San Diego is a very unique city for the United States. This is my favorite city in California and one of the most beloved in the country. There is unusual architecture, a fairly large historic center highlighting the Mexican settlement of the 18th century, incredible parks with gorgeous architectural ensembles and Coronado Island – a beautiful recreational and a historic area. Additionally, the cleanliness and tranquility of the Pacific coast creates an exceptionally vibrant charm. As opposed to Los Angeles and San Francisco – no homeless people are scattered on the streets, everything is relatively compact and there are the most beautiful beaches in California, where you can actually swim unlike most of the state. In general, this city is clearly in the category of must see.
How to get there
If you are already in California, your best option is a car. Of course there is a fairly large international airport, from which you can reach the city center by bus in just 15 minutes. As another option you can fly to Los Angeles and drive 2 hours to San Diego (if you avoid traffic), which is very close for American standards. Orange County Airport is an alternative option, which is about an hour drive from San Diego. The airport is small but pretty comfortable. However, it has strange rules, for example, there are exact hours when airplanes can fly, because of nearby Newport city, where the rich and famous people live who do not want to be disturbed by the terrible airplane sounds. Instead they want to have convenient access to their homes, and of course they need a nearby place for their private jets. Anyway, tickets to Orange County could be much cheaper than other airports, so check it out.
What to see
The city is actually not so big, and potentially it could be great one-day trip. However, if you want to see everything in detail it will take a lot more time. So.
Balboa Park. I honestly do not understand at all how something like this could even appear in the US. There is a mix of very European style with great tinges and patterns of Mexican and Asian influences. Incredibly beautiful and huge. There are 16 museums – science, art, history, photography, Air & Space, even the Comic Con Museum. Just in these areas, you could wander for a long-long time. But that’s not all. There are 19 thematic natural parks – the park of cactuses (which is like a tree in the desert), the Australian park, the Japanese garden, the palm canyon, the rose garden, etc. And all of this is surrounded with great architecture. In addition: one of the best zoos in the world is located here, also here you can ride a mini-train, enjoy one of the oldest carousel in the US, and explore culture while you visit the row of national houses or replica of the Shakespearean Theater Globe, enjoy organ concerts, ballet, – just name it. And all of this is interspersed with magnificent fountains. The slogan on the official website says that this is a place where history turns into art, and I think that they were very successful to implement this idea. You can take a walk for free, and actually just walking around can be enough for the whole day. Museums and additional entertainment will cost you extra expenses for tickets. Details can be found here: https://www.balboapark.org
The second place required to visit is the Old town – an extraordinary colorful Mexican settlement, where you could wander for at least half a day. On the official website it says that California began here. Founded in 1769, it really has not changed. Numerous buildings have been converted into small museums, where you can learn about everyday life and the history of the city and state. The area recreates how things were back then – property of the Mexican landlord, the old court building, restaurants, as they looked almost 200 years ago. The area also has one of the oldest hotels which is still operating (Cosmopolitan). The small shops are in the same buildings with the same interior that they had a few centuries ago. This is where, for example, you can buy unique cigars, which continue to be produced exclusively for particular shop. And of course the food court – colorful, filled with ethnic entertainments, and waiters in ethnic Mexican clothes and not that expensive by the way. Details can be read here:
The next location worth visiting is the Gaslamp Quarter. It is also considered to be an old historic part of the city, but from a much later period. It is located in the downtown part of San Diego. It has renovated houses, mostly in Victorian style, an unreal number of excellent restaurants, each with its own individual character, many have famous chefs, and clubs for different tastes. It is also area for various festivals. In general, a very touristy, but beautiful place. It’s hard to say how long you can stay here – you can walk around the entire area in an hour, and then everything depends on what you want to do – to eat, drink, have fun or move on. Details can be found here: https://www.gaslamp.org/
Nearby is the “spacey” architecture of the Convention center and the famous Petco park, which is actually a stadium (if you can get up there, you have a wonderful view of the city). It is interesting too just look at these buildings.
And here you can find information about free tours for this part of the city https://alaslampfoundation.org/?gclid=CjwKCAiA767jBRBqEiwAGdAOr8FMv1AtJv5rFodKp3hdt9u9UNFJKJ739mQTW42aFurVlW1DMHTWuxoCIPgQAvD_BwE
Ultimately there is famous Coronado island. Coronado is an island literally across the bridge from downtown San Diego. By the way, the construction itself has the unique design, because a large naval base is located in the harbor of San Diego. The bridge is constructed in a way which give possibilities for serious warships to sail under. When I was crossing this bridge for the first time, I was silently squeaking. My husband does not agree with the word “silently”, but I want to believe in it 🙂 The bridge is factually a huge semicircle with a height of 61 m (200 ft.). It’s hard to believe that it was built in the 60’s of the last century.
I can recommend also walking through the beautiful coast, which begins right after the bridge on the island – the views are just wonderful, including the San Diego panorama.
There are controversies whether this is an island or peninsula, because technically it is connected to the mainland by a tombolo called the Silver Strand, but this construction arose due to the efforts of the military after the Second World War, so the territory traditionally continues to be called the island.
This place started to be popular at the end of the 19th century, when it was bought by a couple of Americans who founded the resort here. And first of all, they built in just 1 year !!! the magnificent building of the Coronado Hotel (1888), which still operational. It is the oldest and largest completely wooden structure in the United States. The unique and wonderful building is located on one of the most beautiful beaches in America. It has been a favorite of many celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Madonna and Oprah. Actually, I think that they stayed at one of the many houses that are part of the hotel complex, each with a bunch of personal amenities.
It is a pleasure just to have a walk here or swim. You can also freely explore the hotel’s interior which was designed by famous architects and has been fully preserved. There are also numerous shops on the first floor and it is interesting to just to stroll around. There are bunch of restaurants which offer excellent food, and there is a cafeteria with a country’s famous ice cream.
You definitely have to visit and walk around this area. This trip may take a whole day. Details and more photos can be found here: http://coronadovisitorcenter.com/
Another great beach that can compete with the Coronado for the title of the best is located on the territory of the University of California San Diego. If you google an address at 8610 Kennel Way, La Jolla, CA, you will be taken directly to a student cafe that looks like a great restaurant right on the Pacific coast, where you can have a great lunch for a student price and it is with a really beautiful view. In addition to the unbelievable panorama, the beach has small waves, which makes it great for swimming. If you add to that the sand on the beach is literally with golden specs – I think I convinced that the place is worth visiting.
Well, if you have time and interest – you can stroll around campus. It is a wonderful park with interesting architecture, some buildings are just absolutely unique. I do not really understand how student can study there, because it is a territory more like a world-class resort than an educational institution. By the way, we were told that there are still students who already cannot finish their studies for 7-8 years, because of one reason – they really like to live here.
I must say that these two are certainly not the only beaches of San Diego, there are many more. Actually, there is beach in the downtown area, others are a little further, each one is well equipped and has its own unique view, so for those interested, you can find more details here: www. sandiego.org/explore/things-to-do/beaches-bays.aspx
These were my TOP-must-to-do in San Diego.
What else can I recommend?
Walking along the Seaport village, it is an area of 14 acres on the shore of the bay reconstructed as a historic fishing settlement. There is an unreal number of stores, so if you are interested in good shopping with a great view – it is the right place. Also, this is another great option for lunch or dinner – there are a lot of perfect restaurants. Details are here https://www.seaportvillage.com/
From there you can also take the Hornblower 2 hours’ cruise along San Diego Bay with champagne or cocktail. The cost is $42, but they often sell tickets on Groupon, so I recommend to check there. Details are here: https://www.hornblower.com
Sea World is another interesting place – it is an amusement park that includes a magnificent inside and outside oceanarium, a lot of other entertainment options like roller-coasters or water park. It is a really great complex for all ages, but what makes it unique is the possibility of interaction with different animals (you have to plan it and buy separate tickets). The cost of tickets may be different, there are offers – for several people, entry + food, etc. Details can be found here https://seaworld.com/san-diego/
Transport in the city
Of course, the most convenient way to move around the city is by car and those are relatively easy to rent in the US everywhere. The most popular place to rent is usually the airport if you flying in. However, it’s worth checking other offers near the airport as sometimes a 15 minute Uber ride to an off airport location can save you money and often you can return that car right at the airport.
Additionally, there are other options for transportation. First of all, San Diego has a pretty good public transport system, so despite the relatively small size of the city it could be a good option. Google map can help you with that, or you can read about transport in more detail here: https://www.smartdestinations.com/blog/getting-around-san-diego-2/ or here: https://www.sandiego.org/articles/transportation/public.aspx
System of electric scooters is spreading across California pretty fast and it is a very cool option for moving around the city. It works very easily, through an App. I do not know if you can get from downtown to Balboa Park in this way, but you definitely can use it to see a part of the city or just zoom around. There are couple companies battling with each other as well as with government regulatory agencies, but this is a separate story. Anyway, here are sites of two, perhaps, the largest ones: https://www.bird.co and https://www.li.me. Both are quite active throughout the world – each already operate in more than 100 cities, so probably for some of you it will be good idea during other travels.
Of course you can use Uber and Lyft which is already a standard.
It makes no sense to write about food separately – you can find something suitable in all of the places listed above, they are full of excellent restaurants for all tastes and costs. In the same time, it’s hard for me to believe that somewhere may not be tasty – usually everywhere food is fresh and cooked with love, I was never disappointed.
For accommodation, downtown is the best choice (you will have easy access to everything), unless you want to be on the beach. Here are plenty variations from hostels to expensive hotels. The average cost of a hotel is 80-100 dollars per night.
For some reason, San Diego is not full of tourists like in other cities, especially Los Angeles or San Francisco, which is also a significant advantage.
In general, the city leaves an unbelievable impression of simultaneous relaxation and cultural diversity. I would say that from whole California, besides national parks, San Diego is one of the best places to visit.