As a born-and-raised San Diegan who spent three years traveling around Europe, I’ve met tons of people who’ve told me they always wanted to visit California. It usually goes something like this:
“I’m gonna fly to San Francisco, then rent a car and drive down the coast til I get to LA, and finally go to Las Vegas after that.”
That’s when I have to explain that if they do that, they’re missing San Diego. I’m biased, of course, but San Diego has all the nice things you’ve heard Los Angeles is famous for, minus the horrible traffic, pollution, and gang violence. Plus our food is better. OK, I’ll stop bashing Los Angeles. If you’re planning a trip to the USA, specifically California, consider this a mini-guide for things to do in America’s Finest City.
First, a word about transportation
If you’re from Europe, coming to the USA can be a shock merely in terms of how spread out our cities are compared to yours. San Diego city proper is 372 square miles and the county is a whopping 4,526 square miles; compare that to 607 square miles of Greater London, with 1/6th the population. So it’s really spread out, and the only reasonable way to get around our vast city is by car. If you haven’t downloaded them yet, Uber and Lyft are life-savers.
If you want to hit the beach
Visiting San Diego without going to the beach at least once is like going to Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower. Depending on what sort of experience you’re into, not all beaches in San Diego are created equal.
If you like rubbing shoulders with artists, hippies, biker gangs, and the occasional druggie, Ocean Beach is your best bet. Newport Avenue is the main shopping stretch in OB, with tons of antique shops worth browsing. The Black is a tobacco shop that sells lots of weird knickknacks; check out their collection of books on witchcraft in the back.
Pacific Beach and Mission Beach are two of the best neighborhoods, let alone beaches, for getting super wasted, having a barbecue or bonfire, and hooking up with other drunk people.
La Jolla Shores is the beach to go to if you prefer a more upscale environment. Its gentle waves make it one of the best locations in San Diego county for beginner surfers. Scripps Pier, at the northern edge of the shores, is one of the prettiest places to watch the sunset over the Pacific (and if you go up the mountain from Scripps Pier you’ll eventually reach the top of Mt. Soledad and have an incredible view of the entire county). FYI, Windansea in La Jolla is one of the most aggressive reef breaks in the city, so you probably shouldn’t go out to surf there (especially because the locals are a bit aggressive) but the people that do are some of the most talented surfers for miles around, and you’ll get quite a show.
Coronado is like Beverly Hills but on the beach – rent a bike for a couple hours and check out the insane mansions on Ocean Boulevard, then walk into the posh Victorian Hotel del Coronado and pretend to be rich.
The mystique of a sleepy surf town brings so many tourists to SoCal, and Encinitas is the quintessential beach town. Swami’s is the main beach in Encinitas but the whole town borders the Pacific Ocean, so you have a lot of sand to choose from. US 101, the famous coastal highway you might know from reading Jack Kerouac’s work, runs through the heart of Encinitas and there are many bars, restaurants, and cafes along this route worth visiting.
If you’re an arts, music and culture snob
San Diego has a vibrant cultural scene – you just have to know where to look. MCASD has two locations, the main one being in La Jolla, with a second contemporary art space next to Santa Fe Depot (the train station) in downtown San Diego. You can’t miss the La Jolla location, which has a sculpture made out of kayaks seemingly exploding out of the side of the building.
The Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park is a free museum that’s tiny by comparison to other major classical art museums, but it has artwork by Rembrandt, Rubens, and other masters of the Renaissance. On the topic of Balboa Park, if museums are your thing, you absolutely have to come here. Chicano Park in Barrio Logan has some amazing murals by local Mexican-American artists and is not to be missed.
The Casbah is one of downtown San Diego’s best venues for indie rock, folk, rap, and other lesser-known acts. Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach has made a name for itself over the years hosting standout bands before they made it big. The Irenic is a great bar in Hillcrest, the gay capital of San Diego, that has a super cozy performance space, so if you go to a concert here you’ll probably be standing no more than 20 feet from the performer.
The Observatory in North Park is also a great place to see everything from famous bands to unheralded musicians. Omnia and Bassmnt are two notable venues for big-time trance/house/techno DJs who come to San Diego and the kind of place where you’re expected to follow a dress code.
DG Wills is a vintage bookstore in La Jolla with a back room full of used books that you access via secret bookcase door, and they have a lot of old-school paraphernalia that their eclectic owner has collected over the decades. Upstart Crow is a cozy bookstore and coffeeshop in Seaport Village that has a nice assortment of texts. Verbatim is a relatively new arrival of discount books in the heart of North Park that’s worth browsing through.
Red Poet’s Society holds weekly spoken-word and open-mic poetry nights at Café Soboka in Golden Hill, Elevated does spoken-word poetry at Queen Bees in North Park, while So Say We All is a storytelling collective that does everything from writers’ workshops to open-mic monologues. The La Jolla Playhouse puts on a lot of great theater and musical productions.
The San Diego Zoo is a must if you’re obsessed with cute animals. Speaking of cute animals, don’t go to Sea World, no matter how much you love dolphins. They’re as intelligent as humans and are just as capable of feeling pain, boredom, joy, sadness, frustration, anger, and humiliation as we are. Would you want to be locked up in a cage and forced to do tricks for food? Probably not – so don’t go to Sea World.
Food, Booze and Coffee that you absolutely can’t miss
If you come to San Diego without eating Mexican food, you messed up. Ideally, you should visit Tijuana, our sister city over the border. But if that’s not possible, the next-best thing is to visit Tacos el G in National City. Order the Adobada tacos and don’t forget to tip. It’s generally hard to find bad Mexican food. As long as you avoid chains such as Chipotle or Taco Bell you’ll be alright. If you’re a vegetarian, Rancho’s in North Park is the place for you. FYI, carne asada fries are a San Diego specialty and a great choice if it’s late at night and you’re drunk.
If you want a good ol’ fashioned burger and mammoth fried onion rings, Hodad’s is the place to go (their milkshakes are deadly, btw). Make sure to go to their original location in OB, not the new outpost in the Gaslamp Quarter. Speaking of burgers, In n Out has locations all over the city – nothing is more authentic than ordering off of this chain restaurant’s “secret” menu. Get your fries animal style and don’t forget to ask for banana peppers on your burger.
San Diego has laid a claim for outstanding New American cuisine. If you’re willing to splurge (and stretch your stomach) on contemporary updates on classic comfort foods such as burgers, meatloaf, or mac n’cheese, try Searsucker in Del Mar, Urban Solace in North Park or Parkhouse Eatery in University Heights. For some reason San Diego has always had a ton of great Italian eateries here. Mona Lisa in Little Italy stands out for their excellent market full of great Italian imported meats, cheeses and wines. Bottega Americana in East Village and Piatti in La Jolla are two upscale Italian restaurants that feature high-end versions of Italian cuisine. But perhaps the best Italian eatery in the entire county of San Diego isn’t even close to the city center, and requires a pilgrimage of sorts. Romano’s is a family-owned eatery in Julian, a mountain town about an hour’s drive northeast of San Diego, and they have the best minestrone for literally hundreds of miles. Make an overnight trip out of it if you must.
Your best bets for ethnic cuisine are Muzita Ethiopian in University Heights, Thai Time in North Park, Pho T Cali Vietnamese in Kearney Mesa, and Shiku Sushi in La Jolla. If you’re an absolute fiend for Chinese, Korean or Japanese cuisine, you’ll want to check out Convoy Avenue in Kearney Mesa, which has a mile or so of assorted East Asian restaurants, markets, and tea shops (including boba milk tea).
San Diego is at the epicenter of the US craft beer explosion, with Stone, Ballast Point, Modern Times, Green Flash, and Alesmith being some of the city’s best-known breweries. Other excellent local breweries include Fall Brewing Company in North Park, Quantum Brewing in Kearney Mesa, and Acoustic Ales Brewing Experiment in Mission Hills. I highly recommend visiting Drink Up San Diego for an up-to-date list of this city’s ever-changing, ever-growing list of top local breweries. Some of the best places to grab a cup of coffee in San Diego are Young Hickory in North Park, Dark Horse (also in North Park), Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in Bird Rock, and WestBean in Mission Gorge.
A few daytrip ideas, and that’s it
Well, this is probably enough to keep you occupied in San Diego for a week! If you get bored of the city, here are a few great ideas for daytrips. You’ll definitely need your own car for any of these. Apple picking/sledding/hiking in Julian/Ramona, depending on the time of year you visit, is always a great way to spend a day. Both of these towns have historic centers with a strong Old-Western feel.
Go down to Puerto Nuevo, the “lobster capital” of Baja California. It’s about 30 miles south of the border, so bring your passport. The drive down from Tijuana is breathtaking as it passes almost exclusively along the Pacific Ocean. Consider stopping at Playas de Tijuana and going to one of the excellent restaurants near the Plaza de Toros for some of the best Baja fish tacos you will ever have in your life.
Joshua Tree is one of the most surreal places you’ll ever visit – the trees there look like something out of a book by Dr. Seuss. Since it’s so far out in the desert east of San Diego, the night sky is completely pristine and makes for incredible star-gazing. If you’re one of those people who’s planning a trip to California, I hope this was enough to convince you to visit San Diego! It really is America’s Finest City. If you’re still not convinced, leave me a message at lifeisacamino [at] gmail [dot] com and I will be happy to answer questions you have.
Author Bio: Once upon a time, Nathan hated his job so much that he quit and bought a one-way ticket to Europe. He spent almost three years traveling and decided that it was time for a change, so now he lives in the same place and looks for super cheap flights from the USA to Europe just because he’s a huge nerd. It’s completely free to sign up for his newsletter, FYI. (Do it).