Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their San Diego adventures!
San Diego is California’s second largest city, but what draws people year after year to this bustling modern epicenter is not its sheer size, but its originality, its placement by the rippling Pacific, its southern Californian culture and its beautiful southern Californian weather and people. Should you find yourself in San Diego or one of its many beautiful beachside boroughs, you may be at a loss for all the things going on about town. What to do? Take some advice from an insider.
Brought into the Western world’s folds by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, San Diego was once a small, foundering Spanish town. In 1821, when Mexico declared victory over the Spanish Empire in the Mexican War for Independence, the population was a lowly 600; in 1838, a mere 100-150 residents called San Diego home. During the gold rush era, San Diego saw more attention, but still, few residents decided to set up permanent camp. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800s that prospectors and investors decided to take a chance and develop San Diego. Through Alonzo Horton’s efforts, the late part of the 19th century saw the economic and homesteading boom the town needed. The center of the town was moved closer to the water, and San Diego began to rival San Francisco as a major Californian port. In 1901, the US Navy decided to use the area as a military post and developed a Coaling Station in Point Loma, and thus the expansion began.
Today, San Diego is a vibrant, sprawling town, where visitors can enjoy the modern pleasures and cultural delights of a big city, while enjoying the laid-back beach town of its youth. From piano bars in the Gaslamp Quarter to surf shops, there’s plenty to see and do in San Diego.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for a place to stay in San Diego proper, that is the city itself, you’re probably going to be looking for a place in the Gaslamp Quarter. This cosmopolitan quarter is the city’s premier cultural spot, full of trendy bars, art galleries, and exciting nightlife. That being said, it’s also downtown and space is at a premium. Hotel costs run high, and so does parking. Savvy travelers will call their hotels ahead of time and ask about available parking options. Free parking with an overnight stay can far outweigh a discount booking fee, as parking can cost over $20/day.
La Jolla’s natural beauty and proximity to sparkling beachfront make it another natural choice for visiting the San Diego area. Consider this more of a romantic getaway option, as the area offers sightseeing, golfing, shopping, restaurants, and some excellent dining experiences, all along the sandy strip of land we call the coast.
No guide to San Diego would be complete (or good even) without mentioning the fabulous Coronado. While its western side is used as a Navy base camp (and also where Navy Seals train), the rest of the island is an ideal beachside getaway. Only accessible by boat and ferry, most visitors tour the island on bike, foot, or via electronic golf cart, and there are miles of beaches, pristine snorkeling, and some deep sea fishing ventures operating out of its harbor. Coronado is a great weekend away stop.
What To Do
Touring the Gaslamp Quarter is probably the first stop on any first-timer’s trip to San Diego. This small 16.5 block area marks Alonzo Horton’s expansionist movement which put San Diego on the map, and runs from Broadway to Harbor Drive, and from 4th to 6th Avenue. The Gaslamp Quarter is on the list of the National Register of Historic Places, and today you can see 94 different buildings in this cozy quarter, replete with real gas lanterns and all of which date back to Victorian times and have been used continually to modern day. Largely cosmopolitan in nature, this area is a great place to see the vibrant heart of San Diego, with wonderful Italian restaurants, cafes, art galleries, and the author’s personal favorite – The Shout House dueling piano bar.
Balboa Park is another great San Diego experience. This large and expansive outdoor park offers a variety of activities for the young and old. As soon as guests enter the beautiful and ornate visitor’s center, they are immediately impressed upon as to the importance San Diegans place on this magnificent park. The world-famous San Diego Zoo lives here, as does the Balboa Park carousel, the Japanese Friendship Garden, and the Museum of Photographic Arts (an excellent stop). The park always has many things going on, lots of featured exhibits, and plenty to keep everyone entertained. You could easily spend a weekend here and not feel like it was too much.
Another Must Do is to simply walk the beach. Really. With San Diego’s proximity to the beach, its large naval presence, and the adjoining cliffs, it would really be a shame to miss out on such ripe opportunity for sunset (or sunrise) walking. The Sunset Cliffs Natural Park highlights the beauty of the area, and offers guests a chance to hike the chaparral cliffs of California along the tides of the world’s largest ocean.
What to Eat
San Diego is a metropolitan city and, like any big city, there’s enough of a food selection to fill just about anybody’s appetite. That being said, your question of what to eat becomes more the question of “where to eat?”
If you find yourself in Little Italy (and you should, especially since it’s right next door to the Gaslamp Quarter), consider stopping into Extraordinary Desserts and trying their chocolate croissant bread pudding. Starting with a dessert? If it’s this good, yes. You are on vacation, after all.
If it’s burger’s you’re in the mood for, head on down to Rocky’s Crown Pub in Pacific Beach. This $6 burger is no frills but all delicious, nestled in with a bunch of locals in a neighborhood atmosphere.
And last, but definitely not least, while in San Diego, you must try a Raspado. Consider Respado Mexico’s version of the snowcone. You could call them a traditional favorite, but one which comes in unique flavors like chamoy and tamarind.