The San Diego area is probably my favorite place that I’ve lived in my vagabond life. The weather is almost always perfect, the beaches are gorgeous, the food is sublime (and vegan-friendly!), and the art and culture scene is excellent. Even on a tight seminary budget, we’ve been able to enjoy more local adventures here than we have in any other place we’ve lived in our 10 year marriage. Partly as a personal journal and partly as a resource for our out-of-town company, I’ve decided to compile a list of our favorite things to do in San Diego, grouped into 9 touring days.
1. Little Italy/Seaport Village. Start the morning at the Mercato, the open air farmer’s market in Little Italy (Saturdays only). Get there early for good parking at Washington Elementary School. Enjoy a strawberry-basil lemonade, sample artisan cheeses and local olive oil, and purchase some unusual fruits and vegetables, like baby artichokes and orange cauliflower. Seaport Village is a pleasant 1 mile stroll to the south of the Mercato. Watch the baby ducks in the pond from little pedestrian bridges, ride the carousel, look out across the bay at the USS Midway, and stroll through the cool, quiet art galleries and shops that sit off of the quaint brick plazas. Walk back up to Little Italy for lunch at Bencotto’s Italian Kitchen, where you can choose from a selection of fresh, house-made pastas to pair with a delicious sauce. And no trip to Little Italy is complete without a late-afternoon stop at Pappalecco’s for a scoop or two of creamy gelato.
2. Balboa park. Begin your day at the San Diego Museum of Art, enjoying a wide variety of art exhibits, ranging from medieval iconography to impressionist landscapes to portraits done by old Italian masters to jade sculptures from China. Continue your morning of culture at the Timken art museum next door, which is much smaller, but charges no admission fee. Walk along the blossoming lily ponds and then go inside the impressive Botanical building (also free!) to see a variety of exotic plants and flowers. Make sure that you’ve made a lunch reservation in advance at The Prado so that you can sit out on the patio and enjoy a great view of the park along with exceptional Mexican-fusion food. Or pack a picnic and eat in the lovely, fountain-filled Alcazar Garden. After lunch, go down El Prado, the main street in Balboa Park, and stop by the tall fountain at the end for a view of the city. Then cross the bridge that spans the street at the end of the park and stroll through the impressively extensive rose garden and exotic cactus garden. If it’s a Sunday, enjoy a free organ concert at the Organ Pavilion at 2:00. End your day with dinner at the Smoking Goat, a delicious French restaurant, followed by a Shakespeare play at the Old Globe outdoor theater.
3. La Jolla. Sleep in and enjoy a late brunch at Cafe 222 (I recommend a nice stack of orange-pecan pancakes). Then drive to La Jolla and take in the view of the beautiful beaches and adorable seals before embarking on an ocean kayaking tour of La Jolla cove. The guides will lead you through some of the sea caves along the shore, and you’ll get to see the seals at eye level–we even got to kayak alongside some of the swimming seals!
4. Old Town/Torrey Pines. Take a self-guided tour through Old Town, a historic district that’s like a trip back in time to the Old West. Visit the oldest school house in San Diego, the sheriff’s house, the blacksmith, and many other buildings of historical significance–all free of admission charge. Sip a Mexican mocha from the coffee shop and watch contradancing on the green. For lunch, I’d recommend the margarita shrimp tacos (and the margaritas!) at Cafe Coyote, a picturesque restaurant on San Diego Avenue. In the afternoon, go for a hike on top of the cliffs at Torrey Pines Park, the most beautiful beach in San Diego. Hike down the cliffs toward the black sand beach just as the sun is setting and watch the sun go down over the Pacific Ocean. Have dinner at the Wine Vault and Bistro–they have multiple courses of small dishes paired with excellent wines–and then head next door to the National Comedy Theater for some of the most hilarious and entertaining improv comedy I’ve ever seen (and it’s clean).
5. The zoo! San Diego has one of the finest zoos in the world, with the adorable pandas as the stars of the show. Spend a full day exploring the wildlife exhibits and riding the free skyway across the park. Finish with a fancy cocktail and dinner at the highly sophisticated Cucina Urbana, an Italian fusion restaurant that is one of the most popular spots in San Diego–so make sure you’ve made your reservations well in advance!
6. A classy day. Visit the library in the morning. It might sound odd to tour a library, but this is the most beautiful and impressive library I’ve ever visited. The building itself is an architectural masterpiece, full of huge windows and high ceilings. Wander through six floors of books and make sure you take advantage of the spectacular city view from the roof. In the afternoon, visit the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, making sure that you take along your journal (see my blog post on museum journaling beforehand!). Head to the sophisticated and urbane Blue Point Coastal Cuisine in the historic Gaslamp district for some of the best seafood in town; the crab cakes are not to be missed. End the evening with a visit to Spreckels Theater, built in 1912, for a ballet.
7. The Hotel Del Coronado. No trip to San Diego is complete without staying a night at the famous Hotel Del. If you’re visiting during an off-season, try reserving a regular room and then upgrading to an ocean view room for a little bit more once you get there. The luxury suite where we stayed made us feel like millionaires, but we got it for a steal! There’s plenty to do nearby, with a decadent outdoor pool and spa, local shops and restaurants, and a gorgeous beach that often features a sculpted sand castle. Rent bikes and tour around Coronado Island. I highly recommend dinner at a local French restaurant called Chez Loma–it’s in an old Victorian house. And nothing beats a moonlit walk through the soft sands of Coronado beach.
8. Julian. Take a day trip up into the mountains to see Julian, a quaint old mining town that struck gold for a second time when people discovered that apples grow wonderfully there. Have lunch at one of the barbecue places in town before enjoying a large slice of apple pie and a scoop of ice cream from Moms Pies. Take home a jar of apple butter and an extra slice of pie for later.
9. Anza-Borrego. If you’re in SoCal anytime between October and May, it’s well worth the scenic 2 hour drive to the Anza-Borrego state park to take a hike through starkly beautiful desert. If it’s the springtime, you’ll be rewarded with an assortment of exotic desert flowers in full bloom. And after a long, hot hike, the cool and welcoming palm oasis, full of shady palm trees and a trickling stream, will come as a delightful surprise.
Last but not least, you’ll probably want to schedule a visit with a real estate agent. If you’re like us, you may enjoy your trip to San Diego so much that you decide to move here.