San Diego is one of my favorite cities in California, and I have loved just about every city that I have visited in Cali. For SoCal, I think it is something about that warm, ocean air. In the case of San Diego, however, I love its unique character and history. It has a lot to offer any visitor, from major attractions like San Diego Zoo, to cultural landmarks like Balboa Park, and natural parks like Cabrillo National Monument and Torrey Pines State Park, and huge cultural events like San Diego Comicon. While I couldn’t fit all of the San Diego Attractions into a single guide, here is a great place to start; these belong on your bucketlist for sure.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park, and I make it a point to visit this zoo almost every time that I am in San Diego. It is one of the most famous zoos in the world, and it is home to over 4,000 animals. While it isn’t the largest zoo on Earth, the sheer size of this place can be daunting for any animal lover. It feels like there is just no way that you can visit every part of the park in one day, especially if you have little kids with you. Besides being large, half the time that you are in San Diego Zoo you feel like you are either hiking down a steep hill or hiking back up.
On the bright side, you get a good work out while you’re there, but it can make seeing everything even more difficult. This sounds like a bit of a struggle, but it is something that I love about San Diego Zoo. You could literally spend all day here and still have new things to see, and there are so many animals there that I almost always end up seeing something new. Also, as a conservation scientist, I really enjoy seeing all of the interactive, educational materials at this zoo. Not only that, but the San Diego Zoo has done a wonderful job with immersive enclosures, and they have recreated a bunch of different environments that can be explored throughout the park. Really, I can’t sing the praises of this place enough. It is definite must for anyone that enjoys zoos and will be in the area.
San Diego Sea World
A Complicated Issue
I debated including this in my list, but not for the reasons that you might think. I don’t talk about this a lot anymore on Nightborn Travel, but I have a Ph.D. in conservation biology. I got my degree studying the impacts of whale watching on cetaceans and people. After reviewing hundreds of papers and books (literally), the research is clear, whale watching has negative impacts on the animals observed. These impacts, over time, can lead to there being less whales and dolphins out there in the world. Not something I want. (I’m not saying whale watching is all bad or needs to be stopped! Just that it can’t be a ubiquitous, massive industry if we want to protect wild cetaceans).
What does this have to do with SeaWorld? Well, I think SeaWorld is an opportunity for many people to see, experience, and learn to love whales and dolphins with minimal impact on wild populations. Their historic impact on popular opinions about Ocras is exceptional as well. Did you know that the Navy used to just shoot Orcas when they encountered them, because the general belief was that they were violent creatures?
That changed when people had the opportunity to see them in captivity and learn more about their behaviors. There is an argument to be made against captive cetaceans, and as someone who is deeply empathetic, it resonates with me too. But the situation on our planet is dire, so it is my opinion that we need all the tools in the toolbox. I also know from my own experience what a positive impact SeaWorld can have on kids. My favorite animal to this day is the Orca, and that love was fostered by SeaWorld. (I would cry every time I went because I was so excited to see them when I was young).
That all being said, the trajectory of SeaWorld has changed since Black Fish came out, and there are legitimate arguments to be made against the way in which cetaceans are kept. But it is also worth considering that SeaWorld provided some very strong marine animal rescue and rehabilitation. So, they definitely gave back in meaningful ways.
All that to say, I want to include it on my list. This isn’t a black and white issue, and I support decisions either way. But I think if you are on the fence, you should visit. Particularly if you will enjoy the full suite of their attractions. SeaWorld has lots of rides now and is moving in that direction from what I can tell. I also recently read about their involvement in animal rehabilitation following a recent oil spill- so they are still out there doing good work.
Cabrillo National Monument
While there are probably tons of other attractions that I could highlight for San Diego, I just want to mention one of my favorite places in the city that isn’t as well known as the other places that I have mentioned here, and that is Cabrillo National Monument. As I have previously mentioned elsewhere, I am huge national park buff, and so Cabrillo was a must-visit for me.
The park has a mix of cultural and natural aspects as well, so I think that is could potentially be appealing to a good mix of travelers. The park is named for Rodriguez Cabrillo, who became the first European to set foot on the United States western coast in 1542. Cabrillo National Monument, interestingly, is also a rather unique and historic place in terms of my PhD research as well, because this is considered one of the birth-places of whale watching! Migrating gray whales can still be seen from the shore of Cabrillo to this day, and if you are ever in San Diego during this season, I would highly advise visiting to take a peek at the whales. Onshore whale watching is one of the best ways to see whales if you are concerned for the well-being of the animals, as boats can get you much closer but can also harass cetaceans in the absence of protective laws.
Besides these, Cabrillo is home to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which was first lit in 1855 and is not only fun to explore, but is one of the original eight lighthouses of the US West Coast. There are also beautiful tidepools and coastal hiking here. We did this towards the end of our visit, after hiking and exploring the rest of the park. And since we took our trip towards the end of summer, the unshaded coast got pretty toasty, and probably shortened the time that we would have spent looking for animals in the shallow pools in the sandstone. So, besides suggesting that people visit Cabrillo, and that they take advantage of all the attractions that this park has to offer, I would also suggest that you plan your trip around the tidepools if that is something you are interested in.
Balboa Park is home to several Spanish-inspired buildings- their sandy colored walls, and varied sculptures are particularly appealing in contrast to the vibrant, green gardens arranged around them. The land that the park sits on now was set aside 1868 for a city park, which was eventually beautified and named Balboa for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. Now, it is a nice place to spend an afternoon, exploring the gardens, enjoying the architecture, and taking advantage of the varied museums that call the park home. There is also a really neat area called the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, where they have different cultural events on Sunday afternoons. I have a whole post on this park, and in fact, I adore it so much that I would suggest planning on spending a whole day in the area if not a bit more.
Another area in San Diego proper that I have always enjoyed is Seaport Village. This is just a nice little area to walk around in, grab some tasty food, and do a bit of touristy shopping. I highly recommend visiting Frost Me Cupcakes if you are in this area. Their treats are not only delicious but beautiful. Seaport Village is also walking distance from the Gas Lamp District, which didn’t have as much shopping, but there are tons of restaurants here. Parking can be a bit of a challenge at Seaport Village, depending on the crowd levels, and you may need to pay to park. However, due to its proximity to downtown, this shouldn’t be a huge surprise.
Downtown San Diego
Unlike its northern neighbor, San Diego has a very fun downtown, with a variety of neighborhoods to visit, and amazing food to boot. In particular, I have enjoyed the Italian and Mexican food downtown; they have a bit of a California twist, but they are good enough that we often fondly remember our meals there. You can also grab some really good desserts in this area, from ice cream to chocolates and pastries.
Of course, downtown is also the site of the famous San Diego Comicon. In terms of cultural events, this is the absolutely go-to for nerds like ourselves. And you can actually enjoy quite a bit even without tickets, which can be hard to score some years.
History and Hiking Trails
If you are a history buff, you can really make a trip of experiencing the historic landmarks across the city. From pre-colonial, indigenous culture, to the tiki pop of the 1950s, there is a little something to be explored and enjoyed for everyone. For more modern culture, consider one of the cultural events in the city like San Diego Comicon or Tiki Oasis.
There are loads of good hiking trails in San Diego. For a day on the beach and among some rare pines, consider a half-day to a whole day at Torrey Pines State Reserve. Or, if you just have time for a morning workout, give Cowles Mountain a try.
When you are in San Diego, I would highly recommend visiting at least one tiki bar, if not a couple. Tiki bars are the result of an American fusion of Polynesian and Asian inspired drinks and décor. They essentially evoke the “feeling” of a vacation as perceived by Americans of the 50s and 60s. And in our modern times, they are making a bit of a come-back. San Diego is a historic hot spot for tikipop and remains so to this day. It has several tiki speakeasies, a historic tiki restaurant, and hosts the largest tiki convention in the US.
There are also some really nice cideries and meaderies in San Diego, if tiki isn’t your thing, but you want to try some adult beverages. The two that I would specifically recommend are Serpentine Cider and Lost Cause Mead.
In terms of special Californian food, the California burrito would be my #1 suggestion and San Diego has some good places to snag one. If you’d like to look through some of the best spots in San Diego for this tasty, American take on Mexican food, check out Ranking Six of California’s Classic Burritos.
And for dessert, our current favorite spot is Extraordinary Desserts. We try to go every time we are in the area these days and I never regret it.
If you are looking for a place to walk around for the day and pick whatever food grabs your interest at the time, Seaport Village, La Jolla, and Downtown are all good areas to spend some time wandering.