Food & Drink

The Most Essential Rooftop Bars in San Diego

Drinks just taste better with a view.

Drinking on rooftops is a beloved activity in San Diego -- and with COVID-19 shutting down bars, tasting rooms, and indoor dining, a breezy deck well above street level is a brilliant alternative. Of course, there’s some new restrictions in place for the foreseeable future, most notably that masks are required at all times, unless you’re sitting at your table, and yes, that means when you walk to the restrooms or head for the exit. (None of that exposed nose business, either.) 

All venues are required to serve food with alcohol, so expect to at least buy an appetizer with your beer. And finally, everything wraps no later than 10pm, sort of like being back in high school. Even so, our year-round perfect weather and generally relaxed attitude towards things like “dress codes” and “appropriate drinking hours,” make America’s Finest City the perfect place to enjoy an adult beverage or two at altitude. Here are the best rooftop bars to suit everything from casual day drinking to intimate date nights.

Garibaldi
Garibaldi

Garibaldi

Downtown
Perched atop the luxurious InterContinental San Diego, Garibaldi’s speakeasy-style rooftop bar and restaurant feature Sardinian fare and feels like the perfect Mediterranean escape. Think handmade pastas, local seafood and wild game, vibrant cocktails like the Sardinian Old Fashioned made with Mirto liqueur, and curated selections of Italian beer and regional wines. Reserve your table online.

Lumi by Akira Back
Lumi by Akira Back | Zack Benson

Lumi by Akira Back

Gaslamp Quarter
Michelin-starred chef Akira Back is the force behind Lumi, an energetic rooftop concept featuring modern Japanese dishes with Nikkei and Korean influences, handcrafted cocktails, top-tier whisky, and an excellent selection of sake, including Akira Back’s own. Reserve a spot online.

Kairoa Brewing Company

University Heights
If drinking outdoors is a San Diego tradition, then drinking outdoors at a brewery must be, I don’t know, a double tradition or something? Forgetting semantics, Kairoa pays homage to the owners New Zealand heritage with a menu replete with Kiwi-inspired food and brews. That means hearty dishes like sausage rolls and meat pies, and beers that utilize the country’s crown jewel hop varietal (Nelson hops), like the Kairoa Sunny Nelson. You’ll be hard pressed to find a joy more simple than digging into a sausage roll and chasing it down with a New Zealand IPA on a sunny, modernistic rooftop. Reservations can be made online.

topside terrace
Courtesy of Hotel Republic San Diego

Topside Terrace Kitchen and Bar

Little Italy
Topside Terrace Kitchen and Bar is located atop the newly rebranded boutique Hotel Republic. It’s a decidedly relaxed, yet refined, spot that doesn’t attract too large of crowds and plies visitors with delicious dishes like pan-seared wild Alaskan salmon and crafted cocktails like an Old Cuban: a rum-based drink that’s a bit of a hybrid between a mojito and a French 75. Combine all of that with a non-exorbitant price point (craft beer is just $7-$8), and you’ve found yourself a diamond in the rough. Reserve your rooftop seat online.

Blade 1936

Oceanside
Blade 1936 is a welcome addition to Oceanside’s rapidly emerging dining scene. Located in the same building that housed the former Oceanside Blade-Tribune and News newsroom, Blade 1936 pays homage to the heritage of America’s Finest City (with authentic retro newsprint covering the walls) while offering a modern take on Neapolitan-style Italian cuisine just a few blocks from the pier. Wood-fired pizza with rooftop ocean views will never not be good. Reserve a table online.

King and Queen Cantina

Little Italy
King and Queen Founder Jorge Cueva wanted to bring the atmosphere of a Latin cantina to Little Italy -- that is, a spot where you wear your Sunday best and prepare to be treated like royalty. That said, he also wanted to tweak it a bit for the modern San Diego crowd by adding dance music and a party vibe. The result is a spot that's both lively and surprisingly intimate, with an over-the-top brunch menu and skyline views of downtown. Reserve your table online.

Firehouse

Pacific Beach
Firehouse has become a Pacific Beach institution by focusing on two things: offering an excellent boozy brunch during the daytime (churro French toast), and really leaning into the dance lounge vibes at night, all with an ocean view. And while we’re not packing the dance floors these days, the chill atmosphere and gorgeous views keep us coming back.

born and raised
Zack Benson

Born & Raised

Little Italy
Spend any amount of time at Born & Raised, and the adjective “elevated” will likely come to mind. The entire experience is opulent yet eccentric; the decor is ornate and seemingly inspired by the roaring ‘20s (think marble bar tops and waiters in white dinner coats), but sprinkled with homages to modern style and gangster rap (think framed photos of Eazy-E on the walls and those same waiters wearing Chuck Taylors with those dinner jackets). The menu reflects that eccentricity as well: there’s a $120, 21-day dry aged duck that you can order and then follow up with an over-the-top dessert like a giant chocolate macaron emblazoned with the Wu-Tang logo. Come prepared to spend a pretty penny in exchange for one of the best food and beverage experiences of your life. Reserve your rooftop table online.

Altitude Sky Lounge

Gaslamp Quarter
At 22 stories, ALTITUDE is the highest open-air rooftop bar in the area, which means you’ll have better views of the city here than anywhere else. In addition to the bird’s eye view of the city, ALTITUDE’s location next to Petco Park also means you can catch a free ball game, which -- given the weirdness of baseball without fans in the stands -- is the perfect price. The bar rarely has a cover, but it does have a dress code, so don’t show up dressed like you just rolled out of bed and you should be good.

Amplified Ale Works

Pacific Beach
Look at everything I just wrote about OB Brewery, replace “Newport Ave” with “Mission Boulevard” and “snacks” with kebabs, and you have Amplified Ale Works. The brewery has gotten a ton of recognition as of late (we included it in our best brewery list, nbd), and head brewer Cy Henley is always working on new brews, so no two visits to Amplified will be alike. Reserve your seat on the patio online.

Cannonball roof
Sara Norris/Thrillist

Cannonball

Mission Beach
Ignoring the scores of tourists that are sure to be at Cannonball on any given day, the bar has an unabated view of the beach and the best people watching in San Diego with the crowds that populate Ocean Front Walk. It’s strictly first-come, first-served, so expect to wait for a table during peak hours and on the weekend.

Catania

La Jolla
An excellent date spot, Catania serves up some of the best Italian food in San Diego in a relaxed environment with a view of La Jolla’s picturesque downtown. Try the duck sugo orecchiette, or go with a classic and order the pizza margherita. Reserve your table online.

Hello Betty Fish House

Oceanside
Too often, lists like these neglect North County, which is outright silly. Just one block off the beach, Hello Betty presents stunning views of the Oceanside Pier. It can get busy up there with people putting back oyster shooters and ceviche and beers, and seating is on a first-come basis, so there’s often a wait during peak times and weekends.

The Rooftop by STK

Gaslamp Quarter
Of all the rooftops on this list, the Rooftop by STK atop the Andaz in Gaslamp is arguably the clubbiest, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Specialty cocktails are dynamic and refreshing --  try the Summer Fashion (Bulleit, curacao, Aztec mole bitters) while noshing on lobster mac and cheese or a juicy Wagyu burger and fries. Reservations are recommended for hotel guests and required for non-guests, and they do have an “upscale casual” dress code on weekends.

kettner exchange
Sara Norris/Thrillist

Kettner Exchange

Little Italy
There might not be a more “hip” (whatever the hell that means) neighborhood right now than Little Italy. Between spots like Ironside Fish & Oyster, Juniper & Ivy, and Crack Shack opening in the past few years, Little Italy has become THE place for daring new restaurant ventures, and Kettner Exchange is here to make sure libations are taken care of in a gorgeous, two-story rooftop setting. Reservations are recommended and can be made online.

the nolen
Gregory Pierce Photography

The Nolen

Gaslamp Quarter
A 14-story jewel in the Gaslamp, The Nolen features both a patio and a rooftop, because why not? Its beautiful setting -- which features a communal fire pit -- underlies an immersive cocktail menu -- the barrel-aged and classic menus feature can't-miss drinks like Manhattans  and new-age cocktails like a Nolen Front Porch Tea. Reserve your rooftop seat online.

Ocean Beach Brewery

Ocean Beach
After years of being in the works, OB Brewery finally opened its doors, serving well-made craft beers on Newport Ave within spitting distance of the Ocean Beach Pier. The snacks it offers pair well with its beers at sunset, and it’s in the heart of OB, so you get all those weird hippy vibes as well.

Mister A’s

Banker’s Hill
Straight up, the best view in San Diego might be from Mister A’s. Its location just outside the heart of downtown in Banker’s Hill gives you a view of the entire city in all its splendor, from the airport to the bay. Also, the kitchen makes incredible mac and cheese, and if you can’t get down with mac and cheese on a rooftop, you are a horrible person. The spot is reopening on August 18 for two dinner seatings per night at 5:30pm and 7:30pm. Tables will have a two-hour time limit and reservations can be made online.

Rustic Root

Gaslamp Quarter
When Gaslamp is a complete shitshow and you want a bit of a reprieve from insane lines and fighting for  first-come table space, head to Rustic Root. The super-relaxed atmosphere pairs really well with the rooftop view for watching the masses as they roll down Sixth Ave. Make a reservation online.

Level 9 Rooftop Bar

East Village
Another Downtown rooftop bar located in the shadow of Petco Park, Level 9 has one advantage over all the other rooftop bars: It’s dog friendly, even during COVID-19. Located atop the Hotel Indigo, Level 9 lets you have a beer or three with your canine pal at elevation, and you’ve never experienced a conversation like having a boozy heart-to-heart with your dog about how much you love him/her while standing nine floors up.

El Prez

Pacific Beach
Sometimes, the designers of rooftop spaces will sacrifice atmosphere in order to make a location look chic. Far too often a rooftop will look awesome, but be filled with stuffy people. That’s definitely not the case at El Prez. If you’re looking to let your hair down and have a good time, this is the spot.

Fairweather
Fairweather

Fairweather Bar

East Village
Much like Altitude and Level 9, Fairweather offers a great view of Petco, but unlike the former two options, Fairweather is a bit more intimate and laidback. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in killer cocktails; the bartenders here are some of the best in San Diego, and their gin drinks (particularly the Singapore Sling) are all to die for.

Enoteca del Fornaio

Del Mar
This fine dining Italian restaurant isn’t exactly the “sandals and tequila shots” rooftop joint you might be looking for, but if you're after great food for a decent price that comes with a stunning view, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better location. Get the antipasto della casa, a sampler that includes prosciutto di Parma, caprese, bruschetta, and grilled artichoke -- it's what Enoteca is known for. Reserve a table online.

Luke’s on Front

Temecula
Sunsets in Temecula are a sight to behold, and with its excellent drafts list and full food menu, Luke’s is a great spot to take them in. Pair some local wines with a view of the town’s historic downtown, and try the homemade meatloaf sandwich on grilled sourdough.

Park 101

Carlsbad
Park 101 isn’t so much a “rooftop bar” as it is an adult Disneyland. Set up as a two-floor outdoor compound, Park 101 features a casual outdoor lounge with room for cornhole and other games as well as a menu that defines eclectic. You want cotton candy, pulled pork, and frosé? Park 101 has you covered.

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Robert Pursell likes drinking alcohol at high altitudes. He tells inanely boring stories and you can follow him @robert_pursell
Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks, and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.