San Diego is my favorite city in the US. I love so much about it. As a beach & water person, of course the beachfront and the weather are the best. The city has 17 miles of coastline! San Diego is at the top of my list for places worth visiting.
I’ve also enjoyed seeing and doing so much more than the beach in San Diego. I’ve been to this incredible city three times, and I’ve been able to explore so much more each time. I always stay for at least a week!
I can list SO many individual reasons why to visit San Diego. Here are the top 31!
1. The weather is great year-round.
This makes San Diego worth visiting. Sunshine makes me happy. San Diego is a generally sunny place. You can experience beach weather from May to October. You’ll even get warmer days outside of those months, too. Or, you can visit the beach in regular clothes – just bring a sweater to watch the sunset!
2. San Diego is safe to visit
San Diego is generally a very safe city. I don’t love discussing crime rates – but the rates in San Diego are far below national averages of big US cities,
3. People are friendly and laid-back
Residents of San Diego are some of the nicest people in the US. Most have a chill, accepting attitude. I’ve gotten some of my best city recommendations by chatting with our Lyft drivers. (That doesn’t happen in NY!)
4. It’s not so crowded
You won’t find hustle & bustle, even in Downtown San Diego. Nor will you find major crowds outside of major attractions like the San Diego Zoo, Petco Park, or Gaslamp at night. The city is well spread out and comfortable to visit.
5. Unique neighborhoods
San Diego offers a collection of unique neighborhoods, all fairly close to each other. I’ve added some specifically to this list – Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, La Jolla, Gaslamp, Little Italy, and Old Town.
I also really enjoyed exploring the North Park neighborhood. It’s largely residential and hosts some of the cutest restaurants and coffee shops. Liberty Station is another great residential area – I’ve taken a spin class there!
6. The food scene
Hailing from New York City, I can be particular about food. San Diego does not disappoint, especially not Little Italy and Mexican food throughout the city. I’ll mention some eateries, as I move through different neighborhoods.
I’ve inserted some of my favorite eateries throughout this post but some call-outs.
C-Level: I love being on the water and this high-end restaurant is the perfect place for that. Situated on the bay, expect incredible views of the San Diego skyline. The tuna tartare is tasty but the Lobster Mac-n-Cheese is worth visiting for! Go at golden hour to see the skyline in full view and then the sunset. This spot makes San Diego worth visiting.
Madison on the Park: I loved the vibe of this open-air upscale restaurant in North Park. The food, cocktails, and service are fantastic.
Juniper & Ivy: Another upscale pick, don’t come hungry to this one. The plates are tiny but the quality of ingredients and presentation is very high. This is a pricey one.
King & Queen Cantina: This vibrant Mexican spot brings all the vibes. They serve typical American-Mexican – nachos, rice dishes, tacos, burritos, seafood, and more. The music is bumping, the décor is hip, and the food is delicious. We went to the downtown location but there are other locations in Little Italy and the Gaslamp District.
Luce Bar & Kitchen: For very chill bar vibes and delicious food, check out this simple spot near Bay Park (If you’re thinking this is a random location, you’re right)
Congress Café: A homey breakfast spot with an adorable wrap-around porch and some of the bes Mexican breakfast options, like Huervos Rancheros.
Café 21: A Gaslamp breakfast café with delicious farm-to-table food.
Parakeet Café: A trendy little counter-service café with varied breakfast choices. With excellent wifi, this is a great central spot downtown for remote workers. This spot gets super busy on the weekends.
Morning Glory: An all-pink Insta-worthy location serving the fluffiest pancakes in Little Italy.
Breakfast Republic: One of the most popular brunch spots in San Diego. So popular that it has expanded to 18 locations! I’ve been to a few but I do like East Village best – probably because that was my first. Breakfast Republic offers hearty brunch meals, like omelets with potatoes and toast. Prepare for enormous crowds on the weekend.
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters – cute coffee spot with ten locations throughout San Diego.
7. There’s so much to see and do that it’s worth a week or more stay
Visitors can easily fill a week’s vacation in San Diego, especially in the summer. Many travelers, including myself, have coupled the trip with stops in LA, Ocean County, and/or Joshua Tree. If you’re limited on time, just stick with San Diego.
Best Things to Do in San Diego that Makes it Worth Visiting
8. Pacific Beach
Pacific Beach is my favorite area of San Diego. I love being able to easily walk to the beach, eats, and surrounding bars. “PB” is largely residential with many different businesses along the beachfront. There’s even a Trader Joe’s far back.
You can also walk or ride a bike down the boardwalk from Pacific Beach to Mission Beach.
Some of my favorite spots:
- City Tacos – sit down Mexican spot
- Taco Surf – counter service tacos
- Sushi Ota – unassuming but high-quality sushi spot
Bars – you can also get food at most of these places:
- Firehouse – right off the boardwalk (brussel sprouts are good!)
- Waterbar – right on the boardwalk. Offers nice seafood.
- Backyard Kitchen & Tap
- The Local
- Baja beach café – on the boardwalk
Firehouse and Waterbar turn into crowded nightlife-type bars after 9 p.m.
9. San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is a highlight of the country for any animal lover. It’s a fantastic destination with a wide range of animals from all over the world. The zoo is known for its conservation efforts and large enclosures that aim to mimic the animals’ natural habitats. They have everything from adorable pandas to majestic lions, and they’re especially great at showcasing some unique and rare species.
You can easily spend an entire day at the zoo, and the price of the ticket warrants that! A trip to this zoo makes San Diego worth visiting.
When you arrive at the zoo, take the animal safari ride. It’s a double-decker bus that will circle most of the zoo, providing information about the animals. Sit on the top, and try to get a spot on the right side of the bus for better views. This side will be closer to most of the animals on the drive.
The gondola experience is also a must. Ride above the trees, seeing not only the zoo from a birds eye view, but some of the gorgeous Balboa Park, as well.
10. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a gorgeous site in San Diego. The huge urban park contains attractions, museums, gardens, and more. The Japanese Friendship Garden and the Botanical Building with the picture-worthy lily pond are special. They can provide a tranquil escape and a chance to capture some beautiful moments.
Since the zoo is technically inside Balboa Park, you should plan to walk around after the zoo. Though, if you’ve seen the entire zoo, you’ll likely be tired. You can also return to Balboa Park later in your visit to San Diego. It’s a great picnic spot.
11. La Jolla
La Jolla makes San Diego worth visiting. It’s a must for any visitor. The area is beautiful, well-kept, and boasts some of the most beautiful homes you’ll ever see.
La Jolla is most famous for its gorgeous coastal scenery. Visitors can also swim in the coves, though I prefer less-crowded larger beaches, like Pacific Beach.
The main attraction here is the Sea Lions. They come up onto the rocks and you can see them up close!
Visitors also flock to La Jolla for water sports like kayaking and paddle boarding.
You can park in La Jolla but it’ll likely take you some time to find a spot.
12. The Waterfront Park / Bayfront
Walk along the water in San Diego. The waterfront bay area extends into a number of areas, and I’ve been to different areas of the bay front on different trips. It’s that long!
A few worthwhile stops:
- Waterfront Park is an open, grassy park near Little Italy. There are fountains and playgrounds for children.
- Right behind the pier where you catch the USS Midway, you’ll find Carnitas Snack Shack. This chill spot is right on the water and a great place to grab a drink with views.
- Walk along Tuna Harbor Park, where you’ll find incredible views and statues dedicated to US service members
- Continue down to Ruocco Park, if you have time, but I don’t think this is a must-see.
- Further south, you can find Embarcadero Marina Park, and its (very commercial) Seaport Village with lots of chain eateries (please spend local!)
Where to Stay: W Gaslamp
Coronado is what you’d call the bougie part of San Diego. It’s fun to take the ferry there and explore for a day. The beach is quite nice.
Coronado is most known for the iconic Coronado Hotel. It was nice to walk through but I didn’t find it all that interesting. The restaurants all seemed very full, and we ended up grabbing terrible food at a bar-like restaurant closer to the ferry. I’d pack lunch or wait to get back to central San Diego.
If spending the 4th of July in San Diego, Coronado is the popular place to be! There are fireworks over the bay.
Getting to the Coronado Ferry Landing is easy from downtown San Diego. The ferry is located at the Broadway Pier very close to the USS Midway Museum. It is also just a short 10 minute walk from Balboa Park.
Where to Stay: Coronado Hotel
14. Harbor Tour
It’s always nice to get out on a boat. The San Diego Harbor Cruise provides a great tour by water. We received complimentary tickets included in the resort fee of our hotel (it was not a resort, so they had no business charging a resort fee and justified the fee with random coupons), so we checked it out. And, I was glad we did!
This harbor tour is also a very family-friendly activity. There were many children onboard but the boat was so big that it was easy for us to avoid them.
San Diego is worth visiting for those with an interest in the military. It has deep naval roots that can be learned about on this harbor tour.
15. Mission Beach
Mission Beach is just south of Pacific Beach. It’s most known for the Belmont Park amusements, like rides and games. It has an entire boardwalk of eateries and things to do. There are big parking lots there.
We ate at Cannonball, a rooftop restaurant with fantastic views of the water. They’re most known for their sushi but have lots of different items on the menu.
16. Old Town
Old Town took me by surprise. We visited after a flight cancellation – it was never on our itinerary to begin with. It was awesome.
Old Town is often referred to as the “birthplace of California” because it’s where the first European settlers settled in the 18th century. The area has kept its historic charm, with preserved buildings, adobe structures, and a laid-back atmosphere that makes it a unique place to visit.
We ate at Casa de Reyes, a large open-air restaurant in the main courtyard of the Old Town. The Crab-Stuffed Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp was delicious. And, so were the sangrias and margaritas.
Where to Stay: Hilton Garden Inn Old Town
17. Sunset Cliffs and other sunset spots
You can see the most incredible sunsets all around San Diego. It truly is a breathtaking sight to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.
One of the most popular places to watch the sunset is on Sunset Cliffs. To get there, you’ll drive through one of the most expensive parts of San Diego. The homes are so beautiful.
While there are different spots to watch the sunset, most of the spots are on rocks without places to sit. It also gets super windy up there. While I recommend doing this once, I prefer to watch the sunset from the beaches.
Parking can be tough, so arrive well before sunset time. You can check the time of sunset on the Weather App.
18. Padres game or event at Petco Park
Petco Park is a newer, centrally-located venue. It’s fun to go for events, and there are a lot of restaurants and bars close by to pop in before a game.
San Diego probably isn’t a top city that most people think of for nightlife. However, you can find a number of different nightlife options to fit what you’re looking for.
19. Rooftop Vibes
Of course with fantastic weather, San Diego has many outdoor bars, including rooftops. Rooftops in San Diego are worth visiting!
Lumi is an upscale rooftop bar and serves delicious sushi, including a delectable tuna pizza.
Kettner Exchange is one of the most well-known rooftop bars in San Diego. I’ve been three times and had very different experiences. During the day, it’s an upscale brunch venue, where attendees dress up and eat expensive food. During late-night, it turns into what’s basically a regular bar (where drinks are also pretty expensive for San Diego). It’s worth a visit if you pass through. Make a reservation if you’d like to eat there. The bar snacks are pretty good.
Bars in the East Village, like Bootlegger, vary but many have a more chill vibe, though they can get crowded on Friday and Saturday nights.
20. Cool Speakeasy Tiki Bars
One of my favorite things to do in San Diego is go to a tiki bar!
Hit Grass Skirt in Pacific Beach for dinner. The food is delicious. It’s speakeasy-style but sitting right in plain sight in a shopping center. The building is not marked and has plants outside. You’ll walk through a refrigerator door to get into the restaurant. The place is fully decked out in tropical Hawaiian décor. The light show is super fun. Order one of the flaming cocktails, like Lava & Ice!
Downtown, visit False Idol within Craft & Commerce. It’s a much smaller but a heavily decorated speakeasy-style Tiki bar, also with flaming cocktails.
21. Go out in Gaslamp
The Gaslamp district is a happening night time spot. There are many bars and small clubs, too. This area attracts a diverse range of partygoers that keep the drinks flowing.
Temecula is in beautiful wine country, only about one hour north of San Diego. It’s a fantastic day trip from San Diego for any wine lover. Rent a car or take a guided day trip so you don’t have to worry about who’s driving.
Pack a snack or stop for a meal on the road because the restaurants at the wineries are tough to get into. You may choose to reserve a lunch table in advance. Otherwise, just walk in for a tasting.
Wilson Creek winery is a very popular destination. It has a large outdoor area with a bit more of an elevated party atmosphere, often with live music,
Pointe Winery is another gorgeous winery option. In addition to tasting, they also offer tours of their 310 acre ranch.
We loved the free breadsticks at all the wineries!
23. Experience the desert at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park or Joshua tree
The desert is only a short trip away from San Diego. The most popular destination is Joshua Tree National Park with its rugged rock formations, iconic Joshua trees, and stunning desert vistas. It’s a haven for nature enthusiasts, hikers, and photographers. It’s a 2 hr, 45 minute ride from San Diego, which makes it a longer day trip, but doable. The views are incredible.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is much closer – a 1.5 hour drive from the heart of San Diego. It’s only $10 per vehicle and offers seven different self-guided trails of varying length. Some areas require a 4×4, so plan ahead. Don’t go into the caves, as some are super muddy and you can get stuck.
Visiting these parks can be dangerous in the heat, especially during peak summer months. During any visit, bring lots of water with you, a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and other sun protection.
24. Venture to Tijuana for the day
Tijuana is about 20 miles south of San Diego and an adventurous day trip that many visitors and locals make. During the day, you can walk around the downtown area of Tijuana and experience many bars and restaurants that cater mostly to tourists. You can also go toward the beach.
To get there, drive about a half hour south to the border crossing. Be prepared for heavy traffic and stops around the border. This can take several hours.
Visitors can also take the blue line trolley from the Gaslamp Quarter to San Ysidro. This is what we did, as we didn’t want to deal with the border traffic. (Sometimes rental car companies have rules around bringing rental cars out of the country, too.) The 45-minute trolley ride costs $2.50 and you can use cash or card at the ticket machines.
Once in San Ysidro, you’ll follow the signs for the border crossing. Most people getting off the trolley with you will be crossing the border, too.
When arriving, have a general sense of where you will go. Neither of our phones connected across the border (which didn’t make sense because I’ve had no issues using my phone any other time). As soon as you finish crossing, you’ll grab a taxi to Avenida Revolucion, the main strip. Again, this is what almost all other visitors are doing.
Have a great time and then get dropped back at the USA border. Follow the signs and arrive back in the US. We waited for about an hour in the late afternoon.
PS: Don’t forget your passport!
For the food..
I’ve gotten into many debates about the best fast-food burger and I have strong opinions that In-n-Out is the best. Since I live on the East Coast, I don’t get to have In-n-Out too often. Every time I visit San Diego, I visit multiple times. I love it so much.
I loved it EVEN MORE when we stopped on our drive back from Temecula (we were starving and full of wine!).
If you’re concerned about carbs, you can order “animal style” and the burger will be wrapped in lettuce. I typically order this style if I’m going to have In-n-Out more than twice in one week.
26. Italian Eats in Little Italy
Little Italy is an adorable part of downtown San Diego. While the area is generally mixed, you’ll find many delicious Italian options.
Some of my favorites:
- Nonna + Zucchero – the tortellini fungi with prosciutto and truffle oil is PHENOMENAL!
- Bencotto Italian Kitchen – braised beef gnocchi.. yum! Bencotto also offers pasta spun in the fresh cheese wheel.
Little Italy also has an incredible Cedar Street Farmers Market on Saturdays (8 a.m. – 2 p.m.) and Wednesdays (9:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.) with food, crafts, and textile vendors. It’s been named the #4 Farmers Market in the US. I got a unique denim jacket with license plate fabric stitched into the back.
San Diego is a beer town! The city has several popular breweries, many in the East Village neighborhood.
East Village Brewing Company (my fave!), The Lost Abbey, The Church, and Half Door Brewing and in the East Village are favorites.
28. Cutwater Distillery
Cutwater is an increasingly popular alcohol-in-a-can beverage. They produce many different varieties with tequila, vodka, rum, and whiskey, with tequila being most popular. My favorite is the Cucumber Vodka Soda.
You can visit the Cutwater Distillery about 20 minutes outside of central San Diego, located in an area called Miramar. This area gets a lot of traction, as it’s close to UCSD. The Ballast Point Brewery is across the street.
At the distillery, you can take a tour and tasting for $15. You can also sit down for lunch (we did – the food was just okay and too expensive for what we were served. $16 for a burger, for example). Happy Hour deals are available Monday through Thursday from 3-5 pm
These drinks can be strong, so beware!
And for the logistics..
29. There’s an easy-to-navigate International Airport
San Diego has an international airport that is super close to the main downtown. So close, that the downtown noise ordinance prohibits flying from 11:30 pm – 6:30 a.m. (Unfortunately, we had a flight delayed past 11:30 that was then postponed until the next day. Be careful with late-night flights out of there!
The airport also has a convenient rental car terminal.
30. It’s driving distance to other major cities
Los Angeles and Ocean County are the biggest destinations near San Diego. Many people, including myself, have combined LA & San Diego trips. Though the drive from LA to San Diego is only 125 miles and should be about 2 hours, it can often take much longer because of heavy traffic.
Las Vegas is 330 miles from San Diego and can be driven in 4.5 hours, though expect potentially another hour with traffic, especially near San Bernardino.
Parts of Mexico, including Tijuana mentioned above, are also easily accessible from San Diego.
31. Visitors can easily get around via car, Uber, etc.
San Diego is a small, concentrated city and most points of interest are about a 10-15 minute drive. La Jolla is the outlier at 20 minutes.
It’s great to rent a car but sometimes it can be even easier to rideshare via Lyft or Uber. Prices are reasonable. It’s great to go out and not have to be concerned with parking, though I haven’t found parking to be difficult anywhere in San Diego, with the exception of La Jolla again.
Final Thoughts: Is San Diego Worth Visiting?
San Diego is worth visiting! I highly recommend it.
If you can, stay for a week to experience as much as possible.. If you have less time, don’t miss the beach, La Jolla, San Diego Zoo, and Coronado.
Thinking about heading to San Diego?
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