San Diego is an amazing city with great restaurants, beautiful beaches, fun attractions, a bustling downtown, and of course, great weather.
I hadn’t been there in years and recently returned. I was impressed at how many fun things there were to do down there, as well as how romantic it was. I’m not a San Diego native, but these are the highlights from my trips to San Diego that I’d recommend to you.
1. Balboa Park
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 Ruben H. 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 here. Go for a jog, or just walk around and take in the surroundings. Admission to the grounds and Botanical Building (which is a must-see) are free!
I’d also recommend the immaculate Japanese Friendship Garden. Admission to this garden is $10 per person, but it’s worth it in my opinion.
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 and is excellent. Just be sure to make reservations.
2. Hotel del Coronado
Another “must-see” if you’re visiting San Diego on a date, is the 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.
W dined at the finest restaurant there, 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), but if you’re willing to walk a block or two, you can often find parking on nearby streets.
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 safe, clean, and walkable. (Downtown L.A. is getting there slowly).
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.
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. La Jolla
San Diego has so many wonderful beach towns around it. One of these is La Jolla, 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 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?) It’s not a huge attraction but it’s worth it!
La Jolla also has some amazing restaurants. Not all cost an arm and a leg either. To sample some of San Diego’s famous tacos (with a twist), go to Puesto a few blocks inland from the shore. The soft tacos there are amazing!
For all of these reasons, I’d say a stop in La Jolla is a “must” on your way to or from San Diego.
San Diego has some great urban kayaking spots. I’ve already mentioned La Jolla, which has group kayaking tours of its famous sea caves.
During busy weekends, advance reservations are suggested.
Another very popular kayaking spot is Mission Bay, where you might catch a show at Sea World if you’re lucky! There are many katak rental shops surrounding the bay.
Finally, you can kayak in San Diego bay, with rentals at the Coronado peninsula.
6. Seaport Village / Waterfront Park
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 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, or if you’re a Costco member.
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.
7. Little Italy
San Diego has lots of cool little neighborhoods with great restaurants. One of these is Little Italy. It’s pretty small, but offers some great restaurants and nice evening strolls.
One unique dessert destination there is iDessert, featuring a unique hard-shelled gelato-filled meringue dessert that you customize on iPads.
8. 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!
9. 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!
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, aside from the tram area. If you are into animals, I’d highly recommend a trip to the Safari Park!
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, and neighborhoods.
If you have a favorite destination in San Diego, please tell us about it in the comments! – Brian