Your perception of San Diego might be sunny weather, sandy beaches and surfers riding the SoCal waves.
No doubt, this is a well-earned reputation. But do you know the other side of the city?
Amid San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline, cute towns and hipster neighborhoods you’ll find the Craft Beer Capital of America, natural beauty and a strong cultural scene with Old World Spanish and Baja Mexican influences.
This is one of the best places in the world for a laid-back beach vacation that also hits the high notes for outdoor adventure and big-city excitement. Here’s why it should be on your list.
1. There’s so much to ‘sea’ — caves, seals and snorkeling.
La Jolla, or “the Jewel” in Spanish, is a few miles north of San Diego, and could stake a claim as the coast with the most. In this upscale oceanfront area you’ll find wide beaches, sea cliffs, deep-water coves, tide pools, reefs and sea caves.
La Jolla Shores is the best spot for a low-key beach day. If you’re up for more adventure, head to La Jolla Cove, where the calm bay water makes for good swimming and snorkeling.
Walking distance from La Jolla Cove is the Children’s Pool. This isn’t a kids swimming area any more, though. The enclosed cove has been claimed by seals and sea lions — go here to watch these guys splash in the surf and relax in the sun. Facebook Live with a sea lion, anyone?
You also don’t want to miss La Jolla’s sea caves. You’ll need to take a guided kayak tour to see most of the caves — and to get up close to marine life like sea lions, pelicans and leopard sharks. With scenes like this, it’s well worth it.
Sunny Jim’s cave is the only one accessible by land. Just find The Cave Store (a shell shop on Coast Blvd), follow the stairs down below and head through the cave until you reach the opening right at ocean level.
2. Central Park + Smithsonian = Balboa Park.
Take a park bigger than New York City’s Central Park and pack it with museums and venues that rival Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institute and you have San Diego’s Balboa Park.
You could probably spend a whole week here and not see everything. It’s home to the San Diego Zoo, the Natural History Museum and the Old Globe Theatre, just to name a few. In fact, there are 17 museums, 19 gardens and nine performance art outlets — including one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, which is featured in free Sunday concerts at 2 p.m.
The Visitor Center offers free tours including ranger-led botanical-garden tours at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays and easy-paced one-hour walks (with rotating themes) on Saturdays at 10 a.m. And for San Diego residents and active military, select park museums offer free admission on Tuesdays in February and March.
3. Your tasting tour: Beer Boulevard, Beer-a-Mar and Hops Highway.
San Diego is the birthplace of craft beer giants Karl Strauss, Stone, Green Flash and Ballast Point. The city even has a signature brew, the West Coast-style IPA, full to the brim with hops and citrus notes.
With more than 130 breweries spread across downtown and all the way up to Oceanside, there’s a brewery tour and tasting room in your future. Many also include restaurants that feature beer pairings and fresh local products.
Here are three beer-centric stops you won’t want to miss.
Hops Highway: Highway 78 in North County is home to several of the pioneers of the San Diego craft beer scene, including Stone Brewing Co. and Pizza Port Carlsbad — a local legend by the beach.
Beer-a-Mar: Miramar Road has 10 breweries in a 1.5-mile stretch; most are functioning warehouse breweries (including heavyweights like Green Flash, AleSmith and Ballast Point) that offer daily tours where you can meet the brewers and see behind the scenes.
Beer Boulevard: Those on foot should opt for 30th Street — or as the locals call it, Beer Boulevard — which runs through North Park and South Park. There are eight shopfronts including local favorite Belching Beaver, known for its peanut butter milk stout and nitro beers.
4. It’s the home of world-class attractions and events.
With attractions like the San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND® California and SeaWorld San Diego, this SoCal spot has long been a popular family vacation destination. Passes that combine multiple attractions such as the Go San Diego Card or Southern California CityPASS allow you to bundle in savings (and free days) at these popular places and more. Keep in mind that these top attractions get busiest in the summer months and on weekends.
San Diego also hosts several events that draw visitors from around the world.
Baseball fans will want to be at Petco Park for second-round games of the World Baseball Classic (March 14-19). Held every four years, this is the premier international baseball tournament with Major League stars playing for their home countries. (Think: a true world series played by All-Star teams.) Tickets start at $13 per person.
On Easter weekend (April 15-16), San Diego hosts the Red Bull Air Races, in which the best pilots in the world race old-school aerobatic planes through a slalom-like course over the bay. It’s something you have to see to believe.
5. The cliffs are where you’ll find the best ocean views.
Miles of cliffside trails and jaw-dropping views await at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The Beach Trail is the most-trafficked, but the best views are found at the top of Razor Point Trail; you can see miles of coastline, surfers and maybe even dolphins or migrating gray whales from up there. It’s a slightly steep start up a paved hill, but once you’re up, the terrain eases and connects to a network of trails.
Free guided walks are offered on weekends and holidays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. from the visitor center. Don’t forget your camera.
6. Cali-Baja flavors that make foodies swoon.
San Diego’s proximity to the ocean and Mexico helped shape the city’s culture as reflected through the architecture, art and cuisine.
The city’s popular Cali-Baja cuisine is a cross-border collaboration, backed by chef purveyors such as Trey Foshee from Galaxy Taco, that has elevated Mexican food beyond street tacos. Expect to see handmade blue corn masa tortillas with locally caught uni on a taco or grilled octopus on a tostada or really good birria, a slow-cooked beef stew.
7. Eat your way through Top Chef Alley.
The culinary uprising doesn’t end there. In recent years, stars from “Top Chef” flocked to San Diego — in particular Little Italy, the area’s buzziest food neighborhood — to create what’s now referred to as Top Chef Alley. You’ll find restaurants from past contestants including Crack Shack and Juniper & Ivy by Richard Blais, and Herb & Wood by Brian Malarkey.
8. You’ll find amazing art in unlikely spots.
Within San Diego’s 100+ vibrant neighborhoods are nine distinct art districts that feature street art that will pop on your Instagram feed. Venture to 30th and Ivy in South Park to see the two-story mural of a Burmese monk by Shepard Fairey (who created the iconic Barack Obama “Hope” poster).
A visit to Barrio Logan is a must — it’s home to the largest collection of outdoor murals in the U.S. Chicano Park (a National Historic Landmark) alone features more than 70 murals displayed across concrete pillars and walls under a freeway overpass. The neighborhood features warehouses converted into galleries and studios, and some of the best Mexican food you’ll find anywhere in the world.
9. Play around in a 4,600-acre water park.
There are no water slides in this aquatic park. The best way to explore Mission Bay is by paddleboard, Jet Ski, boat or kayak. There’s 27 miles of shoreline with eight designated swimming areas and plenty of marinas to rent from. And, many Mission Bay hotels have their own on-site marinas.
On land, biking, jogging and walking on paths around the bay are good ways to work off the calories from Top Chef Alley.
10. It’s the birthplace of California.
In 1769 Father Junipero Serra established the first California mission in what is known as Old Town San Diego. The area is now a historic park that preserves the rich heritage of San Diego during the 1821-72 period, as it transitioned from Mexico to the United States.
Today, you can visit museums, tour art galleries, dine on authentic Mexican cuisine and see historical sites along San Diego Avenue, including the Old Adobe Chapel and San Diego’s first commercial theater. There are also free demonstrations (of quilting, blacksmithing and carpentry) and living history activities in Old Town State Historic Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
11. Finish the day with a great sunset.
The big draw in Point Loma is Cabrillo National Monument, a monument that commemorates Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who was the first European to discover California in 1542. While there, don’t miss the impressive tide pools (go during low tide), the quaint lighthouse and the uninterrupted sunsets.
On the drive out from the monument (it closes at 5 p.m.) be sure to stop at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park for some of the best sunset views around.
12. The party’s on at the Gaslamp Quarter.
Victorian-era buildings and modern skyscrapers stand side by side in downtown’s trendy Gaslamp Quarter.
Once the sun sets and people leave the beaches, parks and hiking trails, this walkable 16-block quarter — which houses more than 180 restaurants, 50 bars and 10 nightclubs — turns into a lively nightlife scene. You can step back into the 1920s at the underground Prohibition speakeasy (the secret entrance is an unassuming law office door) or dance the night away with celebrity DJs at posh nightclubs like OMNIA San Diego.