Last Updated on September 15, 2020 by Christine Kaaloa
This guest post is written by travel blogger Mimi McFadden from The Atlas Heart, who lived in sunny San Diego for five years and loved every minute of it. She will be your local San Diego travel guide for San Diego travel tips.
San Diego is considered ‘America’s Finest City’ for a reason – it’s a stunning beachside paradise that is good for all different types of travelers and budgets.
Although most people think of Los Angeles or San Francisco when planning a trip to California, visiting San Diego has just as much (if not more) to offer when it comes to its foodie scene, world renowned museums, beaches, and outdoor activities. Here are 14 things to know before you go to San Diego, so you can be a smart traveler when visiting this sunny seaside city for the first time.
San Diego Travel Guide
1. The Best Ways to Get Around San Diego
Although San Diego does not have as good of a public transit system as New York or San Francisco, it can be an ideal way to get around the more popular areas of the city.
The transit card in San Diego is called a Compass Card, which you’re able to use on the trolley, train, and bus. There are one-, two-, three-, or four-day passes that give you unlimited rides on public transit. They also offer long term passes for two weeks or a month if you plan to be in the city longer.
Where to buy a San Diego Compass Card
You can San Diego Compass Cards from the ticket kiosks at the train and trolley stations. Alternatively, they recently released the Compass Cloud app (iPhone , Android ), which allows you to refill fare money as needed from your phone.
With that said, if you plan to see a lot in a short amount of time, public transit probably isn’t the way you want to get around the city since it can be slow.
Renting a car
If you’re only in San Diego for a few days, I’d recommend renting a car. Like most Southern California cities, San Diego and its neighborhoods are interconnected by freeways, making driving the best way to get around. Plus, San Diego sights are fairly spread out, so if you want to see a lot of attractions, a car is the best way to go.
Rideshare & other alternatives
Alternative options if you don’t want to drive are to use rideshare services such as Uber or Lyft, which are both quite affordable and easy ways to get around the city. Lastly, there are now a variety of electric bike shares and scooters in San Diego too, if you’re wanting to get around a specific neighborhood in a convenient way.
2. What to Pack for San Diego
I’ve noticed that a lot of travelers think they can just pack shorts, flip flops, and a tank top for a trip to San Diego and call it a day. San Diego really does have beautiful weather year round, but it still gets breezy and chilly once the sun goes down.
Although shorts and flip flops will probably be your usual outfit around the city, it’s worth it to pack a warm sweater and pants for San Diego’s cooler evenings. If you’re near the water, and most of the popular San Diego neighborhoods are, the temperatures can dip significantly compared to during the day.
Packing Tip: Don’t forget your sunscreen and a hat, especially if you plan to spend time at the beach or you want to go hiking around San Diego. Since San Diego was literally built in the middle of a desert, a lot of hiking trails have little to no shade.
3. San Diego Culture is Very Different from LA
A lot of people think San Diego and Los Angeles have the same kind of vibe since they’re both located in Southern California and only a couple hours away from each other. This couldn’t be more wrong.
Although San Diego is closer in culture to LA than some Northern California cities, San Diego culture is much more laid back than Los Angeles. Where you’ll often find a rushed, busy, and buzzing mindset in the majority of LA, San Diego enjoys a slower pace of life. This is part of what makes San Diego an ideal vacation spot – it oozes relaxation. Embrace the laid back culture and know that life moves a little slower in San Diego, but in all the right ways.
4. San Diego was the Birthplace of California
One aspect that often surprises people is that San Diego is the oldest city in California. To be more specific, Old Town San Diego is where the state was born over 245 years ago. And the history of this area goes back long before that. The Kumeyaay people inhabited this part of California 9,000 years ago before the Spaniards arrived.
If you’re into history and you want to learn more about the roots of California, make sure to spend an afternoon in Old Town to take in the historical sights.
5. May and June can be the Worst Months for Sunny Weather
Although San Diego weather is still pretty warm year round (even in the middle of “winter”), if you’re imagining sunny skies and perfect beach days, I’d avoid visiting the city in May or June.
This is because the city gets what’s called “May Gray” and “June Gloom”. This actually happens all up and down the coast of California in May and June, but it’s especially apparent in San Diego, due to higher air pressure that mixes with the cold water along the coast. When that air interacts with the cold coastal water, it creates low cloud cover that doesn’t burn off easily, making days overcast, gloomy, and a bit cooler.
6. San Diego has a Fantastic Craft Beer Scene
The first place I ever got into craft beer was San Diego and you could say it set my standards sky high. San Diego has one of the best craft beer scenes in the US and the highest concentration of quality craft breweries than any other city in California.
Either take a beer tour with a local guide to discover what makes the San Diego beer scene so special, or do your own self-guided brewery hop around the city.
A few of my favorite breweries in San Diego include Ballast Point, Green Flash, Mission, and Stone.
7. The Best Mexican Food Can Be Found at Hole-in-the-Wall Taquerias
If you want to try the best Mexican food in San Diego, don’t go to the nice sit-down restaurants in Old Town. Instead, look for the hole-in-the-wall taquerias. You can find these in just about every neighborhood and they tend to be the most authentic spots. If you have to order at the counter, you know you’re in the right place.
A few of my favorite taquerias in San Diego include:
- Lolita’s Mexican Food
- Oscars Mexican Food (the best fish tacos in San Diego)
- Vallarta Express Mexican Eatery
- Rigoberto’s Taco Shop
- Las Cuatro Milpas
- Lucha Libre Taco Shop (Not the best on the list but it has the most character)
8. Most of the Best Things to do in San Diego are Completely Free
With it’s solid sunny weather, San Diego offers a lot of outdoor attractions that are completely free. These can be some of the best things to do in San Diego.
A few of my favorite free activities in San Diego are:
Balboa Park – One of the top attractions in San Diego. Spend an afternoon walking around and taking in the beautiful park through its walking paths and historic architecture. If you happen to be in San Diego on a Sunday, head over to Spreckels Pavilion for a free organ concert at 2pm.
The Beaches – Pretty much every popular neighborhood in San Diego has a good beach attached to it. You could easily spend a whole vacation in San Diego beach hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Hiking Trails – There are tons of good hiking opportunities in and around San Diego that allow you to soak up the sun while getting some exercise: Torrey Pines State Reserve, Point Loma’s Bayside Trail, Mount Woodson (aka Potato chip rock), and Cowles Mountain.
59-Mile San Diego Scenic Drive – San Diego has a lot of good views and one of the best ways to take them in is by driving the 59-Mile scenic route that cuts through the coastal highlights of the city. Follow the blue and yellow signs with a white seagull on them and spend a day taking in the natural beauty of San Diego.
Chicano Park – Located in Logan Heights, the oldest Mexican-American neighborhood in San Diego, Chicano Park is chock full of colorful Chicano murals. In fact, it has the largest concentration of Chicano murals in the world.
9. It’s an Ideal Place to Learn How to Surf
California beach boardwalks and beach culture are world famous, so maybe this is the most unsurprising thing to know, but San Diego is an ideal place to learn how to surf. There are countless beaches around the county that offer up waves for a variety of skill levels.
Expert Tip: One of the best beaches to take surf lessons from is La Jolla Shores.
Just note that the water is probably colder than you expect. Although San Diego has good weather year round, it’s still located alongside the Pacific Ocean.
When the sun warms up the water, cold currents take that warmth away just as quickly, making the water quite cold. It’s warmer than what you’ll find in Northern California, but not by much. It’s definitely not Hawaii warm.
10. Balboa Park is the Place for Museum Hopping
If you’re looking to get your culture fix, look no further than Balboa Park. Some of the best museums in San Diego can be found within the park. Out of the 16 museums housed in Balboa Park, these are a few of the best:
- Museum of Man
- Air & Space Museum
- Fleet Science Center
- Museum of Contemporary Art
Besides the museums, Balboa Park is a top attraction in its own right. Take some time to walk around and enjoy the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, the many gardens, and the Spanish Village Art Center where local artwork is displayed.
11. San Diego Has One of the Best Zoos in the World
If you want to get up close and personal with animals, do not go to Seaworld (it has a long history of animal abuse), head over to the world famous San Diego Zoo.
The zoo in San Diego has consistently been labeled the best zoo in the world for years (get your skip the line tickets). It covers over 100 acres, houses 650 species and more than 3,700 different animals, and it’s one of the few zoos in the world to house and breed giant pandas.
The zoo is also located in Balboa Park. It should probably be clear by now that if you only have a day in San Diego, Balboa Park is a good place to start.
12. Taco Tuesdays Can Be the Best Night to Go Out
If you’re looking to experience the San Diego nightlife, Tuesdays can actually be the best night to go out. This is because Taco Tuesdays are treated like a weekly holiday in San Diego.
Taco Tuesdays are especially popular in Pacific Beach with the college kids, where you’ll find $1 tacos and $2 tequila shots, as well as plenty of Mexican street food being sold outside bars.
If you want something a little more low-key but still fun, downtown San Diego and Hillcrest can be good spots for cheap tacos and full bars. That said, it’s worth it to go to at least one Taco Tuesday in Pacific Beach if you want to experience Tuesday nightlife in San Diego to the fullest.
13. San Diego is Actually Pretty Affordable
Especially compared to other cities in California (I’m looking at you San Francisco), San Diego is actually a very affordable vacation destination and place to live. If you want the luxury holiday, there are plenty of resort options to indulge in, but if you’re looking for a budget trip, there is a lot to offer for the budget conscious traveler as well.
Part of this has to do with the many free activities on offer around the city, but the city also does a good job of being inclusive for all budgets. This is why San Diego has become such a popular hit for family trips, because it’s not an overly expensive city to visit but also offers a lot to do for kids and adults alike.
The one thing to watch out for is the sales and hotel tax, which can both be quite high in the city. Make sure to include these extra expenses in your budget when you’re planning your trip.
14. Where to Stay in San Diego
Gaslamp – The Gaslamp District is the heart of historic downtown San Diego. This is one of the most popular areas to stay for its proximity to good food, bars, and some of the city’s best attractions, including Balboa Park, the USS Midway Museum, the Embarcadero, and Coronado Island. If you want to be in the middle of the action and right in downtown, stay here.
Mission Beach – The Mission Beach neighborhood is just north of Gaslamp and another spot that is conveniently located near a lot of popular San Diego attractions, including Belmont Park, Mission Bay, and Pacific Beach. This is an ideal family-friendly neighborhood if you’re traveling with kids, right near the beach and the delicious La Playa Taco Shop.
Ocean Beach – Ocean Beach is where you’ll find counterculture, hippie vibes, and skateboarders. For those looking to stay in a beautiful location near the beach that oozes a bohemian atmosphere, Ocean Beach is a good bet. The neighborhood features beautiful sunsets near the pier, classic San Diego foodie spots (Hodad’s and Pizza Port), local hippie shops, and it’s just down the road from Point Loma and Sunset Cliffs.
La Jolla – If you’re looking for a quieter and more luxe stay, La Jolla, meaning “the jewel” in Spanish, is a good option. It’s located in North County, right next to UCSD, Birch Aquarium, and a short drive from Torrey Pines State Reserve. La Jolla accommodation is usually pricier, but the neighborhood features white beaches, stunning coastal views, and good brunch spots.
The main takeaway I wanted you to get out of reading this post is that San Diego is a place for every type of traveler. On your next trip, use these tips to navigate the city like a local and get the most out of what San Diego has to offer.
What would you add to this San Diego travel guide? Recommend your top tips of things to know before you go to San Diego.
Photo Credits: All photos are owned by Mimi McFadden ©The Atlas Heart. See Mimi if you would like to license them.