Many people come to the city to enjoy SeaWorld’s exhibits and shows or the world-famous San Diego Zoo, but there is much more to explore around town.
You can spend days visiting the museums at Balboa Park, take a sunset dinner cruise in the harbor or climb aboard an Aircraft Carrier.
And if you have more time you can drive away from the city to enjoy San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido or Lego Land in Carlsbad.
A brief history
Since first discovery by Juan Cabrillo in 1542, the area changed hands several times. First, it was a Spanish territory. Then it was claimed by Mexico after Mexican independence from Spain. Finally, it became a US territory in 1848 after the American Victory in the Mexican–American War.
The city started to flourish when the US Navy became interested in its great natural harbor and its location.
Interesting Facts: The top employer in the city is the United States Navy.
Where to stay
If you are planning to mainly explore downtown, then you should consider one of the hotels right in the Gaslamp Quarter or downtown waterfront. Some of the best choices are the Marriott at Gaslamp, Hilton Bayfront and Grand Hyatt. For a budget hotel in or close to downtown, you can try Porto Vista, Wyndham Bayside, or Westin.
If your main goal is to visit SeaWorld, then try the Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa, Hyatt Regency Masson Bay or the Bahia Resort. For budget choices, try places like Holiday Inn Express, Wyndham Garden or Travel Lodge SeaWorld.
I recently stayed at the Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa for two nights and loved every minute of my stay. The resort is right on the bay and has everything you need for fun and relaxation. The 2-queen-beds room was very comfortable with a great view overlooking a garden and the beach. Right on premises, you will find a nice heated pool, several Jacuzzis and watersports activities. At night you can enjoy SeaWorld’s fireworks show from your balcony or from the waterfront. See the full review here.
Interesting Facts: The City of San Diego was rated the fifth-best place to live in the United States in by MONEY Magazine in 2006.
Another great choice is the Grand Hyatt at San Diego Bay. It is very conveniently located next to Seaport Village, the Headquarters, USS Midway and the Gaslamp Quarter. You can just walk to those popular destinations. The rooms have comfortable beds with great views of the harbor and downtown. See the full review here.
During on my last visit, I stayed at Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn. The location is a little isolated from main attractions, but it a beautiful place for a staycation. If you stay here, you should plan on spending most of your time at the hotel and surrounding area. It is very easy to do so because the hotel offers many entertainment choices and amenities. A large swimming pool, highly rated restaurants, an outdoor theater and free bike rentals to name a few. See the full review here (coming soon).
And of course, you can camp while in San Diego. The Koa campground is very nice with tent and RV sites along with 1 and 2 bedroom cabins. The campground has clean bathrooms, hot showers and a lot of activities. Read more about KOA campground here.
Things to do in San Diego
There is plenty to explore without leaving town. You can take a stroll in the Gaslamp Quarter with plenty of shops and restaurants, rent a bike and ride along the bayfront, visit SeaWorld, go on a cruise or spend a day at Balboa Park.
This is an area of about 16 city blocks with a major shopping mall anchoring one corner.
You can start your walk at the Westfield Horton Plaza mall. The mall itself is a destination for shoppers and gawkers alike. One of the popular landmarks is the Jessop Street Clock which tells the time in 20 different countries in the world.
Right outside the mall, there is a small park with a nice fountain and statues for the San Diego founding fathers.
The quarter streets are named by letters and numbers. You can explore any of the streets, but the main thoroughfare is 5th avenue. This street is the longest stretch and has the most shops, restaurants and nightclubs.
Interesting Facts: Did you know that San Diego was home to everyone’s favorite wacky children’s author, Ted Geisel – more frequently referred to as Dr. Seuss?
The quarter is especially beautiful at night when all the Gaslamps are let and the streets are bustling with people and the music is blaring from the nightclubs.
Tip: The best way to enjoy San Diego attractions is by getting a Go City Card. You pay one price and get all the attractions you want. Go San Diego Card
If you plan to dine at the quarter, try La Puerta Mexican restaurant, Greystone the Steak House or Meze Greek Fusion.
La Puerta is famous for their street tacos. They also have a great surf & tur burrito. Happy hour is very busy and loud but expect good prices.
At Greystone, you can’t go wrong with any of the meats. Try the New York Steak or Filet Mignon. If you are hungry, try the short ribs tacos for starters. The place is a little pricey, but if you go during happy hour, you will get to try different cuts at reduced prices.
My favorite is Meze Greek Fusion on sixth street. This restaurant offers authentic Greek cuisine with a California flair. Meze means small plates, but the menu offers full meals for every appetite. For starters, you must try the Lentil Soup, Baba Ghanosh, Dolma or Fiery Fetta Dip. For the main meal try the Lamb Chops or traditional Greek favorites like Falafel or Gyro plates. And finally, don’t skip the Baklava for dessert.
Tip: The park and water fun is free, but you may have to pay for parking if you don't get in early to grab one of the free spots.
For a dessert or a snack, you must try Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. Their ice-cream flavors on waffle cones are to die for. Once you are done with your dessert, you can go shopping for a collection of chocolates for your family and friends – or indulge yourself.
If you keep walking down 5th avenue you will reach the waterfront where you will find the Convention Center, some of San Diego’s iconic hotels, Seaport Village and USS Midway Aircraft Carrier.
The village resembles an old harbor side town with its unique shops and casual dining places. You can also enjoy fine dining at 4 waterfront restaurants.
Seaport also hosts some unique events like Surfin Santa Arrival and Busker Festival. Many restaurants book live music events. My favorite is the Bit of Greece at the Greek Islands Café.
One caution! The village is a tourist trap. Shop at your own risk.
Interesting Facts: San Diego has the most ideal climate with temperatures averaging 70 all year long
In spite of that warning, you can still have lots of fun. Browse through the shops. Try a few things like flying a kite or face painting. Enjoy the street performers.
The Headquarters are right across the street from Seaport Village. It is a new plaza with more boutique shops and dining options. You can find known places like the Cheese Cake Factory, Starbucks or Sunglass Hut. Or discover new places like Gelato Paradiso, Geppetto’s Toys, Lori L. Fine Art Gallery.
USS Midway Aircraft Carrier
The USS Midway was the longest serving Navy aircraft carrier – active from 1945 to 1992. After its long military service, it is now berthed in San Diego harbor and open to the public since 2004.
Before you even get on this magnificent ship, you will be amazed by its size and design. As you approach its berth, you will be wondering how this behemoth could float – let alone carry crew and airplanes.
After you get your tickets ($20 adult), you will climb some steep stairs to reach the hanger deck. This is where the aircraft were stored and maintained before launching. The deck was huge with many types of fighters on display.
The hanger deck also has a row of flight simulators. There are 2 types to choose from Air Combat and Flight avionics. It is a neat way to pretend you are on a mission launched from the carrier.
The admission price includes a free audio tour. If you decide to use it, you will get 2-minute audio clips about various marked locations throughout the ship. You don’t really need the audio. There are a lot of volunteers at the important spots with a lot of valuable information. Many of the volunteers are retired navy sailors.
From the hanger deck, you can go up to the flight deck where the planes launch or land. More planes and helicopters were on display. You can inside some of them and explore.
If you go down from hanger deck you will come across the galley where food is prepared, the mess deck – where the enlisted eat, the laundry, sickbay, the brig and a fire station.
Tip: If you are claustrophobic you may want to avoid the lower decks. It is very cramped and stuffy in places.
If you have more time, you can watch videos about the carrier, try your hand with knot-tying, climb on some bunks, get inside cockpits, go to jail or take one of the guided tours. See more adventures here.
In 1915, the parklands were used to host the San Diego Panama-Pacific International Exposition which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and lasted for 2 years. Later many of the park's buildings were recommissioned as museums.
You can spend a day just walking around and exploring the history and architecture, picnicking in the green zones, riding a mini train, going on a carousel or visiting the International Village.
But you will need several days to experience the variety of museums. The park has an amazing collection of museums like "Air and Space", "Science Center", "Natural History" and "Museum of Art".
Downtown Historic Trolley Tour
Interesting Facts: The first drive-in restaurant in the United States was opened in San Diego by the man who later founded Jack in the Box in 1951.
Along the way, the driver will share with you interesting San Diego history and tips about places to see and things to do.
You can start your tour at any of the 10 stops along the route, but Tthe main starting point is at Old Town San Diego.
Some of the other important stops are the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado Island and Balboa Park.
When the kids get tired of water play they can have more fun the modern playground.
If you did not bring your own picnic, they have a small cafe where you can get some snacks and drinks.
The park is right across from the Embarcadero and behind the County Center building in Little Italy.
The water park opens from 11 am to 7 pm while the main park has longer hours.
After the park, the whole family can walk to Little Italy at India street, do some shopping or dine at one of the restaurants.
Cabrillo National Monument
This park has a museum, movie theater, tide-pool exploration and a stunning view of San Diego harbor and downtown skyline from a high vantage point.
If you are interested in the tide-pools, make sure to check the low tide schedule. See official website for more details.
Also at the highest point of the park, you will find the Point Loma Lighthouse. It was closed down in 1891 because it was always shrouded in fog due to its height. A newer one was built at a lower elevation.
The park is also close to the "Maritime Museum of San Diego", so you can make a side trip to visit the museum.
Sea World is the only park in which you can get up close and personal with sea creatures and get an education while having fun. You can meet Shamu the killer whale, watch the Dolphins play their tricks, visit the sharks in their natural habitat, go to the North Pole on an icy safari and peek at the Penguins – and you get all that fun for a bargain.
Shows that you shouldn’t miss are One Ocean (The Shamu Show); Sea Lions Live; Blue Horizons (Dolphin show); A trip to Wild Arctic; Shark encounter. For thrill seekers, try one of the rides: Journey To Atlantis; Manta; Shipwreck Rapids and Wild Arctic (the ride).
Outside of Town
On the outskirts of the city of San Diego or further inland, you can find many more attractions and adventures. Visit the beaches at La Jolla, go to Lego Land and the flower fields in Carlsbad or go on a Safari in Escondido.
For even more activities, go mine for gold, hike, camp or picnic in the mountains at Julian.
Interesting Facts: San Diego County is home to the most missions in the country. Take the mission trail to visit Mission San Diego de Alcala, Mission San Luis Rey, Mission San Antonio de Pala and Mission Santa Ysabel.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located in San Diego County close to the city of Escondido. It spans 1800 acres of land and is stocked with 2600 animals from 300 species. It is also home to thousands of plant species – some of it in a protected preserve.
The main attraction is a vast open area with free-ranging animals that vary from the fierce lions to the tame Giraffes. The only way to enjoy this vast flora and fauna is to join a Safari. More the on Safari options later.
La Jolla – Beaches and Hiking
No one knows for sure where the name originated, but some say it means the place with holes – referring to the many caves and coves on the shoreline. Others say it means the Jewel. In either case is a jewel on the beach and it is full of caves and coves – making it a very interesting place to visit and explore.
Tip: Alcohol is not permitted on any of San Diego beaches. So leave your beer behined.
So spend some time at La Jolla Shores beach or go snorkeling at La Jolla Cove. If you prefer you can go hiking at Torrey Pines State Preserve or even learn how to Glide at the Glider Port.