San Diego is a city in the U.S. state of California on the coast of the Pacific Ocean and immediately adjacent to the Mexican border. The city is known for its mild year-round climate, natural deep-water harbor, extensive beaches and parks, long association with the United States Navy and Marine Corps, and recent emergence as a healthcare and biotechnology development center. San Dieg is a big city adventure playground in a beachside vibes, the city is a buzzing hum of culture, entertainment, food and fun around every corner and laid-back neighborhood. In San Diego, find friendly locals, great weather, amazing beaches, and delicious seafood and Mexican cuisine.
From balmy beaches with a laid-back attitude to a gleaming modern image, San Diego offers much for the tourist to enjoy. San Diego has long attracted travelers for its ideal climate, miles of beaches, and location on the Mexican border right across from Tijuana. Natural scenery abounds from rocky tidepools and seaside cliffs to desert hills and canyons inland.
The city has also become known for its part in the wildlife conservation movement, owing to the presence of the world-renowned San Diego Zoo and Safari Park and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In the town of La Jolla, there are seals and sea lions that have taken over the Children’s Pool Beach. They can be seen from the cliffs at La Jolla Cove.
A rich maritime and military heritage lives on in San Diego, which is home to the Pacific Fleet of the United States Navy. San Diego is home to several military installations, dating back to the early 20th century when the U.S. Navy established a base there. The Coast Guard has a base on San Diego Bay, and the U.S. Marines have installations at Miramar and Camp Pendleton. The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Midway is a museum and tourist attraction.
Historically home to the Kumeyaay people, San Diego is frequently referred to as the “Birthplace of California”, as it was the first site visited and settled by Europeans on what is now the West Coast of the United States. Upon landing in San Diego Bay in 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed the area for Spain, forming the basis for the settlement of Alta California 200 years later.
The Presidio and Mission San Diego de Alcalá, founded in 1769, formed the first European settlement in what is now California. In 1821, San Diego became part of the newly declared Mexican Empire, which reformed as the First Mexican Republic two years later. California became part of the United States in 1848 following the Mexican–American War and was admitted to the union as a state in 1850.
Nowaday San Diego is the eighth most populous city in the United States and second most populous in California. The city is the economic center of the San Diego–Tijuana conurbation, the second most populous transborder metropolitan area in the western hemisphere. San Diego’s main economic engines are military and defense-related activities, tourism, international trade, research, and manufacturing.
Tourism is a major industry, attracting visitors to its 70 miles of beaches, family theme parks, and attractions, museums, golf courses, craft breweries, and restaurants. San Diego bursts with world-famous attractions for the entire family, including the zoo, the museums of Balboa Park, plus a bubbling Downtown, beautiful hikes for all, more than 60 beaches and America’s most perfect weather.
San Diego calls itself “America’s Finest City”, a laid-back place and its breezy confidence and sunny countenance filter down to folks you encounter every day on the street. Moderate temperatures year round along with minimal rainfall make just about any time lovely in San Diego.
Summer is beach season, and visitors enjoy sunny weather and warm water in the ocean and bay for water sports like surfing, paddle boarding, swimming, and boating. The sea and air are cooler during winter months, still pleasant for outdoor activities like biking, hiking, and walking along the shore.
San Diego’s Spanish and Mexican heritage is reflected in many historic sites across the city, such as Mission San Diego de Alcalá and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Also, the local craft brewing industry attracts an increasing number of visitors for “beer tours” and the annual San Diego Beer Week in November; San Diego has been called “America’s Craft Beer Capital.”
Local sightseeing cruises are offered in San Diego Bay and Mission Bay, as well as whale-watching cruises to observe the migration of gray whales, peaking in mid-January. Sport fishing is another popular tourist attraction; San Diego is home to southern California’s biggest sport fishing fleet.
A fully narrated tour of San Diego, Coronado or Tijuana, Mexico, trolley or bus tours are a great option. The professional guides are well-versed in San Diego history and lore, and make the tours fun and entertaining.
Old Town Trolley Tours has taken visitors through the city, exploring Old Town, Gaslamp Quarter, Embarcadero, Balboa Park, Coronado and more. Stay on the trolley for the full two-hour tour and learn fun and interesting facts about San Diego.
A treasure-trove of historic landmarks and settings, colorful neighborhoods, captivating natural beauty and outdoor art provide the walking enthusiast with a variety of exciting routes. Destinations include the Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park, Coronado, Downtown San Diego and more.
A tour on the Pacific Ocean for breathtaking views of the city and sea. Excursions can happen via yacht, sail boat, former Navy SEAL RIB boat, catamaran, jet ski, kayak, snorkel, kayak/bike combo, and even on a stand-up paddle board. San Diego Harbor cruises combined with dinner or Sunday brunch are also a popular choice as are the Mississippi style sternwheeler boat tours on Mission Bay. Zipping around a Segway through San Diego is definitely a fun way to experience California’s Beach City.
One activity locals and visitors truly enjoy is whale watching. If you’re interested in a closer look at these majestic creatures, a host of sightseeing and tour companies in San Diego offer a variety of whale watching excursions.
Choose from road bike rides through La Jolla, Mission Bay, Coronado and downtown San Diego or off-road mountain bike rides in San Diego’s North County. The popular La Jolla “Plunge” or “Freefall” trip starts at the top of Mt. Soledad with the downhill ride into La Jolla and the surrounding coastline.
Like most large cities, San Diego encompasses a variety of neighborhoods and communities, including casual beach towns, downtown business areas, and both new and historical sections.
Downtown – A hub of business and nightlife on the bay, downtown has many tourist attractions among its gleaming office and hotel towers.
Balboa Park-Hillcrest – Balboa is a massive urban parkland in the city’s heart, home to many museums and the renowned San Diego Zoo. Next door is Hillcrest, a trendy urban neighborhood.
Old Town-Mission Valley – The site of the first Spanish settlement in California, Old Town is a historic district popular with tourists. It sits at the foot of Mission Valley, a major commercial center.
Coronado – Picturesque Coronado is a separate city from San Diego that is closely tied to the larger city, sitting directly across the bay from Downtown with a splendid beach and the famous Hotel del Coronado.
Point Loma-Ocean Beach – A scenic peninsula curving around the bay, this area offers gorgeous views of San Diego, beautiful coastline, and quiet, laid-back beach neighborhoods.
Mission Beach-Pacific Beach – Two popular beach communities with plenty of shops, restaurants, and nightlife, alongside a manmade inlet that is home to Sea World. Mission Bay park is the largest water-based city park in the nation.
La Jolla – An upscale beach community, it features some of the most picturesque coastline and lovely beaches around, an exceptional aquarium, and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD).
Mid-City – A set of neighborhoods in the heights east of Balboa Park. There isn’t much in the way of tourist attractions out here, but one can find trendy districts with locally oriented restaurants, shops, and theaters.
North – A large region of the city composed of many suburban neighborhoods stretching far inland to the hills of the north, with a few scattered tourist attractions, including the popular Safari Park.
San Ysidro – Home to one of the world’s busiest land border crossings, where one can travel between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. This section is not contiguous with the rest of San Diego; you have to travel through the suburbs of National City and Chula Vista on the I-5 or I-805 freeways or take the San Diego Trolley.
Old Town San Diego
What attracts so many to this small area of San Diego is the history and culture that still remains a part of Old Town today. A short stroll around Old Town offers visitors access to over 100 unique retail shops. In addition to the food and shopping there are three Parks, all of which have historic sites operated as museums and retail shops. Located at the northern end of Old Town is Old Town San Diego State Historic Park with all of its museums free to the public.
The Old Town State Historic Park spans the decades from Californio rule to the Mexican Period and finally to the American Period. See the 1825 Casa de Estudillo, one of the finest adobe haciendas in the state; view a rare original stagecoach at the Wells Fargo Museum.There is a scale model of nineteenth century Old Town in the reconstructed Robinson-Rose House, one-time Lodge of the Freemasons and home of San Diego’s first newspaper. The Black Hawk Livery & Blacksmith shop are a favorite; the San Diego Union newspaper building and the first public schoolhouse in San Diego, the Mason Street School are some of the amazing sites in the State Park.
Heritage park is the site of nine Victorian homes that were move to Old Town to preserve them. They were some of San Diego’s finest mansions that were going to be destroyed due to the expansion of downtown San Diego. The Presidio Park is the site of the first European settlement and location of the first of 21 mission that span the californias.
Museums and historical attractions
In addition to the zoo, Balboa Park is home to an expansive campus of intriguing museums, flowering gardens and beautiful arboretums set amidst neo-classical Spanish architecture, making it a must-visit for any trip to San Diego. Among the highlight attractions are the San Diego Museum of Art, merely the largest of several art museums within the park, the San Diego Museum of Man with its exceptional anthropological exhibits, the San Diego Air and Space Museum with its numerous historical aircraft and full-scale models, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Natural History Museum with their kid-friendly interactive exhibits, and the very fun San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
Amidst Downtown San Diego’s restaurants and nightlife is the historical district of Gaslamp Quarter, home to plenty of Victorian-era buildings that have been re-adapted to other uses. Nearby along the Downtown waterfront are two museums devoted to the city’s maritime heritage: the San Diego Maritime Museum, with a collection of lovingly restored 19th-century sailing ships, a steam ferryboat, and a former Soviet Union submarine, and the USS Midway Museum, a former aircraft carrier of the US Navy that is now open for tours and home to a collection of former naval aircraft housed on the ship’s expansive flight deck. Across the bay from Downtown is the independent community of Coronado, home to a major naval facility and very charming streets, as well as the gorgeous Hotel del Coronado, a high-class hotel constructed in the late 1800s and sitting on one of San Diego’s cleanest beaches.
Old Town is the city’s main historical district, with preserved buildings and icons of the Spanish heritage of San Diego and the Old West, from 19th-century cannons to the haunted Whaley House. Shopping and restaurants dot the area and living history performances regularly take place. Up Mission Valley from Old Town and another reminder of the city’s Spanish heritage is the Mission San Diego de Alcala, the oldest of the California missions, founded in 1769 by Junipero Serra.
Balboa Park is a San Diego must-see destination, just minutes from downtown. The Park is home to 17 major museums, several performing arts venues, lovely gardens, and many other cultural and recreational attractions, including the San Diego Zoo. With a variety of cultural institutions laid out among its 1,200 beautiful and lushly planted acres, Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park.
The best way to start your time in Balboa Park is with a stop at the Balboa Park Visitors Center. Located across from The Prado Restaurant in the House of Hospitality, the Visitors Center has the most current and comprehensive information about the Park’s activities and attractions.
Based on its richly vibrant and authentic concentrations of art, culture and creativity, Balboa Park has been designated as one of 14 California Cultural Districts, which showcase some of the unique artistic identities that drive California’s culture.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
Maritime Museum of San Diego serves as the community memory of our seafaring experience by collecting, preserving, and presenting our rich maritime heritage and historic connections with the Pacific world. Tour the world’s oldest active sailing ship, Star of India, celebrity frigate replica HMS Surprise featured in the award-winning film “Master and Commander” and “Pirates of Caribbean” motion picture series, the galleon replica San Salvador, Victorian – era Steam Ferry Berkeley,1904 steam yacht Medea and USS Dolphin submarine.
USS Midway Museum
USS Midway Museum, a real aircraft carrier, exploring the USS Midway, the longest-serving U.S. Navy aircraft carrier of the 20th century. explore a historic aircraft carrier. Activities for all ages including self-guided audio tours, theater, flight simulators, climb-in aircraft, ejection seats and cockpits, guided tours of the bridge and more. Audio tours are available in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, French and German.
Living aboard a floating city at sea with 4,500 shipmates, by exploring galleys, officer’s country, sleeping quarters and the 4 acre flight deck. 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.
Check out the new child’s audio tour with content geared specifically for 7-12 year-olds, take the kids and explore, climb-aboard aircraft and cockpits, walk through helicopters, ride three types of flight simulators, climb in bunks, sit in ejection seat theatre, listen to real pilot conversations during Desert Storm.
Cabrillo National Monument
San Diego’s only National Park offers tremendous views of the San Diego region and excellent opportunities to explore the natural, historical and cultural history of the area. The Visitors Center is a good place to start your exploration of the park.
The “Age of Exploration” exhibit, films, and ranger-guided programs present interesting insights into the history of Cabrillo. A short walk leads to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. This picturesque structure is restored to its 1880’s appearance and presents life as it was for the light keepers and their families. In the adjacent Assistant Keeper’s Quarters, interactive exhibits tell the story of the Lighthouses of Point Loma.
In a nearby historic Military building, the exhibit “They Stood the Watch” presents the history of Fort Rosecrans. The bayside trail begins near the lighthouse and offers breathtaking views of the harbor and the city of San Diego. South of the Lighthouse is the Whale Overlook. This vantage point offers pleasant views of the Pacific Ocean and the New Point Loma Lighthouse. Whales are often seen from here in January and February.
One of San Diego’s main claims to fame is its array of renowned zoological attractions which are at the forefront in the wildlife conservation movement. Of them, the most respected is the San Diego Zoo, a massive zoo that encompasses over 100 acres of Balboa Park and is possibly the premier zoo in North America. One of the earliest adopters of naturalistic animal exhibits, this is also one of the most gorgeous zoos in the world. Animal shows run constantly, and there are creatures here that aren’t visible in any other zoo on the planet. It’s definitely worth a visit, but you need a full day to really do it justice.
The sister park to the San Diego Zoo and another stellar attraction in its own right, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park covers 1800 acres of the San Pasqual Valley, about 30 miles (50 km) north of Downtown San Diego near Escondido. Here the wide open expanse of the desert valley has enabled the creation of stunningly huge exhibits that resemble African savanna, where herds of animals roam and drink from watering holes. Like the Zoo, the Safari Park is also well worth a trip, but also requires a full day to take it in.
Considerably smaller but also important in its own right is the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, the public face of the renowned Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The Birch holds fantastic exhibits which cover physical oceanography and plenty of beautiful aquarium fish, with highlights including a touchpool and a massive kelp tank that is a simulation of ocean life just off the San Diego coast.
Less scientifically renowned but popular in its own right is Sea World on Mission Bay, the California branch of the marine theme park chain with its numerous animal shows and enclosures showcasing sharks, penguins, polar bears, dolphins, and killer whales among other marine animals. Also in the area and something of a hidden gem is the Living Coast Discovery Center, a nature center in the marshes of San Diego Bay in Chula Vista with a lot of interactive exhibits on the native wildlife.
San Diego Zoo
An urban paradise for all ages, the San Diego Zoo is a must-see in Southern California. Winding paths through the tropical oasis of a botanical garden bring you to more than 4,000 rare and fascinating animals, including koalas, Galápagos tortoises, leopards, roaming peacocks, and more. Explore Africa Rocks to discover penguins, baboons, the mysterious fossa, weaver birds, and others unique creatures. The festive, lively atmosphere makes the San Diego Zoo a great place for family fun and gathering friends. Discover the wonders of wildlife with animal encounters, interactive experiences, and exciting animal presentations and shows.
SeaWorld San Diego
Stroll through over 100 acres of beautiful outdoor grounds on Mission Bay as you enjoy amazing animals, world-class educational presentations, exciting seasonal events and more! With plenty of outdoor seating, have room to enjoy a wide variety of artisanal dishes along with local craft beers, signature cocktails, and wine.
Sea Life Aquarium
Sea Life Aquarium is your child’s first interactive guide to the life of the sea, combining active hands-on learning with fascinating educational talks and up close encounters with sea creatures including sharks, octopi, and rays.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park immerses you in an active, hands-on safari experience where herds of animals roam natural habitats in a vast reserve, and the only two platypuses in the US swim and splash. Choose from a variety of exciting safari expeditions by caravan truck, cart, zip line-there’s even an overnight option. Everywhere you look, there are amazing views lions lounging in the grasslands, antelope and giraffes mingling, rhinos wallowing in waterholes, storks and cranes on the march, and more.
Engage in close encounters with animal ambassadors, explore walking trails that lead to beautiful vistas and endangered species like the Sumatran tiger, and discover the adventure of conservation in action at this leading-edge wildlife park. The world’s wild places come to life in San Diego. Stroll through Walkabout Australia and walk among kangaroos and wallabies, then get a rare glimpse at platypuses and cassowaries. The Tiger Trail experience transports you to the realm of Sumatran tigers, where you can gaze into the eyes of these majestic big cats and marvel at their power and beauty.
In Nairobi Village encounter meerkats, red river hogs, lemurs, bats, and more, then gaze over Mombasa Lagoon and spot pelicans and cormorants. Stop by Lorikeet Landing and feed brightly colored lorikeets as they perch on your arms and shoulders. At Lion Camp, you can come face to face with the “King of Beasts” and experience Cheetah Run to see just how fast these spotted cats move. The Africa Tram rolls you through the huge field exhibits to see rhinos, giraffes, gazelles, and more. Step into an adventure like no other at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps
As the public outreach center for the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Birch Aquarium brings guests into the exciting world of cutting-edge research. Explore interactive exhibits and come face to face with exciting creatures including a rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle, a Giant Pacific Octopus, Leopard Sharks and jellies. Don’t miss the two-story Giant Kelp Forest or the outdoor touch pools that feature stunning ocean views and the opportunity to get hands-on with juvenile sharks and rays as well as sea stars, sea cucumbers and more.
As the public outreach center for the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Birch Aquarium brings guests into the exciting world of cutting-edge research. Explore interactive exhibits and come face to face with exciting creatures including a rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle, a Giant Pacific Octopus, Leopard Sharks and jellies. Don’t miss the two-story Giant Kelp Forest or the outdoor touch pools that feature stunning ocean views and the opportunity to get hands-on with juvenile sharks and rays as well as sea stars, sea cucumbers and abalone.
LEGOLAND Theme Park, where families with children ages 2-12 can head to Castle Hill and enter a world of knights and princesses to conquer the Dragon Coaster, get a Driver’s License in Fun Town, and marvel at cities built entirely out of millions of LEGO bricks in Miniland U.S.A. Meet LEGO costume characters at a safe distance, play at outdoor playgrounds Hideaways or DUPLO Playtown, or enjoy the swift speed of the beginner coaster Coastersaurus. Also explore the new THE LEGO MOVIE WORLD, featuring Emmet’s Flying Adventure ride.
There are LEGO experiences, a wide variety of retail product, and one-of-a-kind food and beverage options for the whole family to enjoy. Soak up the sun and cool off as you splash and play at the LEGO CHIMA Water Park with over 10 million gallons of fun! LEGOLAND Resort is also home to SEA LIFE aquarium, featuring the Sea at Night exhibit where you can learn more about bioluminescence.
LEGOLAND Water Park
Soak up the sun and cool off as you splash and play at the LEGOLAND Water Park and LEGO CHIMA Water Park with over 10 million gallons of fun! With slides to ride and rafts to build, this water park is built for young families with children.
Sesame Place San Diego
Sesame Place San Diego will be the only theme park on the West Coast based entirely on the award-winning show, Sesame Street. This 17-acre theme park will be perfect for families with kids of all ages and will open as a Certified Autism Center. The new theme park will feature 7 Sesame Street-themed dry rides, an interactive musical play area, and 11 reimagined water attractions including a 500,000-gallon wave pool – one of the largest in Southern California.
The park will also feature an interactive Sesame Street Neighborhood complete with the iconic 123 Stoop, a live character show, an award-winning daily parade, one-of-a-kind photo opportunities and of course, everyone’s favorite furry friends. Bring the entire family to whirl on rides, splash down slides, and sing and dance along with their Sesame Street friends at Sesame Place San Diego.
San Diego is dotted with major shopping centers and upscale boutiques catering to nearly every style of dress and expression. The most well-known shopping centers in the area are Fashion Valley and Westfield Mission Valley in Mission Valley and Westfield UTC near La Jolla. In addition to these, one can find numerous other malls and outlet centers across the city.
If you’re more interested in smaller shops and more local businesses than you’d ordinarily find in your average mall, Downtown, Hillcrest, and the beach neighborhoods (Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, etc.) offer a slightly more unique shopping scene. San Diego County has some unique antique markets, with a treasure trove of high end stores, as well as a host of second hand shops, bric a brac, and vintage stores.
The major supermarket chains in San Diego are Ralph’s (which is owned by Kroger), Vons (which is owned by Safeway), Smart & Final, and Grocery Outlet. In addition many specialty and organic supermarkets such as Whole Foods Market, Jimbos, Sprouts Farmers Market, and Trader Joe’s can also be found throughout the area along with ethnic supermarkets catering to San Diego’s sizable Asian and Latino immigrant population..
San Diego offers a wide variety of national and international cuisine. Food representing almost every world cuisine can be found somewhere in the city, and major restaurant chains are found in almost every district. Given the proximity to the border, it should come as no surprise that Mexican food is abundant in San Diego.
A walking food tour combine a curated selection of dishes with a healthy helping of history, and just enough exertion to keep your appetite stimulated. Generally lasting two to three hours with three to six restaurant stops, several tours also incorporate local wine or craft beer tastings. Neighborhood destinations include Little Italy, Liberty Station, Downtown San Diego, La Jolla, North Park, Pacific Beach, Coronado, Carlsbad, Encinitas and the Gaslamp District.
Some of the best districts for fine dining are Downtown, Hillcrest, and La Jolla, which all offer extensive options that cater to both a local and tourist crowd. Pacific Beach also has a bustling – albeit more laid-back – dining scene, while the neighborhoods of Mid-City (particularly Kensington and North Park) have plenty of great restaurants that cater to a more local crowd.
Other food scenes of note in San Diego are the concentration of Italian restaurants and delis in Little Italy in Downtown and the numerous Southeast Asian restaurants and markets that serve the large Asian-American population in Kearny Mesa.
The concentration of Mexican restaurants in Old Town, this city offers endless options for Mexican food, from hole-in-the-wall taco joints to fine dining. A local specialty is rolled tacos, which consist of beef or chicken tightly rolled into a corn tortilla and fried until crispy, then served with guacamole and shredded cheese piled on top.
Other quintessential San Diego menu items not to be missed are fish tacos and the carne asada burrito; unlike other regional burrito varieties that tend to use rice and beans as filler, the San Diego variety is typically jam-packed with chunks of carne asada steak with some guacamole and pico de gallo mixed in, making for an immensely satisfying meal. A variant of the carne asada burrito is the California burrito, which contains carne asada, French fries, cheese, and some combination of cilantro, pico de gallo, sour cream, onion, or guacamole.
For a longer, more in-depth foodie experience, try a culinary circuit that combines visits with a local coffee roaster, artisan bakery, urban winery, distillery or brewery with an organic farm. Then enjoy a farm-to-fork meal first-hand. Take a trip to San Diego’s best wineries, explore local small-batch distillers or go on a brew hopping tour to get a behind-the-scenes look at how some of San Diego award-winning craft beers are brewed.
San Diego is well-known for its craft-brewing scene, with an emphasis on highly-hopped beers. Craft beer can generally be found at nearly every bar in San Diego. In addition, many specialty craft beer bars are scattered throughout San Diego, boasting some of the best and most unique selections of beer in the country.
Along San Diego’s coast you can find miles of beaches providing excellent opportunities for swimming, surfing, and general beach-going. Each beach is unique, ranging from popular white sand beaches to harsh surf spots to the clothing-optional Black’s Beach in La Jolla. Surf conditions vary by beach, and there are numerous surf schools throughout the San Diego area.
Lifeguard Truck, BeachSan Diego is famous for its beaches and bays, and for the many water activities available. Whether you want to enjoy water sports, explore coves and tidepools or simply spend a relaxing day in the sun, San Diego has a lot to offer.
Ocean-Front Beaches, with 17 miles of coastline, San Diego offers a wide variety of beaches and amenities. Mission Bay Park, with more than 4,235 acres of land and water, Mission Bay Park is the largest aquatic park of its kind in the San Diego country. Torrey Pines City Beach, also known as Black’s Beach, includes the Torrey Pines Gliderport atop the cliffs overlooking the beach.
Among San Diego’s beaches, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are the most popular, with a connected boardwalk popular with bicyclists and roller bladers and plenty of shops, restaurants and bars catering to the huge crowds that show up, as well as a pier in Pacific Beach and a seaside amusement park on Mission Beach. This area tends to be the center of the Spring Break scene and has some of the calmest ocean swimming and surfing in San Diego, albeit also the most crowded.
To the south, Ocean Beach draws a more local crowd, with a large sandy beach, a fishing pier, and designated surfing and swimming zones, as well as a dog beach at the northern end, making it a good place to come if you want to get a taste of the local beach culture away from the crowds of Mission and Pacific Beaches. Further to the south, Coronado’s main beach is noteworthy for its gleaming white sands and mostly family crowd, while the Silver Strand extending between Coronado and Imperial Beach has some excellent swimming and surfing spots.
To the north, La Jolla has some of the most scenic beaches around, including the popular La Jolla Cove, frequented by swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers. Surfing is not allowed in the Cove, but the nearby Windansea Beach and Marine Street Beach are proven places to test your mettle against some rough surf. La Jolla Shores has some of the gentlest waves anywhere in San Diego, while Torrey Pines State Beach is arguably the most scenic, set against steep cliffs and a splendid place to get away from the crowds. Even further north, the coast of Northern San Diego County offers multiple scenic and popular beaches.
San Diego Bay offers amble opportunities for sailors to enjoy boating, with plenty of anchorages and marinas catering to all boaters. Launch ramps and marinas are located in Point Loma, Downtown, Coronado, National City and Chula Vista. Some anchorages require a permit, while others do not.
San Diego Bay and the calmer man-made inlet of Mission Bay are also excellent places for sailing, windsurfing, and jet skiing, with rentals and lessons offered on Mission Bay. The calm waters of Mission Bay also make it an excellent place for kayaking, with numerous rental places. Kayaking is also superb at La Jolla Shores, where you can see leopard sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions and pelicans, and explore ocean caves.
San Diego also features some great scuba diving, including the “Wreck Alley” where you can see kelp beds and explore the shipwrecks of the Yukon and the Ruby E. In addition, several dive boat operators offer regular runs to the Coronados Islands off the Mexican coast where you can dive with sea lions. Diving here is usually considered cold water diving and visibility is not always the greatest.
If you’re looking for a more casual way to get on the water, there are also whale watching cruises. California gray whales migrate south along the coast each February, and there are some great places along the coast to view the migration, such as the overlook in Cabrillo National Monument (in Point Loma). Several private companies offer sailing tours during the migration season that bring you much closer to the whales.
The San Diego coastline is rife with scenic attractions. Home to a variety of habitats ranging from intertidal wetland and chaparral-covered canyons to alpine mountains and pristine desert wilderness, San Diego teems with stunning scenery.
Among the most spectacular is the view from Cabrillo National Monument at the tip of Point Loma. Created to commemorate the first California landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s expedition for Spain in 1542, the monument is situated atop a high vantage point at the mouth of the San Diego Bay, where visitors can get a panoramic view of Downtown San Diego, the bay, the ocean, and the distant mountains, as well as tour a historic former lighthouse and the remnants of WWII-era coastal defense structures. To the north, near Ocean Beach, is a stretch of scenic coastline known as Sunset Cliffs, with some secluded beaches and tidepools beneath the steep ocean cliffs.
Few places in Southern California can match La Jolla for coastal scenery. An upscale coastal community with dozens of coffee shops, restaurants and high-end shopping outlets, La Jolla also holds many secluded coves, beaches and ocean cliffs to explore, including the popular Children’s Cove that has become a breeding ground for harbor seals. Just to the north of La Jolla proper is the scenic Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, situated atop a plateau with steep ocean cliffs overlooking the beautiful (and relatively secluded) Torrey Pines State Beach; hiking trails lead you through the park to the beach below.
Further inland, away from the coast, the rugged, scrubby terrain of Northern San Diego offers some understated scenic attractions, including the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve with its interesting rock formations and Mission Trails Regional Park, a hidden jewel that contains San Diego’s highest point and a small gorge popular with rock climbers.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Nestled atop the scenic cliffs of La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of only two places on earth where nature lovers can find the nation’s rarest pine tree, the Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana).
La Jolla Underwater Park
Dive into the West Coast’s first underwater preserve, spanning 6,000 acres of ocean floor and tideland, teeming with marine life above and below the surface of the water. Expect to encounter seals, sea lions, bright orange Garibaldi fish, leopard sharks in the summer, pelicans and more. Nearby the La Jolla Underwater Park are the seven sea caves of La Jolla Cove. Sunny Jim Cave is the only known land access sea cave on the California coast and can be accessed by the Cave Store in the heart of La Jolla Village.
Sunset Cliffs’ Hidden Sea Cave
Tucked beneath sandstone bluffs on the southern end of Luscomb’s Point (adjacent to Sunset Cliffs Blvd, just north of Monaco St), is this curious chasm. Rumor has it that the cave was used to smuggle rum from Mexico to the houses above during the Prohibition era. Peer through the chain link fence to view the illuminated boulder-strewn cavern below. It’s best to enjoy the cave from above and avoid the dangerous waves and currents below.
Potato Chip Rock
This popular narrow strip of stone jutting out of the mountain along the Mt. Woodson Trail attracts shutterbugs and rock climbers alike. Through a labyrinth of giant granite boulders, and can be accessed from either side of the mountain.
Annie’s Canyon Trial
Journey along this newly restored trail in San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve. The moderate-to-strenuous 1/4 mile 200 feet climb to a vista point offers panoramic views of the reserve and the Pacific Ocean. The joy is in the journey as steep switchbacks pass through the naturally sculpted sandstone walls and narrow slot corridors that “create a sense of mystery and wonder.”
Cedar Creek Falls
Trek the challenging 6 mile roundtrip hike over chaparral-covered hills to this spectacular waterfall plunging 80 feet into a pool of water. This strenuous hike requires a visitors permit and a minimum of one gallon of water.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
This seemingly boundless preserve, “one of the most pristine desert parks in the world” according the National Geographic and the largest state park in California, features rugged badlands, slot canyons, mud caves, hidden palm oases, colorful wildflowers in the spring and jaw dropping overlooks like Fonts Point, “California’s Grand Canyon” and Vista del Malpais.