San Diego's coastal seat makes it an ideal destination for adventurers and sun seekers. Whether you're hiking along the sandstone cliffs of Torrey Pines State Reserve, walking through the frothy surf of Coronado Beach or admiring the postcard-worthy scenery at La Jolla Cove, you'll find little reason to stray far from the city's natural wonders. Spend a day at Balboa Park – the city's definitive cultural hub – and soak up the stunning setting while exploring the many museums, theatres and gardens that call this 1,200-acre park home. Though it's tempting to spend your whole vacation exploring, don't forget to carve out some time for a San Diego history lesson: America's Finest City proudly shows off its military and maritime heritage with two well-regarded (and highly interactive) museums.
Balboa Park – Home to the renowned San Diego Zoo. this 1,200-acre park is the city’s cultural hub. Located in downtown San Diego (about 2 miles north of the city centre), Balboa Park is a great place for a stroll, bike ride or picnic. Wander around the park’s many gardens while admiring the intricate Spanish-Renaissance architecture that permeates the grounds (the best examples are the California Building and the House of Hospitality). The Botanical Building is a great starting point in Balboa Park. The building is one of the most photographed places in Balboa Park and is one of the largest lath structures in the world. But don’t just look at it. The famous botanical building features more than 2,100 permanent plants, including striking collections of tropical plants and orchids. The park also features a cactus garden, rose garden, a Japanese-style garden as well as a palm tree canyon, among many others.
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park- This 100-acre establishment is one of the most famous zoos in the country. The San Diego Zoo is not only one of the largest zoos in the USA but also houses one of the largest collections of rare and endangered animals in the world (3,500 to be exact). Giant pandas, giraffes, elephants, polar bears, and koalas (the largest collection outside of Australia) are just a few of the many animals that call the San Diego Zoo home. The exhibits are linked by an expansive series of trails such as the Monkey Trail, Hippo Trail or Tiger Trail. On these designated pathways, you’ll come face to face with numerous exciting creatures including hippos in the Lost Forest, arctic foxes in the Northern Frontier, rhinos in the Urban Jungle or gators in the Edgeworth Bowl. You’ll need plenty of energy – and a map – to see everything the zoo has to offer. Should your feet grow weary while exploring, the zoo offers a 35-minute guided bus tour of the park. There’s also the Skyfari aerial tram that transports visitors from one end of the park to the other, offering a birds-eye-view of the exhibits below in between. In addition to plenty of animals to see, the zoo also hosts animal shows and animal encounter programs daily as well as 4-D movie theatres with educational films about the wildlife.
Coronado Beach – Compared to Mission Beach, this popular shoreline boasts fewer sunbathers and calmer waves. Just across the bay from San Diego, Coronado Beach is popular with families and couples alike thanks to its miles-long shoreline (affording plenty of room for beachgoers), clean sands, peaceful atmosphere and idyllic location in the “Crown City” (in Spanish, “Coronado” means “crowned one”). While you won’t have access to a bustling boardwalk (like that at Mission Beach), you will have plenty of picturesque scenery to admire (besides the surf): magnificent mansions sit behind the beach on Ocean Boulevard. And the historic Hotel del Coronado – a 130-year-old National Historic Landmark – is perched just beyond the sand. When you’re not boogie boarding or building a sand castle, heed the advice of recent visitors and simply walk the 1.5-mile-long shoreline. Even if you’re visiting San Diego during the city’s winter season (December through February) when the water is a little too chilly for swimming, you should still plan to make a stop here for the scenery. And if you enjoy ice skating, the Hotel Del offers the unique opportunity to ice skate right along the beach.
Cabrillo National Monument – The southernmost tip of Point Loma is where you’ll find the Cabrillo National Monument. The statue depicts Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who, in 1542, was the first European explorer to navigate the Californian coast. Situated about 10 miles southwest of downtown San Diego, this monument is much more than just a memorializing effigy. The main reason people make the journey to the monument is its incredible views. From the Cabrillo Monument, you can enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific as well as the Point Loma naval base below (where Cabrillo initially docked his ships), downtown San Diego, Coronado, and on a clear day, the mountains of Tijuana, Mexico.
Mission Beach and Pacific Beach – Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are one giant, connected shoreline in San Diego. While not as pristine as Coronado Beach, the area is just as popular thanks to all the nearby attractions and amenities. This miles-long stretch of sand fits the So Cal stereotype to a T: throngs of surfers and bikini-clad sunbathers crowd the shores every summer, while the nearby boardwalk is usually packed with inline skaters and bicyclists. The beach is a popular spot in San Diego for surfing as well, offering swells both high and low, perfect for beginners and seasoned surfers (there are numerous water sports equipment rental shops strewn around the neighbourhood). Belmont Park, which acts as the border between the two beaches, is a beachfront amusement park featuring arcades and numerous rides, including the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster – a more than 100-year-old National Historic Landmark. When lunchtime rolls around, head to one of the many beachside eateries that flank the boardwalk or Mission Boulevard (the area’s main thoroughfare), or have a picnic at Bonita Cove, the bayfront park located across the street from Belmont Park.
Sunset Cliffs – Next to the Cabrillo Monument, travellers say this is the next best place for ocean views in Point Loma. Situated a little more than 9 miles due west of downtown San Diego, Sunset Cliffs stretches across 68 acres and runs 1.5 miles along Point Loma peninsula’s western shoreline. The dramatic sandstone cliffs and untouched vegetation along with its stunning ocean vistas make for an unforgettable stroll both during the day and at night. The area is also home to a few secluded beaches as well, though getting to them can be tricky. There is a beach popular with locals at the beginning of Cordova Street off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, but you must traverse down the rocky bluffs to get there. For an easier descent, head to the end of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard at Ladera Street and take a walk down the available stairway. It won’t lead you to the beach, but it will get you just above the crashing waves. That area is popular with surfers, so expect to see lots of locals catching waves. If you venture farther up into Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, you’ll find plenty of walking trails right along the ocean and through the coastal scrub that dot the area.
La Jolla Cove – La Jolla Cove is the jewel of La Jolla. Located across the water from La Jolla Shores, La Jolla Cove may not be much in terms of a beach, but its striking beauty and snorkelling reputation more than make up for it among recent visitors. The site is an ecologically protected area that is home to vibrant wildlife both in and out of the water. In fact, it’s not uncommon to spot sea lions hanging close to the cove’s bluffs and tide pools. Oftentimes, they even come on the beach. This is also an excellent spot for beginner snorkelers. Advanced snorkelers should take advantage of the sea caves located along the bluffs, but only with a guide. If you aren’t an advanced snorkeler but still want to see the caves, you can take a kayak tour, offered by La Jolla Sea Cave Kayaks, or visit the Cave Store, which is home to a manmade tunnel that goes directly inside the Sunny Jim Cave. Travelers say even if you don’t plan on swimming or snorkelling, you should still visit the attraction for its picture-perfect setting.
What to Eat in San Diego
With the U.S.-Mexico border sitting just 16 miles south of downtown, it should come as no surprise that San Diego is home to a delicious array of top-notch Mexican food. Mexican restaurants big and small can be found everywhere you go, from more affluent areas like La Jolla and Point Loma to strip malls off the highway. If you’re looking for a starting point, go to the Barrio Logan for some of the most authentic fare. Try the California burrito, which features carne asada, cheese, pico de Gallo or guacamole and French fries. You should also consider indulging in some carne asada fries, which are topped with carne asada strips, cheese, salsa and beans. And of course, you must sample the fish tacos. While the California burrito, carne asada fries and fish tacos are staples, they are hybrids. Mole, pan dulce (or sweet bread) found at Panchito’s Bakery and chamangos, smoothie or sorbet mixed with mangos and chamoy, (found at Tocumbo Ice Cream) are more authentic to Mexico.
San Diego has also made a name for itself in the craft beer scene. The city boasts more than 130 breweries and counting. Top craft breweries, such as Karl Strauss, Stone Brewing and Ballast Point, all call San Diego home. You can find a directory of breweries, categorized by region, on the San Diego Visitors Bureau website. Or, for a comprehensive glimpse into San Diego’s love of the brew, consider planning your trip for November during the city’s annual beer week. Seafood is another important component of San Diego’s culinary character, thanks to the city’s proximity to the ocean. For the best atmosphere, seek out places closest to the water, such as Point Loma Seafood’s, Mitch’s Seafood (also in Point Loma) and Oscar’s Mexican Seafood in Pacific Beach.