Where to Stay in San Diego

SD › Best Places to Stay in San Diego
Updated: April 15, 2024
By Santorini Dave

Our Favorite Hotels in San Diego

• 5-star: US Grant
• 4-star: Hard Rock
• 3-star: Gaslamp Plaza Suites
• For families: Hilton Gaslamp
• For couples: La Valencia
• Beach: Hotel del Coronado
• Airport: Sheraton Marina
• Zoo: Inn at the Park
• Legoland: Cape Rey
• Gaslamp Quarter: US GrantAndaz

Best place to stay in Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego.

The Hard Rock Hotel in the heart of the historic Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego.

Most first-time visitors to San Diego will want to stay in the downtown and Gaslamp area. It’s packed with restaurants, shopping, and nightlife and centrally located for many of the area’s best attractions. It’s definitely the best area to stay if you’re visiting San Diego without a car.

Good hotels in Downtown/Gaslamp area:

US GrantPendryAndazManchester Grand HyattKimpton AlmaMarriott MarquisHard RockHorton GrandWestgateOmniWestin GaslampIndigoGaslamp Plaza SuitesBayside InnBristolHotel Z Staypineapple

The Best Areas to Stay in San Diego

Blessed by year-round warmth and sunny skies, San Diego is best known for its fun beaches, major attractions such as the San Diego Zoo, a burgeoning culinary scene, and a mind-blowing array of craft breweries (over 150 at last count). The city averages more than 344 days a year that are hotter than 15°C (60°F), making it an excellent vacation destination anytime. San Diego is 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 single “best” neighborhood to stay in, Downtown and the beach neighborhoods offer the most for travelers. Downtown San Diego sits on the San Diego Bay and includes Little Italy, the Embarcadero, and the Gaslamp Quarter with beautiful Balboa Park and the zoo close by. Beach areas including Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, and Mission Beach offer quintessential Pacific Ocean views and a laid-back vibe. Coronado and La Jolla offer a more upscale experience with luxury hotels, high-end restaurants, and designer shopping. North of San Diego are the beach towns of Oceanside, Del Mar, and Carlsbad, home of great surfing, a historic horse racing track, and Legoland. Likewise, best hotels in San Diego are not clustered in any one neighborhood. It’s easy to find great accommodations ranging from budget to luxury in most areas of San Diego.

Though a car is the most convenient way to travel around the region, San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System offers a decent alternative, with buses fanning out from Downtown and Old Town to cover many neighborhoods. One-way fares are just $2.50. The San Diego Trolley light rail is part of the system (fares are also $2.50), with three lines. The Green Line is the most useful for visitors, linking Old Town with Little Italy, Downtown San Diego, and the Gaslamp Quarter. The Blue Line connects Downtown with the Mexican border at San Ysidro, across from Tijuana. The separately managed Coaster light-rail links Downtown San Diego to all the main destinations along the North County coast. One-way fares run $5–6.50. San Diego is a big cycling city, with miles of bike trails and lanes. Rent bikes at The Bike Revolution or Stay Classy.

Andaz Hotel in Gaslamp, San Diego.

The Andaz Hotel in San Diego’s wonderful Gaslamp Quarter.

Downtown San Diego is the commercial heart of the city and is the best overall place to be based for sightseeing rather than beachcombing. It’s at the heart of local transport networks and encompasses the Embarcadero, with attractions along the Marina and Seaport Village, and the historic Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego’s nightlife hub. The northern end of downtown features another historic district, Little Italy, with some of the best cafés and restaurants in the city. A convenient locale, Downtown is just a few minutes from the airport and a great option for anyone interested in visiting Balboa Park, attending a Padres game, and venturing out for nightlife and top dining. Downtown is fairly small. It is quite easy to forgo a rental car (and the hefty nightly parking fee) and simply walk, trolley, or Uber around. You’ll find mostly 4-star and 5-star hotels in the Gaslamp District, smaller boutique hotels in Little Italy, and high-rise chain hotels in the Embarcadero. The Embarcadero is a great choice for families staying in San Diego, while most other parts of downtown are better for adult getaways.

Just northeast of Downtown and worth at least a couple of days exploration is Balboa Park, containing one of the largest collections of museums in the country, plus the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Balboa Park is bounded to the west by Hillcrest, San Diego’s thriving LGBTQ+ community, while North Park to the east is a hip neighborhood known for its cafés and craft breweries.

Northwest of Downtown is Old Town, the site of California’s first Spanish settlement. The area features restored adobe buildings, now housing shops and restaurants, along with the notorious Whaley House, believed by many to be the most haunted house in America. Today the museums, galleries, preserved historic buildings, and Mexican markets make the Old Town State Historic Park one of the most appealing parts of the city. Adjacent Mission Valley, home to numerous good-value hotels and plenty of shopping, is another lovely historically significant area. Named for the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, this was the location of first mission in California, at the time a provence of New Spain.

Across the bay from Downtown San Diego, Coronado Island (in reality, a peninsula) is a moneyed beach community best known for its long, enticing beach and tall, skinny “shotgun” houses. This neighborhood is home to the Hotel del Coronado (locally known as The Del), the most famous and best beachfront resort in San Diego. Though the island feels worlds away from the bustling Downtown core, it can be easily reached by ferry or by driving across the impressive Coronado bridge. Coronado is great for families and anyone looking for a relaxed beach stay.

North and west of Coronado, you’ll find Point Loma, Harbor Island, and Shelter Island, which all offer great restaurants, activities, and a variety of accommodations. These are lesser-known areas in San Diego – hidden gems for exploring boating culture, all offering harbors lined with sailboats and luxury yachts. The hilly peninsula known as Point Loma is still primarily owned by the US Navy, but it does boast a couple of major attractions open to the public: the Cabrillo National Monument, popular for its diverse tidepools, and Liberty Public Market, crammed with shops and restaurants and busy with activities.

Of course, San Diego’s beaches are a major component of the city’s identity, with low-key Ocean Beach known for its hippie vibe and dog-friendly sands with a few quaint boutique hotels. To the north, Mission Beach is most famous for its landmark Belmont Park with its iconic beachfront rollercoaster and nearby SeaWorld. There are a handful of resort-style hotels here. Pacific Beach is the liveliest and largest of these beach communities. Though best known for year-round surfing, a 5km-long oceanfront boardwalk, and non-stop party atmosphere, the area is rapidly becoming more affluent and family-oriented, especially at its north end.

Just north of Pacific Beach is La Jolla, the wealthiest of San Diego County’s beachfront cities. An ideal choice for families and couples, La Jolla offers an upscale environment with luxury hotels, fine dining restaurants, and high-end shopping, along with the Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The area features an abundance of beaches, sheltered coves, and sea caves, along with astounding hiking trails through the Torrey Pines Reserve, home of America’s rarest pines and covering 2000 acres of coastal cliffs and ravines.

San Diego’s North County Coastal region runs along the Pacific some 25 miles north from La Jolla to Oceanside and beyond, to the border with Orange County. The small seaside communities of North County, including Del Mar, Encinitas, Oceanside, and Carlsbad, are known for their famous surf beaches, micro-breweries, restaurants, and gorgeous stretches of sand. Each of these towns has its own personality with beaches that tend to be less crowded than those in San Diego proper. 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, thoroughbred horse races that take place each summer. Encinitas is an eccentric beach town, offering a laid-back vibe, eclectic downtown shops, and a number of coveted surf breaks. Carlsbad (about 35 miles from Downtown San Diego) is the home of Legoland. Just north of Carlsbad (38 miles north of Downtown San Diego) is Oceanside, a surf mecca with a wide sandy beach, the California Surf Museum, and fantastic restaurants.

The Best Places to Stay in San Diego

Front facade of the US Grant Hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter, Downtown, San Diego

The landmark US Grant in the Gaslamp Quarter is the best hotel in San Diego.

Hotel room where my wife, my son, and I stayed in San Diego.

Our suite at the Margaritaville Hotel in the lively Gaslamp Quarter.

Best Areas in San Diego for…

  • Best Neighborhood in San Diego to Stay for First Timers: Downtown
    With easy access to the airport and city public transportation, the Zoo, museums of Balboa Park, Little Italy, harbor cruises, and the attractions of the waterfront, staying Downtown is the best introduction to San Diego. Both the Gaslamp District and Embarcadero are located here, each brimming with dining and shopping. Historic Gaslamp Quarter, locally known as “The Gaslamp,” is particularly great for exploring nightlife, dining, and entertainment, while Embarcadero is home to quaint Seaport Village, the Coronado ferry, and waterfront attractions, including the Midway Museum and the Maritime Museum. Downtown’s choice of accommodation is broad with plenty of midrange and budget options in addition to the usual business and luxury chains.
  • Best Neighborhood in San Diego for Families: Mission Beach, Mission Bay, Coronado, and La Jolla
    Mission Beach and adjacent Mission Bay offer several resort hotels, fun water sports, SeaWorld, and of course the uber fun Belmont Park, San Diego’s historic, oceanfront amusement park. For a combination of beach, bay, and rollercoaster fun, Mission Beach is a great spot for families. Across the bay from Downtown, 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. Head north along the coast to La Jolla for another kid-friendly area: 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, and Del Mar
    While both Coronado and La Jolla are family-friendly, they also offer prime atmospheres for couples’ vacations. Both areas offer a variety of romantic things to do including strolling on the beach at sunset and enjoying candlelit waterfront dinners and upscale wine bars. La Jolla, in particular, boasts some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in Southern California, with La Jolla Cove the perfect place for a romantic stroll. There are plenty of romantic places to stay, too: from the historic ambiance at La Valencia Hotel to the gorgeous ocean views at Scripps Hotel. At La Jolla’s north end, Torrey Pines State Reserve contains a wilder shoreline, wooded trails, and deserted beaches. 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. Farther north along the coast, Del Mar is home to sandy beaches, hiking trails, and an exciting culinary scene. L’Auberge Del Mar and the Fairmont Grand Del Mar here are considered two of the best luxury, romantic hotels in San Diego.
  • Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for the Beach: Coronado and Pacific Beach
    San Diego’s beaches are a huge draw, with enticing strips of sand, as well as historic piers, diners, beach bars, and surf breaks lacing the coast all the way to LA. One of our favorite beach neighborhoods is Coronado, south of Downtown San Diego, with its swathe of sparkling sand (thanks to specks of mica, the sand literally glitters in the sun). The beach here is big and family-friendly, with good swimming, and never feels crowded. The elegant Hotel del Coronado (made famous by Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot”) is a fun place to eat and drink, as well as a luxurious place to stay, though there are several more affordable options nearby. Further north, Pacific Beach is a livelier option, the neighborhood crammed with raucous bars and restaurants. The 3.5-mile Pacific Beach Boardwalk is always thick with skaters, cyclists, and surfers.
  • Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Sightseeing: Downtown and Balboa Park
    When it comes to sightseeing, Downtown and Balboa Park are the top choices. Downtown is home to the historic Gaslamp Quarter, filled with late 19th-century buildings in a range of architectural styles: Baroque Revival, Mission-style, and even New England saltbox houses, along with a plethora of dining and lodging choices and Petco Park baseball field. The neighboring Embarcadero area is a great central location on the San Diego Bay and offers beautiful, harbor views and popular sights, including Seaport Village, Midway Museum, and Maritime Museum which includes a B-39 Submarine, the Star of India, and Steam Ferry, to name just a few. Seaport Village has its own 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. The New Children’s Museum is in between the Embarcadero and the Gaslamp in Downtown. Northeast of Downtown, just on the other side of I-5, Balboa Park is an enormous, outdoor space, home to the beloved San Diego Zoo, along with botanical gardens, 17 outstanding museums, and a historic carousel from 1910, one of the last in the world that still offers the brass ring game. With the city’s enviable weather, the outdoor attractions of Balboa Park are ideal for visits any time of year.
  • Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Nightlife: Downtown
    Downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter is the city’s nightlife hub, with its pedestrian-friendly blocks packed with hundreds of trendy restaurants, stylish bars, secret speakeasies, and nightclubs boasting everything from celebrity guest DJs to live rock and jazz. 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. Check out family-friendly Trailer Park After Dark and Metl Bar. Onyx Room and Side Bar are dance club staples. Another great area for nightlife is Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach with a variety of unpretentious bars, open-air restaurants, and beach parties. The crowd in Pacific Beach tends to be in their 20s to early 30s.
  • Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Food & Restaurants: Little Italy, Downtown, La Jolla, and Oceanside
    San Diego’s best restaurants are scattered throughout the city, but a handful of neighborhoods stand out. Little Italy, on the northern edge of Downtown San Diego, is one of the city’s restaurant hotspots. Of course, you’ll find Italian stalwarts here such as Caffè Italia, Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, the delicious stalls of the Little Italy Food Hall, along with the oldest tavern in town, The Waterfront, the lauded Ironside Fish & Oyster , and Kettner Exchange, known for its rooftop deck with sunset views over the harbor. San Diego has become known for its celebrity chefs of late, with many running their kitchens out of Little Italy, including Top Chef All-Stars winner and TV personality, Richard Blais, whose Crack Shack and Juniper & Ivy share the same city block as Top Chef Brian Malarkey’s Herb & Wood. Malarkey also operates Herringbone in La Jolla. Also in La Jolla, check out French beachside bistro The Marine Room and La Dolce Vita. Downtown, especially the Gaslamp, overflows with cosmopolitan restaurants, from steak houses to oyster bars to myriad international bites. Enjoy a meal at Huntress (steak and Japanese whisky), Werewolf (casual, cool, and delicious brunch, pub grub, and late-night menus), and La Puerta (high-quality Mexican cuisine with top notch cocktails. Further up the North County coast, Oceanside has also developed a hot culinary scene in recent years. Old school diners, such as the 101 Café, have been joined by hip restaurants like 333 Pacific, Davin Waite’s innovative sushi at Wrench and Rodent, former auto repair shop Masters Kitchen & Cocktail, Flying Pig Pub & Kitchen, and lauded chef Willy Eick’s creations at Mission Ave Bar and Grill.
  • 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.
  • Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Shopping: Mission Valley, Old Town, and La Jolla
    Mission Valley, anchored by I-8 north of Downtown in the heart of Greater San Diego, is a smart place to be based for shopping. There’s a large selection of mid-range hotel and motel accommodation, and two major shopping malls. Among the 200 plus stores at Fashion Valley are Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co., Gucci, and Hugo Boss. Less than a mile away is Westfield Mission Valley, another huge mall complex. The adjacent Old Town neighborhood is also prime shopping territory, with a colorful array of Mexican-themed souvenirs, clothing, and jewelry at the Fiesta de Reyes Mall and Bazaar Del Mundo. Further north, Downtown La Jolla (aka “Village of La Jolla”) is crammed with high-end stores and boutiques (especially along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street), while malls such nearby Westfield UTC offer all the usual fashion brands and department stores.
  • Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for a Local Vibe: North Park, Point Loma, Ocean Beach, and Encinitas
    Ocean Beach has its own distinct charm and is the most ‘local’ you’ll get for the beach communities inside the city limits. Ignore the riff-raff around the pier and 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. 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 hang out. Point Loma, with a visit to Liberty Public Market 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. North of the city, along an old stretch of scenic Highway 101, Encinitas offers an eclectic array of surf history, a historic theater, art galleries, a famed ashram, and primo taco shops. A one-of-a-kind town that feels worlds away from the tourist crowds of San Diego.
  • 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.

The 15 Best Neighborhoods in San Diego for Tourists

1. Downtown, Gaslamp Quarter, and Embarcadero

Luxury hotel in Gaslamp neighborhood of San Diego.

The Pendry in the heart of the Gaslamp neighborhood.

Forming the commercial heart of the city and the nexus of public transport in the region, Downtown San Diego is bounded by San Diego Bay to the west and I-5 to the northeast. Primarily a business district of shiny skyscrapers and condos, there are also plenty of attractions here, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the New Children’s Museum. Along the harbor front, the Embarcadero features the San Diego Convention Center, Seaport Village (seen above), Headquarters shopping mall, and several family-friendly nautical attractions, such as the USS Midway Museum and the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Just south of Broadway and Horton Plaza Park is the historic Gaslamp Quarter and its stock of 19th-century mansions and townhouses, now occupied by restaurants, bars, and boutiques. At the southern tip of the Gaslamp lies Petco Park, home to the Padres, San Diego’s Major League Baseball team. The Gaslamp is San Diego’s nightlife hub where you’ll find a good mix of trendy cocktail bars, rooftop bars, clubs, and speakeasies. A handful of theaters are here, including the Civic Theatre, Lyceum, and Spreckels. As with many touristy areas in any city, there are so-so restaurants catering to tourists and conference-goers, but there are also a lot of great dining options if you know where to look, such as Osteria Panevino, Lionfish, and Searsucker, helmed by celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, as well as the aforementioned La Puerta, Werewolf , and Huntress, to name just a few. Downtown is fairly small and easy to explore on foot; travelers may easily forgo a rental car (and the hefty nightly parking fee) in favor of walking to nearby sights, only needing transportation to reach the beaches, Balboa Park, or the San Diego Zoo.

2. Little Italy

Best place to stay in Little Italy, San Diego.

La Pensione Hotel in the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego.

A small, walkable district at the northwestern end of downtown, Little Italy is one of San Diego’s most historic and atmospheric neighborhoods. In the 1920s this was home to the city’s biggest Italian-American community, primarily serving the tuna industry. Today few old buildings remain, and the neighborhood is best known for its eclectic dining scene, in addition to classic pizza and pasta joints. Two particularly buzz-worthy restaurants to visit are Juniper and Ivy and Kettner Exchange – both among the city’s Michelin Bib Gourmand winners. Most of the action takes place on India Street and parallel Kettner Boulevard and Columbia Street, with pedestrianized Piazza della Famiglia at its heart (the iconic Little Italy sign is nearby). Little Italy Mercato, the local farmers’ market, is held every Saturday on West Date Street, while the Little Italy Wednesday Market is held on Wednesdays, of course, in the same location. The only real sight in Little Italy is the Firehouse Museum, located in San Diego’s oldest firehouse, though all the attractions of Downtown are just a short walk away. The local trolley stop is County Center/Little Italy, granting easy access to Old Town and Mission Valley. Like Downtown, Little Italy isn’t so convenient for the beach.

3. Coronado

Just across the bay from Downtown San Diego, Coronado boasts one of the best beaches in the US with sparkling, mica-rich sands and its revitalized main drag, Orange Avenue. This neighborhood sits directly across the water from downtown San Diego and can be reached by ferry or by the picturesque Coronado Bridge. It is home to the celebrated Hotel del Coronado (pictured above), locally known as the Del. An elegant Victorian-era resort opened in 1888, the Del is the most famous and best beachfront resort in San Diego. In front of the Del, there is a rock jetty that is great for exploring tide pools. The beach itself is wide and flat – ideal for walks on the sand. Heading south from the Del, there is a sunken ship visible at low tide. The only other attraction is the tiny Coronado Museum of History and Art – the main draw is, of course, the beach. Orange Avenue and the Coronado Ferry Landing have plenty of shops and restaurants. Nearby, Centennial Park offers gorgeous views of the San Diego skyline. There’s no need for a car if exploring Coronado or zipping across the bay to Downtown by ferry, but it’s best to rent one for trips further afield.

4. Mission Bay, Mission Beach, & Pacific Beach

Hotel on Pacific Beach in San Diego.

Tower 23 on Pacific Beach.

North of Ocean Beach, across the San Diego River, lie the most popular of San Diego’s city beaches. Mission Beach and Pacific Beach stand on a narrow sandbar between the ocean and Mission Bay Park, a water wonderland of marinas, sheltered beaches, and resorts. On the bay you can rent kayaks, sailboats, paddle-boats, and SUPs, but the area is best known for SeaWorld San Diego. Mission Beach spans nearly two miles of sand, lined by the always humming Ocean Front Walk. The biggest non-beach attraction here is Belmont Park, an old-fashioned amusement park with a landmark rollercoaster (the above photo was taken from its top). Mission Boulevard runs from Mission Beach north to Pacific Beach and is full of casual cafes, women’s clothing boutiques, yoga studios, and bars. Pacific Beach is a slightly hipper beach community with a cluster of fashionable beach bars along the shore and restaurants and coffee shops along the main street, Garnet Avenue. This area tends to draw a young, bar-hopping crowd. Surfing is big here; South Coast and Pacific Beach Surf Shop are top spots for gear, board rentals, and lessons. Staying in Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, or Mission Bay can be lots of fun, with access to the beach, surf, and some great places to eat and drink. It’s not so convenient for exploring the rest of the city, however, with long bus rides or drives to Downtown and elsewhere.

5. La Jolla

Hotel in downtown La Jolla.

The wonderful La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, north of San Diego.

North of Pacific Beach, La Jolla is San Diego’s most affluent seaside community, with a dramatic coastline of caves and cliffs, cute little beaches, high-quality dining, and boutique shopping. It’s a popular place with couples and families with its beautiful coast walk, biking paths, basking seals, Shell Beach Tide Pools, and La Jolla Caves, best accessed by kayak. Downtown is known as the Village of La Jolla; the main streets (Prospect Street and Girard Avenue) are where most of the restaurants and hotels are located, along with the Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla. Further north is the rugged La Jolla Shores Beach and Birch Aquarium at Scripps, while the large, landscaped campus of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) sits just inland. Finally, the northern sector of La Jolla is bordered by Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a protected wilderness containing strands of the country’s rarest species of pine as well as the world-renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course with panoramic views from the cliffs over Blacks Beach. La Jolla lies some 12 miles north of Downtown San Diego and can be viewed as a chic destination in its own right rather than a base for exploring the city. Hotels here are often priced at a premium compared with other San Diego hotspots. One thing to note while making a lodging choice is that the Village of La Jolla is about a 15-minute drive west of the I-5 freeway, but many hotels in the Westfield UTC area right off the east side of the I-5 freeway classify themselves as being La Jolla hotels, but they are not in the same area at all. Though buses run up and down the coast, renting a car is the best option for exploring the area from here.

6. Balboa Park

View of a fountain and Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego

Balboa Park is Southern California’s biggest cultural center, encompassing 17 museums, beautifully landscaped gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Its elegant ensemble of Spanish Colonial buildings – it’s a bit like walking around Sevilla – is a legacy of the International Expositions held here in 1915 and 1935. Today it has enough art, memorabilia, antique cars, and aircraft to soak up several days, enhanced by wide swathes of green at the Japanese Friendship Garden and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ. While there are no hotels in Balboa Park itself, there are several in the surrounding streets and neighborhoods like Hillcrest, South Park, and North Park, best known for its cafés and craft breweries. There’s so much to see in Balboa Park, it’s important to pick a few highlights to avoid burn-out. Tackle a maximum of three major museums per day. The three main art museums are Mingei International Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, and Timken Museum of Art. The top family-friendly museums are the San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center, Museum of Us, and Air & Space Museum. The San Diego Zoo is worth at least half a day by itself. The Botanical Building makes for a relaxing break between museums, as does the Spanish Village Art Center. Small kids will love the whimsical Balboa Park Carousel and the Balboa Park Miniature Railroad at San Diego Zoo. The newest attraction here is the Comic-Con Museum, showcasing San Diego’s annual Comic Convention.

7. Hillcrest

A palm tree lined street in Hillcrest, San Diego

A few miles north of Downtown, bordering Balboa Park, the vibrant Hillcrest neighborhood is best known as San Diego’s LGBTQ+ quarter, with an array of hip bars, restaurants, cafés, and boutique stores (San Diego’s annual Pride Parade is held here every July). The landmark Hillcrest Pride Flag stands on the corner of Normal Street and the main drag, University Avenue, but there’s not much else here in the way of sights – it’s all about soaking up the scene, which includes the country’s only openly gay brewery, Hillcrest Brewing Company. Staying in Hillcrest, it’s best to rent a car in order to see the rest of the city, though it’s not far from Balboa Park.

8. Mission Valley and Old Town

Pottery and sculptures for sale in Old Town, San Diego

Old Town and Mission Valley lie four miles north of Downtown San Diego, but both neighborhoods are conveniently close to the airport and have decent trolley and bus connections to the rest of the city. Old Town is where the Spanish established their first settlement in 1769, and today the Old Town State Park preserves a fascinating collection of nineteenth-century adobe structures, as well as Mexican-themed markets and restaurants. Rising above Old Town, Presidio Park is where the original Spanish Presidio (military camp) and mission was located in 1769, today home to the Junípero Serra Museum. The main sight in adjacent Mission Valley is the Spanish-era Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, accessible via the Green Line trolley, but it’s the shopping at the huge Fashion Valley and Westfield Mission Valley malls that draws most visitors. From Mission Valley, it’s a quick trip to the neighborhoods of Hillcrest, North Park, Kensington, and Normal Heights. Old Town Transit Center is connected to the trolley and Coaster light rail networks, as well as Amtrak; it’s also closer to the main beaches than Downtown San Diego. Staying in Mission Valley, however, it’s best to rent a car – things are spread out beyond Old Town.

9. Harbor Island

A speedboat in the water off the coast of Harbor Island, San Diego

Harbor Island is a man-made peninsula created in 1961 and located on one of the San Diego Bays. It lies between Shelter Island and Downtown 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.

10. Point Loma & Shelter Island

View of the tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument

Large portions of the long Point Loma Peninsula, which separates San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean, are occupied by the US Navy, but there are several attractions open to the public, including Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a popular viewpoint with frequent sightings of grey whales. At the tip of the peninsula is the Cabrillo National Monument, a park commemorating the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo here in 1542, where you’ll find the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and the Point Loma Tide Pools (seen above), teeming with marine life. Point Loma is home to many top-notch seafood restaurants, charming mom-and-pop shops, and Liberty Station, a re-purposed Naval Training Center that now features restaurants, Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, small museums, and Liberty Public Market, crammed with food stalls. Further north, on the bay side of the peninsula, Shelter Island is a major marina, sportfishing, and resort hub, also famed for the Bali Hai Restaurant and its celebrated mai tai cocktails. One of Shelter Island’s gems is the world-class Humphreys Concerts by the Bay an open-air venue under the stars. Also here is an urban beach and a jetty where many boats launch for fishing trips. A rental car is recommended if staying anywhere in Point Loma or Shelter Island.

11. Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach (aka “OB”), lies on the Pacific shore just north of Point Loma, south of Mission Beach and the San Diego River. One of the last few quintessential SoCal beach towns, OB offers surfy, boho vibes with plenty of charm. The wide beach stretches north from Ocean Beach Pier and the main drag of Newport Street. Here you’ll find a cluster of dive bars, craft breweries, taco joints, and old-school restaurants, including the legendary burger joint Hodad’s. The pet-friendly northern section of sand is known as Dog Beach and even features a Dog Wash where you can see dogs being showered down. Ocean Beach is the realm of smaller motels and boutique hotels, for relaxed beach vacations. Buses connect Ocean Beach with Old Town and Downtown San Diego, but renting a car is a better strategy for exploring the rest of the city.

12. Del Mar

Ocean view from the coast in Del Mar, San Diego

Although most famous for the Del Mar Racetrack, a thoroughbred horse racing club that dates back to 1937, Del Mar offers plenty of attractions for all tastes. This coastal town features beautiful beaches with a dynamic surf scene, as well as golf courses, hot air balloon rides, scenic hiking trails, an increasingly sophisticated culinary scene, and numerous craft breweries. Del Mar is also home to the San Diego County Fair, held every summer, and an excellent Saturday farmers’ market. There are several ultra-luxury resorts and fine dining restaurants, including the acclaimed Addison at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.

13. Encinitas

View over Moonlight Beach in Encinitas in North San Diego County

North of Del Mar, Encinitas is a magical SoCal beach town with a vibrant surf and arts culture. This coastal city overflows with character. Encinitas is home to historic La Paloma Theatre (built in the silent film era, this was among the first to begin showing “talkies”) and a host of sites associated with Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1920; its Golden Lotus Temple is the namesake for Swami’s Beach below, a well-loved surf spot. Known as the “Flower Capital of the World,” Encinitas is the world’s top producer of poinsettias and is home to the San Diego Botanic Garden (with 4000 plants spread over 37 acres) and San Elijo Lagoon (where 40% of all North American birds migrate through here annually), offering free admission and weekly guided nature walks. Don’t forget to stop by Lou’s Records, one of the finest record stores in Southern California, stocking hard-to-find vinyl since 1980.

14. Carlsbad

View over the lagoon in Carlsbad, North San Diego County

Also known as “The Village by the Sea”, Carlsbad was named after the famous spa of Karlsbad in Czechia – it’s still possible to sample the local mineral water at Carlsbad Alkaline Water Springs. Today, the area’s biggest draw is Legoland California, which incorporates Sea Life Aquarium and Legoland Water Park (you can stay on-site at the LEGOLAND California Hotel). Visitors also flock to the fifty-acre Flower Fields to view multi-colored giant ranunculus in bloom. 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. Carlsbad’s charming downtown is filled with shops and restaurants.

15. Oceanside

Beach hotel in San Diego.
The Mission Pacific Beach Resort in Oceanside.

Oceanside: Located at the northernmost end of San Diego’s North County Coast (38 miles north of Downtown San Diego), Oceanside (aka “O-side”) makes for an enticing destination in its own right, with a storied surf scene and a developing culinary reputation. The seafront is anchored by Oceanside Pier, dating back to 1888 and one of the longest wooden piers in the US. Surfboard rentals and lessons can be arranged at Whitlock Surf Experience and Learn to Rip, while the region’s surf history is chronicled at the California Surf Museum. Non-beach-related attractions include the Oceanside Museum of Art and the Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, four miles inland.

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About Santorini Dave

Santorini Dave Author Bio. Santorini Dave was started in 2011 by a guy who loved Greece, travel, and great hotels. We're now a small team of writers and researchers on a mission to deliver the most helpful travel content on the internet. We specialize in Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, and Greece and recommend the best hotels, best neighborhoods, and best family hotels in top destinations around the world. We also make hotel maps and travel videos. I can be contacted at dave@santorinidave.com.