Updated: Sep 28
San Diego is divided into various neighborhood areas: The Coastal Area, The Downtown Urban Area, The Inland Valley, Mountain and Desert Area and the Baja California area.
And with so much to do and see in San Diego you probably want to visit many of them, if not all.
San Diego's slogan is Happiness is Calling. And certainly, a vacation in San Diego creates a lot of happiness. Happy weather, happy fun, happy food, happy drinks, happy experiences and a lot of happy memories. Whether you are family looking for a great family get-away, a solo traveller looking for adventure, or an elderly couple looking to relax, San Diego delivers.
In these upcoming episodes we will explore the San Diego area, provide you with ideas of fantastic locations, give some insight into hotels, and provide some inside tips. Later on, we'll give you a sample itinerary if you are spending just a day in San Diego and also a whole week. What to do if you are on a family vacation or a couples vacation.
So let's start exploring San Diego.
San Diego is divided into various neighbourhood areas: The Coastal Area, The Downtown Urban Area, The Inland Valley. Mountain and Desert Area and the Baja California area. And with so much to do and see in San Diego you probably want to visit many of them, if not all.
And because San Diego is a coastal city, situated right on the Pacific with perfect weather conditions year round, let's start off by exploring the Coastal Areas first.
This first episode we will explore La Jolla, California, one of the many places we recommend you visit while traveling to San Diego.
With a spectacular coastline boasting astounding views, it's no surprise that La Jolla is one of the most popular beach destinations in America. Surrounded on three sides by the sea and backed by the steep slopes of Mt. Soledad, La Jolla's natural beauty, abundance of activities and upscale village lifestyle ensure that it lives up to its nickname as "the jewel" of San Diego.
La Jolla's biggest draw for locals and visitors alike are the amazing beaches. During the summer and autumn months, the surf is relatively gentle, with warm waters in 70s. Swimmers, snorkelers, scuba divers, kayakers and surfers enjoy the golden sands of La Jolla Shores, the Cove and Windansea.
Consistently voted one of the top beach destinations in the world, La Jolla offers a wide range of accommodations from luxurious hotels to casual coastal retreats, along with museums and art galleries, one-of-a-kind boutiques, great restaurants and a slew of outdoor activities. It is also home to the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course and The Lodge at Torrey Pines, the scenic cliff area offers well-groomed hiking trails with spectacular views, and world-class golf. At Torrey Pines Gliderport you can soar out over the beach cliffs on a hang glider and sometimes see migrating whales near the shoreline.
As you can tell there is a lot going on in La Jolla, so let's focus in on some of the best activities.
We've already mentioned the fantastic beach front, and that should be on your list of things to do in San Diego. But even the beachfront can be broken down into various areas depending on your interests.
The La Jolla coastline varies dramatically, from 300-foot sea cliffs, to rocky reefs, to secluded coves and wide golden sandy shores. Although La Jolla’s picturesque coastal landscape makes portions of the beach inaccessible, the views are beyond spectacular, as waves and whitewater break onto rocky outcroppings, as seals and sea lions gracefully navigate safe landing onto their protected cove.
At the northernmost point of La Jolla is Torrey Pines City Beach. Fortified by 300-foot sea cliffs, a nature walk along the bluffs through native vegetation—including the signature Torrey pine—leads to endless views of the Pacific. Here you’ll find long stretches of beach ideal for sunbathing and family fun adjacent to a large parking area. The parking area fills up very quickly so it is important to arrive early.
Further south is home to famed Black's Beach. Although difficult and hazardous to access, this spot is a favorite among local surfers and bodyboarders—and those who prefer to enjoy the surf and sand in the buff, despite California law prohibiting public nudity.
La Jolla Cove is a small deep water bay, flanked by sea caves accessible to adventurers in kayaks and on foot, depending on the tides. The beach itself is small, but it’s usually tame waters are popular with swimmers and snorkelers hoping to see local natives like the bright-orange Garibaldi fish and other marine life. The Cove is easily accessible via maintained stairs and walkways, sitting just below a large grass park with bathrooms, showers, picnic tables, a paved pedestrian walkway and several public gazebos. There are various outfitters here that can take you into the cove and the sea caves via kayak and paddleboards. Prices are very consistent among outfitters so finding the best rated ones, along with times that work for you will probably be your only concerns.
Walking distance from La Jolla Cove, is a small cove protected by a concrete breakwater wall. It was originally built as a safe swimming area for children but was claimed long ago by seals and sea lions who beach themselves on the sand with their young. Although now closed for swimming, the Children’s Pool offers a crowd-pleasing and often amusing view of these adorable and often vocal seals and sea lions.
Continuing south, you'll arrive at The Hospitals, which is a great reef but a poor beach. At low tide there are wonderful tide pools for exploring along the coast here. The conditions don't often cooperate, but when they do, it's the best dive site in town, with dramatic undersea arches and ledges often full of lobster. At the south end by the gazebo is the Hospitals surf spot, the northernmost of La Jolla's reef breaks.
Windansea is next if we continue going southbound. Windansea is a popular family beach with access to rich tide pools during low tides. It’s also a well-known surf spot, attracting local crowds and its share of competition for waves. Swimming and bodyboarding are best on the south half of the beach.
As we mentioned early, because of the spectacular beachfront and slew of activities, this is a very popular destination. Parking is a premium, however, with a little planning you can make this a day trip that does not include parking stress. Most visitors arrive around noon and leave the beach area at about 4pm. That means if you arrive early, you'll get good parking.
And if you arrive later, you'll get to see the fantastic sunset stretch across the Pacific Ocean. There is also street parking in downtown La Jolla if you don't mind walking about. And this might be your best option if you are also taking in the downtown scene.
But first make sure to grab some good walking shoes! From original vintage apparel to high-end urban furnishings for your home, you’ll love all the hidden treasures La Jolla shops hold. Located right next to the beach in downtown La Jolla, and this area is known for its mix of unique boutique shops, mall stores, and higher-end establishments like Cartier. You can window shop for fun – the cute storefronts and picturesque sidewalks make for a lovely stroll – or dive right in to purchase your treasures. Prospect St boasts several different kinds of shops, while Girard is home to trendy, upscale boutiques like Francesca’s.
And if you've built up an appetite from swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and shopping you will certainly want to grab a bite to eat and La Jolla has some fantastic food and drink options.
From burgers to Parriseine foods, you can find so many options that sometimes the choice itself is heart breaking. But for me, you are in La Jolla, one of the most scenic locations in California, if not the United States. And with that, you want to enjoy the view. One of our favourite spots is the Cliffhanger Cafe.
The Cliffhanger Café is located high atop the sea cliffs of Torrey Pines. Diners are treated to a breath-taking view of the Pacific Ocean as it spans from the beach 350 feet below, all the way to the horizon. Dolphins and whales can be seen from the cliffs. Paragliders, hang gliders, RC gliders, and more all launching right in front of the outdoor dining area, make this a truly unique dining experience. And in such a high-end location, the prices are very reasonable. From breakfast, to soups, salads and sandwiches, the food is good and won't bleed your wallet.
If you are looking for something a bit more upscale and less casual, but still have an amazing atmosphere I recommend The Marine Room. Its situated right on, literally, right on the best beach, and there is nothing like sitting in a restaurant looking out the window and seeing massive waves crash against the glass during high tide.
Besides the stunning visuals your will also be excited to dive into their menu. They serve fresh seafood, locally sourced meats, vegetables and fruits and their desserts have won numerous awards. As this is such a unique location, it is best to call days ahead and make your reservation.
And if you want to enjoy the sunset without the touristy crowds I recommend a little place tucked away on Prospect Street, but still offering fantastic views. Look for We Olive & Wine Bar. They have a terrific patio in the rear with an ocean view; it’s rarely crowded, and makes for a relaxing spot to enjoy a glass of wine while you watch the sun set. And if you aren't into exotic olive oils or wine, don't worry, they also have a fantastic craft beer selection to enjoy.
If you still can't get enough of La Jolla, it still has a lot more to offer.
The La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego has been bringing folks onto it’s Prospect Street location since 1950. It constantly rotating exhibits to keep things fresh and undergoing renovations to further enhance its art exhibitions. After spending time walking the interior and taking in the galleries, make sure to get back outside into the sun to take in the ocean view that lays in front of the museum, then head to the museum’s garden to see some art in green form. If you’ve been inspired to do some art of your own, bring a sketchpad and let your artistic side take over.
Now you may find this odd, but the next place I would recommend going into is a library. And like all libraries, there is no admission price, but the experience is worth it. The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library is a Spanish-Renaissance style building built in 1921; the exterior is as beautiful today as then and interior been refurbished since that time. Its just a great little stop for those of us who like architecture and history.
Near the library is also the Historical Society Museum and the Map and Atlas Museum. But for many the Birch Aquarium at Scripps is at the top of the must-see lists. Located just minutes from La Jolla in the middle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is the Birch Aquarium which boasts over 5,000 fish in 60+ habitats plus a museum featuring cutting edge research from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. Once again you can take in spectacular panoramic ocean views but also get hands on with interactive activities, see a feeding, and dive deeper into the world under, in, and above the oceans. There is shark feeding, sea turtle feeding and even whale watching adventures available throughout the day. This is a very popular family destination, however, there is ample parking and exhibits give enough room for all to enjoy. Just remember that they do not allow Rvs, cars with trailers or buses to park in their lot.
If you're feet are not tired just yet, the next place to visit is the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, which boasts amazing ocean views, as well as America's Rarest Pine Trees. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is home to approximately 3,000 of our nation's rarest pine tree—Pinus torreyana, which only grows here and on Santa Rosa Island off the coast near Santa Barbara. The park preserves not only the trees, but also one of the last great salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California.
The reserve is located on the cliffs above Torrey Pines State Beach and offers over 1,750 acres of protected wildlands to be explored. With both easy, family-friendly paths and more advanced trails, the park provides a great hiking experience for all levels. Your first stop here should be the visitors center - Commissioned in 1922 by Ellen Browning Scripps, this pueblo-style structure was originally a restaurant called Torrey Pines Lodge. But now it offers advice on trails, and guided tours. Parking at the visitor centre location varies from $10-20 but if you park below on Hwy 101 and the lower parking lots and enter via the staircase – it is free. But be warned, the staircase can take a lot out of those in less than perfect physical condition. There is no place to buy food or water in the park and you are encouraged to bring your own. Guides recommend that you stay on trail, as rattlesnakes have been known to reside in this park.
And if all this has finally tuckered you out and you need a place to put your feet up, or if La Jolla is your home base , then there are a lot of options to rest and stay, right in the jewel of California.
Check out Experience This 360's Hotel Deal Finder to get the best deals on hotels in La Jolla, California.
Luxury accommodations are plentiful, but there are some budget friendly and family-oriented options as well.
For Luxury Hotels we recommend La Velencia, The Pacific Terrace and the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines.
As these are luxury hotels we could only find minor discounts on Experience This 360's Hotel Deal Finder. The savings were around 5%, but with the savings involved, that may be a good breakfast or lunch that you didn't have to pay for.
As for family oriented hotels our recommendations are the La Jolla Travelodge, The Sheraton La Jolla and The Ocean Park Inn. We've noted about a 20% discount on these hotels in our Hotel Deal Finder.
For budget minded travels there is nearby California Suites, The Pleasant Inn, and La Jolla Biltmore Hotel. These hotels sometimes have discounts of up to 40%. Check out the Experience This 360 Hotel Deal Finder to find the best rates.
For those interested in something romantic or unique we would recommend staying at a guest house such as the The Jewel Above La Jolla Shore, and Marine Street Beach House. Remember, however, these properties are in high demand so it is best to check availability and plan way ahead.
If you aren't staying in La Jolla, note that it is very accessible from anywhere in San Diego. There are various routes to get into the seaside city, but you can also take public transit or a taxi from any location. It is about 1/2 hour from downtown, and taxi should cost around $25 each way. Most people that visit San Diego, who fly in, however, rent a car. Car rentals can be found at the airport or various outlets around the city. Your best bet is to rent a car ahead of time, saving you time and money.
To find the best flight deals to and from San Diego, check out our Cheapest Flight Finder.
To find the cheapest and best rental cars in San Diego go here.
If you visit San Diego, make sure La Jolla is on your must do list. You can spend an entire day here, and even settle down for a few. There is certainly a lot to see and experience and nothing can match the views.
On our next episode on San Diego we will continue with the Coastal Neighborhoods of Mission Bay & Beaches, Point Loma Peninsula, North County, Coronado and South Bay.