A local’s guide to San Diego

What’s almost better than traveling to every destination in the world? Hearing about them from the people who know and love them best. Check out these tips for seeing San Diego through a local's eyes.

Dancers from the historic San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, founded in 1945, relax outside their Casa del Prado studio and performance space in Balboa Park.
Photograph by Kris Davidson

National Geographic photographer KRIS DAVIDSON is a globe-trotting nomad. She’s called the Swedish Arctic, Texas, and New Orleans home, but keeps returning to San Diego. “Being here is like wearing your most comfortable old jeans on the third day of vacation—all is right with the world.”

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is Balboa Park. Aside from all of the museums and countless things to do and see—like the San Diego Zoo—the park is vast, peaceful. It’s just beautiful to stroll through with its varied gardens and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture.

Any time is the best time to visit my town because there is perfect weather pretty much year-round. Life is lived outdoors in San Diego. Even the little bit of Southern California “June Gloom”—morning fog and clouds—we get in late spring doesn’t keep anyone indoors.

The best views in my town are from the coastal lookouts at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Take the Beach Trail, which is relatively short, and yet, nothing short of magical. You get stunning views of the Pacific and the cliffs, plus steps leading down to the ocean for a refreshing dip.

Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs. You can watch local artisans—like potters, painters, metalsmiths, basket makers—at work in their studios and buy one-of-a-kind art and craft.

Famous faces such as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, actor-comedian Bill Murray, and professional golfer Phil Mickelson have homes in my town.

My town’s best museum is the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park. The upper mezzanine of the Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science exhibit always has rare books from the museum’s research library. One really old book recently on display had handwritten reference notes on mythical sea dragons, which I loved—very Harry Potter-ish.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my town, it’s spread out, but, within neighborhoods, biking is a great way to explore. You can find Lime, Mobike, and other dockless bike rentals parked all around the city.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my town is everywhere. The occasional palm tree decorated for Christmas in December is the only indicator of a seasonal shift. It truly is endless summer here, and many San Diegans own more swimsuits than underwear.

My town really knows how to celebrate Mexican culture. It’s not overt, more of an easy elegance that’s woven in. The edge of America, both by sea and land border, is beautiful and culturally textured in a way that defies words and is certainly far more relaxing than one might imagine.

You can tell if someone is from my town if they walk down the street barefoot, particularly close to the beach.

For a fancy night out, I head to Little Italy for a really nice dinner at either Craft and Commerce or Ironside. After that, it’s onto the Gaslamp Quarter for drinks at Fifth & Rose, the elegant cocktail bar at the Pendry hotel.

Just outside my town, you can visit the Bernardo Winery, Southern California’s oldest family owned and operated winery. You could spend the whole day. There’s a tasting room, shop, artists’ studios, and great coffee at the Manzanita Roasting Company and Coffeehouse.

One of the best places to watch the sunset is the rooftop pool and bar, called The Rooftop by STK, at Andaz San Diego in the Gaslamp Quarter. Relax on a couch near the fire pit and sip one of their signature cocktails as the sun goes down over the city skyline.

One of the best ways to feel like a kid again in my town is riding the 1910 Balboa Park Carousel. It has a two-level platform and all the different animal figures—such as horses, ostriches, zebras, pigs, and frogs—are the hand-carved originals. Sit on the outside row so you can try to grab one of the brass rings.

The best outdoor market in my town is the Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market. It’s on Saturdays year-round and it’s a great place to buy fresh, locally grown produce. For more ethnic foods and crafts, check out Fair@44 on Saturdays in City Heights. Also on Saturday, I really love going down to the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market to see what’s fresh. They have great chefs there preparing sandwiches and tacos from whatever the catch was that day.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, look at meetup websites. There are all sorts of groups you can join for hikes, kayaking, camping, beach volleyball…all sorts of activities and events. The beach is another a great place to meet new people and find out what’s happening. Locals are friendly and very easy going. Just go down to the beach and make friends.

My town’s signature festival is Comic-Con. You might not realize it, but Comic-Con was born in San Diego and the 50th anniversary convention is in 2019. Even if you’re not into superheroes, comics, or science fiction/fantasy, the costumes people wear are pretty amazing.

An experience embodying the spirit of my town is gathering around a fire on the beach at sunset. There’s this local business called Beach Fire Guy that will set up the fire and do all the work. It’s phenomenal. You will feel like a local.

National Geographic travels to Southern California to explore what makes San Diego such a unique city. City of Adventure: San Diego and other episodes are now available On Demand.

The dish that represents my city best is fish tacos made with locally caught fish. Try them any chance you get, anywhere you are because people in San Diego take a lot of pride in making a good fish taco. It is fun to see how different venues interpret the same dish. I love the fish tacos [batter dipped white fish filet topped with cabbage chiffonade, onion, and white cream sauce] from the Taco Tuesday food truck and I love anything—fish tacos included—at Ceviche House in Old Town.

Only in San Diego would a German engineer dig a tunnel to a sea cave [La Jolla’s Sunny Jim Cave] from his living room.