San Diego City Guide

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You’ve made the move to sunny San Diego, ready to soak in the SoCal vibes. Forgo SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo in favor of hidden cultural treasures. Catch the big game like a local, see nature at its finest, grab coffee at indie cafes, bar hop on a budget and eat like locals do — all with the help of our San Diego City Guide.  

Where to Get a Culture Fix in San Diego

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San Diego has its share of world-class museums, but for a more off the beaten path taste of the city’s culture, check out these under-the-radar gems. 

The New Children’s Museum is a hidden jewel with interactive art exhibits the whole family will enjoy. Kids can craft giant bubbles, climb a massive spider web and make music with pipes. Adults will appreciate the innovative art projects, too. Admission is affordable and they’re open every day. 

Set in a converted brick warehouse, Bread & Salt hosts art exhibitions, live music, dance and theater performances. It’s a hub for emerging artists and experimental works. Admission to most events is free or low-cost. 

If you dig history, the Veterans Museum tells the story of San Diego’s military presence. See artifacts from the Civil War to the present day, like a Huey helicopter, WWII Jeep and Soviet tanks. Both admission and parking are free, so you can easily spend a couple hours exploring without dishing out a dime. 

Run by working artists, Space 4 Art features contemporary art exhibits, live art demonstrations and workshops in its East Village gallery. It aims to support innovation in the visual arts through collaboration and community engagement. Events are open to the public on Saturdays free of charge. 

Art lovers should visit the Museum of Photographic Arts. It’s one of only a handful of museums dedicated solely to photography and it highlights famous works alongside up-and-coming artists. The museum’s collection spans the history of photography, from daguerreotypes to digital. Admission is budget-friendly and it’s a gem for any photo enthusiast. 

The New Americans Museum gives you a glimpse into the immigrant experience. Through art, artifacts and personal stories, you’ll gain insight into the challenges and triumphs of starting life in a new country. The museum’s mission is to promote inclusiveness, empathy and cultural understanding. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. 

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Where to Get Your Game on in San Diego

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There’s nothing quite like catching a Padres game at Petco Park or enjoying some beach activities at Mission Bay. These spots offer an authentic slice of San Diego culture you just can’t experience anywhere else. 

Petco Park: America’s Finest Ballpark 

Petco Park is a must for any sports fan visiting San Diego. Home of the Padres, this downtown ballpark is stunning. With views of the San Diego skyline and Coronado Bridge, you’ll be soaking in the atmosphere even when there’s no game on. 

When the Padres are in town, grab tickets and head to the park. Inside the park, don’t miss the beach, the 4,000-gallon aquarium or the steaming BBQ at Phil’s BBQ. And of course, no visit is complete without a Friar Dog or craft beer from one of the many local brewers on tap. 

Mission Bay: An Aquatic Playground 

Just west of downtown, Mission Bay Park is one of the largest recreational areas in the world. With 27 miles of shoreline and 4,600 acres of water to explore, you can spend days enjoying the bay without seeing it all. 

Rent jet skis, kayaks, sailboats or paddle boards and get out on the water. With an average of 320 days of sun each year, there’s rarely a bad day to be in the bay. When it’s time to refuel, check out the Splash Cafe for fish tacos and clam chowder while watching the kids play at the beach. 

As night falls, grab some takeout and catch the sunset at Bonita Cove. Locals know this secluded beach as one of the best hidden gems for a quiet evening escape in the city. 

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Things You Can Only See and Experience in San Diego

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San Diego is known for its great weather, beaches and outdoor activities, but it also has some unique attractions you’d be hard-pressed to experience elsewhere. Here are a few one-of-a-kind activities to add to your itinerary. 

Visit the Panda Research Station at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. This is the only facility in the U.S. with a giant panda research station where you can see the endangered bears up close in their habitat. The Safari Park is also home to huge enclosures that let you see animals like rhinos, giraffes and antelopes roaming together. 

Tour the USS Midway Museum on board an iconic aircraft carrier. The Midway was in service for 47 years and saw action in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. Self-guided audio tours let you explore the massive ship at your own pace. You’ll get to sit in cockpits, walk the decks and learn what life was like for sailors at sea. 

Ride the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster at Belmont Park. This historic wooden coaster first opened in 1925 and is one of the only seaside amusement parks still running today. The rickety, old-school coaster reaches speeds up to 50 miles per hour while giving you views of the beach and ocean. An all-day ride pass lets you also enjoy bumper cars, tilt-a-whirl and other classic rides. 

Visit Whaley House, considered one of the most haunted houses in the U.S. This historic adobe house was built on the site of early San Diego’s gallows. It was home to Yankee Jim, a thief who was hanged in 1852, and his ghost is said to haunt the place. Take a guided tour to learn about its history and reported paranormal activity. You might encounter ghostly figures, hear strange noises or see objects move. 

With perfect weather, natural beauty and an undeniably vibrant culture, San Diego offers experiences for every traveler. But these uniquely San Diego activities should not be missed. Come discover what makes America’s Finest City unlike any other. 

Beautiful Balboa Park is home to a variety of cultural institutions, including the San Diego Zoo, over a dozen museums and gorgeous gardens. During the summer, you can catch live musicals at the Starlight Bowl amphitheater. Pack a picnic, lay out a blanket under the stars and enjoy a musical performance in the heart of this urban oasis. 

San Diego is one of the top craft beer destinations in America with over 150 breweries in the county. You can take tours of major breweries like Stone Brewing, Ballast Point and AleSmith. Or hop on a guided brewery tour to sample beers from several breweries all around the city. Either way, you’ll get to taste unique beers you really can’t find anywhere outside of San Diego. 

The charming Little Italy neighborhood was once home to Italian tuna fishermen. Today, it’s filled with cafes, restaurants, art galleries and shops. Every Saturday, the Little Italy Mercato farmer’s market offers local goods, live music and crafts. And on summer nights, you might catch an outdoor movie screening. Take time to just wander, dine al fresco and soak up the ambiance of this little slice of Italian culture. 

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Where to Get Outdoors in San Diego

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When you’re ready to escape the city, head east to the Laguna Mountains. About an hour from downtown San Diego, this rugged range is home to two stellar state parks. 

At Mount Laguna Recreation Area, you’ll find scenic picnic spots, hiking trails for all levels and opportunities for camping under the stars. Check out the Desert View Trail for stunning vistas spanning breathtaking Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Salton Sea. 

Nearby Palomar Mountain State Park is a hidden gem featuring massive pine forests, gushing creeks and the historic stone CCC lodge. Pack a picnic and your hiking boots to explore the scenic Doane Valley Trail or ambitious Palomar-Crest Trail. Campgrounds here fill up fast, especially in summer, so reserve one in advance if you plan to stay overnight. 

At the southern tip of Point Loma Peninsula, Cabrillo National Monument offers tidepools, hiking and biking trails with panoramic ocean vistas. You may spot whales, dolphins or shorebirds. The monument is free to visit and open year-round. 

For the ultimate SoCal outdoor adventure, head to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest in the contiguous U.S. From desert washes and oases to rugged mountains, this park has it all. Stargaze at night, spot bighorn sheep at dawn and hike to desert palm groves. The variety of trails, campgrounds and natural scenery make this park worth more than one visit. Plus, the spring wildflower display is a sight to behold. 

If you want to escape the city crowds, head north to San Diego’s countryside. About 45 minutes from downtown, you’ll find rolling hills, scenic farms and hidden natural gems. 

Daley Ranch is a 3,000-acre preserve in Escondido that’s perfect for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Miles of trails wind through oak groves and granite outcroppings with panoramic views. You might spot coyotes, bobcats and rare birds along the way. 

Once a working citrus ranch, Leo Carrillo Ranch is now a historic park. Meander through the grounds, explore the adobe buildings. Kids will love the gnarled old oak trees, creekside trails, and roaming peacocks. 

Site of a key battle in the Mexican American War, today San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park is a pleasant park and museum where you can learn about the region’s history. Shaded picnic areas and a one-mile trail loop around the battlefield. 

Orfila Vineyards is a family-run winery surrounded by estate vineyards. Taste award-winning wines in the Tuscan-style tasting room and take a self-guided tour. On weekends, enjoy live music, gourmet food trucks, lawn games and stunning sunsets over rolling hills. 

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Local Eats in San Diego

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A hipster haven in North Park, The Friendly features craft coffee, cocktail and a creative menu with items like truffle mac and cheese, Nashville hot chicken, and vegan nachos. It has great happy hour and outdoor patio as well as live music, art shows and movie nights, making it one-stop-shop for your socializing needs. 

Historic Liberty Public Market in Point Loma offers tasty bites from local vendors. Grab artisanal pizza or tacos, authentic ramen or Vietnamese fare, organic coffee or craft beer. With communal seating and live music on weekends, it’s a perfect place to sample SD’s culinary diversity. 
For an only-in-San Diego experience, head to Café Coyote in Old Town, the birthplace of California. This historic spot has been serving up fajitas, margaritas and Mexican fare for over 30 years. Grab a table on the huge patio and enjoy the mariachis, vibrant atmosphere and views of the Old Town. It’s a perfect introduction to San Diego’s rich history and culture. 

No trip to San Diego is complete without a burger from Hodad’s, an Ocean Beach institution since 1969. Known for their bacon cheeseburgers and laid-back surf vibe, its walls are covered with license plates and surfboards. 

With several locations around San Diego, The Taco Stand is a go-to for award-winning fish tacos and craft beer. Everything is made from scratch, from the tortillas to the salsas. Grab a spot on their patio and dig into tacos filled with beer-battered fish or carne asada, along with some fresh guacamole. 

Carnitas’ Snack Shack is a North Park hotspot featuring locally sourced ingredients in its tacos, salads and snacks. Owned by a husband-and-wife team, it’s best known for its triple-threat pork sandwich and fried Brussels sprouts. The laid-back space and outdoor patio are always full of neighborhood regulars and visitors alike. 

For an upscale steakhouse experience, Cowboy Star in East Village is a local fave. It dry ages its own beef and offers high-quality cuts like ribeye, filet and strip steak. The stylish space has a chic saloon vibe. While on the pricier side, the quality of the food and service make it worth the splurge for special occasions and celebrations. 

A historic diner and bakery in Hillcrest, Café 222 has been open since 1948. Known for scratch-made breakfasts, lunches and baked goods at great value, all-day go-tos include omelets, scrambles, pancakes and eggs benedict. It’s a casual, retro spot popular with all ages, from students to seniors. The huge portions mean you’ll have leftovers. But it’s cash only, so come prepared. 

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Locally Loved San Diego Coffee Shops

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Café Calabria is a North Park institution that has been fueling the local art scene for over 20 years. It roasts its own coffee on-site; offers both indoor and patio seating; and serves crave-worthy cold brews and almond croissants, making it the perfect spot to people-watch on a sunny morning. 

With several locations around San Diego, Better Buzz is a local favorite for high-quality, organic coffee and healthy grab-and-go fare. Popular offerings include its nitro cold brew, signature espresso drinks and teas from San Diego’s own Zhena’s Gypsy Tea. Looking for a light brunch? The avocado toast and acai bowls are calling your name. 

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San Diego’s Happy Hour Haunts and Nightlife

San Diego has some of the best nightlife around — you just have to know where to find it. Venture into some of the city’s hip, up-and-coming neighborhoods to discover the hottest happy hours, cocktails, live music venues and dance clubs.

The eclectic North Park neighborhood is a mecca for the craft beer crowd. Hit up Hamilton’s Tavern or Toronado for an extensive tap list, then catch a show at the Observatory North Park music venue. Bar Pink and Seven Grand also have killer cocktails and a speakeasy vibe.

The charming Little Italy area is home to some of the best Italian fare in the city. After dinner, grab an Aperol Spritz or negroni at one of the chic wine bars that line India Street. Check out the rooftop bar at the Pendry San Diego Hotel for posh drinks with panoramic views of the city skyline.

Just south of North Park, hipster South Park has a laid-back vibe and plenty of watering holes. The Whistle Stop and Kindred are musts for craft cocktails made with house infusions and syrups. South Park Brewing Company features local craft brews and pub grub. And the Studio Door gallery hosts live music, art shows and other cultural events.

Hillcrest is the heart of San Diego’s LGBTQ community and nightlife scene. Start your evening on University Avenue — “The Strip” — with dinner at Lips or Rich’s. Then hit the dance floor at Flicks, San Diego’s iconic gay video bar. Or catch a drag show at Brass Rail. There’s truly something for everyone in this vibrant neighborhood.

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Hidden Gems in San Diego

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Check out the Marston House, an arts-and-crafts-style mansion built in 1905. Offering tours Wednesday through Sunday, it lets you see what life was like for a prominent San Diego family in the early 1900s. The park is also home to the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, with free concerts on Sunday afternoons. 

For panoramic views of the city, hike up to the Cabrillo Bridge. This historic bridge was built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and offers sweeping vistas from its high arch. Below the bridge, you’ll find a hidden trail leading down to a lush canyon oasis. 

Just outside Prado Restaurant, look for a small wooden door — this leads to the Alcazar Garden, a whimsical space with fountains, hedge mazes and desert landscaping. Few visitors discover this secret garden, making it a perfect escape from the crowds. 

Established in 1769, Old Town San Diego was California’s first European settlement. Today, it’s a state historic park filled with adobe buildings, shopping, dining and culture. While the historic park and Mexican restaurants are popular with tourists, some hidden gems are worth seeking out. 

Check out Bazaar del Mundo, an authentic Mexican shopping bazaar with handcrafted goods from local artists. It often hosts cultural events, art exhibits and live music on the weekends. Just behind the bazaar, you’ll find Old Town’s secret garden, a colorful oasis with fountains, gardens and twinkling lights. 

Hidden Gem Beaches and Trails

San Diego City Guide - Secluded beach in San Diego - Mayflower

Hidden below the cliffs of La Jolla, Black’s Beach is a secluded beach where clothing is optional. The mile-long stretch is accessible by a steep trail, but worth the hike down for stunning sunsets and solitude. 

Just 15 minutes from downtown San Diego, Annie’s Canyon Trail feels worlds away. The 3-mile loop trail winds through a scenic canyon in Chollas Creek Park. Massive boulders, native plants and the occasional rabbit or lizard make this urban oasis a perfect escape from the city. The trail is challenging but rewarding, especially in spring when wildflowers bloom. 

Perched atop the Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma, 68-acre Sunset Cliffs Natural Park offers panoramic views of the Pacific as well as hidden coves to explore at low tide. Whale watching, birding and catching the sunset are popular activities along the park’s hiking trails. For the best views, head to the furthest points of the park around Ladera Street and Osprey Street. 

A favorite of locals, picturesque Windansea Beach features rocky reefs, swaying palm trees and mellow surf breaks perfect for longboarding. The historic b and beach shacks dot the shoreline. 

Although popular, Torrey Pines State Beach has over two miles of shoreline with secluded stretches of sand between rocky outcrops. At low tide, tide pools form and fill with anemones, crabs and other sea life. The beach is also the starting point for hiking trails into Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a coastal forest of rare Torrey pine trees. The Guy Fleming Trail is an easy hike with beautiful coastal views. 

The trails in Mission Trails Regional Park offer scenic vistas without the masses. Try the Kumeyaay Lake trail, a 2.5-mile loop around a tranquil lake. You may spot birds, rabbits and deer along the way. 

In North County, the Santa Margarita River Trail is an easy 4.5-mile out-and-back trek. Follow the winding river through coastal sage scrub and chaparral, keeping an eye out for herons, egrets and other wildlife. The sounds of nature will wash away your worries. 

For a short but sweet hike in South County, head to Sweetwater Summit Regional Park. The 0.8-mile loop climbs to sweeping views of the Sweetwater Reservoir.  

In East County, check out the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area with trails for all skill levels. The Big Laguna Trail is a moderate six-mile loop around meadows, forests and Laguna Lake. You may encounter the occasional mountain biker, but the seclusion and natural beauty will leave you feeling recharged. 

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If you’re looking to explore other cities in the Golden State, check out our California moving guide and insider’s scoop of California life. And be sure to check out our blog for ideas that will help you settle in and start feeling like a local.  

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