The Ultimate San Diego Travel Guide
San Diego – America’s Finest City, where the weather is perfect 300 days out of the year and the coastline views will take your breath away. I am blessed to call San Diego home for the past ten years and throughout that time I have scoured every corner of this city to find the best of the best. In this Ultimate San Diego Travel Guide, I’ll outline all the places to see in San Diego, the best times to visit, where to stay in San Diego, and other tips and tricks to make it your best trip yet!
When to Visit San Diego
San Diego weather is beautiful year-round so there is really no off-season. If you want to avoid high crowds I would recommend visiting in early March or mid-September – November. The hotel rates are lower during this time and the crowds are slim to none since the kids are back in school. June-August is the hottest months of the year as well as the peak of tourism.
Best Hotels in San Diego
While all opinions and recommendations are always my own, my content on this blog post may contain affiliate links for hotels I’ve traveled to, tours I’ve completed, and products I recommend. This means I get a small commission if you book a stay or purchase a product after clicking one of these links. As always, I am so thankful for your support and will continue to share the best properties, things to do, and items I love!
One of San Diego’s most iconic landmarks, the Hotel Del Coronado is a great place to stay. It’s located on the beach, is walking distance from the town of Coronado, and has a Victorian-style charm. Coronado is an island and a quick uber ride to Downtown, but it is an island so it’s not as centrally located as the rest of these hotels.
A secluded resort on Mission Bay, Paradise Point is lush, tranquil, and is perfect for a romantic getaway. It is close to Mission Beach and Pacific Beach but is situated on its own secluded 44-acre island. We’ve personally stayed here and would highly recommend this place! We even got engaged at the Paradise Point hotel so it will hold a special place in our hearts forever.
The Mediterranean-style hotel is also known as “the pink lady”. La Valencia is located atop the La Jolla Cove so it boasts panoramic views. This hotel looks like it belongs to the Amalfi Coast of Italy with a touch of Hollywood glamour.
A 30 story waterfront hotel located in Downtown San Diego right across from the San Diego convention center. If you’re looking to stay Downtown, this is a great option since it’s situated on the bay but is central to Downtown, San Diego. One of my favorite parts of this hotel is the pool that sits right on the bay.
A luxurious boutique hotel located in Downtown, San Diego. Their blend of historic charm and modern design makes this hotel so unique!
Things to Do in San Diego
The World Famous San Diego Zoo is home to over 3,500 species of animals. There are tons of activities for you to enjoy especially with your little ones. Make sure to take a ride on the Skyfari for sweeping views of the park (included in the ticket price).
Balboa Park is the heart of San Diego. This park covers 1200 acres and has multiple museums, a Japanese garden, and an organ Pavillion that puts on concerts year-round. I’ve written a complete insider’s blog post for all that Balboa Park has to offer. Check that out here for more information on visiting Balboa Park.
A short ferry ride from Downtown, Coronado is a great place for a day trip! It’s a small charming town that is family-friendly and has a great restaurant scene. Rent a bike to explore the ferry landing, beautiful homes, or post up at the beach for the day. Make sure not to miss the Hotel Del Coronado. It’s iconic and the movie “Some Like it Hot” was filmed at “The Del” (as the locals call it) and Marilyn Monroe actually stayed here. They pay homage to her in a couple of the shops at The Del.
Fun fact: Coronado was the inspiration for the “Emerald City” in The Wizard of Oz. The author, L. Frank Baum, had a summer home in Coronado where he wrote his famous novel around the corner from the historic Hotel Del Coronado.
The historic Old Town district is a state park that re-creates life in the early days of California. Take a step back through time as you visit these old-time shops and authentic Mexican restaurants.
La Jolla, California
La Jolla translates to “the jewel” and it is just that – the jewel of San Diego. With sweeping coastline views, a beach that hundreds of sea-lions and seals call home, and beautiful coves to discover, you can easily spend a couple of days here.
Gaslamp Quarter, Downtown San Diego
A lively downtown neighborhood that is known for its nightlife. There is no shortage of clubs, cocktail lounges, and dive bars in the Gaslamp. Not only that, but some of the best dining options San Diego has to offer is located in the Gaslamp Quarter.
It’s all in the name, one of the best places to catch a sunset in San Diego is Sunset Cliffs. Located on the border of Ocean Beach and Point Loma, this park has beautiful beaches, a walking trail along the coast, and dramatic cliffside views.
Right near the airport this little island is great for sweeping views of downtown. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic, walk, or just to post up in the evening to watch the city light up. The view pictured above was taken at Coasterra Restaurant.
Best Beaches in San Diego
Located in a residential part of La Jolla, this beach is hands down my favorite beach in the entire world. It’s quieter than most of the San Diego beaches and my favorite part of this beach is the cute palapa that surfers built back in the 1950s. It’s a prime spot for sunset chasing!
La Jolla Shores
Family-friendly beach with an easily accessible parking lot. Views of the Scripps Pier as well as the dramatic cliffsides of Torrey Pines. On a clear day, you can even see hang-gliders taking off from Torrey Pines Glider Point.
A local beach with a short hike to get down to the water making it a surfer’s haven. There are certain parts of this beach that are nude beach so be prepared. But as long as you stay near the La Jolla Farm street entrance, you’ll be good.
Located on the border of Pacific Beach and La Jolla, this is a less-touristy beach that is popular with the surfers. It has beautiful coastline views of La Jolla and a free parking lot.
A family-friendly beach located on the island of Coronado close to the Hotel Del Coronado. Street parking is usually easy to find unless it’s a holiday weekend.
Best Restaurants in San Diego
San Diego is no longer just known for its Mexican food and tacos. The San Diego restaurant scene has evolved over the past few years and it’s more diverse and delicious as ever. Here are some new and noteworthy restaurants to check out in San Diego:
images above via Conde Nast Traveler, Eater San Diego, and San Diego Union Tribune
- Herb & Wood ($$$) – Upscale rustic, wood-fired dishes
- Born & Raised ($$$) – American, Steaks
- Craft & Commerce ($$) – American, Cocktail bar with a Hawaiian-inspired speakeasy in the back (False Idol).
- Coasterra ($$) – Mexican, coastal views
- Cucina Urbana – ($$) Rustic Italian
- Fort Oak – ($$$) Wood-fired small plates, cocktail bar
- Kindred – ($$) Vegan, cocktail bar ($$)
- Starlite – ($$) Small tapas, cocktail bar
- The Flamingo Bar ($$) a fun hotspot located near the beach with delicious cocktails and great plates to share
Casual Dining in San Diego
Since San Diego is a casual town, I wanted to share the top casual dining spots to check out when you’re on the go in San Diego:
- Kono’s Cafe ($$) – My favorite casual breakfast spot in San Diego. This is a local’s only spot and worth the long line every time. I recommend the Big Breakfast #2.
- Rubicon Deli ($$) – Artisanal sandwiches made with in-house bread. Try the Dutch Crunch bread, it’s to die for!
- Little Lion Cafe ($$) – A charming cafe near the beach.
- Underbelly ($$) – Delicious ramen, outdoor seating.
- The Crack Shack ($$) – Fried chicken and egg dishes, outdoor seating
- Lolitas ($) – Best Mexican food in San Diego. The bean and cheese burrito is iconic to locals.
- Ramiro’s Pacific Beach ($) A hole in the wall a block from the beach but have the best breakfast burritos in San Diego, hands down!
- Lucha Libre ($$) – Delicious tacos with Mexican wrestling-inspired decor (hence the name). Their french fry taco is delicious!
Brunch in San Diego
Brunch in San Diego is kind of a big deal. Not only do these restaurants have delicious meals but some of them are so Instagram worthy that the wait time could be up to two hours.
images above via San Diego Union-Tribune and Eater
- Morning Glory ($$$) – Pink hues, light-filled, and mid-century decor including an entire mirrored bathroom. This brunch spot is currently THE San Diego hotspot. The souffle pancakes are a hit!
- Great Maple ($$$) – 1950’s vibe well known for its comfort food.
- Hash House ($$) – A San Diego staple known for its large sharing size plates.
- Cafe 21 ($$) – Farm to table restaurant with vegan options.
- Brian’s 24 ($$) – Classic diner-style spot located in Downtown, San Diego.
- Bali Hai ($$$)- Sundays are their signature buffet-style brunch with endless mimosas and water views. It costs $48 a person, and is well worth it!
- The Henry Coronado ($$) – located down the block from the iconic Hotel Del this new hotspot is great for brunch, grab the french toast, and thank me later!
San Diego also has amazing coffee shops and I’ve dedicated an entire blog post to the best coffee shops in San Diego. Check that out here!
What to Pack for San Diego
San Diego has warm temperatures year long so you’ll want to always have these items on hand no matter when you’re traveling to San Diego:
- Bathing Suits: Being that SD is a coastal destination you want to always be prepared by bringing bathing suits. I always find quality suits that last for a few seasons at aerie, revolve, amazon, and cupshe.
- Sunscreen: This GOOP FACE SUNSCREEN BRUSH is perfect for traveling because it adds SPF to your face all while not messing up your makeup. It’s my new holy grail product and you need to add this one to your packing list! Also, my daily moisturizer with SPF is incredible for traveling + every day!
- Flowy Dresses: These really come in handy when the temperatures are high in the spring/summer. My favorite white dress for photos is linked here, here + here.
- A wide brim sun hat: I love this one from Brixton I have it in multiple colors. Also, I’ve been eyeing this Lack of Color Boater Hat and I just purchased and it has easily become my new favorite!
- Sandals: These chic sandals are my favorite because they’re timeless, affordable, and comfortable all at the same time. A win-win if you ask me! You can also check out Olukai because their flip-flops are super comfortable and a little more casual.
- A light jacket. This one from HM is affordable and oversized!
- Shorts: Abercrombie has the best shorts for all sizes and shapes. Check out my favorite curve love shorts here and here. I also love my Levi cut-offs they’re so classic and never go out of style.
- Basics: I always find the best basics at either Free People, Abercrombie, and HM. It’s nice to have some neutral tees and tanks handy during your stay.
Best Hikes in San Diego
Torrey Pines is home to one of the most famous golf courses in the US. Not only that, but Torrey Hines is great for hiking. The trails are moderate and offer picturesque views of the coastline. You can find free parking along the beach road but the lot costs $10 to park in.
Potato Chip Rock: Mt. Woodson
Located in Poway, this hike takes you to a rock shaped like a potato chip. Because of that, people flock here on the weekends and you can sometimes wait 30 minutes for a picture. Roundtrip the hike is 8 miles with beautiful views. It’s free to residents but costs $10 for non-residents.
Three Sister Falls
A challenging hike to get to but you are rewarded with waterfalls and a swimming hole in the end. You most definitely need to be in shape as well as have some sort of rock bouldering knowledge to hike this trail. I myself have yet to do this hike but it’s been on my list for years!
Local Spots in San Diego
These local spots are usually kept secret because the locals like to keep them on the down-low (shhhhhhh). However, I’m going to let you in on this secret San Diego. If you’re looking for unique things to do then check these spots out!
The secret swing is a San Diego legend and is pretty easy to find if you know where to look. It’s located at the south end of the Birch Aquarium parking lot. There you will find a small footbridge between two bushes and a hill. Hike about 100 feet to the top and the swing will be there. There have been many times where this swing was taken down so don’t be too disappointed if that happens to you. Last visited June 2021 when this picture was taken.
Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave
image above via California Through My Lens
An underground tunnel that gets you to Sunny Jim Cave in La Jolla, the largest cave in town. There is a small fee ($5) to use the stairs to get you down to the cave but it’s well worth the price for one of, if not the coolest part of La Jolla.
Sunset Cliffs Open Ceiling Cave
image above via California Through my Lens
One of those places that you have to see to believe. This massive sea cave is an incredible spot to check out. It’s extremely difficult to reach and can only be done during the negative tide. This article outlines how to get to the open ceiling cave. Before attempting to do so, make sure you are a skilled swimmer, have some rock climbing knowledge, and have the proper gear.
Scripps Coastal Meander
This trail is a short one but the views are quite breathtaking. The wildflowers and sweeping views of the coast are worth the visit even on a cloudy day. If you walk the entirety of the trail you will come across a student building that has the most epic sunsets (pictured in the middle). On a clear day, you can catch paragliders cruising. It’s the perfect spot to post up for a coffee and take in the beautiful La Jolla views.
address: Scripps Institution of Oceanography 9234-9218, La Jolla Shores Dr, La Jolla, CA 92037
Harper’s Topiary Garden
This unique garden is reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands garden. Another fun free thing to do in San Diego. Please note, it’s on a quiet residential street so be respectful of the neighborhood.
address: 3549 Union St, San Diego, CA 92103
Thank you for reading my “Ultimate San Diego Travel Guide”. If you have any questions please leave them below and I will be happy to answer. I hope this helps you plan the perfect trip to America’s Finest City. Check out more of California guides here!
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