Home › Best Places to Stay in San Diego
Updated: March 10, 2021
The Best Area to Stay in San Diego
San Diego is known for its warm weather climate, wonderful beaches, and, of course, the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The city averages more than 344 days a year that are hotter than 60 degrees Fahrenheit, making it a great vacation destination any time of the year.
San Diego is a waterfront city with a lot of craft breweries and a restaurant scene that is finally offering more than great tacos. It is also a city of neighborhoods that are steeped in history and culture. If you are looking for a great Southern California city with plenty of sun, sand, and some of the best tacos outside of Mexico, San Diego is a perfect choice.
While there is no “best” neighborhood to stay in, downtown and the beach neighborhoods offer the most for travelers. Downtown San Diego sits on the San Diego bay with beautiful Balboa Park, the zoo, as well as neighborhoods like Little Italy, Seaport Village, and the Gaslamp all close by. Beach areas including Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, and Mission Beach offer the quintessential pacific ocean views and the perfect location for those who want a laid-back vacation.
Coronado and La Jolla offer a more upscale experience with luxury hotels as well as high-end restaurants and shopping. North of San Diego are the beach towns of Del Mar, Solana Beach, Leucadia, Encinitas, and Carlsbad.
The best hotels in San Diego are not focused in one neighborhood and it’s easy to find great accommodations ranging from budget to luxury in most areas of San Diego.
Downtown San Diego (Little Italy, The Gaslamp, and Seaport Village) is a very convenient area to call home base for travelers. It’s just a few minutes from the airport and a great option for anyone interested in visiting Balboa Park, attending a Padres game, as well as those looking for nightlife and some of the top restaurants in the city. Downtown is fairly small and if staying here, it is quite easy to forgo a rental car (and the hefty nightly parking fee) and simply walk or take a trolley or an Uber. You’ll find mostly 4-star and 5-star hotels in the Gaslamp and near Horton Plaza, smaller boutique hotels in Little Italy, and high-rise chain hotels in Seaport Village. Seaport village is a great choice for families staying in San Diego who want to be near downtown. The other areas of downtown are a better choice for an adult getaway.
Coronado is directly across from downtown San Diego and can be reached by ferry or by the beautiful and impressive Coronado bridge. It is home to the Hotel Del Coronado, the most famous and best beachfront resort in San Diego. Coronado is great for families and anyone looking for a beach vacation.
West of downtown San Diego, you’ll find Point Loma, Harbor Island, and Shelter Island, all of which offer great restaurants, activities, and a variety of accommodations. These are lesser-known areas in San Diego and hidden gems for anyone who loves checking out boating culture as they all offer harbors lined with sailboats and luxury yachts.
East of downtown is Old Town which is the site of California’s first Spanish settlement. The area features restored adobes now housing shops and restaurants. You’ll find the Whaley House (some say the most haunted house in America) as well as some of the best Mexican food in Old Town San Diego.
North of Point Loma is Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, and Pacific Beach. Ocean Beach is known for its hippie vibe and offers a few quaint boutique hotels. Mission Beach has a few resort-style hotels and is most famous for Belmont Park and the rollercoaster at the beach. Pacific Beach is the biggest and most upscale of these beach towns.
Just north of Pacific Beach is La Jolla. While La Jolla is its own city in San Diego County, it still needs to be considered as a great option for upscale hotels and a beach vacation. This is an ideal choice for families and those looking for a romantic getaway.
Inland from downtown are the neighborhoods of Bankers Hill, Mission Hills, Hillcrest, North Park, and Normal Heights. Each of these neighborhoods has a distinctly unique vibe and variety of restaurants, nightlife, shopping, and lodging. Hillcrest is the heart of San Diego’s LGBTQ community, while North Park is the current trendy hipster hood filled with cafés and craft breweries.
Just east of Ocean Beach and Mission Beach is Mission Valley. While not a town on its own per se, there is an abundance of hotels available. Most offer more moderately priced hotel options as the location is just a few miles from the beach and downtown.
North of La Jolla, you’ll find the beach cities of Del Mar, Solana Beach, Leucadia, Encinitas, and Carlsbad. Del Mar (about 20 miles from Downtown San Diego) is where you’ll find several ultra-luxury resorts as well as the Del Mar Races that take place each summer. Encinitas and Leucadia (about 25 miles from Downtown San Diego) are known for their surf culture and have more of a small-town charm. Carlsbad (about 35 miles from Downtown San Diego) is the home of Legoland. As you head north from San Diego, you’ll find each of these beach towns has its own personality and tends to be less crowded than the beaches in San Diego.
The Best Places to Stay in San Diego
- Best Luxury Hotels in San Diego
US Grant (Downtown) • La Valencia Hotel and Spa (La Jolla)
- Best Boutique Hotels in San Diego
Pendry (Downtown) • Andaz (Downtown) • Kimpton Palomar (Downtown) • Pantai Inn (La Jolla) • El Cordova Hotel (Coronada)
- Best Beach Hotels in San Diego
Hotel del Coronado (Coronada) • Tower 23 (Pacific Beach)
- Best Cheap/Midrange Hotels in San Diego
Westin Gaslamp Quarter (Downtown) • Residence Inn (Downtown) • Hilton Garden Inn (Downtown) • Rambler Motel (Chula Vista)
- Best Hostels in San Diego
HI San Diego Hostel (Point Loma) • USA Hostels (Ocean Beach)
Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for…
- Best Neighborhood in San Diego to Stay for First Timers: Seaport Village
If it’s your first time in San Diego, Seaport Village is a great choice as it’s on the edge of downtown and close to Point Loma and Ocean Beach. It’s easy to visit the Zoo and the many museums in Balboa Park. Seaport Village is walking distance to the Midway Museum and the ferry to Coronado. The village itself has a harbor with beautiful sailboats, restaurants, and shopping. There are a variety of tours that take off from the village such as the San Diego Trolley Ride and the Seal Sea and Land Tour. Hotels in this area tend to be expensive.
- Best Neighborhood in San Diego for Sightseeing: Seaport Village
When it comes to sightseeing, Seaport Village is a great central location, especially for a first-time visit to San Diego. It’s an excellent location and walking distance to the Midway Museum and Maritime Museum which include a B-39 Submarine, the Star of India, and Steam Ferry, to name just a few. It’s also not far from the zoo, Balboa Park, the Gaslamp, and the beaches. Seaport Village itself sits on the San Diego Bay and offers beautiful views of the sailboat dotted harbor. Accommodations are mostly high-end chain high-rises.
- Best Neighborhood in San Diego for Nightlife: Gaslamp
The heart of San Diego’s nightlife is found in the Gaslamp Quarter. The neighborhood is a good mix of trendy cocktail bars, rooftop bars, clubs, and even a few secret bars and speakeasies. The Gaslamp comprises 16 walkable city blocks and is filled with the best nightlife options. One of the best things to do is to visit one of the rooftop bars at sunset for happy hours and views of the bay and skyline. Other good areas for nightlife include Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach with a variety of bars, restaurants, and venues. The crowd in Pacific Beach tends to be in their 20’s to early-30’s.
- Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Food and Restaurants: Little Italy, North Park, the Gaslamp, La Jolla, and Old Town
San Diego’s best restaurants are scattered throughout the city. North Park has a nice variety of upscale and trendy spots where you can find everything from sushi, taquerias, and brunch spots plus a more local vibe. Little Italy is where you want to go for the best Italian eateries. You’ll also find the oldest tavern in town, The Waterfront, in Little Italy. If you’re in the mood for handmade, still-warm tortillas and authentic Mexican cuisine, head for Old Town. Many of the restaurants here also have live mariachi music. San Diego has become known for its celebrity chefs of late including Top Chef All-Stars winner and TV personality on the Food Network and BRAVO, Richard Blais, who runs Juniper and Ivy in Little Italy. Another Top Chef alumni, Brian Malarkey owns several high-design restaurants in San Diego including Searsucker in the Gaslamp and Herringbone in La Jolla. If you are looking for fine dining, Addison, a contemporary French restaurant at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, recently became the first in San Diego to be awarded a prestigious Michelin star.
- Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Families: Mission Beach, Coronado, or La Jolla
Mission Beach offers a few resort hotels and of course the uber fun Belmont Park, San Diego’s historic oceanfront amusement park. For a combination of beach, bay, and rollercoaster fun, this is a great spot for families. Coronado is a bit more remote but about as beautiful as you can get in San Diego. If you are looking for a picture-perfect beach vacation, look no further than the Hotel del Coronado. La Jolla is another great option: you’ll find beautiful beaches, kayak rentals to visit the caves and the sea lions, and hiking and biking paths here. There is an abundance of things to keep the whole family happy in La Jolla.
- Most Romantic Neighborhoods in San Diego: Coronado, La Jolla, or Del Mar
While Coronado and La Jolla are both family-friendly, they are also prime locations for romantic vacations. Both locations offer a variety of romantic things to do including strolling on the beach at sunset and enjoying candlelit waterfront dinners and upscale wine bars. If you want an intimate, luxury boutique hotel, The Lodge at Torrey Pines offers ocean views and excellent service. In Coronado, it must be the 1888 Victorian Hotel Del Coronado – there is simply nothing more romantic than this upscale beach hotel. In Del Mar, L’Auberge Del Mar and the Fairmont Grand Del Mar are considered two of the best luxury hotels in San Diego and very romantic.
- Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for a Local Vibe: North Park and Point Loma-Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach has its own distinct charm and is the most ‘local’ you’ll get for the beach communities. It’s got a bit of riff-raff around the pier but head to Newport Avenue for the shopping, restaurants, bars, and a few breweries. It’s also considered the best spot to surf in San Diego. This is the hippy-dippy hangout of San Diego. North Park, with its pedestrian-friendly streets, is one of the epicenters of San Diego’s up and coming culinary finds, progressive art scene, and craft beer boom. This is a great neighborhood filled with charming craftsman houses and also where the locals like to take a stroll and hangout. Point Loma, with a visit to Liberty Station especially, is a great spot for local flavor. They have a variety of restaurants, local artists, shops, and festivals throughout the year. All of this is housed in what once were army barracks.
- Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Walking: Coronado, Mission Beach, and Pacific Beach
Coronado is very popular with visitors for walking and biking. Head to Orange Avenue, stroll by the restaurants, bars, and shops, and take in the vacation vibe of the town. Coronado also has a 6-mile walking path that takes you all around the island and brings you to the beach, golf course, and harbor. Both Mission Beach and Pacific Beach have walking paths. In fact, in Mission Beach you have two choices: you can walk from South Mission Beach heading North on the bayside, which is tranquil and calm, or you can walk on the path on the beachside. The beachside path takes you to Pacific Beach and all the way into La Jolla. On both, the bay and beachside walkways in Mission Beach, you can wander on the little streets lined with adorable and sometimes massive beach houses.
- Safest Areas of San Diego
San Diego’s safest neighborhoods tend to be the most affluent ones. La Jolla, Coronado, Shelter Island, and further north, Del Mar and Carlsbad are all largely safe to walk around any time of day. Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and Little Italy are also very safe but standard precautions apply at night. It’s also worth noting that there are sections in the beach cities that can bring some interesting characters.
- Unsafe Areas of San Diego
As a whole, San Diego is a safe city and boasts a crime rate that is 15 percent lower than the national average. But, as with any city, there are a few areas that you may want to avoid. University Heights, City Heights, National City, as well as parts of downtown, can be a bit seedy, especially at night. Imperial Beach, which is the town in San Diego next to the Mexican border, can also be sketchy. It’s best not to wander around after dark in these areas.
Insider tip: Leave your car in the parking lot and take advantage of San Diego’s excellent system of trains and trolleys that crisscross the city. Many of the top neighborhoods are very walkable.
The 12 Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Tourists
1. The Gaslamp
The Gaslamp comprises 16 walkable blocks in the downtown area and is filled with food, craft beer, boutique shopping, and live music, and is home to Petco Park where the Padres play. This is the heart of San Diego’s nightlife scene where you’ll find a good mix of trendy cocktail bars, rooftop bars, clubs, and speakeasies. You’ll find mostly 4-star and 5-star hotels in the Gaslamp. Bordered by the embarcadero and Seaport Village to the east, this is a walkable area with a lot to offer. As with many touristy areas in any city, there are so-so restaurants catering to tourists and conference-goers. There are also a lot of great dining options such as Biga, Osteria Panevino, Lionfish, and Searsucker from celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, to name just a few.
2. Little Italy
Little Italy is just north of the Gaslamp District and still in the heart of downtown. It’s a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with an urban feel and some of the most talked-about restaurants and bars in town. The main streets to visit are India Street and Kettner Boulevard where you’ll find chic shops housed in bungalows as well as plenty of sidewalk cafés and pizzerias. Two particularly buzz-worthy restaurants to visit are Juniper and Ivy and Kettner Exchange – both among the city’s Michelin Bib Gourmand winners. The area around Horton Plaza also has a wide range of great restaurants and is easy walking distance to many theaters including the Civic Center, Lyceum, and Spreckels. Little Italy offers cute boutique hotels while the Horton Plaza area has some of the most beautiful hotels, some with excellent rooftop bars.
If it’s your first time in San Diego, Seaport Village is a great choice as it sits at the edge of downtown and is a quick drive to the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, as well as the beaches. There are a variety of tours that take off from the village such as the Old Town Trolley Tour and the Seal Sea and Land Tour. There are plenty of restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops in the village as well, and several major attractions are within easy walking distance, including the Midway Museum and the ferry to Coronado.
Harbor Island is a man-made peninsula that was created in 1961 and located on one of the San Diego Bays. It lies between Shelter Island and Downtown San Diego and is directly across Harbor Drive from the San Diego Airport. Harbor Island packs a lot into its two miles – most notably the best view of the San Diego skyline, Coronado Island, and the Big Bay. You’ll also find a few top-rated restaurants (Coasterra, C Level, and Island Prime), large hotels, and marinas here. There is a shoreline path for walkers, joggers, skaters, and bikers. Only a handful of hotels are located here, but the area is one of the best options if you want to be near the airport and enjoy San Diego’s beauty.
Point Loma is a neighborhood by the bay with a strong boating culture. Here you’ll find many top-notch seafood restaurants, charming mom-and-pop shops, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, and the Cabrillo National Monument. Shelter Island is a neighborhood of Point Loma. One of the hidden gems is the world-class Humphreys Concerts venue under the stars. Also on Shelter Island is an urban beach and a jetty where many boats launch for fishing trips.
6. Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach, known as “OB” to the locals, sits just north of Point Loma and south of Mission Beach. It may be one of the last few quintessential SoCal beach towns. “OB” hasn’t totally caught up to the current decade, but this is what makes it charming. A combination of old-school dive bars, as well as craft breweries and the best dog beach in San Diego, create its hippy and bohemian vibe. You’ll find plenty of good taco joints as well Hodad’s, one of the most popular burger spots in town, where you can dine inside restored cars and amid license plate-covered walls. You’ll find smaller motels and boutique hotels in Ocean Beach.
Mission Beach is a small beach town that offers a lot for families. It sits between the Pacific Ocean and Mission Bay, just two blocks north. On the bay you can rent kayaks, sailboats, paddle-boats, and SUPs. There are a few resort-style hotels and the beach is most famous for Belmont Park and the rollercoaster. Pacific Beach is a larger town known for its beautiful beach and good surf spots, especially by the pier. Mission Blvd runs from Mission Beach to Pacific Beach and is full of casual cafes, women’s clothing boutiques, yoga studios, and bars. Pacific Beach, especially on Garnet Avenue, tends to draw a young, bar-hopping crowd. TOWER23 in Pacific Beach is San Diego’s only luxury lifestyle hotel on the beach.
8. La Jolla
Just north of Pacific Beach is La Jolla. This is a more upscale neighborhood and an ideal choice for both families and those looking for a romantic getaway. There is an abundance of things to keep the whole family happy such as the beautiful beaches, Shell Beach tide pools, and hiking and biking paths. La Jolla also offers a variety of romantic things to do including strolling on the beach at sunset and enjoying candlelit waterfront dinners and upscale wine bars. There are plenty of outdoor options as well such as the world-renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course with panoramic views from the cliffs of the pacific ocean to kayak tours for visiting the caves and the sea lions. La Jolla hotels are often priced at a premium to other San Diego hotels because the location is so beautiful. One thing to note while making a lodging choice is that the village of La Jolla is about 15 minutes from the I-5 freeway, but many hotels in the UTC area right off the I-5 freeway classify themselves as being La Jolla hotels (even though they are not inside of the La Jolla zip code).
Just east of Ocean Beach and Mission Beach on the 8 freeway is Mission Valley. While not a town of its own per se, there is an abundance of hotels available. Most offer more moderate prices as you are a few miles from the beach and downtown. Here you’ll be close to Old Town, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, and a couple of big shopping malls. It’s also a quick trip to the neighborhoods of Hillcrest, North Park, Kensington, and Normal Heights.
If you are looking for a picture-perfect beach vacation, look no further than Coronado. The neighborhood is directly across from downtown San Diego and can be reached by ferry or by the picturesque Coronado bridge. It is home to the Hotel Del Coronado, the most famous and best beachfront resort in San Diego. The beach is wide and flat and great for walks on the sand. Heading south from the Del, there is even a sunken ship that is visible at low tide. There is a rock jetty in front of the Del that is great for exploring tide pools. Orange Avenue and the Coronado Ferry Landing have shops, restaurants, and nearby, Centennial Park offers San Diego skyline views. Coronado is a great fit for families and anyone looking for a beach vacation.
11. Del Mar
North of La Jolla and about 20 miles from downtown San Diego is Del Mar. It’s most famous for the Del Mar Racetrack, a thoroughbred horse racing club that dates back to 1937. This town also features beautiful beaches as well as golf courses, hot air balloon rides, one of the best Farmers Markets, and great trails for hiking. There are several ultra-luxury resorts and many fine dining options in Del Mar, including the Michelin-starred Addison at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.
For those looking for a Legoland vacation, Carlsbad is your best bet for a home base. Located in North County San Diego, it is known as “The Village by the Sea”. The quaint seaside town sits along a 7-mile stretch of Pacific coastline and, beyond Legoland and the beach, you’ll find the Carlsbad Lagoon where you can rent equipment for both paddle and motorized water-sports plus wakeboarding and waterskiing, as well as a charming downtown filled with shops and restaurants.
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