San Diego isn’t just about Comic-Con (well, not for 51 weeks of the year, anyway). And it isn’t just about sun-shiney good times on the sand—though it is a little bit about that (and we’ll take our beaches over the beaches in L.A. any day of the week!). The birthplace of California also has some of the country’s best cultural offerings, with districts steeped in rich history and galleries and museums aplenty, and is one of America’s top family-friendly destinations: iconic amusement parks, a world-famous zoo and tons of parks and picnic spots. Oh, and mom and dad, it’s also a craft brewery mecca—so book a sitter.
Best things to do in San Diego
As National Historic Landmarks go, San Diego’s “Giant Dipper” has to be one of the most entertaining in the whole country. The beautiful old wooden roller coaster was constructed in 1925 but is still the centerpiece of Belmont Park (3146 Mission Blvd)—a vintage amusement park in popular Mission Beach. For just $6 per person you can ride its famous dips and turns, with beautiful views of both neighboring Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean to enjoy as you do (if you keep your eyes open that is). Afterwards, explore Belmont Park’s other classic carnival rides and—if you’re still feeling brave—try a session on the FlowBarrel (“the mother of all artificial wave machines”).
See the sea lions by the seashore
As Ron Burgundy will tell you, it’s all about staying classy in San Diego. And the city’s classiest district is undoubtedly La Jolla. Nicknamed the “jewel of Southern California”, the quaint Mediterranean-style village is just a few minutes drive from downtown, but feels like you’ve accidentally taken the exit for Greece or Italy. There’s plenty to keep you entertained here, including some of the city’s finest restaurants. Nine-Ten in the Grande Colonial Hotel is particularly outstanding (try the ‘Mercy of the Chef’ dinner special—a surprise price fixe menu for the whole table, created at the whim and inspiration of award-winning chef Jason Knibb). Afterwards, check out the Legends Gallery (1205 Prospect St, 858-456-9900), which boasts a nice collection of artwork by former La Jolla resident Dr. Seuss). Plus, filter fiends will love the Instagram-friendly La Jolla Cove, where you’ll almost always find groups of seals and sea lions lazing about on the rocks. Seals!Photograph: Courtesy Lisa Field/SanDiego.org
Go fish for a snack
For the ultimate San Diegan street food experience, look no further than the city’s beloved fish taco. Pretty much every local has an opinion on the perfect amalgam and amount when it comes to ingredients (cheese? cabbage? avocado?), and there is equally fierce debate over the finest vendor in town. George’s at the Cove’s Ocean Terrace in La Jolla (125 Prospect St, 858-454-4244) and South Beach Bar and Grill in Ocean Beach (5059 Newport Ave #104) are both firm favorites, but if there was one stand-out winner it would be Oscars, a traditional Mexican seafood joint which has three locations across town: Pacific Beach (746 Emerald St), North Pacific Beach (703 Turquoise St) and Hillcrest (646 University Ave). You might have to stand in line but trust us, the ‘taco especial’ (shrimp or smoked fish with cabbage, onion, tomato, cilantro and cheese) is well worth the wait.Photograph: Christian Martinez
Famous for its peaked red roof, classic Victorian architecture and serene ocean vistas, the Hotel del Coronado (500 Orange Ave, Coronado) is an iconic San Diego landmark that puts on an iconic Sunday brunch. Head out to the property via the curved San Diego-Coronado Bridge and enjoy the renowned egg soufflé while you soak up a little of the resort’s glamorous history. This was once the playground of Hollywood’s biggest stars, on-screen and off: the hotel was the backdrop for the gender-swapping hijinks of Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. Bonus: you’re at Coronado Beach, a stretch of sand awash in national awards for its outstanding beauty.
No visit to San Diego is complete without taking in Balboa Park (1549 El Prado). The sprawling 1,200-acre public park is home to the Old Globe theater, a gargantuan outdoor pipe organ and no less than 15 major museums. That’s an awful lot of ground to cover, but San Diego Fly Rides offers a speedy solution, with their fleet of high-end electric bikes. For $75 per person (including a snack, water and helmet), you can saddle up for their two-hour ‘Spanish Twist’ tour and zip around the humongous park at speeds of up to 20mph with a local guide.
The monumental USS Midway was the longest-serving aircraft carrier in US Navy history when it was decommissioned in 1992. Now the feted ship—the size of a floating city—is a floating maritime museum, berthed alongside San Diego Bay in downtown (910 N Harbor Dr). Head aboard for a fascinating insight into what naval life is really like, courtesy of a self-guided audio tour narrated by some (refreshingly honest) former Midway sailors. There are more than 60 exhibits and 29 restored aircraft to explore, including the frankly unmissable option to play Top Gun in the museum’s on-deck flight simulators.
The Whaley House (2476 San Diego Ave) in San Diego’s Old Town is one of only two officially designated haunted houses in California (yes, official!). Built in 1856 on the town’s former gallows’ site, the house was once home to the wealthy but troubled Whaley family—and rumor has it that various members of the clan never left. Other ghosts that are said to haunt the house are a grand larcenist who fought ferociously to keep himself alive at the gallows, and a young playmate of the Whaley children who died under suspicious circumstances. Flatten the hair on the back of your neck afterwards with an Old Town Trolley Tour, a fully narrated ride around the city that takes in more than 100 points of interest (don’t miss Presidio Park, considered to be the birthplace of California when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821).
Nestled in Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr) fully deserves its reputation as one of the finest in the world. It pioneered the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits to recreate more natural animal habitats, and remains one of the few zoos outside of China to house Giant Pandas. Its sister property, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd, Escondido), allows visitors to get even closer to the bigger African and Asian animals: its popular ‘Caravan Safaris’ involve two-hour drives in the back of a covered open-air safari truck. Quirky overnight camping options—the brilliantly monikered ‘Roar & Snore’ packages—are available too.
Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of San Diego’s exceptional Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, by swooping serenely overhead in a paraglider. Torrey Pines Gliderport (2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr, La Jolla) is home to one of the most successful paragliding schools in North America, and flight experiences (10 minutes on the ground and 20-25 minutes in the air) start from $165. You’ll be strapped to a qualified pilot so there’s nothing to worry about except enjoying the views of the 2,000-acre reserve, its numerous hiking trails and sandstone cliffs beneath you (look ahead and you’ll also get an eyeful of gorgeous Pacific).
Embrace cerveza land
California may be famous for wine, but this city known for its craft beer. With nearly 100 breweries and microbreweries operating across San Diego, there’s plenty of choice too. Enthusiasts should seek out the West Coaster, a monthly magazine devoted to the city’s beer scene, and download Taphunter, a dedicated app. Some of the hottest craft beer joints for mingling with the locals are O’Briens Pub (Convoy Ct, 464 Convoy St), Hamilton’s Tavern (1521 30th St) and Toronado (4026 30th St), but if you feel like leaving the thinking (and more importantly, the driving) to somebody else, there are a number of bus brew tours to choose from as well, with San Diego Brewery Tour the pick of the bunch.
Photograph: Courtesy Candice Eley/SanDiego.org
See the largest animals on earth
At 100 feet long and weighing in (at least) 180 tons, blue whales are the largest animals to have lived on earth—and pods of the graceful giants have been sighted off the San Diegan coast in recent years. They aren’t the only monster mammals out there either. San Diego is perfectly positioned along the cetacean freeway from the chilly waters of Alaska to the warm lagoons of Mexico: As a result, whale-watching trips from the city are both plentiful and fruitful, with the blue whales the center of attention between June and September, and their gray cousins taking over from December through April. San Diego Whale Watch offer year-round excursions from their headquarters at 1717 Quivira Road, with adult tickets from $48—and two for the price of one on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Photograph: Courtesy Joanne DiBona/SanDiego.org
As the historic heart of San Diego, the 16-and-a-half-block Gaslamp Quarter blends Victorian charm with a 21st-century entertainment and shopping scene. The site of the city’s red light district in the 19th century, the area has been revitalized over the last 20 years and is now home to more than 100 retail stores. Dust off your credit card and check out some of the highlights including contemporary womenswear at Blue Jeans & Bikinis (435 J Street) and upmarket apparel and accessories for both sexes at Dolcetti Boutique (635 Fifth Ave). Then head for a well-earned cocktail or two at Altitude Sky Lounge (660 K St), where the fire pits are ignited and the resident DJs start up as the sun sinks.
With an impressive 70 miles of coastline, San Diego is a surfer’s dream. There are abundant opportunities for wave riders of all levels, up and down the city’s 33 public beaches from Oceanside at the top to Imperial Beach at the bottom. The most famous spot of them all, however, is Swami’s Reef in Encinitas, which achieved legendary status courtesy of the Beach Boys’ classic 1963 hit “Surfin’ USA”. Turn up the volume and drive down to watch the action—but don’t attempt Swami’s yourself unless you’re an experienced surfer: the meaty waves and unpredictable breaks mean this is expert-level only. If you’re a novice but keen to try the sport out, it’s worth visiting Surf Diva in La Jolla, the world’s first all-woman surf school, which offers coed classes of every level with prices starting at $85 for two hours’ instruction.
In 1542, Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay under the Spanish flag becoming the first European to discover California. Perched high atop the cliffs of Point Loma, Cabrillo National Monument commemorates that historic landing. It also boasts spectacular views of San Diego Bay, downtown and the surrounding region—so lay down that blanket and get picnicking! On a clear day, you can even see the hills of Tijuana, Mexico in the distance. After lunch, take time to check out the quaint exhibit hall next to the monument, which is dedicated to the life of the charismatic explorer.
Spanish colonization brought dramatically beautiful missions to California, with the first and grandest being Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala (10818 San Diego Mission Rd), founded in 1769. The birthplace of Christianity on the West Coast, the Basilica—nestled down in stunning Mission Valley near the San Diego River—is a beautifully serene place to visit. History buffs can make reservations for a tour, attend mass in the original chapel, visit the mission’s museum and gift shop, and stroll among the mission grounds where the oldest known cemetery in California is located.
Shop for throwbacks at Boomerang
Got an eye for decor? You’ll likely strike gold among the quirky stores in North Little Italy’s design district. One of the best is Boomerang for Modern (2475 Kettner Blvd), a wonderfully eclectic store selling a treasure trove of new and vintage furniture and accessories across three floors. Just a few doors down Kettner Boulevard, Architectural Salvage of San Diego (No. 2475) stocks everything from vintage door knobs to stained glass windows, while Love and Aesthetics on West Fir Street (No. 621) sells unique gifts and home accessories that range from the ingenious to the downright hilarious (as in NSFW). Well worth a visit.Photograph: Courtesy Joanne DiBona/SanDiego.org
Reap rewards at a farmers’ market
Farmers’ markets take place every day of the week in San Diego, with more than 20 held across the city every weekend. If you’re in town on a Saturday morning, head to the Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market (519 Cedar St) for fresh local produce and straight-from-the-ocean seafood. On Sundays, it’s all about the handcrafted art and housewares at the ever-popular Hillcrest Farmers’ Market (3960 Normal St), while on Wednesday afternoons from 4-8pm (4-7pm during Winter months), an eclectic crowd gathers at the Ocean Beach Farmers Market (Newport Ave, between Cable & Bacon Sts), where the shopping (seek out the torpastas—baguettes stuffed with pasta) is accompanied by live music and a healthy side serving of the bizarre (llama rides are optional). For a complete schedule, visit the San Diego Farm Bureau.Photograph: Courtesy Joanne DiBona/SanDiego.org
It’s not all icy beers, big animals and sunny good times: San Diego pulls its weight, and then some, on the cultural front too. The region’s oldest, largest and most visited art museum, the San Diego Museum of Art (Balboa Park, 1450 El Prado) has a nationally renowned permanent collection that includes Spanish and Italian old masters, as well as 19th-century American paintings and sculptures. It also regularly features notable exhibitions from around the world, and from September 2015 plays host to the major “Art of Music” exhibition, which explores the intersection between music and art to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Balboa Park, where the museum is situated.
Take a little tortilla time
You’re tantalizingly close to the border, but you don’t need to cross it for some seriously good, seriously authentic Mexican food. If that’s what’s on your mind, beeline for Barrio Logan, the epicenter of San Diego’s Hispanic community. Here, the city’s freshest handmade tortillas can be sourced at Las Cuatro Milpas (1857 Logan Ave), an unassuming eatery beloved of the hungry locals, with lines often extending around the block. For dessert, stroll to nearby Panchitas Bakery (2519 C St), which holds legendary status among San Diegans for its homemade Mexican pastries, particularly the fresh conchitas, and their steaming abuelita hot chocolate. (If you don’t have a sweet tooth, the bolillo rolls stuffed with jalapeno and cheese are also out of this world).Photograph: Courtesy SanDiego.org
Be first to see the next big thing
Music fans have flocked to San Diego’s live venues for years to discover local bands before they broke, like Jason Mraz, Iron Butterfly and Blink 182. Today the city’s diverse music scene is alive and kicking at a number of notable venues, including The Belly Up Tavern (143 S Cedros Ave) and The Casbah (2501 Kettner Blvd). The latter has refreshingly modest cover charges and drink prices, and a back bar containing a fine selection of vintage ’80s video games. Meanwhile The Belly Up Tavern at Solana Beach is renowned for breaking the latest hip-hop, jazz and reggae acts, and was recently named as one of the hottest clubs on the West Coast by Rolling Stone.Photograph: Alex Matthews