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San Diego secrets

Rubbing elbows with local residents can offer visitors a unique look at a destination, but knowing where to go can be tricky, especially when locals want to keep their favourite hangouts a secret. Amidst San Diego’s vast and varied landscape – ranging from a bustling city centre and colourful neighbourhoods to 70 miles of sparkling coastline – are special spots and neighbourhood gems (some hidden in plain sight) just waiting to be discovered. From foodie favourites and dive bars to artsy adventures, natural wonders and more, the following is an inside scoop on 16 cool things to do and places to go in San Diego, “California‘s beach city”. Food finds For dining with a view, look no further than two tried-and-true local favourites. The unassuming and affordable Toby’s 19th Hole Café, nestled atop a hill in the middle of the Balboa Park Golf Course, features incredible views of downtown San Diego, Point Loma and the Pacific Ocean. Since the 1960s, San Diegans have dined and gathered on the romantic 12th floor rooftop of Bertrand at Mr. A’s for views of downtown and San Diego Bay as magnificent as the menu of modern American cuisine. Locals know the best time to visit is during happy hour for affordable drinks with spectacular sunsets. Visitors can sample local cuisine on a budget by heading to where the locals dine. San Diego diners in the know head to the lively El Zarape Mexican eatery, a neighbourhood favourite with two locations in uptown’s University Heights and Normal Heights, for delicious 99-cent fish tacos – a signature local food staple served day or night. Phil’s BBQ restaurant, with locations in Point Loma, Rancho Bernardo, Santee and San Marcos, is home of the best barbecue in San Diego. Local cravings for Phil’s mesquite grilled baby back and beef ribs are so strong, folks are willing to wait awhile (upwards of 45 minutes) in line. Insider tip: order ahead by phone for access to a considerably shorter line for order pick-ups. Touted as the “Best Donuts in the World,” the Donut Bar downtown attracts a line down the block most mornings for its sweet innovative creations. But for a gourmet donut fix sans the wait, check out Nomad Donuts in North Park, known for its savoury vegan donuts, or StreetCar Merchants of Chicken, Doughnuts and Coffee in North Park and La Jolla to enjoy specialty donuts like Salted Nutella Stuffed and Powdered Sugar Peach. Free beer and dive bars Visitors to San Diego, America’s Craft Beer Capital, can go behind the scenes and sample tasty craft brews during free tours at Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits and some Karl Strauss Brewery locations. For karaoke fun second to none any night of the week, head to the popular old-school watering hole The Lamplighter in Mission Hills. Visitors can mix and mingle with locals while joining in rousing renditions of pop and rock songs. Those in need of a little liquid courage to take to the stage and belt out a tune can enjoy stiff, inexpensive drinks served by friendly bartenders. Serving the funky beach town of Ocean Beach since 1941, visitors can step back in time at the landmark Pacific Shores, a laidback locals’ dive bar featuring an authentic retro vibe, cheap beers and well drinks and a playful marine theme that goes swimmingly with the friendly clientele. It’s especially popular on weekends – prime time for people watching! Artistic adventures DJs spin, exotic beverages flow, artworks dazzle and museum visitors glow at the San Diego Museum of Art’s popular sundown series, Culture & Cocktails. Experience art in a whole new way in the heart of Balboa Park. The event, occurring every three to four months, uses current exhibitions as the inspiration for one of San Diego’s most loved party nights. Presale e-tickets are $5 for members, $25 for nonmembers. Stroll the streets of North Park, where hipsters, art and live music converge during the free Ray at Night, the longest running monthly art walk in San Diego. Experience great local food, live bands, numerous art gallery exhibitions and handcrafted artisan works. The event is held 6-10 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month along Ray Street and the surrounding area. Natural beauty and recreation Tucked along the Pacific coast of Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs is a natural wonder of intricately carved coastal bluffs, arches and sea caves that San Diegans tend to keep for themselves as a scenic sanctuary. Take in panoramic ocean views from the cliffs, including pods of California gray whales, which can be seen making their annual migration from the Bering Sea to Baja California and back. In San Diego’s North County, enjoy one of San Diego’s largest coastal wetlands at the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve. An ADA-accessible Nature Center Loop takes visitors on close-up views of the salt marsh habitat and its birds, plants, fish and animals. The Nature Center offers free guided nature walks every Saturday (except 2nd Saturdays) and Family Fun Days on the first Sunday of each month. Visitors can find their zen and become one with San Diego’s great outdoors during free oceanfront yoga at the end of Law Street in Pacific Beach. Every Saturday morning from 10-11:30 a.m., this challenging all levels class attracts dozens of locals, leaving participants feeling invigorated and ready to take on the day and explore all that San Diego has to offer.

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Daily Telegraph.

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  1. It is a long time since I’ve been to San Diego, probably over thirty years, but I have great memories of the place.

    It was the first city that I ever visited in the United States and I have wonderful memories of the beautiful California shoreline.

    I have always intended to make a return visit from reading this there are definitely loads of attractions to draw me back there.

  2. Yeah, San Diego’s a bit of a secret, one of my fav places in the US. Love to visit. All those craft beers do it a lot of favours.

  3. Seems to me that San Diego could put forward a claim to be the “Donut Capital of the World.”

    I would probably go for a donut lunch – savoury donuts followed by the traditional sweet ones!

    As it would be a holiday of a lifetime I’d forgot about the damage to my waistline. I suppose I could always walk it off along the beaches or swim away a few calories in the Ocean.

  4. You got me at the ‘Best Donuts in the World’ ?
    I know someone who moved from the countryside in the UK to San Diego for a year. The absolutely loved it, they only came back because of a change in circumstances but I think they’re hoping to return in the future, and I don’t blame them.
    Culture & Cocktails sounds like an exciting thing to be a part of, and it’s great that happens a couple of times of year. It sounds like there’s always something to be found here, something exciting to enjoy or discover. And the coastline? Incredible!

    1. From reading the last two comments I guess that line for the donuts is only going to get longer. I can never walk by a donut stand.

  5. With seventy miles of coastline there’s a lot to see in San Diego. It’s probably worth having two of maybe even three bases if you are going to get to visit most of the attractions. It is a city where you need at least a week to appreciate its diversity. It’s also worth remembering that although it might get a bit chilly up in San Francisco, San Diego has a great all-year round climate.

  6. Free beer is always going to be s winner when it comes to boosting your SEO rankings! Maybe that should have been a heading – Free beer in San Diego but maybe the A Luxury Travel Blog website might have crashed with all the extra traffic.

  7. Perhaps I’ve watched too many Hollywood movies but my picture of California beaches is always surfing and beach volleyball. Those soft images have made me think again, obviously it is a shoreline that is quiet and romantic in places.

  8. I’ve always thought that San Diego gets a raw deal compared to its neighbouring cousins, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Both of those cities seem to mop up most of the attention. Obviously LA and Hollywood run huge publicity machines but San Diego in its own quiet way has a huge number of attractions. Follow the advice in this post and you will have a great week or two.

  9. There’s no better place for people watching than along the West Coast, it has a higher percentage of big, extrovert characters, who are putting on a show, than anywhere else that I have ever been. I can imagine that Pacific Shores with cheap beers and retro vibe would pull in a really entertaining crowd, dramatically and colourfully dresses for their weekend’s out.

  10. I remembered reading this post before I booked my trip to San Diego. I had the best time ever. It was fab. I also kept checking this piece whilst I was in California so it really helped me out with things that were too good to miss. You’re right some of these attractions were secrets. Though it was all so good that I want to go back again soon. San Diego is definitely my favourite American city now.

  11. Someone once told me that San Diego has got the best climate in America, cooling ocean breezes in the summer and so far south and just shy of the Mexican border that it never gets chilly in winter.

    Work wise late October / November is normally a good time for me and my husband to get away so San Diego could be a good call. Loved this piece loads of suggestions. I think there’d be plenty to keep us occupied and I’m hoping that the traffic’s going to be better than LA.

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