Look past Shamu, the pandas, and the legions of little Lego® people. The heart of San Diego — residing happily in Los Angeles’ shadow — is found not so much in its famous theme parks as in its casually urbane downtown and the lineup of funky, posh, and foodie-friendly beach communities that stretch north along the Pacific coast. Here's where to start:
Splurge: The Lodge at Torrey Pines – While the most famous inn in town may be the Victorian-style Hotel Del Coronado, this arts and crafts-style manse on the ocean bluffs just north of La Jolla is the sleeper favorite. Surrounded by pine trees, the hotel has a constant woodsy aroma wafting from its lobby fireplace — making it feel luxurious but never fussy. You’ll also find an excellent farm-to-table restaurant, a sumptuous spa, and the bucket-list Torrey Pines golf course. Doubles from $305.
Steal: Tower 23 – Hotels with direct access to the beach are surprisingly rare in San Diego, but this sleek boutique hotel sits right next to the sand. (It’s named for the nearby lifeguard tower.) The mod décor, with teak furniture and sun-washed hues, blends seamlessly into the huge ocean views, and joggers, dog walkers, and surfers bustle below its balconies. Doubles from $259.
Tip: Downtown San Diego hotels may not have the ocean breezes, but they do offer rooftop bars where you can soak up the views. The rooftop at the Andaz Hotel has a perennially hot nightclub scene, while Hotel Solamar does fresh fruit cocktails (like a strawberry basil and vodka) and Altitude Sky Lounge at Marriott Gaslamp looks into Petco Park — prime real estate when the Padres are playing.
Breakfast: The Cottage – This picket-fenced house in La Jolla has seemingly mastered the art of the indulgent breakfast that doesn’t feel so heavy that you need to go back to bed afterward. Try the nicely nuanced, lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberries, or the eggs La Jolla, filled with local tomatoes, mushrooms, and spinach.
Lunch: The Brigantine – For a classic San Diego fish taco, you can't go wrong with this elegantly old-school take: a fried filet topped with cabbage, salsa, and ranch. Go to the Del Mar location of this small local chain, and you’ll also get views of the racetrack and the frolicking pups on Dog Beach.
Dinner: Solace & the Moonlight Lounge – Chef Matt Gordon, who gained a cult following for his locavore-meets-comfort cuisine at North Park’s Urban Solace, has broadened his reach with this seafood and raw-bar version in Encinitas, near idyllic Moonlight Beach. Don’t miss the the sumac-rubbed sockeye, or the cheddar and chive biscuits with orange honey butter.
Dessert: Extraordinary Desserts – You won’t want to share the fruit-and-flower-adorned works of art (picture pastry-encased crème-brulée buns and salted caramel chocolate tarts) at this local institution.
Tip: The city’s commingling of biotech scientists and beach bums has created a now-thriving craft beer scene. To try the most established local brews — such as Lost Abbey, Ballast Point, Green Flash and Stone — order a flight of five beers at downtown’s Neighborhood, or visit the new Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens (complete with bocce court and movie nights) in Point Loma’s Liberty Station. To taste the work of up-and-coming brew masters, try the black IPA at Culture Brewing Co. in Solana Beach.
For Everyone: Balboa Park – It may be best known as the home of the San Diego Zoo, but Balboa also rivals any major park in the nation for its depth of museums. Highlights include the Mingei International Museum, which does colorful, crowd-pleasing exhibits (such as cool chairs through history), the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and the Timken Museum of Art, which houses both Old Masters and Russian icons.
If you’re in the park on a Sunday afternoon, visit the International Cottages, home to little houses representing different countries. They display art, tchotchkes, and maps — and usually offer food samples, such as Polish sausage or Austrian strudel, in exchange for a dollar donation.
For Couples: La Jolla Cove – This seaside enclave feels more like a European village than anywhere else in Southern California, with narrow streets of shops (such as longtime indie bookseller Warwick’s) and art galleries (at Legends, you can see the grown-up style paintings Dr. Seuss did on the sly while living in town). Stroll the path along the coastline, spy the resident sea lions on the huge rocks, or just sit on the grass and watch the sunset. Want to raise a glass as the sun sinks colorfully into the horizon? Go to the Ocean Terrace at nearby Georges at the Cove.
For Families: San Diego Zoo Safari Park – For fewer crowds — but world-class wildlife — check out this sister property of the zoo, about 45 minutes from downtown. Here, the habitats spread out over a valley, giving both animals and visitors more room to roam. One highlight: the daily Cheetah Run, where you can watch a resident feline sprint up to 70 mph across a lawn — and then sit for a meet-and-greet with visitors).
For the Adventurous: Stand-up paddleboarding – Surfers may make it look easy, but for a shorter learning curve, try stand-up paddleboarding, which has been described as “surfing yoga.” Mission Bay Aquatic Center will give you a lesson and tour on Mission Bay, while Everyday California rents stand-up paddleboards for exploring the marine sanctuary, where you can spot bat rays, rockfish, and (harmless) leopard sharks.
Tip: For year-round swimsuits and flip flops — as well as hoodies and wraps for chilly evenings — you’ll find hipster beach chic at Hansen’s on Highway 101 in Encinitas.
San Diego is fairly freeway-centric, but for a short stay, you can get around with a mix of cabs, downtown trolleys, and the Coaster commuter train. For quick jaunts, consider car2go, where you can pick up a two-seater smart car on a city street and then park it nearly anywhere in the generously wide “home area.” It costs $35 to register, and up to $14 an hour, with parking and insurance already included.
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