Here Are Some Of The Best Places To Visit In San Diego!
Planning to visit San Diego? Good idea! This beautiful city close to the Mexican border is full of culture, sights, beaches, and more! And whether you are visiting San Diego for a couple of days, a California road trip, or on a day trip from elsewhere, you’ll need a guide to make the most of your visit!
It’s funny – neither of us has been to San Diego – but we have it on our list of places to check out. That said, our awesome guest writer Greg jumped at the chance to help people discover the city the right way! Greg is a native of California, so he knows his stuff!
From Balboa Park to the San Diego Zoo, there are plenty of places to visit and things to do in the city. If you are looking for free, cheap or even unique things to do in San Diego, count on this California guy to give you the best spots – during the day or at night!
If you’re exploring California (or other parts of the USA on a trip), check out some of our other posts:
Things To Consider When Visiting San Diego
Before you plan your trip to San Diego, there are a few things to consider. Depending on where you are coming from, you’ll have to figure out more or less logistical details (e.g. overseas flights, visas, etc.). To help you figure everything out and not forget about important steps, we wanted to briefly address some of the aspects you should think about!
General Information About San Diego
Located in California, San Diego is a city of about 1.5 million people right on the border with Mexico. Its location on the West Coast of the US means that you’ve got the Pacific Coast to explore. It’s only about 2.5 hours to drive down from Los Angeles if you’re thinking about checking it out.
We always mention that if you are visiting the USA, you might be able to enter visa-free OR you might need to apply online for an ESTA or another kind of visa – depending on the passport you hold. You’ll also need some US Dollars since that’s the currency used! If you are interested in the best time to visit, the “shoulder seasons” from April-May and then September-October make for good weather and fewer crowds!
Getting Around San Diego
If you want to check out lots of different parts of San Diego, you might be best off renting a car. San Diego is much like Los Angeles (while smaller overall) in the sense that the city is pretty spread out from area to area. Once you are in an area you want to see – or by the coast – walking is nice but it can take long to get between places. If you don’t want to rent a car, you can also consider taking an Uber to get across bigger distances within the city.
Public transport is a good option BUT it doesn’t access all areas of the city – hence the car. Nonetheless, you can check out the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System site for planning routes. The city also doesn’t have great bike lanes so that’s not the best option.
If you want to get around the city but also learn as you go, you can consider a hop-on hop-off narrated Trolley tour. Another really neat tour that takes you on land AND by sea is the San Diego Seal Boat/Bus tour! If you want to take advantage of discounts on tours and attractions, you should consider a GO San Diego Card. This pass is good for anywhere from 1 to 7 days so you can just choose a timeframe that works for you!
Safety When Visiting San Diego
Like many cities, San Diego is safe for tourists and visitors. That said, with any touristy city/areas, you will want to watch for pickpockets and keep an eye on your belongings. Areas like the San Diego Zoo are safe but also prime for petty theft. If you explore the city in-depth, it’s advised to avoid the area downtown known as National City if possible.
Also, trips to Tijuana, Mexico (right across the border) can be very unsafe for tourists – depending on who you ask. If you do plan to day trip down, stay in large groups and avoid adventuring at night. Alternatively, you could also consider going as part of a guided Tijuana tour.
Accommodations/Where To Stay In San Diego
If you plan on spending a few days in San Diego, you’ll need to look for accommodations. The city is spread out a bit so it actually does make a difference where you stay if you have particular areas or sights you want to check out. That said, San Diego has a good mix of accommodation styles – from hotels and Airbnbs to hostels and more. It really does depend on your interests and budgets.
You can check here for accommodations all over San Diego. Some top areas to look at into are Downtown San Diego, La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, and Point Loma! If you want to stay in a hostel, there are some great hostels in San Diego. Check out USA Hostels Ocean Beach for a stay that’s close to.. the beach!
Top Places To Visit In San Diego
Alright, so now onto the best part of the guide – the places to visit in San Diego! Greg gives you lots of tips about the best areas, restaurants, bars, and more so have a read through and discover the city like a local! If you want to check out the best sights and learn a bit about the city when you arrive, you should consider a sightseeing tour. That way, you can get an overview of the city and always return to the places you want to check out in-depth later!
North Park is often regarded as the most hipster neighborhood in San Diego. A mix of good coffee, amazing taquerias, and a vast variety of breweries. North Park got its name because of its location to the infamous Balboa Park, located just South of this unique neighborhood.
Day or night – this area has something to offer. Be sure to check out Holsem Coffee for one of their super unique cold brews or lattes. North Park is full of eclectic shops if you are feeling like some retail therapy is in order. Stop by Pigment for an eclectically curated collection – they even have a custom terrarium station.
If you are a live music fan, check out the schedule for the Observatory. This intimate venue is a great place to see some of your favorite artists up close. Grab some grub at City Tacos before heading over. This taqueria is dirt cheap, but you would never know based on how good the food is. They even have an epic michelada that is a must!
Check out Mike Hess Brewing for some good craft beer or June Shine if alcoholic kombucha sounds like more of your vibe. This kombucha spot is a must, with a cool vibey atmosphere and live music on the weekends. Whether you show up with a plan or not, North Park is full of hidden gems everywhere. Keep an open mind, and you never know what you might find!
University Heights is located just north of North Park. This neighborhood is a continuation of great bars, good eateries, and hip coffee shops. Cruise over to Polite Provisions for some of the best, if not the best, craft cocktails in San Diego. Located in a unique old building with an atrium, this bar is sure not to disappoint! They will even have food delivered from the neighboring Soda and Swine if you’re in the mood for some good BBQ or comfort food.
Check out Park and Rec for a more interactive experience. This fun outdoor venue has multiple bars, lawn games, and live music. It is a great place to hang out during the day or at night. Take a group of friends – or head over solo and make some new ones.
Small Bar is another great diamond in the rough. Check out this local dive bar with a good selection of cocktails, craft beer, and bar food. This spot feels like a local-only hangout, without the hostility. Similar to North Park, University Heights is also a great spot to wander around and see where your spirit leads you!
Sometimes overlooked due to its location, Encinitas is located about 24 miles North of San Diego. This quaint little town on the coast is a must stop on your way down, or worth a detour if you are already staying in San Diego. Cruise the downtown area and find a variety of gastropubs, vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants, and shops.
Grab a juice from Eve Juice and walk down to Moonlight beach for the day! On Sundays, be sure to check out the Leucadia Farmers Market for fresh local produce and various food stalls. The small beach town feel wouldn’t be complete without it.
When the swell is big, Swamis is the place to be! This surfers paradise is swarming with big waves, and surfers to match. One of the best viewing locations is perched on the cliffs high above. Grab an acai bowl from Sambazon and head to the cliffs!
After a morning of watching the surf, head downtown to Mr. Peabodys for some brunch. Whether you are looking to live the clean lifestyle and enjoy mother nature, or take part in the more indulgent offerings, Encinitas is for you!
Located right in the middle of Downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp neighborhood is sure to please. This area is a San Diego landmark, first developed in 1867. Often known for its sprawling and wild nightlife, this area has much more!
Boasting more than just alcohol-fueled entertainment, there are a number of venues where you can find live music, theatre, and comedy shows. During the day, be sure to stop by Horton Plaza Park. This outdoor venue has a grassy area to sit, a variety of shops, and various food options. It’s a good place to relax and rest up for whatever your night holds.
As the sun begins to go down, this area truly begins to come alive. If you are looking for the club scene then Omnia and Parq are definitely for you! Typically hosting some of the bigger name DJ’s, these two venues are as close to a Vegas experience as you are going to get. Friday and Saturdays can get pretty busy, so be prepared.
If you’re looking for a more relaxed bar scene, Altitude is a good one. Located 22 stories up and right by Petco Park, this rooftop bar has the best view of the city. You can even watch the Padres play if you time it right.
One of the most unique bars is called the Tipsy Crow. Located in what used to be a gentleman’s club, this bar treats alcohol like a commodity. With ticker screens similar to what you would see on Wall Street in New York, they show what the current price of a drink is. It all about supply and demand! Just be ready for when the stock market crashes, you’ll have about 5 minutes to grab drinks at rock bottom prices.
>> Want to learn more about Gaslamp and its history? Consider A Gaslamp Walking Tour With Drinks!
Nothing would make a visit to Southern California complete without some epic sunsets! The beauty of San Diego – and Southern California in general – is that there almost isn’t a bad place to watch the sunset. There are certainly a few that stick out!
Sunset Cliffs is easily the most popular spot, obviously named that for a reason. Located in the Point Loma area, this post is known for having the steepest cliffs in San Diego. Keep in mind that because it is one of the most popular spots, it can get a bit crowded.
Head over during the day if cliff jumping sounds like something that interests you. Please do some research beforehand, and jump at your own risk! Timing is often required in order for the tide to be high enough for a safe jump.
The other great spot is Windansea Beach, which is located in La Jolla, you can read more about that city below! This is a beautiful stretch of beach that has nearly everything. Cool rock formations, with small paths that bring you down to the water.
This is a great spot to watch the sunset after a long day at the beach. Grab some towels and some adult beverages and head down to watch, be sure to keep your eye out for the green flash when the sun crosses below the horizon!
This small beach town is located just south of Encinitas. Known for its rugged and untouched coastline, this is any nature-lovers dream! La Jolla Cove is a beautiful beach with turquoise waters. Explore the tide pools or rent a kayak or stand up paddle board and explore the beautiful cliffs from below. There is even some amazing snorkeling just off the shoreline.
La Jolla Cove is protected as part of the Marine Reserve, keeping the marine life very unique. The diving around La Jolla is known to be world-class. After a long day at the beach, head to one of the many amazing restaurants they have to offer. Check out El Pescador Fish Market for an amazing selection of locally sourced seafood, be sure to check their daily specials.
As if La Jolla Cove wasn’t beautiful enough, this city is home to the gorgeous Torrey Pines State Reserve. If you are a thrill seeker, nothing beats a birds-eye-view of the coastline. Book either a paragliding or hang gliding flight for around $200. It is sure not to disappoint!
If you are more comfortable with your two feet on the ground, not to worry. The state reserve is packed with beautiful hiking trails that take you all over the ocean side cliffs. Be aware that there is no free parking, it will run you around $10. Torrey Pines is also known for its golf course if that is more your speed. A tee time during normal hours will run you about $200.
Balboa Park is located right in the middle of San Diego, sprawling 1200 acres total, and full of gardens, theaters, restaurants, walking paths and much more. It’s a great area to visit to get away from the busy city, and the indulgent activities that are offered in the downtown area.
Check out the Natural History Museum or cruise over to the Japanese Friendship Gardens. This relaxing park is a great spot to grab a blanket and relax in the warm California sun. With almost exclusively family-friendly activities, Balboa Park is great for everyone.
Also located at Balboa Park is the San Diego Zoo! First opened its doors in 1916, the Zoo has become a San Diego landmark. Home to 3500 animals and 650 species, this Zoo is a must see if you are an animal lover! Be sure to bring your walking shoes since the zoo spans nearly 100 acres. You can also get a skip the line 1-day Zoo pass here if that works for you!
Guests are allowed to bring their own food into the park, so grab some food and beverages for the day to avoid the pricey food for sale. Balboa Park has a tram service that is free, parking included.
If the tram is not for you, there are a wide variety of electric scooters and bikes that can be found all over the park and the city! You can also take a Segway Tour around Balboa to learn more about the area and have a fun way to get around.
Address for San Diego Zoo: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
As always, Happy SD Waddlin’,