My parents arrived Saturday night for a week-long visit, which got me thinking about my San Diego Musts. We’ve lived here for only a year and there’s tons more to see, but I already have a list of favorite restaurants, parks and activities that I share with all my visitors. And not to toot my own horn, but I’ve been told that I have some really excellent picks in here. Hope this gives you some pointers the next time you’re in San Diego!
Caffe Calabria (North Park): This Italian cafe/pizzeria is top-notch quality; their exquisite lattes are the sirens that beckon me at least once a week, and not just because it’s a great place to work. Food-wise, their Neapolitan pizzas are delicious and vibe at dinnertime is lovely. (But my favorite pizzeria is Buona Forchetta; see below.)
Coffee & Tea Collective (North Park): If you like your coffee strong, head to this artisanal coffee shop. (A popular pairing is a hot coffee with their waffles.) C&T also has an active Instagram account, which shares news about coffee-related events.
Bird Rock Coffee Rosters (Bird Rock): The coffee, the pastries, the setting — this is one of my favorite spots in San Diego. A local micro roaster that’s won awards for best brew, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters has impeccable lattes and a very “California” setting, with an open-air facade and location right by the water. To top it off, the staff is super friendly. (They once apologetically told me I couldn’t bring Teddy inside but gave me some dog treats for him because they felt bad.)
Torrey Pines (La Jolla): This isn’t a hard San Diego hike, but it is the most beautiful. Unlike the drier, more desert-landscaped hikes elsewhere in the city, this one is dotted with trees, flowers and the most amazing view of the Pacific. Try to park by the water before the park entrance; otherwise it’s $12-15 for official lot parking.
Mount Woodson (Poway): If you want a challenge, try this arduous uphill trail, which leads to the famed Potato Chip Rock. It’s a tough 6.4 miles to the summit, but you’re rewarded with a super cool photo opp — a rock that juts out ever so scarily atop the mountain. There’s usually a line for the photo, and it gets hots during the day, so go early for both those reasons.
Balboa Park (Hillcrest/North Park): This massive, beautifully manicured urban park has museums, restaurants, tennis courts, dog parks, a botanical garden, archery course, organ pavilion, swimming pool and miles and miles of trails. So to say it’s worth seeing is an understatement. We’re lucky enough to live within walking distance of Balboa Park and make good use of the trails with Teddy; I love how it can feel like we’re deep within a huge forest but still just a few miles from downtown.
Sunset Cliffs (Point Loma): I wouldn’t call this a hike so much as a stroll by the water, but it’s a must for sure. It’s not only the best place to watch a San Diego sunset, but also much less populated than the Torrey Pines trail. You can walk the mild undulation of Sunset Cliffs Park or head north on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard towards Ocean Beach. Then, feast your eyes on some real estate porn.
Coronado Dog Beach (Coronado): Ocean Beach, Fiesta Island and Del Mar all have dog beaches but none is as well-kept as Coronado’s. Most everyone cleans up after their dog and the seaweed situation is under control. Going here with Teddy is one of my favorite San Diego activities.
Windansea (La Jolla): I’m hesitant to mention this one because it’s somewhat of a hidden gem that quickly became our favorite beach. But I’m generous so I’ll share! The beach is hardly ever crowded with lovely blue water on a clear day.
Black’s (La Jolla): Thanks to a dramatic cliff coastline behind you, Black’s has an epic setting. There are paragliders above, surfers below and plenty of sand for you. It’s also a nude beach so expect lots of old dudes (sorry, no hot chicks) going commando.
La Jolla Cove/Seal Beach (La Jolla): It’s touristy and overrun with people during peak hours, but it’s also a scenic stroll by what I think is the prettiest coastal view around town. Sometimes the seals smell horribly, but hold your nose and you’ll be fine.
The Cottage (La Jolla): This has been our favorite brunch spot since we visited San Diego in 2010. As the name suggests, the setting is very quaint, cottage-style and the food is the big, beautiful brunch you dream about. If you’re a French toast fan, theirs is the best. (Bruncher beware: The wait can be up to two hours on weekends! On the upside they have free coffee and pastries while you wait.)
The Mission (North Park): With a focus on healthy, affordable food, this breakfast/lunch spot is popular for good reason. The highlight is their crack-like coffee and Mexican-themed breakfast menu. The soy chorizo and eggs I had there were so tasty without being heavy. And their flour tortillas! Phenomenal.
Buona Forchetta (South Park): Buona Forchetta makes me happy. Incredible Neapolitan style pizza, a charming al fresco option and lovely waitstaff — it’s no surprise we’re regulars. Our favorites are the Isabella pizza and homemade cheesecake.
Mama’s Bakery (North Park): A great hole-in-the-wall Lebanese spot, Mama’s has fantastic shwarma and falafel wraps thanks in large part to their bread.
Marisco’s German Taco Truck (South Park): The famous Marisco’s German truck located in the parking lot of Gala Foods (Grape and 30th Streets) is the best. Their traditional fish taco (fried) is the way to go, but the ceviche is equally delicious. While you wait, they often pass out free soup.
Sab-e-Lee (Mission Valley): Another hole-in-wall, this Thai restaurant is like eating in a Thai mama’s home kitchen. It’s a small place, so you almost always have to wait, but it’s always worth it. We’re big fans of the Thai beef salad and fried rice. (I never liked fried rice before, but there’s something magical about what they do with theirs.)
Soda & Swine (Normal Heights): Meatball is the theme here, and you can get them as sliders, a sub or on their own. Sometimes these concept restaurants in San Diego are all sparkle, no substance, but there is legitimately good stuff happening at Soda & Swine.
The Donut Bar (Gaslamp): These fancy, indulgent donuts sell out very quickly in the morning, so get your sugar fix early!
Pure Cupcakes (Pacific Beach): A good cupcake is very important to me. Very important. And I had a hard time finding the best one until Eaman stumbled upon Pure and surprised me with their red velvet cupcake. The cake is moist and the frosting silky without being teeth-rotting sweet. It’s also the only place that has matched my New York cupcake standard, and yes, I know I’m a snob!
Hillcrest farmer’s market (Hillcrest): The Little Italy Market is too crazy, the North Park one is too small, but for the city of San Diego (not counting North County), the Hillcrest farmer’s market is just right. I love treating myself to lunch there every few Sundays. Favorites include Gourmet Tamales, Seb’s Paninis and Cravory cookies. I need to try the East African stand soon!
NOTE: I would talk about nightlife, but I don’t go to bars, clubs or live music venues all that much. I’m a morning person and don’t drink alcohol because I don’t enjoy it anymore! That said, I do love Polite Provisions in University Heights for their craft cocktail scene — another high concept place that actually works. They’re located next to Soda & Swine so you can eat your meatballs and imbibe, too. By the way, they have wonderful virgin cocktails.
What else should I add to the list?
pinning the post for future San Diego visit. I have never been to California yet :(
Great! Hope this list serves you well when you come!
This list is so so good!! :)
Oh man, I have a HUGE best of San Diego list I made for a friend who planned on visiting from New York. Some of my personal favorites would have to be:
– Ocean Beach Antique Mall: Jam-packed with awesome stuff. My fiancé and I go here so often, he bought my engagement ring here! Oh, and don’t forget to grab an amazingly delicious chai freeze at Pirates Cove Tiki Port before you go. :)
– Tractor Room (Hillcrest): Probably my favorite breakfast place in San Diego. Get a little tipsy on their breakfast cocktails in the morning while indulging in a huge pile of savory elk sausage hash on mozzarella covered potatoes with a side of their awesome jalapeno cornbread.
– Café Bassam (Banker’s Hill): Unique little coffee and tea place covered from floor to ceiling with the owner’s personal collections and trinkets. They make the best chai tea lattes I’ve ever had.
– Craft & Commerce (Little Italy): Favorite. Place. Ever. Amazing cocktails concocted a la your described preference and delicious comfort-food bites to soak up the alcohol. This place can do no wrong by me, I’m so in love.
I love these recs. Ocean Beach Antique Mall is a favorite of mine, too, and I need to make a separate shopping-specific post to include it. And I live in Hillcrest but haven’t been to the Tractor Room yet. It’s on the list!
SUCH a good list! You hit so many of my own favorite places. We live in North Park so most of my favorites are in this neighborhood… I’d add Snooze in Hillcrest for brunch (I’ve never had a bad meal there), Great Maple as another incredible brunch spot (they have great Bloody Marys, and maple bacon donuts!), URBN in North Park for pizza & drinks, and Carnitas Snack Shack (if you go early or on a weeknight, the line is totally manageable!)
Thanks, Maggie! I love Snooze (but the long wait KILLS me), and I’ve been itching to try Great Maple. This is good motivation!
GREAT list! I agree with so many of these, and then there’s so much I still have to try.
I take all my out of towners to South Beach Bar & Grille for their Fish Tacos. I love this spot!
I’ve heard this one a few times. I need to add it to the list! Thanks!
Love this list! Makes me wish my sister still lived there so I could visit her and check out some of these spots. Love the Hillcrest Farmers Market and The Mission (oh how I could go for breakfast there right now)! So wish I had tried Buona Forchetta. Oh and I’d add the South Beach Bar for their fish tacos. As an out-of-towner, it’s one spot I beg to go to when I visit :)
Thanks, Kate! You can still visit — just come see me :) Buona Forchetta opened just last year, so you might’ve easily missed it. And you’re not the first person to tell me about South Beach Bar. It’s been added to the list!
So true! Def need to make my way back there even if my sister doesn’t move back as she hopes to later this year ;) I haven’t been since 2011 (whoa, didn’t realize it had been that long!) so I totally missed Buona Forchetta! Have fun with your parents in town!
Awesome list – some of those are on my list of faves! If you are ever looking for more recommendations these are great spots too:
Oscar’s Mexican Seafood (PB and La Jolla)- Their ceviche is life-changing and their tacos are fresh as a can be! My friends had it catered at their wedding and needless to say every person had seconds (and thirds). Cash only (just like South Beach).
Alexander’s On 30th (North Park) – If you’re lucky enough to sit outside on the patio, you’ll be happy as a clam. It’s quite possibly one of the cutest restaurants in San Diego and of course, they have great food.
And Great Maple (University Heights, I think) is a must try. You have to save room for the Great Maple apple pie! You feel as if you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Thanks, Adrienne. I’m adding your recs to my ever-growing list!
Heading there soon for a week long trip with some girl friends! We’ll have to check out some of your suggestions. Thanks!
I’m so glad! I’d love to know what you did/liked. Have fun!
You just HAVE to go to Cafe Chloe in SD, when I visited from England I had their Croque Madame which is the I have ever had, and a really refreshing lavender lemonade that was to die for. The setting is also really cute and bijou – it’s perfect for brunch! :)
Yes! I’ve had brunch and coffee at Cafe Chloe. Such a great spot. I love that patio! Thanks, Liz!
This list is missing 4 essential things that are part of the San Diego experience….
1. Burger Lounge….various locations in the San Diego area including La Jolla.
2. The Americana Cafe in Del Mar
3. Roberto’s Mexican Food
4. Del Mar Beach!
If you haven’t tried these places….go.
Hi, Hannah! I do love Burger Lounge, but Roberto’s hasn’t quite won me over yet. I know! It’s very much a San Diego staple. I’ll have to give it another go. I’ve gone to the Del Mar dog beach (I personally prefer Coronado’s), but I’m putting The Americana Cafe on my list. Thanks for sharing!
You might want to check out Point Loma Seafood in San Diego CA. EXCELLENT!
You can buy to take it home or eat at their deli. It is where the fishermen bring in their catch. Always fresh and delicious!
Great, next time in san i do some of these, big hug from cancun mexico
Check out Azucar in Ocean Beach! The chef-owner Vivian is a dessert genius and she brings traditional Cuban pastries to San Diego! The guava cheese is to die for!
Hi, Jo Ellen! I’ve been to Azucar and loved it! I wish I could put all my faves on one list, but I’ll do new versions, and this one is definitely going on the next list. Thanks!
Very useful article!! I completely adore San Diego!
For coffee: other good places are The Living Room (various locations, but the one in La Jolla Cove is my fav). The only place I have found Turkish coffee..
Zumbar in Sorrento Valley is another great coffee spot. Better if you just want to grab and go, it’s quite small.
There’s too much good food here to add in a single response. I’ve lived here for 4 years and when people visit and ask the best places to go, my answer is always “What type of food do you feel like having?”. :)
But the best California Burritos are from a little stand in Hillcrest called La Posta. Hands down. Bring cash and don’t mind the hobos.
Thanks for these tips! I’ve heard about the Living Room but still haven’t had a chance to try it. Putting the others on my list!
Thank you for the tips!! I just moved here a few months ago!!
Fabulous — enjoy!
You covered my favorites! Now I just need to send this link to my peeps planning a vacation here..
Awesome! Thanks for sharing.
I just moved to PB so it would be awesome if you could add some cool places to check out there!
I’ll be doing another list in the near future. Thanks for the input!
Love Soda & Swine/Polite Provisions, definitely a go-to of mine and my boyfriends.
Also love Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights, great craft pizza and beer. If you are a beer fanatic, it’s definitely the place to go. They brew their own beer and have on about a dozen other craft beers as well.
Thanks, Demi! Since this post, I’ve been to Soda & Swine and I love! Same with Polite Provisions. I’m not a beer fan, but my friends do love BLAH. Thanks for sharing!
Great list! Can’t wait to try some of those restaurants. Love balboa park!
We loved San Diego. Add Fashion Valley it is a must! Will have to try most of these when I return.
While trail do you hike at Torrey Pines? I noticed on their website there are a lot. I would like to see the best views of the Pacific Ocean that you are talking about. TIA.
Hi Lynsea, I recommend taking either the North or South Fork trail and following it to the Broken Hill trail, which will take you to the beach. Thanks for reading!
San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival is a must if you’re in the area in November. You buy a ticket and you get unlimited food, wine, and craft beer for the weekend. The venue is gorgeous and it’s right on the Bay. I started the weekend with a Private Reserve tasting on the Hornblower. I had dinner cooked by a celebrity chef during the live auction. I finished the weekend off with a few rounds to the vendors to rate the wines, beer, and culinary treats. All of the clients I’ve ever taken to the event have had an absolute blast. Highly recommended! http://www.sandiegowineclassic.com/
Thank you so much for writing “the list”….It’s fantastic. Going to San Diego in April and just started looking for things to do. We will be staying near the southwest corner of Balboa Park and was wondering about public transportation to get around as we won’t have a car. Would we be able to get to Torrey Pines? Thanks
Thanks for the kind note! April is a great time to be in San Diego. From the area you’re staying in, it’s about a 20-25 minute drive to Torrey Pines. Public transportation, on the other hand, is tricky. I haven’t taken the bus there myself, but a quick Google search tells me it’ll involve a few bus changes and nearly 2 hours of transport time. If renting a car isn’t an option, maybe try Uber? Or just hike around the Balboa Park trails! It’s also a nice walk to Little Italy from where you’ll be staying. Hope that helps!
This is a great list and beautiful photography! I’ve had a blast exploring San Diego since moving recently, and love a good list to guide me. Thanks!
Happy to hear that. Thanks, Emily!
I am so glad I found this!! I’ll be visiting next month and can’t wait to try the coffee and hikes!!
I’m so excited to try some of the things on this list, thank you! My family is from San Diego, and I’m in Texas, so we try to vacation there whenever possible. This September will be the first time I get to take my boyfriend and I am so ready to show him why I love SoCal!
That’s so great. Hope you have fun!
You have to go to Hodad’s for burgers and the OB farmers market. It was an every Wednesday thing when I lived there, lots to see, lots of artisans and jewelry and hand made items as well as pastries, jellies, fruits, veggies, flowers, etc. Everyone should figure out the trolley system. It will save you so much frustration in parking if you see a few things by trolley then get out and walk to your destination. Stroll thru Old Town, shop, eat, see the sites, its a block from the trolley. Little Italy is also a block from the trolley, so it;s an easy stroll. Fillippi’s is a must for pizza and pasta. Mona Lisa’s is great too. Same with the Gaslamp, take the trolley and stroll thru the area. I moved away about 5 years ago, but these are some things I loved about San Diego. When I had a day off from work I would hop on the trolley and go explore.