San Diego is an amazing city with great restaurants, beautiful beaches, fun attractions, a bustling downtown, and of course, great weather. It’s probably my favorite weekend getaway destination from where I live in Los Angeles.
These are my favorite activities and attractions in San Diego and the surrounding areas.
1. Balboa Park / San Diego Zoo
One of the crown jewels of San Diego (and of all of California) is Balboa Park, the nation’s largest urban cultural park. Among its attractions are fifteen major museums, the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the Fleet Science Center with IMAX theater, many botanical gardens, and all-around beautiful and romantic grounds.
The park as it appears today had its beginnings at the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal. The buildings were built in the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style. Unfortunately, they were only intended to be temporary, so they eventually had to be re-built to be more permanent, but the look was preserved.
You can pay to take in the museums and other offerings, or not pay a dime and still have a good time. Just walk around and take in the surroundings. Admission to the grounds and Botanical Building (which is a must-see, although it will be closed in 2022 and 2023 for renovation) are free!
I’d also recommend the immaculate Japanese Friendship Garden. Admission to this garden is $12 per person and well worth it in my opinion.
If you want something better than the typical museum fast food, I’d recommend the Craft Cafe at the Mingei International Museum, which features healthy sandwiches, bowls, salads, smoothies, and coffee.
All of this makes Balboa Park a “must-see” daytime attraction on your visit to San Diego. My only caveat is that it’s best enjoyed when it’s not too hot out.
Just west of Balboa Park, over the bridge, is a great Italian restaurant called Cucina Urbana. Their grilled octopus is their most popular item. Their wood-fired pizza is awesome too. Just be sure to make reservations.
2. Little Italy
San Diego’s India Street in Little Italy has grown in popularity in recent years and is an awesome date destination, bustling with activity, with tons of cool restaurants and shops.
Have dinner at one of the great restaurants there, then walk around and window shop or look for dessert or drinks! Simple as that!
Extraordinary Desserts is a great place to bring a date after dinner, movie, or other evening activity. There are two locations, one near Balboa Park, and the other in Little Italy. Of course, the desserts there taste amazing, but they look beautiful as well!
Little Italy hosts two farmers markets: the Little Italy Mercato on Saturdays from 8 AM to 2 PM and the Little Italy Wednesday Market from 9:30 AM to 1:30 PM. The Saturday market is the larger of the two.
3. The Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter in the middle of downtown San Diego really makes me jealous. I wish Los Angeles had a downtown area that had so much going on, which was as walkable and clean (although there are certain sections with homeless people, as with all big cities).
There are tons of great restaurants, bars, and dance clubs there. During the early evening, it’s more of a quiet dinner scene, whereas on weekend nights it becomes a hot spot for dancing and bar-hopping.
We saw a great performance of Pink Martini at the historic Balboa Theater in Horton Plaza in the Gaslamp Quarter.
A San Diego native friend of mine recommended Meze as the best restaurant there, and it did not disappoint! We had Greek dishes there that I’ve not found anywhere else (try the flaming shrimp!)
The Gaslamp District is also home to Horton Plaza, which features occasional free outdoor performances, and is adjacent to a shopping mall.
When I go to San Diego, I like to stay at a hotel that is within walking distance of the Gaslamp Quarter. I like the trendy Bristol Hotel because it’s at the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter, away from the craziness that happens there, yet close enough to walk to it. Or, you can find some good places to stay on Airbnb.
4. Hotel del Coronado
Another “must-see” if you’re visiting San Diego with someone special is the historic Hotel del Coronado. Opened in 1888, it was built to be the ultimate luxury resort, featuring fishing, hunting, boating, bicycling, swimming, golf, and of course, fine dining. 1958, it was made even more famous when the Marilyn Monroe movie, “Some Like it Hot”, was filmed there.
Today, it’s still one of the most romantic spots in Southern California. It’s very expensive to stay at the hotel, but you can always just stop by for lunch or dinner, or just to walk the grounds and browse the many shops there.
We dined at the finest restaurant there, which is now called Serẽa (formerly 1500 Ocean). It was not crowded on a Sunday night. The food and service were impeccable.
After dinner, stroll along the beach and view the hotel from afar.
Parking is very expensive at the hotel (especially if you don’t buy anything there and get validated), but if you’re willing to walk a block or two, you can often find parking on nearby streets.
5. Seaport Village / Waterfront Park / USS Midway
Not too far from the Gaslamp Quarter is Seaport Village. When I went there were a ton of people out and a live band playing in the courtyard. There are many shops and restaurants of course.
But for me, the real highlight of this area was just to the north, at the USS Midway Museum. The Midway is an aircraft carrier, commissioned just a week after the end of World War II. It was the largest ship in the world until 1955, and it’s still an awesome sight. If you go aboard, you’ll see the entire flight deck and hangar, along with a bunch of vintage helicopters and aircraft. But be sure to also go below deck to see the living and working spaces inside the ship. I came away thinking that by far the worst place to work was the engine room. Admission is reasonable and well worth it but you can find discounts on Groupon.
There are other vessels to see, including the B-39 Soviet submarine, the USS Dolphin, an American submarine, and the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship. All of these can be boarded with paid admission.
6. San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park)
Located north of San Diego in Escondido, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a completely separate animal park from the zoo, but is operated by the same organization. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park was known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park until 2010.
The main attraction is a 25-minute tram ride through African animal exhibits. There are lots of other areas of the park which focus on different regions such as Africa and Asia, or different animals such as gorillas, elephants, and tigers.
We went during a weekday when it was not crowded, which was great! Unlike some reviewers online, we got to see tons of animals up close, including gorillas, elephants, giraffes, lions, and many more. We spent about four hours there and were really impressed both with the number of animals we got to see, and with the high quality of the gardens and grounds. If you are into animals, I’d highly recommend a trip to the Safari Park!
7. Authentic Mexican Food
No visit to San Diego is complete without trying some of the amazing Mexican food there (even if you’re from L.A.) There are tons of authentic Mexican restaurants to choose from, but I’ll highlight two that we love.
The first is simply called “The Taco Stand”, and there are locations in Encinitas, La Jolla, Downtown San Diego, and North Park. To give you an idea of the freshness of the tacos, the corn tortillas are hand-made right in front of you when you order.
Needless to say, their tacos are awesome. Our favorites are the al pastor and battered fish tacos.
Our other favorite Mexican restaurant is Karina’s, which specializes in ceviche. They have multiple locations in the San Diego area, but we love the Mission Hills walk-up window on India Street, with its tiered outdoor seating. Stopping for ceviche and horchata (the best we’ve had) is an inevitable ritual whenever we visit San Diego.
The only gripe people have about these restaurants is the length of the line to get in!
San Diego has some great urban kayaking spots. La Jolla has group kayaking tours of its famous sea caves. During busy weekends, advance reservations are suggested.
Another very popular and easy kayaking spot is Mission Bay, where you might catch a show at Sea World like we did, if you’re lucky! There are many kayak rental shops surrounding the bay.
Finally, you can kayak in San Diego bay, with rentals at the Coronado peninsula.
9. La Jolla
San Diego has so many wonderful beach towns around it. One of these is La Jolla, an upscale beach community just 14 miles north of the city.
The beach at La Jolla features a beautiful rocky shore filled with sea lions which seem to be fearless when it comes to interacting with people (but of course – keep your distance for their protection and yours).
You can also go on guided group kayak tours of the famous caves.
If you’d rather not get wet, go to The Cave Store gift shop with a sign that says “Sunny Jim Cave”. You can pay five bucks to walk down a man-made tunnel to one of the waterfront caves. It’s famous for its devil-shaped silhouette (or is it a hipster with goatee and man-bun?)
For a more grown-up, intimate alternative to Sea World, check out Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. We enjoyed the educational exhibits.
It’s not large, so you can see it all in under two hours.
If you’re in La Jolla around sunset, I’d recommend hiking in the trails of the Torey Pines State Reserve, which offers beachfront trails with spectacular views.
If you want fine dining in that area, check out A.R. Valentien, the signature restaurant at the Lodge at Torrey Pines resort. The food and service are wonderful there, as are the surroundings. Reservations recommended.
La Jolla has so many amazing restaurants, picturesque beaches, posh boutiques, and other attractions to enjoy. I’d say a stop in La Jolla is a “must” on your way to or from San Diego.
10. Old Town
While some would describe San Diego’s Old Town as a tourist trap, there are some great attractions here. You’ll find fantastic Mexican restaurants nearby and historic charm at Heritage Park, featuring restored Victorian homes.
We had dinner at Old Town Mexican Cafe, which featured hand-made tortillas and great ceviche. There was a wait to get in, but it was worth it.
If you want somewhere with a more romantic ambiance, check out the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant. Dining here is a unique and charming experience, almost like you’ve gone back in time!
11. Petco Park
Even if you’re not a Padres fan, Petco Park is a worthy destination if you’re a baseball fan because it’s a clean, beautiful, modern stadium. You can have a great meal at one of the restaurants in the Gaslamp District, then simply walk to the stadium!
Or, have a meal inside the park! Petco Park is known for its great selection of food, not just traditional ballpark fare like hot dogs and beer. One of our favorite restaurants inside the park is Puesto. Even hard-core Dodgers fans are envious of the food choices when they visit Petco Park!
The city of San Diego is spending millions of dollars to become a more bike-friendly city, but it already has some beautiful bike paths.
One of the best is the Mission Bay Bike path. It features 12 miles of mostly flat, mostly car-free scenic bike paths surrounding Mission Bay. Check it out!!
13. Cedros Avenue Design District in Solana Beach
About twenty miles north of San Diego in Solana Beach, we discovered a charming “design district” filled with boutiques, antique and furniture shops, restaurants, and other high-end stores. They call themselves the Cedros Avenue Design District, and say they’re “San Diego’s hottest, hippest shopping avenue”.
We ended up buying some unique doggie bowls, some stationery, Christmas decorations, and coffee, and had a fun time there (even though the weather was terrible when we went). If you enjoy browsing high-end, unique furniture and home decor stores, you’ll love Cedros Avenue.
There are so many other great attractions in and around San Diego. I’ve only scratched the surface of the many great things to do there. It’s definitely worth the drive from L.A. or Orange County and it makes me jealous of their great beaches, restaurants, museums, parks, and neighborhoods.
If you have a favorite destination in San Diego, please tell us about it in the comments! – Brian