California’s southernmost and second largest city is often overshadowed by its cousins to the north, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Maybe it’s the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hollywood sign that draws all the attention, but don’t be fooled, San Diego is where you’ll find the California you’re looking for!
It’s also the place I call home, so naturally I’m completely biased. But if you’re looking for endless stretches of golden sand, laid back surf towns and sun-tanned bodies then I can assure you, THIS is where you want to go.
Other travel guides will tell you to visit the world famous San Diego Zoo, Sea World, The Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado Island and Old Town, which are all nice places to visit. But there is much more to be had from America’s Finest City. This is how to see San Diego like a local.
It’s east to get stuck in the Downtown district here. Afterall, this is where the airport and convention centre are, as well as a host of other attractions like Seaport Village and The Gaslamp Quarter. It’s important to know that although San Diego is a big city, it’s not very condensed like New York or San Francisco. It’s spread out and some of the most popular areas exist out in the suburbs.
North County is home to some great little towns like Del Mar, Solana Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Encinitas where you’ll find beautiful beaches, excellent restaurants on the sand and some exciting nightlife. The environment up here is also perfect for getting some rest and relaxation. Visit the meditation gardens at the Self Realization Fellowship in Encinitas for some zen moments and great views of beautiful Swami’s beach.
Kayak La Jolla
This is one of my favourite activities, and one that a lot of visitors don’t know about. La Jolla is a well known, upscale area with a really beautiful coastline and on a clear day you can see for miles up and down the beach. From La Jolla Shores you can rent a kayak on the beach and paddle out to the cove.
It’s an easy activity that won’t require too much time and you’ll get to see about a million seals and sea lions, as well as stingrays and leopard sharks (don’t worry, they’re harmless). You can also paddle your kayak through a beautiful cave and admire the town of La Jolla with its multi-million-dollar beachside mansions while you sit soaking wet in a tiny plastic boat. This can be humbling but that’s OK.
Eat Mexican Food
After your kayak you’ll definitely be hungry and San Diego might be the best place in the entire world to eat Mexican food. Seriously. (Sorry Mexico). Options include tacos and quesadillas, but more importantly, burritos. You’ll have no trouble finding a quick and easy place to get a California or Carne Asada burrito, just look for one of these restaurant names – Roberto, Filiberto, Nolberto, Juanita, Carmen, Nolita… the list goes on.
Ask just about anyone for a suggestion and they will point you in the right direction (San Diegans are pretty passionate about their Mexican food). If you’re staying in Downtown then let me recommend a fantastic place called Las Cuatro Milpas under the Coronado Bridge. A good burrito will put you back about $5 and is reward enough to make the 10-hour flight feel entirely worthwhile.
Go Beer Tasting
Not to sound too repetitive but after your burrito you’ll definitely be thirsty and San Diego might be the best place in America to drink beer. A lot of travellers are surprised to hear that this city is actually known as “the Craft Beer Capital of America” with more than 70 breweries dotted around the county. An afternoon of beer tasting is not only a fun activity to do with a few of your closest friends but you’ll be able to see some of the city’s different neighbourhoods.
Brewery highlights include Ballast Point, Societe, Green Flash, Pizza Port and Stone but there are so many that it’s hard to name just a few. Depending on where you’re staying just ask a friendly restaurant waiter or bartender and they will surely point you in the right direction. Or if you prefer, you can visit Drink Up San Diego to find a brewery near you. For this activity I also like to recommend a designated driver since these hoppy beers can be pretty strong.
Visit the Mission Beach Boardwalk
The boardwalk in Mission Beach is a great place to mix some of the golden sand with a little exercise. There are plenty of places to rent a bike and roll alongside the beach in comfort and the boardwalk is lined with restaurants and bars to stop off at when you feel like a snack or a drink, or both. Also, the people watching is fantastic. When you’re ready just stop and relax on the beach. It’s San Diego in a nutshell.
Go See a Game
Photo Credit: Christopher Penler / Shutterstock.com
San Diego might not be America’s greatest sports city but we do have an excellent American football team called the Chargers and a baseball team called the Padres who both deliver equal amounts of success followed by heartbreaking disappointment. You learn to love ’em anyways.
Regardless of where your loyalties are, an afternoon watching one of these sports teams in their home stadium is an exciting event not to be missed. Get to the game early and partake in the great American tradition of ‘tailgating’ where enthusiastic fans set up elaborate barbecues in the car park before entering the stadium to cheer on their team.
If you’re staying in Downtown then it’s a short walk to Petco Park where the Padres play and a short train ride to Qualcomm stadium, home to the Chargers. Even if football or baseball aren’t really your thing, both stadiums serve beer and hot dogs, which everyone likes, and come complete with an overwhelming amount of crazed fans who provide all the entertainment you’ll need.
Hike Torrey Pines
Southern California’s frequent sunshine makes outdoor activities a year-round occurrence and hiking is a popular option for visitors and locals alike. The cliffs of Torrey Pines offer some of the most beautiful trails in San Diego county with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Trails are fairly intermediate and will take you up the cliff and back down to the beach before making the leisurely stroll back to your car. Make sure to keep your eye on the water as its pretty common to spot a pod of dolphins, a lonely sea lion or even a gray whale in migration!
Ride The Surfliner
Generally speaking, public transportation in San Diego is terrible and won’t get you anywhere. But there is a wonderful train that rides up the coast to Orange County and Los Angeles called The Surfliner.
The journey up to San Juan Capistrano is absolutely stunning with the train hugging the coast most of the way and getting just a few metres from the sand on a couple of occasions. Stop in San Juan Capistrano for some lunch and take the 45-minute journey straight back to where you came from. If you’re feeling extra adventurous then the train stops in Oceanside and Solana Beach also. Just be sure to check the timetables first as departures can be infrequent.
Visit a Trendy Neighbourhood
Photo Credit: Allen Ferguson / Flickr
It can’t all be about the beach! The neighbourhoods surrounding Downtown, the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park are great places to explore for an afternoon or evening. From Little Italy (next to the airport) to Hillcrest, North Park and Normal Heights (just up the road) you’ll find some great restaruants, bars, shopping and nightlife. The environment up here is much different than the surf-centred culture you’ll find up north, so if that’s your thing then check it out!
Go Deep Sea Fishing
These Pacific Ocean waters are ideal for some deep sea fishing and a day on the boat is whole lot of fun. You’ll find a good mix of companies like H&M Landing around the San Diego Bay that do half-day, full-day or multi-day trips out to sea. No need to worry about the gear either as you can rent it directly from the docks. It’s not uncommon to find yourself wrestling with yellowfin or bluefin tuna, mackarel, barracuda and more! Don’t forget the sea sickness pills!