One of the first conferences I attended as a very young professional was in San Diego. After it was over, I took a couple of days off, a friend joined me and we had fun playing tourist for a few days. As well as I can remember, that was in 2002 and that was also the last time I spent any time in beautiful San Diego. Given the 16 year gap between trips, I very much treated my recent visit as if it were my first time. Really, since I forgot everything from my first visit it was more out of necessity than anything else, but it gave me a fantastic opportunity to re-explore the San Diego region with a fresh point of view. I knew I’d enjoy my time in this lovely Southern California city, but I didn’t realize just how much I would resonate with the city personally. I experienced a lot during my short stay, but these experiences more than any other were personal highlights of my trip to sunny San Diego.
Eating all the food
Food is always an important part of my travels, but I never imagined how central the culinary side would be during my time in San Diego. Many cities around the world have enjoyed a foodie renaissance in recent years, but San Diego may have had the most success attracting creative chefs, bakers and brewers to set up shop in the city. There’s just too much to enjoy on one trip, but there are a few highlights I think everyone should try. With Mexico just 17-miles away, naturally great Mexican food has been a hallmark of any trip to San Diego for a very long time. There are any number of great restaurants and hole in the wall eateries to enjoy a hearty meal, but one of my favorites was at restaurant ¡SALUD! in Barrio Logan. 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 local took me there and honestly, it really is one of the best in the city and probably the country.
For something a little different, be sure to stop by George’s at the Cove in La Jolla. This multi-level restaurant and bar complex offers a little bit of everything from an exceptional menu, unique cocktails and a view of the ocean that just won’t quit. I was there to enjoy the scenery, but also to meet expert mixologist Stephen Kurpinsky. He and the entire team at George’s have created a selection of special drinks dedicated to the many neighborhoods of San Diego. The resulting book – yes, book – and cocktail menu go beyond just superficially representing the city, mixologists also bring to life the unique personalities of each neighborhood. Barrio Logan with rum and Mezcal or the Little Italy with Prosecco and Apertivo Rinamato, each cocktail is featured in bespoke glassware that matches the neighborhood and the drink itself. Starting the evening here is an absolute must for any visitor, just make sure you’re in time to see one of the best sunsets in the world.
Kayaking around a marine reserve
The waters around La Jolla Cove are part of a protected marine reserve, which means that the variety of fish and mammals offer adventurous visitors a fun outdoors experience from SCUBA diving to kayaking. Joining a kayak tour with La Jolla Shores tour operator Everyday California, I spent the morning out and about, paddling into sea caves and keeping an eye out for wildlife. Thanks to those protections around La Jolla, paddlers often encounter birds and seals. Although I didn’t see more than a snoozing seal, it was a fun way to get out, enjoy some exercise and see a different side to La Jolla. I always love being out on the water and a special water-based tour introduced me to some beautiful sights I would never have been able to enjoy otherwise. Although it’s sea-kayaking, there were several folks on my tour who had never paddled before, so experience isn’t a prerequisite for what I think is a must-do activity in La Jolla.
The nation’s largest urban cultural park, Balboa has 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. 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.
Predictably named, North County is the northern region of San Diego County, long famous for the super-wealthy who call it home, but also the stunning beaches and coves that line the coast. Researching my trip before leaving home, I found many photo spots I wanted to visit in this area so I decided to make an afternoon of it, driving from one sleepy town to the next, capturing the laid-back beach culture of Southern California along the way. Torrey Pines, Moonlight State Beach and Swami’s Beach are just a few of the many communities and beaches that are fun to explore. The driving route is also incredibly scenic, making a day out exploring the North County hamlets something every visitor should experience.
Exploring La Jolla Cove
One of the most popular places to visit in the greater San Diego region, the beauty of La Jolla cove and beach can’t be denied, especially at sunset. One of the reasons has to do with the many seals who bask themselves on the nearby rocks. Although I was uncomfortable with how close some tourists were to the seals, it’s a remarkable opportunity to see these beautiful animals up close and personal. While you’re at seal rock, venture a little further up to visit Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave Store. The only sea cave with access from land, for a small fee you can venture down below to see this natural wonder for yourself. Walking along the promenade there are many other scenic overlooks and special spots to enjoy, including the Children’s Pool. The wealthy philanthropist who very much created the modern allure of La Jolla, Ellen Browning Scripps, paid for the breakwater that created the pool – designed as a place where kids could play and swim protected from crashing waves. It’s now home to a colony of harbor seals who have made it their own and which, thankfully, is closed off to the public for about half of the year. Next to it though I noticed a concrete set of stairs leading down to a small beach. While definitely not a secret – several tourists were there trying to capture shots with a small group of seals – I decided to investigate and found a great spot to watch the golden sunset. I ended up spending a couple of days in La Jolla and had plenty of time to walk its streets getting to know it as well as I could which is why, I think, it really does represent everything we want Southern California to be. A little glitzy, a little laid back and radiating with beauty, there’s no place quite like it and I know that I definitely fell under its spell.
One facet of the culinary side of San Diego that surprised me is the incredible beer scene. In fact, with more than 130 breweries, San Diego has quietly become the beer capital of America. It’s a beverage locals take very seriously and you can find local brews on tap at almost every restaurant in town. For the perfect introduction into San Diego’s brewery culture though, there’s nothing better than a Brew Hop Tour. Started by wife and husband team Summer and Larz, the couple decided to turn their passion of the beer industry into a fun and immersive tour Whether you’re a beer aficionado or just enjoy drinking a pint or two, the tours are tailored to your interests. Each tour is private and customized for you and your group, which means the best possible experience as you are driven around town in style. Feeling like a true VIP, the evening spent with Summer exploring the breweries around San Diego and learning more about this incredibly interesting industry was a highlight of my time in San Diego. More than just enjoying plenty of samples, it was the perfect crash course into everything that has made San Diego such an important beer city.