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San Diego: A Destination Guide

Introduction

Sunny San Diego – a fantastic escape for just about everyone. Other than the gloriously year-round warm weather, there’s a little bit to appeal to anyone – from nature lovers to night owls. Here’s our breakdown of our list of must-dos for this gorgeous Southern California city.

Know Before You Go

  • To/From the Airport: The airport is very close to downton San Diego
    • Uber – Uber to and from the airport never cost more than $12, thanks to its proximity. We had to meet our Uber at the departures level of the airport.
    • Taxis – There are plenty of cabs at the airport if you prefer to use one. There is no flat fare from the airport to downtown, but should cost around $12 or so depending on traffic.
    • Public Transportation – You can take the Metropolitan Transit System’s 992 bus, which will take you to downtown San Diego and should cost you about $2.25.
  • Ubers: Fairly popular and readily available. When traveling within San Diego, Ubers were pretty inexpensive and convenient. Wait times were never longer than 5 minutes. 
  • Cash vs Credit Cards: Like most major cities in the United States, credit cards are readily accepted at most establishments.
  • Must-Try Food: While consuming Mexican food is a given when in California, be sure to pick up a California Burrito while in San Diego.

See & Do

  • San Diego Zoo – The world famous San Diego Zoo is located within Balboa Park, with plenty of animals to see and learn about. With over 6,500 (animal) residents, and a botanical park with over 700,000 exotic plants, it’s easy to spend all day in this 100-acre park. If you’re looking for more, check out the the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, about 40 minutes away from the main zoo. You can see animals in a (well) version of their natural habitat, and observe as they spend most of their days sleeping and playing. My favorite: Elephant Valley. 
L-R: San Diego Zoo Safari Park entrance, Sumatran tiger at the San Diego Zoo Safari, African Elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari, San Diego Zoo entrance
L-R: San Diego Zoo Safari Park entrance, Sumatran tiger at the San Diego Zoo Safari, African Elephants at the San Diego Zoo Safari, San Diego Zoo entrance
  • Balboa Park – One could spend hours inside this park – there’s so much to do. From museums (17 of them!) to gardens to dog parks, there’s a little something for everyone. Some must-visit spots:
    • San Diego Museum of Man – Interesting exhibits like Race – Why Are We So Different draw people in, but we happen to enjoy the Beerology exhibit (open until August 2017). The gorgeous building doesn’t hurt either – the museum is located at the California Building and Tower, built during the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition – easily one of the most recognizable San Diego landmarks. If you’re so inclined, you can climb the tower for a view of San Diego. We suggest ordering tickets online in advance.  
    • San Diego Natural History Museum – In addition to their rotating exhibits (upcoming: Dinosaurs!), the museum also hosts nature hikes and whale watching.
    • San Diego Museum of Art – The largest and oldest museum in the region boasts a permanent collection of Spanish and Italian artists, South Asian paintings, and American art from the 19th and 20th Century. Though the building opened in 1926, it was designed to mirror the look of the California Quadrangle, built for the Panama-California Exposition a decade earlier. 
    • Botanical Building – The building is home to over 2,000 permanent plants. Don’t forget to stop by the lily pond and lagoon outside – one of the most photographed spots in the park.
L-R: Museum of Man, Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History
  • Gaslamp Quarter – If you’re looking for a watering hole while in San Diego, there’s a good chance you’ll find a decent spot at the Gaslamp Quarter. From sports bars to Mexican restaurants, there’s plenty to try. While there’s plenty to enjoy during the day time, the neighborhood lights up at night, as the bars (and streets) are crowded with locals and visitors alike. Might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s worth stopping by for a drink to take it all in and enjoy the fun, upbeat atmosphere. If you’re looking to snap up a picture of the Gaslamp District sign, you’ll find it on Fifth Avenue right off East Harbor Drive.
  • Coronado Beach – Stop by and spend an afternoon on the famed beach, known for its sparkling sand and the equally famous Hotel del Coronado (featured in the Marilyn Monroe film “Some Like it Hot). There’s plenty of things to do on the beach and downtown, including biking to boating, but sitting on the sand and enjoying the San Diego weather is an equally great way to spend the afternoon. While you’re there, have a drink at the Hotel del Coronado Sun Deck and enjoy watching the sun set over the Pacific.
  • Sunset Cliffs – If the Hotel del Coronado isn’t your thing, the sunset cliffs are a great spot to watch the sun set (beer in hand). There are a few spots you can head to to see some of San Diego’s most unique and pristine coastline, but you’ll want to head to find a spot to park at first. If you can’t find street parking, there’s a parking lot off Ladera Street and you can walk walk from there (or ditch your car and take an uber over). Ladera Street and Luscomb points are some of the popular spots to watch the sunset, but don’t be afraid to venture on your own to find a quiet nook to enjoy the sight by yourself. Hopefully you’ll luck out and stop by on a less cloudy day than when I was there.
  • USS Midway – For those even remotely military or aviation inclined like we are, this museum built on the famous aircraft carrier the USS Midway (now decommissioned and on permanent dock in San Diego) is a great way to spend an afternoon. The outside deck boasts some amazing aircraft displays and the inside has some interesting exhibits that rotate in and out year round and also have some fun activities for the young’ns and those young at heart as well. Given the history of the USS Midway, and indeed the history of Midway Island, there’s an aura of awe and heritage that perhaps isn’t present some of the other maritime museums, such as the USS Intrepid in New York for example. Well worth a visit.
  • San Diego Speedboat Tour – Ever driven your own mini speed boat? Probably. Ever done it through the busy shipping lanes of San Diego Harbor, passing through Coronado and under the famous bridge, chilling with some Pacific seals, then getting up close and personal with the newest addition to the elite US warship fleet, the USS Ronald Reagan? Probably not! An awesome, laid back but thrilling at the same time experience, this is a great way to spend a morning zipping your way through some historic sites, led by a ‘follow me’ boat. The ‘follow me’ boat also doubles as your tour guide, giving you some interesting insights on the history of the harbor’s landmarks. Even if you’ve never driven a boat before, it’s a relatively simple two-seater affair and the guide’s 15 minute orientation is more than enough to get you by. Not everyone knows about this excursion so the whole experience still feels personal – we’d say this is a must do! More details here.
L-R: St. Gaslamp District, Hotel del Coronado, Sunset Cliffs

Drink

San Diego has a great beer scene – tons of small, craft breweries (and a couple that are nationally known as well). Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Stone Brewing – You’ll find a few locations (including a tap room in the Gaslamp area), but check out their location at Liberty Station. They have a cozy restaurant and a great outdoor space where you can enjoy a solid selection of beer. Even if you don’t like beer, give their root beer a try – they brew it in-house as well (no surprise there).
    2816 Historic Decatur Rd #116, San Diego, CA
    http://www.stonebrewing.com/
  • Ballast Point – Much like Stone’s, you’ll find a few locations around San Diego, but if you’d like to go on a tour of the brewery, head to their Miramar location. For something more convenient, stop by their Little Italy location.
    2215 India St, San Diego, CA
    https://www.ballastpoint.com/
  • Karl Strauss – While they’ve got a location in downtown San Diego, be sure to check out their Beer Garden near La Jolla for the full experience.
    5985 Santa Fe St, San Diego, CA
    https://www.karlstrauss.com
L-R: Stone Brewing Liberty Station – LUPULIN LOOP: MANDARINA BAVARIA Beer and Brussel Sprouts

Eat

  • La Puerta – Come for happy hour margaritas (till 7pm) and stay for the tasty Mexican food. We loved their strawberry margaritas to start, plus shrimp quesadillas and chicken burrito. Food is deliciously seasoned and just plain delicious. They don’t take reservations, and wait times can get crazy at this popular Gaslamp District spot, so come early. First come first serve on outdoor seating, so if you see an open seat, swoop right in and cut your wait times!
    560 Fourth Ave, San Diego, CA
    http://www.lapuertasd.com
  • Searsucker – This quaint spot in the Gaslamp District is incredibly popular for brunch – and righteously so.  The entire space is instagram-worthy, and the food is your standard brunch fare and is an overall crowd pleaser. Check out their Mimosas “Your Way” – a bottle of sparkling wine, plus your choice of seasonal fruit – fantastic! We love their banana bread to start and their crab benedict (or “crab benny” as they call it) to top off brunch. If that doesn’t feed your brunch pangs, finish off lunch with one of their specialty cocktails – you can’t go wrong!
    611 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA
    http://searsucker.com/san-diego/
  • The Prado – Conveniently located right in Balboa Park, the restaurant is a convenient spot to pop into while you’re exploring the park. You’ll see different menus at the restaurant vs the little outdoor cafe, but either way this spot is a good place to stop by to grab a cold drink and break up a day of museum hopping. The outdoor cafe offers much more casual lunch fare (think: flatbreads and salads) so for a more wholesome meal, you’ll want to opt for the indoor restaurant. Tip: some items from the restaurant (garlic fries!) can be ordered even if you’re sitting at the cafe.
    1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA
    https://www.cohnrestaurants.com/theprado
  • Puesto – Located in the Marina area, Puesto offers great tacos (hello lobster tacos!), tequila, and mezcal. It’s known for their tacos (and they’ve got quite the menu to boot), but don’t forget to check out their tiny but mighty guacamole menu – which options to add cheese, crab or brussel sprouts! Outdoor seating is available, so this spot is perfect on a sunny San Diego day, but sitting inside isn’t a losing situation either – the design is fun, festive and stunning. Reservations accepted (and recommended, for good measure).
    789 West Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA
    http://eatpuesto.com/
  • Davanti Enoteca – If you are a brunch person this place is THE place for you. Given that you’re in San Diego, try to sit out on the beautifully adorned patio and soak in some of that Southern California sun. While theoretically a (very authentic) Italian place, especially for dinner, the brunch menu features some of your more comfort and traditional fare, done very well. We personally really enjoyed the Pork Belly hash and eggs (there’s the more traditional steak and eggs if that’s your jam) but the Egg Cacio E Pepe was a real standout, and not as commonly found. And we’ve saved the best for last – Davanti has a make your own Bloody Mary bar. And we can vouch that it is amply stocked with just about every accouterment and condiment you could think of to do with a Bloody Mary bar. And it’s bottomless. As are the Bellini’s, if you so choose. Unbeatable and well worth the short jaunt over to the vibrant Little Italy district of San Diego.
    1655 India St, San Diego, CA
    http://www.davantienoteca.com/
  • Darband Fifth Avenue Grill – This very relaxed place is the perfect joint to grab a late lunch or a snack mid afternoon just to unwind after a day’s of activities. We have to say that this place is one of the more authentic Iranian places we’ve tried in the US – New York and LA included. For a starter the Kashk-e-Bademjan, or roasted eggplant with olive oil, garlic and pine nuts was truly excellent and tasted just like the homemade stuff my Iranian friends mom’s make. You can never go wrong with kabobs at an authentic Iranian place, and the Baghali Polo which is a baked chicken dish over rice is a very homey option that will surely leave you fulfilled. But if you want to think outside the box, the Fesanjoon – a chicken stew simmered in a pomegranate gravy for hours – a very traditional Persian dish – is to die for and worth the wait if you like a sweet and savory combination that is on the lighter side of things.
    1556 Fifth Ave, San Diego, CA
    http://www.5thavenuegrill.com/
L-R: Flatbread pizza at The Prado, Adorable glassware at Searsucker 

Stay

  • The US Grant Hotel – Located in Downtown San Diego, the hotel was recently renovated and boasts gorgeously redesigned rooms. The hotel boasts a regal ambiance, with live jazz music (and a drink cart!) in the lobby at night, and the staff and service it absolutely top knotch. The location is convenient to necessities when traveling – a mall is across the street with a pharmacy, stores, and restaurants, available steps away in case you forgot something at home. The hotel is fairly central to most of the things you’ll want to do when visiting San Diego – everything is a quick uber ride away! Room rate range: 200-400 USD. Check out our review here.
    326 Broadway, San Diego, CA
    http://www.usgrant.net/
  • Andaz San Diego – The Andaz San Diego is a sleekly and sharply appointed hotel located in the city’s historic Gaslamp District. The location is ideal for exploring the bustling city and for shopping but is also far enough from the main drag not to be consumed by crowds and noise. The modern rooms are rife with technology and take a very modern tone, as most Andaz properties do, but it must be said that the San Diego location is better than most. ​Do note given the very open layout of the rooms and bathrooms, they are suited for couples or those traveling alone, but things can get tricky otherwise. ​Room rate range: 200-350 USD.
    600 F St, San Diego, CA
    https://sandiego.andaz.hyatt.com/
L-R: Photos from the US Grant Hotel
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