I graduated from the University of California San Diego this week, which means I’ve left ‘America’s Finest City’ behind in favor of Silicon Valley. But as I go, I’ll share the spots I’ve lived, drank, and played in over the past four years. Just like my Barcelona guide, this should aid anybody visiting the city, and maybe even show locals some spots they don’t know yet! Who knows.
San Diego is really just a big cluster of idiosyncratic neighborhood scattered around the bay unsure if they count as real San Diego or not . I’ll structure this summary around these neighborhoods to aid local activities. From North to South:
Home of mostly white upperclass surfer families, these neighborhoods have nailed the California sunny laid back vibe. Encinitas has more to see, with several gorgeous beaches accessible by precarious wooden steps leading down the adjoining cliffs. If you’re into self advancement, stop by Swami’s Self-Realization Garden, a slice of India right off highway 5, to meditate or explore their huge green space. The Belly Up Tavern is the de facto concert space/bar up here, and sometimes hosts famous alumni of the city like Jack Johnson or the founder of Reef surf wear. Check out the Surfing Madonna statue under the train tracks on Encinitas Boulevard – it’s a controversial local mainstay, just like the nearby Cardiff Kook, which gets festooned with costumes by hooligans every few weeks. For a Pinteresty breakfast, stop by Pannikins, a yummy cafe located within a bright yellow former train station.
For unorthodox paralegal hangouts popular with teenagers, go find the Mushroom Caves just next to the San Elijo lagoon – caves hidden within narrow slot canyons next to suburbia. Technically you can’t go off the path, but we all know how that works. Del Mar hosts the Del Mar Fairgrounds, with weekly horseracing in the summer and all sorts of other events which I haven’t been to, but look fun.
San Diego’s famous bourgeoise neighborhood begins with Torrey Pines State Park, a beautiful slice of accessible nature which features gnarled trees and unique rock formations. Park down at the beach and walk up their sandside stair path to get the full experience. If you go far enough south, that beach becomes becomes Black’s Beach, famous for host a wicked surf break and also for being a nude beach, although as expected it’s mostly old men. Above Blacks is the Torrey Pines Gliderport, a great place to watch parasailers and gliders whip around on a sunny day. The path down to Blacks from the Gliderport is a beautiful strenuous staircase that winds its way hundred of feet down precipitous cliffs.
On the other side of the Salk Institute (biotech study place with weird architecture)from the Gliderport, there’s a community created path used by surfers to get from La Jolla Farms to the beach, commonly known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. It’s even more precipitous, with ropes, planks over water, and narrow bits to squeeze through. Halfway down this route is another path that splits off to the right, over a ridge, and down into a small valley officially closed to visitors which had a ramshackle hut ensconced in one of the walls replete with a bench, visitor book, drug paraphernalia, and a stellar view of the ocean. Find it if you can.
Above Blacks is La Jolla Farms, an exclusive community that boasts incredible houses the likes of which appear on Internet ‘Most impressive House in America ‘ lists. I swear Tony Stark’s house is in there – the Razor Residence is also all glass and metal. To the east of Farms lies my alma mater UCSD, which offers little of interest to the traveller other than the spaceship like Geisel Library in the center. Nestled on the other side of the 5 is University City, a drab, corporate dominated neighborhood that doesn’t deserve it’s own section. It hosts Westfield UTC, an upscale mall with an ice rink in the food court, and Sushi Ki, a student favorite for cheap sake bombs.
La Jolla proper lies on an outcropping to the southwest of all that, on the other side of the gorgeous and popular La Jolla Shores beach. Downtown has shopping options if you like expensive car dealerships, yoga mommy chic clothing stores, or hipster restaurants, but the real fun takes place down at the adjacent Cove. A protected inlet beach offers colorful snorkelling or kayaking opportunities, with the cave next door, bright orange Garibaldi fish, and plenty of seals lying around. For even more seals, walk down the coast a quarter mile to the Child’s Pool beach, with dozens of em lying around and playing within easy sight of the spectators above. Drive a bit further down the coast to get to Windansea beach, which has a tropical inspired thatch hut right next to the waves.
About ten minutes out of downtown on the top of the plateau that forms most of La Jolla is the Mt Soledad Cross, which offers commanding views of the entire surrounding area on clear days. You have a good chance of watching jets take off from nearby Miramar Air Force Base (where Top Gun was filmed) and head out to sea to practice maneuvers. If you’re on UCSD campus, you can bet you’re gonna hear them go by just about everyday. #AMERICA
Pacific Beach/Mission Beach
This is where the tourists go when they come to San Diego – the land of plentiful beaches, beer, and babes. Personally I find the clientele here too bro-ey and skanky to harbor them as neighbors, but its a great place to visit and the beaches are always packed. Eat or drink at any of the many bar/grills lining Mission Boulevard and Garnet Avenue, like Fat Fish, or PB Bar and Grill. The Alehouse hosts Goldfish Racing every Wednesday, while Cabo Cantina has bottomless mimosa deals every Sunday. Eat the authentic Mexican fish tacos at Oscar’s, or just get a burrito at Roberto’s, a local chain as good as the one off spots.
Walk, bike, or skate south down the beachside boulevard connecting both neighborhoods for great people watching opportunities – maybe you’ll run into Slomo, the geriatric rollerblader/retired neurosurgeon who was the subject of a recent NYT op-doc . Once you’re at the south end you’ll run into Belmont Park, a seaside amusement park analogous to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and the Wavehouse, which boasts its own standing wave generator. Or you can pop over to the adjacent Mission Bay, which hosts many yacht marinas, jet ski rental places (or Flyboard rental!), and bayside grass picnic zones like those on Fiesta Island.
This ‘tourist attraction; is really just a few colonial era reenactment buildings situated next to a regional transit hub. Don’t come here for any other reason than getting dinner with visiting family, who’ll be wowed by the family friendly ambience. Take em to Cafe Coyote.
San Diego’s premier gayborhood and my place of residence for my last year of college is a vibrant, cozy place situated in the middle of everything but also ensconced between Balboa Park and Mission Valley . Mission Hills is the hilly part that goes up from the 5 up Washington street and then turns into Hillcrest proper.
While the Mission Hills most people see is urban and overwhelmed by the sound of highway traffic, there’s a gentrified neighborhood up near Presidio Park with commanding views of the bay, downtown, and the airport. Beautiful place for sunset viewing.
The part adjoining the 5 hosts a row of popular international restaurants, but the most important place here is undoubtedly Lucha Libre’s Taco Shop. This place is luchador themed, which means the gilded Champion’s table is the only place available for reservations, if you come in wearing a luchador mask you get free drinks, and the place is generally bursting with vibrance. It’s been featured on Man vs Food, and has a legendary salsa bar. Don’t miss it. The adjacent Bar Dynamite is an alternative hotspot that lets you bring in Lucha’s food no problem, which is a plus.
Just to the west of Lucha, over the 5 and the train tracks, is the Washington Street Skatepark, a fun little playground with huge drop offs and bowls. Just south of Lucha is the Aero Club, a retro themed whiskey bar, and south of that is Starlite, a futuristic cocktail bar.
Downtown Hillcrest is brimming with boutique restaurants like Sloppy’s Burritos (healthy vegan), Empire House (hipstery), Local Habit (craft beer, local food), Snooze’s (fancy breakfast), Harvey Milk’s Diner (vivacious diner), or Los Panchos (24 hr Mexican drive thru). The hostel I lived in, International Traveler’s House, was a great fit for me, and could be for you if you’re looking for cheap fun central housing.
Cross the 163 to the east and you enter the gay nightlife strip, with Flicks (super cheap music bar) right next to Rich’s (gay club with no cover). A bit farther down is Baja Bettys (fun affordable eatery/bar), Gossip Grill (lesbian bar), and many others.
North Park/South Park
Hipster center and arguably the most cultured subneighborhood of SD, North Park is a great destination for beards and brews. University Street and 30th is ground zero – try Belching Beaver Brewery, the Coin Op (arcade bar!), U-31 (live performances), or Seven Grand (hunting club style whisky bar). Pop west for a delicious meat filled bite at the Carnitas Snack Shack, or south into South Park for Whistle Stop‘s famous booty basement Saturdays, or just for Hamilton’s awesome bar/ambience.
The SD Drinkabout runs on the third Wednesday of every month, and features a free shuttle between 8 of the best beer bars in San Diego and indeed, the country – great for selecting a destination even if it isn’t a Wednesday. (Which reminds me, Blind Lady’s Ale House in Normal Heights in Will Ferrell’s favorite bar, and University Height’s Small Bar is not to be missed, nor is the adjacent Bourbon Street on a weekend.)
The land of museums and the zoo. Not much I can tell you about this place that you can’t find on touristy sites, except maybe that the International Village houses have delicious food available during events like December Nights.
Ocean Beach/Point Loma
Ocean Beach is Mission Beach’s scruffy aged surfing neighbor, famous for its dog beach and for Hodad’s burgers. Loma Portal is between that and the airport, and is ground zero for strip malls, Target, and other such big branded retailers. Surely you’ll end up at the Sports Arena for a concert of some kind eventually. Or Soma, the claustrophobic little hardcore rock venue right next door. Regardless, stop in to play laser tag at Ultrazone, or go play videogames at GameRave.
For a little more history or just a nice park, check out Liberty Station, a former military training ground cum stylish mall. Or pop down the peninsula to the area around Point Loma Nazarene University. The standout attraction in this area are the Sunset Cliffs – scenic water shaped cliffs with big stylish houses next door. Poke around to find the Rum Runners sea cave, which offers cliff diving at high tide and spelunking at low, as its hidden cave entrance is where submarines would deliver alcohol to a basement at low tide during Prohibition.
Head a little farther south to Point Loma itself, where Cabrillo National Monument offers more commanding views, an ancient lighthouse, and some fun tide pool exploration opportunities.
Downtown San Diego can be as bro-ey as Pacific Beach, albeit with a definite military serviceman feel. The Gaslamp Quarter is where most of the nightlife action goes down, flanked by Broadway, the Horton Plaza Mall, and Petco Baseball Park. But there are other attractions hereabouts -SD’s public library is a few blocks to the east, crowned with a metal half dome, and apparently they have 3D printers. The waterfront offers several ships of interest like the USS Midway, or the Star of India. And Seaport Village is a tourist trap hamlet right next to that, conveniently next to the Convention Center where Comic Con takes place. Take your pick.
I’ve had good times downtown at Funky Garcia’s (latin bar), the Shouthouse (dueling piano bar), East Village Tavern+Bowl (bowling bar), the Neighborhood (super hipster, has a secret Prohibition style bar hidden in the back behind a fake wall of kegs), Double Deuce (mechanical bull), and Vin de Syrah (underground Alice in Wonderland themed lounge). The clubs here come and go with alarming frequency – Voyeur was a mainstay when I first got here but no longer exists, so maybe this advice won’t age well. Fluxx was the go to for EDM, along with newcomers Bassmnt and Bang Bang. House of Blues is a great place for live concerts, and Stingaree’s was an exciting club simply due to its three floors and open roof bar.
The Lion’s Share is a fancy exotic meats restaurant with quirky decorations and friendly waiters, if you’re willing to venture out of the Gaslamp Proper. Same company that runs the Craft and Commerce up in Littly Italy, which is well regarded.
Little Italy is nestled north of downtown between the 5 and the water, and offers plenty of italian eateries, as you would expect. It hosts a popular farmers market every saturday, and has a nice new Waterfront Park with water fountains and views of the bay and the downtown skyscrapers. 98 Bottles is the bar to be here, although El Camino is a worthy stop for edgy Mexican plates and drinks, or the Casbah for live rock shows.
Coronado Island is a idiosyncratic little island just off the coast whose demographics are even whiter than La Jolla and offers gorgeous houses jutted up against a large Navy base. The west side offers ‘the best beach in America’, as well as many opportunities to see and hear helicopters and jets flying up close. The Coronado Hotel on the south side of this beach gained fame as the location of Some Like it Hot, and the Coronado Brewing Company is famous as well.
Imperial Beach has a drive in movie theatre – that’s about it. Clairemont Mesa is classic American suburbia and strip malls, thought Vallartas has some of the best 24 hour Mexican drive through noms, and Phil’s Barbeque is legendary. The Broken Yolk Cafe is a yummy breakfast chain with a location here, I think, as well as other spots in Pacific Beach and Downtown.
Tijuana is 20 minutes south of downtown, and offers delicious tacos, a cultural experience, and a rollicking red light district if you’re into that. I’ve heard crazy things about Hong Kong Gentleman’s Club. Walk down Avenida de La Revolucion in order to see all the tourist mainstays (like donkeys painted like zebras), or duck to the northwest a few blocks to see a more authentic TJ ambience.
Rosarito is a small beachside town about 20 minutes south of Tijuana that’s more fun in my opinion because there’s less people bothering you for money. Papas and Beer is a huge beachside club there that has packed events in the summer with shuttles from San Diego. Renting a house for a weekend is always a popular option. Drop by Alfonso’s Fireworks for some good Mexican fun, or check out the RC racecar track on your way in from the freeway on the left. Foodwise you just can’t go wrong, but I remember Tacos El Yaqui was a standout.
Anza Borrego State Park is about two hours to the east, and offers beautiful desert landscapes, off road adventures, a campsite with natural hot springs, and mud caves to explore. Stop in Julian on the way back and eat some delicious pie or apple cider, which they are famous for. The 8 highway on the way east is equally spectacular as the destinations it affords, with a long descent down bouldery mountains on all sides.
A little past Anza Borrego is the Salton Sea, a former summer destination that has since dried out and now is a desolate ghost town, with beaches made of fish bones and bountiful salt flats. Nearby to the east are huge sand dunes you can play on, and before that is Salvation Mountain, a chunk of hillside some guy painted over again and again with inspirational saying and praise to God until it became an attraction. A worthy stop, for half an hour.
Closer to home offers some great dayhiking activites, like the Mount Woodson trail, which offers a photo op at the top where one thin ‘Potato Chip Rock’ sticks precariously out into the sky. Or the Three Sisters Falls, where you can slide down a rocky natural waterslide in the spring, or just luxuriate in the huge upper waterfall. Cedar Creek Falls (aka the Devil’s Punchbowl) got restricted last year after someone died (I think now you need permits to get in), but offers an idyllic swimming hole where you can jump from rocks, swing from trees, or just relax with a beer (as the many tattooed servicemen who frequent the place do).