I made a rule that I would only do top whatevers for places I’ve lived, and while I never lived in San Diego, my wife did, for seven years. So she’s helping me out with this one, my last (until I live somewhere new) top 15!
15. Little Italy
You may not associate San Diego with Italy, but this northern downtown community is awesome. Delicious food reasonably priced, lots of shopping, and host to several annual festivals, Little Italy is San Diego’s only official ethnic enclave, and it is great!
14. Pacific Beach
One of San Diego’s premiere surfing locales, this area is the place for college kids and 20-somethings. There’re tons of bars, inexpensive restaurants, and best of all: a laid-back lifestyle, everyone enjoying the beach, the surf, and the sun.
As of this writing, San Diego has two professional sports teams: the Padres (baseball) and the Chargers (football). This is surprisingly low for a city its size, not to mention the fact that the Chargers have been threatening to leave, which would leave San Diego with only the Padres. But despite not being super competitive, Padres games are tons of fun; the stadium is beautiful (and right in the middle of downtown), the team is always a class act, and San Diego weather is perfect for baseball. San Diego may not have a lot of sports teams, but they have at least one great one.
12. UCSD Artwork
UCSD, one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, is weird by higher education standards in the US. The school barely has sports (including no football team), their social scene is meh (there’s a joke that UCSD stands for UC Socially Dead), and they have no Greek row, not even an unofficial one. Despite this, UCSD is worth visiting for its on-campus artwork. Most famous are the Geisel library (pictured top right) and its Dr Seuss collection, and Falling Star (not pictured, it was created after I visited), a house hanging off the roof of an engineering building, built as a senior prank.
11. Mission Bay
Mission Bay consists of many things: islands, hotels, beaches, yacht clubs, Belmont Park, and despite having the San Diego’s only roller coaster (in Belmont Park), Mission Bay is one of the city’s calmer areas, great for relaxing, playing, and enjoying San Diego’s laidback lifestyle.
10. Old Town
The former heart of San Diego and the first European settlement in the western United States, Old Town was actually San Diego in its entirety for the city’s first hundred years. Today, San Diego proper has moved elsewhere, leaving Old Town to commemorate the city’s origins and founding, which it does through building preservation, living history demonstrations, and museums. The Mexican food here is really good too.
San Diego’s most famous attraction, SeaWorld has come under lots of criticism for breeding captive orcas. The controversy got so bad that SeaWorld recently agreed to end the process, which means that when their current orcas are gone, there will be no replacements, thus no more orcas in the park. This is all very sad because outside of the orca controversy, SeaWorld is a wonderful place, entertaining kids and families, building appreciation for marine biology, and also saving/rehabilitating injured animals when needed. Hopefully, SeaWorld can move past its orca controversy, because outside of orcas, this really is a great place.
8. Seaport Village
Downtown’s coastal village, Seaport Village features some of the best shopping in San Diego. But more than that, simply strolling around here, enjoying the artwork and scenery, the weather and the views of the bay, this is such a quaint and beautiful place.
7. USS Midway
Built in 1943 and launched in 1945, the USS Midway was the first Midway class aircraft carrier, the first ship too large to pass through the Panama Canal, and the largest ship in the world for the first twelve years of its existence. The ship saw action in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm, and it is the only US ship to serve the entire length of the cold war. Today the ship rests in the San Diego Bay, where it serves as a floating museum, allowing the public to explores its insides, walk atop its runway, and admire several military aircraft parked inside.
6. La Jolla Shores
San Diego has so many coastal communities. La Jolla is one of the best, with beautiful and uncrowded beaches, fun rock formations to climb on, and lots of delicious (but expensive) places to eat. Even better than all this is La Jolla’s Children’s Beach Pool. Originally built for swimming, this sea wall protected coastline was quickly taken over by a huge seal population, who now call it home. Visit in the spring and you can even see babies being born.
5. Balboa Park
At 1200 acres, Balboa Park is one of the largest and most visited urban parks in the US. Originally built for the Panama-California Exposition, this park features several attractions, including museums, gardens, theaters, restaurants, historic buildings, and the world famous San Diego Zoo. Like much of San Diego, Balboa Park is an excellent place to relax and stroll around, whether visiting its attractions or simply admiring the landscaping and architecture. There is a belief that every great city has a great park, and San Diego has Balboa Park.
4. Mexican Food
I love Mexican food, it is so delicious, inexpensive, and unique. This is especially true in San Diego, with its large hispanic population and being so close to Mexico. Recommended restaurants around the city: Old Town Mexican Cafe, Lucha Libre in Mission Hills, or really anywhere; its all good in this city. Fish tacos are a must, and so is Taco Tuesday (cheap tacos and Mexican beer in the afternoon/evenings on Tuesday). Taco Tuesday is held at so many San Diego restaurants that it is has become an institution.
3. Gaslamp Quarter
As the nightlife district of San Diego, Gaslamp Quarter is tons of fun. It has bar, clubs, restaurants, and more, but the best part is that, despite everyone being beautiful So-Cal locals, the people here are down to earth. Most of California’s hoity-toity/holier-than-thou crowds spend their time in Los Angeles, Vegas, or San Francisco, leaving San Diego with what I consider to be the best nightlife in the state.
Interesting trivia: Gaslamp Quarter was one of the first districts created when San Diego proper moved out of Old Town. In fact, to contrast Gaslamp Quarter with Old Town, at one point this area was called New Town.
As you’ve seen in this post, San Diego has a lot of great beaches. But Coronado is the best, one of the best beaches in the country. First off is its sand, unbelievably soft and smooth, massaging your feet as you walk on it. Second is the water, fresh and clean and as warm as it gets outside of Mexico and the tropics. Third, the weather here is great: sunny and warm, with low winds, perfect for the beach. And finally, there’s the size of the shore: hundreds of feet wide, extending for miles up and down the coast. As a result, no matter how many people come here, the beach never gets too crowded.
If all this isn’t enough, Coronado also features the Hotel del Coronado, one of the grandest and most famous hotels in the world. Built in 1888, Coronado was the largest hotel in the world when it opened and even today holds the title of second largest wooden structure in the United States. Numerous world leaders, celebrities, and royalty have stayed here, and the building is a pop culture icon, most notably it was the setting (doubling for Miami) of Some Like It Hot.
1. San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
Generally considered to be the best zoo in the United States if not the entire world, the San Diego Zoo is a treasure. Originally opened in 1916 and featuring animals leftover from the aforementioned Panama-California Exposition, this zoo later became a pioneer in cageless zoo exhibits. Today, the zoo contains more than 3700 animals and more than 650 animal species (including the only albino koala in any zoo in the world), and it is one of only four zoos worldwide to feature giant pandas. That last fact alone makes this place worth a visit.
And that’s it! My (with my wife’s help) top 15 for San Diego, my last top whatever until I do one for the entire United States, or live somewhere new. Hope you enjoyed it!
Featured image by Philkon (Phil Konstantin). Cropped. CC-SA 3.0