When my husband asked if I wanted to tag along for a conference trip to San Diego, I didn’t hesitate for a second! I’ve visited a few times and San Diego has always been an enjoyable time. My previous trips typically involved spending the majority of my time on Coronado Island with a venture or two into the Gaslamp Quarter. This time, I resolved to venture out and explore other parts of this lovely city, skipping some of the typical touristy sites (been there, done that).
How to Get to & Around San Diego
The San Diego airport isn’t far from downtown (about 3.5 miles). If you are planning to see several different areas around town, I advise renting a car. There is public transportation, but my research reveals it’s pretty marginal. You don’t need a car to navigate around the Gaslamp Quarter, but you will to get anywhere else. If you have a budget, take into consideration that parking in popular areas can be pricey. For instance, our hotel wanted to charge $30 per night to park the car. I found a garage allowing overnight parking about a half mile away that was only $15 a day (no in & out, so I had to be a bit strategic).
Helpful Tip: You can take a ferry from the Gaslamp Quarter to Coronado Island.
Another option worth mentioning is the California Train. This can be a great, cost effective way to get zipped from city to city in California (and a bit beyond). If you are doing a tour of California, but don’t want to drive or fly to each city, the train can be a wonderful option. It does not, however, offer transport within each city for sightseeing.
Where to Stay
Well, this really depends on your itinerary. I was surprised on how quickly I could get from the Gaslamp to places like Del Mar, La Jolla, and Coronado Island. So having our base in this area didn’t seem inconvenient at all. La Jolla is a lovely area, as well as Coronado Island (a favorite of mine), Pacific Beach, and Del Mar (note this list is not meant to be exhaustive). And I say all this assuming you have a set of wheels to get you around.
I arrived early Saturday morning and spent a good portion of the day exploring the Gaslamp Quarter. Our hotel was located here since the conference was held at the convention center. This area of San Diego always seems to buzzing with people, day and night. In the past, I have usually been here during the evening, so I was curious what it had to offer during the day. The answer? The same. Lots of places to eat and/or grab a drink. Not much else. Just a few shops scattered around. In my honest opinion, if you are interested in shopping, particularly boutique shopping, this is NOT the place to go. But it is quaint with a lot of lovely buildings and certainly worth strolling around! Not to mention, some great restaurants & bars.
In the late afternoon, we headed to Balboa Park (we walked there from the Gaslamp Quarter). I had no idea how large this area was! It’s full of lovely buildings that house various museums, gardens, fountains, and, of course, the famous San Diego Zoo. If you want to visit every part of this park, you’ll need a few days to take it all in. The weather was just so gorgeous, we just couldn’t be convinced we needed to visit any of the museums or anything that required us being indoors. A friend opted to visit the zoo and was disappointed to find many of the animals were not in their exhibits, including the polar bears. We simply enjoyed walking around and people watching (and running here in the mornings).
Helpful Tip: Since this zoo’s entrance fee is nothing to scoff at ($50 per adult), I’d advise checking ahead to see what exhibits are closed, etc. If you are super eager to visit, it would definitely be worth your time to see what kind of discounted tickets are available ahead of time. If you are also interested in visiting Sea World, there may be some packages available to help save you money.
The next day I headed to meet some friends on Coronado Island. I mentioned before you can take a ferry, but since I actually prefer the non-port side of the island, I chose to drive. I suggest you visit this part of the island as well! Put the (iconic) Hotel Del Coronado into your GPS and look for parking. There are paid lots scattered around (don’t park at the hotel unless you don’t care how much you pay), including Walgreen’s and Von’s. But you might luck out (like I did) and score free street parking! Pay attention to any signs on the street to ensure you don’t need a permit to park there and/or it’s not street cleaning day.
If you’ve never stepped inside the Hotel Del Coronado Lobby, definitely do so. It’s really lovely and worth a look. Don’t feel silly; they are used to people coming and going nonstop. No one will shoo you away. You can also enjoy any of the restaurants on the property, as well as the beach (a bit pricey, of course). As I mentioned, the beach is really nice, so I strongly suggest taking some time to enjoy it. If you are facing the ocean and look to the land mass across the water, on your left, you will be looking at Mexico (Tijuana)! A local shared this with me as I strolled along the beach walkway.
If you’ve had your fill of surf and sand, head out to explore the lovely downtown. Here, you will find not only restaurants and cafés, but you will also find some really cute locally owned boutique shops. I never leave without a bag in hand! The local theatre is known for putting on some great shows, so if you will be in the area, consider it. We went a few years back and were really impressed by how wonderful the performance was.
Stay: The Hotel Del Coronado is beautiful and right on the beach (which is groomed regularly), but it isn’t at everyone’s price point. If not, there are a number of other options, including a lovely B&B we enjoyed a few years back, the 1906 Lodge.
Torrey Pines/Del Mar
I briefly visited this area several years ago and just remembered I wanted to come back. What a gorgeous area! We started the day with a visit to the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. There are several hikes of varying levels to enjoy. We ended up parking near the beach (we paid $10), but you can drive up to the Visitor’s Center and park in the lot there. They do offer some free guided hikes, so be sure to visit their website for times if you are interested. As far as we could tell, there were several trails with wonderful views. We ended up walking from the beach parking lot up to the Visitor’s Center and then on to the Beach Trail. It’s definitely not the longest or most difficult trails I have done, but it certainly delivered the gorgeous views! I just couldn’t stop taking pictures! Once on the beach, we continued our walk along the shoreline back to our car. If you park at the lot by the Visitor’s Center, returning via the Beach Trail is a bit steep and could a bit difficult for those not steady on their feet or out of shape. This place was certainly worth the trip and if I lived here, I could see myself visiting on a regular basis.
We spent the remainder of our afternoon wandering around Del Mar. They have a nice downtown with various shops and restaurants, but even better is its stunning coastline. Their are pathways along the cliffs (above the beach) to enjoy a stroll and benches to just sit and take it all in. You can, of course, actually walk on the beach or go for a swim. You will often see surfers here, as well.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
I don’t know how I have visited San Diego so many times and somehow hadn’t even heard of this glorious place! I mean, seriously?!? I am quite certain this place is lovely during the day, but when the light starts to change, it transforms these cliffs into an almost magical place. I honestly thought it was stunning. This place is a MUST! Plan to arrive at least an hour before sunset, not only to secure a (free) parking spot, but also to fully appreciate how everything changes as the light changes. Bring a jacket (as it can be cold) and plenty of room on your memory card. I really enjoyed walking along the cliffs, taking it all in as the sun began to set. People watching is prime here, including the many surfers who climb down the rocks with their boards to catch some waves. Unfortunately for me, the clouds began to roll in thick as the sun began its descent and the actual sunset was fairly anticlimactic. Even so, it was still amazing and you shouldn’t miss this!
I feel like I am on repeat here, but again a beautiful area worth a visit. We found a (free) parking spot near La Jolla Cove. After talking to many folks who have visited this area before, I got the impression the sea lions were only located on Children’s Beach. However, there were plenty lazing about La Jolla Cove the day we went (and no one regulating the crowd-please be responsible and observe these wild animals from a safe distance). We saw a handful of people snorkeling here and wished we had wet suits and snorkel gear to join the fun! If you keep walking, you will notice Children’s Beach is not far. We saw many sea lions resting on the beach or playing in the water there, but the beach is cordoned off, so you cannot get too close. There were a few small beach areas as we kept walking along the paved path, and one could climb down to get closer to the water. If you are really looking to have a day on the beach, check out La Jolla Shores. It’s a tad over 2 miles from La Jolla Cove. This beach is known as having the most gentle waves of any of the San Diego Beaches and it has lifeguards, making it great for young children. And since it’s about a mile long, you may find a little room to spread out, though it can still get crowded.
In search of lunch, we spent some time exploring the downtown area. Be sure to keep to the side near La Jolla Cove. If you venture further into town, you will run into hardware and cabinetry stores. If you’re interested in shopping clothing and such, stick to the north side (i.e. Herschel/Silverado and Wall/Girard Streets). There are several boutiques and some chain stores, such as Lulu Lemon. You will also find some great restaurants, coffee shops, and cafés. La Jolla certainly impressed us and we will be back.
Overall, this trip left us loving San Diego even more than before. I am really glad we ventured out of our usual spots; we were missing out on so much! I think when you live close enough to visit a place frequently, you take it for granted. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and visit the same place over and over. But it’s amazing what you can discover when you step out of the old familiar! I am really looking forward to our next California adventure. How about you? Do you have a favorite spot you’ve discovered in San Diego?