I’ve been to San Diego a number of times over the years, but my husband Craig never had. So when we found ourselves with a spare couple of days while we were recently in Los Angeles, we decided to drive down.
We had a blast exploring the city and surrounding areas. If you’re looking to spend a few days or a weekend in San Diego, here are some ideas for how to spend your time in this sunny, laid back city.
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The San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is known for being one of the best in the world. In operation for over a century, its reputation is well deserved.
Millions of people followed the giant panda Hua Mei, who was born in 1999 at the San Diego Zoo and was the first giant panda cub to survive to adulthood in the U.S.
Sadly, the zoo’s last two giant pandas, Bai Yun and her six-year-old cub Xiao Liwu, were recently returned to China after being on loan for more than 20 years.
But there is still plenty to see and do at the zoo. From guided bus tours to animal encounters, to botanical tours and an aerial tram, you could fill days on end.
One-day tickets start at $56 for adults (12 and up) and $46 for kids (age 3-11). The zoo has a lot of different options for how to visit, including multi-day passes and VIP packages that allow you to have your very own guide.
If you want to get your kids excited about going, check out the live animal cams on the zoo’s website. They’ll be able to watch polar bears, giraffes, and tigers, all in real time.
Hotel Del Coronado
Whether you choose to stay at the “Hotel Del” or not, it’s a must-see if you’re spending time in San Diego. Located on Coronado Island, the hotel has been around since 1888 and is a designated National Historic Landmark.
The Del is the oldest wooden structure in the country. And it made history in 1904 when it turned on the world’s very first electrically-lit, outdoor, live Christmas tree.
Over the years The Del has been a popular location for movies. “The Pearl of Paradise” filmed there in 1916 and “The Stunt Man” was there in 1977. And most famously, it was the site where “Some Like It Hot” was filmed in 1958.
The hotel has hosted celebrities and presidents alike. Charlie Chaplin stayed there and so did Presidents Harrison, Taft, Roosevelt, Ford, and Carter. President Nixon hosted a state dinner there for the President of Mexico.
The Del even has some mysteries, too. Legend has it that the ghost of a young suicide from 1892, Kate Morgan, still haunts the hotel today. She’s said to like to lurk around room 3327 and the hotel gift shop.
The green, floral grounds at The Del are perfect for meandering, and the hotel offers up a wonderful (although pricy) Sunday brunch. Even if you don’t go for a meal, there is plenty of shopping and a number of places you can sit outside and enjoy an adult beverage while you soak in the sun and ocean breezes. And, of course, The Del has a fabulous spa.
For more information or to make a reservation, click here. Tip: While convenient and quaint, we found that the rooms in the main building are not as updated as those in the Tower. But regardless of what type of room you decide on, it’s a grand experience.
Eat and Drink
Confession time – I think I put food on all of my lists of “must do’s”, no matter which city I’m talking about. It’s not that I seek out the Michelin-starred fine restaurants in every city. But I do love a great meal and relish finding places that have a cool vibe, great food, and top-notch service. So with that, here are a few places where we enjoyed eating while we were in San Diego:
Once found only in Malibu, the upscale sushi eatery now has outposts all over the world. The menu is similar everywhere, but there are items that are specific to each location. I’ve eaten at several different Nobu’s around the country and never had a bad meal. The San Diego restaurant was no exception.
I’m positive there is cheaper sushi in San Diego that may be just as good, but there’s a reason Nobu has its reputation. It’s If you love sushi, it’s worth the experience.
Searsucker states its food philosophy is, “an honest approach to a fun, “wow”-factor meal.” It’s hard to disagree. The steak was delectable. And between the brussels sprouts and biscuits with honeyed butter, I almost felt like I was back in the south!
La Jolla has no shortage of great restaurants on the water. While you really can’t go wrong, we enjoyed Eddie V’s largely because it was fairly quiet at lunch and we had an amazing view overlooking the Pacific.
I had a delicious crab-stuffed shrimp and Craig went nuts with oysters and scallops. While we were too full for dessert, our affable waitress insisted we take a couple of (delicious) mini chocolate cookies for the road.
There are more than 110 breweries in San Diego, and nearly every restaurant or bar you go to will have lots of different taps. Craig is a big fan of Ballast Point, so that was where we headed.
Because of a Waze mistake (and by that I mean, me plugging the wrong location into Waze), we landed at the Little Italy location instead of the actual brewery.
Based on the energy there, I’m guessing the actual Ballast Point brewery would be a lot of fun. Next time!
San Diego has a huge military presence with seven bases in the area. Tip: If you are a service member, there are a ton of military discounts available around town.
If you’re interested in military history or exhibits, there are several museums you might want to check out:
The USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway Museum showcases America’s longest-serving aircraft carrier. With almost three dozen exhibits and tours (many of which are led by veterans who actually served on the carrier), you’ll get a great sense of the boat’s rich history. They have a ton of events around holidays like July 4th and Veteran’s Day – they even have family sleepover nights and Top Gun movie nights. Tickets range from $9 to $22 and you can buy them here.
The San Diego Air & Space Museum
Located in Balboa Park, the San Diego Air & Space Museum features a huge collection of military aircraft from WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and beyond. It’s also home to the actual Apollo 9 Command Module spacecraft. Active military admission is free and general admission tickets range from $10.95 to $19.95.
The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum is the only Marine Corps Aviation museum in the U.S. and is home to 31 aircraft from World War II to the present. Every other weekend in the summer it hosts “Open Cockpit Days” during which certain aircraft cockpits are open so that visitors can hop in and check out the pilot’s view. You can also strap into an ejection seat, try on a helmet, and chat with pilots. Admission and parking are free.
If you’re going to be in San Diego for a couple of days, it’s well worth it to spend a day in La Jolla.
Seals and Sea Lions
A walk down to the La Jolla Cove to see the seals and sea lions is a must.
You might want to check out these tips for viewing the seals and sea lions. Most important, don’t do anything during your visit that could endanger or aggravate the animals. Don’t get too close to them and don’t try to feed them. Just respect the wildlife.
La Jolla has a mix of upscale boutiques with beachy surf-style shops, estate jewelry stores, and cute gift shops. It’s delightful to walk around and every time I’ve been I’ve discovered some new boutique that I’ve really enjoyed. This past trip, we did not do much shopping (which I’m sure was a relief for Craig), but if you’re looking for where to go, check out LaJolla.com for some ideas.
If you play golf, San Diego has plenty to offer. Torrey Pines is the most well-known of the area’s courses. It’s pricey but has amazing views of the Pacific.
The Coronado Golf Course is a fun municipal course that is very busy with a lot going on around it – to include great views of the Coronado bridge, the Hotel Del Coronado, and the bay. Fun fact – Ronald Reagan was the first person to drive across the Coronado bridge when it opened in 1969.
Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course is another inexpensive option. It’s been around since 1921 and has great views of the city.
San Diego is a city that begs you to get outdoors. There really are few other places that have such consistently perfect weather beckoning you to skip work or class or whatever you might have to do and just get outside.
Given its proximity to the water and it’s beautiful coastline, hiking is a great way to unwind and get to know the area if you’ve got the time. Outdoor Project has compiled a list of ten amazing hikes in the area. We couldn’t fit a hike into our last visit – but Craig and I both love to hit the trails, so we’re looking forward to going back and getting outside!
If you enjoy museums when you travel, or even if you’re just looking for indoor activities on the rare rainy day in San Diego, there are plenty of options.
Often referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West,” Balboa Park is the largest urban park with cultural institutions in the United States. There are 17 museums throughout the park covering topics such as anthropology, art, aviation, natural science, and technology.
The San Diego Museum of Man
One of the highlights of Balboa Park, San Diego’s Museum of Man is an anthropology museum which has a little something for everyone. It houses one of the most important collections of Ancient Egyptian antiques in the country, including authentic mummies and seven painted wooden coffins. It also has an exhibit on cannibals and one on “beerology.” General admission is $13 and tickets can be purchased online.
Dr. Seuss Sites
If you were a fan, as I was, of Dr. Seuss’ books as a child, you might be interested to learn that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and his wife Audrey had strong San Diego ties. They moved to the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla in 1953 – and it was there he wrote “Horton Hears a Who!,” “The Cat in the Hat,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “Green Eggs and Ham.” There are a number of sites around San Diego either connected to him or that carry on his “Seussian” vision.
The Geisel Library on the University of California, San Diego campus was renamed for the couple. It’s not a museum, but its structure is stunning – it looks like a spaceship rising from the ground and although it was not originally built in his honor, it sure looks like it could inspire a book or two.
The library is home to an archive of Geisel’s material, called “The Dr. Seuss Collection.” but many of the 15,000 items are so fragile that most of the collection is only available to researchers.
If you happen to be in San Diego in early March, though, there is a campus birthday party each year on the 2nd of the month. The library will exhibit a few of his pieces during that time – complete with a birthday cake and “Seussian” musical entertainment from the Teeny Tiny Pit Orchestra.
The Legends Gallery in downtown La Jolla is likewise not a Dr. Seuss museum – but it feels like it because there are so many works of his works. The gallery sells limited-edition reproductions, to include bronze sculptures, sketches, illustrations.
The Davis-Horton House
If you want to get a feel for the history of the Gaslamp Quarter, you should start by exploring the Davis-Horton House. You can take a house tour, or a walking tour of the Gaslamp Quarter, or even a ghost tour of the area. Admission is $5 and the tours are $20 with discounts for military, seniors, and students.
Haunted Hotels and Houses
I mentioned the resident ghost at the Del Coronado – San Diego is actually home to a number of hotels and houses reputed to have ghostly visitors. And there are a number of ghost tours available when you’re in town. I’m always a sucker for these kinds of tours and, although we did not do one when we were there, it’s on our list for next time.
Petco Park sits at the edge of the district and has a fantastic view of San Diego. If you’re a baseball fan, checking out a Padres game is a great way to spend a few hours when you’re in town – especially if you’ve got kids with you.
A Few Other Things To Know
Amazon has almost any San Diego guidebook you would ever need. For city guides in general, I gravitate towards the Lonely Planet books, but I’ve also used Fodor’s and Frommer’s. If you’re into hiking, I’d recommend Sheri McGregor’s book detailing 60 hikes in a 60-mile radius of San Diego. And if you’re traveling with kids, I love the idea of getting them their own kids’ guidebook so they can start getting excited about the trip.
I am always surprised at the weather fluctuations in the San Diego area. With an average daily temperature of 70 degrees, it’s awesome weather year round. But when you get anywhere near the water, especially if the day is cloudy, it can be a little cooler. The ocean breeze can make a couple of degrees of temperature feel like 10 or 20.
For us, coming off a Mid-Atlantic east coast winter, it was delightful. But it definitely can get cool if the sun isn’t out.
San Diego is much like the rest of California: casual. I felt at home in bermuda shorts and cute tops the whole time I was there. Flip flops are almost universally welcome. That being said, if you’re spending time at the Del Coronado or any of the golf clubs, you might step it up a little bit. Also, the breeze off the ocean can be chilling, especially on a cloudy day. So you might think about bringing a light jacket or cardigan.
If you’re traveling with kids, they’ll enjoy playing in San Diego just as much as adults. I didn’t even mention Legoland, SeaWorld, or the fabulously interactive New Children’s Museum, but there are a ton of options for things to do with kids. Even if you just take them for a day at the beach, San Diego a great city for the younger set.
I would love your feedback on this list. Have you spent time in San Diego and have other suggestions? Were these helpful for you? Please comment below!!