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The beach at La Jolla, one of the many great stops along Carolyn and Annie's San Diego route (Photograph by Brian Green, Alamy)

A Perfect Day in San Diego

When I know I’m going on a trip, I immediately start canvassing my network of friends, writers, and editors around the world for advice about what to see and do.

So when I knew I’d be heading to San Diego, I went straight to National Geographic Travel’s digital director, Carolyn Fox, who grew up a few miles north of the city, in Del Mar. After talking, we thought it might be fun to show two sides: her idea of a perfect day in San Diego County–starting in Encinitas and ending up in the city proper–and what I found along the way as a visitor armed with her recommendations.

So, roll down those car windows and get ready to dip your toes in the Pacific. This day is a natural beauty:

Carolyn’s Advice: “Start the day sipping coffee and savoring an oversize muffin at the original location of family-owned Pannikin Coffee & Tea in Encinitas. After breakfast, head south on Highway 101 to Cardiff State Beachpart of the ‘Riviera of the West’–to soak in the view. Go for a stroll if the tide allows, or just sit on the rocks and watch the surfers.”

Annie’s Take: Quiet, unspoiled Encinitas was my favorite find of the day. I loved exploring the main street shops and restaurants, some of which date back to when what’s now referred to as Historic Highway 101 was the main route through California. The San Diego of today has a flourishing craft beer scene. Head to the Bier Garden to sample some local ales (more than half of the beers on tap are produced by San Diego breweries) on the patio.

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Furniture and home decorations for sale at Solo (Photograph courtesy Solo)

Carolyn’s Advice: “A two-minute drive from Cardiff lands you in Solana Beach‘s Cedros Design District. Do not miss Solo, a warehouse-style boutique brimming with classy-yet-cool gifts–including home decor, jewelry, hip coffee table books, and other knickknacks.”

Annie’s Take: Eclectic and chock-full of one-of-a-kind home design, clothing, and art shops, Cedros Avenue is perfect for window shopping and striking up conversations with gregarious shop owners. But don’t put away your wallet just yet. I’m pretty sure Stephanie at Cedros Soles has magical powers; I wanted to buy everything I tried on (and that she recommended), and that never happens.

Carolyn’s Advice: “From Solana Beach, continue south to Del Mar, my hometown. Park by the beach and pause for a moment to take in the sights at Powerhouse Park. Then walk up 15th Street and pop into Annmarie D’Ercole and La D’Ercole. Proprietor Annmarie designs amazing jewelry, but also has a keen eye for clothes and gifts. After that, it’s on to the original Board & Brew, my favorite sandwich shop in San Diego, for lunch. I usually go for the Veggie Supreme, but the Turkado is also a favorite.”

Annie’s Take: I liked Board & Brew, but if you’re looking for a place to linger in Del Mar and are easily tempted by the promise of a view, try Jake’s Del Mar for fresh seafood and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the ocean.

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(Photograph courtesy The Grand Del Mar)

I booked a room at the Grand Del Mar so I could have easy access to the beach cities in the northern end of San Diego. Evocative of an Italian wine estate, the hotel flies surprisingly under the radar, tucked away in the rolling hills. I particularly enjoyed hiking through nearby Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve with naturalist Dylan Jones, who explained how the sleepy green space we were traversing was a bustling thoroughfare during the gold rush, “filled with stagecoaches and mules coming west.”

After introducing me to native shrublands called chaparral and coastal sage scrub, Jones noted that the region represented one of only five true Mediterranean climates in the world. “What they have in common is a deep ocean influence,” he said. To get a taste of the fruits of that climate, try swanky Addison, a tremendously beautiful space serving up French-meets-seasonal-SoCal cuisine prepared by chef William Bradley.

Carolyn’s Advice: “After lunch, hop in the car and take Interstate 5 south through La Jolla to Ocean Beach. Park your ride by the water and stroll through Ocean Beach Park all the way to the end of the Ocean Beach Pier. Breathe in the salty air. Peruse the shops on Newport Avenue. Enjoy the old-school beach-town vibe and eccentric cast of characters.”

Annie’s Take: En route to Ocean Beach, I stopped off in the town of Pacific Beach to check out one of its hippest new additions, beachfront restaurant JRDN.While its cool, contemporary design and surf-and-turf menu wowed, the mahimahi tacos (at O.B. Pier Fish Cafe) and amazing views I found in Ocean Beach were just as impressive.

Carolyn’s Advice: “Wind down your day in the colorful stores of Bazaar Del Mundo to snap up some authentic Spanish-style dish towels, art, and jewelry. Finally, ask to be seated outside at Casa Guadalajara, and order yourself a Millionaire Margarita (medium-size) and a healthy serving of some of my favorite Mexican food in the city.”

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Outdoor seating at Casa Guadalajara (Photograph courtesy Casa Guadalajara)

Annie’s Take: After I picked up some bold fabric with a decidedly Latin flair at the bazaar, Casa Guadalajara’s joyful patio was the perfect place to tuck into a bowl of creamy guacamole. But if you’re in the mood for something different, San Diego’s industrial/chic Little Italy is home to specialty food stores Mona Lisa and Assenti, where you can choose from unusual flavors like kale and chipotle pasta, and a buzzing coffee and panini shop, Pappalecco. Not far away, you’ll find one of San Diego’s newest hot spots, Juniper & Ivy (opened by Top Chef: All-Stars winner Richard Blais), which serves up edgy American cuisine.

Annie Fitzsimmons is on the beat exploring some of the sunniest places in America. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, on Twitter @anniefitz, and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

Tell us what’s on your perfect day in San Diego in the comments. Don’t worry, we love Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, too!