are converted into shops, restaurants or colonial representations of activities. This is an easy half day visit.
Things to do:
Walk the Old Town Road - Best thing to do is just explore the town yourself. There are plenty of shops to explore, selling anything from traditional art to spices to anything you can think of. Spread among the shops you may even walk in on a blacksmith or a traditional weaver. You can even see special performances on the stages throughout town from a one man band playing traditional Spanish music to a mariachi band.
Tour de Old Town - Since this historic site is also part museum, they also offer tours led by a knowledgeable tour guide. Take this if you want to learn more history on the park and what life was like back during this time.
Where to Eat:
Old Town Mexican Cafe - Just on the outskirts of the Park is this joint where you can see through their street windows fresh tortillas being made. The tacos and food overall were good and massive, just probably skip on the margaritas even though the 2 (really 4) for $15 is enticing (too salty and sour for me).
San Diego Ave - Explore this street right off the park where there are plenty of restaurants, especially Mexican. Take in the smells of the fresh tortillas being made and checkout the various menus for what piques your interest most. Also noting here, that the street is filled with lots of shops and touristy places to get your souvenir to bring home.
Inside the Park - The park also boasts several Mexican restaurants. Although if you are in the park during busy times you could have several visitors walking right around where you are eating. The prices will be a bit more expensive inside the park as well.
Coronado is a large peninsula that blocks the downtown centre from the ocean and makes up the other side of the San Diego Bay. Most of Coronado is made up of the Naval Air Base and the rest is mostly private homes and a few hotel resorts. If you are not staying in town, the only areas you'll probably end up are near the famous Hotel del Coronado or on the expansive beach. A tip here is if your staying in downtown San Diego, you can actually easily catch a ferry across the bay and rent some bikes to get around the peninsula. Although not the most active area its a nice quick beach stop for a couple hours.
Thing to do:
Surf Town Shopping - Orange Avenue is the main drag of Coronado and primarily where all the stores and restaurants are. Although not a large area there are a couple stores to stop in to check out, although most of the area is made up of places to eat. Good chance you will not spend much time here unless grabbing food.
Beach, Please...Again - The beach near the center of town is probably the largest stretch of beach in the area but can definitely venture a little farther down the peninsula for a quieter section. And if you are RV'ing you can stay right on the beach at Silver Strand State Beach. On the beach near the Hotel del Coronado, they have some beach bars right on the sand to enjoy a refreshing cocktail while enjoying the view or bring back to your beach setup.
Fore Play - Check out the Coronado Municipal Golf Course where you can play a round of golf with an amazing view. The course sits right on the water, providing a nice backdrop for several of the holes.
Biker Gang - Thanks to the relatively flat lay of the land, Coronado offers an easy biking town. If taking the ferry over and renting a bike, there is even a bike path in the area that travels right along the water. While walking around town, this seemed to be a popular mode of transportation and something we would have used as well if we did not end up driving.
Where to Eat:
Beach+Taco Shack/On the Rocks - Both of these spots are little shacks located on the beachfront of the Hotel del Coronado. They offer the only spots in the area to grab some drinks to enjoy while on the beach. The drinks and food are quite expensive for what your getting so be prepared, although you may get lucky like us and our over prepared pineapple turned from a drink for two people to a drink for four people. The food was subpar so would probably skip and eat somewhere else but definitely worth getting a drink at (or if you do not want to drink right on the beach the hotel has some other outdoor patios to get drinks on and enjoy the views).
Other Places of Interest
Although I listed a bunch of places to check out, there are some one off areas also worth taking a look at.
Sunset Cliffs/Point Loma - Sunset Cliffs is located on the Point Loma Peninsula and offers unbelievably sunsets at the top of, you guessed it, cliffs. Unfortunately there is pretty much nothing to do around here but can pair it with a little trip up to Ocean Beach for some more bars and restaurants with a hipster surf town vibe. There is also a pier that you can check out as well as a Farmers Market on Wednesdays that mixes art, food and live music till the sun sets. Before sunset, you can hike the many trails at the tip of Point Loma.
Carlsbad - This trip is a bit farther up the coast and aimed more for families as Legoland calls Carlsbad home. Legoland is a great time for families (or kids at heart) offering family friendly rides, unbelievable Lego creations and even has a water park and hotel to visit. Also out this way is The Flower Fields, filled with all your Instagram photo needs, just check to see the flower seasons before going. If you take a visit during the early days of summer, stop at the Del Mar Fairground on your way back to the city and check out the San Diego County Fair. This was one of the largest fairs I had ever seen (although easy to do comparing to my local county fairs) and probably one of the best fairs I've ever been too.
Mission Valley - If shopping is your kind of vacation, then Mission Valley is perfect for you. The area is home to two massive malls, Fashion Valley and Westfield Mission Valley, so you are sure to find any store you are looking for. It is also an easy tram ride out, with each mall having their own stops and only being just two stops from each other. This is also on the same line as Old Town and can be combined with it to make a day of it.
Liberty Station - Next to the airport, this site of an old Navy Training Center is now turned into a center for businesses, stores and restaurants. There are really only a few stores here and definitely more restaurants then stores so this would be worth checking out more for a dinner or lunch. There is also a food hall, Liberty Public Market on site, for those groups that can not decide on a single restaurant or pay a visit to the massive beer garden at Stone Brewing. On the first Friday of the month, they also host an arts festival with music, crafts and more. You can also sit in the park along the water and watch the planes take off from the neighboring airport.
Skyline Views - If you want a unique and beautiful view for dinner check out the few restaurants that sit along the harbor giving incredible views of the city skyline. We checked out Bali Hai, which is themed to Polynesian with unobstructed views of the city from the floor to ceiling windows as well as an outside fire pit to enjoy. Food was really good but beware the Mai Tai will knock you out, if not after one definitely by the second. This can also be combined with a trip out to Point Loma and/or Sunset Cliffs. There is also Tom Ham's Lighthouse for a more American dinner or Coasterra for Mexican, both sitting on the bay with skyline views as well. These places though will require you to drive or call a car service to bring you to as they are a bit remote.
There is so much the city offers that I did not even cover but I hope this guide helps you in your journey to planning your San Diego getaway. Feel free to ask any questions or offer up any additional recommendations. I look forward to seeing you guys in my next adventure!
- The Wandering Professional