There’s this air about San Diego that separates itself from other cities on the West Coast—and California. This southern California city is a mecca for culture—distinguishable for more than being a military town: from being touted as the craft-beer capital of America; a hub for geekdom due being the host of the biggest comic-con; and an impeccable cuisine comprised of an amalgamation of cultural influences that go beyond the ever-popular fish tacos so prominent throughout the city.
As America’s eighth-largest city, glaring sun, palm trees, and the ocean breeze give off a sense of calm when going about the city—a levity greatly needed when parking is one of the biggest stresses of San Diego’s otherwise casual, amiable lifestyle. Walk through the streets of downtown and any sense of conflict brought on by this melting pot of cultures is literally just left in the air—smells of Mexican food compliment the rise of Filipino eateries, the mainstay presence of Vietnamese cuisine, and signature California-style wood-fired pizzas, among others.
For the transient traveler, or even for those looking to stay in San Diego for the long haul, here is a guide to getting yourself acquainted to San Diego’s casual vivaciousness.
When to Go
While the summer months of June to August seem the most ideal for basking in the sun, sightseeing, eating the finest seafood in the west coast, and attending one of the numerous festivals held within the season, you’ll likely be brushing shoulders with many other travelers and vacationers looking to do the same thing. Crowds will be aplenty, long lineups for attractions should be expected, and vacant parking spots are mythical unicorns. Spring is the best time to visit as the sun isn’t blazingly hot and kids will still be attending classes, though much like summer, there will be plenty of tourists taking advantage of the season.
Autumn, from September to November is a great time to go as you’ll still be able to enjoy the beach without having to deal with the overwhelming number of tourists and students enjoying their school breaks. With winter coinciding with whale migration season, you’ll have a heck of a time—however, you’ll have to wear some layers and likely a rain jacket to combat the cool weather and constant rain.
Locations, Per Your Lifestyle
The choice of location is entirely dependent on what you want to do. Of course, like many other cities, Airbnb is a great choice if you want to live like a local, with hostels being another great choice if you’re looking for a more social experience among travelers. If you’re looking for premium accommodation, there are plenty of hotels available throughout the area, so you aren’t limited in your choices (Pantai Inn, in La Jolla, is a great option for those looking for a seaside view with a Spanish colonial aesthetic).
If you’re staying in the historic Gaslamp quarter there are plenty of stores to peruse through as well as dining and entertainment options. Old Town, just north of San Diego’s downtown, is a great option for those looking to hang out in Balboa Park, for authentic Mexican cuisine, as well as for checking out the San Diego Zoo.
Coronado, a peninsula connected to the rest of the city is a whole lot of fun for cyclists looking to bike around the beach. If you’re looking to check out San Diego’s gay community, Hillcrest is a hub for gay culture—as well as great eateries, shops and cafes. Want to get wet? There are accommodations available for those wanting to be near Mission Bay, Pacific Beach, and Ocean beach—as well as for tourists looking to check out San Diego’s Seaworld. For a more posh, bourgeois experience, La Jolla, or “the jewel of the sea”, if you’re willing to shell out the money, is a great place to stay if you want a more upscale shopping and dining experience, or if you’re looking to get into snorkeling or diving.
Getting around San Diego
Much like many cities, parking is the bane to everyone’s commute. It’s especially bad during the summer when tourism is strong within the city, greatly impacting parking conditions—if you’re driving around with a rental or your own vehicle, be wary of the congestion.
Rather than throwing your money at cabs and rentals, if you need to get somewhere quick, or if you just don’t want to deal with the equally frustrating public transportation system (available through three different Trolley lines: Blue connects the San Diego downtown and Old Town; Orange allows you to go from downtown to the city’s east, through Lemon Grove and El Cajon; while Green connects Old Town with Mission Valley, San Diego State University, and Santee), Uber or Lyft can get the job done for you at a very reasonable price.
For a more active approach, biking around San Diego is a dream. While other modes of transportation can often be frustrating, San Diego is very much a cyclist-friendly city, and one that you should really take advantage of—biking through the Spanish colonial Balboa park, through uptown, along the coastal beaches, or anywhere else is highly recommended.
Divulge into San Diego’s Local Eats
Fish Tacos & Seafood Cuisine
The greatest thing about being in a coastal city is the prevalence of seafood cuisine. And what better way to have seafood in a casual setting than Fish Tacos—a cuisine with indigenous Mexican roots that many Americans have embraced. Of the many eateries offering this popular food item, Hapifish (190 N. Coast Hwy 101), a contemporary sushi joint that emphasizes SoCal’s casual beach culture with the diligence of Japanese Cuisine, offers some delicious Baja-inspired fish tacos, guaranteed to make your mouth water. Blue Water (3667 India St.), a seafood market and casual dining spot, also offers some affordable, and delicious fish tacos, with, of course, freshly sourced ingredients.
Getting in Touch with the Roots of Filipino Cuisine
Among the various Southeast Asian influences in San Diego—and in America—Filipino cuisine, often overlooked among its peers, is starting to gain some prominence among foodies. A mixture of influences, from Spanish, Chinese, and American, Filipino cuisine is remarkable in the way that these influences have been indigenized. While Filipino chefs are implementing their own ethnic touch to contemporary, western and fusion cuisine to better appease the American palate, there are still some notably delicious low-key, casual Filipino joints that offer the real thing.
Tita’s Kitchenette (2720 E Plaza Blvd), a popular joint for San Diego’s Filipino community, offers some of the best sisig around. While this cultural staple uses parts from the pig’s head and liver, don’t let that deter you as, when it’s served hot and sizzling, this dish is remarkably delicious (especially when paired with rice, lime, and vinegar). Erlinda’s Filipino Cuisine (3400 E 8th St Ste 115) is another great option among locals, not only for their affordable, savory foods, but for their signature Halo-Halo, a delicious Filipino cold dessert that incorporates evaporated milk, ice cream, shaved ice, flan, and other ingredients.
Pizza for the Traveller’s Soul
If you’re looking for some tasty pies, The Besta-Wan Pizza House (148 Aberdeen Dr.), among this eatery’s large selection of eats, their California-style pizzas—from their Kraut-za Pepperoni pizza to their protein-rich, meatball filled Schmuckle 5000 pizza—you aren’t going to be disappointed. For a more east-coast flair, Surfrider Pizza (2163 Abbott St.) offers a diverse selection of pies to appease any palate—the Dirty Dom, with its special white jalapeno sauce, will let you feel the burn in the most palatable of ways.
Festivals: Experience San Diego’s Vivacity
San Diego Beer Week
What’s in a name if you don’t back it up? As the capital of craft beer, locals and tourists alike can try some of the best locally made brews: from Arrogant Bastard, Old Numbskull, Fortunate Islands and more, chances are, with such a varied, fantastic brew selection, you’ll be imbibing for the seven days that this festival is going on.
San Diego Film Festival
The mainstay of film festivals for San Diego, the annual San Diego Film Festival boasts a wide selection of indie, arthouse, and international movies for the enthusiast or film buff.
What better way can you support LGBT rights than San Diego’s own LGBT Pride Festival, located in Balboa Park. What’s great about this festival is that festivities don’t end with the parade—it is also a music festival that boasts an eclectic musical lineup that’ll rock your socks off!
Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre
Looking to get in touch with your inner Shakespeare? Shakespeare’s Globe has a wonderful lineup of Shakespeare plays to indulge in every summer and winter season.
For information regarding local events, see here.