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A first-timer’s guide to San Diego

San Diego skyline at sunset

Planning a trip to San Diego? Here are my picks for what to do, where to stay, where to eat and drink and more! This San Diego city guide is a living document that I’ll be updating after each future trip!

WHERE TO STAY IN SAN DIEGO: 

The San Diego trips I’ve taken in my adult life have all been for work, and I’ve kept my stays to Hilton properties to earn points. If you’re doing the same, I’d recommend the Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Bayside. It’s nice inside and it’s close to lots of shops and restaurants, as well as the airport. On the flip side, avoid the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel San Diego Circle; it’s a little isolated location-wise, and we had to be moved multiple times because of dirty rooms. 

Storefronts on San Diego street
Bicycle wheel

WHERE TO EAT IN SAN DIEGO:

Trust Restaurant – An all-around solid spot for dinner with plenty of outdoor seating

Civico 1845 – My pick in Little Italy. If you don’t go to Civico, make sure you at least try something in the area!

Herb & Eatery – The perfect stop for a quick and healthy breakfast or lunch

Juniper & Ivy – Inventive cuisine for when you’re feeling fancy

Puesto – Contemporary Mexican food restaurant with killer guacamole

Provisional – This place, located inside the Pendry Hotel, is great for breakfast or lunch in pretty surroundings. It also has a store attached that sells housewares, jewelry and more.

Kindred – Vegan offerings and serious cocktails with a a side of killer interior design

Bowl of potatoes
People on stools at long table
Brightly colored bar
Salad
Two people sitting at a bar
Bowl of pasta and cheese

WHERE TO DRINK IN SAN DIEGO:

Communal Coffee – This coffee shop shares a space with a flower shop, and together they make up the loveliest space! Seriously, I’d live in it if I could. If you’re looking for additional coffee shop options, I’ve rounded up my favorite six right here.

Holsem Coffee – Also in the guide, but also deserves a shout-out

San Diego breweriesBallast Point and North Park Beer Co. are a couple good ones of many!

People working on laptops in Communal Coffee
Two chairs in front of wall of plants

WHAT TO DO & SEE IN SAN DIEGO:

Go to the beach – Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach are two popular options. I’ve never been to Pacific Beach myself, but I’ve heard it can be a little fratty. Head to North Pacific Beach if that’s not your vibe!

Head to Balboa ParkBalboa Park is huge and houses more than 16 museums! You won’t run out of things to do here, but it’s also the perfect place to stroll or picnic if you’d rather just take it easy.

Go for a hike – The Cowles Mountain summit is the highest point in San Diego, but the trail is an easy one that’ll provide just enough of a workout without venturing into strenuous territory. Allow between 1.5 and 2 hours if you want some time to take in the views at the top! I haven’t tried it personally, but Potato Chip Rock is an option if you’re looking for a longer, more difficult hike with some fun photo ops. 

Tower in Balboa Park
Woman on scooter in Balboa Park
Water lilies in Balboa Park
Red flowers
Tree overlooking mountains
Carly sitting on rock overlooking mountains

Explore North Park – There are plenty of fun shops and funky houses around this neighborhood to keep you entertained for a couple hours of exploring. 

Watch a California sunset – My favorite spots are Sunset Cliffs and Point Loma!

Rent a car and drive up the coast – There are so many pretty spots to see, but a couple of my favorites are La Jolla and Oceanside (more on those in this post). If you’re not renting a car, La Jolla is reachable by Uber, and I definitely recommend heading up there to see the sea cave and the sea lions!

Row of red bicycles
North Park sign
Cars parked by a cliff
Sun setting behind a succulent
Sun setting over the ocean

STILL ON MY LIST:

Point Loma tide pools – If you visit Point Loma at low tide, you can see all kinds of sea critters near Cabrillo National Monument. Before you go, make sure to check this website for more info on the tide times and note the opening and closing hours, as the area is located on an active naval base whose hours are strictly enforced. 

Campfire – I’ve long wanted to visit this restaurant for lunch or dinner. It’s in Carlsbad, so you’ll need a car to get there from SD! Check out this post for tips on how to earn frequent flier miles while renting a car. 

Cross the border to visit Tijuana, Mexico – I did this when I was a kid, but haven’t done it since, and Tijuana has undergone somewhat of a renaissance since then. Make sure you have your passport on you!

San Diego Zoo – The San Diego Zoo is one of the best in the country, but it also runs $54 for an adult one-day pass. I haven’t brought myself to pony up the money to go on my own, but with friends or kids I’m sure it’d be a fun way to spend a day!

SeaWorld – Pretty much the same situation as above, but SeaWorld tickets are even more expensive. You’ll pay $71.99 for a one-day pass.

Pink flowers on a tree
Fuscia flowers on a tree
Abstract shapes painted on a wall

For more on San Diego, check out these posts on the city’s cutest coffee shops and day-tripping to La Jolla and Oceanside.

Hope you enjoyed this San Diego city guide! What are your can’t-miss spots in San Diego? Share them below in the comments! >>

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The ultimate San Diego travel guide A first-timer's guide to San Diego San Diego what to see where to stay where to eat & more

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3 Comments

  1. Reply

    Kelly Zeleznik

    February 15, 2019

    I do not even know the way I finished up here, however I assumed this publish used to be great. I do not realize who you are however definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

    • Reply

      Carly

      February 26, 2019

      Thank you, Kelly!! So glad you like the blog!

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