San Diego is arguably one of the nicest cities in California, if not the US. It’s tagline is “America’s Finest City”, so I mean, come on, it’s gotta be true! With their year-round Mediterranean climate and wide variety of things to do and sights to see, it’s the perfect spot for both a weekend getaway and extended trips. Having grown up in Ocean Beach, one of San Diego’s many thriving neighborhood communities, I love to visit my old haunts when I’m back in town, and I’d like to share some of my favorite places to eat, drink, and play with you!
Naked Cafe – Point Loma / Carlsbad Village. For the best vegetarian breakfast around you’ve got to try Naked Cafe. Even if you are a carnivore, fans find their breakfasts both hearty and delicious. My favorite dish is the Ying & Yang, which is a bed of crisp rosemary potatoes topped with jalapenos, onions, tomatoes, red beans, avocado, cheese, sour cream, and salsa. I highly recommend adding soyrizo to it to give this dish an extra kick.
Fig Tree Cafe – Liberty Station / Hillcrest. If you’re starving after your flight into San Diego, this is the perfect spot to grab a delicious bite when you get in from the airport (like I did the last time I was down). They feature cleverly crafted California cuisine with excellent breakfast and lunch dishes such as signature omelets, benedicts, and french toast. They have a relaxed and laid back vibe with patio seating ideal for enjoying that wonderful San Diego sunshine.
The Mission – Mission Beach / North Park / East Village. This place is so delicious it’s no wonder they’ve been voted one of San Diego’s top 25 breakfast spot for as long as I can remember. The Mission features Mexican and California inspired dishes with a lot of variety on their menu, so there’s a dish to please everyone, such as fruited French toast and spicy chilaquiles.
Wonderland – Ocean Beach. If you want your breakfast with an ocean view, this is your spot. With giant windows that open up to a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, eating breakfast has never been so picturesque. They have a killer Bloody Mary that is perfect with their San Diego inspired dishes like the breakfast burrito– they make theirs with scrambled eggs, bacon, breakfast sausage, potatoes, mixed cheeses, and black beans, all heaping with tomatillo suiza and enchilada sauces, plus more cheese and sour cream.
Casa Guadalajara – Old Town. If you are feeling like you need a good margarita and stellar mexican food for lunch, Casa Guadalajara is the place to be. It’s bright atmosphere, equipped with colorful pinatas and umbrellas, is fun and laid back– perfect for a meal that you don’t want to rush through. They serve up some of the best Mexican food around. Their dishes may be on the heavy side, but you can walk it off by visiting the many awesome shops around Old Town.
OB Noodle House – Ocean Beach. OB Noodle House is one of my favorite spots for lunch, and it’s one of the best places in San Diego for Pho. All the noodle dishes are awesome, especially their Pan Seared Crispy Noodle dishes, and the outdoor seating is always a plus for people watching. They also serve up some good sake cocktails and craft beer, so I recommend catching them during their well priced happy hour. The lines get a little long during peak times, but they have 2 locations in Ocean Beach to get your pho fix.
Hodad’s – Ocean Beach / Gaslamp / Petco Park. You may have seen this place on The Food Network’s “Diners Drive-ins & Dives,” but I’ve been going to this burger spot since middle school and it’s one of those places that lives up to the hype. The burgers are the perfect combination of a fresh and greasy. Oh, and don’t forget to get a shake — it’s basically 100% ice cream, but the Hodad’s crew make their shakes so noteworthy I order one every time. Since the show aired, the Ocean Beach location has a line forming around the block before they open their doors, but it’s worth the wait! If you are able to, you’ll definitely want to sit in the VW Bus booth. Their downtown locations in the Gaslamp and at Petco Park are the perfect spot to grab a burger if you’re downtown to catch a baseball game.
Ortiz’s – Point Loma / Mission Beach. This is the place to get the “famous” California Burrito. Honestly it’s just kind of your run of the mill taco shop, but they have a solid burrito and the best green salsa I’ve ever tasted. Both locations are so close to the beach, so either shop is the ideal place to grab a burrito on your way in.
El Indio – Mission Hills. El Indio is pretty much a San Diego landmark that’s been open since the 40’s and serving up some of the best Mexican food around. Everything is made from scratch and with fresh ingredients, even the tortillas! They are also credited with inventing the taquito, and if you’ve ever had those frozen ones from CostCo, these are a game changer. My personal favorite thing they make are the tamales, and I always make sure to take a few home with me every time I visit.
Bali Hai – Shelter Island. Another San Diego staple, this Polynesian style restaurant serves up excellent seafood in a kitschy 50’s building overlooking San Diego bay and Downtown. They are probably best known for their extremely strong Mai Tai’s, which are famous (or infamous) depending on who you ask. Your server will literally give you a warning before serving it to you because it is nothing but booze… just a slice of pineapple, a cherry, and a whole lot of rum. You’d never know it though because it’s delicious! Pair it with some of their appetizers such as fresh ceviche or fried calamari and you’re in for a memorable night.
The Venetian – Point Loma. Who doesn’t like pizza? Yeah that’s what I thought. The Venetian has been serving up classic homestyle Italian food since the 60’s. You can’t go wrong with the pizzas, but the pastas are solid as well. If you have a large group, ask to sit in the back room, which has a cozy patio feel perfect for catching up with a group of friends.
Ikiru – Liberty Station. If you are craving sushi, which I always do, Ikiru is your spot. The restaurant is small and intimate, perfect for date night or for catching up with someone special. Their fish is fresh, and the sake is good… what more could you ask for?
Juniper & Ivy – Little Italy. If you’re looking for something a little more fancy (and hipster) Juniper & Ivy is your spot. Celebrity chef Richard Blais boasts a seasonal menu that is to die for. They call it “refined American food with a west coast edge”, I call it, “get in my mouth food”. The mouth watering menu has inventive interpretations of seafood, pasta, and meats. It may feel a little adventurous, but it will not disappoint.
TRUST Restaurant – Hillcrest. Let your inner hipster out at TRUST — everything they make is locally sourced and seasonal. I know it sounds cheesy, but those words “local” and “seasonal” get me every time, try their gem salad and burger both are simple, yet memorable.
Extraordinary Desserts – Banker Hil l/ Little Italy It’s called extraordinary for a reason: the desserts here will blow your mind. From cakes to pastries to cookies you’ll be able to get your sugar fix with a dessert you’ll have to instagram because it’s so pretty. Their Banker’s Hill location has a quaint and cozy coffee shop feel, while their Little Italy location features a full service savory menu with handcrafted salads and cheese plates, plus a boutique wine list that pairs wonderfully with a decadent dessert.
Lighthouse Ice Cream – Ocean Beach. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, and if you look close enough (and long enough), you can find a picture of me somewhere on their walls, which are covered in pictures of Ocean Beach natives that have been supporting Lighthouse since the beginning. Lighthouse has some of the best ice cream around, and when you need a break from the beach, they are just a short walk up. I usually stick with the classic ice cream cone, but the waffle ice cream sandwich is definitely worth a try!
Fiji Yogurt – Hillcrest. Everyone likes fro-yo, and while this self serve shop makes it easy to get a little crazy with the toppings, it’s totally worth it. What makes it different from the many frozen yogurt spots are their signature yogurt flavors; they are decadent, creative, original, and creamy.
Ballast Point Brewery – Little Italy / Linda Vista / Miramar / Scripps Ranch. From its humble beginnings as a home brew supply store to an award winning full scale brewery and distillery, Ballast Point now has multiple locations and more awesome beers than you could (and probably should) taste in an afternoon. The tasting rooms are open daily, and each one has its own unique charm. Since San Diego has a huge fishing industry, Ballast Point beers are all nautical themed, like their award winning Sculpin or their Calm Before the Storm cream ale with coffee and vanilla.
Stone Brewing – Escondido / Liberty Station. Probably the most famous of all the San Diego breweries, Stone has multiple locations around San Diego where you can taste their internationally renowned beers and pair it with some of their signature plates. You can also fill up a growler with your favorite beer at their flagship location in Escondido, which also has gorgeous grounds and stellar food. I would recommend making it in time to take the tour of the brewery where you can get some samples and a souvenir tasting glass– but get there early! These classes are first come, first served and they fill up fast.
Modern Times Brewery – Midway District. Modern Times is a newer spot in the area but they’ve been quickly causing a lot of hype over their San Diego inspired brews. Their tasting room is called the Lomaland Fermentorium, so you know this place will be fun. Even though it’s one of the newer breweries on the block they are making a good selection of both year round beers and seasonal selections. And if you’re looking for more than just beer, their cold press coffees are perfect to take home with you.
Mission Brewery – East Village. The brewery and tasting room are located in Downtown’s East Village in the old Wonder Bread factory building, so yeah, it looks really cool inside. You can do a brewery tour, try some beers and grab a little food from one of the nearby food trucks. Plus, it’s dog and kid friendly, so everyone can come hang out.
Pacific Shores – Ocean Beach. If you are looking for a dive bar with a weird kitschy ambiance go down to Pac Shores. It’s 1950’s under the sea interior is awesome, complete with blacklight murals and mermaids. The drinks are reasonably priced and they have an old school jukebox so you can pick some tunes.
The Harp – Ocean Beach. The Harp is Ocean Beach’s equivalent to an Irish pub that is known for featuring live music on the weekends. One band in regular rotation that I love seeing there are ‘Help’, a Beatles cover band that’s always fun to dance to.
Wine Steals – Hillcrest / Point Loma / Cardiff. Like wine tasting but hate the drive out to the country? Wine Steals has a casual, urban atmosphere is perfect for trying some wines. It’s mellow, unpretentious and a great spot to grab a drink before dinner, or you can stay there to have some of their signature bites and hang out all night long. The also have a great selection of bottles to buy and take home.
Polite Provisions – North Park. I love a fancy cocktail, and if you are into mixology this is your place! They have an extensive menu of drinks for every flavor you could be looking for, and they even offer cocktail making classes. It’s a great spot for an afternoon drink, and if it’s a weekday make sure to catch their happy hour!
The Patio – Liberty Station / Mission Hills / Pacific Beach. The Patio has a little something for everyone: local beers, fancy cocktails, wine, and premium tequilas. It’s the perfect place to grab a drink, and if you’re feeling hungry they have a full restaurant. Each of their locations has a different menu, so make sure to check out their selections before you go.
Coffee & Tea:
The Living Room – Point Loma. A great spot for an afternoon coffee, the Living Room is in the historic Jennings House built in 1886, so it really feels homey! It’s got a great front porch and back patio to enjoy your coffee and chat with friends or read.
Lestat’s – North Park. Much like the fictional Lestat of Ann Rice’s vampire novels, Lestat’s is up all night — 24 hours a day in fact. Even the interior is something a victorian vampire could appreciate, but it’s not all cliche vampire themed; they host comedy nights and live music, so there is always something entertaining going on while you sip your cappuccino.
Dark Horse Coffee Roasters – North Park / Golden Hill. This place has some of the best dark roast blends to wake you up in the morning! The beans for their delicious pour over coffee are roasted in house everyday, and the walk up counter makes it easy to pop in to grab your coffee and go.
Ocean Beach: Mellow hippy vibes and a large area for surfing and for swimming. At the north end there is a designated dog beach, so your pup can play in the waves too!
Mission Beach: A little more upbeat vibe, has a boardwalk and white sandy beaches. There are sections of the beach for surfing and swimming, but the whole beach is good for hanging out.
La Jolla Shores: If you have ever wanted to learn to surf the Surf Divas have a fun and affordable surf camp you should check out. The mellow waves in La Jolla are perfect for learning to surf or just swimming around.
Carlsbad State Beach: With warm sand and steep beach it makes for a serious beach break, which, to be real, can be a lot of fun, if you like getting thrown around by the waves like I do. If not, the beach is nice and a perfect place to hang out and throw around the frisbee.
Zoo / Safari Park: The World Famous San Diego Zoo really has earned its credit. Not only does it house over 3,700 animals, but it also active in conservations and endangered species preservation. You can see everything from giant pandas to orangutans to parrots. One of the things I really love about the zoo is it’s “cageless enclosures”. The zoo was originally designed with moats around the animal enclosures so cages and fences would not be needed, and this gives the animals a habitat similar to their indigenous home. It’s sister park the Safari Park has even more open space for the animals to roam. If you’ve ever dreamed about going on safari in Africa you can get a taste of what that’s like here. You can choose from any number of safari tours through the park to see the animals out in the open and interacting with each other like they would in the wild. I’ve done the African Cart Safari, and getting to see rhinos and giraffes up close was one of the coolest things! Both parks are great, and if you want to see all the animals they offer 2-day 2-park passes which is a fun thing for families and people of all ages.
Reuben H Fleet / Balboa Park: Balboa Park is basically San Diego’s Central Park, it houses tons of beautiful green space, historic buildings, and a bunch of museums. I could spend hours walking around the gardens (I actually have done this on numerous occasions). If you are traveling with kids, or you like to let your inner 8 year old out, The Reuben H Fleet Science Center is going to be a blast. It is home to southern California’s only IMAX Dome theater which immerses you into it’s giant format films and planetarium shows. The science center also has over 100 hands on science exhibits, so you can really get into the kinetic learning. I’ve gone both as a kid and as an adult, and every time I’ve always had fun and learned something new.
Old Town: If you want to get a little into San Diego’s history head to Old Town. The majority of the Spanish Colonial architecture is still there, and the original town square is at the center of it. Things to definitely check out are the Whaley House, one of the most haunted houses in the US, they have daily tours so you can hear it’s whole creepy past. The Old Town State Park tour, lead by park aids, will take you around the historic sites and fill you up with fun facts. The tours are free and leave from the visitors center at the Robinson Rose Building. Lastly be sure to roam around Bazar Del Mundo, you’ll find all kinds of funky shops as well as excellent Mexican food.
Belmont Park / Mission Beach Boardwalk: Ride a roller coaster right next to the beach? Don’t mind if I do! I love amusement parks, and Belmont Park probably was the beginning of that love. It’s situated right on the boardwalk steps away from the beach. As far as attractions go it’s got all the staples – tilt-a- whirl, bumper cars, merry-go-round, my favorite, the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster. If you are feeling adventurous you can always try out the 2 wave pools, rock climbing walls, or bungee jumping. Sometimes you just want to take it easy, rent a bike or rollerblades and cruise up and down the boardwalk.
The Gaslamp Quarter: San Diego’s nightlife epicentre is the Gaslamp Quarter, with enough restaurants, bars, and clubs that you’ll never get hungry, thirsty, or bored. For live music check out Patrick’s Gaslamp Pub, they have band playing at 9PM 7 nights a week! For something a little different try out The Shout House, the rock’n’roll dueling piano bar. Listen to 2 pianist jam out rock’n’roll hits as requested by the audience. For a little patio day drinking hit up Dicks Last Resort for cool drinks and sassy service. And sometime you just gotta dance, and FLUXX is where you should get down. With a host of guest DJ’s and a 5000 sq ft dance floor, you can’t go wrong.
Padres Game: The first time I went to PetCo Park I felt like I was in a really fancy mall that happened to have a baseball field in it. It’s a really nice baseball stadium. So if you are in town for a home game it’s worth it to go hang out and watch the Padres play. Plus, they have excellent food vendors, no standard ball park hot dog for me! (I mean they have those too if that’s what you’re into) Choose from local beers and restaurant quality food for your game time snacks.
Rent a car: The thing about most of southern California is that it’s spread out. That’s not to say that within neighborhoods things are very walkable, but when you want to get from Mission Beach to Downtown you are going to need some form of transportation. Renting a car gives you the most freedom to roam around where you please without waiting for public transit or trying to get a cab.
Cabs, Uber, & Lyft: If you are trying to hail a regular old cab you may be waiting awhile, and unless you are at the airport, there’s just not a ton around. Both Uber and Lyft operate in San Diego which is really nice for a night out on the town. All you need is the app and you can get a ride, just remember that since San Diego is pretty spread out it can take a little while for your car to get to you. I’ve made the mistake of not ordering my car until I was all ready to go out and then having to wait 20 minutes for the closest driver.
Trolley System: Over the years San Diego’s trolley system has gotten better and better. From Old Town you can get to Downtown, either of the two sports stadiums, and even to Linda Vista to go to Ballast Point’s tasting room. You can purchase a prepaid metro card at the Old Town Transit Station, or buy single trip tickets at any trolley station.
Air BNB: I always like staying in Air BNB’s, whether it’s just Rob and I or a large group of friends. There are plenty of houses, cottages, and beach bungalows in any desired San Diego neighborhood so you are sure to find a good spot.
Ocean Beach Hotel: For mellow vibes and an ocean view the Ocean Beach Hotel is literally across the street from the beach. It’s close to all the restaurants, shops, and bars on Newport Ave in the eclectic Ocean Beach neighborhood. You can start your day with a cup of coffee and watch the waves from the hotel’s garden courtyard before you head out to the beach or explore the neighborhood.
The Bahia Resort: This family friendly resort is situated on its own private peninsula in Mission Bay. It offers you the perfect retreat, while still being close to everything. This hotel is walking distance to the beach, Belmont Park, and restaurants and shops in the Mission Beach neighborhood. They also offer discounted activity packages for all the San Diego attractions you are wanting to check out, like the Zoo or Safari Park.
Paradise Point Hotel: If you are looking for luxury and relaxation, the Paradise Point Hotel is where you want to be. The bungalow style rooms provide privacy, while the premier spa will work out any kinks you may have. The expansive grounds have beautiful gardens and private bay front beaches with firepits. If you can drag yourself away from the relaxation and comfort of the resort you are close to pretty much everything from Mission Beach to Downtown.
Palomar San Diego: Are you more of a city person? Stay Downtown in the center of it all. The Palomar San Diego is right in the middle of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, in other words – nightlife central. You’ll have epic city views from your room and definitely check out the view from the rooftop pool and bar. Head out into the city for excellent restaurants and bars or catch a band at The House of Blues next door.