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Ultimate Travel Guide to San Diego: A Local’s Guide on What to Do, Where to Stay + More

San Diego is as amazing as it sounds. With seventy-degree weather year-round on average and very little rain, a visit to San Diego should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Southern California boasts numerous fantastic beach towns in greater San Diego. This guide helps tailor your visit to fit your travel style perfectly.

This blog covers San Diego neighborhoods, featuring top attractions, dining spots, and accommodation details. For a concise guide on favorite beaches, hikes, and climbs, visit our ‘Outdoor Adventure Guide to San Diego.

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san Diego locals travel guide
San Diego is as amazing as it sounds. With year-round sun, stunning beaches, and dozens of lively neighborhoods, a visit to San Diego should be on everyone’s bucket list

What’s So Great About San Diego?

I’ve tried to escape San Diego.

I’ve complained about the traffic, the cost of living, and the rat race, but after four years of trying to escape this city for something smaller and with more sharp jagged mountains, I’ve learned to understand why this is America’s Finest City.

I was born and raised in San Diego.  Graduated from SDSU, ran a business in Coronado for 20 years, and delivered all 5 of my babies here. The city has changed a lot over those 43 years, but in many ways, it’s stayed true to its roots.  

I realized I’ve written detailed blogs about various places, but I haven’t tapped into my extensive knowledge about San Diego. With four decades of personal experience, I aim to help you uncover why so many are drawn to America’s Finest City.

Outdoor Adventure Guide to San Diego: Silver Strand
Another epic Silver Strand sunset

San Diego: Surf culture meets Hispanic influence at the southwestern US border. Beyond waves and burritos, discover its diverse allure.

San Diego’s food scene boasts Kombucha and Kava bars, dog-friendly breweries, and cafes selling flowers and succulents, catering to diverse tastes.

Most importantly, don’t just think that all our beaches are the same.

Want to find some sand dollars? Head to Silver Strand at low tide. Want a sandy shore for young kids to play? Head to La Jolla shores. Want to surf a chillwave? Head to Tourmaline. Want to watch the best sunsets? Head to the pier at OB.

When to Visit San Diego

Any time of year is fantastic, but January stands out. Locals might find it chilly with temperatures in the mid-sixties on the coast and rarely any rain.

One of my other favorite times to be in San Diego is November and December, but it does get crowded during the holidays.

San Diego’s ocean stoke: Spring winds challenge surf, aim for sunrise; summer’s mellow waves are perfect for learning.

Shuffle feet in shallow waters at San Diego beaches to avoid stingrays. Seek lifeguard help if stung for hot water treatment.

Getting Around San Diego

San Diego traffic is notorious; avoid beach-to-city drives during peak hours by considering alternate transportation like the train.

More than likely you’re going to want to rent a car when you visit San Diego.

Public transportation via the bus system and trolley isn’t recommended for regular use, except for occasional trips like reaching a Padre Game. Sticking to beach towns such as Pacific or Mission Beach allows for car-free exploration, relying on Uber/Lyft and trendy electric scooters prevalent in these areas.

Use the search box below to find cheap car rentals in San Diego:

San Diego Go Card

In San Diego, numerous free activities like beaches, parks, and hikes abound, but for paid attractions like the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, and others, consider the San Diego GO Card for access to nearly 50 sites.

I’ve highlighted many of the GO Card attractions in colored boxes like this one.

San Diego’s Central Neighborhoods

Downtown: Gaslamp District + Little Italy

Stay in Downtown San Diego for easy access to restaurants, bars, a vibrant farmers market, Petco Park, Seaport Village, and the USS Midway aircraft museum. Don’t miss the ferry to Coronado Island!

If you are looking for some exercise, walk or run along Harbor Drive.

You can even ride the train from Downtown up the coast to Oceanside and not have to deal with San Diego traffic.

If you love adrenaline like I do, then my suggestion would be to get on the water. There are many cool ways to do that here but I think the one that appeals to me most personally is the San Diego Speed Boat Adventures. These 13 foot, 2 passenger boats are super safe and easy to drive, but what I like most is that it’s a self guided tour, which means I can go as fast or slow as I want. The San Diego Speed Boat Adventures is part of the San Diego GO Card.

If you do get out on the water, head out towards the tip of Point Loma. Besides getting views of all the tourist attractions I’ve just mentioned- Navy Ships, Midway, Coronado Bridge, Star of India, and the Seaport Village, there’s a good chance of seeing seal lions and dolphins on your way out and I think the views of Cabrillo National Park from the water are epic. You might even see some whales or surfers in the water out at the point.

A more mellow way to enjoy the San Diego Harbor is on a Hornblower Cruise, which is also part of the San Diego GO Card.

There are so many choices for food in the Gaslamp District and Little Italy. If you are uber health-conscious or vegan, you’ll want to check out Cafe Gratitude. It can be a bit pricey but they have delicious and unique vegan meals.

Cafe Gratitude, Downtown San Diego
Cafe Gratitude serves up amazing vegan eats in Downtown San Diego

Now, if you don’t have dietary restrictions and you want a delicious, affordable meal, head to Filippis in Little Italy (there are 13 other locations spread out in San Diego too).

For coffee, check out James Coffee Co. This dog-friendly, totally hipster coffee shop has great coffee and a chill vibe.

Ironically, I think the Princess Pub (yep, it’s an English Pub) has the absolute best fish tacos so if you’re in the mood for that you might want to check it out however, the other food is pretty average.

Little Italy is also famous for its numerous wine restaurants and bars.

Old Town

This San Diego neighborhood is the place to go for Mexican heritage, historical sites, colorful shops, and eclectic restaurants. Two fun, popular (and crowded) events here each year are Cinco de Mayo and the Day of the Dead festival.

My favorite part of Old Town is the Fiesta del Reyes section of Old Town. It’s home to one of our favorite chocolate shops, Nibble, which not only sells the best chocolate but also has amazing coffee drinks.

You can also sign up here for a tequila, Tacos, and Culinary Tour of Old Town.

Point Loma

You have to make time for Point Loma’s Sunset Cliffs, an obviously great spot to watch the sunset, but I think equally wonderful at sunrise. One of my favorite things to do in Point Loma is go for a run along Sunset Cliffs.

I love surfing here when the swell is big. Tide plays a big factor though for both surfing and exploration so make sure you are aware of if the tide is coming up or down. Note though that this is not a good place for kids to play since the tide can rise quite fast.

A better option for tide pooling would be Cabrillo National Monument or if you don’t want to pay the entrance fee there, La Jolla Cove also has great tide pooling. Check here for the tide schedule.

Point Loma has an abundance of options at Liberty Station.

Besides the Liberty Public Market, which is a huge European Market like Torvehallerne in Copenhagen, there’s the popular brewery, Stone Brewing Co, 50’s themed Corvette Diner, Trader Joe’s, and great cafes.

North + South Park

This is where you’ll want to head to if you want to see the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park. It’s also a great place to check out San Diego’s hipster restaurants, cafes, and breweries.

If you love animals, you can’t miss the San Diego Zoo. Growing up and getting to go here so often might have made me a little jaded about how amazing our zoo is. In the summer, the nighttime attractions are extra fun for kids and grown-ups alike.

If you can visit The Zoo during the school year on a non-holiday, you will love getting up close encounters with the animals. Remember they are more active in the morning and evening when the temperature is cooler so try to plan your trip accordingly.

The San Diego Zoo is big and will require a full day to take it in. You might want to consider paying for the bus tour if you don’t feel up for a day of intense hiking because there are a lot of hills here.

If you choose to visit the San Diego Zoo, it might be worth getting the San Diego GO Card.

Balboa Park is very pretty and a great spot for photos and enjoying a picnic. The museums are great but can be crowded on the weekends and in peak summer so if this is high on your priority list, get here right when it opens. Parking can also be challenging during those peak times.

The museums can be quite expensive when paid for individually but are part of the San Diego GO Card.

You have so many great food choices in North Park off University Avenue and El Cajon Blvd.

My favorite is Tiger! Tiger! for craft beer and pork sandwiches, although there are a lot of other great specialties on their menu. For thin-crust pizza and beer go to URBN North Park.

There’s also City Tacos for Mexican food, Poki One N Half, Street Side Thai Kitchen, and the famous Chicken Pie Shop.

For breakfast, check out the Mission North Park or Breakfast Republic.

For coffee, my absolute favorite is Dark Horse Coffee Roasters. If you love chocolate, make sure to try their mocha. And if succulents and flowers are your thing, you have to check out Communal Coffee. There’s Figaro Dessert Cafe nearby, which I haven’t tried but looks delicious.

When it comes to breweries I love Mike Hess, Modern Times, and Thorn St Brewing. You’ll have to try them all and decide which your favorite is.

In South Park, all the locals I talk to agree that hands down the best place to eat is Buona Forchetta. It’s the place to go for upscale Italian food and their wine list is incredible!

I’m usually drawn to breweries so my recommendation is Station Tavern if you’re craving beer and burgers or Hamilton’s Tavern for beer and brats.

The observatory North Park, San Diego
An epic and intimate live music venue, The Observatory North Park
Photo source: ObservatorySD.com

Last, for live music and nightlife, check out a show at The ObservatorySee upcoming events here.

Where to Stay near Downtown + Central San Diego

If you’re looking to be as close as possible to the nightlife and restaurants, you’ll want to stay as close to the Gaslamp District as possible.

If you are traveling with kids, you’ll probably prefer staying near one of the Beach Neighborhoods listed below instead.

San Diego’s Central Beach Neighborhoods

All three of these beach neighborhoods–Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, and Pacific Beach–are my recommended places to stay on your first visit to San Diego.  From all three of these neighborhoods, you can walk, bike, or rent a scooter to get around.

It’s really not that important to see all three so I suggest you pick one and immerse yourself in its unique beauty.  There are public restrooms at all of these beaches, plenty of food options, and are still close to all the attractions listed in the above section.

Pacific Beach

Pacific Beach is my fav. If you want an authentic San Diego surf town vibe, this is where it’s at. I mean, you can go up to La Jolla and Encinitas (and I do love Cardiff), but they are missing that down-to-earth SoCal vibe that you’ll get here.

PB may be known as the party town of San Diego but for the majority of the day, it isn’t true. I spend most days in PB when I’m in San Diego and don’t let the few PB crazies make you nervous. They’re harmless and if you want to avoid them, stay away from Starbucks by Grand Ave, which shouldn’t be a problem since PB has so many great coffee shops.

When I just want the best quality coffee, I go to Birdrock Coffee on Garnet (although there are other locations). If you want to sit down for coffee and some food (best scones here) then go to Brick and Bell on Cass St.

Millennials might like Better Buzz which has 3 different locations within Pacific Beach. The vibe is cool but I won’t go there because it’s overly trendy, and corporate (we prefer to support local small business), and I think the coffee is mediocre. But if you like spending $10 for good avocado toast, go for it.

Hit up the Trader Joe’s in PB right when you arrive; grab avocados, sun-dried tomatoes, and sourdough for a week’s worth of savings!

I love surfing by Crystal Pier or in front of Law Street and when the waves get too heavy, I go a bit further north to a great beginner-friendly break, Tourmaline.

Even if you don’t surf you’ll love walking the stretch of beach or boardwalk from Tourmaline to the pier. If you keep walking south you’ll end up in Mission Beach and can easily rent a scooter or Uber to bring you back.

There are so many great places to eat in PB that I can’t narrow it down to the top few, but I will say, the better restaurants are not on the beach. For the best meals, you need to check out restaurants a few blocks away from Mission Blvd.

Mission Beach

Between PB and OB is Mission Beach, which is lined with restaurants, surf shops, bike rentals, and bars. I rarely go here so I can’t fully vouch for it. Mission Beach combines the classically touristy California boardwalk with a beachfront amusement park, Belmont Park.

Belmont Park is also part of the Go Card and gives you unlimited rides on the rollercoaster, access to laser tag, sky ropes, mini-golf, and two turns on the zip line.

Belmont Park, Mission Beach San Diego
Roller coasters, games, and fun at Belmont Park in Mission Beach, San Diego
Photo source: BelmontPark.com

If you surf, check out the south jetty, but all along the beach is good for newbies on a fuller tide (stick to a 3-foot tide or bigger). There’s also the wave pool here by Belmont Park.

Mission Bay

Mission Bay is adjacent to Mission Beach and Pacific Beach and also where you’ll find SeaWorld. This is where I live half the year and growing up this was my favorite place in San Diego to go.

Weekends get crowded but during the week the vibe is super chill.

Enjoy morning runs, picnics, and kids’ play at campgrounds. Rent bikes for Bay and Fiesta Island tours. End with bonfires, Sea World fireworks at Mission Bay, Fiesta Island, or Ski Beach (my fave).

Note that the gate to Fiesta Island is locked each night at 10 pm. Many vans and RVs stay parked overnight even though it’s technically not allowed but occasionally police roll through and ticket everyone. It’s up to you if you want to roll the dice.

If you want a nice bike ride or long run, park at De Anza Cove on Mission Bay and follow the sidewalks all along Mission Bay. You can even get to OB, MB, and PB on the bike routes.

Sea World, also on the Go Card, is in Mission Bay and if you visit in the summer, you may want to look into signing your kids up for a week-long Sea World camp while you and your spouse get some adult time to explore America’s Finest City.

Ocean Beach

While you will see a lot of people living out of their cars here and there is no shortage of dreadlocks and guitars strumming, OB is the safe, fun, and fairly affordable area to stay in. 

One of my favorite things to do in OB is watch the sunset from Wonderland Bar. If you are traveling with a dog, Dog Beach in OB is where it’s at.

I love surfing here! Here are some tips if you come here to shred:

  • The jetty, on the north side by Dog Beach, is a fast right and you must respect the locals.
  • If you’re a newbie, stick to the waves directly in front of dog beach.
  • Intermediate surfers will like Avalanche, the jetty in the center of the beach, or surfing the Pier.

Where to Stay near Central San Diego Beaches

If you are looking for a centrally located and affordable hotel to stay at in San Diego, check out these:

San Diego’s North County Beach Neighborhoods

If you want less grunge and a more upscale beach scene, then La Jolla, Del Mar, or Encinitas are where you want to be.

La Jolla

If you like shopping, fancier restaurants, and gorgeous views, stay in La Jolla. There are two parts to La Jolla and they aren’t really easy to walk from one to the other. 

La Jolla Cove is where the seals are on the beach and is within walking distance of all the great restaurants and shopping. 

La Jolla Shores: Perfect for families and beginner surfers. Enjoy ample amenities, and gentle waves, but arrive early for parking.

Within walking distance, there are great places to eat and do a little shopping.  You’ll also find places to rent surfboards and sign up for surf lessons or kayaking tours.

If you have the GoCard, you can rent a surfboard for free at Bike and Kayak in La Jolla.

Another nice spot to check out is Windansea.  It’s not the best beach for kids, but it’s a gorgeous beach to chill at and to take pictures at sunset.  We love surfing here but it is not a beginner’s wave.

Between La Jolla and Del Mar is Torrey Pines. This is a beautiful place to hike and bike riding up Torrey Pines Road is a popular thing to do in San Diego. The views from Torrey Pine’s Gliderport are amazing and if you feel adventurous, you can do some hang gliding over the coast from here.

Del Mar

Del Mar is a great place to spend a few hours shopping and eating.  There are also really good surf breaks all along the Del Mar coast but they are not great for beginners.

If you want a family-friendly beach, it’s probably easier to pay to park at Seaside State Beach which is just north of Del Mar. It’s $10 for the day but then you don’t have to worry about fighting parking and there are bathrooms. The only bad thing is there aren’t a lot of food options within easy walking distance.

Solana Beach, Cardiff + Encinitas

Cardiff (or Encinitas) is runner-up for my favorite place in San Diego. You have everything here from surf shops and yoga studios to some of San Diego’s best gastropubs, açaí bowls, and coffee shops.

Solana Beach’s Cedros Design District boasts unique shops, Belly Up Tavern, and local favorites like Lofty Coffee. Highway 101 offers surf shops and diverse dining options, including Pizza Port.

Carlsbad + Oceanside

For a first trip focusing on San Diego highlights, consider staying in Encinitas or further south to avoid heavy traffic. Carlsbad and Oceanside offer great alternatives if skipping downtown, PB, the Zoo, or Balboa Park.

If you have kids under 10 years old, Legoland could be what brings you to Carlsbad. It’s also on the Go Card.

Where to Stay near North San Diego Beaches

San Diego’s South County Beach Neighborhoods

Coronado

Coronado’s appeal for first-time San Diego visitors varies: skip for adventure, embrace beach luxury, dining, and boutique shopping.

The Hotel Del Coronado is beautiful and I think running the beach in front of the hotel at low tide is one of my favorite parts of Coronado.

There’s a narrated trolley tour that you can take and if you are a history buff, you’ll probably love this.

Outdoor Adventure Guide to San Diego: Silver Strand
Sunsets at Silver Strand

Consider heading south to Silver Strand State Beach for a great spot to explore with kids or enjoy nature. At low tide, it’s perfect for walking or running, and I’ve found countless sand dollars along this stretch during my two years here.

For top-notch beer and burgers, head to Leroy’s Kitchen and Lounge. Enjoy a classic dinner breakfast at Clayton’s Coffee Shop. For protein-packed meals, try Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q. Satisfy your sweet tooth with French pastries from Tartine’s French Bakery.

Imperial Beach

Discover Imperial Beach’s culinary scene with must-visit spots: Coronado Brewing Company for great beer and SEA 180 for stunning ocean views and delicious food.

There’s also Big Kahuna’s for cheap Hawaiian cuisine, Philippi’s Italian restaurant, Aroma Thai, and The Brigantine for seafood.

I love IB but I would still recommend the Central San Diego Beaches of Imperial Beach.  The biggest reason that I’d choose further north as opposed to Imperial Beach is if you plan on getting in the ocean due to how polluted the water is.

I know Wildcoast is working hard to fix this but I think it’s important to know that the pollution from the Tijuana River does cause beach closures in South Bay often, especially after any rainfall. If you aren’t planning on going in th water, then you’re good. 

Where to Stay near South San Diego Beaches

For an authentic Imperial Beach stay, Pier South Resort offers beachfront rooms, stunning sunset views, a pool, spa, and exceptional dining at Sea 180. Hotel Del Coronado, iconic but pricey, offers a taste of 50’s luxury if desired.

Other recommendations in Coronado and IB include:

North County Inland

North County Inland consists of the neighborhoods of Poway, Escondido, Ramona, and Julian. Some of the residential areas near here include Rancho Penasquitos, Rancho Bernardo, and Rancho Santa Fe. 

There are three main draws to this area.

My favorite is to hike Iron Mountain, but it can get crowded on the weekends so keep this in mind. My favorite way to hike this is starting in the dark about 1 hour before sunrise and then watching the sunrise from the top.

Another popular hike is to Potato Chip Rock. Again, it can be super crowded but if you’re dying to hike it’s a good option.

The third is to visit the Wild Animal Park, which is also part of the San Diego GO Card.

There are a few other cool things to do out here that are in our Hiking Adventures Near San Diego blog.

South Bay Inland

Explore Victor’s former South Bay neighborhood – Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, and Eastlake. Exercise caution, avoiding night walks and road rage for safety.

With that being said, I wouldn’t recommend any tourist stay in South Bay. 

Gentrification revitalized many areas, like Chula Vista with its craft breweries. However, staying there means being distant from my recommended activities. Eastlake offers pleasant Airbnb options amidst its suburban landscape. Yet, it’s packed with strip malls and fast-food joints, leading to traffic jams.

On the other hand, I would recommend Imperial Beach, especially staying at Sea 180.

Two things I do love in the South Bay though are Aquatica, the water park, and the concert venue currently called North Island Credit Union (it seems to change ownership every year).

This is a fun concert venue that we often take our kids to. I like that the seats in the grass are affordable and that even from here you can see the stage pretty well. Plus, the sunsets right before the concerts get going are quite amazing. If you want to save a lot of money, get there early to tailgate since the food and alcohol inside is pricey. Check here for a list of upcoming concerts.

Aquatica (formerly known as Knott’s Soak City) is also on the GO Card.

East County Inland

I purchased a 2003 Ford F350 Diesel truck and found my place in East County. While summers sizzle into the 90s or low 100s from July to October, the rest of the year is delightful. La Mesa, El Cajon, Santee, and Lakeside make East County an excellent base for exploration. Opt for La Mesa’s central location or consider the unique floating cabins at Santee Lakes Campground for camping. BNS Brewery and Distillery, a haven for country music lovers, offers live music, drinks, and outdoor games, and often hosts food trucks, making it a perfect spot for families.

Camp Smart: If camping at Santee Lakes, book in advance and consider the floating cabins for a unique experience.

One of the hidden gems in East County is Mission Trails. It has some pleasant hikes and a few challenging ones like Cowles Mountain, which can be insanely crowded (kinda a theme for hiking in San Diego). I think the best thing to do at Mission Trails is rock climb. If you don’t have gear or know how to climb, ask my friend Caleb at Stoneman Climbing about guiding you here for the day.

If you go further east, past East County, you’ll find the neighborhoods of Alpine, Pine Valley, Ramona, and Julian.  These areas offer some great hikes, mountain biking, camping, and cool historic main streets with a fun hick vibe. 

If you go a little further east than this, you’ll go over the mountains and drop into the desert of Ocotillo.  If you visit from November through April, I’d highly recommend spending a night or two out here.  Check out this blog for our favorite hikes and camping in Ocotillo and Ramona.

What About Tijuana

I used to go to TJ with Victor to party before we could drink legally in the States. Victor’s family loves the amazing and cheap food and drinks there! Here’s a list of some of the places our friend who lives in Tijuana recommends:

More Fun Things To Do In San Diego

Other fun things to do In San Diego include:

  • Take a San Diego highlights tour of historical landmarks
  • Or sign up for a walking tour
  • Sign up for a scavenger hunt (we did this once in downtown and had a blast)
  • Tour San Diego by sea on the Seal Tour
  • If you’re here on the one day it rains out of the year, do an Escape Room

>>>Click here to sign up for any of these fun tours and events<<<

San Diego Summary

San Diego’s near-perfect year-round weather makes it a perfect vacation destination. Get a San Diego Go Card and check out all the rad tourist spots or go for the budget vacay and enjoy BBQs, bonfires, and walks on the bay and beach. Either way, San Diego will be one trip you’ll never forget!

Follow the Adventure

After living in the San Diego rat race for so long, we said forget this and bought a 30-foot motorhome to live out of.

Half the year we live in San Diego while the other half we are out exploring the world. Follow along on our adventures on Instagram and message us if you’re in the SD area and want to meet up!

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