When I was in California late last year, everyone I met seemed to have an idea of where I should go next. From recommendations of heading inland to Vegas, scenic drives along the coast, national parks and everything in between, my head was full of possibilities.

The problem was that once I got to see most of what I wanted in San Francisco, I only had about a week left before my flight to New Zealand. Whilst very few people mentioned San Diego, I felt compelled to go and check it out. Don’t ask me why, gut feeling.

So I skipped Vegas, the desert and even the coastal drives and headed south on an overnight bus full of drunk Mexicans.

San Diego, being the major city it is (the second largest in California, to be exact) isn’t explored in a couple of days. When I got there, I figured I would have to do some major planning if I wanted to make the most of it. And that is where I was wrong. Because San Diego is best experienced as a living city, as opposed to a “tourist” city. It isn’t San Francisco, or even L.A, with well-treaded tourist routes and activities, things to check off your list. It might be why I loved it so much. San Diego isn’t pretentious, it’s not pretending it will deliver this and that, it isn’t trying to be cool, or even fancy: it just is.

I spent almost a week two miles off Ocean Beach, the perfect location for chilling out, but convenient enough to get into town easily. And whilst San Diego isn’t going to hand you over a nice shiny list of obvious things to check out, there are still so much to do across this city, you won’t know where to start once you discover them all.

WHAT TO SEE?

Ocean Beach 
Sea, sand and surf. Plus a lot of second hand shops, op shops, record shops, surf shops… some pretty cool restaurants (Wonderland has amazing burgers) and bars, live music around most corners (on the street and indoors), this is the place I wish I could move to. There is definitely a very laid back atmosphere here, and if you want a trip back to the 60s, this is your spot. The Pier is also worth checking out, especially around sunset, with locals fishing, the sun reflecting off the surf…

Maritime Museum 
I’m a boat kind of girl. With one of the largest collection of historic vessels in the US, including the active ship Star of India, the San Diego Museum is practically my paradise. There is also an incredible little shop full of interesting books, dvds…

USS Midway 
Guess what? Another ship. But this one is an aircraft carrier, the longest serving of the 20th century, to be exact. The USS Midway is now a museum located at Navy Pier. “Admission includes a self-guided audio tour to over 60 locations from the engine room to control tower, narrated by Midway sailors who lived or worked in each.” Source: sandiego.org

Gaslamp Quarter 
Gaslamp Quarter is a historical neighborhood in Downtown San Diego. There’s shopping, dining, drinking, nightlife, and a lot of historical buildings.  There is also an Irish pub where I met a Marine on leave having a pint of Guinness in the middle of the afternoon, but that’s a story for another day (pub’s name is Blarney Stone).

Little Italy 
San Diego’s Little Italy is a pretty cool place to visit. Good food (I recommend pizza by the slice at Landini’s), good coffee, good drinks (Karl Strauss Restaurant & Brewery anyone?), interesting galleries, a superb art supplies shop, the list goes on. Point to note: The Little Italy Association hangs banners of famous Italian American in History along the streets. You could spend a while just wandering the streets looking up at these banners and trying to find if they “forgot” someone important (I don’t think they did, but you let me know).

Balboa Park 
Balboa Park is huge. There are museums, gardens, arts venues, and attractions everywhere. It could, in itself, be the subject of a post. Here are some things I highly recommend: The Museum of Photographic Arts, The San Diego Museum of Arts, Timken Museum of Art and Mingei International Museum. Now, as a proud Londoner, I have to admit I was a bit confused with The Old Globe, but it’s still worth a look, and I’m told they run some quality plays year round, so grab some tickets if you can. The Spanish Village Art Centre has colourful flagstones, and is home to 37 artist studios and galleries. The Botanical Building, with the Lily pond and Lagoon out front is also a must see. My personal favorite attraction of the Park is the Desert Garden, but all of the numerous gardens are worth a look if plants, trees and flowers are your thing.

Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade Park 
With inspirational quotes of the late Martin Luther King Jr., a hedge maze at the beginning, sculptures, water features and a fountain, the promenade is a peaceful trail connecting Children’s Museum Park, Children’s Park, and Gaslamp Square.

Old Town
This is the first European settlement, and usually seen as the “birthplace of California”. Plenty of food, three parks, an array of museums… There is something for everyone.

 ALSO CHECK OUT

Pacific Beach: Great for surfing

Mission Bay Park: Largest aquatic park in the US

Point Loma: Peninsula. Landing place of the first Europeans expedition to come ashore in California. Lighthouse, nice views and some walks.

Seaport Village/ Convention Centre: Waterfront shopping, restaurants, entertainment… Convention Centre is worth going through on your way to the Gaslamp District for its cool architecture.

La Jolla: Beautiful coastline. Go say hello to the leopard sharks, which hang out in the shallow waters during summer.

Coronado: Island connected to San Diego by Silver Strand. Nice beaches, a historic downtown…

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The things to remember

San Diego has trams and buses. I used both and it was quite handy.

It might seem like a good idea to just hop over the border and check out Mexico, but please, remember to at least have a rough plan of where you’re going and what you want to do.

You can get the tram down to San Ysidro, then it’s just a question of: walking across the border. Be ready for long lines, and figure out your buses from there in advance.

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