You need a vacation but let's face it, you're broke! If the idea of a beach vacation is sounding really good but your checkbook is screaming "leave me alone!", don't give up your dream of vacationing in San Diego. While no one is going to accuse San Diego of being a cheap place to visit, there are ways to cut a few corners without giving up the essence of what makes this town so good. A bit of planning will save you a bundle and when you run out of money you can do what the locals do - go to the beach!
So stop moping and start packing! San Diego on a Budget could be your best vacation ever, especially if you trust Local Wally to show you the way.
1. Get Yourself to the Beach!
Get your toes in the sand at any of San Diego's fantastic beaches. All you need is a cheap cooler for those snacks you stole from the hotel breakfast buffet, a boogie board you picked up at Target, and that extra towel from the hotel swimming pool. And don't worry if your abs of steel have turned to slabs of flab, no one really cares and besides, you'll never see those people again anyway. Just put away that camera!
La Jolla Shores is the top tourist beach, and for good reason. There's plenty of hot, young bodies, tons of perfect sand, great waves, and a Summer vibe that's hard to beat. Firepits offer up ambiance once the sun goes down, you can pretty much start and end the day here. Nearby is La Jolla Cove, perfect for snorkeling and kayaking.
But don't overlook the other beaches, many with distinct personalities. Mission Beach is the college hangout, a bit more "urban" and home to the killer Giant Dipper roller coaster, an old woodie ride that offers up one of the best views in town before it hurls you to the ground at 45 mph! Travel up north a bit to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, a true locals beach with firepits, BBQ's, surf lessons, and plenty of free parking. And for the adventurous, check out Blacks Beach, San Diego's famous nude beach. Don't forget the sunscreen! (map)
During low tide, check out the tidepool scene where the poor defenseless sea creatures are stuck in the small pools praying you don't see them. You can't keep them (come on, what would you do with a live starfish anyway?) but you can torment them! Go ahead, poke your finger into a sea anemone and watch it close up! La Jolla's Shell Beach and the Cabrillo Monument area have some of the best tidepools. Check the tide timetable for low tide. And you won't want to miss the live seals on the beach at the Children's Pool (map). Don't mess with these guys. They might look cuddly enough to kiss but they can bite if you get too close and often have very bad fish breath.
And when the sun goes down there's no reason to hurry back to your hotel. Stay at the beach and make a bonfire, skewer a hotdog on a stick and roast it until the skin is burned and crispy and you'll soon forget you're not at a 5 star restaurant. Those in the know claim their firepits by tossing some wood and their chairs around them early in the day, but most people don't mind sharing the flames to grill some dogs. Firepits can be found at La Jolla Shores, Moonlight Beach, and scattered around Mission Bay. Remember, no open fires and no booze on the beach.
2. Get Lost at Balboa Park
Balboa Park is filled with great museums, and I'm not just talking about educational (bor-ing!) ones but cool stuff like the Model Railroad Museum or the interactive Reuben H. Fleet science museum. The best way to visit the museums is with the Passport which gets you into all of them, but even if you're broke you're still going to want to visit the park. Museums? We don't need no stinkin' museums!
There's plenty of free things to do around the park. One of the biggest outdoor pipe organs is at the Organ Pavilion and every Sunday during the Summer there's a free concert. But my favorite almost free activity is at the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages. Wait, I didn't go all PBS on you, on Sundays during the Summer the various ethnic groups get all dressed up, there's live music and arts and crafts, and best yet, each cottage has cheap ethnic foods for sale! Goofy fun, but I love it.
There's free exhibits like the Botanical Gardens, tons of trails, and if you really can't stand not going into a real museum, the Timken Museum of Art has free admission. Go ahead, check the box that you saw a real Rembrandt if you must, or follow me to one of the coolest cheap things to do around the park, Morley Field Disc Golf. Disc golf, aka Frisbee Golf, is just like real golf except you don't need any experience to have fun. For $4 you get a rental disc and your "green fees" and off you go, tossing a disc until it lands in a basket. There's a "no alcohol" rule but nearly everyone playing has a beer in their hand, so go figure. Some folks take this game very seriously, so be ready to let them "play through" if you're holding them up.
And speaking of beer, believe it or not there are places in the park where you can actually crack open a cold one with your picnic, another great way to save some cash. Check out the rules and regulations as I don't want to be the guy responsible for landing you in jail.
3. Hit the Links with Cheap Golf, San Diego Style
What's this world coming to? Tiger is off to the sex-addition clinic, God bless him, and you're in San Diego drooling on the putting green at Torrey Pines, begging your wife to pleeease let you play. It's only... $279 per person? No way, Jose! Get back in the car!
Luckily, Local Wally knows the best cheap golf courses in San Diego. Balboa Park's Municipal Course is a poor man's Torrey. With sweeping views of the city skyline, a glimpse or two of the Coronado Bridge, the backdrop is pure San Diego. Best yet, it's only $38 weekday, cart rental at $28, and club rental at $25. The course is typically in good condition and the greens nice and fast - you'll totally forget you're playing on a budget course.
Another good one is the Coronado Municipal Golf Course. This one sits right next to the bay near the Coronado Bridge. Also kept in great condition, it's one of the best golf buys in town with green fees at $30 weekday, cart rental at $16, and club rentals at $50. Coronado is a bit harder to get on than Balboa, so it's best to pay the $60 per foursome additional fee and reserve 14 days in advance.
And if you're really a golf fanatic, how about a trip to the Callaway Golf factory? Yes, the kids are not going to understand why they're wasting time there and yes, this means the wife gets to shop all day as payback, but you'll feel like a kid on a field trip, only this time you won't get in trouble by mean Mrs. Tucker for running in the hallways.
4. Hike and Fly Torrey Pines, Check out Fish at Scripps
There's more to Torrey Pines than a golf course and nude beach, though that's quite a combo. Torrey Pines State Park has a variety of beautiful hiking trails, nice and short and very scenic. Most trails are under a mile and wrap you around a loop that takes you from a forest looking area to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Even couch potatoes and tater tots will love these short and easy hikes.
If the $10 parking fee is out of your budget, then simply head north on Highway 101, make a U-turn at Del Mar Heights and park around Carmel Valley Road (map). There are trails that run right along the bluffs and overlook the ocean and it's an impressive view. Parking "meters" enforced so bring some quarters or dollar bills with you.
For a vicarious thrill stop by the nearby Torrey Pines Gliderport and watch the crazies jump off the cliffs and sail over the ocean. A perfect spot for a picnic lunch but make sure you bring your own as the food concession stand there is pretty standard fare.
SeaWorld gets a lot of attention but it's not the only game in town. The Scripps Institute's Birch Aquarium offers up a more intimate aquarium experience with 60 exhibits, including an impressive floor to ceiling tank filled with tons of different fish - is that a shark? Sure, you don't get a giant killer whale doing tricks for your amusement but you do get nutty looking sea horses and weird looking cuttlefish. And the view, well, just try to find a better view of the Pacific. Best yet, you can get discount tickets from Local Wally.
5. Let's Go Cruise Highway 101
From Del Mar to Oceanside you can cruise the old Highway 101, once the only road that linked San Diego to Los Angeles. Surfers and stockbrokers, Mercedes and woodies, it's an eclectic journey into the lifestyles of the San Diego locals.
Take is slow and stop to explore the various towns to soak in the different personalities each has to offer. Upscale Del Mar leads into down home Solana Beach with its unique shopping at the Cedros Design District. Surf culture rules in Cardiff where you'll not only find great waves but the best donuts at VG's Donuts and gourmet budget Mexican at Bull Taco, the concession stand taco shop in the San Elijo Campgrounds, believe it or not.
LOCAL WALLY'S SONG OF THE DAY: Let's get in the mood with a song I wrote and recorded called Cruisin' Highway 101!
Encinitas is your quintessential Southern California beach town, looking pretty much the same today as it did in the 60's. You half expect to see Annette and Frankie coming out of the burger shop and it's not unusual to see restored woodies and hot rods cruisin' the strip. Don't miss the Self Realization Fellowship Temple. I know it sounds weird to go to a Maharishi church on vacation but the gardens in the back will blow your mind! Trust me! And the Encinitas Boat Houses rival the giant ball of string as the photo op you won't want to miss.
Continue on to Leucadia, a funky hippie sort of place. You'll know you're there when you see Lou's Records, one of the last remaining record shops and a good one if you're looking for hard to find discs and used CD's. Up ahead is Carlsbad, home to the famous Flower Fields where you'll see eye popping fields of color during the Spring and freshly picked strawberries in the Summer, and then Oceanside with it's glorious pier, a perfect place to watch the sunset.
There's a lot to do in San Diego's North County, making it a perfect day trip. Read more in Local Wally's North County Experience, your complete guide to visiting San Diego's beach towns.
6. The Road to Cabrillo
Imagine the look of surprise when Juan Cabrillo, a Spanish explorer, first sighted San Diego in 1542. "¡Ay, caramba!", he must have shouted out as they rounded Point Loma and stepped ashore. My guess (don't put this in your book reports, kids) is that Juan and his boys quickly dived into the tide pools, giggling like school girls as they pointed ("don't touch or it's back to the boat!", scolded Juan) at the plethora of trapped sea creatures.
Juan took the long way to get to the tip of Point Loma, the place where you'll now find Cabrillo Monument and the photo op lighthouse. Little did he know that you can actually drive there, and wow, what a nice drive. Start your trip in Shelter Island by stopping in at Point Loma Seafoods (cash only) to pick up some sandwiches or smoked fish. You might want to bring along a cooler or at least a bag of ice from the hotel to keep things cool - no food poisoning allowed when vacationing with Local Wally.
The scenic drive passes by the Fort Rosecrans cemetery. Now I know, cemeteries are not usually on vacation agendas but this one rocks out with outstanding views of the Pacific. Stop for a few moments to thank those who served our country - and did I mention the view? Continue on until you get to the lighthouse and imagine what life must have been like to be the lonely lighthouse keeper. Exhibits will help you if your imagination isn't so hot. Make sure you take a photo in the lighthouse from the bottom of the spiral staircase looking up. It's a photography cliche but hey, it should impress the crew back in the office - what do they know about art? Take the 2 mile hiking trail with incredible views of the city skyline, check out the tidepools (check the tide timetable for low tide), or just kick back and marvel at the view. It's all good and the Road to Cabrillo is a perfect half day getaway for San Diego on a Budget.
7. Discover Coronado... on a budget
You might not be able to afford staying at the opulent Hotel del Coronado, but you can visit it and vicariously live the lifestyles of the rich and famous, if only for an afternoon. Driving across the Coronado Bay Bridge is an exhilarating experience - the view is so good that you'll almost drive off the edge if you don't pay attention. That would end your vacation too soon so I suggest you take the alternative mode, the Coronado Ferry.
Once the only way to get across the bay, the Coronado Ferry is a short 15 minute ride from either the Broadway Pier or the Convention Center. Think of it as a poor man's harbor cruise. The ferry drops you off at the tourist trap Coronado Ferry Landing. Unless you like wasting time, I suggest you do a quick tour and head straight to the bicycle rental shop.
Once on your bike head towards the Hotel del Coronado, checking out the side streets and the quaint bungalows mixed in with mansions. Wizard of Oz fans will want to check out the house (101 Star Park Circle) where L. Frank Baum house wrote parts of the sequels to his famous Oz book. It's a private residence so don't go knocking or screaming "It's the Wicked Witch of the West" if you see the owner outside. You can, however, go into the Hotel del Coronado and peek into the Crown Room during Sunday Brunch (be careful not to drool as the paying customers don't like that) to check out the crown shaped chandeliers, reportedly designed by Baum himself. Explore the rest of the hotel and then head out to the Sun Deck for a snack and a cocktail - ahhh, it's so good to be you today.
8. The Judgment of Temecula
Onephiles in Paris aren't losing sleep over the wines of Temecula, an agricultural area located 60 miles north and inland from downtown. Napa isn't losing any sleep, either. Santa Barbara? No, sleeping like a baby. It's not that Temecula doesn't make good wines, it's that as a new wine region they have yet to make an exceptional wine. But every year gets a little better and with new wineries sprouting on a regular basis, give Temecula another shot and you just might be surprised how good their wines have gotten.
Winetasting can get expensive, so make sure you clip some discount wine coupons before you go. Your first stop should be the Napa-like estate at Thornton Winery. They have a two-fer-one coupon you'll want to take advantage of. Callaway is probably the most well known of Temecula's wineries. Their tasting room is a bit blah but the wines pretty nice. If your experience with Callaway stops at their $4.99 chardonnay, you might be pleasantly surprised to taste some of their better bottles. And no trip to Temecula is complete without a stop at Wilson Creek, home to the sparkling wine that tastes a bit like a Chinese Almond Cookie. You decide for yourself if that sounds like a good idea or not!
Summer weekends are typically packed with limos filled with drunk bachelorette parties. Serious wine tasting goes out the window during these times, but it is mildly amusing to see a live version of Girls Gone Wild. Most of the wineries also offer plenty of retail shopping as well. So Temecula is not Napa, but it's still a lot of fun - especially after the second glass.
9. See a Free Concert....from a Kayak?
Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay is one of the key Summer attractions. How can it miss? Top acts performing outside in a small venue located right on the bay? Palm trees, tropical breezes, they only thing that's stopping you is the high ticket prices. Now you could just sit outside the venue at the resort and hear the concert. That's not a bad experience and a lot of people do just that. But if you want to see the concert, you need to get your adventure on and rent yourself a kayak.
The view from the water is nearly as good as the view from the paid seats. Paddle out early to stake out your spot and kick back and enjoy the show. No expensive wine served in tiny plastic cups for you. No way, you packed in the good stuff for a fraction of the price. You'll find plenty of kayakers and boaters to keep you company, it's one big party. You can even go out as a group if you plan ahead with Hike Bike Kayak Sports, and get discount tickets online as well. (note: Call them before booking to verify they will be kayaking to the show you want to see).
Whether you paddle or picnic on dry ground, bootlegging a concert with a picnic is pure San Diego. Check out the concert schedule and I'll see you there.... in the best seat money can't buy.
10. The Best of the Rest of the Free and Cheap Things to Do in San Diego
Find fresh produce, live music, and tasty free samples at the Little Italy Mercato Farmers Market, every Saturday from 9 to 1:30. It's a pleasant way to spend some time walking around the produce and then grabbing lunch at a nearby eatery.
And if you like the idea of fresh produce, handcrafted goods and great local eats, don't miss La Jolla's Open Aire Market, the biggest of the San Diego Farmers Markets. Go hungry as there are plenty of great food stands selling everything from Turkish to Mexican to Asian food, and all of it is delicious and inexpensive. Fresh local strawberries? Oh yeah!
Even non-baseball fans will love watching a Padres game in the new downtown ballpark. They kept some of the original buildings intact when designing the park, giving it a cool urban vibe in a modern setting. And best yet, they offer plenty of cheap seats - cheaper than a matinée movie cheap. Wander in, grab a hot dog and beer, watch a few innings, cheap San Diego doesn't get much better.
Did someone mention beer? San Diego has a huge microbrew scene and makes some credible - and incredible - beers. Stone Brewery offers free brewery tour and you'll find unique tasting experiences at the various artisan breweries around town. Here's a good place to start your beer search.
Take a trip back in time when every beach city had some sort of amusement park. San Diego has Belmont Park which is home to the Giant Dipper, an old wooden roller coaster you're going to want to ride. Unlike modern coasters with tubular steel tracks and strapped in safety, you just can't duplicate the "we're all going to die, this thing is falling apart" thrill of an old woodie. Tuesdays is typically half off Family Night and you can get a discount wristband for any other time.
Tijuana. Pinatas and beheadings, what a great combination! Recent violence has made TJ a tough sell. I mean, who wants to see a human head dumped onto the dance floor? So you think you can dance? Try it without your body! Due to the increased violence, Tijuana is NOT recommended by Local Wally. Still, if you must see it for yourself, take the trolley to the border and walk across. Bring your passport, don't stay after dark, don't trust anyone (including the Federales), and whatever you do, don't get drunk. Still want to go? I didn't think so.
With Mexico off the list where can you go for that enchilada and mariachi band experience? How about Old Town? I know, I've ragged on Old Town in the past due to a misguided attempt to turn everything politically correct, but with a local now in charge of the Fiesta del Reyes concessions the park is slowly returning to its original glory. You'll find margaritas, tacos, and pinatas in this colorful tourist friendly vision of Mexico and Old California. There's plenty of authentic old buildings and plenty to see and do to make this a fun - and cheap - way to spend an afternoon. Go ahead - get that margarita the size of a goldfish bowl. You'll need something to wash down the triple combo you ordered.
While we're talking about tourist traps I guess it's time to give you the lowdown on Seaport Village. Is there some sort of Guide to Building a Tourist Trap that says you must have a hot sauce store, I heart (fill in city here) T-shirts, and yes, a silly hat store? Yes, all this and more at Seaport Village! Luckily they built it on one of the most picturesque areas of town and the fake Cape Cod and phony adobe buildings actually form a nice setting, in a Disneyland sort of way. Good for a couple of hours of strolling, it's actually way better than it sounds and while locals shun it, it's quite a nice way to spend an afternoon.
When you get sick of the tourist shops, walk across the street and wander into The Gaslamp District where you'll find restaurants, boutiques, and plenty of excitement, especially at night when the clubs and bars come to life. Plenty to explore, make sure you take the time to grab a beer and just kick back to people watch.
SAN DIEGO'S BEST TACO SHOPS
San Diego loves its taco shops. Over the years the taco shops have cleaned up their image (and their kitchens). You can still find the old school taco shops with their hand painted signs offering strange items like the Flying Saucer or tacos de cabeza and if you're lucky enough to stumble past one, get in line and give it a shot.
Just to be clear, Taco Bell is not a taco shop. Nor is Chipotle's. Rubio's and Wahoo's might make decent fish tacos, but they are not taco shops. A real taco shop should meet the following criteria; 1) Owned by Mexicans, 2) Run by Mexicans, 3) Frequented by Mexicans. There are exceptions, but if they give you an electronic buzzer to tell you when the food is ready, it aint a real taco shop.
Probably the best known taco shop in San Diego is El Indio. Some less enlightened locals shun the place, calling it a tourist place or claiming the food isn't completely authentic, but who can argue with the restaurant that invented the rolled taco? Get a tamale smothered with chili beans (San Diego comfort food) and a seat on the cement tables in the middle of the intersection and this is a fine introduction to taco shop dining.
Down the street from El Indio is newcomer Lucha Libre, a gourmet taco shop with a Mexican wrestling theme. Is that odd? Yes, and that's part of what makes it so good. The Tijuana Hot Dog is a bacon wrapped delight and at $1.50, including some chips and salsa, one of the best deals in town. Everything here is outrageously good and the setting strange enough that you'll be snapping photos in front of the pink Champion's booth while holding a football size burrito.
LOCAL WALLY'S HOT BURRITO TIP: By all means get a California Burrito before you go home. Filled with carne asada, sour cream, cheese and.... french fries..... it's a San Diego classic! For a "lighter" version (LOL), get the carne asada fries, basically the same thing without the tortilla.
More traditional is is Roberto's Taco Shop with multiple locations around San Diego. These guys spawned dozens of imitators with names oddly similar. Alberto's. Aliberto's. Hilberto's. Filberto's. The list goes on and on but start with the original. Roberto's are clean and located in non-scary locations and the food is excellent. Get the carne asada burrito.
Up in North County a couple of taco shops really stand out. Cardiff's Bull Taco is the actual concession stand in the San Elijo Campgrounds. Run by a trio of surfer dudes who were obviously raised on tacos, they are raising the bar with their deliciously unusual tacos. Sure they have the basics, but how about a duck or pork belly taco? Chicken hearts or foie gras? And the full on ocean view from a weathered picnic table is the perfect ambiance for a gourmet taco.
Up the old highway a bit is Juanita's Taco Shop . Bars on the windows, surf stickers on their sign, a "spin the wheel" health rating, they have some of the best carnitas this side of the border. Huge burritos, long lines, get a few to go before you head out to the beach.
Are you ready for a real taco shop experience? La Posta de Acalpulco No. 8 in Hillcrest is what taco shops used to be all about. No indoor seating, you walk up and order, then wait and wait and hope you understand them when they shout out that your food is ready - in Spanish. Authentic and delicious with crowds of people standing around 24 hours a day waiting for their food or eating on the curbside, this is an essential stop for taco shop aficionados. Slightly dangerous at night, just warning you, but during the day no problem.
There are so many good taco shops in San Diego and every local has their favorite, but I'll leave you with one more. The original Porkyland in the Bario Logan area, right under the Coronado Bridge. How can you go wrong with a taco shop named Porkyland that has vats of pork deep frying in huge copper vats? One of the most confusing menus, a do not go there after dark setting, this is nearly as adventurous - and dangerous - as Mexico. But it's worth risking your life for carnitas this good. Forget the cleaned up Porkyland in La Jolla and go to the original where the food is better and the ambiance the exact opposite of their strip mall knock offs.
WHERE TO GET CHEAP SEAFOOD (THAT'S NOT "PREVIOUSLY FROZEN")
Budget travelers don't need to scratch seafood off your diet when you come to San Diego. Let's start with the fish taco, a traditional Baja recipe that takes deep fried fish and wraps it in a corn tortilla, topped with cabbage, white sauce and salsa. San Diego local Ralph Rubio brought the original San Felipe recipe to the US first and it's a worthy introduction to this local delicacy. But the best crispy fried fish taco has to be at The Brigantine's bar. Plump extra crispy fish, a squirt of their California hot sauce, and at less than $3 this is budget seafood at its best. They also make a killer shrimp taco.
But not every fish taco is fried and if you want yours grilled to perfection, head to South Beach Bar and Grille in OB (Ocean Beach). This is a real beach bar setting, nothing fancy, but the ocean breeze blows through the open air facade and creates an ambiance that's truly authentic. Grilled mahi, shark or lobster tacos, everything is fresh and delicious. Seafood sandwiches burgers, oysters, and a happy hour from 3 to 6 on weekdays.
Remember all those quarters you saved in a jar back home? Well bring them with you and cash them in at the bar for $1 shrimp tacos on Tuesdays and $1.50 lobster tacos on Wednesdays at World Famous in Pacific Beach, located right on the beach. Long lines, bad parking, but great views, excellent people watching, and the best cheap tacos in town.
More traditional seafood can be found at Point Loma Seafoods where the crab sandwich features crab, mayo, and bread - no fillers, no secret sauces, just the freshest seafood. Anthony's Fish Grotto is another favorite. Located right on the bay, the views are exceptional and their fish and chips are quite possibly the best in town. Outside Anthony's is the Fishette, a take out window where you can order up a combo plate and grab a seat outside with a glass of wine or beer. Anthony's house wine in their own private label bottle? That's serious budget dining!
La Jolla is the high rent district where people expect to pay high prices - unless you're at El Pescador Fish Market which follows the successful formula of Point Loma Seafoods. Ridiculously good Grilled sea bass with avocado sandwich for $9? Dungeness crab sandwich for $8? Keep your $5 footlongs, Subway, we're going to El Pescador!
Down by Seaport Village is The Fish Market. It's not typically a budget restaurant but the sunny ocean view patio has a budget friendly menu with some great seafood options like their fried calamari. The Dungeness Crab Cioppino at $22 is big enough to split and if you do eat inside you can still get out for around $15 per person - with careful ordering. So you might pay a little more, but the view and setting are pretty stunning.
Here's one that doesn't make most tourist lists - Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill. This tiny eatery has some of the best seafood in town, at any budget. You pick the type of fish you want, select how you want it cooked, and decide if you want it on a plate, in a sandwich, or on a salad. This place is not fancy but locals know this is the place to go for super fresh seafood at a reasonable price. And since we're on local joints, check out the Bay Park Fish Company, an ultra casual eatery that also is a local favorite.
GREAT BURGERS HAPPEN IN SAN DIEGO
Southern California loves its cars so it's no wonder that the first drive through came from here. In-N-Out Burger has expanded beyond SoCal making it less unique but if you haven't tried a Double-Double (two patties, two cheese) served "animal style" (cooked with mustard, extra sauce, grilled onions and pickles) you don't know what you're missing.
Hodad's in Ocean Beach takes the burger experience up a few notches with their giant, gooey and juicy burgers served in a restaurant that's pure San Diego. Open to the ocean air, packed picnic tables and a chopped VW bus you can actually dine in. Long lines of locals tell you that this place is good.
Ask locals what bar makes the best burger they will undoubtedly say Rocky's Crown Pub. It's a real bar, not some themed out corporate "sports bar". Grab a stool, order a hand-shaped 1/3 pounder with fries, munch on some hot chile peppers and wash it down with an icy cold beer and you're dining Rocky's style. 21 and over, cash only, it's that sort of place.
Going a bit upscale but keeping within budget is The Burger Lounge, a local place that believes that the best burgers come from healthy ingredients produced in a sustainable environment. Don't worry, they may be marketing to Al Gore but even Rush Limbaugh won't complain after taking a bite. Delicious and voted Best Local Burger Joint by San Diego Magazine.
LOCAL WALLY'S BURGER HISTORY TIP: Though not on the "best burger" list, you have to give credit to Jack in the Box, a San Diego based company that took drive-thru's to the national level.
For super cheap and delicious burgers head to the restaurant at the Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course, aka The 19th Hole. This place is a throwback to the 50's - has it ever been remodeled? Five bucks gets you a crazy good burger with fries, a pitcher of beer is nine bucks, and the view of the city and golf course not bad at all. Super nice waitresses, this feels like the old diner back home. This is a secret locals favorite so don't tell too many people.
The Corvette Diner was once a pretty hip place in a pretty hip neighborhood. It's since moved to a more traditional strip mall sort of spot in the Point Loma area. It's lost some of its charm but gained a lot more parking. Kids will love the video games and nostalgia fans will love the 50's diner theme with the beehived waitresses (on weekends) and the jukebox ambiance.
SAN DIEGO'S BEST PIZZA JOINTS
If you've ever been caught saying that Costco's $10 "take and bake" pizza the size of a manhole cover is good, you need to get to Filippi's Pizza Grotto in Little Italy and refresh those taste buds. The restaurant is in the back of the tiny Italian market and it's traditional old school, from the red checked plastic tablecloths to the chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling. The prices are so low you'll think it's a mistake and the pizza has so much cheese and toppings you'll never go back to Costco. No gourmet thin crust dinky pizza here, just big, fat, gooey deliciousness.
Up in San Diego's North County is a surfer dude pizza joint that also is a credible microbrewery. Pizza Port is ultra casual with locals cramming in and sharing picnic tables and the pies and brew are some of the best.
New Yorkers and East Coasters looking for a taste of home should head over to Bronx Pizza where they sell 18 different pizzas by the slice, as well as whole pies. Thin crust and foldable, just the way New Yorkers like it. Take it and go as there's not much seating in this tiny eatery.
Over the years the concept of woodfired, handmade pizzas topped with unusual and exotic toppings has mutated into bad airport food and frozen Wolfgang pucks. Time to get back to the original source. Pizza Nova was one of the first gourmet pizza restaurants in San Diego and continues to please even the most hardened cynics. Multiple locations but the best is the original Point Loma location with it's bay and marina views. Nice place, the setting should make the wife happy and the food is always excellent. Oriental Chicken Salad is the best in town.
And since we're talking nice restaurants, locals flock to Arrivederci La Pizzaria in Hillcrest for their take on woodfired pizza. You'll feel the heat coming off the oven in this tiny restaurant, the setting closer to a tiny bistro in Italy than a pizza place in San Diego. Great moderately priced pastas and salads as well, this is a nice casual eatery.
FOODIES AND YELPR'S NEED NOT DISPAIR, SAN DIEGO'S GOURMET ON A BUDGET
Every vacation needs at least one great meal, a grand finale "shoot off all the fireworks" sort of event. Those with the bucks typically head to George's at the Cove's California Modern in La Jolla for their gourmet food with stunning view of the cove. But those on a budget need not despair. Simply head upstairs to George's Ocean Terrace for one of the best San Diego dining experiences at any price. The al fresco restaurant offers full ocean view and cool ocean breezes along with moderately priced and consistently delicious food. You want a sunset restaurant where the food matches the view? This is it.
Or get away from the tourist track completely and dine at Urban Solace, a casual eatery that's been causing a local sensation with their upscale comfort foods. Pan roasted mussels with smoked tomato butter (incredible), Mac-n-cheese made with blue cheese and duck confit ("duckaroni"), braised beef cheeks or bacon wrapped trout, man this is good eating! Wash it all down with a PBR served in a can (just like home) or something from their extensive wine list. In a way the food is every bit as adventurous as George's California Modern, but scaled back for the everyday budget. Delicious.
My favorite "budget" resort has to be Humphrey's Half Moon Inn. Located on Shelter Island, it's a tropical paradise for a hotel price. Book online but call ahead to request a refurbished room and you won't believe how far you've stretched your budget. Next door is The Best Western Island Palms and Marina, a decent alternative to Humphrey's and down the road is Kona Kai Resort Spa, another "budget" resort that while not quite as nice as the other two still offers a stunning bay view for a freeway view price.
Mission Bay is prime vacation real estate but The Dana manages to offer the same location and luxury at a budget friendly price. Located right on the bay, many of the rooms have stunning views. Belmont Park's roller coaster and the beach are bicycle close and all the main attractions are just minutes away.
For the basic "clean room" but with a unique San Diego flair, check out The Pearl. Located near Shelter Island, The Pearl is a refurbished retro sort of place, cool and trendy, they even show movies at the pool and have a bar scene that attracts the younger crowd. La Pensione Hotel is another great find, a smaller boutique hotel right in the heart of Little Italy, an authentic Italian neighborhood with lots of great shops and restaurants. If you want a hotel where you can walk to dinner every night, this is your place. Both The Pearl and La Pensione might be considered budget, but both offer no compromise for a true San Diego experience.
LOCAL WALLY'S HOT HOTEL TIP: My site has always had great hotel rates but now I offer a BEST RATE GUARANTEE so you know you're getting a good deal.
Most people on a budget would automatically strike La Jolla off their list assuming it would be too expensive but there are some bargain hotels worth checking out. The Best Western Inn by the Sea is walking distance to the prime Prospect Street area (and the ocean) and the La Jolla Inn is a small boutique right in the heart of the action. If you want a La Jolla beach vacation at a Mission Valley motel price, check out the La Jolla Cove Suites - it isn't deluxe, but the location overlooking the ocean is clearly 5 star. Away from the ocean but still La Jolla is the Embassy Suites La Jolla, perfect for families. Calling this area "La Jolla" is stretching it a bit, but jump in the car and you're at the beach within 10 minutes, the San Diego Zoo or Legoland in 20.
Hotel Circle and Mission Valley are where a lot of first time visitors stay. The rates are reasonable, the location "freeway close" - maybe too close as most of the hotels look right onto busy Highway Interstate 8. Off the beaten path and away from the noise is the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley. It's probably aimed more at the business traveler than vacationer, but that just means the pool is yours to enjoy alone during the day. Great location, the hotel is exactly what you'd expect from a Marriott. And for a trendier hotel, the Marriott Courtyard Mission Valley is downright chic with it's contemporary furnishings and tropical pool. Very nice!
Right on the beach is the Best Western Sea Lodge. San Diego actually doesn't have too many "right on the beach" hotels and the Best Western literally is on the beach, as is The Surfer Beach Hotel, which is best suited for the younger party crowd. Now remember, budget beach hotels are not The Four Seasons, so don't expect perfection. But if you can get a good rate depending on when you're visiting, both are perfect for a laid back sand and surf vacation.
People on the go love the vibe of Downtown and Gaslamp District, but hotels there are notoriously pricey. One exception is the Marriott Courtyard San Diego Downtown, built in an old bank building and featuring oddball things like a conference room in the old vault. Definitely worth checking out.
Another option is Wyndham Harbour Lights, a timeshare resort located on fifth avenue in the heart of the Gaslamp District. The spacious suites offer balconies and kitchens while the resort itself gives guests relaxing amenities like a sauna. Renting a suite here is a great option for people who want an inexpensive resort, plus you can save on food costs by cooking some meals in.
San Diego is very spread out, so much so that I strongly recommend you rent a car. The good news is that you can rent a car on Local Wally for exactly the same rates as the big guys. I know many of you are skeptical but you have to trust me on this, rent a car! Now for those of you who are too young, too broke, or simply banned from renting cars after your last road trip, San Diego does have public transportation via busses, the cute red trolley, and the Coaster and Sprinter trains that runs up and down the coast. You can buy a day pass for $5, or a discounted multi-day card, that will get you unlimited passes on the bus, trolley and Sprinter. Pretty good deal. You'll need a Compass Card, which is sort of like a prepaid card, to use the pass and should probably buy it online to save some time. Check out the trip planner to see how many transfers it takes to get from point A to B before opting for public transportation.
LOCAL WALLY'S COMIC-CON TIP: Help me Obi-Wan, there's no hotel rooms left during Comic-Con week in July. If you're dying to show off your new Avatar costume but can't find a room downtown, stay up north in Encinitas at the Best Western. The train station is a block away so you'll be there nearly as fast as if you could beam in. Plus the beach is two blocks away for when you want to take off the latex and go incognito.
Reality check - San Diego's big attractions are expensive. Luckily, there is a way to get around some of the high prices. The big tip is to buy your attraction tickets online, and Local Wally has the complete guide to discounted attractions right here.
Of course, you'll find a lot of various packages but one of the best deals is the Go San Diego Card. You can buy a one to seven day pass that will get you into most of the major attractions, from Legoland to The San Diego Zoo to The Wild Animal Park. It also includes many of the smaller attractions such as the USS Midway, a Harbor Cruise, the Old Town Trolley, and even the goofy Go San Diego mini cars with "GPS" to guide you around town - you'll look like a nerd but you'll have fun! The Go San Diego Card also gets you into many of the museums at Balboa Park, which is very cool and a huge money saver. Plan your days carefully to squeeze it all in and you'll save a bundle using this discount card.
If you're planning on seeing the Zoo, Wild Animal Park, Legoland and SeaWorld, you're going to want the Fabulous Four Combo Pass. Bottom line, plan your trip now and don't buy tickets a la carte if you want to save some money.
LOCAL WALLY'S BALBOA PARK AND ZOO PARKING TIP: During the Summer the main parking lots are ridiculously packed. Pass the lines and go to the Inspiration Point parking lot (near the bottom of the map) and take the free tram ride into the park. You'll get dropped off right in the heart of the museums, about a 5 minute walk to the zoo.
One of the top attractions is Balboa Park and its museums. The best way to visit the park is with the Balboa Park Passport which gets you into all of the museums for a one time $35 price. The great thing about the passport is that it removes all of that stressful decision making once you are there. You won't worry if paying $10 to enter this museum or that one is worth it. Instead you'll pop into each one and stay if you like it, or move on if you don't. From electric trains to Japanese gardens, fine art to rare automobiles, Balboa Park has something for everyone and every age group. And one more time, the Go San Diego Card also gets you into many, but not all, of the museums, and is another good option.
San Diego has a lot of performing arts, from musicals to serious theater, but don't pay full price for your tickets. Instead, check out Arts Tix's daily special for half off tickets. You'll need to go to the box office (map) at Horton Plaza shopping mall downtown to buy them (619) 497-5000. It's a bit scuzzy in front of Horton Plaza these days with the homeless guys, so send the wife out shopping while you get the tickets.
I told you so! See, even though San Diego can be a very expensive place to visit there are ways you can stretch your vacation dollar but still not sacrifice the essence of a trip to paradise. So don't put off the trip till next year ("wait till the economy gets better, wait till the kids are older, blah, blah, blah") and set your sights on America's Finest City, the place where Happy Happens, to quote our optimistic San Diego Visitor's Bureau. But really, isn't it more accurate to say Wally Happens? After all, without Local Wally where would you be this Summer?
COMING IN 2014: A new version of Local Wally's Guide to San Diego is on its way with more coupons, better discounts, updated reviews and the same great advice you can only get from a local. I'm also changing out the localwally.com url to SanDiegoTouristGuide.com soon but both will work.
Until then, it's not too early to start planning your trip to San Diego paradise. Stick with me and you'll not only get real advice from a real local but find cheap hotel and discount tickets as well. Local Wally is the oldest local website on San Diego and the only one left still run by a local guy.
And if you like beer, check out my newest site DrinkUpSanDiego.com, the complete guide to San Diego's breweries.
See You Soon,