California’s second-largest city is the total travel package: unlimited outdoor adventure, jaw-dropping natural scenery, buzzing nightlife, and local-centric foods, shops, and traditions. Nowhere else in the world can you kayak into sea caves in the morning, see giant pandas in the afternoon, and party in a tiki-themed speakeasy at night. Need more inspiration? Here are seven solid reasons why now is the time to plan your San Diego escape.
San Diego’s flagship urban oasis is a destination unto itself. Aptly known as the city’s “cultural jewel,” Balboa Park harbors a treasure trove of must-see gems—such as the world-class San Diego Zoo, 17 museums (with a new Comic-Con International museum in the works), the 1910 Balboa Park Carousel, and the Instagram-famous Botanical Building, built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
While Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in North America (and nearly 400 acres bigger than New York City’s Central Park), the sprawling green space retains a neighborly, backyard vibe. People from across San Diego and around the world gravitate to the park to picnic, unwind, and explore. Meander through acres of lush and landscaped gardens. Take a deep dive into Balboa’s natural side by walking some of the park’s more than 65 miles of trails. Watch local artisans at work in their studios and shop for jewelry, pottery, and other hand-crafted originals at the Spanish Village Art Center.
Surf, Sand, and Sun
Sandy beaches, soaring cliffs, and a laid-back beach vibe make San Diego the postcard-perfect place to embrace California beach life. From Imperial Beach—the state’s southernmost beach located only five miles north of the Mexico border—north to Oceanside (home of the California Surf Museum), San Diego boasts 70 miles of coast. Dotting the shoreline is an eclectic collection of beachy enclaves and preserves, each with a distinctive personality and plenty of ways to play.
Swim with leopard sharks and explore sea caves on a kayak and snorkel tour in La Jolla Cove La Jolla Cove. Take the ridiculously scenic cliff-to-beach hike down to the Pacific at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Rent a skateboard or fat tire bike to cruise along the Mission Beach – Pacific Beach boardwalk. Splash in the waves with your best four-legged bud at Ocean Beach’s famous Dog Beach. Watch the daredevil cliff jumpers at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Explore tidepools teeming with marine life at Cabrillo National Monument. Stay and play at The Del—the iconic Hotel del Coronado—a luxurious, beachfront National Historic Landmark celebrating 130 years in 2018. End a perfect day with a sunset horseback ride along Imperial Beach or by roasting marshmallows over a fire on the sand at Ocean Beach.
Old-world charm meets cutting-edge cuisine in foodie-favorite Little Italy, located just east of the North Embarcadero waterfront. Traditionally home to San Diego’s Italian-American fishing families, the bustling neighborhood spans 48 blocks and boasts the city’s highest concentration of celebrity-chef eateries. The restaurant lineup on Kettner Boulevard (dubbed Top Chef Alley) alone includes Juniper & Ivy and The Crack Shack from Top Chef star Richard Blais, and Herb & Wood and Herb and Eatery from Food Network star Brian Malarkey.
Soak up Little Italy’s tantalizing aromas at the new Little Italy Food Hall. Conveniently and symbolically situated next to the neighborhood’s cultural heart—the cobblestone and car-free Piazza della Famiglia plaza—the hip and humming emporium features six locally sourced food stations, pop-up cooking demos, and local craft brews. Shop locally at cozy shops like Rosamariposa and at the colossal Mercato, Little Italy’s six-block-long Saturday farmer’s market. Stick around for dinner at Craft & Commerce followed by drinks at False Idol (reservations recommended), the restaurant’s wildly fun tiki bar speakeasy.
Craft Brew Scene
With more than 150 breweries and a reputation for boundary-breaking brews, San Diego more than lives up to its hoppy hype as “The Craft Beer Capital of America.” The region’s artisan brewers produce uniquely San Diegan suds like The Thief, Societe Brewing Company’s 2018 World Beer Cup award-winning ale blended with homegrown Grenache blanc grapes.
Launch a tasting tour in North Park’s 30th Street craft beer corridor, chockablock with local beer-centric bars and restaurants, and lively tasting rooms—including the new, hard cider member of the brew crew: Bivouac Ciderworks. Find your way to more pours using the interactive map on the San Diego Beer Guild’s SD Beer App. Choose from 40 craft beers on tap—and try your hand at bocce—at the buzzing Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Liberty Station. Meet local brewmasters and sample craft-friendly foods, new releases, and dozens of different brews at November’s annual 10-day San Diego Beer Week.
Gaslamp Quarter Nightlife
When the sun goes down the party heats up in the historic Gaslamp Quarter, epicenter of San Diego’s non-stop nightlife scene. With more than 50 bars, 10 nightclubs, and 180 restaurants packed into 16 and a half blocks, the humming Gaslamp lights up the night with music, dancing, dining, and drinks to match any mood. As a bonus, the downtown district is adjacent to Petco Park—home of Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres—making easy to catch dinner or drinks before or after a game.
Among the Gaslamp’s dizzying array of after-dark venues are San Diego originals like the underground Vin De Syrah Spirit & Wine Parlor, delightfully divey Star Bar, and kitschy Trailer Park After Dark. Ease into the evening with an Easy Breezy (vodka, green chartreuse, fresh lime, mango puree, and pineapple) or another craft cocktail at The Nolen, a sophisticated, open-air rooftop lounge atop a sleek high-rise. Fridays and Saturdays, join a VIP-style Club Crawl to hit the dance floor at up to four first-rate Gaslamp clubs, such as Analog, Bassmnt, F6ix, OMNIA, and Parq. Keep the party going in the nearby East Village neighborhood, home to a variety of whimsical watering holes such as the beachy Fairweather Bar on the rooftop of Rare Form restaurant and delicatessen (overlooking Petco Park) and You and Yours Distilling Co., a must-savor spot for a craft cocktail connoisseurs.
Binational Culture & Cuisine
The art, cultures, and foods of Southern California and Mexico blend seamlessly in San Diego, producing a distinctive binational style. Ride the Trolley blue line to San Ysidro and walk across the border into Tijuana, Mexico for an easy, two-nation day trip. Back in San Diego, savor the flavors of the city’s cross-border connection through its signature Cali-Baja cuisine. The tantalizing fusion of Californian-Mexican-Mediterranean-Asian culinary influences and ocean- and farm-fresh ingredients can be experienced seemingly everywhere—from Balboa Park’s weekend food trucks to La Jolla’s fine-dining Georges at the Cove, fresh-casual Galaxy Taco, and sun-splashed Puesto.
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.
Take a deeper dive into San Diego’s binational identity in Barrio Logan, the city’s Mexican-American heart and a vibrant arts hub. Start your tour at National Historic Landmark Chicano Park, whose concrete walls—pillars of the Coronado Bridge—I-5 junction hovering above—display the world’s largest collection of Mexican-American, or Chicano, outdoor murals. The open-air gallery is a visual walk through Mexican-American history. More than 80 vibrant murals depict diverse themes and faces from across the millennia, such as Aztec mythology, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Pancho Villa. Explore more Chicano art and culture on the free monthly Barrio Art Crawl and at The La Vuelta Car Cruise, the parade of bouncing, retro lowriders rolling down Logan Ave. on alternating Wednesday nights, late April to early August.
Performing Arts in the Park
Live theater, dance, and music take center stage in Balboa Park. Among the park’s more than 10 permanent performance spaces is Spreckels Organ Pavilion, built in 1914 and home to the world’s largest outdoor organ (5,017 pipes in 80 ranks). Catch the free weekly show Sunday at 2 p.m. Watch the wildly entertaining buskers—such as acoustic musicians, balloon artists, magicians, and street gymnasts—who perform along the El Prado walkway and at other designated entertainer sites in the park.
The shining star of Balboa Park’s performing arts lineup is The Old Globe, San Diego’s Tony Award-winning regional theater. Originally built for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, The Globe features three stages and 15 yearly productions, and is a must-add to any theater-goer’s bucket list. Check for upcoming shows, which range from classic Shakespeare to world-premieres, such as the 2018 The Heart of Rock & Roll new musical inspired by the songs of Huey Lewis and the News. Craving more world-class theater? Head 15 miles north of the park to La Jolla and the UC San Diego campus, home of the legendary La Jolla Playhouse. Founded by actors Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrar in 1947, the playhouse is a breeding ground for Broadway-bound productions, including current hit musical Come From Away.
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