48 sunny hours in San Diego, California

San Diego, a little bit Sydney on the surface until you visit, discovers Caroline Smith, who takes a deep dive into the city to soak up its distinctive SoCal sensibility.

Great beaches, the harbour, cultural and historical attractions and a huge array of entertainment options are served up with year-round sunshine and an extravagantly flavourful food scene that is a gourmand’s delight.

Stay close

The Sofia Hotel, an original grande dame of San Diego‘s historic Gaslamp district with its spacious rooms and gracious décor is an ideal base in a central downtown location that is hard to beat. And like all good downtowns, the Gaslamp and bordering Little Italy neighbourhoods come alive at night, with restaurants, bars and speakeasies that turn a leisurely stroll after hotel check-in into a delicious foodie tour followed by a cocktail crawl. From Havana1920’s authentic Cuban to El Chingon’s ‘bad ass Mexican’, then cocktails with live music at Prohibition and a roadie at Noble Experiment, it was an introduction to remember.

A peaceful sleep-in is welcome with the CBD proving a late riser on Saturday, to our delight. For those who like to get out and exercise, both the foreshore and Harbourside Park are a short walk away, with harbour views and a breath of sea air while you walk or run. Head to the hotel gym for a structured workout, followed by your choice of Starbucks coffee fix conveniently next door.

Southern California is famous for its agricultural and citrus growing origins and the farmlands still surrounding San Diego have fresh produce in abundance. And who doesn’t love a Saturday market? The Little Italy Food Market, an easy walk from the hotel, starts early and runs all day, drawing locals and visitors to its colourful array of artisan and family-produced fruit and vegetables, food stalls and creative offerings. Browse the stalls, grab a freshly-squeezed health juice, a deliciously decadent pastry or spicy taco and pick up some authentic locally made gifts to take home.

Park yourself

If the market gets too busy, hop in an Uber or onto the hop-on and off city bus and head to Balboa Park, one of the oldest urban and cultural parks in the U.S., for some green and serene time. Balboa is the huge greenspace heart of the city, with fascinating formal gardens like the Japanese Friendship Garden, a central square surrounded by 17 different museums built in neo-Spanish mission style which cater to the different interests or creative yearnings of any visitor.

Spread over 1200 acres, Balboa includes the world-famous San Diego Zoo and the less well-known Nudist Garden (disappointingly empty of visitors when we were there). Wander or stride purposefully through this beautiful sanctuary and spend an hour, a day or many days here without seeing all it has to offer.  Do check the opening hours before you go as many of the museums are closed on Monday or Tuesdays. 

In the San Diego ‘hood

If you love to see the arty side of a city and how modern culture renews and re-fashions older neighbourhoods, North Park will reward you at every turn with surprising examples of cool boutiques, craft breweries, curated food & wine offerings and architectural marvels. First stop should be the Hotel Lafayette with its gorgeous renovation of an Art Deco property stuffed with character and cool 50’s style. Sip on a retro cocktail at the bar, a soda in the diner or lounge by the central pool like a movie star and have these libations served to you.

North Park at night
North Park at dusk © Mindy Nicole

Take a walk on the wild side

And visit boutiques such as Artelexia, a cornucopia of Mexican art, design and gifts or Pigment, a garden-styled gift shop with walls of potted succulents to decorate your home or garden, or as thoughtful gifts, with all the cool garden accoutrements and unusual cards to accompany them. 

Thirsty work for sure, so for refreshment drop into Bivouac, an outdoor-inspired craft cider brewery. Try a flight of several of their delicious brews and you may find yourself a convert. Their surprisingly refreshing drinks, while produced locally, are now selling as far away as Arizona and are best enjoyed with some tasty wings from their bar menu. On the way back to your hotel, drop into Venissimo, a superb wine and cheese market, to pick up your favourite cheese or one you’d like to try and wine to pair with it.

Three types of brew at Bivouac Ciderworks
Choose from a selection of fresh brews at Bivouac Ciderworks © Bivouac Ciderworks

Foodie favourites in San Diego

The foodie theme continues with a San Diego bar and restaurant scene that is vibrant and varied with strong influences from Mexico and Italy, supported by luscious and abundant local produce and the creative chefs, brewers and distillers who have been attracted to all SoCal can offer. The home of excellent fish tacos; these can and should be eaten at every opportunity but there’s so much more to a San Diego foodie adventure. 

For a change of pace, Little Italy is a Mecca of Italian eateries, some traditional and others less so. Civico 1845 is a standout for many reasons. One of only four restaurants in San Diego to be ranked by Gambero Rosso International – the definitive resource on the most authentic Italian restaurants around the world, it was also the first in the U.S. to offer a separate vegan menu. Exec Chef Pietro Gallo has ushered in a new generation of Italian food with his light but authentic Calabrian dishes. From my deliciously potent Sogna Oaxaca mezcal cocktail and a tasting plate of seafood salad, ricotta filled zucchini blossoms and smoky mozzarella arancini to the melanzane(eggplant) parmigiana, gnocchi and more substantial organic stuffed chicken breast, the flavours were a dance through sunny southern Italy at its best.

If Mexican food and drinks are your go-tos, San Diego is endlessly rewarding. From the traditional Chicano local standouts such as Salud Tacos in Barrio Logan to food trucks, beachside cafes, Old Town and markets, your Mexican food itch will be seriously scratched.

Wine and dine in San Diego restaurants
Wine and dine amongst San Diego’s vibrant food scene © Kimberly Moto

Breakfast or brunch in San Diego

It’s as much a reflection of this diversity as lunch and dinner, offering a wake-up call to tastebuds. Cocina 35, in several locations across the city is best visited at Liberty Station, a former naval training facility reimagined, where, if you fancy, you can make a day of eating and drinking your way through this stylish hub filled with gourmet eateries, boutiques, pubs and bars. Explore Liberty Public Market, surrounded by art galleries and museums housed in Spanish Colonial Revival style buildings, or bike your way along the waterfront park’s cycle paths.

Chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican breakfast favourite and house specialty at Cocina 35; strips of soft fried corn tortillas moistened with a choice of creamy habanero, salsa verde or chipotle sauces topped with cilantro ( coriander) and queso (melty cheese). If your normal brekky is a cup of tea and vegemite toast, this will be a whole new ball-game, known as an excellent Sunday morning hangover cure. Closer to downtown is Breakfast Republic serving American classics and some original creations in huge proportions that are best shared. Try the decadent Cinnamon Roll or Oreo Cookie pancakes, or if you’re really game, the Breakfast Jambalaya feast – but make sure you’re hungry. 

Dance to your own drum in San Diego

Entertainment options are so plentiful in this city that the best plan is to map out your picks in advance. Music festivals like the CRSSD EDM festival we had come to see book  out well in advance and feature some of the best artists on the planet for alternative house and techno genres.  Held over two days in the incredible Waterfront Park location, steps from our downtown hotel,  the festival was a well-organised delight with easy access to food and drinks. Even better, it was not too crowded and open only to those over 21, making for a noticeably well-behaved and happy audience with understated security. 

Take a ghost tour, a San Diego City Lights Night or harbour dinner cruise to get the best overview of the city at night. Balboa Park is open late as is the USS Midway Museum. The Gaslamp district comes alive in the evenings and is an excellent choice for a stroll through boutiques, bars,restaurants, theatres, live music and comedy venues in this historic downtown.

If you’re a beach lover, San Diego has some of the best in California. Walk, bike ride, scooter or roller skate between beaches from Ocean to Pacific through the beachside culture that San Diego is famous for. Make sure to pass by Coronado, now joined to the main city by the famous curved bridge and featuring the crown jewel of the Victorian ice-cream cake that is the glorious Hotel Del Coronado at its southern end. Saved from demolition and fully restored, it is one of the largest wooden buildings in the U.S. and a homage to the beach vacations and style of a bygone era. 

Hotel Del Coronado © Hanna Tor

Hike along the cliffs in San Diego

Explore La Jolla’s glamorous boutiques, coves and caves, or play a round of golf at one of over a dozen trip-worth courses. The opportunities for outdoor recreation and fascinating glimpses into the city’s past, culture, attractions and neighbourhood flavours are endless.

The good news is that San Diego is easily accessible from Los Angeles by car, flight or train and its sunshine, surf and attractions will be welcoming any time you have a couple of free days (or more) to explore Southern California. For more information, visit: www.SanDiego.org

Keep reading