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Best 45 Fun Things to Do & See in San Diego – Activities & Attractions

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You’ve probably heard of San Diego. It’s the eight-largest city in the United States, and second largest in California, behind Los Angeles and ahead of San Jose (though San Jose is part of a much larger urban agglomeration that includes San Francisco and Oakland). Like L.A. and S.F., San Diego occupies miles of prime Pacific Ocean real estate. In fact, it probably has the best beaches of any big West Coast city. And, even by California standards, it’s remarkably laid-back.

Taking in all that San Diego has to offer is a tough feat. To help you make the most of your trip, we’ve outlined a few major topics to get you better acquainted, experience the best sights, and save money along the way.

Overview of San Diego: Plenty to Do Without the Rush

Despite a mature wireless communications industry (anchored by Qualcomm, Nokia, and others), a growing software industry (spilling over from more expensive Silicon Valley and L.A.), a massive military presence anchored by multiple naval bases and dozens of major defense contractors, and a regional population of nearly four million, the pace of life here is measured.

The prevailing attitude seems to be “no hurries, no worries.” Maybe the experience is different for permanent residents with jobs and kids and existential worries, but for temporary visitors like myself, the contrast with the daily grind is remarkable – and decidedly pleasant.

San Diego’s modern veneer – gleaming mid-rise towers downtown, sweeping eight- and ten-lane freeways, proliferating displays of tech wealth – only partially conceals a long, rich history.

With bountiful fisheries and a famously mild, sunny climate, the area that would become San Diego was inhabited by the Kumeyaay people for thousands of years prior to European colonization. San Diego Bay, the city’s main harbor, was Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s first landing place in the future colony of Alta California, back in the 1540s.

Little of note survives from that period, but San Diego does have plenty of historic architecture and artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s – a birthright that’s often ignored by tourists more concerned with the sun, sand, and world-class tourist attractions like the San Diego Zoo. If you’re interested in early American history and want to see a side of San Diego that few visitors get to glimpse, stop in the Old Town neighborhood and seek out farther-flung colonial outposts.

Be sensible about financing your travels. Though smaller than L.A. and the Bay Area, San Diego is still quite expensive by national standards. And, with more than 30 million visitors annually, there’s plenty of competition for hotel rooms, short-term rentals, and tourist-oriented services.

This guide includes many of San Diego’s most popular attractions and points of interest. Some are free or cheap, but others can’t credibly be described as “budget-friendly.” If you’re set on hitting San Diego’s world-class art museums or one-of-a-kind venues like the San Diego Zoo, you’ll need to drop some dough. With that in mind, I’ve included a great deal of logistical information that should aid with planning, plus some tips gleaned from local experts and my own experience in town.

Discounts, Deals, and Resources

San Diego Tourism Authority

San Diego Tourism Authority is the official resource for business and leisure visitors in San Diego and the surrounding communities. After reading the rest of this guide, head to their website to start planning your visit in earnest. You’ll find in-depth information about virtually every San Diego neighborhood, most major attractions, key lodging districts and options, water activities, dining, sports, festivals, and much more.

Download the free travel guide (or request a mailed copy if you’re a fan of paper) and scan the offers page every week for deep discounts on popular, normally pricey activities, such as whale watching and wine country tours.

Southern California CityPASS

When fully utilized, Southern California CityPASS delivers tremendous value – each holder saves up to $150 off the face value of its inclusions. The catch is that its inclusions are expensive. After all discounts, each CityPASS booklet costs $367 for adults and $337 for kids.

It therefore makes the most sense for road-tripping families with enough time and stamina to do every inclusion right – a commitment that probably requires a week of disciplined touristing. It’s also good for SoCal natives who’ve never experienced the big-ticket attractions in their midst. Your CityPASS is good for 14 days, so you have plenty of time to pick and choose your stops and break up your journey with non-included attractions (or days off).

If you’re up for it, this is what you get with Southern California CityPASS:

  • A three-day Park Hopper pass with Magic Morning, good for entry at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure
  • Day entry at SeaWorld San Diego
  • Day entry at LEGOLAND California
  • Optional add-on ($42 extra per adult, $34 extra per kid): Day entry at San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Go San Diego Card

With more than 40 included attractions, Go San Diego Card is more expansive than Southern California CityPASS. Discounts vary, but you can save up to 50% at select attractions, and you never have to pay at the gate or door. Like Southern California CityPASS, some Go San Diego Card inclusions lie well beyond San Diego’s borders, so it’s best to have a car. The upshot is that they’re a nice mix of staid museums, kid-friendly amusement parks, and tour-type excursions. Popular attractions include:

  • LEGOLAND California
  • San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
  • Hop-on Hop-off Trolley Tours (Old Town Trolley, not to be confused with The Trolley, San Diego’s light rail system)
  • U.S.S. Midway Museum
  • San Diego Air and Space Museum
  • San Diego Natural History Museum
  • Knott’s Berry Farm
  • San Diego Museum of Man
  • Bike and Kayak Tours (La Jolla and Coronado)
  • PETCO Park Tour
  • San Diego Japanese Friendship Garden (Balboa Park)

Choose from one-, two-, three-, five-, and seven-day passes. The one-day pass starts at $79 per adult and lets you do as much as you can within any 24-hour period. The seven-day pass costs $279 per adult and gives you a full week to get your fill of Southern California.

san diego skyline sunset palm trees

Museums and Cultural Attractions

San Diego isn’t all fun in the sun. San Diego’s cultural landscape holds its own against any big U.S. city’s, with a laid-back southern California twist. These museums and cultural institutions will expand your horizons – and probably teach you a thing or two about San Diego in the process. Many open at 10am and close at 5pm or before, so plan your day accordingly.

1. U.S.S. Midway Museum

  • Adult admission: $20
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm

The U.S.S. Midway Museum occupies the U.S. Navy’s longest-serving aircraft carrier, now permanently docked in San Diego Bay. The sprawling museum – a “floating city at sea” – is a remarkably well-preserved testament to American military might, with exhibits ranging from “the crew’s sleeping quarters to a massive galley, engine room, the ship’s jail, officer’s country, post office, machine shops, and pilots’ ready rooms, as well as primary flight control and the bridge high in the island over the flight deck.”

An onboard theater plays a rotating selection of informational films about naval history and past conflicts. If your stomach can handle it, don’t miss the flight simulators.

2. San Diego Air and Space Museum

  • Adult admission: $19.75
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 4:30pm

Located in beautiful Balboa Park, San Diego Air and Space Museum boasts an impressive collection of historic aircraft, including two of the Wright Brothers’ prototype gliders and an authentic German World War II-era fighter plane. With dozens of pieces from a forgotten period in aviation history, the dirigible artifact collection is pretty cool too. There’s no better place to learn about the first decades of aviation history.

3. San Diego Automotive Museum

  • Adult admission: $9
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm

San Diego isn’t known for its contributions to the American auto industry, but southern California’s famous car culture is alive and well here. San Diego Automotive Museum is the city’s unofficial gearhead hub – a place for car nerds to unabashedly indulge their love for classic rides.

There’s also a surprising wealth of scholarship on automotive history here. I found the exhibit on the Plank Road, a trans-desert highway that literally buckled under the pressure as passenger cars and trucks got heavier, particularly interesting.

4. Mingei International Museum

  • Adult admission: $10
  • Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm

Mingei International Museum is an unusual place dedicated to “arts of daily use” – beautiful yet practical items and implements produced “by anonymous craftsmen of ancient times, from traditional cultures of past and present and by historical and contemporary designers.” If you fancy yourself a crafty person, this should be high on your list of things to see in San Diego. And, with a reasonable entry fee, it might be a low-cost way to get ideas for home improvement projects.

5. San Diego History Center

  • Adult admission: Pay what you wish
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm (SDHC and Junipero Serra Museum)

Located in the middle of Balboa Park, San Diego History Center celebrates San Diego’s long, illustrious history, from precontact habitation to the population explosion of the mid- to late-20th century. Permanent and rotating exhibitions dig deep into fascinating facets of San Diego’s diverse cultural tapestry, from the city’s often-overlooked Jewish and African-American populations to the “story behind the story” of the San Diego Zoo.

The History Center has a sister institution: the Junipero Serra Museum, in nearby Presidio Park. Occupying the site of the first permanent European settlement in California, the museum is given over to the big-picture sweep of Southern California’s history. If you see nothing else there, check out “Survival & Transformation: San Diego’s Journey,” a permanent exhibit covering thousands of years of local history.

Both SDHC and Junipero Serra Museum omit traditional admission charges. You don’t have to pay anything to get into either museum’s grounds. However, you’re strongly encouraged to subsequently “determine the value of your visit and demonstrate that with a tax-deductible donation should you choose.” SDHC does reserve the right to charge admission in the future, so if you’re feeling generous, you can “give forward” your donation to future visitors and stave off the day of reckoning.

6. San Diego Natural History Museum

  • Adult admission: $19 ($28 with “Ultimate Dinosaurs” access)
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm (until 8pm most summer Fridays)

Known locally as the NAT, San Diego Natural History Museum is one of the United States’s top-rated natural history museums. It’s appropriate for all ages – adults and children alike are dazzled by in-depth exhibits on the power of “citizen science,” the staggering diversity of southern California’s arid and semiarid ecosystems, California’s fraught relationship with the region’s limited freshwater supplies, and the southwestern United States’s rich fossil record. The limited-time “Ultimate Dinosaurs” exhibit, which costs $9 extra per adult, is a must-visit.

7. Timken Museum of Art

  • Adult admission: Free (donations encouraged)
  • Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4:30pm; Sunday, 12pm to 4:30pm

For more than a half-century, the pint-sized Timken Museum of Art has delighted visitors with limited but potent collections of work from the Old Masters (including San Diego’s only publicly displayed Rembrandt), early and mid-period American artists, and late-imperial Russian artists. Though donations are encouraged, there’s no admission fee, so it’s hard to argue against a quick stop here.

8. San Diego Museum of Man

  • Adult admission: $13
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm

Occupying thousands of square feet in Balboa Park’s iconic California Tower, San Diego Museum of Man is a slightly offbeat, thoroughly fascinating journey through historic and modern anthropology. When I visited, the signature exhibit was an unflinching look at cultural depictions of cannibalism through the ages – pretty weird, and definitely adult-themed, but worth the price of admission.

Other exhibits include serious looks at the history and science of race and humanity’s relationship with wild and domesticated animals. Before you leave, climb to the top of the tower and enjoy panoramic views of San Diego.

9. San Diego Museum of Art

  • Adult admission: $15
  • Hours: Thursday through Tuesday, 10am to 5pm, except until 8pm on Friday; open 12pm on Sunday

San Diego Museum of Art, in the heart of Balboa Park, is San Diego’s flagship art museum. Dating back to 1915, when the Panama-California International Exhibition revealed intense, latent demand for high art in sunny southern California, the museum has steadily added to its vast, globe-spanning collection over the decades.

Whether you need to brush up on medieval Asian art, travel through a time warp to the European Renaissance, or dive down into the unheralded (and often anonymous) artists of the 19th-century American Southwest, this museum has you covered. I’d recommend planning your visit in advance – there’s simply too much to see here in a morning or even a full day, and you don’t want to sacrifice too much sunshine.

10. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

  • Adult admission: $10 (free every third Thursday, 5pm to 8pm)
  • Hours: Thursday through Tuesday, 11am to 5pm (Third Thursday hours 5pm to 8pm)

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) has two locations – a cozy spot in downtown San Diego and a larger campus in La Jolla. As of early 2017, the La Jolla campus is closed for renovation, but the downtown facility is still worth a visit. The collections there focus on art from the late 1800s onward, a relative weak spot for the San Diego Museum of Art. It’s a great addition to a daytime jaunt down to the Gaslamp Quarter, whose more rustic environs offer a nice counterpoint to the ultra-modern MCASD.

11. Fleet Science Center

  • Adult admission: $19.95 
  • Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm

Another Balboa Park highlight, the Fleet Science Center is an all-ages science museum with a slew of interactive exhibits, a state-of-the-art IMAX theater, and a dazzling planetarium, among other first-rate attractions. The permanent collection explores practical, relevant topics, from San Diego’s complicated and environmentally delicate water-sourcing system to the science of tall buildings. Visit on the first Wednesday evening of each month for “The Sky Tonight,” a narrated planetarium show.

12. San Diego Zoo

  • Adult admission: $52 ($83.25 with Safari Park admission)
  • Hours: Daily, 9am to 6pm, with restricted early morning hours at some exhibits (subject to variation)

Located adjacent to Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is not a budget-friendly attraction. The bare minimum adult entry fee is $52, but that doesn’t include access to the excellent San Diego Zoo Safari Park, a more expansive collection of natural habitats with a variety of big game creatures. And if you want to see popular animals up close minus the crowds, you’ll need to pay about $100 for an Early Morning With Pandas or Crazy About Cats package.

Then again, the Zoo (as it’s known locally) is uniformly regarded as one of the best in the country, if not the world. It’s the reason many people come to San Diego in the first place. If spending time at the Zoo is at or near the top of your vacation priority list, it’s worth the money. And, with low-cost Balboa Park nearby, you don’t have to go far to make your stay more than a one-attraction wonder.

san diego zoo

Beaches in and Around San Diego

San Diego’s shoreline isn’t quite one long stretch of beach; there are enough breaks and headlands to keep things interesting. But there’s still plenty of sand here – enough to keep things from becoming overwhelmingly crowded in most places. Here’s a quick look at the beaches closest to downtown San Diego, ordered north to south.

13. La Jolla Shores

Serving the affluent neighborhood of La Jolla, La Jolla Shores is a picturesque and varied stretch of Pacific shoreline. Rocky jumbles and steep crags punctuate sandy expanses with great waves and sweeping views of northern San Diego County’s arcing, mountainous coastline. Nearby San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve is popular with snorkelers and scuba divers. Fishing is prohibited, however.

If you’re intimidated by towering Pacific waves, La Jolla Shores is your beach – the orientation of the shoreline cuts off the highest swells, producing a more predictable and gentle surf line. By the same token, surfers should probably head down the coast to one of the more exposed beaches.

14. Pacific Beach

On the other side of craggy Bird Rock, Pacific Beach is a wide, sandy expanse that lends its name to a popular neighborhood inland. The super-popular Ocean Front Walk boardwalk begins its journey to the southern end of Mission Beach here. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better people-watching opportunity within San Diego’s city limits, aside perhaps from the Gaslamp Quarter on a busy weekend evening.

15. Mission Beach

Mission Beach is basically a continuation of Pacific Beach, but it’s even broader. In places, particularly near Belmont Park, it’s also more crowded. However, it’s big enough to find your own patch of sand on all but the hottest summer days.

The board- and body-surfing here are excellent, thanks to long-breaking waves that seem to roll on forever and a gentle shelf that lets you wade what feels like hundreds of yards out to sea. Use caution on the bustling boardwalk, where traffic of every type (bikes, roller skates, Segways, and even stranger vehicles) menaces unsuspecting pedestrians.

16. Ocean Beach

Located opposite the Mission Bay entrance channel from the southern edge of Mission Beach, Ocean Beach is a smaller stretch of sand with a popular pier that provides stunning views of mainland San Diego, inland mountains, and the surrounding beaches. If Mission Beach is too crowded for your liking, head here.

17. Coronado (Silver Strand)

Across San Diego Bay from downtown San Diego lies Coronado, a sword-shaped island with a major naval base, a touristy waterfront area, and a broad beach known locally as the Silver Strand. Silver Strand is a true twofer – wave-seekers can post up on the Pacific side, where surfers catch swells like there’s no tomorrow, while landlubbers and paddleboarders stick to the calmer waters of the bay.

Great views abound in either direction. Pay close attention to posted warnings and restrictions, as military operations and the nearby San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge complicate unfettered recreation.

18. Imperial Beach

The independent city of Imperial Beach – the United States’s southwesternmost municipality – lies just north of the Mexican border. The town is worth a visit, but the main tourist attraction here is the wide, sandy beach and ample waves. Don’t miss the Imperial Beach Pier, a solid people-watching venue with great views of the ocean and mainland. Coronado Brewing Company has a reasonably priced outpost here too – if too much sun has you thirsty, check it out.

san diego beach

Parks and Natural Areas

Not a beach person? Then what are you doing in San Diego?

Don’t worry, San Diego has plenty of parks and natural areas without dune structures or wave action. These are some of the best. Unless otherwise noted, all are free to enter and explore, though some parks have internal attractions with restricted entry or admission fees. Be sure to observe posted hours and use caution after dark.

19. Balboa Park

Balboa Park is the crown jewel of San Diego’s urban park system. In truth, it’s not even close.

With more than a dozen museums and a cornucopia of wild, semi-wild, and landscaped natural environments, Balboa Park effortlessly blends nature and culture like no other city park I’ve seen: San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, New York’s Central Park, and Chicago‘s Millennium Park-Grant Park duo all come close, but don’t quite nail it. Plus, if you carry your own snacks and water, it’s possible to spend an entire day in Balboa Park without spending any money.

I spent two hours in Balboa Park and barely scratched the surface; I strongly recommend spending some time on the park’s website and planning a half- or full-day excursion. Many visitors hit the adjacent San Diego Zoo on the same day, but that’s considerably less budget-friendly, and the zoo’s scale really begs its own day.

These are just a handful of Balboa Park’s highlights. Most are outdoors – many of the museums in or near the park are already mentioned above:

  • Japanese Friendship Garden. The 12-acre Japanese Friendship Garden is a meticulously landscaped tribute to San Diego’s enduring friendship with its sister city: Yokohama, Japan. The centerpiece is undoubtedly the Tea Pavilion, a century-old structure with sweeping water and hill views. Garden-only admission is $10, but the rotating art and culture exhibits are worth the extra $4 ($14 total for combined admission).
  • Morley Field Disc Golf Course. Widely regarded as one of the finest disc golf courses in the United States, Morley Field is a great place to let loose without paying steep greens fees. (It’s free to play here, though you may jostle with others during peak periods.)
  • The Old Globe. This slightly kitschy replica of England’s Globe Theatre – made famous by William Shakespeare himself – regularly hosts plays throughout the year. Even if you don’t have time (or the budget) to catch a show, the grounds at The Old Globe are worth exploring.
  • Botanical Garden Building. One of the largest lath structures in the world, the Botanical Garden Building boasts more than 2,000 tropical and semitropical plant species from around the world. San Diego’s climate is mild enough to preclude a closed roof, and the breeze passing through the building’s open upper reaches makes for a truly sublime experience. You don’t have to pay to get in, but it can get crowded on weekends.
  • El Prado. Balboa Park’s main drag, El Prado, is stately, if not awe-inspiring. It once served as the spine of the Panama-California International Exposition, and still boasts many of the historic structures from that yearlong event. Near the western terminus, pedestrians pass over the canyon carrying CA-163 on a high, narrow bridge – great for views of downtown and Balboa Park’s lush hills, but not so great for the weak-kneed.
  • Desert Garden. This is one San Diego garden that requires no artificial irrigation. With 1,300 drought-hardened plant species, Balboa Park’s 2.5-acre Desert Garden is truly a tour of the world’s drier regions. Look for bizarre organ cacti (they’re hard to miss) and smaller, brightly flowered succulents. Winter is the best time to find plants in bloom.

20. Presidio Park

Perched on a mesa at the northern fringe of the Old Town neighborhood, Presidio Park is in some ways the birthplace of San Diego – at least, its current incarnation. The 50-acre park features a stately presidio and the San Diego area’s original mission, both dating back to the 1700s. Two miles of hiking trails wind through the side canyons and mesa top, and a self-guided walking tour hits many of the highlights in the surrounding Old Town neighborhood. Don’t miss the Serra Museum, mentioned above.

21. Belmont Park

Located within sight of Mission Beach, Belmont Park is an old-timey amusement park complete with a rickety wooden roller coaster, cheesy arcade games, and kid-friendly diversions. It doesn’t cost anything to enter, so it’s a great spot to relive your childhood (or make new memories with your kids) in a low-stakes environment.

If you’ve forgotten any beach gear in your luggage, the many vendors clustered on the park’s perimeter will only be too happy to oblige. Keep in mind that you do have to pay to play here, literally – most amusements require tickets, which you can purchase with cash at kiosks around the park.

22. Mission Bay Park

Mission Bay Park is an expansive “aquatic park” that stretches across nearly 5,000 acres of bayside real estate and shallow water between Mission Beach and San Diego’s north-central mainland neighborhoods. With more than 20 miles of hiking trails, plenty of grassy expanses for picnicking, and acres upon acres of calm water for kayaking, this is a must-visit park on nice days (in other words, most days).

23. Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines State Reserve is arguably San Diego’s wildest stretch of coastline. Encompassing more than 2,000 acres north of La Jolla, its landscape features windswept dunes, gnarled trees, dramatic cliffs, rocky beaches, and – of course – stunning ocean views. The namesake pine is a rare find, as are many of the waterfowl species that make the central lagoon home.

Be mindful of posted regulations – for instance, large groups, dogs, and food are prohibited. In summer, parking starts at $4 per hour in the north lot and $10 per day in the south lot. It’s cheaper in winter, and you can avoid fees by walking in.

24. Tecolote Canyon Natural Park

Tecolote Canyon Natural Park and Nature Center encompasses a rugged canyon named for a local owl, about which (along with other native species) you can learn plenty at the recently renovated nature center on-site. More than six miles of hiking trails wind through the scrubland here, and though the views aren’t life-changing, the up-close-and-personal look at a well-preserved section of southern California’s chaparral ecosystem is well worth an hour or two of your time.

25. Marian Bear Memorial Park

Marian Bear Memorial Park is a long, narrow, east-west park encompassing nearly 500 acres between I-5 and I-805 in northern San Diego city. The canyon’s bottomlands are ideal for a leisurely walk through the scrub, especially during the colorful wet season and spring. If you’re up for a more strenuous experience, make a day of it and hike up the twisting side canyons leading to the flatter upland neighborhood of North Claremont.

26. Mission Trails Regional Park

Mission Trails Regional Park is a vast expanse occupying much of northeastern San Diego. South of the main body, the Lake Murray section is a less crowded, calmer alternative to the Pacific Ocean. To the north, dozens of miles of hiking trails wind through a variety of ecosystems, from coastal scrubland and low-lying semidesert to craggy peaks. If your San Diego trip qualifies as a fitness vacation, try the 5-Peak Challenge, which requires you to hit the park’s five highest mountains on foot.

27. Otay Valley Regional Park

Located in southern San Diego County, not too far north of the Mexican border, Otay Valley Regional Park is a natural wonderland with surprisingly lush river bottomlands, classic coastal scrubland, rugged hills, and a picturesque reservoir. For great news of San Diego and surrounding communities, check out Finney Interpretive Overlook, which doubles as a popular picnic area.

balboa park san diego
Casa Del Prado at Balboa Park in San Diego

Neighborhoods and Local Attractions

These are among San Diego’s most vibrant, exciting neighborhoods. All boast affordable, family-friendly (or not) attractions for enterprising travelers.

28. Gaslamp Quarter

A subdistrict of downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego’s touristy heart. During the day, the 16-block Gaslamp is a legitimately awesome place to explore historic San Diego on foot. The area’s Victorian building stock is remarkably well-preserved, offering a glimpse into what San Diego looked like during its post-mission, premilitary boom.

Even if you’re not staying downtown or in a close-in urban neighborhood, spend a couple hours down here. Just watch your wallet: With so many souvenir shops, galleries, and overpriced eateries, it’s easy to spend more than you intend here. Make a strict budget before you arrive and stick to it – and avoid pricey sit-down restaurants in favor of food trucks or taco stands if possible.

For a different perspective that’s likely to be even less kind to your wallet if you’re not careful, return in the evening when the Gaslamp’s countless bars and clubs come alive with revelers from all walks of life.

29. Seaport Village

Seaport Village is a kitschy, maritime-themed district on downtown San Diego’s waterfront – Southern California’s diminutive answer to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Persistent onshore breezes keep things pleasant here, even on warm summer days, and dreamy views of Coronado’s hills are particularly dazzling around sunset.

Dozens of retailers have set up shop along the 2,000-foot boardwalk, but don’t expect to find great deals here: Like the Gaslamp, Seaport Village feeds on credulous tourists with money to burn, including cruise ship passengers on shore leave (there’s a cruise terminal nearby). Hold to a “look but don’t touch” philosophy and you’ll be fine.

30. Old Town

As the name implies, Old Town is one of the oldest parts of San Diego. Perched on a hilltop in the crook of the intersection of I-8 and I-5, this well-preserved neighborhood contains countless examples of authentic Mission- and Hacienda-style architecture. It boasts an army of historic buildings and sites, including the First San Diego Courthouse and Jail, Colorado House, Casa de Carillo (ostensibly the city’s oldest house), and the Old Adobe Chapel.

For an overview of the district’s history and culture, check out Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. The park is free to enter and explore, but guided tours of the neighborhood (a worthy pursuit) cost $10 each.

31. North Park

North Park is a large urban neighborhood in central San Diego. Sprawling north and east from Balboa Park, it’s one of the city’s hippest enclaves. It’s also one of the best places in San Diego to sample the region’s famed craft beer scene.

Starting in the afternoon, the sudsy entertainment district around 30th and University buzzes with activity, thanks to excellent breweries like Mike Hess Brewing (where pints go for as little as $5 – a bargain in San Diego), millennial-friendly venues like Coin Op (whose tap list is nearly as impressive as its game selection), and venerable taprooms like Toronado (which has nearly five dozen local beers on tap at any given time).

32. University of California – San Diego (UCSD)

Located in northern San Diego city, UCSD is one of Southern California’s largest universities. Even if you’re done with your education, the beautiful hilltop campus is well worth a visit. The beach is just a short walk away, so after you’re done exploring the shaded paths and modernist structures here, head down to the ocean or jaunt through the coastal pine forests at Torrey Pines State Reserve.

33. La Jolla

Spreading north from Pacific Beach along northern San Diego’s increasingly craggy coast, La Jolla is a large district with multiple distinct enclaves. Many are quite upscale and imposing, but there’s plenty of easily accessible terrain here too: La Jolla Recreation Center (great for kids and open to nonresidents), La Jolla Shores Beach, Shell Beach (which boasts tide pools teeming with life), and Mount Soledad, a well-situated peak with great views of downtown and the ocean and a moving veteran’s memorial. You can rub shoulders with the 1% in the Village of La Jolla’s upscale shopping district – just keep your wallet close.

Also, don’t miss La Jolla Cove, one of Southern California’s most beautiful stretches of seashore (which is saying something). If you’re in the area, a photograph is pretty much mandatory. Because it’s so well-protected, La Jolla Cove is among San Diego’s safest swimming beaches as well (if you can brave the chilly water).

34. Little Italy

Once an actual Italian enclave, Little Italy today is merely one more hip San Diego neighborhood with more than its fair share of independently owned boutiques, coffee shops, galleries, and sit-down restaurants.

A multifamily building explosion has changed the area’s character in recent years – when I first arrived here, I felt like I could be in any booming urban neighborhood anywhere in the U.S. But, upon closer inspection, Little Italy comes into its own.

Check out Mona Lisa Italian Foods (a renowned deli), the Kettner Art & Design District, Ballast Point Brewing Company’s Little Italy restaurant (not the flagship brewery), and the weekly Little Italy Mercato (a wildly popular, year-round farmer’s market).

35. Coronado

Coronado is an independent city just across San Diego Bay from downtown. With an impressive collection of independently owned restaurants and bars serving the nearby naval air base, plus a slew of tourist-friendly watering holes, this is a great place to unwind and meet other nonlocals – before, after, or during a day at nearby Silver Strand Beach. Plus, you’re never far from a great view of downtown San Diego here.

36. Pacific Beach

Even if you’re not a beach person, the neighborhood of Pacific Beach is worth an hour or two of your time. North of Mission Bay is a dense, walkable neighborhood with some surprisingly good, wholly unpretentious eats: Oscar’s Mexican Seafood is a personal favorite; the specialty tacos, preferably with fish, are generously portioned and insanely cheap (under $2 in some cases).

PB Shore Club and Ramiro’s Taco Shop are great too – but it’s hard to go wrong here. For a post-meal leg stretch and an admiring look at the area’s well-kept bungalows, head to the quiet shore of Mission Bay.

gaslamp quarter san diego
Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego

Day Trips and Excursions From San Diego

Want to stretch your legs and get out of town? These popular destinations are all within a few hours of central San Diego. Some are appropriate for day trips; others are better as overnight excursions.

37. Tijuana

San Diego is the United States’s southwesternmost major city. Tijuana is Mexico’s northwesternmost major city. As the crow flies, they’re separated by less than 20 miles. For statistical purposes, they’re considered part of the same conurbation.

Unfortunately, crippling border traffic adds hours to the journey between the two population centers, so there’s no such thing as a “quick” side trip to Tijuana. It’s well worth taking a day out of your itinerary to visit though.

Tijuana’s beaches rival San Diego’s, and they’re often less crowded. Avenida Revolucion is an amazing shopping street with unbelievable bargains (though authenticity is a problem – use caution when purchasing “name-brand” products).

Tijuana’s native street food is delicious and dirt cheap. Catedral de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is a stunning Catholic edifice that’s free to enter and explore. And Tijuana Cultural Center is a great introduction to the local history and culture – which, despite Tijuana’s proximity to San Diego, is distinct from its northern neighbor’s. If you don’t want to plan and explore on your own, consider a guided sightseeing tour – San Diego Ride & Tours offers day-long jaunts for $55 per person.

38. Carlsbad

Carlsbad is a quiet resort community in northern San Diego County, just south of the city of Oceanside. Its highlights include a particularly attractive stretch of beach, a large factory outlet complex that offers great deals on name-brand apparel and accessories, Leo Carillo Ranch Historic Park, LEGOLAND California (a pricey but popular attraction for families with children), and the picturesque Carlsbad Village neighborhood.

If you’re heading up this way, Southern California CityPASS or Go San Diego Card will come in handy.

39. San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano is a picturesque city in southern Orange County, 60 to 90 minutes north of San Diego on low-traffic days. Its signature attraction is Mission San Juan Capistrano, an 18th-century Spanish mission. The 10-acre grounds boast several well-preserved buildings and a slate of rotating art and history exhibits. Entry is $9 per adult and the museum is open daily, 9am to 5pm.

Outside the mission, check out San Juan Capistrano’s remarkably well-preserved neighborhoods. The city is home to several 18th-century adobe structures (a rare find in this part of California) and dozens of turn-of-the-20th-century Craftsman-style houses.

40. Borrego Springs

Borrego Springs is an isolated desert community in northeastern San Diego County. It’s surrounded by Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park, whose alien landscape is worth a day trip. If you have gear or can find cheap rentals, make a point to camp here, as Borrego Springs arguably has the darkest and clearest night skies of any town south of L.A. and is within an hour’s drive of the Pacific Ocean.

In December and January, enjoy the seemingly endless ruby red grapefruit harvest – unless you don’t like grapefruit, in which case it’s probably best to visit at another time.

41. Palm Springs

Located in the blazing hot Coachella Valley in Riverside County, Palm Springs has long hosted an interesting and at times contentious mix of cultures: desert dwellers who’ve lived in the area since the 19th century, counterculture warriors who arrived in the mid-20th century and never left, upscale Angelenos and San Diegans seeking a laid-back change of pace, and jet-setting global elites patronizing some of the United States’s finest spas and resorts. A Space Age vibe permeates Palm Springs, creating a unique sense of place that’s simultaneously ultramodern and dated.

If you visit in April, you could easily devote your entire trip to the Coachella Music Festival, a star-studded, fashion-forward jamboree featuring dozens of pop stars, celebrity appearances (mainly confined to the VIP area), and an anything-goes atmosphere. Three-day general admission passes, which include campground access, cost $399 per person – a bargain given the quality of the acts and the infectiousness of the buzz permeating the vast festival grounds.

42. Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is a bittersweet accident. In 1905, a dam burst on the Colorado River, sending billions of gallons of water rushing into a low depression in California’s Imperial Valley, east-northeast of San Diego. The breach continued for two years, filling a 400-square-mile expanse and creating California’s largest “natural” lake.

In the decades that followed, agricultural runoff replenished the lake’s water supply, supporting vast habitats for waterfowl, fish, and amphibians. The salt- and pesticide-rich runoff steadily increased the Salton Sea’s toxicity, putting pressure on sensitive species and reducing local biodiversity. In recent years, a combination of factors (drought, less water-intensive agriculture, new water projects that rerouted the Imperial Valley’s water to growing coastal cities) dramatically reduced inflows, shrinking the lake and further increasing its toxicity.

According to The Atlantic, the looming environmental catastrophe is a slow-motion train wreck for the economically challenged region, but it’s also fascinating to see up close. If you have a car, consider a detour to the shores of the Salton Sea on your way to Palm Springs or Arizona from San Diego.

43. Big Bear / San Bernardino National Forest

Big Bear calls itself “Southern California’s premier four-season vacation destination,” and that’s about right. Nestled in a mountain range east of Los Angeles, north of San Diego, the small town of Big Bear Lake (elevation: 6,700 feet) is a hub for outdoorsy folks exploring the San Bernardino National Forest’s vast hiking trail network, hitting the waters of Big Bear Lake, or skiing at the local ski resort in winter. If you visit San Diego during the summer and aren’t a big beach fan, Big Bear is a great place to cool off.

44. Joshua Tree National Park

Located a few hours northeast of San Diego, Joshua Tree National Park is a stunning stretch of desert that hosts vast groves of its namesake tree, a slow-growing shrub with signature spikes and strange, gnarled branches. Massive chunks of rock, craggy buttes, and towering mountains frame the vegetated basins.

Visit after a heavy rain, when the arid terrain temporarily explodes into bloom. A seven-day vehicle entrance fee costs $25. You can cut that cost in half if you bike in – just bring plenty of water for your ride through the desert.

45. Disneyland

Disneyland, the original Disney theme park, is in Anaheim, near the border of Orange County and Los Angeles County. On a good day, you can make the drive from San Diego in under two hours. It’s a tempting prospect for families with small children or committed Disney fans, though tickets are pricey – about $100 for each two-day pass.

But the attractions, which continue to expand and modernize, certainly keep the kids busy. And there’s now an entirely separate park nearby: Disney California Adventure Park. If you plan to see other parts of southern California as part of a longer family road trip, Disneyland is a nice transitional stop as you move north up the coast.

disney land dr road sign

When to Visit and What to Bring

No matter when you visit or what you plan to do, this is what you need to know to make the most of your San Diego vacation.

Climate Considerations

San Diego is famous for its dry, mild, (mostly) sunny climate. According to Farmer’s Almanac, it’s one of the 10 best weather cities in the United States.

Weather-wise, the best time to visit San Diego depends on your perspective. If you’re from a colder climate, March and April – traditional spring break months in a traditional spring break destination – are ideal, with predictably sunny weather, limited precipitation (especially in April), and average highs topping out in the mid-60s near the ocean to the mid-70s further inland.

I can attest to the consistency of the weather during this period. On a four-day April visit, I swear every day was the same: 50 degrees and sunny in the morning, 75 and sunny in the afternoon. Coming from still-cold Minneapolis, the weather was a treat.

If you’re coming from a warmer climate, summer is an ideal time to visit. In June and July, San Diego’s sunny, breezy beaches fill up with Arizonans and Nevadans fleeing the desert heat. To them, a long stretch of 80-degree summer days qualifies as a cold snap. Locals grumble about “June gloom,” the gray, ocean-induced overcast layer that settles nearly every morning in early summer, but never fear: The clouds never produce rain and almost always give way to bright sunshine by early afternoon.

Rain is an issue in winter when San Diego’s typically dry climate relaxes and allows the occasional Pacific storm to inundate the area. During heavy storms, mudslides and road washouts can affect travel patterns, swamp outdoor plans, and menace people and property alike.

In late summer and early fall, there’s a slight tropical storm risk. Direct hits are almost unheard of, as prevailing winds and ocean currents usually guide tempests out to sea or further east, up into northern Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico. But even distant storms can cause dangerous, unpredictable rip currents that render ocean swimming unsafe.

Crowds

San Diego is pretty busy year-round. Technically, winter is the low season. If you’re looking to enjoy an uncrowded beach and don’t mind dodging the occasional raindrop, visit anytime between November and March. The beaches fill up again in early spring and remain crowded well into the fall when the Santa Ana winds rake inland communities like a blow-dryer.

Elsewhere, San Diego is just like any other Sunbelt city. Expect crowds at popular hangouts and tourist attractions, especially on weekends and during popular festivals, such as Pride (held in the Hillcrest neighborhood every July) and Cinco de Mayo (held in the Old Town neighborhood every May).

What to Bring

  • Windbreaker or Light Jacket. For much of the year, San Diego’s weather is pleasant and predictable. Still, mornings can be chilly – especially right on the ocean, where moist onshore breezes predominate, and in inland valleys, where temperature swings are much more pronounced than on the coast. Away from the coast (and, if it’s windy, on the coast too) the temperature drops quickly in the evening. Bottom line: Keep a windbreaker or light jacket in reserve.
  • Sturdy Footwear. San Diego’s weather does not call for closed-toed shoes. Nor does its predominant out-and-about dress code. However, if you plan to explore the city’s walkable inner neigh.orhoods or rugged parks, you’ll want to bring sturdy footwear. Running shoes or tough-soled sandals are probably fine within the city limits. Serious mountain hikes call for hiking boots.
  • Sandals or Flip-Flops. When you’re not exploring the city on foot or scaling rugged mountains in search of stunning views, you can safely downgrade your footwear. Bring comfortable sandals and flip-flops to wear to the beach or brewery.
  • Backpack or Satchel. Unless you’re staying close to home or have constant, easy access to a personal car, bring a backpack or satchel to carry your extra gear. It’ll come in handy on beach days or hiking excursions, especially if you plan to snap pictures or stay out after dark.
  • Sun Protection. It’s not always sunny in San Diego, but it sure feels that way for long stretches of the year. Even during the “June gloom” period, you’re likely to see a few hours of brilliant sunshine every day. Pack accordingly with sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen, and flowing clothing capable of covering fair-skinned extremities.
  • Hydration Gear. If you plan to travel on foot or bike for long periods, don’t forget a refillable water bottle or Camelbak. In my limited experience, public drinking fountains are hard to find in San Diego’s parks and beach areas, so make sure you fill up before you head out.

Getting There and Getting Around

Arriving in San Diego

  • By Air: If you’re not coming from southern California, southern Nevada, or Arizona, you’ll most likely fly into San Diego International Airport. SAN, as it’s known, is diminutive: just one uncomfortably short runway and two decent-sized terminals. The facility is clearly at capacity and is unable to grow further due to natural obstacles and dense development on all sides. However, it’s conveniently located on the north side of San Diego Bay, just a couple miles from downtown and not much farther from the major beaches. And it’s served by most major airlines, including discount carriers with low airline fees, such as Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, and Frontier – all of which offer sub-$100 one-ways from most major U.S. cities. Though there’s eternal talk of moving SAN further outside the city, a ballot measure putting the question to voters was defeated in 2006, and it’s likely that SAN will remain San Diego’s primary airport for decades to come. Ironically, a much larger airport north of town – MCAS Miramar – is reserved for the U.S. Marine Corps.
  • By Road: If you’re heading to San Diego on a road trip through coastal California or the Southwestern U.S., you’ll probably arrive here by highway. I-5 leads down the coast from Orange County and Los Angeles, 1-15 winds through the Inland Empire (Riverside) from Las Vegas, and I-8 heads west from Arizona and the Imperial Valley. On a good day, L.A. is two hours by car, but construction and crashes routinely push the drive to three or four hours. Las Vegas is about five hours. Phoenix and Tucson are about six hours each.
  • By Train: Located downtown, San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot offers passenger train service to select cities in California and neighboring states. Getting from L.A. to San Diego by train is often faster (and always less stressful) than driving. Trains leave every 15 to 45 minutes during peak periods and take anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 hours to complete the journey. Express trains are faster but typically cost more. One-way fares start around $20.

Public Transportation in San Diego

Though most San Diegans use the automobile as their primary mode of transportation, their city has a solid public transportation system operated by the appropriately named San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (SDMTS).

SDMTS operates dozens of bus lines, including several rapid bus routes, and four light rail lines (collectively known as The Trolley). Though it doesn’t directly serve SAN, The Trolley has good coverage in the central and southern portions of San Diego and surrounding communities, including downtown San Diego, the University of California – San Diego, San Ysidro, and El Cajon. Buses ply most major thoroughfares, and with a little planning, it’s possible to get to and from most points on San Diego’s mainland on these vehicles.

Bus and light rail fares generally cost $2.25 to $2.50 for a one-way journey. Unfortunately, SDMTS doesn’t allow transfers, so you have to pay every time you board a vehicle, even on connecting legs. There’s also no stored-value card for habitual riders. However, you can purchase day passes for $5, two-day passes for $9, three-day passes for $12, and four-day passes for $15 – any of which is a no-brainer if you plan to sightsee on transit while you’re in town.

Personal Vehicles and Rental Cars in San Diego

It might try to pretend otherwise, but San Diego is car country. For better or worse, I managed to get through four days in San Diego without boarding an SDMTS vehicle, and I wasn’t too much lighter in the wallet for it:

  • Determine Whether You Need a Car. Before you leave for San Diego, take stock of your situation and determine whether you need a car at all. If you’re staying downtown or in a close-in neighborhood with solid transit, bike, and rideshare infrastructure, a car might be a burden. In Mission Beach, where I stayed, parking was a nightmare – if you didn’t have a reserved spot at your rental, you were pretty much out of luck during the day. The story is much the same in other beach areas, and dense inland neighborhoods aren’t much better. On the other hand, if you’re staying in a farther-flung neighborhood with poor transit and ample street parking, you’ll be fine with a car.
  • How to Temporarily Ditch Your Car in San Diego. If you drive into San Diego, but decide that you don’t need your car while you’re in town, you’ll want to ditch your car temporarily. Your best (free) bet is a friend’s or relative’s empty driveway. Failing that, don’t try to play the street parking game in unfamiliar neighborhoods, especially close to downtown. Instead, check out discount lots near the airport using an app like Cheap Airport Parking. Daily rates start under $9. If you do need your car, be sure to call ahead, as some lots may double-park vehicles to save space.
  • Rent a Car. If you’re planning to visit farther-flung attractions in the San Diego area and don’t have a personal vehicle with you, renting a car is your most economical option. Most major car rental companies operate out of the airport’s rental car center. You can find some satellite offices downtown and in major business districts around the San Diego metro area too. Use an aggregator like Kayak or a blind-booking option like Hotwire to quickly locate the best deals. I didn’t need to rent a car during my time in San Diego, but I thought about it, and I found subcompact and compact cars for as little as $15 to $20 per day on Hotwire.
  • Parking Fees. As in any big city, parking is a challenge in San Diego. In downtown San Diego and the Gaslamp Quarter, street parking is basically impossible. Expect to pay at least $3 per hour for garage parking, and more like $5 to $10 during peak periods. (Check out this handy live map from Best Parking.) I wouldn’t recommend driving yourself downtown unless you’re coming from far away, which would make ridesharing costs prohibitive. Outside downtown, street parking fees are reasonable: In most areas, $1 to $2 per hour is commonplace. Meters are enforced 8am to 6pm, seven days a week, unless otherwise noted. You can pay with the Parkmobile smartphone app at any green meter.

Ridesharing and Carsharing

Like most big U.S. cities, San Diego has ample ridesharing and carsharing options. If you don’t have your own personal vehicle in town and don’t want a traditional car rental for part or all of your trip, opt for:

  • Uber and LyftUber and Lyft are very popular in San Diego. In Mission Beach, my home base, I never had to wait more than four minutes for a ride. Downtown, the wait times were even shorter. Ridesharing fares vary by distance, length, and the level of local demand. Without demand surcharges, which are common during rush hours and later at night in entertainment districts, regular Lyft rides carry a $1.95 trust and service fee, $1.10 per mile fee, and $0.15 per mile fee, or a $4 minimum ride fee. Budget-friendly UberX rates are comparable. If you don’t mind riding with others and possibly going a bit out of your way, try Lyft Line or UberPOOL. Both are basically fixed-rate carpooling services and typically cost about half as much as a comparable Lyft or UberX ride.
  • Zipcar: San Diego has plenty of Zipcar hubs, including a busy outpost at the main airport. Outside the airport, most are clustered downtown, in the Gaslamp Quarter, near UCSD, and in outlying business districts. Depending on your plan, Zipcar costs $8 to $10 per hour (up to $79 per day). You do need to pay an annual or monthly membership fee ranging from $7 per month for occasional drivers, who pay more by the hour and day, to $50 per month for heavy drivers, who get hourly and daily discounts. If you’re already a Zipcar member, using the service as needed in San Diego is cheaper than renting a car, but it’s not worth the up-front cost if you don’t plan to use it when you return to your hometown.

Bikesharing

With great weather and manageable topography, at least near the shore, San Diego has a robust biking culture. It’s therefore no surprise that its local bike sharing program, DecoBike, is wildly popular. The DecoBike network is densest along the shoreline, downtown, in close-in urban neighborhoods, such as North Park, and student-rich areas, such as the neighborhoods around the UCSD campus.

DecoBike is pricey relative to other popular bike sharing programs, but not outrageous for committed cyclists who can plan their routes to pass multiple stations and are committed to cycling frequently during their stays in San Diego.

If you plan to bike a lot, opt for the Short-Term Rental plan, which entitles you to unlimited 30-minute intervals for one week ($35 flat fee) or one month ($50 flat fee). Intervals longer than 30 minutes are subject to $5 surcharges for each additional 30 minutes. This option is only available online – you need to register in advance or have your smartphone handy when you unlock your first bike.

If you plan to bike less often, opt for the Hourly Rental option. There’s no up-front cost, but you start paying as soon as you get on the bike: $5 for a 30-minute rental, $7 for a one-hour rental, and $12 for a two-hour rental.

Be warned that there’s a DecoBike backlash brewing in San Diego. When I visited, I noticed plenty of “Rent Local – No DecoBike” signs and variations thereof. The animosity is particularly intense along the beaches, where bike rental shops compete fiercely for tourist dollars. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use DecoBike if you truly feel it’s the best option for you – just that you may experience some harassment or side-eyeing while you’re riding around town.

Bike Rentals

Bike rental shops are ubiquitous near San Diego’s beaches. Per the laws of supply and demand, it means hourly and daily rentals are surprisingly cheap here.

The best way to find deals is to search online for bike rentals near your home base. In Mission Beach, where I stayed, Ray’s Rentals and Cheap Rentals are both popular and seemingly reputable. At Ray’s, commuter bike rentals – safe, but nothing fancy – start at $20 per day. With a coupon, they’re just $12 per day.

If you’re staying near the boardwalk, you may encounter “commissioned” salespeople hawking bike rental deals for even less: I ran into a shirtless, well-tanned, roller-skating older gentleman who offered an unpublished “Roller Bob” discount at Ray’s – “just tell them Roller Bob sent you,” he advised.

Away from the beaches, rentals are more expensive. The cheapest bike available at Stay Classy Rentals, located downtown, is $35 per day – the price of a week-long DecoBike pass. Still, if you don’t want to worry about finding a new station every 30 minutes, this may be worth your while. Plus, you can rent other recreational gear here, including kayaks and stand up paddleboards.

san diego sunset bikes

Where to Stay

San Diego is a big place. If you don’t want to spend hours in the car, you need to choose a home base that’s both close to the attractions you want to visit and appropriate for your family or traveling group.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of popular tourist districts in San Diego, but feel free to use it as a basis for further investigation:

  • Downtown San Diego and Gaslamp Quarter. Downtown San Diego and the adjacent Gaslamp Quarter have the highest concentration of traditional hotels (as opposed to resorts and vacation rentals) in the San Diego area. You’ll find a wide selection here, from no-frills motels to four- and five-star properties. Expect to pay a premium for location. Short-term rentals are smaller – think studio apartments and lofts, not beachfront houses. Airbnb has a good selection of private rooms under $100 per night. Whole apartments typically cost $150 and up.
  • Old Town. Conveniently located near the intersection of I-5 and I-8, and not far from the airport, Old Town is a convenient choice for budget-conscious families and couples. Plenty of no-frills and mid-range hotels lie within walking or Trolley distance. During periods of lower demand, you’ll easily find rooms under $100 per night here – the Super 8 right at the interchange is often available for less than $50 per night.
  • Pacific Beach. If you’re seeking a beach hotel in a neighborhood that’s close to downtown, but not overrun with tourist families, Pacific Beach is a strong choice. There are dozens of solid lodging options here, from affordable motels like PB Surf Beachside Inn and the Surfer Beach Hotel (sub-$150 per night) to fancy resorts and mid-rise hotels like Capri by the Sea and Pacific Terrace Hotel ($250 per night and up). The area’s short-term rental options are generally one- and two-bedroom apartments or condos, but some bungalows and houses are available. Expect to pay upwards of $300 per night for a whole house, however.
  • Mission Beach. Located south of Pacific Beach along a narrow strip of land between the ocean and Mission Bay, Mission Beach is an unpretentious beach community that at times seems totally given over to tourists. This was my home base in San Diego, and while I regret not seeing more of the “real” San Diego, I was very happy with the amenities. That said, there are fewer high-end hotel options than in Pacific Beach. Hotel and short-term rental pricing are comparable, though you pay a premium for boardwalk access – figure $400 per night and up for ocean-view condos and houses with two bedrooms.
  • Ocean Beach. Located south of Mission Beach, Ocean Beach is a less touristy neighborhood with a decent selection of unpretentious motels and at least one hostel house. Expect to pay less than $150 per night, per room here. Vacation rentals are cheaper than in Pacific Beach and Mission Beach too, though you’re less likely to find ocean views or easy beach access.
  • La Jolla. Surprisingly, this upscale neighborhood has plenty of unpretentious lodging options, including the La Jolla Village Lodge (an independent motel), a Travelodge, and a Holiday Inn Express, all for well under $150 per night for a basic room. There are high-end options here too, including the Grande Colonial La Jolla ($220 and up) and the Pantai Inn ($300 and up). Short-term rentals are more spacious – often whole bungalows or houses – but pricier to match, especially within walking or sighting distance of the ocean.
  • Coronado. Located across the bay from downtown San Diego, the independent city of Coronado is super popular with tourists. Some would say too popular. If you’re keen on an “authentic” Coronado experience, look for short-term rentals away from the beach, near the middle of the island. Otherwise, check out waterfront resorts like Hotel de Coronado (a world-famous beach resort where you get what you pay for – usually north of $300 per night) and Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa ($180 and up).
  • Mission Valley. The San Diego River cuts through Mission Valley, a low point between two towering mesas. Along I-8, between I-5 and CA-163, lie more than a dozen budget-friendly hotel and motel options: Hampton Inn, Homewood Inn & Suites, Howard Johnson – you name it. This is a great spot for business travelers, as the I-8 corridor is rife with business parks.
  • El Cajon & Santee. These eastern suburbs are popular with business travelers looking to avoid the hustle and bustle of central San Diego without sacrificing access to the many office parks ringing the metro area. Likewise, road-tripping families appreciate the low cost and easy freeway access to the low- and mid-range hotels and motels here. You can easily find rooms for $75 to $150 per night in these areas, and availability is often better at peak travel times than more touristy parts of town.

Final Word

I mentioned above that San Diego is only two hours away from Los Angeles (on a good day) by car. Chronic traffic and construction make it feel a lot farther sometimes, but the country’s second-largest city is really within arm’s reach when you’re in San Diego. If you have more than a long weekend to explore southern California, I’d highly recommend making the journey up the coast. And if I have a chance to get back out there anytime soon, you can bet I’ll have a detailed report for you here.

What’s your favorite thing about San Diego?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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