Skyline of San Diego from a harbor cruise

The Ultimate Guide to Things to do in San Diego

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This is one of our favorite cities on the planet. Italians talk about la dolce vita – and nowhere is that spirit more present than here. This fun, relaxed city has an abundance of activities and the weather is amazing! We’re a little biased – Laura’s sister lives here and we go out frequently to visit, but we never tire of taking in the San Diego highlights! Here are our top things to do in San Diego.

Woman on the front porch of the Whaley House waving at the Old Town Trolley Tour
Old Town

Things to Do in San Diego

Old Town Trolley Tour

A great way to get an overview of the city and take in the highlights is the hop-on/hop-off Old Town Trolley Tour. This narrated two-hour driving tour includes all the points of interest: Old Town State Historic Park, the Harbor, Seaport Village, Horton Plaza, Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado Island, Balboa Park, and Little Italy.

Overall, I was very impressed with the Trolley Tour. When we travel, we tend to be pretty independent and eschew these kind of tours. However, I can say that after many trips here over the years, I definitely learned a few things about the city and definitely enjoyed myself. This is a great way to start your trip!

The green and orange Old Town Trolley
You can’t miss the colorful trolley

The Zoo

At the top of many people’s list is the Zoo. This world-renowned institution is truly something to see. In full disclosure, we really dislike zoos, but this one was pretty good. I don’t like the animals in concrete cages and there wasn’t much of that (except the rhinos and giraffes, which were so sad). The gorilla experience was great! We got to watch them play and eat their own feces! (Always a good time!)

Giraffe in a zoo
The Giraffes are a highlight

The Craft Beer Scene

This is the self-styled craft beer capital of the United States (other cities have more breweries and produce more beer – but don’t tell that to the folks here). However, the brewers here produce some exceptionally fine brews, mostly hop-heavy India Pale Ales (IPAs).

Stone Brewing is the regional heavyweight and (arguably) the most popular of the breweries in the area, but the smaller breweries like Arcana Brewing Company and Half Door Brewing Co. are turning out some seriously good beer. If craft beer is your thing, check out our article on San Diego breweries.

Tasting flight at a local craft brewery
Have a beer, or try a flight

The Museum of Contemporary Art

If you’re looking for culture, you should check out the Museum of Contemporary Art. During one of our visits, the museum was showing the exhibit Phenomenal: California, Light, Space, Surface. I love contemporary art and the MCASD is a great museum – two buildings across the street from each other housing about 12 large rooms.

This temporary exhibit prominently featured the work of local artist Robert Irwin, but I found Doug Wheeler’s large scale work “DW 68 VEN MCASD11” to be enthralling. The museum describes the piece as “a total surround of disembodied luminescence,” but I found the experience to be a bit like lying on the bottom of a swimming pool and staring up at the light at the surface. The Museum of Contemporary Art always has special exhibits, so stop in and check out some really cool art!

Doug Wheeler’s “DW 68 VEN MCASD11”
Doug Wheeler’s “DW 68 VEN MCASD11”

San Diego Harbor Cruise on Hornblower Cruises

A great way to spend an afternoon in the city is on the water with a cruise of San Diego Bay. The Hornblower Cruises operates pleasure and dinner cruises right from downtown next to the Midway Museum. Hornblower Cruises offers three options: South Bay (featuring the Coronado Bridge, Naval base and is great for military buffs), North Bay (featuring the points of interest in town, sea lions and Point Loma), and a two-hour both North and South Bay cruise.

The North Bay cruise seems to be more popular, although we did the South Bay and were very pleased with it. This cruise is certainly one of the great San Diego highlights and is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Passing an aircraft carrier on a Hornblower cruise in the harbor

San Diego Marina

Above all else, this is a naval and maritime city. And the beating heart of this city is the marina. Here is where locals run along the water and come to see or be seen. It’s also no surprise that the world’s elite like to make a port of call here in the luxury yachts.

On one of our trips, we were able to see Roman Abramovich’s Motor Yacht Luna (M/Y Luna) in all it’s glroy. Staring at the pretty blue hull, I found myself day-dreaming that this would be our luxury private yacht charter. I can dream, right?

At 115 meters in length and a reported $300 million price tag, the M/Y Luna sets the bar for luxury yacht travel. She has multiple decks, helicopter landing pad, and a massive rear deck with a covered swimming pool. With this yacht, we could travel in style! If the Luna is a bit too ostentatious for you, there’s lots of other yachts in the marina to dream over.

Roman Abramovich’s Motor Yacht Luna (M/Y Luna) in the harbor

Padres Games

In the summers, you can find most of the city at the ballpark for a Padres Game. In fact, going to a Padres game is one of the top things to do in San Diego at night. The stadium is in the heart of downtown, making pre- and post-game partying extremely convenient. We were there for a Cubs game, which the Padres won, but the Cubs fans outnumbered Padres fans at least 3 to 1 in the stands. There wasn’t the hostility you see in other ballparks and everyone was having fun.

But, as we’ve traveled the country visiting MLB stadiums, we notice every one of them has something unique. At Petco Field for the Padres, they have a whole section of All You Can Eat Seats. The whole concept was a little gross, but I guess the folks here are into it. As a bonus, they do fireworks after the game. You can never have enough fireworks!

A Padres game at Petco Park
Padres game

Day Trips from San Diego

La Jolla and La Jolla Cove

The charming village of La Jolla is located about a half hour north of downtown San Diego. You could spend a whole day wandering the main Street, shopping, eating at the incredible restaurants and people watching at La Jolla Cove. When it comes to Southern California, many people naturally think of the beach.

However, La Jolla is not one of best beaches in San Diego. It’s too rocky. But it is the perfect place for watersports! You can enjoy swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, and stand-up paddle boarding here. There’s many great beaches, but you come to La Jolla for the village and the recreation.

People in sea kayaks and scuba diving in La Jolla Cove

Escondido and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

You can also do a number of great side trips from San Diego. A very popular trip is to visit Escondido, where you can visit the San Diego Safari Park. This is run by the local zoo, but it’s much more natural and humane. You could really call it the Wild Animal Park, because the animals do feel wild and free. Many of the animals roam freely in large enclosures instead of concrete “habitats” at the main zoo. On your way back into the city, you can stop at some of the many wineries in the region.

Julian

In the autumn, a great day trip from San Diego is Apple Days in Julian, California. In the mountains east of the city, apples are a staple crop and the town of Julian is at the center of this industry. In the fall, the town hosts Apple Days and day-trippers come from all over Southern California to partake in the amazing apple pie produced here. It really is worth the trip!

Woman on Potato Chip Rock on Mt. Woodson
View from Potato Chip Rock (Photo: Patti Morrow. Used with permission)

Mt. Woodson and Potato Chip Rock

If the outdoors are more your scene, consider hiking up Mt Woodson to see Potato Chip Rock. Mt Woodson is north and east of the city and towers above Lake Poway. While the summit of Mt Woodsoon is covered in cell phone and radio towers, about 100 yards before the summit is a unique rock formation: Potato Chip Rock.

This thin, almost hallow sounding wafer of rock juts out from the side of the mountain. People walk (or crawl) out on it for amazing photos. And nearly every Instagram model needs to go out on the rock to do yoga. The hike up to the rock is very steep and takes about three hours. If you’re considering going, this Potato Chip Rock hiking guide has more information.

Tijuana

Tijuana, Mexico is 20 miles from the city, but it is miles apart. Lance first visited Tijuana in the 1980s. It was a gritty, dusty border town with dirt streets and a hard edge to it. In 2017, we returned to Tijuana. It’s like any other town in Mexico with shopping malls and a emerging affluence. Visiting Tijuana is still a great way to do some shopping on the cheap (top spots include Plaza Rio Tijuana, which is the classic market in town, as well as Mercado Hidalgo for food stuffs and Plaza Agua Caliente for knock-off designer brands).

A Tijuana day trip is a great way to spend the day. You can book an organized Tijuana tour, or do it on your own. To go independently, simply take the Trolley (a.k.a., the bright red tram) from the Gaslamp District to San Ysidro (46 minute ride), and walk across the border. From downtown San Diego to Tijuana will take you less than an hour.

Intersection of San Diego Street and California Street

San Diego Weekend Getaways

If you have some extra time and are looking to get out of town for few days, there are great places to visit nearby.

Guadalupe Valley

Two hours south of the city in Mexico is a deep, fertile valley that is absolutely perfect for making wine. Grapes have been planted here in Mexico since the colonial Mission period, but these days, fancy vineyards and tasting rooms are popping up to challenge the California wineries to the north.

As we discovered, the wines are fantastic and the climate is very reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Heading south of the border is a great weekend getaway from San Diego! Read our guide on the Valle de Guadalupe Wine Region.

A winery in the Guadalupe Valley

Where to Stay in San Diego

When it comes to where to stay, you really have three choices. First, there are the hotels near the Gaslamp District and Seaport Village. Second, there are hotels near San Diego Hotel Circle, in the Mission Valley. And third, there is everywhere else. Here are a few of our favorite hotels in San Diego.

Manchester Grand Hyatt

When it comes to San Diego hotels, our absolute favorite hotel is the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego. The twin towers of the Manchester Grand Hyatt are one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city since they tower over the marina and Seaport Village. The hotel is extremely convenient to the convention center (for everyone in town for Comic Con or another convention). We’ve stayed here probably a dozen times over the years and absolutely love the location! (Book a room here)

Embassy Suites San Diego Bay Downtown

If you love the location of the Manchester Grand Hyatt, but are looking for something a bit more economical, the Embassy Suites Downtown is across the street. It’s still extremely close to Seaport Village and is one a block further from the Gaslamp District. (Book a room here)

Hard Rock Hotel

If you want to be right in the center of it all, the Hard Rock Hotel is the place for you. Just one block of the Trolley line and in the absolute heart of the Gaslamp District, this hotel pulses with energy at all hours of the day. The modern décor and chic minimalism add to the uber-trendy vibe. (Book a room here)

The Sheraton Hotel & Marina

When it comes to local hotels, the Sheraton Hotel & Marina falls into the “everywhere else” category. This hotel is located across the road from the airport and is right on the water (hence the marina). It’s downtown, but not right in the heart of downtown.

Rooms are clean and comfortable, at rates that can be significantly cheaper than rooms right downtown. The one exception to that is that the hotel sometimes hosts conventions and events, which can drive up room rates. If you’re flexible on location, and willing to take an taxi/car service, this could be a great spot. (Book a room here)

The Courtyard by Marriott Mission Valley/Hotel Circle

Less than five miles from downtown is Hotel Circle. This loop straddles I-8/Mission Valley Expressway and has about a dozen budget hotels and motels. If you are looking for budget hotels, this is your spot. Some of these places are rather worn and a little gritty, however, the Courtyard Mission Valley is one at the top the range. Clean, safe and well-maintained, it makes a good base to explore the region. (Book a room here)

The Hotel del Coronado

This is arguably one of the most famous hotels in the world. It is certainly one of the most photographed. Located on Coronado Island in the harbor, “the del” (as it is known locally) occupies a prime Pacific beachfront location and has spectacular sunset views. It is definitely a hotel to linger and savor the ambiance, although the rooms are quite unremarkable (the hotel facilities are better than the rooms themselves). However, it’s the kind of place to splurge and enjoy the atmosphere. (Book a room here)

The iconic roof of the Hotel del Coronado

Where to Eat

When it comes to where to eat in town, you’re in luck – this town has literally hundreds of incredible restaurants.

Here are some of the best restaurants in San Diego:

Half Door Brewing Co

This craft brewery also serves exceptional food. Notable items here are the HDBC burger, which is one of the best burgers we’ve ever had. They also serve an incredible Fish and Chips, which is made with their own Colemans Stout. As a bonus, Half Door Brewing Co. is located just a few blocks from Petco Park, where the Padres play.

Puesto

There are several Puesto locations in the county, but the new location at The Headquarters at Seaport Village is conveniently located. Puesto is a Mexican street taco concept that serves fresh, homemade tortillas topped with delicious proteins (the al pastor is the best we’ve ever had).

Sally’s Fish House & Bar

This restaurant at the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel serves delicious salads and the best fish and chips we’ve ever had. With outdoor seating overlooking the marina, this is a great spot and it doesn’t feel like a hotel restaurant. From our experience, this is the only place to eat in Seaport Village.

Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers

When it comes to best burger in town, there’s tons of competition (including the near ubiquitous locations of Burger Lounge, the local burger joint). However, our vote for best quick serve burger is actually Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers, located just two blocks from the convention center.

Extraordinary Desserts

If you’ve got a sweet tooth, the best dessert in the city is a place called Extraordinary Desserts. There are several locations, but the original up on 5th Avenue in Bankers Hill is the best. Prepare to have your mind blown!

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