With cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles around, it’s easy to forget about San Diego, but smart travelers know better. This Southern Californian city offers a unique blend of beach culture, modern urban life, and Hispanic American culture, making it a fantastic place to visit.
When the weather is sunny (and it’s almost always sunny in San Diego), there are beaches like La Jolla Cove and Mission Beach that have amazing surf, miles of sand and safe swimming conditions for the whole family to enjoy.
Back in town, there’s San Diego Zoo, one of the best in the world, fascinating historical sights like the USS Midway and Balboa Park, a lovely urban park that’s filled with museums, gardens, and amusements.
It’s also a great place to eat and drink, with local beers like Ballast Point and lively cocktail bars like Polite Provisions all vying for your attention. Basically, if you love outdoor living, history, and dining out, San Diego is the place to travel.
San Diego’s zoo is the city’s premier family attraction, hosting over 3,700 animals, including an incredibly rare breeding pair of giant pandas. You can spend a whole day wandering around the various zones, checking out all of the species on display.
San Diego receives, on average, 266 days of sunshine every year. For reference, Chicago enjoys around 190. Temperatures rarely fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and it almost never snows. So you can hit the beach in every season.
Take classes, rent a board, and hit beaches like Del Mar or Cardiff beach in one of California’s best surfing cities.
San Diego is only 20 miles from the Mexican border so you can be in Tijuana in no time at all, head down the Baja coastline or take a boat trip to the Coronado Islands.
San Diego has an incredible craft brewing scene, with over 100 separate breweries to sample. Some of the best include Ballast Point, AleSmith, and the Stone Brewing Company.
Balboa Park is one of the world’s greatest urban parks. It’s home to the San Diego Zoo, and there are also museums dedicated to photography, anthropology, and air and space travel. The Botanical Building also hosts a magical collection of orchids and palms.
Sport is huge in San Diego. If the NFL is your thing, head to the Qualcomm Stadium to watch the Chargers play football. If it’s baseball season, join the crowds at Petco Park to cheer on the Padres.
La Jolla is probably San Diego’s most attractive beach and it’s a perfect place for either novice or experienced surfers. Grab a board and hit the breaks, or camp out and watch the experts at spots like Windansea Beach.
San Diego is craft beer central and brewing fans should definitely take a tour of local breweries like Karl Strauss, Ballast Point, and Half Door.
With the border just 20 miles away it’s hard to resist a trip to Mexico during a stay in San Diego. Head to Tijuana to try the street tacos or venture down the Baja California coast to try kayaking or snorkeling in beautiful spots like Cabo Pulmo.
The sunshine is pretty constant in San Diego, and even winter temperatures are mild (although the beach is probably at its best between May and September). Think about an out of season break in spring (try March to May) or fall (September to November) when there are fewer families visiting and the attractions will be less packed.
San Diego International Airport is only a couple of miles northwest of the city center, so getting into town isn’t usually a problem. Take bus route 992 (which costs $2.25 and runs until 11:30 p.m.) or take a taxi. Expect to pay $15 along with a customary 15% tip to get to Downtown San Diego.
San Diego’s Amtrak terminal is on Kettner Boulevard. The only route served by the station is the Pacific Surfliner, which runs along the coast of California. However, there’s also a commuter rail system called Coaster, which terminates at Oceanside, where it links up with LA’s own light rail system.
Drivers tend to use I-5 to get to San Diego (if they are coming from Los Angeles and the North) or I-8 (if they are coming from the east). Be aware that rush hours in the morning and evening see heavy traffic on all of the city’s freeways.
Greyhound runs buses into their terminal at 120 W Broadway and run connections to Los Angeles and San Francisco to the north, and destinations like El Paso to the east.
Other bus companies running services into San Diego include Hoang Express, InterCalifornias and LuxBus, all of which connect the city to other Californian cities.
A lot of the best hotels are either Downtown or in the Old Town. Luxury options in Downtown include the Keating Hotel and the enormous Manchester Grand Hyatt. In the Old Town, check out the Old Town Inn and the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley for convenient, comfortable places to sleep. For a cheaper option have a look at La Pensione Hotel, on West Date Street, while for a hotel by the sea try the Crystal Pier Hotel & Cottages in Mission Beach.
Downtown – The commercial center and cultural hub of San Diego, Downtown has great connections to everywhere else in the city, making it an ideal base. It’s also the home of the Padres, take note baseball fans, and there are plenty of museums in the area like the Museum of Contemporary Art.
La Jolla – For something completely different, try La Jolla. This community is focused around San Diego’s most attractive beach and with the University of California in the neighborhood, it’s got lively nightlife as well. Take a walk in Torrey Pines Nature Reserve, snorkel in La Jolla Cove, and dine at hip eateries like Shores Restaurant.
The Old Town/Mission Valley – Where it all began, the Old Town has plenty of historic buildings to see and is the most famous tourist quarter. Check out the Mission San Diego de Alcala, founded in 1769 and take a tour of the Whaley House, thought to be one of the most haunted houses in the USA.
San Diego’s public transit is run by the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) and has good coverage of the central districts (though not so good to outlying suburbs). Basic bus fares are $2.25 for a single journey and $5 for a day pass, which is usually the cheapest option. There’s also the Trolley, a fast light rail connection that the serves southern suburbs. Day passes cost the same as they do for buses.
The meter drop in San Diego costs $2.80 and after that, taxis charge around $2.50 per mile. Uber is active in the city and charges $1.10 per mile, with no basic charge, so it usually works out to be much cheaper.
If you are staying in or planning to visit the beach suburbs in northern San Diego or want to drive to Las Vegas or Los Angeles, having a car is essential. You’ll find rental outlets like Hertz and Budget at the airport and expect to pay about $25-30 per day (depending on the model you choose). All parking in the center is metered, and costs vary by location. Handily, you can pay for on-street parking via debit cards.
Shopping is one of San Diego’s hidden attractions. Head to Mission Valley which has a huge open air mall that features major stores like Bloomingdale’s and Gucci. The historic Gaslamp Quarter is home to boutiques and craft stores (check out the Goorin Bros hat store for a great example). There are also plenty of fashionable clothing stores in affluent La Jolla, including boutique athletic brand Lululemon and Cinderella Shoe Clinic.
Generally, San Diego is slightly more expensive than the US average for groceries, and significantly more expensive in terms of accommodation. Expect to pay around $15 for a basic meal, $12 for a bottle of wine and $4 for 12 eggs. Shopping at supermarkets can save money, and chains in the city include Von’s, Albertson’s, Safeway, and Ralph’s.
San Diego has two major gastronomic attractions. On the one hand, there are world-class seafood restaurants like the Oceanaire and Truluck’s. On the other, there are Mexican restaurants ranging from down-to-earth to upscale that are world class. Try the tacos at La Puerta or the huevos rancheros at Casa Guadalajara to see what the fuss is about. There are also excellent Asian eateries like J.Wok and Dumpling Inn, so everyone’s taste buds should be satisfied.