When one thinks about visiting San Diego, the first images that spring to mind are the nearby beaches, laid-back culture and amazing Mexican cuisine. One normally doesn’t consider everything there is to do in the city’s downtown core, and with good reason. It’s probably been only in the last decade or so that, like so many other cities, the downtown cleaned itself up and once again began welcoming locals and tourists alike to experience the best of city living. San Diego isn’t your average city, it’s very much a place comprised of its many distinctive neighborhoods, which makes any visit not only fun, but unique depending on what you decide to see and do. I spent a couple of days exploring the San Diego region, including plenty of time downtown. From my experience, these activities are perfect for anyone who wants to better understand “America’s Finest City.”
Start The Day off Right
There are few things I enjoy more in life than a great breakfast, and in San Diego I was spoiled for choice. There were too many options for the 4 mornings I spent in and around the city, but the breakfast spreads I did enjoy convinced me that I need to return to try even more. Since my favorite food is the doughnut, I started my breakfast experience at the city’s famed shop, the Donut Bar. Started by a pastry chef with roots in luxury hotels, Donut Bar does one thing and one thing very well – the perfect doughnut. These aren’t your plain glazed or French crullers though, they’re as unique a baked good as I’ve ever seen. They’re also enormous and one is certainly more than enough for a hearty breakfast. With options like Nutella Overload, Mexican Hot Chocolate and Oh My Birthday Cake, I was overwhelmed by the choice but eventually settled on Homer’s Donut – a huge, fresh yeast donut topped with pink cake batter glaze and sprinkles. Although I recommend a nice run afterwards, their doughnuts are indeed amazing.
It doesn’t take long after arriving into San Diego to realize that the city is very much focused on its naval presence and has been for a very long time. Perhaps the best way to experience this culture is by visiting the USS Midway Museum. The longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century, Midway was finally decommissioned in 1992 and remained in storage until 2003 when it was donated to create the museum we enjoy today. There’s a lot to do at the Midway Museum from flight simulators, climb-in aircraft and amazing skyline views of San Diego. Next to the Midway is a small park that’s not to be missed – A National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military. Flanked by “Unconditional Surrender,” a giant statue of a WWII sailor kissing a nurse, the park is a tribute to the legendary actor and comedian who entertained military audiences around the world from WWII through to the Gulf War. It’s a wonderful tribute and a great place to enjoy a different perspective of the massive Midway.
Follow the Locals to Lunch
Located just 17 miles from the Mexican border, there has long been a near constant sharing of cultures, languages and food between San Diego and Mexico. Waves of immigration over the decades has created a food scene that has strong roots in traditional Mexican flavors and what may be at the heart of that experience, other than avocados, is the taco. When asked, San Diegans suddenly drop their laid back veneer when the topic of Mexican food comes up; everyone seems to have very strong opinions on the matter. Luckily, I seriously doubt many of them are wrong when it comes time to identify the best tacos in the city, the options are all fairly amazing. One though in particular stuck out in my mind and the experience of enjoying a robust lunch at the restaurant ¡SALUD! in Barrio Logan was one of the many culinary highlights of my trip. Housed in a heritage 1910 building, the restaurant is pure Southern California from the tattoo inspired murals to the pinstripe car hood on the wall. Barrio Logan has a long and colorful history making this delicious taco shop the perfect addition. With a traditional taco for any taste the highlights are the Birria, Al Pastor, Carnitas, Carne Asada and the Barrio, which is Carne guisado topped with frijol nopal & sour cream wrapped in a hand pressed flour tortilla. A true local took me here and honestly, it really is one of the best in the city and probably the country.
Explore Balboa Park
I almost didn’t make it to Balboa Park in San Diego. Just as I was about to park my car the unthinkable happened – it rained! An event that doesn’t happen all too often in this sunny California city, I somehow managed to get caught by surprise in what was a short, but torrential storm. Luckily it was just that, short, and after it passed I once again attempted to visit the massive Balboa Park, and boy am I glad that I did. The nation’s largest urban cultural park, it’s been a public space since before there was even much of a city. Its time in the proverbial sun though came during the 1915 Panama–California Exposition, which created much of the park’s current look and feel. This massive event lasted two years and completely transformed San Diego. It truly came of age during the fair, and at the heart of the experience was Balboa Park. Meant to be reminiscent of Spanish Colonial architecture, the buildings are actually a hodge-podge of design, but that doesn’t detract from their beauty even today. Weeks could be spent exploring the park’s many museums and public spaces, including the world famous San Diego Zoo, and while I only had a short amount of time to spend there, I’m glad I made the commitment to return and experience the park for myself.
One of my favorite museums at the park is the Museum of Man, showcasing a collection of eclectic but incredibly interesting exhibits. The real treat here though is the opportunity to climb to the top of the California Tower for incredible views of the park and San Diego. Only accessible if you join the special tower tour, the extra fee is worth it not just for the panoramic views, but for the interesting history shared by the guide on the way.
Dinner and a Tour
It’s cliché to say, but San Diego truly is a city of neighborhoods and one of those at the heart of the San Diego experience is the Gaslamp Quarter. What was truly the start of modern San Diego, this historic quarter is once again at the center of entertainment and nightlife in the city. So it makes sense that one of the most popular food tours in the city starts in this important neighborhood, the Brothels, Bites, and Booze Tour. Led by an energetic and incredibly knowledgeable guide, we spent several hours not only learning about the history of the city (brothels were oddly important) but about its amazing food and drink offerings. From newer restaurants offering creative twists on classics, to finding the perfect taco, the tour really is a great mix of everything that makes the San Diego food scene so amazing. It’s also a well-paced tour I think. Instead of racing around the Gaslamp Quarter trying to eat as much as possible, the tour takes a somewhat leisurely pace encouraging participants to enjoy their food, order a cocktail or two and just enjoy the evening. Don’t worry though, there’s more than enough food offered on the tour and I returned to my hotel room afterwards full but also satisfied that I had learned a lot about the early history of San Diego and how it became the lively city it is today.
To properly explore not only downtown San Diego, but the surrounding region takes many days, but these experiences offer I think the best first crash course into everything that makes this classic Southern California city so much fun to visit.