I have not been to San Diego (La Jolla to be exact) since I was 13 years old when my family and I visited distant cousins. The trip was memorable because it was the first time I fell in love with California. I vowed one day that I’d move to the best coast and be in warm sunshine all year round. Fast forward a couple decades, I ended up in San Francisco with no real summers (or winters) so I’d say I’m at least headed in the right direction.
I frequent LA often but never quite make it down to San Diego so when a good friend of mine from the East Coast was looking to have a getaway, I agreed to visit San Diego with my friend. San Diego has a lot to offer. It has a mix of old and new world charm.
11:00 AM We arrived in sunny San Diego and made the 15 minute drive to downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter to check into our hotel. The Gaslamp Quarter is a historical neighborhood that comprises up to 16 ½ blocks. When looking for hotels, I wanted to stay in the Gaslamp Quarter so we can easily cab or walk to restaurants and bars. Hotels range from the W, Westin, Bristol Hotel to Club Quarters so no matter the budget, you’ll find something to your liking all within a few block radius.
1:00 PM Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather, we drove to the Cove in La Jolla. This area is the crown jewel of what makes San Diego so memorable: beautiful beaches, palm trees, and turquoise water. A corner table at George’s is what we were after but the wait was a bit too long so we put our names down and went to a wine bar next door. Within an hour, we were seated at George’s gorgeous deck looking right over La Jolla Cove. Their menu is extensive and the ingredients are well-sourced. It was a really nice place to catch up with my friend while sipping champagne and soaking in the late afternoon sun.
7:00 PM After a quick catnap, we headed to Andaz Hotel’s Rooftop 600 for a pre-dinner cocktail and to see the sunset. Unfortunately, the clouds had rolled in but we kept warm by the hearty fires sprouting from a nest of glass rocks in large, cement pits. Afterwards, we walked down to 5th avenue in search of dinner. There is a plethora of choices when it comes to cuisine but I recommend finding a place to dine al fresco because people watching is always entertaining.
9:00 PM After dinner, we walked down the street to continue the night. People in San Diego are really friendly and the drivers, baristas and servers all know the area like the back of their hand. Among the list of bars they suggested was an Alice in Wonderland-esque hideaway called Vin De Syrah. Inside, you’ll find mad hatters, looking glass and tea parties all complete with cocktails. They had a great DJ and soon, the place was a whirlwind of gleeful patrons. There are plenty of places to go out in Gaslamp, everything from jazz lounges like Prohibition, to whisky joints, and even the creme de la creme of touristy Coyote Ugly. Don’t worry, whatever you choose, no judgement here. Just make sure you end your night in one of those blinged out pedicabs. You can thank me later.
10:00 AM No visit to San Diego is complete without a trip to the beach. Luckily, with so many choices, our only dilemma was to figure out which one to start out at. We first decided to go back to La Jolla Cove and see the sea otters. I’m now accustomed to Northern California, where sea otters usually lay by Pier 39 and definitely do not interact with humans. La Jolla Cove, however, is a different story. Sea otters at the Cove are clearly used to the attention as they frolic all over the rocks and sand. Some even played in the water with you as they catch waves. It makes for quite a sight.
After, we ended up a little bit south in Pacific Beach (Coronado Beach is also a great option.) The boardwalk is filled with kitschy shops and great food options. From street tacos to fancy ice cream cookie sandwiches (hello, The Baked Bear!), one can be sure not to go hungry or get bored.
2:00 PM Time always flies by when I’m laying on a beach. Before we knew it, the afternoon sun was getting a bit too strong. We had booked a sunset sailing trip. We quickly realized that between all the surfing and sanding, we have not eaten lunch. A good friend of mine recommended Oscar’s Mexican Seafood. It sounded like the perfect place for a pre-sail meal. We stumbled upon a Food Network crew in the midst of filming so we got to eat while watching a make-shift behind the scenes glimpse into food journalism. Not too shabby! Oscar’s is great for baja style tacos, tortas and ceviche. Their food is flavorful, fresh, and you have your pick of homemade sauces. Top it off with their agua fresca du jour and you’ve got yourself a perfect meal or snack.
5:00 PM After reading many reviews, Sail San Diego seemed to have the best reputation so we went with that. It leaves from Shelter Island and the catamaran caps at 6 people. If you’re lucky, you may even get the boat to yourself. In our case, we ended up with a couple celebrating their anniversary. The couple sky-dived for the first time earlier that day so clearly, this was a downgrade in adventure. Nevertheless, our cheery captain set sail and we were off. I voiced my disappointment of the graying skies above but he quickly promised that once we were out of the bay and into the ocean, we’d get our perfect sunset. Sure enough, the clouds parted and the skies were blue again. Our guide was great. He was so knowledgeable and passionate about sailing. He had us rolling with laughter from his personal anecdotes. As a bonus, he also had plenty of refreshments and blankets on hand. Sailing is a beautiful way to learn about the history of San Diego as well as tour the surroundings.
9:00 PM After the sunset cruise and quickly freshening up, we checked out a different part of the Gaslamp Quarter and settled on dinner at Ocean Pacific Grille. The place was recently opened with high raves about its American/Filipino fusion cuisine. Located in a slightly “tamer” but trendier part of town, OPG’s decor was beautiful and the servers were friendly. They’re conveniently located near popular joints such as Altitude and Neighborhood. OPG had excellent seafood and steak choices. It was definitely one of my favorite meals in recent memory. However, this isn’t a Yelp review, so I’ll move on.
I recently read an article about the top bars in the U.S. One of them (the only one) was based in San Diego, CA. Noble Experiment’s speakeasy style and unique cocktails earned it a place on this coveted list. After visiting the speakeasy, I understood why. As a former New Yorker who is used to secret locations and vague messages via encrypted phone numbers to get into the hottest new spot, I typically find it annoying rather than an exciting challenge. However, when in Rome or San Diego… I texted them the previous day and received a vague “we are full” response with contradicting messages that we could walk in (how would we know where to find them?) but they were a small space so most likely we wouldn’t be able to get in. Nevertheless, when there’s a will, there’s a way. We found out through our new friends that Noble Experiment is located in a popular eatery and watering hole (one we’d been wanting to check out anyways) called Neighborhood. Behind a fake wall of kegs, you’ll gain entry to one of America’s most notable bars. We managed to score seats at the bar, our backs to the wall of brass skulls, illuminated by gold light. Beautiful calligraphy spelled out the house special cocktails. With names like “Mechanical Bull”, “A Call to Arms”, and “Blunderbuss”, it is no wonder turnover is low because the cocktails will make you stay.
9:00 AM After a “leisurely” day spent at the beach and sea, we still had a ton of sightseeing to do. One thing I’ve always wanted to see was the San Diego Zoo. It’s by far the largest and most well-known zoo with everything from koala and panda bears to kangaroos and hippopotamuses. The set up is designed well with different “lands” reflective of the different regions where the animals actually reside. I found the zoo to be huge but not overwhelming. I loved their array of animals. They even had a skytram (and many free buses) to take you across the park. For those afraid of heights, beware.
12:00 PM After the zoo, we mosied over to Balboa Park. It’s a big public park with museums (some free, others charge a nominal fee), gardens and a few cafes. In the interest of time (and the beautiful weather), we opted to stay outside as much as possible. We rented bikes from a very affordable shop within the Spanish Village Center. We cruised all around the park in just a few hours. The buildings bring you back to Europe. They were beautiful, intricate buildings, trembling with so much history. One of my favorites was the rose garden and an open amphitheater for summer concerts and performances. We were able to witness some skateboarders filming something way cooler than I’m able to describe adequately. After returning our bikes, we ended our Balboa Park Tour at the Spanish Village Center. What a place! The structure’s foundation had big colorful tiles and topped with twinkling lights. This place is worth checking out an event or two, or having an afternoon cerveza.
2:00 PM Mixing the old with the new-ish, we decided to head over to Old Town San Diego. Having been properly warned it’s a blast to the past, we were not lead astray. From the clothing to the decor, if not for the modern houses in the distance, I could have sworn I walked into the 1800s. Old Town San Diego is considered the “birthplace” of California and since 1848 when Mexico ceded California to the U.S., it remained a steady landmark. In 1968, Old Town State Historic Park was established by the State of California Department of Parks and Recreations to preserve the heritage that makes San Diego unique. Now this place alone can take more than half a day for the history buffs so bear that in mind when planning your trip.
4:00 PM The afternoon sun was starting to get ready for its descent and we still had a lot of ground to cover. We took a drive around Mission Bay Park, often thought of as the epitome of San Diego. It’s the home to Sea World and many visitors and residents flock to the bay to picnic and relax. We stopped near Ocean Beach to catch some happy hour and the sunset. Ocean Beach is very similar to Pacific Beach, but it’s more of a surfer haven. There are so many enticing places to eat, drink and shop but we settled (or lucked out, I should say) on a place called Wonderland Ocean Pub. Located on top of another great restaurant, Wonderland has all the makings of a perfect happy hour: live music, a bar that runs the length of the restaurant opening up into the glistening ocean and sunset, and a happy hour that’s easy on the wallet. With the late sunset, we were able to enjoy plenty and catch the actual sunset on the end of the pier.
Overall, San Diego is a versatile haven great for friends, couples, and families. As a newly minted Californian, I have so much appreciation for the history that stems from San Diego. Like its inhabitants, San Diego is a melting pot of food, culture, and activities that can be customized to anything you want in a vacation…sunshine included.
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Author: Lianne Zhang
Featured Photo: Rinzi Ruiz from Flickr