I’m going to let you in on a little secret… I’ve travelled to many different countries, explored various cities around the world, and there is no place, I repeat, NO PLACE, that compares to San Diego, California. San Diego is the ultimate hidden gem of California and if you’re looking to get a local’s guide to San Diego you’ve come to the right place!
Two hours south of Los Angeles and 20 minutes North of the border of Mexico, its chilled vibes, beautiful coastline, and friendly people make San Diego the ideal destination in Southern California. It’s no wonder it is known to be ‘America’s Finest City!’.
As a San Diego native myself, I realize I may be a bit biased, but no matter where I travel, I always return home to paradise. I lived in San Diego for over 20 years, so I like to think I know all the best spots. In this local’s guide to San Diego, I map out all the most iconic spots to visit, places to eat and neighbourhoods to explore during your trip. I hope you enjoy it!
What To Expect
Chances are you’ve heard of Los Angeles…well San Diego is like its cooler older brother. The vibes of San Diego are far more relaxed, the city itself cleaner, and people generally less ‘superficial’ than their LA counterparts. (I can say that from experience after living in LA for 6 years…)
Apart from that, you can expect to see friendly locals who are constantly on the move- biking, hiking, and of course surfing. Additionally, due to its close proximity to Mexico, San Diego is home to some of the best Mexican cuisine in the United States. If you visit be sure to check out some of the tasty spots down below.
For me, the diversity of neighbourhoods within San Diego is what makes it such a unique city. No two are the same, and each offers something incredible. Here are the main neighbourhoods and a brief description.
Downtown San Diego is also the historic heart of the city. Here you can find great nightlife and a number of incredible restaurants.
A super chic, urban, yet walkable neighbourhood filled with incredible cafes, an iconic farmers market, and delicious food.
North Park & South Park
Hipster neighbourhood with some of the most rad restaurants, breweries, cafes and boutique shopping.
Balboa Park & Hillcrest
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is here along with some stunning museums. Hillcrest is well-known to be a fun LGBTQ neighbourhood with bottomless brunch and exciting nightlife.
Mission Hills & Old Town
Historial area with Spanish roots. Home to Presidio Park and incredible Mexican restaurants and shops.
Point Loma & Mission Beach & Ocean Beach
Located along the beautiful coastline, these beach-side neighbourhoods offer incredible views and plenty of things to do. From the stunning Sunset Cliffs to the roller coaster at Belmont Park, these hippy beach areas are great to explore.
Affluent beach community with some of the most gorgeous beaches and upscale restaurants.
Only accessible via the famous blue bridge, Coronado is a great island to explore if you are looking for calmer waters and great shopping. It is a popular location amongst tourists, so just beware of the crowds!
My neighborhood! Considered to be a bit north of San Diego, Del Mar is a great neighborhood with some of the most stunning homes in the county. With one of the greatest strips of beach in San Diego, Del Mar is also famous for the race track. Be sure to check out the famous horse races, or Del Mar fair in the summer!
Young, hip beach town just north of Del Mar. Has beautiful beaches, surf shack cafes, and wonderful shopping. This neighbourhood is home to tons of young families and postgraduate students starting their roots in San Diego.
Things To Do
If you enjoy beer, San Diego will easily become one of your favourite cities. Home to some of the best craft breweries in the world, over 150 to be exact, there are plenty of places to grab a cold pint. Some of my favourite spots are listed below.
This 1,200-acre urban historical park is such an iconic spot in San Diego. With dozens of beautifully kept gardens, historical, as well as art museums, restaurants and cafes, it is the perfect place to spend a day with your family during your visit. Be sure to check out the website of the park, depending on the time of year there are also oftentimes festivals, or concerts to enjoy!
San Diego Zoo
It is not a trip to San Diego without a visit to the world-famous San Diego Zoo! This zoo is hands down one of the best in the world and having visited there year after year I can honestly tell you it is incredible. Home to over 12,000 animals and 650 different species, the zoo is a wonderful place to hang out and explore.
Old Town offers visitors a trip down memory lane. A neighbourhood filled with Mexican heritage and museums showcasing the first settlers of San Diego. Old Town is one of the only free tourist sites in San Diego, therefore it is generally quite busy. It is home to dozens of incredible Mexican food restaurants, colourful shops, theatre and more!
You can’t visit San Diego without spending at least one day at the beach. The city has so many different beaches that are all unique in their own way. Below I have listed a few of my favourites.
This is generally my go-to beach as it is within walking distance from my house. However, if I am being honest what I love the most about this beach is that it tends to be relatively less crowded than the others and much cleaner. Due to the fact that it is located a bit North, fewer tourists tend to spend the day up here, therefore it is much quieter, cleaner and enjoyable than other beaches!
This is my favourite ‘secret’ beach and the beach I spent the most time at in high school. It is a small cove beach located in Encinitas and is well known for surfing. The parking lot is a bit small, so I suggest you get there early if you want a good spot! Due to the fact that Swamis is a cove, there is less wind, the sand is mellow and the waves are not as large. It’s a great place to swim and layout… Just be sure to check the tides~
A great beach for groups in Encinitas. This is the beach my brother actually lifeguards at. It is also a great beach to play some beach volleyball, although beware…some courts are locals only.
While not a beach per se for laying out and swimming, sunset cliffs are a must for sunset! These cliffs offer panoramic views of the ocean and are best seen at golden hour!
I would call Mission Beach the party beach! We grew up going there all the time as we have great family friends that live just along the boardwalk. It is a wonderful beach to bring the family, or for throwing a party with friends. With close access to the famous theme park, Belmont Park, tons of shopping and good bars, it’s a great beach to spend a summer day. *Expect crowds here at peak times throughout the year, it’s a bit busier than the northern beaches.
Wind n Sea
This beach is where you can find the La Jolla locals. Less known by tourists it’s a quieter beach great for swimming and surfing too. There is also a wonderful hut you can visit for sunset which is spectacular!
La Jolla Shores
The largest strip of beach in La Jolla great for a day out with family. This beach also has access to the famous Scripps Pier and fire pits, perfect for an evening BBQ, or roasting marshmallows. Fire pits at this beach are first come first serve, so get there early to claim your spot!
La Jolla Cove
Walkable cove located below many art galleries and shops in the heart of La Jolla. This is a beautiful grassy cove where people can enjoy afternoon picnics or a stroll. Be sure to check out the cove’s sea lions. You can find dozens of them beached up enjoying the sun on a nice warm day!
This beach is a bit tricky to get to but is ultimately one of the best surf spots in San Diego. After a steep walk down, Blacks is a quiet beach to relax. Please note however it is also a nudist beach, so it is not unlikely you will come across a few naked visitors!
As I mentioned before, San Diegans love to be active and outside. The same goes for their shopping. On nearly every day of the week, you can find an organic farmers market in one of the many San Diego neighbourhoods. My personal favourite is the Little Italy Farmers Market. With over 150 vendors it is one of the largest in San Diego and is open on Saturdays from 8am-2pm.
Where the surf meets the turf! Del Mar is famously known to host the annual horse races at the local track. It is a wonderful time of year where you can enjoy horse betting, craft beers, and evening concerts. As a Del Mar local myself, it’s a family tradition to visit the track at least once in the year!
San Diego County Fair
If you are visiting San Diego between June and July you have to make time to visit the world-famous San Diego County Fair! This is one of the largest and most elaborate state fairs around. With everything from fried twinkies, pig races, epic rides and concerts, the fair has it all!
This bay island is home to some of the coolest historical hotels, such as The Hotel Del, and victorian styles homes. It is well known for its beautiful beaches too! Be sure to visit early in the day to guarantee parking as the island itself is not extremely big and can get busy during the summer season.
Where to Stay
If you are visiting San Diego with a group of friends, or with your family, I highly suggest you try to rent a house through Airbnb. There are so many wonderful properties in San Diego depending on the type of neighbourhood and area you want to be in, looking there is probably your best bet! But if you are not in the mood for a home, here are a few hotels I would suggest you look at!
Hip, retro hotel located in Point Loma. A great location and base to easily get to all the action in San Diego.
This 5-star luxury hotel and spa is one of the best in all of California. It is home to the famous pony club and a relaxing retreat perfect for couples, or a girls weekend.
Beautiful hotel just blocks away from the beach located in the heart of Del Mar.
Gorgeous Spanish style hotel in La Jolla and the perfect spot for couples and families.
Beautiful pink hotel located along La Jolla Cove. This hotel was actually my parent’s wedding venue! It has great rooms overlooking the water.
Home to the world-famous Torrey Pines golf course, this beautiful rustic lodge is upscale and the perfect place for a relaxing holiday.
Located Downtown perfect for younger millennials looking to be in the heart of the city.
Although Coronado is a bit out of the way from the rest of the city, it is a relaxing island. It attracts many visitors
Places to Eat
Here’s the deal…we would be here all day if I had the time to write about all the best restaurants in San Diego in detail. That is why I plan to write an entire blog post dedicated to my favourite food spots in the coming weeks. For the purposes of this post, I have simply listed my top recommended spots based on the style of cuisine. To read full descriptions of these places stay tuned for my foodie blog coming soon! But no guide to San Diego will be complete without some incredible food!
MY FAMILY RESTAURANT! (My dad and stepmom own and run it, if you visit tell them we sent you).
So that has been our long but a perfect guide to San Diego! For more blogs and guides like this be sure to check out our travel section here.