Most kids love boats, so you can imagine how excited they get about a really, really big boat. The U.S.S. Midway Museum is just that: a retired aircraft carrier that is now permanently docked and open to visitors along the downtown waterfront. The deck of the enormous ship is covered with naval aircraft from World War II through Operation Desert Storm—not just for looking at but for climbing inside and exploring, too. Other interactive exhibits include you-are-there-style recordings of real conversations between military pilots and a chance to ride in a flight simulator.
Also on the downtown waterfront, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is fittingly housed within one of the finest collections of historic ships in the world, including the awe-inspiring sailing ships Star of India and HMS Surprise (floating star of the films Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean 4). Coolest of all, some of the ships go sailing and whale watching, with you aboard; including a 75-minute tour of San Diego Bay aboard an aptly named, Vietnam War-era Swift Boat.
As if all that sunshine isn’t enough, here’s a waterfront city brushed by perfect breezes, the light just right, the beer perfectly hoppy after a day of wave-and-water fun. Whether you’re standup paddling on Mission Bay, kayaking into sea caverns along La Jolla’s idyllic shores, savoring a sweet shave ice in Balboa Park, or dining and dancing after dark in the lively Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find yourself smiling in San Diego.
With lively neighborhoods, an internationally renowned craft beer scene, and one of the world’s most beautiful urban parks, there’s a whole lot of San Diego to explore beyond its famous beaches. Experience this dynamic city as you prowl the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter and see the exotic animals at the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park.
Stay in a stylish Gaslamp Quarter hotel
To find the most happening spots in San Diego, sometimes you have to look up. That’s certainly true at the Pendry San Diego, where the rooftop Pool House lets you bask in the city’s perfect weather by day and a cool lounge scene after dark. Stop into Provisional, the hotel’s combination restaurant and marketplace, for all-day dining and to shop for housewares.
Explore San Diego’s hottest entertainment district
Proving that the hip and historic are hardly incompatible, the Gaslamp Quarter combines beautifully restored 19th-century buildings and 21st-century nightlife. Dine on chef Leyla Javadov’s innovative (and healthy!) cuisine at Café 21, which features live music every day. Or check out the action on all three levels at The Tipsy Crow, a sports bar, pub, and club all in one.
Stroll El Prado in Balboa Park
Lined with museums housed in elaborate Spanish Colonial Revival buildings inspired by landmarks in Spain and Mexico, El Prado is the romantic heart of Balboa Park. The dazzling films at the San Diego Natural History Museum’s The Subaru 3D Experience will transport you into the planet’s most spectacular natural settings. Or lose yourself in an exotic world of cycads, orchids, and ferns at the historic Botanical Building. (And don’t forget to take a selfie along its lily pond.)
See the menagerie at the San Diego Zoo
Sure, you’ll find lions and tigers and bears, but the San Diego Zoo is most famous for its beloved koalas and pandas, animals that are only found at a few select zoos worldwide. Catch glimpses of African penguins, baboons, crocodiles, and leopards at the newest exhibit, Africa Rocks, and for one of San Diego’s best views, ride high on the Skyfari Aerial Tram—also a great way to get across the zoo’s lush and verdant 100 acres.
Eat chicken fried by a celebrity chef
Proving that there’s more to the Little Italy district than pasta, former Top Chef winner Richard Blais takes fried chicken and eggs to a whole new level at The Crack Shack. Hang out on the patio at this rustic chic spot and play some bocce, then bite into such irresistible sandwiches as the Coop Deville (fried chicken, pickled chilies, lime mayo on brioche) or The Royale (chicken sausage, egg, and smoked Cheddar on an English muffin). And don’t forget the deviled eggs.
Raise a glass at Ballast Point
Celebrated for its West Coast–style Double IPAs, San Diego is consistently ranked as one of America’s top craft beer cities. Order up a flight and taste your way through some of the city’s best brews at Ballast Point’s Little Italy brewery, tasting room, and restaurant. Make a reservation in The Kettle Room, where the prix fixe menu features dishes perfectly paired with Ballast Point beers.
Located in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter, The Pendry San Diego isn’t just a luxury hotel—it’s an experience. Step inside and you’ll find a buzzing social scene fueled by the property’s six (!) in-demand restaurants and bars. While discerning travelers may visit for the first-class accommodations in the heart of downtown, locals know The Pendry as the place to be, any night of the week.
Built in 2017, every inch of the property feels positively posh thanks to a mix of unexpected details, from the Moët and Chandon champagne vending machine (the first in Southern California) to the ultra-luxe Fili D’oro bedding in the 317 guest rooms. Despite the first-class touches, the overall atmosphere is SoCal chill.
The stylish rooms feature chic custom furnishings and calming colors inspired by San Diego’s beach and surf culture, and many offer stunning views of the city skyline and sailboat-dotted harbor. If soaking up the region’s year-round sunshine is on the top of your agenda, reserve the Cabana Pool Suite, complete with direct access to the pool and a wet bar—perfect for group gatherings. Be sure to check the hotel’s website for special offers to amplify any occasion or sample one of Spa Pendry’s ocean-inspired treatments.
What really sets The Pendry apart, though, is the spectacular food-and-drink scene, which brings together some of the city’s most celebrated chefs and cocktail crafters under the same roof. You’ll find modern coastal cuisine at Lionfish, seasonal dishes and gourmet coffee at Provisional, small plates and poolside drinks at The Pool House, craft cocktails at Fifth & Rose, local microbrews at Nason’s Beer Hall, and an upscale nightlife experience at Oxford Social Club.
While you may be tempted to never leave, The Pendry’s location is ideal for exploring the city’s eclectic neighborhoods. The funky East Village (home to Petco Park and the San Diego Padres) and beautiful waterfront are just a few blocks away, and the food-and-drink hotspots of Little Italy and North Park are both within a 5- to 10-minute drive.
Some museums boast of being living history, but the Maritime Museum can attest that it is floating history. Located along downtown San Diego's Embarcadero, the museum is a collection of seafaring vessels, from large sailing ships to old-school yachts and Navy submarines that you can explore—and sometimes even ride on short voyages.
The museum focused primarily on one historic ship, the Star of India, when it first opened in 1948, but today comprises 11 permanent exhibits and a variety of rotating exhibits. The Star of India still makes a good place to start your visit: The iron-hulled 1863 sailing ship is a State and National Historic Landmark and the oldest active ship in the world. Military buffs will also love the USS Dolphin, the U.S. Navy submarine that holds the record for the deepest dive. Lookie-loos, meanwhile, can’t resist the Medea, a steam yacht from the Gilded Age.
“Visitors often remark about how the Maritime Museum of San Diego is unlike any other museum they’ve visited,” says Dr. Raymond Ashley, president and CEO of the museum. “Each vessel is like a time machine into a different world—going from ship to ship is like going on a series of voyages through time.”
You can even take some of the exhibits out for a spin, ranging from a 45-minute ride around the harbor on the 1914 Pilot boat (the oldest working boat of its kind on the West Coast) to a military-themed tour in a Vietnam-era Swift Boat or a four-hour ride on the San Salvador, a replica of the ship that explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542. To add wildlife to the mix, take the four-hour excursion on the America (a reproduction of the yacht that inspired the America’s Cup) and you might see blue or gray whales out on the water, depending on the time of year.
Kids especially love this fresh-air museum, even if they never leave the dock. “It’s a fleet of working ships that they can explore, rather than a hushed building full of artifacts,” says Kelli Lewis, Director of Education and Development. “Just stepping on board—smelling the wood tar and salt, feeling a faint roll of the deck, and gazing aloft at the sails—brings depth and realism to children’s imaginings.”
The yearly arrival of Comic-Con International brings legions of fanboys and fangirls to San Diego every July for a celebration of swords, superheroes, and sci-fi fare.
The annual convention, which got its start in 1970, now ranks as one of the largest events of its kind in the world, attracting more than 160,000 attendees to the San Diego Convention Center and surrounding Gaslamp Quarter every summer. What originally began as an event catering to comic-book fans has grown into a massive, multimedia affair that attracts top Hollywood studios and television networks looking to connect fans with the next (or current) blockbuster or hit series. For one week every July, downtown San Diego turns into fandom central.
Whether you’re attending for the first or 20th time, or are simply looking for the best people-watching spots, these tips will make your Comic-Con experience a memorable one.
Comic-Con events you don’t need a badge for
The number of events happening outside the convention center grows every year, and many of the pop-up attractions don’t require a pass to attend.
Local breweries often get in the spirit with events like Heroes Brew Fest, which celebrates the overlap between comic conventions and craft beer festivals. Given San Diego's reputation as “the Craft Beer Capital of America” with more than 100 breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs calling the county home, the team-up of local breweries and the Comic-Con crowd is a natural fit.
The schedule of events is updated frequently—right up to and throughout the show, in fact—so keep an eye out for information about fan parties and meet-ups being held during the week, as many of them are open to the public. Many of the media outlets covering the show will host (or cohost) parties and after-hours events during the convention, with details provided on their websites, their booths inside the show, or at pop-up locations around the convention center. Bookmark the Unofficial Blog’s Guide to Comic Con and the Comic-Con Blog for the most up-to-the-minute schedules of events.
Where to go for the full Comic-Con experience
Much of the area surrounding the San Diego Convention Center will be in full-on Comic-Con mode throughout the show, but there are a few local landmarks you’ll want to visit to make your experience complete.
The claim to fame for Kansas City Barbeque, which is located a few blocks north of the convention center, is that it’s where the famous Tom Cruise “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” scene from Top Gun was filmed. Even if you’re not a fan of the 1980s flick, the popular bar and restaurant provides excellent people-watching opportunities from its patio, which happens to sit along one of the main routes to and from Comic-Con.
A trip to Comic-Con isn’t complete without a stop at Tin Fish Gaslamp on Sixth Avenue. Famous for its fish tacos, the restaurant is another popular gawking location that offers a great view of both the Comic-Con crowds and the harbor, and you’re likely to spot more than a few comic creators and guests of the show enjoying a quick bite during the weekend.
On that note, if you’re looking to hobnob with Comic-Con royalty, the surrounding hotel bars and lounge areas are popular meeting places for the show's guests and attendees once the convention center closes its doors each day. The common areas at nearby hotels like Manchester Grand Hyatt can offer a great opportunity to extend the Comic-Con experience after the sun goes down.
What to look for inside Comic-Con
If you’re fortunate enough to have a badge to the convention, check the Comic-Con website for the show’s schedule of programming, which is typically released two weeks before the show and tends to be updated as changes occur. Below are a few must-sees, regardless of what you’re planning to do during the show.
Hall H is where all the big movie studios reveal footage and make major announcements, so you typically have to line up extremely early—sometimes a full day—to gain access to particular events. In recent years, the Comic-Con staff have occasionally issued wristbands to attendees lining up far in advance of Hall H events, so it's worth asking Comic-Con staff (either via email in advance or on-site when the show starts) about the best way to ensure you'll get a seat this year.
The annual Comic-Con Masquerade costume contest is typically held on Saturday evening during the show, and attracts some of the most creative cosplay artists you’ll find at any convention. Sure, you’ll see a mass of Spider-Man and Harley Quinn costumes wandering the halls, but these elaborate costumes will rival anything you’ll see in a blockbuster movie.
If you’re looking for your favorite comic artists and illustrators at the show, make your way to Artists’ Alley. Many artists take commissions at the show, and some even do free sketches.
Finding your own Comic-Con HQ
If you don’t already have accommodations booked for the show, the challenge of finding a hotel room could prove difficult—but not impossible. Check Comic-Con’s website for the latest information on availability. The site gives a list of participating hotels and tells you the current status of those offering special Comic-Con rates and room packages.
Given the early rush to reserve as many rooms as possible, there will typically be quite a few cancellations in the lead-up to the show. Call hotels directly to enquire about room availability—the hotels farthest from the convention center are likely to free up earliest. When investigating room availability, keep San Diego's mass transit system in mind—the downtown trolley heads east and south to La Mesa, National City, and Chula Vista, while the Coaster connects to North County beach towns Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, and Oceanside. Both are viable options to reach the convention center without driving, with more potential for hotel availability.
Helpful Comic-Con tips
• If you can wait to buy souvenirs (and it’s not in danger of selling out), do it on Sunday. All the vendors will be motivated to sell the last of their merchandise so that they won’t have to ship it home. If you want to buy anything exclusive to this year’s show or commission an artist for a drawing, however, do so as early as possible.
• Bring these essentials for a comfortable experience: A refillable water bottle, poster tubes to protect any art you buy, sunscreen (in case you end up waiting on line outdoors for an event), an extra phone charger and battery, and comfortable shoes.
• When you do need a break from the crowds, venture outside the main convention hall in the direction of some of the smaller panel rooms, and you’ll find some relatively quiet hallways with space to sit on the ground and possibly an outlet for charging your phone.
He is the greatest American soccer player of all time and one of the two or three best players in Major League Soccer history. Landon Donovan’s 57 career goals and 58 assists for the U.S. men’s national team are both records, he has hoisted the MLS Cup on six separate occasions, and he has scored more World Cup goals—five—than any other Yank.
Donovan is also a world-class fan of Southern California’s many charms—and he speaks from experience. Born in Ontario and raised in Redlands, Donovan established himself as a superstar with the Los Angeles Galaxy and now lives in San Diego with his wife, Hannah Bartell, and their son Talon. Since retiring from professional soccer in 2016, Donovan has worked as a color commentator for Fox Sports and is part of an ownership group seeking to bring an MLS franchise to America’s Finest City. Here are some of his favorite spots in the Golden State.
Where do you live? San Diego
Why there? My wife grew up in San Diego and we moved here about a year ago, to be closer to her family.
Who or what is your greatest California love? I have many California loves: the sun, the beach, the people, the food, the willingness of the people to be open minded.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we are laid back and not tough enough. We are certainly laid back in nature but there is a resilience and toughness to Californians that is underappreciated.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? That we are unabashedly pro-California. We believe that there is nowhere else in the world like California and are not shy about letting people know it.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? Eating ice cream near any of our beautiful beaches during any month of the year. We have the unique ability to eat ice cream cones in 70-degree weather in the middle of December and I love it.
Time for a California road trip. Where are you going? [There aren’t] many drives more beautiful than the drive up the California coast on Pacific Coast Highway. Malibu, Morro Bay, and Big Sur are musts. There are hundreds of places to stop along the way and enjoy the beach, wine, sunshine, etc.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? I would mandate that you get a fish taco in San Diego, stop by Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, have lunch at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, and go wine/food tasting in Napa.
Best California song? "California Love” by Tupac. When I traveled a lot as a young soccer player, I would listen to that song on the airplane ride home to remind me of my beautiful home state. It will forever be etched in my mind.
How would your California dream day unfold? My dream day would definitely revolve around food. I would begin in San Diego and get a breakfast burrito from Roberto’s and eat it on the beach in Del Mar. I would then take a two-hour drive north to Oak Glen (on the way to Big Bear) and go apple tasting up in the mountains. Around lunchtime, I would head west to Manhattan Beach and have oysters at Fishing With Dynamite. After that, I would head north to Santa Barbara and spend the night there.
For a dining experience that will satisfy any craving, head to Liberty Public Market in San Diego’s Liberty Station, just three miles from the airport. Opened in March 2016, the 25,000-square-foot building (a converted Naval complex) boasts more than 30 vendors offering diverse options—from French pastries to fresh oysters to cold-pressed juice—focused on showcasing all that the city has to offer.
“Liberty Public Market embodies the unique spirit of San Diego—it’s a combination of everything that makes us such a vibrant place,” says David Spatafore of Blue Bridge Hospitality, which owns and operates Liberty Public Market. “San Diego has a rich history, buzzing dining scene, and a deep passion for locally sourced ingredients, all of which enhances our reputation as a food destination. It’s one of those places you visit to get a flavor of our amazing city.”
Many of the market’s restaurants started as popular food trucks around San Diego, such as handmade sausage shop Mastiff Sausage Company, and Stuffed!, which offers crispy tater tots and deep-fried Oreos. Other vendors focus on one specialty—like custom-cut meats at Liberty Meat Shop, artisanal cheese at Venissimo Cheese shop, or seasonal noodles at Pasta Design.
Need a strategy for how to tackle your first visit? Start with a local beverage. If it’s afternoon, try a Kryptonite (mint-infused cold brew) from WestBean Coffee. If it’s later in the day, take advantage of the market’s unique liquor license and imbibe while you browse—grab a beer from specialty craft shop Bottlecraft (24 beers on draft and 500 bottles for sale) or sample one of 500 wines from Grape Smuggler.
Next, scout out appetizer-sized items, such as Paraná’s empanadas with homemade chimichurri sauce or FishBone Kitchen’s ceviche served fresh in a martini glass. Then, move on to heartier options, such as a lobster roll from Wicked Maine Lobster or jambalaya at Southern-focused Cane Patch Kitchen. Be sure to save room for dessert—it’s hard to pass up the colorful candy-topped cakes and massive cookies from Crafted Baked Goods, which is also home to the popular Scooped by MooTime ice cream counter.
If you prefer a sit-down experience that brings together multiple vendors, head to Mess Hall, which features a daily changing menu with recommended beer or wine pairings for each dish.
Insider’s tip: Consider visiting during Happy Hour, when nearly every vendor has a food or drink special.
Tom DeLonge is a Southern Californian through and through. The Poway native grew up skateboarding, surfing, and skiing, and while still in high school, formed Blink-182, the platinum-selling rock band, which he fronted until departing in 2015. In addition to churning out hit songs with Blink, like “All the Small Things,” the lead vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter formed a second band, Angels & Airwaves, and later, an entertainment company called To the Stars. His interest in science led to another creative turn, writing the children’s book The Lonely Astronaut on Christmas Eve, and partnering with other authors to inspire a newfound appreciation of the unsolved mysteries of the universe. DeLonge shares what he loves most about his home state.
Where do you live? Near the beach in San Diego. I love the energy.
Why there? My company, To the Stars, is there, my kids’ schools are there, and the sunset is there too.
Who or what is your greatest California love? My greatest love for California is the diversity of climate and topography: trees on one end, deserts on the other, and a beach that stretches along both.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we all use [words like] “rad” and “gnarly”… that is Southern California only. It’s ours. No one else can have it.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? That anything is possible, from the arts to technology. Building a new way of expressing yourself and your mind…a better life is possible here.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? Mexican food. 100%.
Time for a road trip. Where are you going? Usually the desert, like Joshua Tree National Park, to see the stars at night. It’s so close and so vastly different [from] most other views.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? Again, Mexican food. It has all [the] essential vitamins. I love the street tacos from The Taco Stand, in Encinitas on Highway 101.
Best California song? "California Girls" by The Beach Boys. It speaks volumes about our most popular asset, the beach and the youthful energy that is present when you grow up here.
How would your California dream day unfold? Wake up in the mountains and get a warm coffee, drive two hours down to the desert and take a hike, then drive two more hours to the coast, and the beaches in San Diego’s North County, to watch the sunset ignite into a flurry of colors—and with a Mexican beer in hand.
Got a boat? That’s the only way you’ll get a better view of San Diego’s waterfront skyline and twinkling bridges than the panorama you get from Coasterra Modern Mexican restaurant, the third Cohn Restaurant Group offering on the city’s Harbor Island. (The other two are the successful Island Prime and C Level.)
Every table of this multilevel dazzler—with a special event space for up to 500 guests that actually floats above the water—has a view that will have you Instagramming throughout your meal, especially if you’re there at sunset. “Table 408 outside, right at the tip of the pentacle over the water—that’s my favorite table,” says chef and Cohn Group partner Deborah Scott. “When the sun begins to set, there’s a shell-like color lighting up the buildings downtown. And it keeps changing—it’s like a nonstop slideshow, with tankers and sailboats going by.”
Even after dark, the 28,000-square-foot, $15 million restaurant is an eye-catcher. Sit at Coasterra’s bar, order a Deb’s Coconut Margarita—made with Olmeca Altos reposado tequila, coconut cream, lime juice, and a coconut salt rim—and take in the restaurant’s sleek, contemporary styling. “I like minimalist design, and that’s what you see here,” says chef Scott, who had a strong hand in creating the space. “There aren’t any Mexican blankets or piñatas—it’s dramatic and open.”
Yearning for traditional Mexican fare? There are a few tacos and enchiladas on the menu, but most of Coasterra’s dishes are creative twists on Mexican classics. Ceviche gets an upgrade with Mexican shrimp and bay scallops, Pacific sea bass, lime, orange zest, roasted tomato salsa, and cilantro. Dipping sauces for fresh-shucked oysters include pickled onion-habañero mignonette and fire-roasted cocktail sauce. Classic surf and turf becomes a spectacular stacked presentation of a beef short rib topped with Oaxacan mole, a lobster-risotto cake, grilled asparagus, and a lobster claw.
All told, Coasterra serves up a hard-to-beat combo of sophisticated design, deliciously eclectic dishes, and a world-class view.
Mission Bay and San Diego Bay trim the edge of the city like sparkling gems. Dozens of outfitters can get you out amidst the blue via every imaginable conveyance; kayak, stand-up paddleboard, motorized watercraft, sail boat, or kite board. For a more novel approach, board the Bahia Belle, a Mississippi riverboat, snuggle aboard a romantic Venetian gondola, or try jet-packing to skim across the water like James Bond.
Cruise in style too. Hornblower and Flagship Cruises let you get a millionaire’s view of the bay on scenic tours, as well as dinner and brunch cruises.
You can have fun on land here, too. Mission Beach, the narrow strip of land between Mission Bay and the Pacific, is a chock-o-block assemblage of surf shops, t-shirt joints, and funky beach bars, and there’s a 3-mile/4.8-km oceanfront boardwalk that rivals Venice Beach for people watching. At Belmont Park, classic amusement rides include the Big Dipper wooden roller coaster. Mission Bay also has 27 miles/43 kilometers of water’s-edge pathways, perfect for strolling and biking.
From pandas and koala bears at its iconic zoo, to a remarkable collection of museums and gardens, this oasis in the heart of the city has been a vibrant part of San Diego culture for a hundred years. First and foremost, Balboa Park is a horticultural marvel: the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden alone has more than 130 varieties of roses (learn more about it and the rest of the park’s greenery on free, 1-hour Offshoot Tours, offered on Saturday morning).
Museums abound; local favorites include the Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Culture reigns supreme too: The Old Globe Theatre hosts its famed Shakespeare Festival each summer; live bands and outdoor film screenings abound.
All this, plus one of the world’s finest zoos. Over 3,700 animals from 650 species—many of them extremely rare— are showcased at the San Diego Zoo, with naturalized exhibits covered roughly 100 acres/40 hectares. Get a special look at the zoo’s three giant pandas by signing up for “Early Morning with Pandas,” visiting the panda viewing area before it officially opens for the day. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals bundling zoo and museum visits.
Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village; San Diego’s diverse neighborhoods are filled with personality—and local finds. These pedestrian-friendly enclaves are the epicenter of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene, and craft beer boom. Start your own sampling in North Park, the neighborhood bordering Balboa Park’s northeast side. Along 30th Street and University Avenue, enjoy farm-to-table cuisine and boutique wines at Urban Solace, or wing it at local favorite Carnitas’ Snack Shop (the menu changes daily depending on fresh produce and other ingredients available that day).
Hip art abounds in North Park; on the second Saturday of each month (called “Ray at Night”), join the cool crowds along Ray Street for gallery hopping and live music. In the East Village, locals savor gourmet burgers at Neighborhood; in South Park (east of Balboa Park), find whimsical clothes and jewelry at Junc.Life Boutique, or enjoy a Hawaiian shave ice at Daily Scoop on Juniper. Food, craft beer, boutique shopping, and live music are all part of historic Gaslamp Quarter, the part of town that tends to keep things hopping ‘til the wee hours. Little Italy, known for (you guessed it), Italian eateries, also has trendy-chic shops housed in bungalows, as well as plenty of sidewalk cafés and pizzerias along India Street. And if you’re hankering for handmade, still-warm tortillas, head straight for Old Town, site of California’s first Spanish settlement, with restored adobes now housing shops and restaurants.
Microbrewing has caught on big time in San Diego, with more than 85 craft breweries throughout the region. The tidal wave began with innovative brewers like Stone Brewing Company and Karl Strauss. Now, it’s craft-y all over San Diego—in pubs, restaurants, and in the breweries themselves (many offer tours). And in a growing trend, San Diego’s chefs are starting to design beer-pairing menus or foods featuring local brews. Some breweries now offer their own eateries: Take, for instance, Stone Brewing’s World Bistro & Gardens, which has indoor-and-outdoor restaurants in both Escondido and Point Loma's Liberty Station.
San Diego’s brews and brewers haven’t gone unnoticed, earning international recognition. (Yes, there is a World Beer Cup; no, you cannot be a judge). AleSmith Brewing Company and Ballast Point Brewing Company are two microbreweries that have been lauded. And you don’t have to go to a brewery to taste these world-class beers: many eateries, such as Hamilton's Tavern in South Park, offer an array of local brews.
One of the hottest reservations in San Diego is at Bracero Cocina de Raiz, where chef Javier Plascencia’s “Cali-Baja” cooking style has long had foodies salivating—even before the downtown restaurant’s 2015 opening. The renowned Tijuana-born Plascencia brought his unique approach across the border to serve San Diego diners his flavorful tacos, fresh seafood, and hearty grilled meats.
The flavors in Plascencia’s food tell the story of his culinary upbringing. He was raised in Mexico by restaurateur parents, studied culinary arts in Southern California, and traveled all over the world before settling back in Mexico. He first gained attention when he boldly opened a fine-dining restaurant (Misión 19) in Tijuana in 2011 with a vision of revitalizing the struggling city.
Plascencia’s San Diego venture pays tribute to Mexican farm workers—the Bracero Program brought millions of laborers into the U.S. after World War II—and the interior design reflects that theme. In the center of the two-story restaurant hangs a custom sculpture made of hand tools used by laborers, a collage of farm tools adorns the walls, and touches of rustic wood and leather are found throughout.
Bracero’s menu demonstrates Plascencia’s sophisticated spin on simple dishes. Some of the tacos are made from roasting an entire lamb, goat, or pig; the tortillas are made to order. The Caesar salad pays homage to the original created at Caesar’s in Tijuana, where Plascencia’s father worked. Seafood is a large menu emphasis—there’s a crudo station stocked with local shellfish—and the light fare is balanced with hearty dishes, like the 36-hour pork shank and wood-grilled octopus. The craft cocktail list features—what else?—tequila and mezcal-based concoctions.
For a full glimpse into Plascencia’s repertoire, the restaurant also offers a chef’s tasting menu (with optional wine pairing) in the glassed-in room upstairs, served family style.
Although technically part of San Diego, the community of La Jolla feels like a destination unto itself: You could easily spend a few days in this enclave and get a full Southern California experience—along with a walkable village of hotels, shops, and cafés that possess a sophisticated vibe.
For starters, La Jolla (pronounced la HOY-uh) has a prime perch on San Diego County’s coastline. Located about 20 minutes north of downtown, La Jolla is home to the wide, white-sand beaches of La Jolla Shores, with surfing, snorkeling, and made-for-sunset firepits, as well as an adjacent playground for kids. Head out onto the waters with one of the local operators, like La Jolla Kayak, and paddle or snorkel among La Jolla’s marine denizens, from colorful garibaldi to (harmless) leopard sharks. To see more aquatic critters while on land, explore the Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or stand along the sea wall at beach known as The Children’s Pool, and watch a large community of seals lounge, bark, and tend to their cubs.
The seals live right next to the heart of La Jolla, the hilly village areas known as The Cove and Bird Rock. The ocean is still in plain view amid the shops, eateries, and places to stay—like La Valencia Hotel, the Mediterranean-style “Pink Lady” that once hosted World War II soldiers about to ship out, as well as Hollywood A-Listers like Gregory Peck. Shop in the upscale boutiques along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street, or dine at beloved George’s at the Cove, farm-to-table WhisknLadle, colorful taco haven Puesto, or seafood-rich Nine-Ten.
Don’t miss the cultural stops, too, like the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Warwick’s (the nation’s oldest family-owned bookstore), or the local art galleries such as Legends Gallery, where you can see out-of-the box paintings by the late Theodore Geisel, the longtime La Jolla resident better known as Dr. Seuss. (Insider tip: Look at the unique flora around La Jolla to see what may have inspired Seuss’s whimsical plants and trees).
Some must-stops in La Jolla stretch beyond the Cove. The Marine Room, in La Jolla Shores, offers incredible “high tide” brunches and dinners where the tall waves crash into the giant windows as you eat. To the north, tee off at Torrey Pines Golf Course (which will host the U.S. Open again in 2021), next to the sumptuous Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Or, go see a future Broadway hit at La Jolla Playhouse, located on the University of California San Diego campus. Co-founded by Gregory Peck in 1947, the theater has been the birthplace of a long list of crowd-pleasing and Tony Award-winning hits, from The Who’s Tommy and Thoroughly Modern Millie to Jersey Boys and Come From Away. Come for one of its Page-to-Stage performances to watch (and offer feedback on) works still in progress. You can even bundle in a dinner of fresh seafood or a Kobe burger at the theater’s on-site James’ Place, helmed by acclaimed sushi chef James Holder.
Another great option: Hike the ocean-view trails at the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, under the shade of the rare, long-needled pine trees that are common in this little pocket of the Golden State.
With the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay at its doorstep, San Diego defines waterfront dining. Travel the coast to get a taste—literally—of what the region has to offer along the edge of the sea.
Start in La Jolla with brunch at Brockton Villa—the Crab Ipanema Benedict egg dish won’t disappoint. Casual lunch? Anthony’s Fish Grotto (downtown) serves creamy, chock-full clam chowder and crunch-perfect fish and chips. Also downtown on the Embarcadero, there’s Sally’s Seafood on the Water and The Fish Market, two more places to try for fresh catch of the day with waterfront views. Across San Diego Bay, head to Harbor Island and Tom Ham’s Lighthouse (yes, it’s really housed in a lighthouse). Nearby, Island Prime makes the most of the view with floor-to-ceiling windows and an over-the-water patio. If you want tunes, try Humphrey’s Restaurant on Shelter Island; it presents quality live music in its outdoor amphitheatre. Slip away to peaceful Coronado, and relax at Mistral at Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community of Coronado feels like a private enclave wrapped with perfect beaches, including ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. Besides those soft sands, the island’s crown jewel is the Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888 and topped by russet red, castle-like turrets. Explore the lobby and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; docents share tidbits on the Del’s remarkable history and guest list (including Marilyn Monroe, who starred—alongside the hotel—in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot). The Del also serves a sumptuous Sunday brunch, and the Babcock & Story bar is fine for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific. Not far from the Del, the Loews Coronado Bay Resort sits on its own 15-acre peninsula and is known both for its water sports and for being especially dog-friendly.
The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Rent one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant oceanfront mansions and tended gardens, or visit Orange Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and theatres. More shops and art galleries are located at Ferry Landing, and restaurants like Candelas on the Bay and Peohe’s have expansive views of San Diego’s downtown skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: Traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can get thick, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay to Seaport Village. Water taxis are available too.
Charged by his native Spain to explore new worlds, Spaniard explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped ashore at this tip of land in 1542, making him the first European to set foot on the West Coast. Short films and ranger talks offer interesting insights into Cabrillo and his history, and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse has been restored to reflect what lighthouse life was like in the 1800s.
But locals (and sage visitors) also know that this tip-of-land perch offers astounding views of San Diego and the seething Pacific. Hiking trails twist through 660 acres/267 hectares of coastal habitat, so it’s easy to strike out on your own for even more panoramic beauty. The 2.5-mile/4-km Bayside Trail looks out to San Diego Bay, and the easy Coastal Tidepool Trail takes you to some of the best tidepooling in California (look, but don’t touch). Look for the coastal defense systems the city put in place in World War II to fend off the Japanese Navy. From mid-December to late March, the bluffs are a great place to watch migrating Pacific gray whales. If you forget binoculars, a limited number are available at the visitors center.
Your trip begins in California’s largest city. L.A. has nonstop action and things to do, but it can be a challenge to navigate, so planning your trip in advance is a big plus. Start in the coastal city of Santa Monica, with a wide, uncrowded beach, a signature pier topped by carnival rides and...
Famous for their giant sequoias, soaring mountains, deep canyons, and roaring rivers, this tandem set of parks have plenty to see, even though they are less well known than Yosemite, roughly 75 miles/120 kilometers north. Within the borders of...
In summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day), a few dollars allows you an all-day ride on the Big Bay Shuttle, with eight stops along the bay front from Harbor Island to the South Embarcadero (downtown); you get on, you get off, where and when you want. Along the downtown waterfront and in the Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages. Downtown you can also look for the iconic bright red trolley; the San Diego Trolley plies to and from key locations in the city and also heads for places like Old Town and Mission Valley. Water is no obstacle. From downtown’s Broadway Pier, 15 minutes on Flagship Cruises’ ferry sees you to Coronado Island. And have some fun with your transport. GoCar Tours-San Diego has a fleet of three-wheel, convertible mini-cars for two—each complete with a GPS-guided tour of downtown San Diego and adjoining neighborhoods. And honestly, much of San Diego – neighborhoods like North Park and Little Italy -- is easily explored on foot, and once you put your foot down -- the Gaslamp Quarter alone has over 100 restaurants, bars and nightclubs -- you may not want to go anywhere else.