When you think of cities in California, San Diego would probably be one of the first names that comes to mind. If not, then it definitely should be! San Diego has some of the best year-round weather in the United States, and there are countless activities, dining options, and entertainment opportunities to explore.Stephanie and I have both visited San Diego on our own multiple times over the years, but we visited together for the first time in May 2018 when Stephanie was speaking at a conference. If you only have two or three days, you can still see and do a lot around town. Here are some of the places we love visiting in San Diego.
Things to See in San Diego
► Gaslamp Quarter
Like many people, the Gaslamp is one of our favorite neighborhoods in San Diego. From bars and restaurants to galleries, speakeasies, and outdoor malls, you can find all kinds of fun and entertainment here. It’s a great starting point for your visit to San Diego.
If you have a car, the 6th and K parkade lot offers decent prices and convenience that’s better than street parking and feeding the meters. There are plenty of hotels in the area, and the proximity to the San Diego Convention Center is great if work brings you to this exciting part of town.
More Information: Gaslamp.org
► Old Town San DiegoThis is the most historic part of San Diego, and it’s a fun place to spend an afternoon. Old Town San Diego is known as the Birthplace of California– and for good reason! Founded in 1769, it was the location of the first European settlement in the state. Old Town has excellent authentic Mexican restaurants, plenty of souvenir shops, interesting museums, and historic buildings that you can explore.
I stopped by Old Town San Diego during the annual Cinco de Mayo festival, and they had dozens of food trucks, live performances, and everything from mariachi bands to lucha libre wrestling! Traffic was a little heavy, so if you go for the annual event be sure to build in time for parking.
More Information: OldTownSanDiego.org
There are a few SeaWorld locations around the country, but the San Diego site is where it all began back in 1964. You can see more than 25 animal habitats, including touch pools, dolphins, sea lions, and the famous orca killer whales. There are also fun theme park rides including roller coasters, shot-n-drop towers, and virtual reality expeditions.
More Information: SeaWorld.com/San-Diego
► Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo
Another area of San Diego that you should visit during your trip is Balboa Park. Home to more than 16 museums, beautiful gardens, shops, and interesting tourist attractions, you can easily spend an entire day exploring Balboa Park.One of the most popular areas inside the park is the world famous San Diego Zoo. Consistently listed among the best zoos in the United States, the San Diego Zoo is home to almost 4,000 animals and 650 species, and it’s usually listed as the main tourist attraction in all of San Diego. The 100-acre park’s giant pandas, koalas, and polar bears are can’t-miss creatures during your visit.
► Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
The historic San Diego missions were the first to be established in California, then known as New Spain. Established in 1769, the church is open for tours and holds regular masses that are open to the public. It has a fascinating history, including being the location of the first vineyards planted in California.
The local Major League Baseball team, the Padres, were named after the Franciscan friars who founded this and other missions throughout the region. Speaking of the Padres…
More Information: MissionSanDiego.org
► The San Diego Padres
If you’re in San Diego between the months of April and September (or so), you can catch a Major League Baseball game at Petco Park to watch the Padres play.
Located next to the Gaslamp Quarter, a Padres game can be a fun way to spend an afternoon or evening in San Diego. If the Padres are away or don’t have a home game, you can walk along the outfield streets for a nice view of the whole ballpark. You can access the street to see the Tony Gwynn statue (aka Mr. Padre) and a wall showcasing all the Padres in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
More Information: MLB.com/Padres
► Sunset CliffsWe would be remiss if we didn’t mention the beautiful beaches and viewing points around San Diego. If museums, theme parks, and bars aren’t your thing, head over to the Sunset Cliffs and catch a sunset (or sunrise) over the Pacific Ocean. Two of our favorite locations are by Pappy’s Point; take a look at the map below for directions to the sunset cliffs. Added bonus? Parking is free and readily available!
► Whaley House
The Whaley House is considered by some to be among the most haunted buildings in the entire United States. There have been countless reports of strange sightings, odd scents, and unexplained noises and the house has been featured on many television shows investigating the reports. The tours are self-guided, but there are helpful staff in most rooms to answer your questions.
More Information: WhaleyHouse.org
► Unconditional Surrender Statue
Looking for a fun Instagram photo spot in San Diego? Visit the pier to see the 25-foot tall (7.6 m) Unconditional Surrender statue. The statue is based on the famous photo “V-J Day in Times Square” from a 1945 edition of Life Magazine. It was taken during the celebration of the end of World War II. It’s located next to the USS Midway Museum aircraft carrier downtown- another place you should visit if you have time!
More Information: Midway.org
Where to Eat in San Diego
We always enjoy checking out new restaurants and bars when we travel, and these are a few of the spots we know you’ll love!
► Lolita’s Mexican Food
San Diego is the birthplace of the “California Burrito” or the “Surfer Burrito,” which is basically a loaded burrito with carne, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, and french fries inside. Lolita’s is one of my favorite spots to enjoy a Cali Burrito in the town where it was invented, but their menu has plenty of other options as well. They have a few locations around town, so they should be close to wherever your trip takes you.
More Information: LolitasMexicanFood.com
► ¡SALUD!Located in Historic Barrio Logan, Salud has delicious, authentic, award winning tacos and a great bar menu. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the line that stretches out the door and around the building. Salud is popular with locals because it’s a bit of a drive from many of the main tourist attractions, but it’s worth the trip to try some incredible local cuisine. The carnitas, street tacos, and Hooch Horchata are not to be missed!
More Information: SaludSD.com
► Vin de Syrah Speakeasy
If you like speakeasy bars, you need to make sure to check out Vin de Syrah. Walk through the door covered in ivy to head “down the rabbit hole” and experience a bar that feels a bit like you’re in Alice and Wonderland. Clocks and watches embedded in the walls, ivy decorated booths, a deck of cards papering the ceiling, and interesting murals all add to the ambiance. They have a huge list of wine, beer, and spirits and they even offer tastings. If you’re hungry they have paninis and cheese plate options as well- we loved the caprese panini.
More Information: SyrahWineParlor.com
► Lou and Mickey’s
Lou and Mickey’s consistently offers high quality food, great service, and the perfect location in the Gaslamp District; it’s close to the convention center and the famous Gaslamp street sign. The surf-n-turf steak and seafood options are the main event here, but you’re sure to find something for the whole family on the menu. It’s also a great place for business dinners!
More Information: LouAndMickeys.com
Where to Stay in San Diego
There are plenty of hotels to choose from in this wonderful city, but these are three of our favorite spots!
► Hotel del CoronadoIf you’ve seen any kind of tourist guides for San Diego chances are you’ve seen the Hotel del Coronado, or “the Del” as it is also called. The famous resort is located right on the Pacific Ocean, and it’s been featured in movies, novels, and TV. The Del has hosted US presidents, international royalty, and celebrities from all over the world since its opening in the 1880s. You can stop by even if you’re not staying there, so be sure to head over for some photos along the beach!
More Information: Booking.com/Del-Coronado
► Omni San Diego
I’ve stayed here a couple times, and it’s always been one of my go-to hotels in San Diego. It’s located within walking distance of the Gaslamp District, so you’ll have access to some of the best restaurants, nightlife, and entertainment. There is also a direct walkway from the hotel into the neighboring Petco Park where the San Diego Padres play, so it provides easy access to games if you’re staying at the hotel!
More Information: Booking.com/Omni-San-Diego
► Cosmopolitan Hotel
Looking to stay in a haunted hotel? The Cosmopolitan Hotel has been featured on TV shows like Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and it’s located right in the middle of historic Old Town San Diego.The Cosmopolitan also has a great restaurant, so you can still stop in to grab a bite if you don’t want to stay the night. They have a wonderful brunch menu, and their margaritas are excellent. If you like Cali burritos, be sure to try the Cosmopolitan’s breakfast burrito– it’s a California burrito filled with scrambled eggs, bacon, black beans, cheddar, monterey jack, pico de gallo, french fries, and ranchero sauce. Stop by the saloon to try the Bandini Plan, an excellent drink made of Corralejo Anejo Tequila, maple syrup, jalapeno, and orange twist.
More Information: Booking.com/Cosmopolitan
San Diego Map
This map will make planning a visit to San Diego easy!
Use the map below to identify the spots you want to see and find out how far away they are from one another. You can click on the icons to see addresses, website urls, and additional details for each item.
Day Trips from San Diego
San Diego has plenty of entertainment options, but if you’d like to get away for a day and explore some other locations nearby grab a rental car and check out these sites.
► Salvation MountainDrive east of San Diego for two and a half hours to see Salvation Mountain, a rock mound painted in religious symbolism and folk art. It’s a classic roadside attraction. Salvation Mountain has been featured in countless movies, TV shows, and it even inspired a replica in the popular Grand Theft Auto V video game (although the version in that game had a UFO theme). Needless to say, it also makes a great Instagram photo spot.
The most popular day trip from San Diego would almost certainly have to be Tijuana. The Mexican border town of Tijuana is located just 30 minutes south of San Diego. Just remember to bring your passport, and build in plenty of time for those lengthy border crossings.
► San Diego Wine Country
That’s right: San Diego County is home to over 100 wineries, many family-owned, all within one hour (or less) by car from downtown. There are over 60 grape varieties in cultivation throughout the region, so you’re sure to find a nice selection of high quality California wine. We loved San Pasqual Winery, which has a tasting room in the Seaport Village waterfront near the San Diego Convention Center.
More Information: DiscoverCaliforniaWines.com
► The Salton Sea (and the Lost Ship of the Desert?)
Two-and-a-half hours east of San Diego lies the Salton Sea, a large, shallow saline lake (the deepest point was measured at just 5 ft/1.5 m).The most interesting thing about the Salton Sea is the legend of the Lost Ship of the Desert. There were stories in the 1800s that a large 16th century Spanish galleon ship was discovered half buried in the sands around the Salton Sea. There are a couple versions of the story, but one of the legends says the ship came up from the Gulf of California through an unusually high tide that flooded the valley and connected it to what is now known as the Salton Sea. If you look at a map of the area you can kind of see how the Salton Sea could theoretically connect to the Gulf of California. Historical records show the area has actually flooded and dried out multiple times over the centuries, but whether it was ever flooded high enough to connect to the Gulf of California is unknown.
Of course, no good legend would exist without lost treasure, so of course the ship was also said to have been loaded with gold. But wait- there’s more! There were also reports in the early 1900s that it was actually a Viking ship that was found stranded in the desert around the Salton Sea.
Nobody knows for sure if a ship is still out there in the desert, or if any of the claims were based on truth, but it all makes for an interesting story!
Visit San Diego!
San Diego is one of our favorite cities to visit in California. We know you will find plenty of reasons to love it, too– and if you’re still not sure, perhaps this clip of Ron Burgundy from the movie Anchorman will help to inspire your visit!
Hotels in San Diego
Ready to visit San Diego, California? Here are some hotel deals to consider:
Looking for more fun cities to visit in the United States? Here are a few more posts for inspiration!