San Diego

The Almost Too Perfect Vacation Spot

San Diego is almost too perfect. The weather is warm and sunny year round, the coastline is drop-dead gorgeous, and the attractions are abundant and varied.  It's hard to know where to start. So, to keep you from getting too overwhelmed by the abundance of it all, we'll explore the county by regions, heading from north to south. 

North Coast San Diego Beach Cities

Oceanside Pier

The beach cities to the north of San Diego offer a variety of experiences, from chic luxury resorts to laid back and casual beach towns.

To see the coastline at a more leisurely pace, take Old Highway 101, which parallels Highway 5. The name of the highway will change as you go through different coastal towns, but it's not hard to keep on track.

You'll find miles of sandy beach in this area, with just about every beach activity imaginable. You can go fishing at Oceanside's huge refurbished pier or go swimming, surfing, boating, kayaking, hiking... whatever.

Take a trip to see the historic Mission San Luis Rey, "King of the Missions," built in 1798 and lovingly restored. In Carlsbad, enjoy the cobblestone streets and quaint shops, or visit the amazing Legoland, where you'll see elaborate constructions made entirely of Lego blocks, and enjoy numerous rides and attractions.

If it's a bit of pampering you're after, check into Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad, La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, or L'Auberge Del Mar Resort & Spa.

From July through September you can go to the races at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, the seaside horse racing track and club made famous by the likes of Bing Crosby and Pat O'brien.

Or enjoy Del Mar's excellent restaurants, art galleries and chic boutiques. You'll find photos and visitor information at Del Mar Guide.

If you're looking for adventure, see San Diego's north coast from the air. You'll find hot air balloon rides and biplane adventures offered.

Where to stay on San Diego's north coast

La Jolla

La Jolla Cliffs

La Jolla is, in a word, exquisite. How appropriate that its name (pronounced La Hoya) means "the jewel" in Spanish. Locals call this Mediterranean style enclave "The Village," even though it is, in fact, part of the city of San Diego.

La Jolla is a wonderful place for strolling, which is a good thing since it's no fun to drive those windy little streets. You'll find plenty of boutiques, art galleries, and gourmet restaurants. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is also located in the downtown area.

La Jolla's rocky shoreline provides excellent surfing, snorkeling and skin diving. Kayaking is a popular way to explore the sea caves and kelp forests. For hiking, birding, and fantastic views from the bluffs, head to Torrey Pines State Beach & Reserve. If golf is your thing, there's the Torrey Pines Golf Course.

You can watch paragliders and hang-gliders jump off the cliffs and soar over the waves at the Torrey Pines Gliderport.

La Jolla is also home to UC San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The Birch Aquarium, operated by Scripps, offers displays of its extensive collection of sea life. Take the simulator ride for a three minute virtual adventure, or get touchy-feely with the sea critters at the tide pool Discovery Center.

Where to stay in La Jolla

Mission Bay

Mission Bay

Mission Bay is one big aquatic playground. Dredged from a tidal marsh, Mission Bay Park is probably the largest municipal aquatic park in the world, with 4600 acres, 26 miles of sandy beach, and 27 miles of scenic pathways and boardwalk.

Enjoy swimming, sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, boating, fishing, jogging, cycling, golf and tennis. You can rent all manner of watercraft and recreational equipment here.

And if all that wears you out, there's always picnicking and sunbathing.

The biggest attraction in Mission Bay is SeaWorld - 189 acres of amazing sea life displays and shows. You'll see penguins, bat rays, moray eels, dolphins, sea otters, sharks, whales, and more -- many more.

On the ocean side, Ocean Front Walk runs the length of the coast from Pacific Beach through Mission Beach. These are among the most popular beaches in San Diego, particularly with teens and young adults, and the boardwalk can get crowded with joggers, skaters, and cyclists on sunny weekends. For fishing, or to get a great view, head to Crystal Pier.

Families favor Belmont Park, at the south end of Mission Beach. Here, you'll find a beach-side amusement park, featuring the 1929 "Giant Dipper" roller coaster, a carousel, an indoor swimming pool, shops and eateries.

Where to stay in Mission Bay

Point Loma

Point Loma

Point Loma peninsula guards the mouth of San Diego's Big Bay, and in the process provides some pretty spectacular scenery. For a laid back beach experience, head to Ocean Beach, and then take a drive along Sunset Cliffs to enjoy the view.

Cabrillo National Monument, at the very tip of the peninsula, is the best place in San Diego to watch the whales go by during the winter migration. But it's a great spot even without the whales. On a clear day, you can see from Mexico to La Jolla. While you're there, be sure to check out the tide pools.

The Point Loma area is also home to the San Diego Sports Arena, the place to go for sports events and big-name concerts.

Where to stay in Point Loma

Old Town San Diego

Presidio overlooking Old Town San Diego

Old Town is where it all started back in 1769, when Padre Junipero Serra established the first European settlement in California. At Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, you'll find historic buildings, adobe restorations, museums, and a festive atmosphere with colorful shops and Mexican restaurants. There are free walking tours daily, or take a self-guided tour.

You can also board the Old Town Trolley, for a two hour narrated tour of Old Town and other locations in San Diego and Coronado. You can get on and off the Trolley all day long for one fee.

High on a hill behind Old Town is Presidio Park and the Serra Museum. Then, for yet more history, visit the charming Victorians at Heritage Park. You can even stay at a beautifully restored 1889 Queen Anne mansion, the Heritage Park Inn.

This area is noted for excellent moderately priced accommodations, in Old Town and nearby Hotel Circle. The location provides easy access to a variety of San Diego attractions.

Where to stay on Hotel Circle

Where to stay in Old Town

Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is located just north of downtown. Covering 1,200 acres, the park is among the largest and most beautiful of America's city parks. The distinctive Spanish Baroque architecture dates from two world's fairs in 1915 and 1935.

The collection of museums in Balboa Park has been dubbed the "Smithsonian of the West." There are 15 of them, covering a diverse range of topics, including photograpy, art, cars, sports, railroads and natural history.

You'll find numerous attractions in the park. You can ride the 1910 vintage carousel or take a trip on the miniature railroad. There are 4 theaters, glorious botanical gardens, picnic and playground areas, and a variety of restaurants.

Balboa Park is also home to the world famous San Diego Zoo, with some 4,000 animals, representing 800 species. The zoo is huge, spread over 100 acres, but you can take a guided bus tour or the Skyfari Aerial Tram.

Adjacent to Balboa park is the Hillcrest community, with cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, restaurants and unique shops.

Where to stay near Balboa Park & the Zoo

Downtown San Diego & the Harbor

Seaport Village

San Diego's urban core is a popular place for dining, shopping and nightlife.

The Gaslamp Quarter features charming Victorian-style commercial buildings, art galleries, boutiques, specialty shops, over 90 restaurants and numerous entertainment options. The old fashioned gaslamps that are the hallmark of the quarter add a romantic glow at night.

This 16 block district contains 153 historic buildings. You can take a self guided museum tour or a Gaslamp Guided Walking Tour to learn about the Quarter's fascinating and turbulent history. Maps and tours are available at the William Heath Davis Historic House Museum.

Horton Plaza is a unique and colorful shopping experience. Built with 7 levels twisting through over 6 city blocks with a mix of different styles, shopping here can be downright dizzying. You'll navigate rambling paths and bridges, enjoy fountains, sculptures and greenery, and browse through some 140 shops, restaurants and boutiques.

Seaport Village was designed to capture the look and feel of early California. The 14 acre Village offers waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment, amid winding paths and parks.

To get a good view of the harbor area, take a harbor cruise or get a panoramic view of the Bay from the end of Broadway Pier. The Maritime Museum of San Diego displays vintage ships, the most famous of which is the 1863 Star of India.

Other notable landmarks include PETCO Park sports arena and the Santa Fe Depot, a transportation hub for trains and buses. The Depot, built in 1915, is notable for its Spanish Mission architecture.

Where to stay in the Downtown & Harbor area


Hotel Del Coronado

Coronado is an "island" that's really a peninsula, connected to the mainland by a long, narrow sand spit called the Silver Strand. You can reach Coronado by the long and graceful Coronado Bay Bridge or by the San Diego Bay Ferry.

Hotel Del Coronado is the dominant landmark. Built in 1888, "The Del," as it's affectionately known, is a National Historic Landmark, and a playground for the rich and famous.

Coronado is a charming little city with plenty of cafes, restaurants, art galleries and unique shops. Take a stroll along Orange Avenue, the main drag, or head to The Ferry Landing for spectacular views of downtown San Diego, quaint shops and numerous restaurants.

With its 31 miles of pristine white sand beaches, Coronado offers plenty of recreational opportunity. Take a romantic gondola tour or enjoy a pedicab ride. You can enjoy fishing, boat charters, tennis, cycling, skateboarding, kayaking, sailing, dinner cruises and golf.

Where to stay in Coronado

South Bay San Diego

Imperial Beach Pier

South of downtown San Diego, you'll find a diverse collection of cities and beaches, including National City, Chula Vista, and Imperial Beach.

For family fun, head to Knott's Soak City USA, a 32 acre water park in Chula Vista. You'll find 22 water rides, plus eateries and shopping.

Nature lovers will appreciate Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge and Chula Vista Nature Center, on San Diego Bay. You'll find over 200 different bird species at the 316 acre marsh, plus a variety of animals and plants.

The Nature Center is part zoo, part aquarium, whose exhibits include shorebirds, hawks, sharks, stingrays, and jelly fish. There are numerous gardens, interactive exhibits, and guided and self-guided tours and programs.

Chula Vista Harbor offers spectacular views and boating. You can catch a sport fishing, sight-seeing or whale-watching charter here. The harbor features an RV resort, two marinas, launching ramps, parks and restaurants.

Imperial Beach is most famous for its wide, sandy beach, which plays host to the annual U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition. The beach is also popular with surfers, boogie boarders, and swimmers.

Where to stay in the South Bay

Photo Credits:

  • Oceanside Pier, Brian Auten
  • Hotel Del Coronado, Henry Phan
  • All others, PD Photo