I write so much about San Diego professionally that I tend to favor other destinations on this website. It’s a wonderful city and a very popular destination so I thought it was finally time to offer my go-to list of San Diego spots. While I’ve included a few popular tourist attractions such as the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, I’ve also include lesser-known restaurants, boutiques and neighborhoods that challenge San Diego’s reputation for only being about surfing and sunny weather.
I like to describe the Casbah as a dive bar, but with good beer and incredible live music. Bands big and small make stops here. I’ve seen a variety of acts from the girl group Haim, to the Portland band Blitzen Trapper. Ticket prices are always reasonable and the openers are often really good. The entrance through a courtyard strung with Christmas lights is so SoCal. If it’s ever tricky to get a beer at the main bar next to the stage, know there’s an equally well-stocked bar in back.
2501 Kettner Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92102
The San Diego Zoo
We received a San Diego Zoo pass for Christmas and I’m enjoying our regular zoo visits every bit as much as my young son. There are over 3,000 animals in the sprawling zoo with a canopy of trees and expansive enclosures that are meant to replicate a specie’s native habitat. In Africa Rocks the baboon enclosure has a rocky canyon and a sunny plateau, for example, and the tiger habitat is tucked into lush jungle. San Diego Zoo Global’s mission is to end species extinction and its efforts go beyond what tourists and locals see at the zoo. The organization breeds endangered species and reintroduces them into the wild. It’s also working to move elephants into safer habitats in Africa.
2920 Zoo Dr.
San Diego, CA 92101
Wayfarer Bread & Pastry
Wayfarer Bread & Pastry, a La Jolla bakery a block from the beach, rivals the best rustic bakeries in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Owner Crystal White worked at San Francisco’s acclaimed Tartine Bakery and co-opened Proof Bakery in Los Angeles. The talented baker’s showcases the best local produce in seasonal pastries such as fruit filled galettes and a strawberry pistachio croissant inspired by Parisian pâtissier Pierre Hermé’s croissant Ispahan. Filled with homemade strawberry jam made with fruit from renowned Chino Farms and pistachio paste, it’s the perfect mix of sweet and salty. All ingredients used at Wayfarer are meticulously sourced including organic flour from Central Milling in Petaluma, organic milk from Clover Dairy in Sonoma, and high fat European style butter. The bright space includes a mural by Fanny Hohmann depicting a sunset and wheat silhouette, mid-century modern couches and a bread oven in the center of the dining room, but the best seat may be on the patio decorated with hanging pots of flowers.
5525 La Jolla Blvd.
La Jolla, CA 92037
Galaxy Taco is my favorite restaurant in San Diego. I think this is exactly the type of food you should be eating in SD. It’s elevated Mexican close enough to the beach to feel an ocean breeze and the margaritas featuring high quality tequilas and mescals as well as fresh squeezed citrus, shrubs and charred fruit are the best I’ve ever drank. I love the sweet and sour fruit salad, the always freshly-prepared guacamole, the grilled octopus tostada and the tacos including a crispy Baja fried fish and steak with a smoky salsa. Located in the upscale beach town La Jolla, I highly recommend spending the afternoon at the beach La Jolla Shores before heading to Galaxy Taco for dinner.
2259 Avenida de la Playa
La Jolla, CA 92037
One of San Diego’s most historic neighborhoods is also its most culturally distinct. Barrio Logan has been an epicenter for Latino culture since the early 1920s when many fled from South of the Border following the Mexican Revolution. Fruterias, auto body shops and traditional Mexican restaurants still occupy the neighborhood, but a number of new art galleries, breweries and boutiques are moving in and infusing it with energy. Chicano Park, a National Historic Landmark below the San Diego-Coronado Bridge featuring the largest collection of outdoor murals in the United States should be a stop on any San Diego itinerary.
Continue down Logan Avenue and pop into basileIE (2070 Logan Ave., 858 361-9052, open Thurs.-Fri. 2-6 and Sat. 2-8) for edgy art exhibitions, Border X Brewing (2181 Logan Ave., 619 501-0503) for unique beers flavored with ingredients such as hibiscus and agave, Por Vida (2146 Logan Ave., 619 564-8568) for coffee and a communal vibe, Beat Box Records (2148 Logan Ave., 614 747-1112) to peruse an excellent selection of vintage soul and jazz vinyl and ¡Salud! Tacos (2196 Logan Ave., 619 255-3856) for margaritas and Chicano-inspired tacos such as the Barrio, a meat and vegetable stew served on a flour tortilla and topped with nopal, avocado and sour cream.
Pigment/Aloha Beach Club
These boutiques, located just a few blocks from each other, are the ultimate one two punch when shopping for gifts and souvenirs in San Diego. Pigment (3801 30th St., 619 501-6318), located in an airy warehouse, stocks camp-style dishes, locally designed kids clothing, cookbooks and artsy greeting cards as well as a build-your-own terrarium bar. Aloha Beach Club (3039 University Ave., 619 269-9838) is a surf-inspired boutique with its own lined of menswear, designed by co-owner Kahana Kalama, as well as surf boards, sunglasses and home goods. It also has a nice selection of women’s clothing.
Beer is as essential to San Diego’s identity as its mild Mediterranean climate and this is my hands down favorite local brewery. Their beers are always balanced with the right amount of citrus and hops and I love the old school aesthetic of the branding and the tasting room in North Park which is inspired by the 1990s. Look closely at the bar. It’s made out of vintage vhs tapes.
3000 Upas St.
San Diego, CA 92104
San Diego’s former Naval Training Center, famously featured in the film Top Gun, has been transformed into a mixed-use development with restaurants, shopping, public art and green space. Many of the Spanish colonial buildings were built in the early 1900s, giving the neighborhood plenty of character. Liberty Public Market (2820 Historic Decatur Rd., 619 487-9346), San Diego’s first public food hall, is located here and includes a gourmet sausage maker, a raw bar, an excellent bakery and artisan cheese stand. The market is best for lunch when its typically nice and warm on the large patio with tables and adirondack chairs. After you’ve eaten, head across the street to Moniker General (2860 Sims Rd., 619 255-8772), the ultimate SoCal lifestyle boutique stocking leather bags, surfboards, bikes, rugs and other home goods. I also love the furniture, design and antique shop Scout @ Quarters D (2675 Rosecrans St., 619 225-9925) and the bread bakery Con Pané (2750 Dewey Rd. #105, 619 224-4344).
What might be considered San Diego’s Central Park is a local treasure. 1200-acre Balboa Park is home to the San Diego Zoo as well as museums, running trails, playing fields, playgrounds and a theater that’s a replica of the long gone Old Globe in London. The Natural History Museum (1788 El Prado, 619 232-3821) featuring a permanent interactive exhibit about San Diego’s unique biodiversity and landscapes, is a wonderful stop for families. The Mingei International Museum (Plaza de Panama, 619 239-0003) has a unique collection of handcrafts from around the world and the San Diego Museum of Art’s (1450 El Prado, 619 232-7931) permanent collection includes works by El Greco, Goya, Matisse, Monet and others as well as Buddhist sculpture and Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
Ironside Fish & Oyster
Ironside Fish & Oyster, a sprawling seafood mecca with an interior inspired by Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, is always packed. That’s because the food and the service is consistently good, something that can be a bit of a rarity in this laid back town. The oysters are fresh and briny, the vegetable dishes are smoky and bright and the refreshing cocktails pair perfectly with the seafood focused menu. Ironside’s decadent lobster roll is the best I’ve eaten on the West Coast and the slightly sweet house-baked bread is a must order. If you have a sweet tooth after your meal walk next door to the creative ice creamery Salt & Straw for a scoop of Belching Beaver peanut butter stout ice-cream with chocolate chicharrones.
1654 India St.
San Diego, CA 92101