In spite of the thousands of pages on this site about how best to explore various parts around the planet, I think most people would be able to manage without a word of advice. I think that if magically transported into the middle of almost any city, the vast majority of us would be able to get around and be a good tourist. That being said, it is incredibly easy to make mistakes when we travel, especially when it comes to missing great experiences. I know I hate the feeling of learning about a fun place to visit or delicious meal to enjoy after a trip has ended. With that in mind, today I want to share a few ways tourists fail on their trips to San Diego. Incredible experiences that, if they miss, then they fail to understand what it really means to explore this fun and energetic city.
Don’t Hang Out Downtown
It’s not every city that has a truly interesting downtown core. Sure, most have one or two things to do, but many times the top sights and activities are located just out of that center of town. Recent years though have been kind to San Diego, and with a rekindling of interest in the downtown neighborhoods has come a lot of things to see, do and especially eat. Enjoying a great food culture, there are any number of places to enjoy breakfast in San Diego, but my pick is the Donut Bar. 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. After you’ve recovered from breakfast, there are a variety of ways to see the city, from hanging out at the U.S.S. Midway, to taking the Old Town Trolley for a city tour, or join a special food tour infusing the history and food of the Gaslamp neighborhood into a travel experience you’ll never forget.
Forget to Rent a Car
This is Southern California and while you can certainly get around the San Diego region without a car, it’s so much better with one. Some of the best sights, at least in my opinion, require a bit of a drive, from 10-30 minutes out of downtown. With more than 70 beaches, there’s no shortage of scenic coastal views if you’re the ocean-going type, or you can head up to Cabrillo National Monument to learn about the founding of the city. What shouldn’t be missed though is to spend at least a day or two hanging out in the ritzy community of La Jolla. Exploring La Jolla Cove, eating and drinking more than you should, and even kayaking are all popular activities, but there’s more to La Jolla than just that. As usual, one of my favorite experiences in La Jolla was just aimlessly wandering around the town, veering away from the main tourist thoroughfare and getting to know the community a little better. To aid me in my quest, I decided to try to find as many of the Murals of La Jolla as I could. Started in 2010 as a way to enhance the civic character of the community, city leaders commissioned public art projects on private property throughout La Jolla. With handy map in hand, I wandered the streets finding about half of them, getting to know La Jolla in the process.
Miss the Best Tacos
Sure, there are hundreds of new and tasty restaurants and cafes all around San Diego County, but the area is still best known for what is at the heart of the culinary experience – the rich Mexican influence. Located just a few miles from the border, Mexican cuisine has long been a staple of the San Diegan diet, and that’s just as true today. There are too many amazing restaurants where you can enjoy this tradition to name, but one that really impressed me is ¡SALUD! in Barrio Logan. 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.
Assume That Liberty Station is Only For Locals
I wasn’t so sure when I arrived to Liberty Station. At first glance it looked like a really nice shopping center and I was a little confused as to why so many friends recommended that I visit. Then I walked into the food hall and everything made sense. Located in Point Loma, the mixed-use facility sits on land that at one point had been a Naval training center. A surprisingly forward-thinking movement though on the part of many levels of government and passionate residents has created what truly is an amazing spot for locals and even visitors. At the center of interest for foodies through is Liberty Public Market. This 7-day a week market showcases the best of the region with local producers showcasing the best in prepared foods, coffees, beer and just about anything else you can imagine. It’s a fun place to stop and browse, but especially to enjoy lunch or even dinner.
Ignore the Breweries
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.
Only Spend an Hour in Balboa Park
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.