First time San Diego: discover the best of America's finest city
San Diego calls itself America’s Finest City, and who are we to argue? Its sunny, breezy countenance animates the pandas and koalas at its world-famous zoo, skaters and surfers on its iconic beaches, tousled-haired valet parkers and vested bartenders slinging drinks in hipster hangouts of the Gaslamp Quarter. It’s the nation’s eighth-largest city, yet we’re hard-pressed to think of a more laid-back burg of any size.
First-timers looking for quintessential San Diego experiences should head to the zoo, venture off on a quest to find the perfect fish taco, spend the day unwinding on their own favorite beach, and spend an evening joining the party in the Gaslamp Quarter. All that, plus America’s most perfect weather to enjoy it in.
- Population: about 1.4 million
- Visitors per year: about 32 million
- Language: English, with less Spanish than you’d think for a border town
- Daily budget: $200 for mid-range hotel and restaurant meals
- Distance to/from Los Angeles: 120 miles
- Driving time to/from Los Angeles: two hours to who knows?
- Best time of year to go: all year, but peak season is June-August
- Miles of beaches: 70+ (Personal favorite? Any in La Jolla)
Neighborhoods & sights
San Diego Zoo & Balboa Park
Even if you’re the kind of the person who normally gives zoos a miss, San Diego Zoo is worth a look. A highlight of a visit not just to the city but to the whole state, this place has more than 3000 animals representing over 800 species, all housed in beautifully landscaped enclosures that replicate their natural habitats.
The zoo is in Balboa Park, itself packed with dozens of museums, gardens and performance venues including the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego Natural History Museum, Japanese Friendship Garden and the Old Globe Theatre, modeled after the English venue where Shakespeare’s works were first performed.
Posh Prado restaurant claims pride of place when it comes to eating options, with sweeping park views from its veranda and eclectic Californian cuisine.
In the 1860s, San Diego’s Downtown was a motley mash-up of saloons, gambling joints, bordellos and opium dens. Then it got worse. By the 1960s the area was a skid row of flophouses and dive bars - which makes its turnaround since then all the more impressive. Now called the Gaslamp Quarter, it’s awash in fancy restaurants, buzzy bars and slick shops behind renovated 19th-century facades. On Downtown’s western edge, you can delve into fascinating seafaring history at the former aircraft carrier USS Midway Museum and Maritime Museum, where historic ships anchor majestically in San Diego Bay.
Start your Downtown day with peanut butter and banana French toast at Café 222 in the Gaslamp. Headquarters at the Embarcadero is the former police HQ, newly converted into restaurants like Puesto, offering fresh takes on Mexican street food (here’s a good stop on that fish taco quest). At night, Bang Bang is the DJ bar du jour – check out the Ryan Gosling and Hello Kitty themed loos. Stumbling distance from the Gaslamp’s nightlife, it’s cheap sleeps for party peeps at HI Youth Hostel San Diego and USA Hostels San Diego. For luxe digs, the circa 1910 U.S. Grant Hotel has hosted movie stars, presidents and a Prohibition-era speakeasy.
Immaculately landscaped parks, white-sand coves, upscale boutiques, top restaurants, and cliffs above deep, clear blue waters make it easy to understand why La Jolla (pronounced la-hoy-ah) translates from Spanish as ‘the jewel’. Point La Jolla is the center of an idyllic stroll along the mighty Pacific, seals languishing on the sand below. Splash in the waves at Torrey Pines City Park, rent snorkeling equipment at the Cave Store to explore the massive San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, or keep your feet dry at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
Old Hollywood romance permeates the 1926 La Valencia Hotel, from publicity stills of silent-film stars in the lobby to the Spanish Revival La Sala bar. Enjoy a sunset table at the clubby Marine Room, where giant waves splash against equally giant windows at high tide (Apr–Aug) as you feast on stylized fusion cuisine.
Some 34 miles north of Downtown, Legoland is a fantasy environment of wacky coasters, thrill rides and play pods, all inspired by those little colored plastic blocks from Denmark. Miniland blows minds with recreations of world landmarks, beside equally amazing Star Wars models. Adjacent are Sea Life Aquarium (real sea creatures swim among Lego creations), Legoland Water Park and the new Chima Water Park. And boy is the Legoland Hotel fun: 3500 Lego models (dragons to surfers) populate the property, buffet meals are surprisingly good, and mum and dad can kick back in the bar while their little dears dream of their next adventure.
What to pack
San Diego consistently has America’s best weather, with high temperatures around 76°F (24°C) in summer and 65°F (18°C) in winter, and nighttime lows rarely below 50°F (10°C) even in chilliest December. Pack that favorite swimsuit (you can rent any other beach equipment), a light jacket, hoodie or sweater will suffice most of the year.
Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must year-round.
Getting there & around
Mostly domestic flights serve San Diego’s airport, Lindbergh Field, 3 miles from Downtown. Bus 992 (the Flyer, $2.25) connects them, or taxis are $10 to $16. There are also shuttle van services, but they tend to be time consuming with stops en route, and if there are two or more of you, can prove more expensive than taxis.
Most locals and visitors get around by car; rentals are plentiful at the airport, but a network of buses and trams can get you most places. Visit the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (www.sdmts.com) for details.
Serious crime is rare, but use common sense on streets and beaches, don’t flash money or leave luggage or valuables visible in your car, and if a neighborhood feels dodgy to you (such as southeast of Downtown), make your way out.
Dress Casual, though the definition varies by location: shorts-and-flip-flops are fine at the beaches and theme parks; smart casual for La Jolla; hip casual in the Gaslamp Quarter after dark.
Tipping As in the rest of the US, tipping is not optional. Bartenders should receive at least $1 per drink if you want to get served next time round; parking valets will be happy with $2; and restaurant staff will expect 18-20% (though gratuity is often included for parties of 6 or more – check the bill when it arrives).
San Diego has a monstrous convention scene which can take over every hotel room in the city; check calendars when planning your trip.
If your itinerary includes Legoland Hotel, book the second you make your travel plans. Reserve hotels well in advance during the summer peak season (Jun-Aug). Restaurant reservations are generally difficult on Fridays through Sundays, though a single diner or couple can usually eat at the bar without reservations.
Check attraction websites before setting out as significant online-only discounts are often available.
Andrew Bender is a true Californian, not by birth but because he’s made it his own. Since moving to Los Angeles over two decades ago, this native New Englander has contributed to over three dozen LP titles (including covering San Diego for the Los Angeles, San Diego and Southern California guide). Among his other outlets, he also writes the Seat 1A travel site for Forbes.com.