San Diego

Actually Cool Things to Do in San Diego This Summer

Even locals love this stuff.

Rooftop Cinema Club
Photo courtesy of Rooftop Cinema Club

It’s a given that  our practically perfect weather, miles and miles of spectacular shoreline and world-class beaches, along with the best breweries, the best tacos, and the fact that we’re just an hour’s drive (and a passport) away from an amazing, friendly neighboring country makes San Diego truly America’s Finest City. 

But these are different times. The coronavirus pandemic temporarily shut down a ton of small businesses and put a lot of our favorite activities on pause. But we’re slowly getting back to a normal-ish world. Our beaches and parks have reopened with a few restrictions, restaurants are balancing indoor, patio and takeout options, and some of the summer events and festivals we love are coming back in new and creative ways. Of course, be safe, wear a mask, and maintain social distance while you enjoy in-person activities around town. Here’s our guide to the coolest things you can still eat, see, and do in San Diego this summer:

Help San Diego’s best chefs combat racism and empower youth

May 11-June 1 
$$$ 
Liberty Station
Join 17 of San Diego’s best chefs for CHEFS UNITE, a weekly Tuesday night dinner series that kicks off on May 11 at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Liberty Station. The charitable, four-week initiative is intended to raise awareness and critical funds for EmbraceRace, a nonprofit that seeks to educate young children on matters of race and bias. Tickets are $89 per person, with optional beer or wine pairings at an additional $25. Tables must be purchased in groups of two or four for safety. Call Stone Brewing directly for tables of six or more.

Photo courtesy of Hammond's Ice Cream

Scream (or just ask) for ice cream to fight hunger in San Diego

May 22
$$
Balboa Park
San Diego resident Daniel Szpak, co-founder of Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream in North Park, wanted to celebrate everyone’s favorite frozen treat and support social change, so he founded Scoop San Diego to raise funds for local nonprofits that support San Diego’s most at-risk citizens. This year’s Scoop San Diego Ice Cream Festival takes place as a drive-thru event in the Inspiration Point parking lot at Balboa Park. Your ticket gets everyone in your car one-ounce tastes from all of the 25+ vendors, including Mr. Trustee, Gelati & Peccati, Niederfrank’s Ice Cream, Snoice, Stella Jean’s Ice Cream, Holy Paleta, and many more. There’s even three special stops with doggie ice cream, as well as vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free options. This year, all proceeds go to Feeding San Diego, San Diego’s leading hunger relief and food rescue organization.

Eat your weight in funnel cakes

June 11-July 4
$-$$
Del Mar Fairgrounds
The cancellation of last year’s San Diego County Fair broke our hearts, but it’s back for 2021! We’ll still be masking and distancing for this year’s back-to-our-roots HOME*GROWN*FUN theme, featuring all your county fair faves, from unique shopping to agricultural-themed exhibits, make-and-take demos, on-the-spot contests and “edu-tainment”, plus all the oversized, deep-fried, sugar-coated fair food on a stick you can eat. Tickets for admission and parking must be made online in advance and will not be sold at the gate.

Celebrate Independence Day at the Big Bay Boom

July 4
Free
Various locations
Billed as the largest display on the West Coast, the Big Bay Boom’s pyrotechnic artists put on a dazzling show from four barges strategically located around the North San Diego Bay, choreographed with music broadcast “live” on two local radio stations. Taking advantage of the natural amphitheatre formed by the bay, there’s plenty of free, prime viewing from Point Loma, Shelter Island, Harbor Island, Liberty Station, Little Italy, the North Embarcadero, Seaport Village, and the South Embarcadero to the Coronado Ferry Landing.

Take in the sights at a fine arts festival

August 7-8
Free-$$$$
Liberty Station
Feast your eyes on creations from over 150 fine artists in painting, photography, sculpture, woodworking, and more. The 16th annual San Diego ArtWalk @ Liberty Station aims to show the variety of artistic expression while promoting the experience of owning original art, which can be very affordable while giving you a unique, one-of-a-kind piece to display at home. Stroll the charming rose gardens while enjoying the wares, music, and interactive art-making, then head over to the Liberty Public Market for dozens of choices for food, beer, wine, and coffee.

Take your pup to his own fiesta

August 8
Free-$$
Encinitas Community Park
Four-legged friends of all kinds are welcome at the 16th annual Cardiff Dog Days of Summer featuring dog-related vendors, rescue groups, and pet adoption agencies. Spoil your pooch with new toys at “Maker’s Market Row,” where you can purchase high quality handmade goods, live music, a beer garden, food trucks, and more. There’s a full lineup of dog and puppy beauty contests including categories like cutest pup, best looking, best trick, best dressed, and dog/owner look-alike, with winners receiving a ribbon and a cool goodie bag. Dogs will be available for adoption, as well as on-site pet services including microchipping, licensing opportunities, rabies vaccination, and pet care information provided by San Diego Humane Society.

Unleash your inner lumberjack

$$
North Park, Oceanside
If your fourth Zoom meeting of the day has you ready to throw an axe at the wall, we’ve got the place for you. Let go of your frustrations at AxeVentures in North Park and Oceanside—just book a spot online or walk in, learn the ropes from one of the coaches, and spend the next hour or so perfecting your technique. Prefer to smash your stress away? Book the North Park Rage Room and use a crowbar or baseball bat to beat, crush, and demolish a bunch of stuff (provided, but you can bring your own objects to smash, subject to approval.) Get your glow on at Dark Light Nights on Thursdays after 6 pm at either location. Safety note: Closed toe shoes are required.

Sip and chomp an over-the-top Bloody Mary

$-$$
La Mesa, Little Italy, Bay Park
In the ever-escalating competition to stuff as many embellishments into your glass as humanly possible, The Farmers Table reigns supreme with their outrageous Barn Yard Bloody Mary. It’s made for four or more and contains a full pitcher of spicy, boozy goodness plus skewers of bacon-wrapped shrimp, Mexican-style street corn, mozzarella stuffed mushroom, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, short rib, andouille sausage, various grilled and pickled vegetables, bleu cheese stuffed olives, bbq sauced bacon and, just for good measure, a whole roasted chicken. For the less ravenous, there are normal sized bloodies too, including the popular Tijuana Maria with a bacon-wrapped hot dog, Mexican-style street corn, and pickled veggies.

Go to an old fashioned drive-in movie...

$
Nestor
Fully digital and presenting the brightest picture quality available on three 100-foot screens, you can see a current double-feature every day, year round at South Bay Drive-in Theatre. A bargain at $10 for adults and just $1 for kids five to nine years of age—they even have email coupons for food discounts at the snack bar (just be sure to have masks on and socially distance when you aren’t inside your car). Credit and debit cards are accepted for tickets, but the snack bar is cash only.

Or…see a flick on a rooftop deck

$$
Downtown
For the ultimate outdoor film experience, head to the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego’s fourth floor rooftop theatre, where their Rooftop Cinema Club gives you a luxe movie experience with panoramic views of downtown San Diego, state-of-the-art wireless headphones, and comfy deck chairs. Craft brews, movie-themed cocktails, and upscale noshes are available with contactless order and pick-up. Cult favorites, themed nights, and family-friendly screenings are shown Tuesday through Sunday.

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PHOTO: PACIFICO/SHUTTERSTOCK; ILLUSTRATION: DANIELLE HARTLEY

No matter where your adventure takes you, bring along the refreshment to match. Pacifico’s Citrus Agave Lager is inspired by Baja culture and brewed with a hint of agave, sea salt, and lime flavor for a slightly tart taste and a crisp finish. It’s the perfect companion for a spring full of exploration.

Take the ferry to Coronado...

$
Coronado 
Board the Coronado Ferry at either the Broadway Pier or the Convention Center for a quick, 15-minute ride across San Diego Bay to Coronado Ferry Landing, where shopping, dining, and activities ranging from biking to stand-up paddleboarding can be found within walking distance. Fares are a mere $5 one-way, and you can bring your bicycle for free. Masks are required to board the ferry, and tickets can be bought at the ticket booth or online for a contact-free purchase.

Bike the Silver Strand

Free-$$
Coronado
Beginning at Coronado Ferry Landing, the Silver Strand Bikeway is an 18-mile flat, paved loop that takes you along the sandy tombolo all the way to Imperial Beach. Perfect for riders of all levels, you’ll be treated to views of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge on the other. Don’t miss a stop at Silver Strand Beach for a quick swim or a walk along the sand. Bike rentals are available at the ferry landing if you haven’t brought your own.

Eat a Cali burrito at Mike's Taco Club

$
Ocean Beach
We take our Cali burritos, that splendid combination of carne asada, French fries, guac, salsa and sour cream, all wrapped up in a warm flour tortilla, quite seriously here in San Diego. OB favorite Mike’s Taco Club serves up regular, surf-and-turf and breakfast Calis daily for takeout (the taco spot is steps from the beach) or sit on their dog-friendly patio.

Swim with sharks

Free-$
La Jolla
Scores of leopard sharks swarm to the shallow waters of La Jolla Shores Beach, especially as the water gets warmer, drawing snorkelers from all over the world to swim with them. Typically hanging out in under ten feet of water near The Marine Room Restaurant and the La Jolla Tennis Club, groups of sharks can range in number from a few to hundreds. Although leopard sharks can reach five feet in length, there’s no need to be intimidated—they have tiny mouths and don’t attack humans. If you don’t have snorkeling equipment of your own, there are several shops within easy walking distance where you can rent them.

Surf at Black’s Beach

La Jolla
Free
San Diego beaches are open, and if you live near La Jolla Shores, you have access to one of the best surf breaks in the city, beginning with its thrilling hike from the gliderport down to the beach. Of course, the other thing Black’s Beach is famous for is being a nude beach, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to bare it all. At San Diego County Beaches, you can sit down with members of your household and walk, run, swim, and do other solo activities, but you must wear a face covering if you’re within six feet of people outside your household. But don’t forget that county beaches may have different guidelines from city beaches, so check your destination before heading out.

...or hit up one of San Diego’s other great beaches

Free
Various locations
Whether you’re surfing, swimming, or simply enjoying the view, San Diego has plenty of waterfront stretches to satisfy your inner sun worshipper. Windansea Beach’s rocks and cliffs, Coronado Beach and the historic hotel that dominates its landscape for miles and miles, or other oceanside escapes are there to entice you for a walk or a paddleboard out into the waves. We’ve got the best of them right here for you, just don’t forget to check their specific regulations. Did we mention they can differ from beach to beach?

Support our local farms

Free-$$
Various locations
Most of San Diego’s farmers markets have reopened, selling essential grocery products under strict new guidelines—pets aren’t permitted (that’s actually always been the case, but now it’ll be enforced), and due to capacity limitations, at some markets only one or two family members are allowed to enter, and the farmer will bag the goods you point out. A number of local farmers are selling direct-to-consumer from their farms as well—pick up meat, poultry, produce, eggs, honey, CSA boxes, and more. The how-tos vary from market to market, so check with your local market manager for details, such as pre-ordering and cashless options.

Have a fish taco at Mitch’s Seafood

$$
Fleetridge
Fish tacos are a rite of passage in San Diego, and Mitch’s Seafood is the place to have two or six, what with its extensive menu and water’s edge location. Call ahead to order for takeout or walk in—you can sit inside, at the outdoor dining area on the dock, or walk along the harbor and enjoy the view while you savor your meal.

Visit Tuna Harbor Dockside Market on Saturdays

$-$$$
Marina
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market has added an online store to their website, which allows you to pre-order fresh-spot prawn, ahi tuna, sea urchin, rock crab, and more every week from 5 pm Thursday until 7pm Friday, ready for curbside pickup on Saturday from 10:30 am–1:30 pm at the end of the Tuna Harbor parking lot. The open air dockside market is still open from 8am–3pm Saturdays as well, with additional seafood not necessarily available in the online store.

Gelati & Pecati
Photo courtesy of Gelati & Pecati

Try one of the best restaurants in San Diego

$-$$$
Various locations
Has a year of sheltering in place got you in a fast food rut? Now’s the time to hit up some of the best eateries in town—more and more are offering indoor and patio dining, as well as curbside pickup, takeout, or delivery. Michelin-starred Chef Akira Back and Executive Chef James Jung bring modern Japanese cuisine to the Gaslamp Quarter with shared plates and top tier Japanese whisky at Lumi; Tahona will introduce you to sexy, smoky mezcal, mole flights, and churro s’mores; and Gelati & Peccati serves up Roman-style pizza and eighteen gelati flavors, including vegan options and sorbets. Check out other dine-in, pickup, takeout, and delivery choices ranging from brunch to global eats.

Have a Dirty Flat Top at The Friendly

$
University Heights, North Park
It may not be pretty, but it’s damn near the best burger you’ll ever have. The Friendly’s Dirty Flat Top burger starts with a plain, prefab white bun, buttered and toasted golden brown, two thin patties, smashed and caramelized on the grill, topped with a melted slice of American cheese, garlic aioli, and softly sauteed onions. You can get gussied up versions at the North Park location or a side slice of pizza at University Heights, but whatever you do, don’t ask for ketchup. Check Instagram for popular and random specials. The University Heights location still has very limited indoor or outdoor seating, so your best bet there is takeout, but the patio at North Park recently reopened.

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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.
Jackie Bryant is a contributor for Thrillist.
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