How To Vacation in San Diego

San diego skyline and marina

If you're thinking about planning a vacation to San Diego chances are the first things that jump to mind are a warm climate and inviting beaches. But San Diego has a lot more to offer than just beautiful sunny days at the beach (although that's enough to draw most people for at least a weekend). San Diego has world-famous attractions, great shopping, historic neighborhoods and a culture all its own.

There's a lot to consider when planning your stay in San Diego and what you choose to do will depend on how long your vacation is. Below is a list of neighborhoods and attractions that you should at least consider visiting while vacationing in San Diego, as well as a few tips about where to stay and how to get around town.

Beach Time

Let's start off with what San Diego is famous for: the beach! There are a few different beaches to choose from, but each affords similar activities. And all allow you to lie in the sun and soak up some rays.

  1. On the Beach. The beaches that people vacationing in San Diego enjoy the most include La Jolla Shores, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Coronado. All offer a memorable beach-going experience and, depending on where you're staying, all are a good choice. Coronado is the least accessible (unless you're staying on the island), but is usually the least crowded San Diego beach.

    Regardless of which beach you choose, don't forget about having fun on the sand! There are traditional beach activities that every San Diego vacation should include: building sandcastles, throwing the football or Frisbee around (although wind can make throwing a Frisbee less enticing), playing paddle ball, tossing horseshoes, having a picnic. Make sure to bring some food and beverages.

    Tip: It is legal to drink alcohol on San Diego beaches as long as it's not in a glass container.

    Mission Beach, which is just south of Pacific Beach, also has a carnival-type park called Belmont Park. It's open year-round and lures vacationers in with its carousel, arcade room and Giant Dipper (wooden) roller coaster. Since it's right on the boardwalk of Mission Beach, it's a great place to spend a little time after you're done on the sand. And the Big Dipper is a great choice at sunset since you get a beautiful view of the ocean, the beach and the coast from the top of the bigger drops.

  2. Surfing and Boogie Boarding. If you want to spend your beach time in the water, you can rent a surfboard or boogie (body) board by the half-hour, hour or day at almost every beach in San Diego. You'll see tents set up right on the sand that have everything you need for a day in the waves.

    If you're a beginner, you might want to consider signing up for a surfing lesson. Most surfing schools cater to vacationers and offer one and two day classes that will get you standing on the board (if only for a few seconds).

    Some of the San Diego surfing hotspots include La Jolla Shores, Mission and Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach (which tends to be populated by locals) and Carlsbad, if you're willing to drive that far.

  3. Scuba Diving. San Diego offers some great diving spots. Beginners can shore dive from La Jolla Shores or La Jolla Cove. There are beautiful kelp beds, interesting sea creatures and, if you make it a little farther from shore, the Canyon, which is a deep crevice that affords a steep temperature drop and a new world below the water. Remember that the water is cool even in the summertime, so you'll have to wear a full wetsuit and hood if you plan to stay under water for long.

    If you're a more advanced diver, you might find yourself heading to Wreck Alley on a boat dive. When San Diego was first developed it was a Naval town. Subsequently, there are a variety of Naval ships that have been intentionally sunk just offshore for San Diego's artificial reef program. Most outfitters offer trips to Wreck Alley, but you'll have to book early during the summer.

    Some other dive sites include Point Loma, which also boasts beautiful kelp beds, and the Coronado Islands, which is a day trip but offers some of the best visibility and sea life in the area.

  4. Sailing, kayaking, jet skiing, boating. If you're hoping to stay above the water on your visit to San Diego, you can opt for a vessel of some kind. Any of these options will allow you to explore the Pacific Ocean and/or San Diego's bays, but will (hopefully) prevent you from getting too wet.

    You can kayak from just about anywhere, but some of the more popular locations include La Jolla Shores and Mission Bay/Mission Beach. There are also many kayak rental shops in these're bound to see at least one on your way to the beach. Kayaking is a great activity as it gets you out on the water, keeps you moving, and still allows you time for other activities that day. You can rent kayaks for just an hour or, if you're an enthusiast, you can take them out all day long and paddle up the coast, or hang out in the bay and fish for hours.

    When it comes to sailing and boating you are limited to the Harbor (downtown) and Mission Bay as launching points. Mission Bay gives you almost immediate access to the Pacific, or you can choose to sail around Fiesta Island and just stay in the calmer water of the bay. San Diego Harbor is just west of downtown, and not far from the airport. From here you can also easily access the ocean, or sail over to Coronado for a picnic. Most vacationers in San Diego opt for sailing and boating in Mission Bay. It has more of a relaxed, beach feel and there are more rental opportunities than at San Diego Bay.

Amusement Parks and Attractions

  1. San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. Probably the most famous (or should I say "world famous") San Diego attraction is the Zoo. San Diego's zoo is one of the biggest, most extensive zoos in the world. If you're going to the Zoo, definitely plan on spending the entire day there. You'll be able to hit up Polar Bear Plunge, Gorilla Tropics, Tiger River, Hippo Beach, the Giant Panda Research Station, and a slew of other exhibits and shows.

    During the summer the Zoo stays open later for "Nighttime Zoo". This usually begins in June and runs through Labor Day. The Zoo typically closes at 5pm, but during Nighttime Zoo it stays open until 9pm, which gives you more zoo for your dollar. The San Diego Zoo can be expensive with adults paying $32 for a ticket and children $19.75. However, you can feel good about paying that much because the price of your ticket goes back into the Zoo and its animals. You may have the opportunity to save on the cost of your ticket if you plan on visiting other San Diego attractions such as Sea World or the Wild Animal Park.

    The Wild Animal Park is a bit of a drive from the Zoo, but offers a different animal viewing experience. Here you can get on a tram that takes you through Africa and Asia to view animals as they live in their native habitats. The Wild Animal Park also puts on fun, entertaining and educational animal shows.

  2. Sea World. If your kids have been dying to see Shamu, this is their chance. San Diego has a Sea World, which is similar to the Sea Worlds around the nation. Located on Mission Bay, Sea World is easily accessible and a must for most families vacationing with children. Here you can pet a stingray (with stinger removed, of course), feed a dolphin and, you guessed it, get soaked by Shamu (well, it's not really Shamu, but Shamu's relatives). Sea World has a dolphin show, a sea lion and otter show, the Shamu show, a Cirque du Soleil inspired show with aquatic acrobats called Cirque de la Mer, and many other exhibits that let you get up close and personal with many marine animals. Sea World also has a few rides to step up the excitement or cool you down on a hot day (Atlantis and Shipwreck Rapids are two of the most popular rides in the park...and yes, they're water rides).

    Sea World costs $54 for an adult ticket and $44 for a child's ticket, but be on the lookout for deals and savings, especially if you're planning your San Diego vacation at an off-peak time.

  3. Legoland. Now this park is definitely for families. It tends to attract a younger crowd. While you can still have fun at SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo as an adult without children, most adults probably wouldn't choose to spend the day at Legoland without their children in tow. With that being said, Legoland can provide you with a colorful day of excitement and adventure.

    Everywhere you look when you're within the walls of Legoland is a spectacular creation made of colorful Legos. Even the rides and roller coasters appear to have been constructed by hundreds of thousands of Lego pieces. You can have a splash battle at Pirate Shores or rocket down drops on Coastersaurus in Dino Town. Legoland also offers activities for its young guests, such as digging for "dinosaur fossils" in Dino Town.

    At $57 for an adult ticket and $44 for a child's, Legoland is certainly not the cheapest option, but're on vacation and your kids are sure to have a memorable day.

    Tip: If you're planning to go to more than one park or spend more than one day at a park you will be able to find a discounted ticket. Look on the park websites for deals or go through a third party vendor, but make sure you get a deal on a multi-day option. Oftentimes these deals are well worth a little time investigating.

Places to Visit

  1. Balboa Park. Just north of downtown is the nation's largest urban cultural park, Balboa Park. San Diego's museums are concentrated here and they include: the Science Center and IMAX theater, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Man, the Air&Space Museum, the Automotive Museum, the Model Railroad Museum, the Museum of Art and much more. You'll also find performing arts theatres in the park (such as The Old Globe and the Starlight Theater) where you can enjoy Shakespeare (and other) plays and musicals in both indoor and outdoor venues. If you're more of a naturalist, you can relax on the grass, stroll through the Japanese Friendship Garden or peruse the Botanical Garden-all located within the park.

    Balboa Park is located next-door to the San Diego Zoo. You can spend an entire day there or just take a break from the Zoo at lunchtime and grab a hotdog and soda from one of the many vendors that populate the park on the weekends and summer days. It's a great place for a picnic lunch or a day of cultural activities.

  2. Gaslamp. If you visit downtown San Diego you'll certainly end up in the Gaslamp Quarter, or you should. The Gaslamp is synonymous with San Diego nightlife. It boasts some of San Diego's best restaurants, bars and nightclubs. During the day you can shop at locally owned stores or head to Horton Plaza if you're in the mood for a mall; at night you can have dinner at a variety of restaurants that offer a wide range of fare and prices, then catch a Padres game in the (relatively) new Petco Park. You'll probably head home if you have the kids with you, but if not you can walk up and down 4th, 5th and 6th Avenues and duck in to any bar or club that catches your eye.
  3. La Jolla. As mentioned before, La Jolla is a great place for beachgoers. You can lay on the sand, learn to surf, rent a kayak, go scuba diving, picnic on the grass near the beach or any number of other beach and water-related activities. Even the seals have picked La Jolla as their beach of choice. If you find yourself up by La Jolla Cove, you can walk along the water and visit Children's Beach. Don't let the name deceive you, the seals have taken over and locals have adopted the name Seal Beach instead. On a warm day you might see hundreds of seals lying on this little, self-contained beach sunning themselves.

    However, La Jolla also offers some wonderful upscale shopping and boutiques. If you're looking to spend money you can certainly make that happen in La Jolla. The main street, Prospect, is lined with art stores, fancy clothing boutiques, and high-end restaurants. It's a great place to window shop or buy yourself a unique treat.

  4. Coronado. Most people refer to Coronado as an island since you have to take a bridge (the Coronado Bridge no less) to get there. However, it is connected to the main land by a small strip of beach known as the Silver Strand. Half of Coronado is military land, but the other half is public and very upscale. On Coronado you'll find a variety of restaurants and shops where you can get standard touristy souvenirs or pricey, one-of-kind pieces of art or fancy clothing. Coronado's main street, Orange Ave., is almost as picturesque as its beaches.

    If you find yourself on the beach in Coronado, be sure to wander over to the Hotel Del Coronado (or just the Hotel Del for short). The Hotel Del is one of San Diego's historic landmarks as 10 US presidents, a plethora of movie stars and many American legends (like Babe Ruth and Thomas Edison) have graced its halls with their presence.

    The Hotel Del was built to be "the talk of the western world" and it has certainly become that. It is a beautiful, albeit pricey, resort. If you're looking to splurge, by all means the Hotel Del is a wonderful place to stay. It's right on the water and offers beautiful views along with all the amenities of any 5-star resort and spa. If you want to get a feel for the Del but don't want to stay overnight, just come for lunch and take a walk around. The Hotel Del welcomes visitors whether they're staying for the week or the hour.

  5. Old Town. Old Town is considered the Birthplace of California since the first permanent Spanish settlement was here. It was once the center of San Diego, but has since been preserved as a State Historic Park. In Old Town you can walk through Spanish missions made of adobe, visit San Diego's first schoolhouse and get spooked by the ghosts in the Whaley House (San Diego's oldest mansion that is said to be haunted by the ghosts of the family that inhabited it).

    Old Town also has over 35 restaurants, many of them Mexican. If you're looking for good Mexican food on your vacation to San Diego, Old Town is certainly one of your best options. You'll also find 150 small shops where you can purchase knick-knacks and other goods that have been influenced by the Spanish culture of the area. Old Town is a great place to get a great meal and then spend an hour or two walking it off.

  6. Mexico. About 15 miles from downtown you can cross the border and enter Mexico. Tijuana is the closest town and a typical border town. The main drag, Avenida Revolucion, is lined with nightclubs (that are also open during the day) and local shops that all sell similar items. You might find Mexican blankets, leather backpacks and purses, and Tijuana shot glasses (along with other tourist-influenced items). You'll also likely see small children selling necklaces and Chickletts in an attempt to make some money. They can be very persistent. If you're looking for a romantic Mexico, you won't find it here. But if you want to get a flavor for Mexico (or at least a border town) and want to head down for lunch or a cerveza or two, it could be a fun day.

    If you're willing to drive a little further and, most likely, stay overnight in Mexico, you can find some nicer Mexican towns. Rosarito is on the beach and still has some of the nightclub ambiance of Tijuana, but has some other, less debaucherous options as well. Here you can go horseback riding, jet skiing surfing or fishing. Ensenada, 70 miles south of San Diego, is another Mexican town that San Diegans love as a weekend getaway. You can fish, shop, golf and-you guessed it-hit up a nightclub while you're down there!

Places to Stay

There are hotels throughout all of San Diego. You are certainly not limited to the options listed below. For example, you would certainly be able to find a hotel on the beach if that best suits you. However, these are some of the most popular options for San Diego vacationers.

  1. Rent a Condo on the Beach. If you're planning to spend most of your time at the beach on your San Diego vacation, renting a condo right there is a popular move. Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are connected by a "boardwalk" that runs along the sand and separates the beach from the beachfront property. Most of the beachfront property in this area consists of condos that can be rented out on a weekly or monthly basis. If you have a big group, are staying for longer than a weekend, or you're planning to spend the majority of your time at the beach, you should look into renting a condo. They can be pricey, but when you wake up in the morning on the beach, it may be worth it.

    You can also rent condos on Mission Bay. They're typically less expensive than those on the boardwalk, are within walking distance of the beach, and still offer beach sand and a waterfront view at your doorstep.

  2. Hotel Circle. Many people vacationing in San Diego opt to stay in Hotel Circle. It's located near both Mission and Fashion Valley (both great, outdoor malls if you're looking to spend some time shopping) and is not far from Old Town. Hotel Circle is a central location if you're planning to hit up the Zoo, the beach, Sea World, the Gaslamp and/or Old Town. It's right in between all of these attractions and it will take less than 10 minutes to drive to any of these locations.

    As you've probably guessed, Hotel Circle has more than just one hotel to offer. There are hotels all over San Diego, but many are concentrated in this area since it is so central. You can find hotels for any price range here: from a Motel 6 and a Travelodge to a Doubletree and a Ramada. Many of these hotels will also offer ticket packages for the many San Diego attractions; just ask at the front desk.

  3. Downtown Gaslamp. If you want to be in the middle of all the action, a hotel in the Gaslamp might be your best bet. You're within walking distance of a variety of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, as well as Petco Park (San Diego's baseball stadium) and Horton Plaza (a big, outdoor mall). If you like to stay in the city, downtown San Diego is the place for you. You can choose from a variety of luxury hotels including the W, the U.S. Grant, and the Omni (which is connected to Petco Park and usually where all the visiting baseball teams stay).


Depending on where you're staying, transportation can be a problem. Public transportation is notoriously bad in San Diego. Your options are limited if you plan to travel all over the San Diego area.

  1. Rent a Car. Your best bet in San Diego is to rent a car. It will give you the most freedom and you'll be able to get everywhere that you want to go with very little hassle. Pretty much everything in San Diego is within a 15-minute drive of everything else and parking usually isn't a problem. You may need to get to the beach a little earlier than usual on a summer weekend, but parking is free and readily available everywhere you go, with the exception of downtown. Parking downtown can be a pain, but most of the downtown hotels have parking garages that you can park in for a daily fee. If you're staying downtown for your entire trip, you likely won't need a car. But if you're driving around to the amusement parks and beaches, you will.
  2. Trolley. San Diego's main public transportation system is the Trolley. It travels from downtown (and Petco Park) to Old Town, Mission and Fashion Valley malls, Qualcomm Stadium (home of the Chargers), and as of recently, SDSU. It's pretty limited unless you're heading downtown for a Padres game or to Old Town or the mall for the afternoon. It also stops running around midnight, so you can't take it downtown and expect to stay out until the bars close. You can check out a map of the trolley here. San Diego also has a bus transit system, but it's not usually very convenient.
  3. Cab. As with most major cities, it's not too hard to find a cab in San Diego-although it's easier in some areas than others. If you plan on getting around via cab, you should definitely keep the number of a cab company with you at all times. Some places you'll be sure to find a cab include: downtown/Gasamp; PB (Pacific Beach) during the day and at night...a lot of young adults go out to bars on Garnett (the main drag in PB); and, obviously, the airport. Although cabs aren't roaming all around San Diego, it is easy to get one. A cab will usually be dispatched about 5-10 minutes after you call and will arrive shortly thereafter.

San Diego is a great vacation spot and offers a lot of fun activities for people of all ages and interests. Whether you just have a weekend to spare or you can come down for a week or more, you'll have plenty to do and you'll certainly have lots of fun!


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Awesome article! I was stationed there when I was a sailor, and there was ALWAYS something to do!

By Patrick Smith