I am often asked and see questions on Facebook groups from first-time visitors seeking recommendations for visiting San Diego. Where do go, what they need to know and the usual “I’ve never been there before” questions people ask about going to a different destination.
So I decided to consult a tour guide to provide these best places to visit here: myself.
Yes, I am a tour guide. In fact, just a few days before posting this article I gave a four-hour driving tour to visitors from Texas. I also give e-bike tours – my speciality – and occasional Segway tours.
So here are my top recommendations of places to see and things to do in San Diego. They are in alphabetical order because which one does first depends where they are staying here. I also recommend don’t try and cram all this into one trip. My travel motto is: “always leave more for next time.”
@pubclub.com Balboa Park San Diego. #sandiego #balboapark #destination #pubclub #places #thingsto ♬ Tommorrow – Official Sound Studio
Balboa Park is the “Crown Jewel of San Diego.” It is a beautiful, perfectly manicured park northeast of downtown that has international houses staffed by local natives on weekends, a large pipe organ that is played every Sunday from 2-3 p.m., the signature all wood Botanical Building, a Mexican crafts area, classic merry-go-round, the San Diego Zoo, plenty of open space and most of the city’s museums, including the Air & Space Museum, the Automotive Museum and the San Diego Museum of Art.
Pro’s Tip: If you’re going to visit more than one museum then get the museum pass ($56 for four museums in one day). Link: Balboa Park Explorer Pass
Most famous as being the location of the Hotel del Coronado – made famous by the movie Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe and also where the pilot of The Monkees TV show was filmed and where Jimmy Buffett was inspired to write “Pre You” – Coronado is an island of sorts that is one of the upscale areas of San Diego. The main commercial street is across from “the Del” on Orange Ave. Be sure and go into the brick-lined passageway, which many tourists never see, as well as a little past the Del to Glorietta Bay with its colorful tiles that show the story of Tent City when this was an early 1900s vacation destination. Rent a bike at the ferry dock, head to the left and ride through this scenic area that will have you thinking you are in a travel video. Coronado is really a peninsula and not an island and is home to the U.S. Naval Air Station and training center of the Navy Seals.
A ferry goes from the Broadway Pier downtown and also from behind the convention center to Coronado ($7 each way and it goes until 10 p.m., weekdays and 11 on Fridays and Saturdays). I always like taking the one from the Broadway Pier because the trip is 15-20 minutes instead of five at the convention center and gives you a nice close-up view of the USS Midway as well as also serving as mini tour of the bay.
Pro’s Tip: It’s important to note that the ferry dock is on the bay side of Coronado. The Hotel Del is on the ocean side, two miles up Orange Ave. In the summer months there is a colorful free shuttle bus that cruises the island. Other months, you can take the city bus ($2.50 per person each way; $6 for an all-day pass) but note that on the return it gets on Fourth Ave., to go across the bridge and back to downtown. It’s a four block walk from there back to the ferry dock.
Gaslamp Quarter (Fifth Ave., Petco Park)
The dynamic downtown area of San Diego is in the Gaslamp Quarter (and neighboring East Village but you’ll never know the difference in the two so don’t worry about it) across from the convention center. The main street is Fifth Ave., which has several restaurants and bars. Petco Park is here, too and not is it fun to catch a Padres game but the stadium also hosts several big-name concerts a year (Garth Brooks, Rage Against The Machine, etc.). The Gaslamp nightlife is dynamic with a mix of bars with live music, pubs and clubs and hidden downstairs spots with ivy on all the walls and you to guess which one is the door and another one where you walk into to a replica trailer park.
Pro’s Tip: If you like action, go on a Friday or Saturday night. If you prefer a more quiet scene, go during the week.
La Jolla (the Cove, Children’s Pool and the Village)
@pubclub.com PubClub.com San Diego Travel Tip Of The WeekLa Jolla sea lions. #sandiego #travel #tips #traveltips #lajolla #pubclub @ ♬ original sound – PubClub
La Jolla and its magnificent Cove is a must-visit San Diego spot. La Jolla has steep cliffs plunging into the Pacific and if it’s the summer, bring a mask and go snorkeling n the Cove. This area and the rocks around it are home to several sea lions and seals (sea lions smell and bark; seals do not) and while you can walk down to get a closer look, note that it is illegal to get too close to them, so back off for your selfies. These are big, strong and wild animals and you don’t want to have them charge at you. Walk a half mile around the Cove to Children’s Pool and take a walk on the seawall. Just above the Cove is La Jolla Village, the Beverly Hills of San Diego with high-end shops and restaurants, some with spectacular views.
Pro’s Tip: Head south and check out the older community of Bird Rock. Go down the hill at Bird Rock street to a gorgeous view and see the rock for which this area was named.
San Diego’s home to its best Italian restaurants is in this approximately six-block area on India Street a few blocks east of the bay. Originally settled by Italian and Portuguese fisherman it is today a lively area of pasta, pizza and wine in an area in which people casually stroll around in a scene that looks like something right out of, well, a small Italian village. Be sure and have someone take your picture sitting in the “big chair” just beyond the Little Italy sign.
Pro’s Tip: Ahh, where to eat in Little Italy is a question I get all the time as a guide. And my answer is aways the same: pick the place with the shortest line. This is because all the restaurants are excellent and you can’t go wrong at any of them.
Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial
@pubclub.com San Diego Travel Tip Of The Day! #sandiego, #travel, #traveltip #traveltips #traveltipsoftiktok #pubclub #tip #mountsoledad ♬ original sound – PubClub
High above La Jolla, Mt. Soledad is a veteran’s tribute – not a memorial, mind you – of plaques in a circular design with a cross as its crown. The plaques recognize those with military contributions, including presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Ronald Regan. The site is free to the public and be sure to walk through the grass to reveal a spectacular view of La Jolla Shores and the California coast to the north. On the way up and down from Mt. Soledabak are houses with a lot of those views and this is where Dr. Seuss did his creative work and hosted dinner parties for friends. Link: Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial
Pro’s Tip: The circular parking spot around the monument only has a few space and if they are full, there is a second parking lot just below it.
Pacific Beach/Mission Beach/Ocean Beach
You cannot, in my opinion anyway, come to San Diego and not go to the beach. PB is the “hey dude” beach where people act as if they are in college (surfing, hanging loose and yes, going to bars and partying). Mission Beach is where the old and not-too-scary Big Dipper Roller Coaster is located; this is a blend of a young-and-fun beach and a family beach. It is connected to PB along Mission Blvd., and a running/biking path along the beach. OB, which is full of restaurants and bars, is the stuck-in-the-60s hippie beach just to the south.
Pro’s Tip: Stay and watch the sunset. Sunset Cliffs near OB is the city’s most famous spot for sunsets but anywhere along the coast is awesome.
San Diego Bayfront/Portside Pier, Seaport Village, The Shell Amphitheater, USS Midway
San Diego has a scenic bayfront along the bay downtown from the Convention Center to past the Broadway Pier. Take in the Natucket-ish Seaport Village with its cute little shops and small restaurants with views of the water. At the Broadway Pier you can catch the Coronado ferry or hop on a tour boat. Portside Pier is three restaurants in one literally on top of the bay. It’s next to the Maritime Museum of San Diego which, at only about 10 bucks, is worth two hours of your time. Have a picnic at one of the parks jutting out from the Marriott Marina and check out the awesome Shell Amphitheater which is the summer and fall home of the San Diego Symphony. It also hosts other concerts as well and because the California Coastal Commission requires free access to all the state’s waterways, you can take in the shows for free along the sidewalk. I also enjoyriding a bike along the bay.
If you rent a bike, go north beyond the Maritime Museum – that sidewalk was one of the scenes in the original Top Gun movie – past the Coast Guard station, through narrow Spanish Landing Park and, if you like, all the way to Liberty Station and/or the Point Loma Marina. It is there you will find Point Loma Seafood, a popular tourist spot what was featured in Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Torrey Pines Hiking Trail
If you’re into exercise, there is an excellent medium-level hiking trail at Torrey Pines State Park (you can park at the golf course and walk a mile to the trail head or enter through the ticket booth at the base of the hill and drive to the trail head). This hike goes along the cliff and at the halfway point, you are rewarded with spectacular ocean views. At one point – and a sign clearly marks it – you can even to down to the beach and get your toes wet in the Pacific.
Pro’s Tip: Take water and take your time.
Train Ride To Carlsbad/Oceanside And Bike Back Down The Coast
This is one of my favorite things to do in San Diego. Then again, I love riding a bike. Rent one around where you are staying– an e-bike is recommended because there are a few hills tho I’ve done them on my beach cruiser – and put it on the train. Take it up the scenic coast and get off at Carlsbad or Oceanside in North County. Then head south along the coast. Stop often and admire the views, grab lunch at a restaurant and enjoy the day. This is something you can’t do in many places in the world. You can get back on the train in Solana Beach or if even in Carlsbad or Encinitas.
Pro’s Tip: Take the Coaster and instead of Amtrak. It’s half the price and if you wind up staying past the last Coaster (which is about 9 p.m.) then you can always take Amtrak back to where you are staying.
Answering Frequently Asked Questions About Visiting San Diego
Q.) Do I Need A Car In San Diego?
A.) I say no. The city is compact enough – certainly compared to Los Angeles two -plus hours to the north – and has an excellent public transportation system with trolleys and clean buses that is just $6 a day. There are also trains that go up the coast to and through North County.
Q.) What Do I Need To Pack For Traveling To San Diego?
A.) Pack comfortable clothes and fit where you will be going, but shorts are pretty much accepted everywhere, particularly in the daytime. Little Italy is more slacks and dresses for evenings. Definitely pack some long-sleeve shirts, light jacket and/or a sweatshirt. This is because San Diego is a desert, not a tropical climate, and the temperature drops 10 or more degrees in the evenings.
Q.) What Is The Weather Like In San Diego?
A.) Perfect. Nearly year-round, too. If you’re by the coast it’s a mild 75 nearly every day and San Diego averages around 130 days of sunshine annually. As mentioned above, do prepared for it to be cool at night. The rainy months, if you can call them that, are January, February and part of March. May and June can be cloudy all day by the coast as the ocean temperature starts to warm up and collides with the air temperature. The best months to be in the ocean are June, July, August and September.
Q.) Is San Diego expensive?
A.) It’s pretty much like anywhere. You’ll pay between $150-300 a night for a room. As far as meals and entertainment it’s on par with most cities around the world. It also depends on where you go, of course. You can get a beer for as little as $4 in Pacific Beach but you can also pay $12-15 for a San Diego craft beer in the Gaslamp, Little Italy and La Jolla. Same goes with the cost of food. As a general rule, allow for $50-100 a day per person for spending aside from your room.
Q.) Does San Diego Have A Mask Requirement?
A.) No, not even for indoor dining and events. However, the Coronado ferry might require one (it varies according to the national transportation directive) and as anywhere you travel to these days it’s a good idea to have one on you.