When I (Tara) tell people that I spent four years in San Diego while getting my undergraduate degree, the first question I get is “Why did you leave?” Usually, because I’m telling this story while the fickle weather of my beloved Boston is trying its hardest to convince me I should be living just about anywhere else. In contrast, the weather in San Diego is, more often than not, perfect. So why did I leave? I’m not always sure. Maybe it was the traffic.
In all seriousness, San Diego has come to be one of our favorite cities over the years, and for (more than a few) good reasons. There’s so much to see and do, great food to eat, and miles and miles of beaches to explore. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to plan a trip there, though — that’s why we’ve broken down this list of our 7 favorite areas to visit in San Diego.
A Note About Getting Around
You’ll find that cars are the preferred mode of transportation for most people in San Diego, primarily because the public transit system isn’t as extensive here as in some other cities, so you will definitely need a rental car to access certain parts of San Diego. That being said, I wasn’t joking about the traffic earlier — depending on the time of day, it can take forever to get where you’re going, and the parking situation is often worse than the traffic. We’ve found that, for certain areas, using the San Diego Trolley system is a good way to get around to sights that are close to one of the four trolley lines. A one-day pass purchased through the Compass Cloud mobile ticketing app is just $5.
1. Old Town
Old Town is known as the “historic heart of San Diego” and claims to date back to California’s first settlement. Today, the neighborhood is home to a variety of specialty shops and restaurants (several of which serve some of the biggest margaritas you’ve ever seen up close). Old Town is conveniently located across the street from the trolley (green line), which is important because the parking situation is pretty dismal if you’re planning to visit at night or on the weekend.
Downtown San Diego is known for nightlight and restaurants, particularly in the ‘Gaslamp Quarter’. That said, it definitely isn’t one of our favorite city downtowns — most of the great spots in San Diego are found in other areas and there are some neighborhoods that can feel pretty sketchy at night.
There are some pretty great things to do in downtown, though if you head over to the waterfront. Seaport Village is a great waterfront shopping area, and within walking distance from there is the USS Midway Museum where you can tour the aircraft carrier. These points and most others that are of interest are accessible from the green line on the trolley.
If you’re visiting Seaport Village and/or the USS Midway, we recommend walking a few blocks to Extraordinary Desserts, one of the best bakeries in the city. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the USS Midway but, trust us, you’re going to be glad you walked off some calories before getting here.
Finally, if you’re visiting during baseball season, we recommend catching a Padres game at Petco Park.
3. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is probably one of the most interesting places in San Diego, and you could easily spend multiple days just in this one area. The park is home to the famous San Diego Zoo, which is worth a day trip all on its own.
Other than the Zoo, the park is home to 16 different museums, a Japanese Friendship Garden, the Botanical Building, and Desert and Rose Gardens. There are also the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, where cultural programs take place every Saturday and Sunday from 12-5 PM. Make sure to check out the park calendar when planning your visit, as there are always great activities taking place at Balboa Park.
4. Coronado Island
Coronado Island, located in San Diego Bay and home to the iconic Hotel del Coronado, is a beautiful place to spend the day walking along or just relaxing on the beach. Stop by to take some stunning photos and stay to watch the sunset over the water.
5. Point Loma
Point Loma peninsula is home to the Cabrillo National Monument in honor of the first European to set food in California. It is also where you can see the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, built in 1855. We also highly recommend checking out the Point Loma Tide Pools — it’s best to visit the tide pools in late fall or winter when the best low tides occur during the daytime when the park is open.
6. Mission Beach
There is no shortage of beaches in San Diego, and everyone has different opinions about which ones are best. And while we definitely appreciate the other beaches in the area, we prefer Mission Beach for a few reasons, specifically:
- Proximity to other areas we like to visit in San Diego
- Free parking
- The long boardwalk with miles of shops and restaurants to explore
7. Torrey Pines State Reserve
If you’re looking for more intense hiking than the streets or boardwalks of San Diego have to offer, then check out Torrey Pines. There are tons of hiking trails and overlook points to check out the scenery. Keep in mind that unlike some other state parks, food and drink (except water) are not permitted in the park outside of the beach area.
Have you ever visited San Diego? Where are your favorite places to go?