If you’re looking for California sunshine, rich culture and burritos, there’s no better place than San Diego. This charming city will always have a piece of my heart. I spent four years in college exploring this town, and I still miss it to this day (the Mexican food…oh the MEXICAN FOOD!) See the best of this city with these 25 things to do in San Diego.
1. Explore the Gaslamp Quarter
Over 100 bars, restaurants and shops line this historic district in the heart of downtown San Diego, making it one of the most popular places in the city. You can spend all day there getting lost in the shops, but at night…bars, bars, bars. Nighttime in Gaslamp gets its own special mention. Parking is nearly impossible on a weekend night, but if you can spring for a hotel in the area, there’s no better place in San Diego to party the night away.
Coronado is my favorite spot in San Diego, hands down. Ocean views, eclectic homes, and surf-style shops and snack spots line this island, which is also home to U.S. Naval Base Coronado (where they train those strapping Navy SEALS). However Coronado’s grand gem is the Hotel Del Coronado, a stunning resort made famous by its grand architecture and long list of prestigious guests. It is also said to be haunted, with reports of strange activity in room 3372.
3. Balboa Park
For a dose of culture, visit Balboa Park. Gorgeous gardens, walking paths/running trails and museums abound in this historic hub, which is also home to San Diego Zoo. Wander the themed gardens and stop in for a show at the Old Globe Theater alongside local San Diegans, or visit one of Balboa’s sixteen museums (my favorites are the Museum of Art and the Air & Space Museum).
4. San Diego Zoo
Speaking of Balboa Park, you really can’t visit San Diego without paying a visit to the many animals (3,700+) of the epic San Diego Zoo. World-famous, the San Diego Zoo is the largest in the world and really has something for everyone – from bears, to elephants, to zebras, to penguins, oh my!
5. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
An extension of the San Diego Zoo, this safari park is located about 45 minutes northeast and highlights exotic animals in free range enclosures – mirroring their natural habitat more than the average zoo enclosure. Animals featured include giraffes, rhinos, antelope, lions, tigers, gorillas and more.
6. Old Town
While touristy, this is a personal favorite former haunt of mine. Old Town San Diego celebrates the early days of this city, which was the first European settlement on the West Coast. Heavily influenced by its Spanish colonial history, and its present-day southern neighbor, Mexico, this place is full of rich history and the Mexican food in this district is out of this world.
TIP: Do yourself a favor and stop in at Fiesta De Reyes, which features live music, fresh handmade tortillas, and the best crispy tacos you’ve ever had in your life. Other must-sees include the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the Whaley House – widely considered one of the most haunted places in California.
7. Baseball Game at Petco Park
Home of the San Diego Padres, this stunning stadium sits right on the Harbor, providing incredible views that are almost good enough to distract you from the game!
8. Shelter Island
Shelter Island is an ideal date location. Spend the evening wandering the docks and gazing at the yachts and superyachts docked there, while listening to live music. For a romantic meal, make reservations at the gorgeous Vessel Restaurant + Bar at Resort Kona Kai. For a more casual meal, drop by Fathom Bistro Bait & Tackle for an ice cold beer and piping hot brats and burgers.
9. Little Italy
Formerly an Italian fishing neighborhood, modern day Little Italy has retained its roots, and is now a mecca for amazing Italian food and family-run shops. The neighborhood has frequent festivals and markets in the streets. I’ve never had a bad meal here, but Buon Appetito and Mimmo’s are local favorites for a good Italian dinner.
10. Whale Watching
Boat tours abound in San Diego, and my favorites are the whale watching tours. Whale watching season is pretty much year round in this region, so no matter when you visit, you can kick back in awe of these amazing creatures.
11. Surf Lessons
Surfing is a huge part of San Diego culture, so why not partake by snagging a few lessons while you’re in town? With dozens of surf schools and private coaches lining the coast, you can find decently priced lessons just about anywhere in SD. Surf’s up!
12. Climb Cowles Mountain
If you’re up for a little challenge, this moderate hike will reward you with amazing views of the San Diego valley. The hike’s finale is its 1,593-foot summit, which is the highest point in the city of San Diego. The trail is well maintained, but gets really crowded on weekends. If you can, try to make the trek on a weekday!
13. Mission Beach Boardwalk
If you’re seeking sun, surf, and sand, you’ll find it at Mission Beach. The quintessential California beach experience is waiting for you here, where you’ll find sun-bathers and surfers, snack shacks, boardwalk performers, bars and roller coasters.
14. Pacific Beach Bar Hopping
A weekly affair for college students in the area, bar hopping in Pacific Beach is a (young) local favorite. Start on Mission Blvd and make your way east to Garnet Ave. You’ll find no shortage of pubs, tasting rooms, and tapas stops to keep you going all night long.
15. Eat Fish Tacos
Fish tacos are classic beach fuel in San Diego. They became popular after surfers were introduced to them while on surf trips in Mexico. They began selling them in little shacks on San Diego beaches, and the rest is history! You can find them all over in SD, but one great spot to grab them is Oscar’s Mexican Seafood.
16. Mexican Food Quest
With heavy influence from its Spanish colonial roots and its neighbor to the south, San Diego has its own brand of Mexican food that is simply irresistible. Hit these local favorite Mexican joints (specializing in tacos and burritos) to see what all the fuss is about:
- Tako Factory
- Taco Surf Taco Shop
- El Zarape (college area favorite)
- Casa De Reyes at Fiesta De Reyes (touristy, but amazing crispy tacos/strong margaritas)
- Miguel’s Cocina (instead of salsa, they serve their chips with jalapeño white cheese sauce and it’s omg.)
17. Seaport Village
If you’re looking for a taste of San Diego, Seaport Village has it all in one spot. Striking harbor views, delicious restaurants, and unique shopping make this spot a must-see. Jump on the carousel, grab a melt-in-your-mouth burger at San Diego Burger Company, stop to watch a live band, painter or magician at work, or just picnic and people watch in this bustling area.
18. USS Midway Museum and Unconditional Surrender Statue
Brush up on your U.S. naval history at the USS Midway Museum. Climb aboard the USS Midway, a former commissioned aircraft carrier, for a self-guided tour. You’ll explore the officers’ quarters, bridge, brig, engine rooms and more, and have the chance to climb inside the cockpits of real military aircraft. Wrap up the visit with an obligatory “kiss picture” in front of the Unconditional Surrender statue — a tribute to the famous World War II photo of the same name.
19. Fleet Week
Home to a handful of military bases, San Diego has a strong military presence and a long history of patriotism. No event celebrates this quite like Fleet Week, which runs from September to October each year. Parades and events like the Miramar Air Show, Bootcamp Challenge, and Fleet Week Coronado Speed Festival make this a can’t-miss celebration each year, honoring the USA’s men and women in uniform. P.S. If you’re looking for a solider boyfriend, this is the place to be. Not that I would know…I’ve never done that. 😉
20. Roasting S’mores at the Fire Pits of Mission Bay
One of my strangest and funniest memories of Sophomore Year was hitting the Mission Bay Fire Pits one night with a school club (I knew absolutely no one!) and roasting S’mores. I’d love to return there someday with close friends and toast the night away in front of the fire!
21. Del Mar Race Track
For a day of excitement and risk-taking, play the ponies at Del Mar, an American Thoroughbred horse racing track. Dine at one of the swanky trackside restaurants, or sip a “Del Margarita” or a “Del Martini” as the horses speed past. Race season runs July to September.
22. Cruise on the Bahia Belle
The Bahia Belle is a turn-of-the-century, Mississippi-style sternwheeler (think Mississippi riverboat!) that cruises around Mission Bay. For $10 USD, you can board the Belle and unwind on the observation deck, while taking in primo views of the city. Night cruises are also available, featuring live music and a cash bar.
23. Hike the Trails at Torrey Pines
While this is really more of a walk than a hike, the trails at Torrey Pines run along the ocean and make for a lovely way to unwind. With many scenic overlooks, there are unique and picturesque oceans views around every corner. Go early in the morning or mid-evening to catch sunrise or sunset from these trails – both are stunning!
24. La Jolla
Ritzy and fashionable, this affluent town (home to the above mentioned Torrey Pines State Reserve) is perfect for a fancy night out. Graze through shops and high-end art galleries downtown, and wrap up the evening with a sunset stroll on the beach. While you’re there, check out two of the trendiest places to eat in La Jolla: The Promiscuous Fork and Prepkitchen.
25. Day Trip to Tijuana, Mexico
Admittedly, this was considered much safer when I first started college, as drug wars have created the perception that this trip is a risky one these days. Still, Tijuana is just across the Mexican border (about an hour south of San Diego), and is a fantastic place to visit. Use your street smarts and don’t do anything stupid, and you’ll be just fine there. Don’t forget to grab a street taco (or five)!
Have you visited San Diego? What’s on your San Diego bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!
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