The Ultimate San Diego Travel Guide
San Diego likes to call itself America's Finest City. But scratch its tan chin and you'll find much more than a pretty face, a pert butt, and a torso hammered to a sleek "V" by years of popping up on a surfboard.
Take a breath here, and look again. Quietly, in the past few years, this city has established its youthful energy, with a resurgent Tijuana at its hip. In food and culture, San Diego is bursting. The crackle of the place lives in neighborhoods like Barrio Logan, whose murals and galleries tell the story of both Chicano history and the flourishing homegrown arts scene. Without driving too far in this county, you can hike and surf in the same morning. And, yes, as anyone who lives here will tell you, those famous beaches overshadow all of this because more so than in LA, they are real, and they are spectacular.
You really want to get a local chatting? Just ask where to go for their favorite Cali burrito or IPA.
Each month this year Thrillist will roll out a massive, comprehensive travel guide to another great American city. Having tackled the best of New Orleans, we're now going big on San Diego, a destination long deserving of greater due. In this guide our writers will lead you around the city, around the county, and indeed, deep into Baja California. We've sussed out the best restaurants and essential bars visitors should know. We get you on to the most important local foods and craft beers. And we help you make the most of your time here: on brewery tours, exploring beaches, learning to surf, or rambling around the rest of the outdoors. Treat it like you would a San Diego guidebook. Just don't get it wet.
Welcome to town, you're looking great -- wait, are those actual abs I see coming out of hibernation? Props on the grapefruit brunches. Now put your pre-beach-vacation fast out of its (and your) misery. Start with that first, just-by-the-airport stop at In-N-Out. Then, to go truly native, keep your eyes peeled for San Diego's signature creation, the California burrito: a gringo marriage of carne asada, French fries, cheese, and sour cream (guac recommended). While you're at it, grab a golden, beer-battered fish taco for good measure. I can already hear your stomach growling. Against those fragile abs it sounds like wind chimes.
Whatever you do, don't sit still. A trip to the area's Asian food mecca -- Convoy St in Mira Mesa -- will have you hopscotching among the 30 restaurants within walking distance there. Whet your whistle at Green Flash and marvel at the hoppy complexity of a West Coast IPA. Dine with Top Chefs at Richard Blais' Juniper & Ivy or Brian Malarkey's Herb & Wood. Or wander the San Diego Public Market at Liberty Station and sample wares from local cheesemakers, coffee roasters, butcher shops, and a whole lot more.
By now you've likely realized that the reason everyone looks so damn fine isn't because they skip meals. We just approach our workouts like we order our burgers: Animal Style.
By JACKIE BRYANT
Until recently, San Diego's most sought-after culinary offerings were, simply, whatever you could eat on a patio overlooking the Pacific. Nothing against an oceanside table for two, but the city has quietly grown into a food destination in its own right. Click here for full article...
By BETH DEMMON and SCOTT KLEMME
San Diego is awash in craft beers like nowhere else in America. The sheer volume can be overwhelming, but if you speak the beers on this list, you'll get around San Diego like an expert -- and once you leave, never go thirsty again. Click here for full article...
By ERIN JACKSON
San Diego's food continually gets better and more creative, even when we're talking about such staples as lobster rolls and pizza. These are the San Diego restaurants where the city's best keep improving, and that we keep coming back to over and over. Click here for full article...
By BETH DEMMON
San Diego County is home to fully a quarter of California's independent breweries, and more than the entire United States had just 30 years ago. Here's how to be comfortable (and responsible) as you visit our best and brightest. Click here for full article...
BY KYLE HALL
These are bars where you absolutely know you're in San Diego, including a video-game lover's paradise, a sanctuary for vegan death-metal fans, and, of course, open-air joints with fabulous views. Click here for full article...
By Erin Jackson
San Diego is bursting with great spots to score seasoned meat, fish, or veggies wrapped in a warm tortilla. Because life’s too short to eat less-than-extraordinary tacos, we tapped 9 San Diego chefs to name their favorite. Click here for full article...
The Grass Skirt, a faux-Polynesian temple to all things tropical, has become an instant Tiki destination in San Diego's Pacific Beach neighborhood. Its greatest advance: the Tuna Ribbon Poke Fishbowl. Click here for full article...
Physically this town sprawls out like a kid on a towel, giving you plenty of options to crash. But let me guess: You're a beach person. Definitely stick to places west of I5 to stay within a mile or two of the breakers. And if that's just not close enough, you can (booking far in advance) find coastal camping in North County, including South Carlsbad State Beach and San Onofre.
Beach dwellings of the non-collapsible variety are harder to come by. Airbnb options in this heavily touristed city are, on the whole, well-priced and plentiful to meet demand. Look to the neighborhoods of Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, Del Mar, and Cardiff for your best homestay bets. (For more detailed info on all these hoods, read our guide to San Diego’s most important beaches.)
Or, don't overthink it. If you like morning walks by the harbor check out the Pearl, a cool boutique hotel with poolside movie screenings. Go hip at the Lafayette in North Park, with its landmark 25-meter pool designed in the '40s by five-time Olympic gold medalist and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller. If that isn't historical enough for you, in Old Town there's the 1870s-era-plus-plumbing Cosmopolitan. It's next door to the Whaley House, which has been called the most haunted house in the United States. Speaking of long stays.
If you want to see the most of San Diego without renting a car -- and probably while gazing on Coronado Bay -- Downtown makes a great home base. Everything from the East Village to Little Italy is walkable, and the trolley will take you straight to Old Town. This is far and away the best place to stay to hit the most 'hoods while maintaining the slimmest Uber bill. Options Downtown run the gamut from the OG US Grant built in 1910, to the awkwardly named citadel of EDM pool parties, the Hard Rock Hotel. If you're into rooftop pools but shy from gut-punching bass, the boutiquey Palomar raises the elegance as well as the average age of guests.
The reason everyone looks so damn fine isn’t because they skip meals.
Aside possibly from Mission Bay, where Polynesian-style resorts reign, this is your bet for the city's best waterfront hotels. The crowd skews a little more towards tourists/those-who-like-to-rage-their-faces-off, but there are so many options that discerning folks will find plenty to their liking nearby. On the boardwalk on the north end of PB, the modern boutique Tower23 is your fanciest option for waterfront real estate. A little further down towards Mission Beach, the old-school tropical oasis at the Catamaran Resort sits walking distance from the beach and the bay, and offers some beachy perks like water sport packages, sailboat rentals, and complimentary sunset booze cruises on its sternwheeler, the Bahia Belle.
This is where you can get away from big, loud crowds to run up a big, loud credit card bill. If you're feeling flush take a swing at the swanky old La Valencia Hotel on the bluffs of La Jolla, also known as the Pink Lady. Or peek into the Fairmont Grand Del Mar (with SoCal's only five-star, five-diamond restaurant) or the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa with 36 holes of PGA-level golfing. If you're not an oil heiress, there are tons of more affordable options in the same area. With some of the nation's best beaches, great shopping, and plenty of nightlife, North County's biggest downside is transportation. The Coaster, our commuter rail, is great for running up and down the coast, but a rental car will come in most handy.
You run into a lot of visitors here, and there's a good chance their bosses shipped them. This place hosts industry conferences non-stop -- Comic-Con gets the most press, but the weather is prime and predictable year-round. Too many visitors drop in, spend their days in the convention center, and leave thinking it's just a beach town with sturdy carpeting.
But don't let the shimmer fool you -- these waters go deep. Four centuries after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first set eyes on the West Coast of North America and thought, probably, ¡fantastico!, people still stop and chill almost instinctively, like an old memory. Balboa Park holds Spanish architecture left over by two world's fairs. The Mexican street food is better nowhere in America. It's an eternally temperate jewel on the coast, known to this day as the birthplace of California.
And yet this is also the capital of extreme sports and rich businessmen rocking pleated shorts with $350 flip-flops. Overlooked amid the beer and the bliss are these actual San Diegans. Sensitive to being misunderstood, reflexively friendly, and proud as hell, they're usually delighted to offer up their own pointers. Like, sure, that beach bar next to your Airbnb looks fine, but it's jammed with tourists (no offense) and just a block back there's a better, breezier roof-deck bar with an ocean view. You really want to get a local chatting? Just ask where to go for their favorite Cali burrito or IPA.
By SARA NORRIS
Don't be fooled by the beautiful weather, beautiful beaches, and beautiful people. Before you get sucked into the "anything goes" philosophy, take steps not to wind up sunburnt, broke, and/or incarcerated. Click here for full article...
San Diego County covers more area than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, so navigating can be challenging without your own set of wheels. Are you just taking a city break, visiting beaches, and checking out the local neighborhoods? Uber, Lyft, or taxis have you covered and let you skip parking, which can be a huge headache. Also, Uber's dirt-cheap in Southern California, geared to compete against car ownership and rentals.
The public transportation options in San Diego fall squarely in the laughable category, useful only if your destination and starting point fall on one of the few lines: the beachfront Coaster runs north/south on the Amtrak line, and three Trolley lines schlep people between Santee, Fashion Valley, Old Town, Downtown, and the US/Mexico border. The Coaster and the trolley meet in Old Town, so transferring between the two is possible, but probably not worth the time-drain unless you're traveling on a secondhand shoestring. The buses, likewise, are a chore you don't want to assign yourself.
You're better off renting a car if you want to go at all afield -- say, to check out the desert in Anza-Borrego, to cruise the coast from Camp Pendleton to the Mexican border, or to hike Cuyamaca Peak. When you're at the counter weighing the convertible upgrade, just consider how much time you actually want to spend in the sun. After a day at the beach, shade and A/C can be gloriously satisfying.
Too many visitors drop in, spend their days in the convention center, and leave thinking it’s just a beach town with sturdy carpeting.
During rush hours avoid the freeway at all costs. From 7am to 9am and 3:30 to 6pm every weekday, the major thoroughfares become a toilet-clog of frustrated Californians you'd never guess have heard of yoga. People say life is a little slower in San Diego, but that just means we need to get where we're going really fast so we can get back to relaxing. Take the posted limits with a grain of salt, keep up with the flow of traffic, and for the love of all that is holy, don't be a "courteous" driver and do annoying things like let cars merge in front of you without a fight and/or a scratched bumper.
Remember: That guy behind you didn't honk because you're driving like an asshole. He honked because you're not driving like an asshole.
By Thrillist Travel
In San Diego time has a way of getting away from you, often in the best ways. But even in the middle of an endless summer, you’ve still got to find your way around. The DestiNATION: San Diego guide has mapped out the best places in town to score burritos or ceviche, to sip experimental craft beers or classic cocktails, to catch a wave or twenty, or to just take it nice and slow. Click here for full article...
There's so much to do in San Diego that most visitors get overwhelmed, throw up their arms in exasperation, and just end up moving here. (Yes, most locals you meet are transplants.) With a historical average of 64 degrees on Christmas Day, the weather is so perma-great that you can pretty much get out and do anything, anytime of the year. Surf during the winter? Sure, the waves are better! Snowboard during the summer? No, that's why it says "pretty much."
No wonder a majority of worthwhile activities here are outdoors. But maybe you're just looking to set up camp and do a whole lot of vegging. For an all-inclusive spot where you can hit the beach and walk to the bars afterwards, park yourself in tourist-friendly Pacific Beach with miles of boardwalk and the most options; Ocean Beach where the crowd skews more hippie-ish; or Encinitas, which has more of a small beach town vibe and a much higher percentage of locals. To stay abreast of the latest events and shows -- we do have those here -- make sure to check out the Reader and SD City Beat.
By JACKIE BRYANT
More than just patches of surf and sand, beaches allow so much of life in San Diego to revolve around the water. These are the spots (and the neighborhoods) that make San Diego a world-class beach town. Click here for full article...
By KYLE HALL
There's more to do in San Diego than simply sunbathe your days away. The city rewards anyone who wants to jump off cliffs, shoot marines with paintballs, or simply get a bargain on a round of golf. Click here for full article...
By KEN LEWIS
Year-round gentle weather, consistent waves, warm water -- if you're not a surfer when you get to San Diego, you should be by the time you leave. Let my three decades as a surfer here help you pick your spots. Click here for full article...
Barrio Logan, one of the most dynamic Mexican-American neighborhoods in San Diego, is home to a distinct subculture of men and women with their own spin on throwback 1950s-era rock styles. These are Chicano rockabillies. Click here for full article...
Because stories about decapitation tend to write themselves, Mexican border towns caught in the drug wars of the past couple of decades developed a dismal reputation. In the early 2000s that cloud all but snuffed tourism in Tijuana, a city that a century ago heroically welcomed Prohibition-era American refugee drinkers and has ever since catered to the various debaucheries of border-hoppers.
But in the darkness of gang-police turf wars, a strange thing happened. Tijuana and cities like it stopped worrying about what the now-absent gringos wanted, and they embarked on a slow-burn cultural renaissance. The arts, the music, the dining, the craft beer scene -- everything in Tijuana is in bloom. The booming US dollar and a marked reduction in drug violence mean there's never been a better time to visit Mexico, and San Diego offers the absolute simplest way to do so. A short trolley ride will take you to the border, where you can walk into Mexico without even realizing you've done so. On your return stateside you'll have to wait in a line at customs, but as long as you have a valid passport it's relatively painless.
By MICHAEL A. GARDINER
Tijuana used to trade on its gritty reputation, selling itself with a pre-Vegas "what happens there stays there" attitude. But the city has begun to remake itself into a broader, more upscale tourist destination. Click here for full article...
Imagine a wrestling match crossed with a glitzy Broadway show, hopped up on amphetamines and staged in Mexico. This is the scene 15 minutes south of the border from San Diego, where lucha libre, or "free fighting," rules Friday nights. Click here for full article...
Throughout this year, Thrillist will be rolling out massive, comprehensive travel guides to great American cities, having tackled New Orleans, San Diego, Miami, Austin, Vegas and now New York. Keep a lookout for a new travel guide coming soon.
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Writers: Jackie Bryant, Ken Lewis, Maya Kroth, Sara Norris, Kyle Hall, Beth Demmon, Scott Klemme, Michael A. Gardiner
Art direction: Drew Swantak
Photographer: Bradford Tennyson
Production: Pete Dombrosky, Tanner Saunders, Lisa Elbert, Remy Haber, Billy Frierson
Video: Julie Piñero, Lainie Frost, Tom McNamara, Alex Zaragoza, Caitlin Stone, Zach Lapierre, Thom McKenna, Alex Velazquez, David Powell, Marq Evans, Sean Horton
Special thanks: Bison Messink, Julie Cerick, Liz Childers, Rachel Freeman, Jason Hoffman, Leanne Butkovic, Elaheh Nozari, Laura Reilly, Ben Robinson, Ben Maljevec
No thanks: Rick. I mean, pull your weight already, dude.