When I first visited San Diego, I fell in love with the laid-back lifestyle and the great weather year-round. I enjoyed lots of my time at the beach, went shopping, had good talks to people and walked around the city center with big eyes. Because every time, there was something new to discover.
Also, I’m lucky to have a friend from there with whom I could stay. My friend Oswaldo comes originally from Nicaragua and lives in San Diego for 27 years now. Because Oswaldo had to work during the day, he just dropped me off the mall, beach or city center, so I could go my way and explore the city…
From San Diego to L.A. and back
When people are thinking about going to California, they usually have L.A. in mind. And also I must confess me too. I really wanted to visit the City of Angels. So after a few days in San Diego, I took a bus and head to L.A. and it was a real disappointment.
Downtown L.A. was not just dirty and full of poverty, it also took forever to get to the Santa Monica Beach. And even after arriving by bus to the famous beach, it was crowded and not as nice as expected. Also driving through the rich districts didn’t give me the feeling of what I thought L.A. would be. It actually bored me. Solely Venice was a positive experience with all the crazy people and skaters. But still I realized: L.A. was just a big illusion and all I wanted was to get back to San Diego.
So I called my friend Oswaldo, who was so kind to drive all the way from San Diego to L.A. just to pick me up and take me back to his place. It really felt like a relief and I enjoyed my time in San Diego even more.
But why is San Diego so different from L.A. and what makes this city so special? To answer this, I made a collection of beautiful things and places that are worth visiting and that makes your stay in San Diego absolutely amazing and special!
Best places to visit in San Diego
Downtown San Diego
While downtown L.A. was dirty and off the beaten track, the downtown area of San Diego represents the full life. I liked especially the historic Gaslamp Quarter where modern architecture and old Victorian buildings are mixed together. You also find there cool galleries, exquisite boutiques, trendy nightclubs and awesome rooftop bars with a wonderful view over the city.
Ever wanted to visit California’s birthplace? In Old Town State Historic Park you have the chance! You get firsthand history with plenty of museums and historic buildings, you can enjoy the authentic Mexican cuisine which is Old Town known for and you can go on a fun shopping tour. There are lots of shops that sell handcrafted jewelry and traditional Mexican clothes.
La Jolla is a beautiful little village which makes you really feel like a Californian. You find there beautiful beaches and the amazing Shell Beach Tide Pools. While at low tide it’s so much fun exploring the tide pools, at high tide I loved splashing in the waves and soak up the sun. But you will also find the Seal Rock Reserve there which is a big rock where seals and sea lions come to rest on the rocks.
If you’re looking for a long white-sanded beach, you will make a find at Mission Beach. There you can’t just enjoy a two-mile stretched beach with lots of surf shops, but also get a taste of the surf culture. Just at the end of Mission Beach you can stroll through the Belmont Park to get an extra portion of fun. It’s a little beach front amusement park and shouldn’t be missed out.
North of the Mission Beach you find the Pacific Beach. It actually blends into each other that you don’t even notice you’re at a new beach. But it’s wonderful if you want to enjoy a long beach walk. To me, Pacific Beach is the more beautiful one of the two simply, because from the cliffs you have an amazing view at the ocean. Also the Pacific Beach is the better beach for surf beginners since the waves are very gently.
Balboa Park is the cultural heart of San Diego and offers the San Diego Zoo and a lot of museums such as the San Diego Natural History Museum or the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Both are great places to learn something about the history of San Diego. By day the park is perfect for having a picnic and enjoying a lazy day, by night it turns into a romantic park to walk around.
Seaport Village is the perfect waterfront locale filled with unique shops and eateries. I recommend window shopping the cute little stores and galleries and finding great souvenirs for your beloved ones. If you’re looking for a special dinner spot, Seaport Village is the ideal spot, too. Find some culinary options there and enjoy the beautiful harbor view. Speaking of harbor: you can also rent your own sailboat for a day in the harbor!
To get to Coronado Island you need to cross the famous Coronado Bridge to spend a beautiful day in the multiple parks or at beaches. If you’re looking for an exclusive dining location, you should visit the historic Hotel del Coronado with an excellent cuisine.
Best things to do in San Diego
San Diego Zoo
One of the must-see things in San Diego is the Zoo in Balboa Park. I had a great time there and loved watching the adorable animals. By the way, did you know that the San Diego Zoo houses more than 4.000 animals and over 650 unique species from all over the world? You also get to watch lots of entertaining and educational animal shows. It’s amazing how big and versatile this park is. And the best: you can have a ride with the Skyfari aerial tram from where you get a beautiful view over the zoo!
If you like water and animals, then you will love SeaWorld. It’s a mix of theme park and aquarium full of adventurous shows, hands-on animal encounters and thrilled rides. In addition to this, you will learn about how SeaWorld is the world leader in animal care, conservation, rescue missions and research. And even better: you get the chance to learn what you can do to help their mission.
If you love street markets, San Diego won’t disappoint you. The city has plenty of markets going on in the course of the week. From great food to local handicraft, you find there anything you want and need. Find here a little list:
- Ocean Beach Farmers Market (Wednesdays, 4pm-8pm)
- North Park (Thursdays, 3pm-7.30pm)
- Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market (Saturdays, 8am-2pm)
- La Jolla Open Aire Market (Sundays, 9am-1.30pm)
If you want to visit the top water front sights of San Diego by boat, you can do a harbor cruise. Depending which tour you choose, it takes one to four hour(s) and gives you an impression of the historic, cultural, and natural landmarks along the way.
It’s so much fun and very beautiful to see San Diego’s skyline from the water. Plus you have the chance to see grey whales during the winter months or seabirds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions during summer time.
Day trip to Tijuana
San Diego is very close to the Mexican border and to the well-known city Tijuana. So I recommend doing a day trip to experience the Mexican way of life. Tijuana is about 50 minutes away by car or by trolley (red line) and can be easily crossed as a tourist. Just make sure you bring your passport. I must admit, it’s not the most beautiful city on earth, but it’s much cheaper than in the US and maybe you find some handcrafted souvenirs.
Best time to visit San Diego
Great fact: San Diego is a good place to visit year-round. It’s almost always sunny and warm – even in January or February. Of course it gets a little colder during the winter months, but you can still wear shorts and T-shirts. Find here a chart with all information you need for your next visit.
How to get around?
Although San Diego is large and spread out as Los Angeles, I found it easier to get around. Most of the time, I took the bus and got to every place within 30 minutes. But if you want to go far out of the city, you should consider renting a car.
I can also recommend getting the free local transit app moovit. This app provides you with the most precise public transportation information such as bus times or real-time arrival updates. This way you can plan your trips with confidence.
So that’s it! I loved San Diego so much and I had such a great time that I’ve already been there several times. I hope my guide helps you to consider the Californian city to be on your bucket list. It’s just a lovely city with the typical Californian charm and much nicer than Los Angeles.
If you have more time, I can also recommend renting a car and driving along the famous highway. Just start in San Diego and finish your trip in San Francisco. You can read more about this road trip in my post The 10 most beautiful stops on Highway 1. Happy reading, guys!