San Diego is a city of more than 1 million people and a dizzying array of attractions and landmarks to visit. It’s easy to become overwhelmed when you’re planning a vacation here; however, don’t despair. Get started by reading this round-up of three neighborhoods that capture the best of what San Diego has to offer: beautiful beaches, world-class entertainment and dining, and fascinating history. Start your trip in any of these neighborhoods, and you’re guaranteed an excellent time.
If you want to experience San Diego’s best seaside neighborhood, head to La Jolla (pronounced “la hoya”). Nicknamed “the jewel of San Diego,” this small, upscale community sits between the Pacific Ocean and Mount Soledad and features some of Southern California’s top beaches. During the summer and autumn, the ocean temperature reaches a balmy 70 degrees, perfect for swimming, surfing, snorkeling, kayaking, and scuba diving.
Families with kids might wish to spend a day at La Jolla Shores, which is known for its calm surf and its wide, sandy beach. Staffed by plenty of lifeguards, the beach is also packed with picnic areas and bathroom facilities. Meanwhile, experienced surfers should head to Windansea Beach or Black’s Beach, where powerful waves create excellent surfing conditions. To spend an afternoon beachcombing, visit Shell Beach, where sea anemones and sea stars cluster in the many tide pools along the shore.
One of the more unique landmarks in La Jolla is located under the sea. La Jolla Underwater Park is a 6,000-acre marine preserve with four distinct habitats. Visitors can access the park from several local beaches, such as La Jolla Shores or La Jolla Cove. Snorkeling or diving is the best way to see the ocean creatures that make their homes here; you may spot bright orange garibaldi (California’s state marine fish), manta rays, leopard sharks, and giant kelp.
Besides beautiful beaches, La Jolla also boasts several museums, galleries, restaurants, and boutique shops. The Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is also well worth a visit. This highly regarded aquarium features more than 60 habitat displays and 5,000 fish. Many of the exhibits are interactive and highlight the fascinating research that Scripps scientists undertake.
The Gaslamp Quarter is a historic neighborhood located in downtown San Diego. Once the city’s red light district, the Gaslamp Quarter was home to brothels, saloons, and gambling parlors in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The neighborhood’s nickname was “Stingaree,” a nod to the many stingrays in San Diego Bay; the joke was that you might be “stung” in the Stingaree just as badly as you would by a stingray. Today, the Gaslamp has lost its Wild West lawlessness, but its entertainment, dining, and nightlife still attract the tourists. It also retains the largest number of commercial Victorian buildings in the United States.
Occupying 16.5 blocks, the Gaslamp Quarter is also an excellent destination because it is extremely walkable. Its mix of Victorian and modern buildings creates inviting streetscapes where you can spend an afternoon leisurely strolling around, shopping in boutiques, dining on patios, and visiting art galleries. The Gaslamp’s proximity to Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, also makes it the perfect destination for pre- and post-game dining and drinking.
If you love good food, the Gaslamp Quarter should definitely be on your radar. You’ll find restaurants of all types here, including outdoor cafes, rooftop bars and lounges, and upscale, fine-dining establishments. Almost every type of cuisine is represented. Barhopping is also a fun activity in this lively neighborhood; some of the best-known bars include Prohibition Lounge, Vin de Syrah Wine Parlor, and barleymash. If you’re a craft beer connoisseur, try the Hopping Pig Gastropub, the Tipsy Crow, Union Kitchen and Tap, and Werewolf.
Old Town San Diego
Old Town is aptly named, as it contains San Diego’s — and California’s — earliest settlement. In 1769, explorer Gaspar de Portola and Catholic priest Junipero Serra built the San Diego Presidio and Mission San Diego de Alcala on a prominent hill in the area. The padres later relocated the mission, but the town that grew up at the bottom of that hill became the commercial center of the region after Mexico’s independence. Later, it was the first place where the American flag flew over San Diego. Today, the settlement remains as Old Town San Diego. This neighborhood is an excellent destination for history buffs, families looking for educational activities for kids, or anyone interested in San Diego’s Mexican heritage.
The central attraction in the area is Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, a living history museum. The park contains several historic and reconstructed buildings from the mid-1800s, including a blacksmith’s shop, schoolhouse, courthouse, and a stable with a collection of horse-drawn wagons and carriages. Visitors can also tour historic adobe buildings from the 1830s, including Casa de Estudillo, considered one of the finest homes in California when it was built.
Besides the historic buildings in the state park, Old Town is also home to the popular Whaley House. This 1857 house was described as the most haunted building in America by the Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted. Built by merchant Thomas Whaley, it was the first two-story brick structure in San Diego. Some of the ghosts that are purported to haunt the house include Yankee Jim, who was convicted of grand larceny and hanged on a gallows where the house now stands, and Mr. Whaley himself.
Old Town is also a must-visit destination if you love Mexican cuisine. Though some of the many Mexican restaurants in the area might be called tourist traps, several others offer delicious, authentic fare. According to USA Today, the best in the neighborhood include Café Coyote, whose dishes are made from scratch, and Old Town Mexican Café and Cantina, where you can watch the “tortilla ladies” make more than 7,000 tortillas every day by hand.