Local Wally's Guide to San Diego

Local Wally's Guide to San Diego

Local Wally's 7 Day San Diego Agenda

See the Best of San Diego in a Week

You're staring out the airplane window like a dog in a car, excited to finally be in San Diego. Unfasten that seat belt the second you hear the landing gear come down, grab that luggage and push your way to the front of the plane as soon as you hear the ding. You're here!

But while San Diego is famous for its laid back attitude, laying back isn't the best way to plan your vacation.  You need to make a plan and set an agenda if you want to see it all and who better to help than a local guy who actually lives in San Diego?  Put that vacation spreadsheet away, I already did the hard work for you.

Now that you've landed, turn on your phone (it was never off, was it?), fire up your navigation and follow me on a 7 day San Diego adventure complete with googlemaps so you'll never get lost again!


Day One:  Historic Ships, Seaport Village, Old Town

Let's Get This Vacation Started!

Unlike some cities that put their airport in far away and undesirable locations, San Diego's airport is smack in the middle of town and right on the bay, meaning your vacation fun starts the moment you get off that plane.  Every stop below marked with (map) will link you to a google map that will navigate you to the location and this site is mobile phone friendly so bring me along on your vacation.

Stop 1:  Let's get a snack and a cocktail

I sure hope you didn't fill up on the plane with the artificial cheese produce glued to formed beef ("the Philly-like cheesesteak sandwich - only available on airplanes!") because there are great food options within minutes of the airport.  Right outside the airport on the bay is C-Level (map), a restaurant with a regrettable name (unless you are a CEO) but a killer bay view and incredible casual food that represents the San Diego food scene. The Fish Market (map) is another good vacation opener, also right on the bay and also with a great patio with lots of fresh seafood options. A plate of fried calamari, a glass of wine, welcome to San Diego.


Stop 2:  Check out some historic ships

One of the best lots is behind the cruise terminal (map).  From there walk north back towards the airport and you'll find the Maritime Museum (map), a group of historic ships that you can tour.  The Star of India is the one that probably caught your eye coming in, a pirate looking ship that's the oldest active sailing ship in the world.  You can actually sail on one of their tall ships but that's for another time, maybe another trip, because you have to keep going!

Turn back around and head towards the USS Midway (map), a real aircraft carrier with a self guided tour via headphones.  It's interesting but if you're in a rush you skip the headphones and just run around to see the sights. Make sure you make it to the top where the fighter planes are on display. 

If all of this military stuff reminds you of Tom Cruise in Top Gun and you have a desire to sing "Great Balls of Fire" in the sleazy bar like Goose did, that "bar" where Top Gun was filmed is right down the street at Kansas City BBQ (map), one of San Diego's favorite places to get BBQ and a beer. Stop in for a beer and snap a few photos, the bar is a hoot with the hanging hats (and bra's) from the ceiling, all donated by their patrons.  Go ahead, take off that bra! 

Stop 3:  Warning Will Robinson, Tourist Trap Ahead!!

Locals are going to kill me for the next stop, Seaport Village (map).  This nearly qualifies as a true tourist trap as you will find not one self respecting local within 100 yards.  That said, it actually makes a nice stroll through the various trinket shops and the views of the bay with the sailboats are picture perfect.  This is the time for you to buy all those postcards and to get the kid who is feeding your cat a t-shirt.

Stop 4:  A Festive Dinner at Old Town San Diego

Now go check into your hotel and chill out for a bit but don't let the jet lag get the best of you because tonight you're going out for Mexican food at Old Town (map).  Old Town is the original center of San Diego, a state park with old historic buildings along with shops, mariachi bands, and lots of Mexican restaurants. 

I like Old Town Mexican Cafe (map) - it's got the most authentic food, they make their own tortillas, and their carnitas tacos are pretty hard to beat, the only downside is that it can get really busy.  If that's the case, a good alternative is to eat outside of Old Town at Ponce's (map), a neighborhood Mexican restaurant just minutes away that's not found in most tourist books. 

Want More dinner ideas?  Visit my complete dining guide.



Day 2:  Monkey See, Monkey Do

The World Famous San Diego Zoo

Baby Pandas!  Giraffes you can feed!  The San Diego Zoo (map) is everything you could ever imagine, an open concept zoo where the animals are mostly kept in large natural environments instead of cages.  Be prepared to be wowed, blown away, and even a bit enlightened as you journey through the 100 acre zoo filled with 4,000 animals.  Wait, make that 4,001 now that there's a new baby hippo!

You'll want to start the day early and wear very comfortable shoes because the terrain is hilly and the zoo huge.  Those who are exercise intolerant will want to get a pass on a hop on, hop off tour bus and even the most fit people in your group will appreciate the Skyfari lift that takes you from the bottom of the park back to the top.  Listen to me, it's a lot of walking!

Plan ahead if you want to do some of the more exclusive activities like feeding a rhino (Backstage Pass) or arriving before the crowds to see the pandas or koalas.  The food at the Zoo is surprisingly bad (and expensive at that) but it's OK to bring in your own, just no coolers.  Plan to spend the entire day.  Discount Tickets for the Zoo

Next Up:  Let's Cruise San Diego on a Harbor Excursion

Don't crash out yet!  Tonight you're going to kick back on a sunset dinner cruise and see the city lights from the water.  The three hour cruise on the popular Hornblower Cruise (map) features a champagne welcome, a three course dinner, and dancing on the deck, live music on Friday nights during the Summer.  If that sounds a bit much then opt for the two hour booze cruise "happy hour".  I know, you're tired but sleep can come later.  Discount Tickets for Harbor Cruises


Day 3:  Visit Shamu or Legoland

Sharks, Whales, Penguins, and More

Don't believe the bad press - SeaWorld (map) is not only an amazing adventure but they really do care about the sea life and ocean conservation.  Besides, where else can you get splashed by a killer whale, pet a dolphin, and see a white Beluga whale that will make you cock your head like a confused terrier? 

There's plenty to see and do at San Diego SeaWorld, from the shows and exhibits to the thrill rides and interactive activities with the sea mammals.  Youngsters will love it as much as Grandma and no one leaves the Shamu show without a heartwarming tear in their eye.  Discount Tickets for SeaWorld

Kids, We're Going to Legoland!

Who would have guessed that a theme park based entirely on little plastic blocks would be so popular?  If you have kids 10 and under there is no escaping a trip to Legoland (map), a theme park located 30 minutes north of downtown.  Super clean and well managed, Legoland is like Disneyland but for smaller kids with scaled down rides where they won't have to stand on their tippy toes to fool the attendant.  Optional water park, also scaled down for the kids with cabanas to rent for Mom, and yes, if the kids are totally out of control you can get beer and wine to remind yourself that you are still on vacation.  Discount Tickets for Legoland


Day 4:  Get to the Beach and Kayak La Jolla Caves

Let's Get Wet!

Didn't you come to San Diego to go to the beach?  Aren't you tired of theme parks and crowds?  That's why it's time to get you on a kayak in La Jolla to explore the seven caves.  Accessible only by water, the caves will reawaken the kid in you.  You'll feel like Indiana Jones as you enter the caves, an experience that you can't get at a theme park. 

When you're done with kayaking stay right where you are and enjoy the day at the beach because you're at La Jolla Shores (map), one of San Diego's best beaches.  You can rent beach gear and boogie boards in one of the surf shops on Avenida de la Playa (map).

If you want a bit of adventure after laying in the sun just walk south towards The Marine Room restaurant (map). Here you'll usually find leopard sharks in the shallow waters.  Go ahead, wade into the surf and look down - what just brushed across my leg??  OH MY GOD, GET OUT OF THE WATER!!  Don't worry, they're harmless but I won't tell anyone if you want to brag you swam with sharks on your vacation (map).

And don't miss seeing the seals on the beach (map).  It's controversial with some "locals" claiming that the seals have no right to be on "their" beach but that's crazy talk to me.  The area is roped off during pupping season but never get too close to a live seal as they can not only bite but have terrible fish breath.  I love the seals and even run a second website to support them called SanDiegoHomegrown.com.  Check it out!

Torrey Pines Glider Port

Before you head back to the hotel, check out the Torrey Pines Glider Port (map).   It's amazing that some people have enough nerve to jump off a cliff and trust that their para glider will keep them from crashing into the ocean. You can experience this vicariously or live it up by going on a tandem flight where an experienced pilot (he'd better be!) and you will soar high above the beach below on an adventure you will not soon forget.  And to think that just the week before you were sitting in a cubicle worrying about a spreadsheet.


Day 5:  Explore the Magic of Balboa Park

A Museum for Just About Everything

From dinosaurs to airplanes, famous artists to a model trains, Balboa Park (map) has something for everyone and for all ages.  You'll want to come early to make sure you see it all and have a museum pass so you can pop in and out of every museum without having to pull out the credit card.  Do it!  Buy the pass!

The main area is the Prado, a wide pedestrian only street that runs through the park east and west.  Stick to this area to find the bulk of the museums, street performers (oh no, mimes!) and architecture that looks right out of the movie Citizen Kane because it was.  You can spend hours just along this strip just museum hopping.

But to just do the Prado would mean you would miss some of the other big museums like the Automotive or the Air and Space Museums.  If it's Sunday sure you walk through the International Cottages, 32 little houses that represent the various countries and cultures and often have free or inexpensive food to sample.  The Spanish Village Art Center is an eclectic gathering of local artists and it's worth a visit just to see the whacky painted cement patio that's sure to end up on your instagram feed.  Remember, tag your photos with #localwally!


And There's More, Much Much More!

Of course there's even more to the park so rent a DecoBike to get around to see everything from bocce ball to the dog park to hiking trails that run deep into the canyons.  There are Japanese gardens with koi ponds, cactus gardens, palm tree and rose gardens.  See a play at the Old Globe Theater or a Puppet Show or just kick back at Spreckels Organ Pavilion to hear the bursts of a giant pipe organ.  Ride a vintage carousel or the kid friendly train.  And if all of this activity is making you caloric deficient, then check out the two very good restaurants that are definitely not tourist traps - The Prado is a sit down restaurant with a wonderful patio and excellent food and Panama 66 is ultra casual and the sister to one our big foodie craft beer restaurants.

After the Park Take a Trip to the Wild Side

You might be a bit tired after a day at Balboa Park but don't take off those walking shoes yet.  Instead head over to the Gaslamp District (map) for a stroll through what once was our seedy area of town but now transformed into a hip and trendy area filled with hot bars, hot people, and lots of dining options.  I've listed my favorite restaurants in Gaslamp in my dining guide.  A bit of warning - parking is tough anytime in the Gaslamp District and insane if there is a ballgame so either take a taxi or the trolley or get ready to pay the bucks for a parking lot space - if you can find one.  You can also park cheap at the Horton Plaza Shopping Center but be forewarned that this parking lot wins the M.C. Escher award for most confusing and irritating parking lot ever designed with lost people wandering for days trying to find their cars.


Day 6:  Your Last Day in San Diego Paradise

Oh No, Is This the Last Day of Vacation?

What?  Only one full day left of vacation before going home?  But there's so much more to do, so much more to see.  What would Wally do?

If it were me and I had one day left in San Diego, I'd spend it on the beach.  Take a road trip up to the North County and aim your car to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas (map), a cool little beach town where there are still woodies on old Highway 101 and surfboard racks on the bicycles.  The town is filled with small town shops and great restaurants and the amazing gardens and koi ponds at the Self Realization Fellowship (map) and the crazy Boat Houses (map).

Moonlight is for the most part is still a locals beach, meaning that even on the most crowded day it's easy to find solitude on the sand just a few hundred yards away from the main area.  This is where I hang out.

Or, Go to Coronado and Visit the Wizard of Oz's House

I know it's a hard decision but you could also rent bikes and go to Coronado.  Jump on the Coronado Ferry (map) near Seaport Village and take one last ride on the bay.  Once there you can rent bikes and then make your way to the Hotel Del Coronado, cruising through the old neighborhoods of beach bungalows and stately mansions.  Make sure you visit the home of Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame (map).  Behind the Del is one of the finest beaches in San Diego, take one last dip into the ocean and then grab a local craft beer at the bar before heading back. 

Before You Go..... Make a Toast to Local Wally!

On the way back to the airport know you can squeeze in one more San Diego adventure.  I like to arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare, enough time to head over to Bali Hai (map) on Shelter Island, a tropical restaurant that still makes a mai tai the original way, meaning they're so strong that you might want to have the kids return the car.  Get some appetizers, enjoy the view of the bay one last time, and make a toast to the best vacation ever in San Diego.  You'll be back soon because no one comes to San Diego just once.