As you watch the sunset, perched on the cliffs in La Jolla not too far away from the ever-present flock of seals, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t visited sooner. San Diego, with a population just under 1.5 million, bills itself America’s Finest City, and it’s one of the rare locales that lives up to its tourism board’s slogan. Compared to the neighboring city of Los Angeles, San Diego is a much more relaxed slice of the West Coast. If Tinseltown is a place to see and be seen, San Diego simply offers scenery to be enjoyed however you’d prefer.
The surf set will find paradise in Encinitas, while architecture buffs will be drawn to La Jolla, where they can gaze upon modernist beach homes—among them, one of the 20 extant Case Study Homes. Those interested in the farm-to-table movement should make the pilgrimage to Chino Farm—a family-owned market whose claim to fame involves a stamp of approval from Alice Waters. From the touristy Old Town San Diego, where margaritas are served in trough-sized goblets, to the island of Coronado (famously the setting of Marilyn Monroe’s Some Like it Hot), there is plenty to add to your itinerary. A complete guide to San Diego, below.
Where to Stay
A quick 15-minute drive inland from Del Mar beach will take you up to Southern California’s only Relais & Chateaux property, Rancho Valencia. The hacienda-style property is set on 45 acres of olive groves and gardens and has only 49 suites, each their own Spanish-style casita. It’s hard to find an un-photogenic corner of the Rancho Valencia, which offers its guests plenty to do—from horseback riding to tennis, golf, or a day at the pool.
One of the few hotels located near San Diego’s beachfront, La Valencia is recognizable by the color of its pale pink facade. Built in 1926, the Spanish-style property features terra cotta floors and azulejo tile details and is perfectly located in downtown La Jolla. Both restaurants and the famed seals are nearby, but you’ll certainly want to stay onsite to catch the sunset from the hotel’s balcony.
If there’s a grand dame of a hotel in San Diego, it’s the US Grant. Located in the city’s Gaslamp Quarter and overlooking the San Diego Bay near the 25-foot-tall “kissing sailor” statue, the hotel calls an impressive 1910 building home. Inside the sprawling lobby, you’ll find chandeliers and palm trees filling the space. Its scale and setting make it perfect for families—after all, it was built by the son of the 18th U.S. President, who, of course, named it after his father.
Relatively new to the San Diego hotel scene is The Guild, located in the Gaslamp Quarter in a stately space that once housed a YMCA. The landmarked 1920s building offers interiors with a more contemporary flair. The design-minded will appreciate the leather-upholstered headboards and Edison bulb touches. Guests should take their coffees in the charming courtyard filled with black and white-striped parasols, and if the onsite restaurant Luca is open (the eatery is currently closed), the Italian fare is not to be missed.
Should you be looking for a buzzy hotel experience with a lively scene on the property, Pendry San Diego is for you. Housed in a slick new structure within the cities’ Gaslamp Quarter, Pendry’s guests could very well dine onsite throughout their stay without repeating a meal—there are six bars and restaurants from which to choose. Despite the range and scale, Pendry is laid out like a series of intimate rooms and lounges filled with velvet banquettes and leather club chairs. But its biggest draw can be found up on the rooftop, where the pool offers another yet another place to take in the atmosphere.
No description of the Hotel Del Coronado omits its famous cinematic cameo in Some Like It Hot. Located on the island of Coronado, reached by a long bridge that stretches and curves like a comma, the hotel is housed in a sprawling Victorian structure which the hotel management takes great care to preserve as it’s one of the few remaining examples of what’s considered “Wooden Victorian Beach Resort” architecture. A whitewashed structured crowned with a conical-shaped tower in red, the Hotel Del welcomes guests year-round—whether or not they’re staying at the property. Come Christmastime, the space is teeming with towering trees dotted with metallic orbs, though the crowds come throughout the year for the many family-friendly restaurants.
You’ll find a bit of calm at the Estancia, particularly within its gardens or at the spa. Located near the famed gold course in Torrey Pines, the terra cotta tile-roofed, hacienda-style hotel’s most scenic space is undoubtedly its courtyard. The hotel sits on 10 acres of landscaped gardens, making it a delight to spend the day at the hotel.
Should you prefer to go the Airbnb route, charming cottages near beach-friendly beaches or well-appointed apartments in the Gaslamp Quarter are easy to find. And should you want to really want the dream beach house experience, we’d recommend this 5-bedroom beachfront villa in La Jolla via Airbnb Luxe.
Where to Eat
Depending on where you’re staying, it might take you a bit to get up to Carlsbad, but the trek to Jeune et Jolie will be more than worth it as this French bistro was named one of the best new restaurants in America by Esquire.
You’ll find that the best dining in San Diego is its most casual. An institution in La Jolla, El Pescador serves up some of the best seafood. Or pick up their catch of the day for your own barbecue.
Owned by a young San Diegan couple, Valentina is a bistro and wine bar located in Leucadia along Highway 101. The menu, which draws upon culinary highlights from Spain, France, and Mexico City, is just as delightful as the modern rustic ambiance.
Those looking for the city’s most Instagrammable breakfast should look no further than Morning Glory. The pink-all-over space is a high on personality with an equally memorable menu that offers novel takes on brunch classics. The team behind Morning Glory also runs the nearby steak house Born and Raised, which is also worth the visit.
There are two locations of Sushi Ota; the original is in an unremarkable shopping center in Pacific Beach, but don’t let the lack of curb appeal deter you. The restaurant, which also offers omakase dining, is renowned and not to be missed.
Ask some locales where to get the best tacos in town, and a debate will likely ensue. Though there are a lot of opinions, most everyone can agree that Tacos el Gordo tops the list. The no-frills taco spot originated in Tijuana in 1972 before it opened up shop in Chula Vista in 1998. You can’t go wrong with the adobada taco.
In the Mission Hills neighborhood you’ll find Fort Oak, a restaurant that formerly housed, of all things, a Ford car dealership. One of its rooms is U-shaped, offering 16 seats around the kitchen where most everything is cooked in an open wood fire. Book a seat here for dinner and a show.
What to See
Visitors can spend a full day in Balboa Park and not run out of things to do. In addition to a Botanical Garden, Air & Space Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, and The Timken Museum of Art, the park houses what classic film buffs will recognize as the imposing estate in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Next door to Balboa Park, you’ll also find the world-famous San Diego Zoo, home to over 12,000 animals.
La Jolla Seals
Should you find yourself wanted to observe even more fauna, park your car along the beach at the La Jolla Cove to witness the hilarity of the native seals and newborn pups. For the best viewing experience, rent a kayak to get that much closer to the seal caves.
The Salk Institute
In 1959, the city of San Diego gifted Jonas Salk, the scientist who discovered the polio vaccine, a plot of land in La Jolla on which he could build a biological research center. Salk enlisted Louis I. Kahn with the project, asking him to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” Mexican architect Luis Barragan was also consulted on the design, and recommended leaving the plaza open rather than filling it with a garden. Today The Salk Insitute is fully operational and an architectural marvel to witness.
Torrey Pines State Preserve Hike
On the same stretch of land where you’ll find the Torrey Pines Golf Course is a hike offering prime views of the Pacific. Along the way you’ll also see the famed trees that give the preserve its name; they’re a critically endangered species exclusive to the area. Plus, a hike in the preserve (there are eight trails that mostly clock in under three miles round trip) is all low-effort and high reward.
Cross the bridge or take a ferry over to Coronado Island, if only just to see the Hotel Del Coronado and more charming Victorian homes. Or spend the day on any one of its white sand beaches: Coronado Central Beach, Coronado Dog Beach, Glorietta Bay Beach, Silver Strand State Beach, and the Ferry Landing Marketplace.
Here’s a theater with a lovely little Hollywood provenance: it was founded in 1947 by actor Gregory Peck and Mel Ferrer. Located on the campus of the University of California San Diego, the theater is constantly staging Broadway productions, so do check to see what might be on view when you’re in town.
A long steep walk will take you down to Black’s Beach, a stretch of sand beneath verdant cliffs. You’ll catch dedicated surfers lugging their boards down to the waters, and you’ll also spot a lack of clothing—it happens to be the largest nude beach in the U.S.
Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcala
To really understand the origin story of San Diego, head to the Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcala, which was the first of 21 Franciscan missions built in California. Established in 1769, the Alcalá overlooks Old Town San Diego and features white stucco walls, Spanish roof tiles, and archways.
When you book something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Originally Appeared on Vogue