Best Places to SEE in San Diego
Sightseeing San Diego
What's great about a trip to San Diego is that there is so much to see. In some towns once you see the main attractions what's left is definitely leftovers. But not in San Diego where there's so much to see that you could spend weeks just exploring what makes our city so unique and still not have enough time to see it all.
For those of you who were too busy texting in class to be paying attention, San Diego has plenty of history as the birthplace of California. Put down that margarita long enough to visit the first mission in California and then head over to Old Town to see what life was like in early San Diego - look, tequila! Visit some tourist traps and then head to the ocean for awe inspiring hikes, one that end up at a nude beach.
It's all good, these are the best sights to see in San Diego. See you around town!
Historic Sites that are Vacation Worthy
Like a 6th grade field trip
What will your neighbors think when all of your photos are of you either drunk or sleeping on the beach? For you PBS types, a trip to the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá and nearby Presidio Park is home school heaven. Learn about the history of the first California mission and get yourself a photo in front of the bright red bougainvillea bushes to prove you were there. Then continue your history lesson ("blah, blah, blah...") at the Presidio's Serra Museum, which houses many original artifacts of that era.
Warning - Tourist Traps Ahead!
After a trip to the mission you probably need a drink so right down the street is Old Town, a place where margaritas flow freely and chips and salsa are the food of choice. Old town was the original center of town and there are lots of historic buildings, including a real haunted house and old cemetery. Though its a state park there are plenty of tourist trap restaurants and shops (need a lucha libre wrestling mask?) and goofy people in period costumes but it's lively and fun and who cares, you're on vacation!
Lovely drive to the lighthouse
Take the short but scenic drive to the tip of Point Loma to the Cabrillo Monument and lighthouse. You can almost imagine Juan Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the west coast, comments when sighting the point in 1542 - "dude, this place is awesome!" Today you can visit the lonely lighthouse and monument but don't miss the hiking trails down to the tide pools. Wear non-slip shoes and check out the tiny sea creatures trapped at low tide in the pools, looking like you at a staff meeting where you pray no one sees you.
Will I need a Car?
I know a lot of tour books claim you can get by without a car but what they don't tell you is that San Diego is not only huge but very spread out. A bus might get you there but only if you have time to burn and the red trolleys are only good for a trip to the Gaslamp (where parking is tight) or the border. Uber is a good alternative if you really can't or don't want to rent a car.
Take in San Diego's Natural Beauty
Hidden trail and seals
The La Jolla coastline is perhaps one of the most beautiful along beach walks in the US, certainly in San Diego. Start at Torrey Pines and Prospect (map) and keep walking towards the ocean, in between the homes, and you'll be treated to a hidden trail that wraps back to the Cave Store and to the seals. From winter through spring you can see live seals and their babies on a tiny secluded cove. It's a protected area so stay off the sand and give the seals some space.
Watch the crazy cliff jumpers
Closer to downtown is Ocean Beach and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, the perfect spot for an early morning or sunset walk. The 1 1/2 mile stretch of coastline offers stunning views of dramatic coastline, shaped by time and waves with caves and stairs down to the tide pools. Check out the logic-impaired youths jumping from the rocks or the surfers out on the waves. You can do a quick drive by at sunset or come earlier and spend hours exploring the coastline and its natural beauty.
Hike trails to the beach
I love hikes. Really short hikes. Torrey Pines State Reserve is my kind of hiking because the none of the four trails are over a mile long and all of them feature eye popping beauty without making you walk miles and miles to get there. The trails run along the bluffs of the Pacific, alternating between a woodsy looking hike and an ocean view hike with one taking you down to the ocean (steep! hard!). Make sure you stop in at the old lodge on what used to be the only highway.
Take a Day Trip Adventure
Ride bikes to the "Del"
You can drive to Coronado but it's much more fun to take the ferry boat, a short 15 minute ride across the bay. You can bring bikes on the ferry or just rent them with you get to the other side. Aim your bike towards the Hotel Del Coronado and pedal through the beautiful neighborhoods filled with quint beach bungalows and huge historic mansions. Get refreshments at the Del and then head to the beach to sink your toes in the sand.
Is it safe?
There are two types of locals, those who swear TJ is safe and those who believe they will be beheaded and depending on the day, both could be right. Tijuana is an enigma, a poverty stricken town with Michelin star restaurants, starving children next to festive zebra painted donkeys. Walk across the border (bring a passport) or better yet, go with a tour group. It's an interesting excursion worth your time but you'll be glad when you're back to the US.
San Diego's wine country
Serious wine lovers are not going to be giving up their Napa wines but that won't stop them from enjoying a day in San Diego's wine country. Located an hour north of downtown San Diego, Temecula has everything from a giant Indian casino to a quaint western Old Town to dozens of wineries dotted along hillsides. It's often hot during the summer so make sure you add some breweries to your list. Late Spring is the annual Wine and Balloon Festival.
A trip to Temecula can get really expensive with most tastings costing $15 per person. Get the Priority Wine Pass and taste 2 for 1 at eight of Temecula's most popular wineries as well as five wineries in San Diego. Good for a year, one card per couple is all you need to experience great San Diego wine at a discounted price. Use promo code "localwally" when ordering and the card drops to $45 - it pays for itself after 3 tastings! Get Your Pass!
Visit Some Local Neighborhoods
Trendy and urban
The Gaslamp District has some reputation! San Diego's history starts sometime in the mid-1800's, but by 1880 the area now known as the Gaslamp District was filled with gambling halls, saloons, and prostitutes. By 1980 the area was in bad shape but a resurgence and renovation turned this homeless magnet into a trendy urban oasis filled with restaurants and clubs.
Younger visitors (and drunk conventioneers) will love the night scene while more mature visitors will want to stroll during the day. Nearby is East Village, until recently a sketchy part of town. Aim your GPS to Mission Brewery, the old Wonderbread factory now churning out great local beer, or Petco Park for a Padre's ballgame.
Visit San Diego's best farmers market
Until recently Little Italy was off the tourist radar, a true ethnic neighborhood where old Italian guys could be seen shooting the bull in front of their favorite pizza joint. But somehow a food explosion happened, turning Little Italy from a pizza sort of place to a hip foodie destination. Today you will still find great pizza but also ramen, seafood, a brewery, and even a restaurant owned by a Bravo TV Top Chef winner called Juniper + Ivy.
The best time to visit is on Saturdays from 8 to 2 when they set up San Diego's best Farmers Market. Stroll through the fresh produce with the locals but make sure you stop to try local eats, such as the just caught sea urchin for $10 or gourmet tamales. Locals favorite!
Tourist Traps in San Diego Worth Your Time
OK, you have to go once
If this wasn't in San Diego this would rank as a thumbs down tourist trap, a Cape Cod village of trinket shops and average restaurants with not a local in sight. But even the most hardened cynic must admit that the setting alongside the bay, the picturesque landscaping and random street performers make this feel more like Disneyland's Main Street than a bad Fisherman's Wharf. In fact, it's surprisingly entertaining and fun so wipe that smirk off your face and enjoy it.
Ride a wooden coaster
Built in 1925, the Giant Dipper roller coaster is one of the last remaining wooden coasters in a beachside setting. There is nothing more thrilling that the clickity-clack sound as it climbs to the top for a breathtaking view of the ocean, the slight pause, the anticipation, then the rush of adrenaline as you get hurled to the ground, dropping 73 feet at 40 mph in seconds. Belmont Park also has carnival rides and food you shouldn't eat, making it a perfect afternoon adventure.
Historic gold rush town
You have to really want to visit an old mining town and love apple pie to make the hour and a half trek to Julian, a mountain town where the gold once was as plentiful as the tourists are today. The town stands as it once was though the shops are now filled with trinkets and apple pie, plenty of apple pie. Seek out Mom's Apple Pie for the best and then take a ride on a narrow gauge railroad to explore one of the old mines. It's a place that time forgot, a pleasant drive through our local mountains.