Planning a trip to San Diego and looking to do more than just visit the San Diego Zoo? Well, you’ve come to the right place! San Diego’s communities are all wander-worthy and reflect the rich diversity of this buzzing metropolitan area. This guide features my favorite San Diego neighborhoods to visit, and my goal is to give you all the information you need so that you can make the most of your time in SD and eat all the best foods! With the crazy amounts of charisma and diversity in each of the areas, you’re sure to find the perfect San Diego neighborhood that fits your travel style!
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WHY VISIT SAN DIEGO, CA?
There are so many reasons why you should visit San Diego. Where do I even start?
- Simply amazing weather all-year-round. With very few rainy days in the year, you can bet there will be decent to amazing weather during your visit. In the winter months, the weather ranges from the 40s (low) to mid-60s (high). Summers are wonderfully warm, with average highs in the mid-70s. You’ll get the occasional “June Gloom” (cloudy, overcast skies with cool temperatures during the late spring and early summer) but it’s nothing unbearable.
- Simply amazing beaches at every turn. You must hit up a beach at least once during your trip–there’s a perfect beach for every type of traveler! Black’s Beach is popular with nude sunbathers and surfers, while Pacific Beach is great for its youthful atmosphere. Mission Beach is a family favorite and Coronado Beach is perfect for swimmers that like easygoing, lapping waves. And that barely even scratches the surface!
- The beer culture is unmatched. Well, with the exception of Portland, OR. San Diego has got the craft brew lifestyle down. The craft beer experience is massive in this region, with more than 150 breweries in existence. There is even a signature style here, the West Coast-Style IPA! If you enjoy beer, don’t miss it.
- The food scene is unique and delightful. Among many other things, SD is known for its unique cross-border flavor, Cali-Baja fresh cuisine. Try a California burrito or fish tacos while you’re in town! Not interested in that? Don’t worry, there are many other restaurants that have mastered the rest of the cuisines out there.
- San Diego is filled to the brim with California history. San Diego is considered the birthplace of California (as the first Spanish settlement was established in 1769 in Old Town SD). Many historic buildings in Old Town San Diego have been preserved, and you can still tour the missions in the area today!
- It’s easy to find nightlife in San Diego. If you’re looking to party, drink, sing, or dance, you’re in the right place. You’ll always find the party at the Gaslamp Quarter, Pacific Beach, or Hillcrest.
- The amount of outdoor adventures you can partake in is endless. From hiking at Potato Chip Rock or Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve to kayaking at Mission Bay or La Jolla Sea Caves to boating on the San Diego Bay, there’s really something for everyone.
- The world-renowned zoo is in San Diego. Animals. Need I say more?
TRANSPORTATION: HOW TO GET TO SAN DIEGO, CA
There are a few different ways to get to San Diego, CA. All of them make traveling to San Diego pretty darn convenient. The transportation method you choose depends on your where you’re coming from and what your budget is.
Coming from out of state or internationally?
- Fly into San Diego International Airport (SAN). Flights may likely be a bit more inflated compared to flying into LAX, but once you land, you’ll be literally minutes away from Downtown San Diego.
- Fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Flights are usually cheaper flying into LAX than SAN since LAX is a larger airport. From LAX, simply rent a car and drive down to San Diego (120 miles).
Coming from Los Angeles?
- Drive – it’s about 120 miles from city center to city center (2 hours)
- Tip: Be sure to depart at a strategic time to avoid LA rush hour traffic! Aim for before 10am or after 8pm for the least amount of traffic. If you drive during rush hour, the trip could take upwards of about 4 hours
- Amtrak – operates trains from Los Angeles to San Diego hourly (2h 54m)
- Bus – like Greyhound, Megabus, etc. Cheapest option, best for budget travelers who don’t want to drive (3 hours)
- Fly – this is the priciest option and I would not recommend it over the above options (50 minutes)
Coming from somewhere else in CA but don’t want to drive?
- Fly – Either fly direct to SAN, or fly into LAX and drive 2 hours the rest of the way there.
- Amtrak operates trains from various cities in CA to San Diego. Take a peek at their site to see if there’s a stop/direct route near you.
- Bus – like Greyhound, Megabus, etc. Cheapest option, best for budget travelers who don’t want to drive.
TRANSPORTATION: HOW TO GET AROUND SAN DIEGO, CA
- Drive – Having a car to explore San Diego is crucial if you want to get out and explore past the downtown area. There are lots of freeways in SD and the sights you want to see may have some decent mileage between them. Not only will you get to your destination faster, but you’ll also be able to stow things in your trunk (such as surf/beach gear, picnicking supplies, hiking boots, etc.) Either come in your own car or rent one.
- Public Transportation – San Diego and its surrounding areas have affordable public transit systems that include trolleys, buses, trains, and shuttles. Find more about each of these transit systems here.
- Rideshare Apps – San Diego is serviced by both Uber and Lyft. Download your preferred app and easily request a ride to and from your destinations. (I like Lyft.)
10 BEST NEIGHBORHOODS TO VISIT IN SAN DIEGO, CA
This vibrant cultural neighborhood is one of a kind and a must-visit neighborhood in San Diego. In my opinion, it sits above the rest of the other Little Italy’s I’ve been to in the USA. San Diego’s Little Italy has so much going on, no matter what day it is or what time it is. This neighborhood is filled to the brim with a grand assortment of restaurants (both traditional and modern), art galleries, and a great Saturday farmer’s market.
What you’ll find here is a number of great Italian restaurants, bakeries, wine bars, and even boutique shopping. During dinner time, the neighborhood really comes alive and becomes the perfect spot for al fresco dining, taking a stroll, and even people watching. Some of my favorite eateries here include Barbusa, Civico 1845, and Queenstown Public House. For dessert, head to Pappalecco for authentic gelato and one of the best blueberry muffins ever made. Little Italy is also the site of ArtWalk, the largest art festival on the West Coast.
The Gaslamp Quarter is another one of those lively, must-see neighborhoods in San Diego. This 16-block Victorian neighborhood is a San Diego destination for dining, bar hopping, and pure entertainment. If you’re looking for fine dining, looking to meet up with friends, or want a night out on the town, Gaslamp is for you. Though the Gaslamp Quarter is classified as a historic district, the sheer number of entertainment and nightlife options here is as up to date as you can get.
Aside from the many restaurants located here, you’ll find a number of rooftop bars, pubs, clubs, art galleries, theaters, and music halls. Not only is it home to the San Diego Symphony, but it is also home to the San Diego Film Festival which takes place every fall. Looking for a rooftop bar option with stellar views? Visit the Altitude Sky Lounge. Looking to go dancing or clubbing? Head to Omnia Nightclub. And if you’re here in the morning or early afternoon, make sure to grab some coffee and bagel sandwiches at Spill The Beans!
Don’t miss out on the chance to eat at the Gaslamp District! Explore the best eats in the Gaslamp Quarter on a walking tour with an expert guide who’ll give you the rundown on the district’s popping restaurant and bar scene. On this 2.5-hour culinary walking tour, you’ll sample delicious dishes at several eateries, sip drinks, and learn about the rich history of the district (includes interesting stories about the early ‘women of the night’ and where they worked).
Tip: If you’re staying in the Gaslamp or Downtown area, make sure you check whether or not your hotel offers free parking. We stayed at The Bristol in the Gaslamp, and thought it was a beautiful little boutique hotel, they only offered valet parking at $39/night. Too steep for our liking. Public parking lots were around $35 for overnight parking, which was not much cheaper.
Over the last decade, North Park (situated north of Balboa Park) has really grown into the trendy, hipster neighborhood of San Diego. Here, you will find many eclectic art galleries, a great food and drink scene, and many laidback breweries. Head to 30th Street and University Avenue to experience the taste of North Park—you’ll be greeted with taquerias, sushi joints, ice cream shops, cafes, and many brunch spots. For beer lovers, North Park is home to Modern Times Brewery and a few other craft breweries. Aside from the food and brews, North Park is dotted with indie boutiques which are sure to pique your interest if you like shopping!
Looking for other things to do in North Park? A weekly farmers’ market takes place at North Park Way on Thursdays. Every second Saturday, the neighborhood also hosts an evening art walk where guests can visit over a dozen art galleries and enjoy outdoor entertainment.
Looking for more things to do in San Diego? Check out these tours from Get Your Guide.
Hillcrest is the heart of San Diego’s LGBTQ community. Rightfully so, Hillcrest is also the site of the city’s annual Pride parade! Packed to the brim with bars and nightlife, Hillcrest makes for a popular destination for the younger crowd. You’ll find a wide variety of restaurants and bars conveniently located along University Avenue. The surrounding streets are speckled with beautiful craftsman homes that make it worth a quick stroll.
The Hillcrest Farmers Market on Sundays is popular for fresh produce and a quick bite to eat. If you have the time to stop and grab a bite to eat, consider one of the many restaurants here. Seriously, there are so many different types of cuisines here! Check out some of my favorite options, including Common Stock, Kous Kous Moroccan Bistro, and Bahn Thai.
OLD TOWN SAN DIEGO
Old Town San Diego is a great place to stop and stroll around for a few hours. This area features acres of Mexican heritage, historical sites, colorful shops, eclectic restaurants, and more. It’s known for its historical buildings, as it features a train museum, the El Campo Cemetery (houses lots of historic gravesites from the 1800s), and the Whaley House (one of only two officially designated haunted houses in California). The Junípero Serra Museum in Old Town’s Presidio Park is also one of the most familiar landmarks in San Diego, recognized as the site where California began. Shopping and eating in Old Town is also a lot of fun! Don’t miss Old Town Marketplace, an open-air courtyard, home to a variety of carts and shops that sell handcrafted goods traditional to the Mexican culture.
Looking for food and history all bundled up into one stellar tour? Coming right up! Taste your way through Old Town San Diego during this historical tour with culinary samplings. Tequila, tacos, and tortillas included. What more could you ask for on vacation?
The dreamy town of Coronado is located on a nearby island comprised of beach hotels, resorts, and restaurants. Make the short two-mile journey over the iconic Coronado Bridge or take the ferry to get here–the beach is a must-see. You’ll be greeted by one of the best beaches in California, perfect for those who like calm waters and fine sands with speckles of gold in it! The main entertainment hub, which is located on Orange Avenue, is filled with shops and restaurants, as well as the famous Hotel Del Coronado.
If you’re in the area earlier in the day (which I recommend as parking tends to fill up by mid-morning on weekends), head over to The Henry for a casual sit-down brunch or grab some delicious coffee and pastries to enjoy on the beach.
Pacific Beach is one of the more lively, yet laid-back beach towns located within San Diego. Year-round, you’ll often find people surfing, relaxing, picnicking and enjoying the many shops, restaurants, and bars in the PB area. My favorite casual lunch spots include Leilani’s Cafe, Kono’s Surf Club Cafe, and Costa Brava.
In addition to all the shops and eateries in the area, Pacific Beach also features a nice little pier, which is a great place to enjoy a sunset. If you’re looking for things to do after dinner, consider staying in PB because there’s a buzzing nightlife scene here, particularly along Garnet Avenue. However, if you’re looking for a quieter beach with a more suburban feel, you should consider one of the other great beaches in San Diego, such as Ocean Beach or Mission Beach.
OCEAN BEACH / MISSION BEACH
Ocean Beach is known for its laidback hippie vibe and offers a few quaint boutique hotels as well as a good number of things to do. When you’re there, be sure to visit Newport Avenue Beach, it’s perhaps the most popular beach in Ocean Beach for surfers, photographers, and people just looking for a relaxing beach day. The north side of Ocean Beach, centered on Voltaire Avenue, offers a number of great local eateries, taverns, coffee shops, and other locally-owned shops for your perusing enjoyment. There is also the Ocean Beach Farmers Market, which occurs every Wednesday night. Last but not least, my favorite thing about Ocean Beach is Sunset Cliffs–home to a unique coastal environment featuring expansive ocean views, dramatic cliffs, and cave formations. You won’t find a better sunset spot than the one in this San Diego neighborhood!
Mission Beach has a few resort-style hotels and is most famous for Belmont Park and the rollercoaster at the beach.
Anytime I head to La Jolla, I’m immediately in a calmer and happier state. The weather is always great and the air is always fresh! La Jolla sits right along the coast, just north of Pacific Beach. Though only a few minutes away, the ambiance change will make you feel like you’re a world away. The amount of outdoor activity you can do here is endless— you can rent bikes and ride around the spectacular houses or along the coastline, relax at the beach, kayak through sea caves, hang out with the sea lions at La Jolla Cove, go whale watching, or even snorkel with whale sharks (in the late summer)!
Looking for a beer break from all the exploration? Head to The Public House La Jolla or Karl Strauss Brewery. If you like art, take some time to check out the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. If you’re in the mood for a hike, head to the nearby Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve— you won’t regret your time enjoying these untouched, coastal bluffs.
Normal Heights, wedged between University Heights and Kensington, is a great little neighborhood to visit if you’re looking for hip eateries, bars, and coffee shops. These three mid-city urban neighborhoods are great areas to visit if you’re looking for something quieter with a more down-to-earth vibe. Walk along Adams Avenue and you’ll find an assortment of locally-owned eateries, cafes, and boutique shops. For food and drink, I recommend Burnside, The Rabbit Hole, Lestat’s Coffee House, and Mariposa Ice Cream.
If you head slightly west to nearby University Heights, I’d highly recommend a pitstop beer tasting at Kairoa Brewing Company, a New Zealand inspired brewery offering unique beer flavors and super delicious eats (they feature seafood options, as well as your average brewpub food).
Looking for more things to do in San Diego? Check out these tours from Get Your Guide.
WHERE TO STAY IN SAN DIEGO, CA
Where To Stay in San Diego for First Time Visitors: Downtown San Diego
Downtown San Diego is great for first-timers simply because of its proximity to everything. Being minutes from the airport and with easy access to public transportation, you’ll get a great intro to SD by staying in this area.
The prime location puts you within a few blocks of the Gaslamp Quarter, home to some of the city’s best dining, shopping, and entertainment. A few blocks west of downtown is the Waterfront and Seaport Village. A few blocks northeast of downtown lies Balboa Park, where some of the best museums and the San Diego Zoo are located. Expect lots of skyline views and restaurants galore!
- For a more luxurious stay –
- The US Grant– a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel that was built by the son of President Ulysses S. Grant over 100 years ago. Work out at the hotel’s fitness center, dine in the hotel’s signature restaurant, or even relax with an in-room massage. The rooms look and feel so luxurious.
- For a moderately priced, stylish option –
- Kimpton Hotel Palomar San Diego – Boasting a rooftop pool and bar and an on-site restaurant, this luxury design hotel features stylish guest rooms with an on-site fitness center. Nightlife in San Diego’s vibrant Gaslamp District is a 1-minute walk away.
- Hotel Indigo San Diego – Gaslamp Quarter – This Gaslamp Quarter hotel features unique guest rooms with contemporary amenities. Rooms have hardwood floors and plush bedding. The hotel’s onsite restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner with stunning views of the city.
- For budget-conscious travelers –
- Staypineapple, Hotel Z, Gaslamp San Diego – Offers pet-friendly accommodations, all rooms come with a private bathroom with guest bathrobes and free toiletries. There’s also free use of bicycles!
Pro Tip: Be on the lookout for overnight parking fees when staying at a downtown hotel. Parking rates at even budget hotels can be high. If you’re traveling with young kids and need a bathtub, pay attention to the bathroom descriptions, as many guest rooms are shower-only.
Where To Stay in San Diego for Families: Mission Bay or Coronado
You will most likely be hitting the beach when you’re in San Diego. If you’re looking to be by the beach, check out Mission Bay or Coronado.
Mission Bay has sandy shores, picnic areas, a calm bay, water sport opportunities, and harbor cruises. It’s also close to SeaWorld.
- For a more luxurious stay –
- The Catamaran Resort & Spa – You can expect tropical landscaping and elegant decor. Every room has a patio or balcony, and with a pool, jacuzzi, and bike rentals, these amenities make this hotel a convenient and luxurious stay!
- For a moderately priced option –
- The Dana on Mission Bay – Located 0.6 mi away from SeaWorld San Diego and 1 mi away from San Diego’s Mission Beach. The hotel features a waterfront contemporary restaurant, 2 outdoor pools, 2 hot tubs and a pool bar.
- Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina – Affordable rooms with great views of the bay and the ocean. There is also a lagoon-style pool with a waterslide that is popular with families.
Coronado, consistently named one of the top beaches in the country, makes an ideal location for lodging, if you can afford to pay a little more. It’s great if you want proximity to downtown and Balboa Park (10-minute drive) without having to actually stay downtown (parking there can be really annoying).
If that sounds like you, there is really only one hotel you should be considering!
- Hotel del Coronado – A historic, full-service beachfront resort and a 4-star Curio Collection by Hilton property. Definitely the ideal hotel for a more luxurious stay with a charming Victorian-style atmosphere!
Where To Stay in San Diego for a Romantic Getaway: La Jolla
A stay in La Jolla grants you sweeping coastline views, stunning beaches, and a beautiful mountain backdrop. Not only will you have lots of shopping, beaching, swimming, and snorkeling opportunities, but you’ll get to enjoy some pretty amazing sunsets.
- La Valencia Hotel – A beautiful Mediterranean-style hotel that offers luxurious accommodations, lush tropical courtyards, Spanish mosaics, and ocean views.
- Lodge at Torrey Pines – Offers expansive public spaces with modern furniture and fireplaces, as well as a poolside cabana and restaurant with views of the coast.
ANNUAL/LOCAL EVENTS IN SAN DIEGO, CA
- San Diego Restaurant Week (January) – With more than 180 participating restaurants to choose from, you can enjoy some great discounted prix-fixe two-course lunches and three-course dinners.
- San Diego Museum Month (February) – offers 50% off admission at over 30 member museums throughout the month of February.
- San Diego Chinese New Year Food and Cultural Fair (February) – 2-day festival celebrating Chinese New Year; eat traditional food, shop for Chinese handicrafts, enjoy live entertainment.
- San Diego County Fair (May) – San Diego’s county fair is the largest fair in California, offering a variety of food, entertainment, exhibits, rides & games.
- Comic-Con (July) – held at the San Diego Convention Center in Downtown San Diego
- 4th of July – Big Bay Boom (July) – the largest fireworks display in the county.
- Del Mar Horse Racing (July to September) – Experience the magic of horse racing at the Del Mar Racetrack!
- Miramar Air Show (September) – This three-day event is the largest military air show in the U.S. Experience an amazing lineup of military and civilian performers, including the world-famous U.S. Navy Blue Angels.
- KAABOO San Diego (September) – A 3-day music festival event that combines rock-n-roll music and tastemaking events.
- Kids Free San Diego (October) – Kids will get free admission to attractions, meals on the house and tons of other great perks throughout the city.
- Beer Week (November) – A 10-day celebration of local, craft beer with multiple events happening across the county.
- Wonderfront (November) – 3-day music, culinary and arts festival held at the waterfront of downtown San Diego from Broadway Pier to the Embarcadero Parks.
- San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival (November) – Featuring dozens of culinary events celebrating wineries, craft beer and spirits, as well as local chefs and nationally recognized celebrities.
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST: SAN DIEGO, CA
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk!
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | If hiking, make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on having an adventurous day or two, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Walking Shoes | One pair of closed-toed shoes (walking shoes or running shoes) is always crucial for any trip. These are the ones that I’ve been traveling around with the longest; they are super light and breathable. I can even walk 15+ miles in them before getting sore feet!
- For women: Adidas Cloudfoam runners are classic-looking and ultra-comfortable.
- For men: ON Running Shoes have risen in popularity, and for good reason! They are comfortable as heck, my boyfriend loves his pair.
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the fall or wintertime, you’re going to need layers for this coastal weather, which tends to get pretty cool nights. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack. Even when I’m not hiking! It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Sunhat | Sun protection is key for any California destination.
- SPF 30+ Sunscreen (For Face) | COOLA sunscreen is my new go-to facial sunscreen. My face doesn’t feel sticky or goopy, which is so important for feeling comfortable when you’re out and about in hot or humid areas. I tend to not go below SPF 30 in hot and sunny climates.
- Sunscreen (For Body) | Applying sunscreen to your body is absolutely necessary for sunny destinations like the West Coast. Even if it’s overcast and cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike or bike ride but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need in hot climates. They are super useful especially if you plan on having beach days. This one is a great option.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
And there you have it! Hope you enjoyed reading through my top 10 favorite San Diego neighborhoods worth paying a visit to. What are your favorite neighborhoods to explore in SD?