San Diego: City of Surf, Sand, and Sun. This gorgeous city also has a special name to me: Home!
I first came to this (big) little slice of heaven when I wasn’t even old enough to remember. Visits to the Safari Park in Escondido, Seaport Village downtown, and Coronado Island over the famous bay bridge litter our family scrapbooks. Stays at The Hotel Del Coronado began when my parents honeymooned there way back when, and have been a family tradition we’ve tried to keep up over the years. San Diego became even more part of my story when I chose to attend college here, and it’s where I met my sweet husband almost 6 years ago. While we moved away from this glorious city for a few years out of curiosity and necessity for work, San Diego has once again become our home, this time for good!
I love living in this city so much that I wanted to share my insider’s guide to all of the best spots for eating, drinking, staying, sunbathing, and of course, taking photos! Read on…
The Best Places to Stay
Probably my favorite place to stay in the whole city is the Hotel Del Coronado, located on Coronado Island. Visible from the bay bridge, its peaked red roof peeks out of the palms with the sparkling Pacific stretching out just beyond it. This charming historical landmark was built in 1888, and has since hosted Marilyn Monroe and the cast of Some Like it Hot, as well as numerous other famous figures. It’s even supposedly haunted! (Which I can’t confirm nor deny, but it definitely has an old-timey feel when you walk inside!)
While the hotel has undergone numerous renovations and facelifts throughout the years, the original main part of the hotel still stands and still bears a touch of its classic seaside charm. This is my favorite part to stay in, and you can request a room here when you make reservations! The rooms in the original building are often oddly shaped, with unique and quirky features that add to the overall charm of the place.
There’s lots to do here too, from lounging by the large pool to dining on the rooftop pool deck, and there’s even a full spa and ice skating rink on the expansive ocean-facing lawn (ice skating is only available around the holidays!).
The spa in particular is a fun place to visit at least once! Though pricey like most hotel spas are, my hubby and I did one of the couples’ packages when we stayed a few years ago. It included time at the private spa pool, access to gender-specific steam rooms and hot tubs, a couple’s massage with champagne toast, and a private s’mores bonfire on the beach later in the evening. I will say, because we booked the middle-of-the road package (which it looks like is no longer offered due to pandemic-related considerations), we really didn’t get to spend a ton of time together due to the gender-separation of the spa. I personally would’ve preferred we had gotten our own room in the spa for the amount of money (at the time it was over $600), but that was reserved for the highest-level package at more than $800. Not sure if they’re going to change things in the future for couples here, but a quick peek at their website indicates that, at least for now, couples’ offerings may be off the menu completely. The bonfire was a nice touch, though, and we had a great time cozied up under the stars with a few glasses of the Del’s signature sparkling wine! All in all, we had never done a spa day together before and it was one of those one-and-done things that was still ultimately worth the pricey experience for us!
Another fun activity that is still on the menu at the Del is their Movies on the Beach movie nights! A giant inflatable movie screen is set up along with retro-style beach chairs, and a variety of movies are played during select nights in the warmer seasons. The hubby and I saw the classic E.T. here when we were in college and it was a perfect date night to-do at a reasonable price at $25 a chair (though you could splurge and reserve the VIP Family Package for $300).
The dining offerings at the hotel are good, albeit a bit on the fancier (read: pricey) side. The Sheerwater is one that we’ve been to on several occasions, and the food is very good, with the breakfast buffet and dessert options being a few of the highlights. It can get expensive if you’re going every day of your trip, but as a special occasion restaurant, it definitely brings the wow and ambiance factor!
My overall view of the Del is that it’s a great place to stay for first-time San Diego travelers, and it’s one of those things you have to experience at least once. That being said, it has become a lot more commercialized in recent years and it’s definitely not a budget-friendly spot.
But, if you still want that Coronado vibe for your vacation at a more quaint price and feel, check out the Hotel Marisol just down the road. We haven’t made our way here just yet, but this spot is a favorite of my parents and they’ve stayed several times. The Marisol weighs in at a better price per night than the Del most of the time (a quick check now revealed rates starting at $259 a night as opposed to $332 at the Del) and it’s perfect for couples looking for an intimate getaway. There’s only 15 rooms and a charming courtyard, plus daily breakfast and Friday night wine and snacks included in the price.
Plus, the Marisol is a bit closer to all of the shops and restaurants on Coronado’s main street: Orange Avenue (though a few blocks away from the beach as opposed to the Del’s direct access). Just a short walk from several of our favorite spots, the Marisol is perfect for those wanting to experience a quiet vacation with lots of local flavor.
Cute Local Shops
Speaking of local, San Diego is home to a ton of charming local businesses that sell everything from art to stationary to clothes and lots more. Here’s several of my must-visit spots:
1 | Seaside Papery, Coronado
My mom and I have been coming here for years and absolutely love it! It’s located steps from the Marisol and not too far from the Del, and stocks adorable, quirky paper goods: wedding invitations, fountain pens, cards, and notebooks. There’s even a lot of cute stuff for kids and home too! This is the shop where I discovered my guacamole-and-chips-toting papier mache donkey named Busby and an equally as charming seaside themed birthday crown!
2 | Studio 1220, Coronado
Another mom + daughter favorite of ours is Studio 1220! I love their selection of cozy, yet chic clothes and beachy accessories that will help you transform your travel wardrobe with that SoCal vibe! They also have a few locations around the SoCal area as well as Texas, so check out their website if you want to visit!
3 | Pigment, North Park
North Park is another must-see location in San Diego! Filled with a ton of art, shops, restaurants, breweries, and more, this neighborhood exudes the local culture. Here, you’ll find one of my favorite small businesses and photo locations in the area: Pigment! Pigment is a home wares, kids, jewelry, and clothing store that also offers live plants and plant-your-own succulent sessions. Their kids section is full of beautiful, unique clothes and toys with a natural vibe, and a lot of their jewelry is local. Plus, outside Pigment is the famous pink wall made known by a ton of influencers and IG’ers alike over the past several years! Definitely a fave spot to grab a gift and a photo!
Shop my look here!
4 | Artelexia, North Park
Another favorite photo spot and shop alike! Artelexia is colorful beyond colorful, and offers a stunning selection of Mexican gifts, art, home decor, and food. I always leave this store happy, and there’s always something new to discover tucked into the teeming shelves! Plus, there is a show-stopping mural outside that makes for some eye-catching photos! This stop is definitely a must-see for a cultural immersion and fun finds!
Sips + Bites
I have traveled to a good amount of cities around the US and have yet to find food as good as San Diego’s! (Okay, I might be a little bit biased, but the food here really is out of this world, and there’s so much of it!) Here’s some of our favorite places for dining and drinks, and my picks from each:
1 | Mitch’s Seafood, Point Loma
Number one must-visit restaurant on my list. Why? Because only in San Diego can you get fresh tuna, swordfish, crab, and pretty much every other fish imaginable, and here at this waterfront shack, you can watch it being brought in from the fishing boats!
Pro Tips– The location is usually pretty quiet, but can get really busy on weekends and Friday nights, so plan ahead and try to arrive before 5pm on busy days if you can. Seating consists of barstools around a semi-covered patio facing the marina, and the views are next-level! They did have an indoor seating area too, but that isn’t always in use due to current pandemic restrictions, so keep that in mind if the weather is less-than-sunny as it can get a bit chilly outside on the water.
Our favorites here: the swordfish sandwich, crab cake fryer basket, and ahi tuna tacos! Their menu does change a bit due to what the fishermen are catching, but so far everything we’ve had here has been amazing! (Bonus- it’s also a favorite spot of my in-laws’ when they come to town, so it’s a great place to take guests to if you’re from this area!)
2 | Miguel’s Cocina, Coronado, Old Town, and Point Loma
It’s San Diego, and we’re famous for a lot of really delicious Mexican food! Local chain Miguel’s is our favorite spot for some amazing Mexican dishes, plus free chips, salsa, and green chile queso dip with every order! The food here is amazing, but I honestly think our favorite part about this place is the salsa and queso. I mean, hot, melty, spicy cheese dip and fresh, zesty salsa for free? What could be better? We personally love going to the Coronado location because it’s tucked away in a charming Spanish-style courtyard and it’s mostly outdoors under a covered patio that oozes ambiance, but the other locations (especially Old Town) are fun for exploring!
Pro Tip– Happy Hour is Tuesday-Thursday from 3-6pm and from 3-closing on Monday, so you can snag some street tacos, empanadas, and a margarita for $5 a piece!
Our Favorites Here: chicken fajitas, street tacos, taquitos, empanadas, and mango margaritas!
3 | Regents Pizza, La Jolla
One of the best pizza places in the city, we love this local gem! They’re great for Chicago or New York style pies, though I myself am a New York pizza-er all the way! They also have yummy salads and my all-time favorite: Nashville hot chicken! They are awesome for takeout too, though wait times can be a little long during peak hours.
Pro Tip– Order in advance! Pizzas can take a while for pickup. Also, if you order other menu items and forego the pizza, the wait time estimate will often be the same on the confirmation screen, but call after about 20-30 mins to check because we’ve found that other menu items are often ready quicker, but won’t trigger the system to notify you!
Our Favorites Here: Nashville hot chicken salad, four cheese pizza, and buffalo cauliflower!
4 | Dumpling Inn & Shanghai Saloon, Convoy Street
Absolutely the BEST Chinese food in the whole city! I’m not exaggerating… Everything from their entrees and dumplings to soup and noodles are absolutely delicious! I haven’t had anything here that I haven’t loved, and Convoy Street in general is such a cool cultural experience! A must-visit for fans of Chinese food!
Pro Tips– It can get busy during peak times, so plan ahead when dining in or ordering out!
Our Favorites Here: orange chicken, kung pao chicken, honey glazed shrimp, xiao long bao (soup dumplings), deluxe noodle soup, hot and sour soup!
5 |Bing Haus, Convoy Street
If you haven’t had Thai style rolled ice cream yet, you really need to give this place a visit! It’s adorably decorated, and they offer a range of goodies from ice cream to coffee and even mochi donuts! Everything we’ve had here is delicious, and they even have cute little cards and the occasional handmade jewelry for sale too! It’s a quiet place to hang out, people watch, and snack on some amazing food.
Pro Tip– Go multiple times so you can try all of the different desserts!
Our Favorites Here: Thai tea and Earl Gray rolled ice cream, mochi donuts!
6 | Osteria Romantica, La Jolla
This spot speaks for itself! It’s so charming and romantic, and the food is delicious! My hubby took me here on our first date back in college, and the sidewalk seating, rustic atmosphere, and friendly service were perfect for a lovely evening! It’s located about two blocks from the beach, and I’d definitely recommend a post-dinner walk to watch the sunset. They also have amazing bread and red sauce as an appetizer!
Pro Tip– This place definitely gets busy, so make a reservation if you’re visiting on the weekend or with more than two people! We love going early so we can go for a sunset walk!
Our Favorites Here: calamari fritti (fried calamari), linguine nere (squid ink pasta in a cream sauce with shrimp, caviar, and scallops), and spaghetti meatballs!
There’s so much to do around the city, from the beach to surrounding areas, and there’s really something for everyone! These are a few of our faves:
For the Fashionista | Instagrammer
North Park- There’s so much to see in North Park, including lots of colorful street art! Click here for a list of my favorite photo spots in North Park!
Parakeet Cafe– This local chain offers moderately priced sips and bites in an atmosphere as Instagrammable as the food!
Windansea Beach- The rocky coastline makes for some beautiful pics and private sunbathing! Here’s a few pics we’ve snapped there…
Colorful Walls- San Diego has a host of colorful photo spots to match any outfit! Click here to read about my faves!
Morning Glory Breakfast Restaurant– The most instagrammable place in the city if I’ve ever seen one! While I can’t speak for the food, the whole place gives me serious interior design lust, and it makes me wish I could book the whole place for a photoshoot!
Anza Borrego Desert– While it’s a little farther from the city area (about two hours), this locale is doable for a day trip and boasts a host of cool photo spots! Check them out here!
Balboa Park– Stunning Spanish architecture and a cactus garden make for one of the best places in the city for some breathtaking photos!
For the Shopaholic
Fashion Valley Mall– A must for anyone who loves all things fashion! Stores like Nordstrom, Zara, Bloomingdales, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci are on my list to visit!
Westfield UTC– A favorite spot of mine because it’s such a picturesque mall! There’s even a surfboard art installation perfect for snapping a few pics of your new finds!
For the Self-Care Addict
Leo by Liv– Hands-down (pun intended) the BEST nail salon in San Diego! Bonus? It’s located in North Park and is sooo cute + aesthetic on the inside! They also only use clean, natural products and nail polishes free of harmful toxins! Mel is my favorite nail artist, but everyone who works here is so fab too!
Cleo Sugaring and Skincare– If you’re looking for a natural beauty experience, Cleo is for you! I’ve gone here several times for a custom facial and sculptural lifting facial, and it is the most relaxing experience! I love that they also use only natural, clean products and they also offer hair removal sugaring services, which I’m dying to try!
For the Sun Lover and Social Butterfly
Coronado Beach- One of my favorite places for laying out and people watching! The sand is gorgeous here, and the view of the Hotel Del in the background makes for some wish-you-were-here photos!
Mission Beach- Definitely a spot for those seeking those quirky, Atlantic City boardwalk vibes! This spot is popular with locals and tourists alike, and theres plenty of things to do and cute photo ops at Belmont Park, the beachfront carnival-theme park.
Torrey Pines Paragliding– This spot is both beautiful and for the brave! Book a tandem paragliding flight to enjoy spectacular views while under the care of an experienced instructor, or take lessons if you fancy flight!
Torrey Pines Hiking– These trails are not for the faint of heart, but the beach below the cliffs (which is actually the resident nude beach, just a forewarning!) is worth the hike down! Some of them can be a bit dangerous, so be sure to obey all posted signage and rules to stay safe. (Here’s a few photos from the Black’s Beach below the cliffs!)
Potato Chip Rock– There are a few different ways to hike to this rocky overhang that juts out over the mountainside, and the hike can be strenuous in warm weather! Be sure to pack lots of water, a cell phone, and sunscreen before you trek to the top for a photo op!
For the Family
My husband has a pretty big family with some little ones, so here’s a few of their favorite things to do when they visit!
Waterfront Park– This park is the ultimate destination for family fun! It’s got an awesome playground, fountains, and is super close to the local attractions!
Seaport Village– A fun place to walk around and sightsee, Seaport Village is full of shops, quick bites, street performers and vendors, and offers a great view of the bay and city.
The Midway Museum– This floating museum was once a real Navy aircraft carrier back in the day and offers guided tours! The view from the top deck is spectacular!
Balboa Park– A classic San Diego historical site with a ton of museums! Be sure to check local regulations before heading over in case of pandemic-related restrictions.
Safari Park– About 30-45 mins north of the city, this gem is tucked away in the hills of Escondido and offers one of the best wildlife experiences I’ve ever seen. I’ve been coming here since I was an infant, and the winding pathways amidst lush foliage and grassy plains give visitors the experience of traveling to the distant lands where the animals are from. Book one of their special safaris for an unforgettable experience!
The Vacation Verdict
I could go on and on about this amazing city I’m lucky enough to call home! If you haven’t been, and even if you have, I would highly recommend visiting!
San Diego is a place that always makes me want to keep exploring, and it’s definitely worth a trip…or two…or three… While some spots can be pricey, there’s plenty to do that won’t break the bank, and there’s a ton of free options for fashionistas and families alike.
Have you been to this amazing destination?! Stay tuned for more guides to the spots we love!