Top 10 Things to See and Do in and Around San Diego

San Diego is a hidden gem in plain sight.  I was around 10 years old the last time I visited, so my knowledge was limited to the zoo and whale watching at best.  I have fond memories of these activities as a young traveler but had no idea of the wealth the city has to offer.  After returning as an adult, three things in particular stood out to me as to why San Diego is a great destination to visit – 1) the proximity and ease of getting to and from the airport, 2) near-perfect weather with highs in the 70s and lows in the 60s YEAR-ROUND and 3) the sheer volume and variety of things to see and do in the city and surrounding area.  And while this is most certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some of my top 10 favorites from my most recent trip.  If you have any others to add to the list please comment below, I plan on going back again soon.  :)

1. Coronado Island
You can’t miss the impressive bridge that sweeps over the water to connect Coronado Island with Downtown, and whether you arrive by car or ferry you’re definitely in for a treat.  This adorable island community with its charming turn-of-the-century houses and yards that overflow with brightly colored flowers, succulents and other plants is ripe for exploring on foot or by renting a bike.  Visit the Coronado Ferry Landing, which offers a variety of shopping and dining options as well as great waterfront views of the city skyline.  Another recommended spot for a casual lunch is the European-style café Tartine, serving delicious grilled panini sandwiches, salads and bakery treats. The jewel of the island is the historic Hotel del Coronado.  Built in 1888, this beachfront resort oozes with retro glamour and served as a location for the 1958 movie Some Like it Hot starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  The iconic red and white structure also anchors boardwalk along one of Coronado Island’s best beaches – Central Beach, a beautiful soft sand beach that makes for the perfect place to soak up the sun.

2. Balboa Park
Exploring Balboa Park is like a treasure trove of surprises just waiting to be surprised.  Dating back to 1868, the 1,200 acre cultural and recreational space was the site of two World’s Fairs in 1915 and 1935, which left a lasting mark on the park today.  Its home to more than a dozen AMAZING museums as well as a variety of gardens, pavilions and performance spaces right in the heart of Downtown San Diego.  Take a ride on the vintage carousel or miniature train, browse the beautiful work at the Spanish Art Village or spend the day visiting the world-class San Diego Zoo.  There truly is something for everyone at Balboa Park.

3. San Diego Zoo
Speaking of the zoo, San Diego’s is second to none.  This iconic destination spans 100 acres and is home to almost every animal under the sun (more than 3,700 animals from 668 species and subspecies to be exact).  The San Diego Zoo is well organized and easy to navigate, with a great pictorial map of the various animal areas and helpful “trails” that list approximate walking times so you can plan your day accordingly.  There’s so much to see and experience (with or without kids) that a 2-visit pass may be worth your while.  Or make it a double date with the animals and visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park located about a half an hour away in Escondido.

4. La Jolla
For a beach day some of the most picturesque can be found a short drive north in La Jolla.  Take advantage of free street parking and walk along the ice plant carpeted cliffs that overlook the gorgeous blue-green jewel toned ocean.  Cuvier Park is a great spot for a scenic picnic lunch before hiking down to the otherworldly tide pools, where at low tide (usually around mid-day) you can observe the community of crabs, fish and other sea creatures who live in the puddles.  Head to the Children’s Pool for an up-close look at seals lazily sunning themselves on the appropriately named Seal Rock, or La Jolla Cove for a relaxing afternoon at the beach.  Another favorite is the cove at Shell Beach, where the rocky coastline makes way to fine sand and is the perfect place to take in the golden sun and sparkling sea.

5. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Head a little more north of La Jolla to explore the outdoors at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.  This protected reserve is one of only two places in the US that the twisted Torrey pine tree grows, clinging to sandstone cliffs that offer great ocean views.  You’ll find several easy to moderate hiking trails, most of which are around a mile or less, ranging from the scenic Guy Fleming Loop to the dramatic decent of the Beach Trail (more details in my post here).  Torrey Pines is a nice mini break from the city and wonderful way to experience a truly beautiful piece of nature.

6. Carlsbad Flower Fields
If you’re visiting San Diego in the spring then the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch is a must-do.  Here you’ll find row after row of brightly colored ranunculus spread across more than 50 acres, plus other decorative gardens, kids activities and special events from March through mid-May.  It’s a truly amazing experience to say the least, which you can read more about in my post here.  It’s easy to extend your time in Carlsbad with other activities like LEGOLAND for the kids or the Carlsbad Premium Outlets with more than 90 stores and restaurants.

7. USS Midway Museum
If you’re walking along the Embarcadero in San Diego you won’t be able to miss the impressive USS Midway at Navy Pier.  Named after the Battle of Midway, it was the longest serving naval aircraft carrier of the 20th century from 1945-1992.  Today it’s a museum with an extensive collection of restored planes, plus tons of other exhibits and activities including a flight simulator and self-guided tour narrated by former Midway soldiers themselves. Beyond the museum, the area is also home to the Unconditional Surrender statue (modeled after the iconic sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square on V-J Day) and life-like statues commemorating Bob Hope’s salute to soldiers.

8. Little Italy
This well-preserved neighborhood wears its red, white and green strips proudly and is where you’ll find some pretty amazing Italian eateries ranging from out-of-this world Neapolitan-style pizza at Isola Pizza to post-dinner gelato at Pappalecco.  It’s a fun and festival place for an evening stroll (passeggiata, as the Italians like to call it) or people-watching from one of the red bistro tables on the pedestrianized Piazza della Famiglia.  On Saturdays Little Italy plays host to a HUGE farmers’ market that spans Date Street across 5 blocks from Kettner Boulevard to Front Street, featuring 175+ vendors selling local produce, artisan food products, crafts and more.

9. Old Town
Step back in time at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park for a glimpse at life as it was during the 1800s.  This site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in California dates back to 1769 and is now a living museum of sorts with an array of historical buildings, shops, restaurants and more.  Fun for all ages, visitors can wander the dusty Old West streets around the plaza and explore the various sites and old-fashioned specialty shops.  Watch taffy being made before your eyes at Cousin’s Candy shop, dip your own candles at Toby’s Candles and don’t miss the open air artisan market with beautifully painted pots, wind chimes and other trinkets.  The best part is that admission is completely free.  Old Town is located north of the Downtown between Mission Bay and Mission Hill, and there’s even more to see in the surrounding neighborhood – historical houses, museums and no shortage of tempting Mexican food restaurants.

10. Liberty Station
This former Naval Training Center has been transformed into an arts and culture hub that’s home to a wealth of restaurants, shopping, art galleries, movie theatre, waterfront park and more.  The site also plays host to a ton of special events like monthly art walks, live music and outdoor movies in the summer.  Be sure to check out the crowd pleasing Liberty Public Market with 30+ eateries and artisans, ranging from the Bottlecraft beer shop and tasting room to delicious Greek food at Mezé, plus sandwiches, salads, seafood, pasta, sweets and so much more (yes, there’s something for everyone).  With its location just north of Downtown and west of the airport, Liberty Station is great for an evening or weekend out, or last stop before heading to the airport.

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