San Diego Travel Guide

San Diego Travel Guide

David Durán

Mellowed by its fabled surf swells and cloudless skies, San Diego hangs loose as California’s second largest city. Here, Southern California is at its best—sprawling beaches kiss the chilly but swimmable sea that locals roller skate and bike alongside on winding paths watching pick-me-up games of beach volleyball that carry on until dusk when the bonfires begin. Don’t stress; San Diego impresses beyond beach culture with its lively Gaslamp Quarter full of galleries, restaurants, and one-of-a-kind boutique stores. Mr Hudson has you covered with the best of the city, but don’t be afraid to ask the tan and smiling locals for a few of their favourite tips.

The best hotels in San Diego

Opt for the Gaslamp Quarter where the highest concentration of hotels, nightlife venues, and restaurants make the city accessible by foot. The Hotel Palomar San Diego houses 184 luxury rooms and suites, the best of which are balcony suites where you can sun tan in privacy before cooling off with a dip in the hotel’s elegant pool. At 22 stories, the hotel shows off every angle of downtown. Nearby, the small boutique Keating Hotel prides itself on “Soho style with California sex appeal” turning a historic brick building into 34 modern loft-like suites. Guestrooms are called “stanzas” and are decorated by the design team Pininfarina, which leads luxury brands Ferrari and Maserati.

All summer long the Andaz San Diego hosts some of the city’s hippest pool parties on the largest rooftop deck in downtown San Diego. For the top VIP experience, book their signature suite: two levels with a spiral staircase that leads to a private cabana by the pool. But of course, no one parties harder than the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego where a nightclub bumps in the basement and guests zip back and forth from the many bars and restaurants of the hotel, starting their days with a long shower in double rainfall spout showers.

If you can forego the pool, The US GRANT emits the timeless grandeur of its 1910 opening with ballrooms and ritzy chandeliers. Fourteen U.S. presidents have stayed at the hotel, a member of the Starwood’s prestigious Luxury Collection, and strolled its rooftop gardens.

Andaz San Diego

Andaz San Diego

Things to do in San Diego

Wherever you end up going, getting around the city is made easy by the San Diego Trolley, a light-rail system with routes to, from, and around downtown. The public transport system operates seven days a week from early morning to midnight. Cycling is another popular way to get outside, get active, and explore the city. Guided and self-guided bike tours can be arranged by Surf Monkey Bikes as well as rentals from their fleet of electric bikes, beach cruisers, another way to see a greater expanse of the city from La Jolla Cove to Mission Bay to downtown’s waterfront.

Hikers looking to explore the preserved natural beauty of the region will be happy to learn about Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve where the nation’s rarest pine species (pinus torreyana) is protected in the chaparral of the reserve. There are many short trails in the park, but for a worthwhile hike, take the Broken Hill Trail which clocks in at just over a mile, loop back by going North along the beach or go South down to Black’s Beach, a wild beach below towering cliffs. On your way back, make sure to take in the vista from Yucca or Razor Points.

Looking at the massive wave breaks may give you the itch to try San Diego’s most popular activity. Private surf lessons, as well as multi-day camps, are offered by Pacific Surf to help guarantee you catch your first waves in San Diego. For a tamer time, the company also rents stand up paddleboard rentals for those who want to get on the water for a shorter, drier excursion.

After all the excitement, cruise the streets of Little Italy, a neighbourhood once home to San Diego’s tuna fishing industry established by generations of Italian families. The quaint district is full of outdoor cafes, restaurants with authentic bistro, as well as art galleries and shops that cater to higher tastes than the “spring break garb” in more touristy parts of the city.

Torrey Pines | Photo: Annie Pearson

Torrey Pines | Photo: Annie Pearson

What to see in San Diego

Skip Shamu for a thorough investigation of the San Diego art and performance scenes. World-class Broadway productions tour through the city year round. Tickets are much more accessible than New York, yet maintain the same ritz. The Civic Center also hosts the San Diego Opera, which is Southern California’s oldest opera company, while the 1912 neoclassical Spreckels Theatre debuts the city’s best ballets, modern dance, and live concerts. Make an evening out of any of the three with a dinner in the accompanying Gaslamp Quarter or finish there with nightcaps after the performance.

Impressive collections are exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) in over 10,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space is currently in the process of renovating its neighbouring La Jolla gallery to quadruple current gallery space. MCASD presents over 4,700 post-1950s art installations and constantly curates internationally recognized artists for seasonal display. Everything from painting to sculpture to video installations can be found in the space, but the museum stands out for its 1960s/70s pop art collections as well as its display of Latin American and local Southern California art.

Many galleries are scattered around the city, but the best neighbourhoods for boutique galleries live in La Jolla, Little Italy, and the Gaslamp Quarter. The essence of the city and it’s laid back lifestyle is captured in Aaron Chang Ocean Art Gallery with glossy prints of the ocean, surf culture, and colourful sunsets dipping into the horizon. For more a wider range of photography, the Museum of Photographic Arts carries over 7,000 world famous photographs from over 750 photographers and is based in the heart of the well-known Balboa Park.

Where to eat in San Diego

San Diego is long considered one of the best cities for Mexican food in the entire country and with its proximity to the ocean, also serves incredibly memorable seafood. And since it’s California, there is a strong emphasis on health-conscious options.

Coasterra gathers one of the city’s best modern Mexican menus and spices the experience with personalised guacamole made at the table, as well as delicately crafted cocktails inspired by fine tequila and mezcal. Because of its incredible views of the city’s skyline and memorable dishes, the restaurant recommends booking a few days before your trip to ensure you have the opportunity to taste their famed Ahi Tuna Tostada. The best tacos are found at Puesto with two locations, one in La Jolla and in Seaport Village. The colourful and eclectic restaurants serve an equally colourful variety of tacos with a rotating taco of the month. Taco Tuesday lets you eat like a king and happy hours let you catch the sunset.

For modern American, Rustic Root in the Gaslamp Quarter hones in on the local, farm-fresh niche and welcomes you with one of the city’s best rooftop dining spaces. Tomahawks steaks are served with sides of cauliflower gratin and are guzzled down by the best ales of local breweries. Also in the GD is Bandar, an award-winning Persian restaurant making its space in a city full of Mexican and American options. Vegetarians and vegans, however, will be happier at Kindred, a hip space with a creative cocktail menu and entrees like the delicious beet risotto or beer battered palm tacos.

Make sure to arrive early for brunch at Snooze A.M. Eatery in the historic gay neighbourhood of Hillcrest for filling benedicts and innovative pancakes, like the pineapple upside down cake.

Kindred | Photo: Studio Maha

Kindred | Photo: Studio Maha

San Diego nightlife

With one of the biggest brewery scenes in America, San Diego pours legendary ales. Start the evening with a flight tasting from local craft brewers Stone in the GQ or Ballast Point in Little Italy.

When you’re ready for hardier spirits, head to Noble Experiment, a reservation only speakeasy in the GQ. The intimate and modern space is accessed by pushing through a faux wall of beer kegs in a neighbouring burger joint. Once inside, take the wall of golden skulls resembling the inside of a beehive and sip the finest cocktails made by avant-garde mixologists. Also hiding in plain sight is the GQ’s favourite lounge, Syrah Spirit & Wine Parlor. An intricate selection of wine is poured by the glass in a space that conjures up the eccentricities of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

As the night carries on, the raucous pulse from the GQ clubs will pull you to their massive dance floors. The infamous Hakkasan group with infamous Las Vegas venues like Jewel, Wet Republic and Omnia, brings San Diego its own Omnia. The state of the art sound system and lighting come alive when top EDM DJs play small and exclusive shows. Patrons can make a night of the evening with dinner and happy hour on the rooftop terrace before reserving their own V.I.P. lounge with bottle service.

More alternative dance music is played at Spin, near Mission Hills, attracting a trendy crowd looking for techno and house beats in a lower-brow setting than the GD clubs. The venue is multi-levelled and hosts special parties during the CRSSD music festival every spring and fall.

Shopping in San Diego

The best boutiques live in the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy, and Seaport Village. Locals sport the San Diego proud 5 & A Dime in the Gaslamp Quarter, which blends street and beachwear into a casual collection of men’s t-shirts, sweatshirts, and headwear, which receives bonus points for being manufactured entirely in the city. For footwear, Gym Standard sources Southern California classics like Vans and Converse as well as specialized lifestyle-clothing brands.

Bird’s Surf Shed is a city classic keeping San Diego surf culture alive. The shop acts as a museum of surfboards displayed from the wall to the ceiling. It’s the place to check out new surf films and grab the swaggiest swim trunks on the market.

And if you don’t have time to hop the border to Mexico on your trip, let Casa Artelexia bring Mexico to you in their arts, gifts, and home décor store which imports from regions of Mexico best known for their design aesthetics. There is always an art exhibition or a workshop to join in and experience.

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