San Diego is a city, but it feels like a very unique one that is made up of lots of small and diverse beachside towns, one that doesn’t have one single identity. While everything is fairly close together, the city is also quite far apart, and so to find your favorite beach town in just a few days can be difficult.
Downtown San Diego is full of freed summer students, year-long party goers, and plenty of impeccable Mexican fare, while its beach bays and Old Town San Diego are all very different. A day in each one is well worth it, but if you don’t have the time for that here’s my top five sights of San Diego:
Known to locals as the “hippy beach”, it’s pretty easy to see why they think that. Shops sell handmade jewellery and surf equipment and the main high street is small and under-developed. However, the beach here has white sands and blue seas, and the long stunning pier is great for watching some professional surfers doing their thing. You can also rent surfboards here and take beginners and intermediate lessons if you want, skate at one of the local skate parks, snorkel or do that thing you tend to do on a beach – nothing. Ah, bliss.
Tip: If you want to try something different for an afternoon then fishing is free on Ocean Beach pier – hire a rod and see if you can bring home the catch of the day.
Hodad’s Burger Joint
With two locations in San Diego – one downtown and one on Ocean Beach – Hodad’s is a San Diego institution. It has even been called one of the best burger joints in the country. Starting out with just one location in Ocean Beach, the company opened a second branch in downtown San Diego’s Pecto Park and has been going from strength to strength. The joint has also been featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive Ins and Dives, which means you are guaranteed juicy burgers, fat fries and plenty of sides.
Tip: This place gets extremely busy at lunchtime and dinnertime so try to avoid peak hours if you can and go for a late lunch, or expect to queue.
The beaches of La Jolla and surrounding town is set on a hilly, rocky coves filled with upscale bars and restaurants and luxurious homes. As well as its high-living, La Jolla is also famous for its prominent population of sea lions, the rocky shore looks out onto the beautiful blue sea and has plenty of opportunities for snorkelling and scuba diving with the sea lions and other incredible fish. The first beach you come across has little sand and sea lions bathing in the sun (just be prepared for the strong fishy smell…), but if you head further up the promenade you will come to a bigger stretch of sand with more people hanging out and listening to music, and not so many sea lions.
Tip: If you are going to snorkel anywhere is has to be here, it’s the best place to snorkel in San Diego and there are plenty of professional tour guides that can show you the best spots.
The enormous 1,200-acre Balboa Park is a breath of fresh air in the middle of downtown San Diego. The park is so large that it is home to the world famous San Diego Zoo, green belts, museums, theaters, and natural vegetation zones. Built in 1835, the park is one of the oldest in the US that is solely dedicated to recreational use. The park’s outside organ theater is one of its most unique spaces, and hosts free organ concerts most weekends, with a donation request.
Tip: The zoo and the park is huge, and walking it in one day or even two might be a bit ambitious. Allow enough time to see both if you want to and take plenty of water.
Old Town San Diego
Bordering with Mexico, San Diego’s Old Town is Mexico’s second home and is the birthplace of California, where the first Europeans settled. Established in 1850 the town itself feels a little bit more like a Hollywood set for a Mexican movie instead of real historic town and while it is no longer a hub the tongue-in-cheek approach, the Bazaar del Mundo and its live music-filled bars have a good atmosphere and some interesting Mexican wares for sale. The Old Town is also the center of San Diego’s transport system, so as you are travelling through San Diego you will often to have to go through the Old Town to get anywhere else in San Diego.
Tip: Avoid dining in the Old Town itself, it can be a little overpriced and busy. Slip outside the Old Town and walk a couple of blocks away to find a cheaper and more authentic Mexican food and a mojitos.