The Ultimate Guide to San Diego

Featured Photo: Andres Garcia via Unsplash

A heavenly slice of the West Coast, San Diego stands out as a coastal paradise with a perfect blend of natural wonders and urban sophistication. As the birthplace of California, it’s rich in history. As a binational region and border town, the city is elevated by Mexico’s influence, which adds flavor and fiesta to the culture. With 70 miles of coastline, there’s always a new beach to explore. And 300-plus days of sunshine makes it a year round playground whether you want to charge some waves, kayak to a secret cove, espy whales while hiking a coastal trail, tee off on an emerald green, stand-up paddle with dolphins, or cycle the coast highway.

And while laid back and a favorite of beach-goers, San Diego has evolved beyond its fish-taco-flip-flop SoCal surfer culture into a dynamic cultural city with culinary flare, artistic design and adventure abound. Theres Michelin-starred chefs, authentic farm-to-table dining as the region boasts 5,500 small farms (the most in any U.S. county); 150 craft breweries, family-owned wineries Broadway-bound theater, world-class art, and the best collection of adventure parks for kids big and small. Oh, and, of course, tacos!

History

Intrepid Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to step foot on West Coast in 1542, landing at Point Loma Peninsula. The Kumeyaay Indians were living peacefully along the coastline, but when the Spaniards reappeared to rule their new province, their way of life was disrupted. In 1769, Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded by Spanish Friar Juniper Serra, the first of 21 missions in California, each 30 miles apart or a days travel by horse. In 1822, the rule of San Diego (named for Saint Diego) was transferred to Mexico and a pueblo was established (now Old Town), but a Mexican-American War win and an unyielding expansionist and Manifest Destiny” vision led to San Diego and all of California becoming a part of the United States under President Polk in 1850.

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Photo: KC Welch via Unsplash

As the waterfront city grew in the 1880s, bars and brothels appeared, along with gambling halls owned by infamous lawman Wyatt Earp. The raucous and historic Gaslamp District, named for the Victorian-styled lamps throughout downtown, got cleaned up when the city hosted Panama-California Exposition in 1915 in beautiful Balboa Park. The naval and tourism industries grew throughout the 1900s, as did education opportunities at the many universities. Today, San Diego is known for its bio-tech companies, medical research, education, naval base, beautiful beaches and incredible recreation.

Culture and Adventure

Balboa Park

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Photo: Courtesy of Leslie Yu via Unsplash

Set at the edge of downtown, this 1,200-acre green oasis is a perfect blend of culture and nature with its 17 museums, Old Globe Theatre, blooming gardens, picnic spots and 65-miles of hiking trails. Youll find Miro and Rodin in the sculpture court, stunning Spanish Colonial architecture, 2100 rare and exotic plants in the Botanical Building, a photo-worthy lily pond, artist studios in cobblestoned Spanish Village, free concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, cherry blossoms at the Japanese Friendship Garden and more. balboapark.org

Old Town

San Diego’s oldest enclave and the first European settlement in California may feel a tad touristy but you can explore Old Town’s historic adobes, a famed haunted house, Kumeyaay culture, Mexican cantinas, and an old-fashioned mercantile shop. Then head to the Tahona Bar for a mole flight and mezcal tasting. oldtownsandiego.org

The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch

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Photo: Courtesy of Marcie Gonzalez

From March to May, a rainbow of ranunculus flowers color a 50-acre hillside overlooking the Carlsbad coastline. Owned by the Ecke Family, whose legacy includes introducing the Poinsettia plant as the symbol of the holidays in the 1960s, The Flower Fields showcase nature’s artistry and invite guests to wander through the vibrant fields on foot or on tractor ride. At this photogenic wonderland you can also explore the Butterfly Garden, orchid greenhouse and sunflower patch, or pick blueberries in the sunshine. There’s even a massive American flag made from the red, white and blue ranunculus flowers. theflowerfields.com

USS Midway + Maritime Museum

On the USS Midway, a floating aircraft carrier museum, tour the engine room, galley and brig, or climb into the cockpit of one of the 29 restored aircrafts awaiting on the landing deck. More historic ships can be found at the nearby Maritime Museum, home to a Soviet submarine, steam ferry from 1898 and the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship. midway.org; sdmaritime.org

Torrey Pines State Reserve

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Photo: Courtesy of Dick Hansen

Here youll find coastal hiking at its finest as the 1,750-acre coastal reserve has a network of trails that wander through the striated sandstone canyons overlooking the sea. The landscape is punctuated by the rare and endangered Torrey Pine, only be found in the park and on Santa Rosa Island off Ventura. Various scenic vantage points offer prime views of frolicking dolphins or spouting migrating whales. torreypines.org

Chicano Park

Part of the Barrio Logan Cultural District, these colorful murals at the base of the Coronado bridge pay homage to the citys Mexican-American history, heritage and activism. In 2017, the park became a National Historic Landmark. chicanoparksandiego.com

Surfing

A surfers mecca with every kind of imaginable break, San Diego has 50+ spots to paddle out, from epic Blacks Beach and Windansea in La Jolla, to Swamis, Cardiff Reef and the Oceanside Pier where the U.S. Olympic Team trains. Newcomers should sign up for a lesson in the gentle waves of La Jolla shores with Surf Diva, an all-female surf school. surfdiva.com

Kid Heaven

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Photo: Courtesy of Sesame Place

No other city has more amusement and animal parks than San Diego. Commune with the koalas, pandas, penguins and panthers at the world famous San Diego Zoo, enjoy an African Savannah adventure without the jet lag at the Safari Park, swim with dolphins and ride the heart-thumping rollercoasters at SeaWorld, or explore the waterpark, aquarium, miniature exhibits and 60 rides at LEGOLAND. New to the scene is Sesame Place San Diego with a massive wave pool, interactive musical water play and Sesame Street-themed rides.

On the Water

Gray whales migrating to and from the breeding lagoons of Baja pass San Diego each winter from December to March, while 100-foot blue whales often feed off the coast in summer. Dolphin pods frolic year round. For intimate groups and close encounters, hop on Xplore Offshore, a Navy Seal-certified rigid inflatable fast boat, while larger groups can enjoy The Adventuress, a 60luxury catamaran. Sailing fans should climb aboard Yacht America, the 139-foot schooner, while families should buckle up for a wild ride on the Patriot Jet Boat, as this turbo-charged boat does 360-degree spins while cruising the harbor.

Thoroughbred Racing or Del Mar Thoroughbred Club

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Photo: Courtesy of Andrew de Leon via Unsplash

San Diego’s love affair with thoroughbred racing dates back to 1937 when crooner Bing Crosby and his Hollywood pals opened the Del Mar Race Track — where the turf meets the surf.” Summer season runs from mid-July through early September and Opening Day is a spectacle to behold as race fans don their finest hats and threads, and sip champagne while placing bets on their favorite horse or jockey. Free concerts and food festivals also highlight the season. A second Bing Crosby Season runs in November. dmtc.com

Chino Farms

Foodies fans should pilgrimage to this iconic Japanese-owned farm in San Dieguito Valley that played an integral part in the farm-to-table movement. Chef Alice Waters first publicized the quality of its produce and soon other chef legends like Wolfgang Puck became devotees of their fine fruits and vegetables. Their produce pantry is famous for sweet corn, strawberries, and exotic melons to name a few delights from the bounty. chinofamilyfarm.com

Theater

Built in 1935 and modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London, this renowned theater has launched Broadway-bound and Tony Award-winning productions over the years. Each summer the Old Globe celebrates The Bard with performances of his work, and families loves the annual How the Grinch Stole Christmas during the holidays. The La Jolla Playhouse, set on the UC San Diego campus, has great Hollywood history as it was founded by Gregory Peck and Mel Ferrer. Today, it’s known for its Broadway productions and progressive performances like their Without Walls interactive, site-inspired theater.

Places to Stay

Hotel del Coronado

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The legendary 1888 Victorian resort with its red turret roofs and white wedding cake trim is truly a seaside gem, modernized while still retaining its old world charm. On site youll discover historic touches like the original 1905 Windsor Cottage and crown chandeliers designed by L. Frank Baum, creator of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. In addition to the main hotel, Beach Village at The Del offers an enclave luxury oceanfront cottages and villas with VIP concierge services, plunge pools and fire pits. The Del has its own private, cabana-lined beach club, stunning pools, myriad ocean view eateries and water sports galore.

Cormorant

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La Jollas newest arrival is walking distance to La Jolla Cove. Each of the 26 chic guestrooms features coastal-inspired design, art deco touches and ocean view balconies. Their intimate Birdseye rooftop bar calls for craft cocktails, small plates and panoramic views. Curated coastal picnics available, too. cormorantlajolla.com

The Lodge at Torrey Pines

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This stunning Craftsman-style hotel, an architectural homage to the Gamble and Blacker houses of Pasadena, overlooks famed golf course. Kilted doormen, oversized fireplaces, stained glass, Tiffany-style lamps, and a sprawling croquet lawn add to the early 20th Century splendor. Watch the paragliders while lounging by the pool or enjoy white tablecloth farm fresh dining at A.R. Valentin. The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a short walk away. lodgetorreypines.com

Rancho Valencia

Photo: Courtesy of Jesse Henderson

Southern Californias only Relais & Chateaux property enchants as a hacienda-style property set on 45 acres of olive groves and gardens with 49 Spanish-style casitas. Its hard to find an un-photogenic corner of the Rancho Valencia, which offers its guests plenty to do — from yoga by a reflecting pool and tennis, to a day at their glorious spa or beauty session at the new salon. ranchovalencia.com

LEGOLAND Hotels

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If you want to win parent of the year, check into either of the theme parks kid-centric hotels. Pirates and ninjas may prefer the California Resort Hotel while princess and dragon fans should opt for the Castle Hotel. These fantasy wonderlands have smoke-breathing dragons, spectacular Lego models, kid-friendly buffets, disco-ball-dance-party elevators and Lego palm tree-lined pools. legoland.com

The Green Room

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Surfers and singles may enjoy a stay at this newly converted 1950s motel, now a bungalow-style boutique hotel in Oceanside with mid-century furnishings, cute kitchenettes, and grab-and-go surfboards and beach cruisers. Enjoy the hot tub, fire pit, and curated playlists during your post-surf sesh in the backyard communal area. thegreenroomhotel.com

Mission Pacific Hotel + The Seabird Resort

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These art-forward and affordable oceanfront hotels are steps from the sea and pier in Oceanside and offer great culinary and toes-in-the-sand experiences. Mission Pacific has a lounge-y rooftop bar for sunset libations, DJs by the pool, and a renowned Baja chef, while the family friendly Sea Bird has a splashy worthy pool, kidsclub and beach concierge. Adults will dig the sunset champagne sabering ritual and creative craft cocktails at The Shore Room bar. missionpacifichotel.com; theseabirdresort.com

Pendry San Diego

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For anyone who likes adventure by day and urban escapades at night, The Pendry puts you in the thick of San Diegos booming nightlife and close to the culinary scene in Little Italy. The Pool House, their rooftop lounge scene, is an idyllic perch for sunset and cityscape views. A partnership with Adventures IO teams you with renowned athletes so you can pedal through San Diego with a pro cyclist or deep sea fish and surf with a World Surf League legend. pendry.com/san-diego

Inn at Moonlight Beach

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This progressive boutique hotel in Encinitas is the world’s first Well-Certified Platinum hotel with a focus on health and sustainability. The five-suite “conscious destination” has a Zen vibe and myriad thoughtful touches including an urban biodynamic garden, meditation deck, a Wellness Lab for soap and candle making, organic teas and herbal pouches for healing baths, Moonlight massages, locally source artisan treats, succulent box classes and more. innatmoonlightbeach.com

Alila Marea Resort

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Leucadia’s latest coastal boutique hotel is an eco-friendly retreat with ocean views, refined service and beachside fun. The property embraces local surf, beach culture with its Surfin Fire surf school, Electra Go! Bikes, oceanfront yoga, lagoon hikes, and Aaron Chang ocean photography. Set on the cliff above Ponto Beach, Alila Marea sports a perfect sunset perch for craft cocktails and cuisine at VAGA  whose menu reflects the flavors of San Diego’s cultural mix and locally sourced ingredientsalilahotels.com

Eating Drinking + Be Merry

Little Italy

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Photo: Courtesy of Morning Glory

Once home to San Diegos tuna industry and Italian immigrant community, Little Italy is one of San Diegos most dynamic culinary neighborhoods with its influx of high-design restaurants, Top Chef alums, cool cafes, food halls, wineries and breweries. For a boozy breakfast in an eye-candy Instagrammable setting try Morning Glory for soufflé pancakes and a Glitter Spritz with Aperol and bedazzled peach cordial. Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais does fried chicken right at his walk-up The Crack Shack, while celeb chef Brian Malarkey has mastered rustic, wood-fired dishes, pizzas and fresh pasta at Herb + Wood. Nautical-themed Ironside calls for oysters and champagne, while newcomer Camino Riviera favors Yucatan cuisine and DJ vibes. Savor bistro fare and sip a New Orleans-inspired cocktail while taking a revolving ride at Wolfies Carousel Bar inspired by Nola-famed eatery The Carousel. Steak fans should head to Born + Raised where tuxedo-and-converse-clad waiters serve up tableside Caesar salads and perfectly cooked dry aged meats in this design-forward eatery. Vegan fans will appreciate the pasta menu at Civico 1845 and the plant based fare Café Gratitude whose dishes are named for affirmations like I Am Whole,” a macrobiotic bowl of adzuki beans, veggies and brown rice. All things tiki from Hurricanes to pupus are waiting in the hidden speakeasy False Idol, while Underbelly serves up serious ramen. A strong Sculpin IPA and pretzel bites with mustard and beer cheese at Ballast Point is a good introduction to the San Diego craft brew culture.

Michelin-Starred Restaurants

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Photo: Courtesy of Jeune +Jolie

San Diego has finally earned coveted praise from the Michelin Guide with four restaurants receiving stars. Chef William Bradley helms Addison, San Diegos only two-starred restaurant at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar. His nine-course tasting menu, a sublime experience, showcases California seasonal cuisine at its finest, progressive wine pairings and stellar service. Lovely velvet booths, a terrazzo marble bar, pretty in pink décor with art deco details complement the exceptional French cuisine at Carlsbads single-starred Jeune + Jolie. Fear not the strip mall setting as Sushi Tadokoro, granted one-star, has long been the local favorite for omakase. Chef Soichi Kadoya, who spent five years honing skills at Sushi Takadoro, also received a single star for his intimate 26-seat Soichi Sushi, notable for its deeply rooted Japanese hospitality and creative dishes. Michelin also deemed Animae, Callie, Fort Oak, Little Frenchie, and Menya Ultra as new culinary discoveries,” and Bib Gourmand honors went to Callie, Cesarina, Cicca Osteria, Dija Mara, and Morning Glory. 

Oceanside

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Photo: Courtesy of Wrench + Rodent

San Diegos most northern neighborhood has been undergoing a culinary renaissance, as the food community knows no bounds when it comes to creativity. Chef Davin Waite put O-side on the culinary map with his edgy sushi bar Wrench + Rodent. Dija Mara dazzles with its Balinese-inspired menu, delish low ABV cocktails, natural wines and Japanese cooking techniques. Set in a historic building, once a WWII communications center, The Switchboard features Hawaiian/Korean inspired fare like Kahula Pork fries and Tiki Fried Rice. Next door is KNVS, a pop eatery where rotating artist exhibits inspire the food and drink. On the same block youll find casual surfers grind like tacos and poke at pro surfer Cheyne Magnussens Shootz Fish + Beer and refined Japanese dining in a minimalist setting at Matsu where Chef Ecks eight-course tasting menu features complex delectable dishes like coal-grilled sablefish entrée with smoky teriyaki and avant-garde sake and wine pairings. Finally, Mexican chef Robert Alcocer brings the best of Bajas wine country, Valle de Guadalupe, to Oceanside at his intriguing and sophisticated Valle inside the Mission Pacific Hotel. His exceptional tasting-only menu is paired with Mexican wines. Art meets culinary innovation in his choro plate: plump deshelled mussels on a bed of potato saffron puree are hidden under a handmade mussel shell” created from potato starch and darkened with squid ink. Diners are encourages to scoop up the nuggets with the edible shell in this clever and tasteful dish.

Times to Visit

  • San Diego is a year-round outdoor playground with 300+ days of sunshine and 72 degree average. But beware: May Gray and June Gloom mean coastal fog and cold beach days. September and October are often the most glorious months with warm sunny weather and uncrowded beaches. 
  • Kids Free October means complimentary admission at many local attractions, free meals at restaurants and compd amenities and experiences at certain hotels.
  • Summertime brings outdoor seaside concerts, myriad marathons, horse races, boating events and street festivals featuring craft beer, wine + food, LGBTQ + Pride events, tacos, crawfish, mariachis and more.
  • The coastal camping sites fill up quickly so book your spot way in advance if you want a beachfront view and ocean breezes filling your tent.
  • Downtown lights up during the holiday season with colorful buildings and boat parades. 100,000 lights illuminate Hotel del Coronado and their many stunning Christmas trees, yuletide displays and skating rink by the sea add to the holiday cheer. 

San Diego Checklist

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