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 has so many great beach towns within greater San Diego that it can be a little overwhelming which one to hit first. Hopefully this guide will make it so that your visit to San Diego is a perfect fit for your style of travel.
This is a very thorough blog that breaks down most of the San Diego neighborhoods with details on popular attractions, best places to eat and where to stay. If you are looking for just the highlights of our favorite beaches, hikes, and climbs, then click over to our blog Outdoor Adventure Guide to San Diego.
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.
As I returned from Alaska this summer and was writing detailed blogs about Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, Whistler, Squamish, the ALCAN, and Mount Rainier, it dawned on me that I have so much knowledge about San Diego that I haven’t put in a blog. And so, here ya go! Four decades of personal experience to help you discover why so many people want to visit (and move to) America’s Finest City.
Sitting at most southwesterly corner of the US, bordered by Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, San Diego will always be a surf town with a huge hispanic influence. But don’t let the carne asada burritos and possibility of getting stoked by surfing your first wave be the only reason you visit.
San Diego is a foodie’s paradise if you know where to look. It’s got everything from Kombucha and Kava bars to dog friendly breweries, cafe’s that sell flowers and succulents, and pretty much any combo you can imagine.
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 chill wave? Head to Tourmaline. Want to watch the best sunsets? Head to the pier at OB.
When to Visit San Diego
Seriously, all year round is a great time to visit, but if you have a flexible schedule, then honestly, January might be the best time. Sure to us locals it’s a little cold and you’ll see us walking around in our puffy jackets and Uggs, but seriously, January is usually a high on the coast of mid-sixties and a low of fifty and there is rarely rain.
One of my other favorite times to be in San Diego is November and December, but it does get crowded during the holidays.
If you are coming to San Diego in hopes of getting your stoke on in the ocean, then note that spring tends to be windier and you’ll need to get in the water close to sunrise if you don’t want blown out surf. Summer tends to be quite small as far as waves, but it’s a great time to learn to surf.
Safety tip if you are going to play in the ocean: San Diego’s beaches get a lot of stingrays in the summer so remember to shuffle your feet when you are playing in the shallow waters. Don’t panic if you get stung, there are almost always lifeguards on the beach during the day who will help you by soaking your foot in hot water to expel the venom.
Getting Around San Diego
Before you start driving all over San Diego, let me start by telling you, San Diego traffic sucks. You don’t want to be playing at the beach in Carlsbad for the day and then jump in your car at 4pm to get to dinner in the Gaslamp (although you could hop on the train).
More than likely you’re going to want to rent a car when you visit San Diego.
There is public transportation via the bus system and trolley, but I don’t recommend it unless it’s just an occasional use like to get to a Padre Game.
If you will be sticking to one of the beach towns below like Pacific or Mission Beach, you could get by without a car and just use Uber/Lyft and electric scooters which are all the rage in these neighborhoods.
Use the search box below to find cheap car rentals in San Diego:
San Diego Go Card
Between all the rad beaches, parks, and hikes, there is a lot to do in San Diego for free, but if you are interested in the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Belmont Park, museums at Balboa Park, or Legoland, then it might be more cost effective to buy a San Diego GO Card, which gives you free access to almost 50 different attractions.
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
This is a great area to stay in if you want to be able to walk to a lot of great restaurants, bars, an amazing farmers market on Sundays, and Petco Park to catch a Padre game or concert,
Downtown is also where you can also check out Seaport Village, which has some unique shops and a Merry Go Round for the little ones, and The USS Midway aircraft museum, a super cool massive aircraft carrier that you can walk through and learn why we San Diegans love our Navy so much.
Close to the USS Midway is the Ferry that you can ride across San Diego Bay to Coronado Island (see Coronado below for ideas on what to do there).
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 definitely want to check out Cafe Gratitude. It can be a bit pricey but they have really delicious and unique vegan meals.
Now, if you don’t have dietary restrictions and you want an affordable meal that is delicious, 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.
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 Tequilla, Tacos, and Culinary Tour of Old Town.
You have to make time for Point Loma’s Sunset Cliffs, an obviously great spot to watch 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, a Trader Joes, 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 in 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 really 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 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 recommendations is Station Tavern if you’re craving beer and burgers or Hamilton’s Tavern for beer and brats.
Last, for live music and nightlife, check out a show at The Observatory. See 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.
- For budget options, try HI Downtown Hostel or Good Nite Inn or ITH Adventure Hostel
- For mid range try the Pacific Inn and the Hampton Inn Downtown
- For luxury accommodation stay at Sonder – The William Penn or Staypineapple in Gaslamp.
If you are traveling with kids, you’ll probably prefer staying near one of the Beach Neighborhoods listed below instead.
Don’t have time to finish this blog right now? Click the pic below and save it to your Pinterest Board for later!
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 is my fav. If you want 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 personally won’t go there because of it’s overly trendy, 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.
Another reason I love PB, there’s a Trader Joes and so if you want my strategy for saving a ton of dinero, go there first thing when you arrive in town and buy your own avocados, sun dried tomatoes, and sourdough bread and you’ll be set for the week 😉
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 it’s impossible for me to 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.
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.
If you surf, check out the south jetty, but really all along the beach is good for newbies on a fuller tide (stick to 3 foot tide or bigger). There’s also the wave pool here by Belmont Park.
Mission Bay is adjacent to Mission Beach and Pacific Beach and also where you’ll find Sea World. This is where I live half the year and growing up this was my favorite place in San Diego to go.
Weekends get really crowded but during the week the vibe is super chill.
This is a great place to go for a run especially in the early morning, have a picnic and let the kids play at one of the many campgrounds, rent a bike and cruise the bay + Fiesta Island. Then finish the day with a bonfire while watching the Sea World fireworks from either Mission Bay (at 9:50 pm in the summer), Fiesta Island, or my personal preference, Ski Beach.
Note that the gate to Fiesta Island is locked each night at 10pm. 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 really 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.
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 safe, fun, and fairly affordable area to stay in.
One of my favorite things to do in OB is watch 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:
- Best budget: California Dreams Hostel + ITH Beach Bungalow Surf Hostel
- Best mid range (beachfront): Pacific Terrace Hotel and Surfer Beach Hotel in PB + Ocean Villa Inn in Ocean Beach + Campland On the Bay campground on Mission Bay
- Best luxury: Tower 23 Hotel at the PB pier + Blue Sea Beach Hotel on the Mission Beach Boardwalk
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.
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 walking distance to all the great restaurants and shopping.
La Jolla Shores is where you’ll find one of the best beaches for families and a great place to learn to surf. I love that it has a huge grass area by the beach, a playground on the sand, and that parking is close by, however, it fills up fast on the weekends and in summer. The waves are rarely big here and the further south you go the smaller they get.
Within walking distance there are great places to eat and do a little shopping. You’ll also find places to rent surf boards 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 beginners 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 is amazing and if you feel adventurous, you can do some hang gliding over the coast from here.
Del Mar is a great place to spend a few hours shopping and eating at. 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 is where you’ll find Cedros Design District which has really cool shops, the rad music venue, Belly Up Tavern, and one of the local’s favorite coffee shops, Lofty Coffee.
Along highway 101 in Solana Beach there are more surf shops, the popular Pizza Port restaurant, and many more restaurants and cafes.
Carlsbad + Oceanside
Further north you’ll find Carlsbad and Oceanside. While both are great beach towns, if this is your first trip to San Diego and you want to see all the places already mentioned, I recommend staying in Encinitas or further south otherwise traffic really becomes a drag.
If you aren’t interested in the areas of downtown, PB, the Zoo, or Balboa Park, then just staying up north in Carlsbad or Oceanside can be a wonderful vacation.
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
- Best budget: Coronado Inn (or camp on the Silver Strand) + Sand Castle Inn
- Best midrange and most scenic: The Loews Coronado Bay Resort + Hotel Marisol Coronado
- Best luxury: Pier South Resort + Glorietta Bay Inn
San Diego’s South County Beach Neighborhoods
After having a business in Coronado for 20 years, I’ve always been mixed on whether Coronado is a “must see” destination if you are coming to San Diego for your first time.
It really depends on what you like. If it’s adventure you seek, then I’d skip it. If you want to put your feet in soft California sand, eat at upscale restaurants, and do some boutique shopping, Coronado is a must do.
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.