San Diego is not normally considered a top tourist destination, it is often a second thought or an addition to a road trip itinerary. But San Diego is one of our favorite cities and deserves a place on anyone’s Must-Visit City. It is America’s southernmost West Coast city and enjoys year-round warm weather, it has a superb laid-back Coastal Californian Vibe, hosts a huge array of world-class attractions, and a stunning backdrop of natural and Man-made beauty.
Our San Diego, California Visitors guide walks you through everything you need to know to plan and execute a trip to this fabulous city that will make memories to last a lifetime. Where to Stay? How to Get about? What to See, Do and Eat and when to go. We answer all your burning questions so you can get planning, with our Ultimate Travel Guide for San Diego California.
San Diego is constrained and limited by natural boundaries, Built around a series of Coastal Lagoons to the west, with Deserts to the North and East and the Mexican Border to the south these natural obstacles have created an interesting layout to the City.
The Heart of the City is the Downtown District this Modern metropolitan highrise hub is the business center and location of many upscale restaurants and bars. A stunning marina district lines the bay and acts as a recreational escape for the residents of the City. Behind Downtown is the Large and Awe-inspiring Balboa Park, home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, along with a host of open areas and Museums.
Unlike a lot of Cities, the Main Airport San Diego International is right next to the City, which is convenient but does take up a large amount of what would be stunning real estate. As does the HUGE Navel base that takes up half of the Coronado Peninsular.
The Old Town and Mission Valley occupy the valley formed by the San Diego River which enters the ocean next to Mission Bay a network of bays, islands, and peninsulas, that makes up the Mission Bay Park and fabulous open space with a huge amount of things to see and do. The Largest Island of the Bay houses – Sea World, the world-famous ocean park that has been through the mill of late but is reinventing itself and is well worth a visit.
Heading up along the coast are the Sea Side areas of Point Loma, Ocean Point, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla. With Torrie Pines Natural Reserve acting as the northern limits of the City, Coastal Communities continue right up the coastline to L.A and beyond, but they are not San Diego.
Where to Stay
The Upscale downtown area has many top-quality, but fairly Expensive hotels. You are right in the thick of it with loads of fantastic dining and nightlife. The downside is it’s very much a City Centre type feel and there is a lot more to enjoy with San Diego’s Coastal location than staying in the middle of a bustling city.
Mission Bay, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach
Our Favourite area is a compromise between location, cost, and luxury. Right on the coast, it provides the laid-back California vibe many are seeking. Accommodation varies from budget to oceanfront luxury, with everything in between. You are not quite in the middle of everything but close enough to get to anywhere you might want.
Uptown, Old Town, and Mission Valley
These are the home-to-the-budget options in the area. You will get comfy and very cheap no-frills chain hotels here that are right in the thick of the action. Perfect if the Hotel is just somewhere to sleep and your days are filled with sightseeing and activities.
At the southern limits is the La Jolla district. This is an upscale out-of-town retreat and it has a super laid-back vibe and stunning coastal scenery. Perfect for those looking to be away from it all. It’s hard to say anything bad about La Jolla, but it is pretty far from anything. A must Visit as the rugged coast is alive with seabirds and Mammals, such as Sealions, Seals, and even whales and dolphins.
Coronado, Point Loma, and Shelter Island
Another relaxed and away from it all location. There is lots of Space out here and hotels are big and luxurious. Quiet Golden sands and long walks to nowhere are the order of the day here. Its isolated location means you will need to travel to any attractions but your resort could provide everything you need without leaving the peninsula.
Read our Full Guide here on where to Stay in the San Diego Area.
San Diego is a relatively small city and getting about is not too taxing. The Public transportation system is excellent, and there are an abundant of taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts available.
Rental Cars are the easiest and most popular way of getting around. They are fairly inexpensive and provide the ultimate convenience. The road network is simple and easy to navigate. The main issue people come up with is the infernal parking charges levied at every attraction and location, this can take hundreds of dollars from your holiday funds and really dent your enthusiasm.
Taxies are the old-fashioned and trusty way to get around. Fast being replaced by the Uber and Lyft Ride-sharing services, we rarely use taxis anymore but they are still readily available and not overly expensive.
Uber / Lyft
Fast becoming our transport of choice. The convenience and pricing make these services really unbeatable. A simple click of an app and your car We caution people not to experiment for the first time but if you are comfortable with these apps then San Diego is a great place to use them.
On top of these the San Diego, Metropolitan Transport System is TOP notch. Regular buses run to and from the airport to the downtown area where you can easily get to most destinations and attractions.
If you are around the seafronts or Pacific beach you will not be able to miss the army of electric scooters and bikes that are tearing up and down the promenades. These are all rentable and a really fun way to get around.
for more details see our full guide on Getting around San Diego click here.
Things to Do
One of the main draws in San Diego is the Miles and miles of beautiful golden sandy beaches that run up the Pacific coastline. The Diversity of the beaches is a big draw, from the quirky seaside areas of the Pacific beach, packed with cheap eateries and bars to the beautiful upscale rocky bays and cliffs of La Jolla. There is a beach area for everyone somewhere along San Diego’s fabulous shoreline.
Balboa Park is a real jewel right in the heart of the city. Its size is pretty incredible, bigger than even New York’s Central Park, and home to sublime architecture, Gardens, ponds and fountains, and some great museums. It is a fantastic place to spend an hour, a day, a week …even a year! It is also home to the World famous San Diego Zoo!
San Diego Zoo – San Diego Zoo is often rated as the best Zoo in the world and is always in the top 3 of any list of zoos. Its commitment to conservation is clear and animal welfare is at the highest end, with natural enclosures and environments for the animals to live enjoy. Their collection of animals is as good as any Zoo in the world.
San Diego Safari Zoo Safari Park – If the best Zoo on the planet isn’t enough for you, be sure to check out the San Diego Zoo’s Safari park as well! As a complement to the actual Zoo the Safari park host even more animals in larger open spaces.
Sea World– San Diego’s most famous attraction has taken a battering in recent years due to its captive Orca (Killer Whale) Program. Gone are the Days of the Shamu shows and the Park is trying to reinvent itself as an ocean-based theme park. The Orcas are still present, but the show is much toned down and a learning presentation of how Orcas behave in the wild.
Whale Watching – If you prefer your Sea Life in the Sea, then San Diego is a phenomenal place to come see all kinds of ocean creatures. Currents from the deep cold Pacific well up and keep the sea temperatures quite cool even in the winter, but this also brings nutrients that support a whole host of life. As such Sealions, seals, dolphins and a whole host of seabirds are abundant year-round. On top of this, there are two distinct whale seasons. Blue Whales appear in the summer and Grey Whales pass by on migratory routes in the winter. Whale Watching tours can be organized to take you out to see the Whales.
Legoland – Lego has always been big and as a kid, I dreamed of visiting lego land, but in recent years this iconic toy has made an even bigger splash with lego movies, games, and tie in’s with other franchises, there are not many kids that wouldn’t enjoy a trip to Legoland! While it is not technically in San Diego it is well within stinking distance, just one and a half hours drive from the city center.
Go San Diego Pass
With so many amazing Paid attractions on Offer, the cost of visiting them can quickly add up. Especially for families. We found using the go San Diego Pass a great way to get out, see and do more than we would have without the pass, and save a considerable amount of money to boot. We have a full review of the Go San Diego Pass and you can read about our last trip to San Diego where we took the Pass for a spin!
With San Diego’s Coastal location and varied waterways, with Coastal Surf and calm protected bays, it is a mecca for water sports of all kinds. Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Surfing, Scuba Diving are all available you can even hire a Speedboat for a tour of the bay!
With so much to see and do this all just scratches the surface of what is on offer in San Diego for a full rundown of all the best things to see and do in San Diego Our Full Guide to all the Best things to Do in San Diego can be found here.
On top of this San Diego is handily place so you can head out and see and do plenty, not in the immediate area. It is handily located to facilitate a multi-base trip, with stops in L.A or Las Vegas. It is a short hop to Anaheim to visit Disneyland and makes the perfect place to start or end a Route1 Pacific Coast Highway trip. Driving from San Francisco to San Diego is a trip you will never forget!
You can of course head across the border to Mexico but the current political climate, in both countries make this problematic.
Year-round the weather is pleasant, it’s not too cool in the winter and not too hot in the summer. Despite being pretty much in the desert and on a latitude that should make it scorching hot, but the Pacific Ocean has a cooling effect making even the summer months really very pleasant.
The Winter months are much cooler and the sea temp can drop to uncomfortable cool temps but it still remains warm and mainly dry right through the winter with temps as high as 66 DegF (19 DegC) even in the depths of January and February. While the Sea temps drop off it’s nothing a wetsuit can’t fix!
Rain does not play a big role in San Diego’s weather while it does rain, even in the wettest months (Dec, Jan, Feb) expect only a few Rainy days and plenty of clear sunny days to enjoy!
In fact, the only bad thing about the Weather in San Diego is the June Gloom. Mornings and early afternoons in May, June, July can be affected by a Marine layer that impacts all up the West coast bringing fog, drizzle, and generally, grey manky conditions that burn off as the day wears on. It’s not the end of the world, as it does burn off later on, and can be a great time to hit the attractions without the burning sun beating down on you, and hit the beach/pool later in the day!
Our Full San Diego Weather Guide can be found here.
Eating and Drinking
San Diego is not first on many people’s foodie destination lists but that does not mean it doesn’t have a thriving and vibrant food scene. Like any US City, it’s packed with Chain eateries that offer value and choice but maybe not quality. However, there is no need to limit yourselves to these and the burgeoning Cali-Baja Movement brings some great tasting unique cuisine to the Region.
Mexican – Cali-Baja
Being right on the Mexican border and with a large Mexican population, it is little surprise that Mexican food is big in the City, and good too!
Mexican food has been big here for so long that it has fused with the American, and specifically Californian Cuisine to become what is known as Cali-Baja. This blend of Mexican and American Cuisine is found all over San Diego and features dishes like Fish Taco’s, Breakfast Burritos, and other Mexican dishes with a Californian Twist.
San Diego’s recent history was built around fishing and was considered the Tuna Capital of the world. This industry died off in the 1970s but the coastal location still means the City has an affinity for fresh seafood. Most restaurants will have fantastic and diverse seafood options with great locally caught fish along with some more familiar imported varieties.
Local and freshly Produced fruit and Vegetables are very important to the San Diego dining scene and all top-end restaurants will use a large proportion of the fantastic locally-grown produce. Farming is a big part of the local economy and exports a lot of fruit and veg across the country, but there is plenty over for the City.
The area is responsible for over 90% of the US avocado production so this is the mecca for the Millennial’s favorite avocado on Toast!
Craft Beer and Wine
Beer Sampler by Quinn Dombrowski – CC2.0
Craft Beer is another large and growing industry in the City. And there are many breweries and tours available to sample the fine beers that the region produces. Most restaurants will feature Craft beer on their menus or just hit the supermarket and pick up any locally brewed beers for consumption in your hotel.
There is also a strong winemaking industry in the area. While not as well known as the Napa and north coast regions there is still a vibrant and high-quality industry producing great wines. again look out for them on menus and on supermarket shelves! Or head out and do a wine tasting at one of San Diego’s Wineries.
Our full Guide to San Diego’s incredible food scene can be found here.
Have Your Say?
Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions or comments on our San Diego Visitors guide. We would love to hear about your San Diego plans or adventures and welcome any questions you may have about this incredible City. Be sure to check out our detailed articles explaining the different aspects of planning a trip here.
We hope you have great fun both planning and experiencing your next San Diego trip – Your USA City Guide