What to see and what to skip in San Diego

San Diego has beaches and entertainment, but some things are worth skipping.

April 7, 2017, 4:07 PM
PHOTO: Downtown San Diego.
Downtown San Diego.
Getty Images

— -- It’s easy to understand why San Diego inspires travel, with its 70 miles of beaches, entertainment that ranges from kid-friendly to adults-only and a growing revolution in all things culinary. As a former San Diego resident, I can vouch that the rumor is true: The weather does stay practically perfect year-round. Throw in a swarm of activities and a major value factor, and this sunny Southern California enclave never disappoints. Next time you go, add these suggestions to your San Diego to-do list.

Skip Summer, Go in October

Temps in the 70s and 80s and consistently sunny skies make summer San Diego’s hottest season for tourists. But traveling other times of the year brings thinner crowds and lower prices. Visiting in October, specifically, can save parents big-time. For the last few years, the 10th month has been dubbed “Kids Free” here, with myriad family activities offered throughout the county at no cost. Look for kids-eat-free offers from several restaurants and for kids-play-free incentives from theme parks and museums. In 2016, for example, SeaWorld featured free entry, free dolphin and beluga whale interactions and free meals for each child with a paying adult. Kids Free offers for October 2017 will go public in August.

Skip Conventions

As with any convention-friendly city, hotel prices will soar when big group meetings come to town. So when you’re planning your visit, use your favorite search engine to look up “San Diego convention calendar.” You’ll get an 18-month glimpse at upcoming events, including the projected number of attendees. For example, when Comic-Con returns in July, with a projected 130,000 fans descending on San Diego, you’d better believe hotels will kick prices up and sell out. Visit the week after for much better rates. This will mostly affect Gaslamp Quarter hotels, as they’re walking distance to San Diego’s world-class convention center.

Skip the Dog Sitter, Bring Fido

The word is already out: San Diego is one of the country’s most pet-friendly cities. Dog-welcoming eateries and beaches abound here; I loved taking my St. Bernard, Bruno, to North Beach in Del Mar, which allows off-leash frolicking seasonally. San Diego’s pro-Fido attitude also means your pet can probably stay in your hotel room, though prices can vary, and there may be weight restrictions. Some fancy hotels will charge one-time fees of up to $150. But the best bargains are at Kimpton’s two downtown locations – Hotel Solamar and Hotel Palomar – where any pet of any size stays with you for free! If Spot’s well behaved, bring him along to the hotels’ complimentary wine hour at 5 p.m. each day.

Skip the Bar, Visit a Brewer

My colleague Blaire Constantinou, a travel expert in Travelzoo’s L.A. office, recently returned from San Diego raving about the beer. “With more than 130 breweries spread across downtown and all the way up to Oceanside, there’s a brewery tour and tasting room in your future,” she says. All you need to do is pick the right road. Highway 78 in North County is known as Hops Highway, leading thirsty patrons to craft beer leaders like Stone Brewing Co. and the beachside Pizza Port Carlsbad. Miramar Road is often dubbed Beer-a-Mar, with 10 breweries (including heavyweights Green Flash, AleSmith and Ballast Point) within a 1.5-mile stretch. And they call 30th Street in North Park “Beer Boulevard”; the eight beer stops here include local-fave Belching Beaver. “The city of San Diego even has a signature brew, the West Coast-style IPA,” adds Constantinou. “It’s full to the brim with hops and citrus notes.”

Skip the Brew, Sip Wine

San Diego’s newest hangout for wine lovers is Pali Wine Co., located along India Street in Little Italy. The company is actually based about 200 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara, so you’ll find world-class chardonnays and pinot noirs here as well as Bordeaux wines under Pali’s sister label, Tower 15. Winemaker Aaron Walker makes regular appearances behind the bar. There are food pairings and live music, and the rooftop deck offers great views. Pali Wine Co. is open late (till 9 or 10 p.m. depending on the day), and a tasting of five wines will cost you $15.

Skip Starbucks, Drink Craft Coffee

My friend Phil Carpenter lived in San Diego for 25 years before moving to the U.K. a few years ago. A bona fide joe buff, he was my introduction to San Diego’s booming craft coffee culture. "I really feel the coffee scene is just as good as the beer," he tells me. "The talent is outstanding." He refers to the area's resident roasters by name, like Stephen at the Coffee and Tea Collective, popular for its elegant, balanced coffees. He also recommends Lofty Coffee in Encinitas and the microbatch coffees at WestBean Café downtown. James Coffee Co. in Little Italy “is killing it,” he adds. Café Moto and Caffé Calabria are well-known local brands, putting out darker sippers, and Café Virtuoso, with multiple accolades from industry-insider Roasters Guild, is always a sure bet.

Skip the Guide, Eat Like a Local

Eating is always one of my favorite San Diego pastimes – a culinary renaissance is in bloom here! The Cali-Baja scene, for one, is sizzling. “Chef purveyors such as Trey Foshee from Galaxy Taco have elevated Mexican food beyond street tacos,” says Constantinou. “Expect to see handmade blue corn masa tortillas with locally caught uni on a taco; or grilled octopus on a tostada; or really good birria, a slow-cooked beef stew.”

It’s the locals who’ll point you in the direction of the best grub spots in town, though. Anna Crowe, a PR maven who’s lived here for 12 years, likes what’s happening in Little Italy. The Crack Shack by “Top Chef” alum Richard Blais has “the best fried chicken sandwich around and a cool outdoor vibe, with bocce ball,” she says. And The Music Box, with a variety of craft beers and cocktails on the menu, features a steady stream of live music acts. Crowe also likes Wonderland, overlooking the pier in Ocean Beach, where “the team does a nightly sunset shot, getting everyone involved.”

Lynda Martin, a longtime San Diego TV personality, raves about Tortas Ahogadas. “It’s a food truck that you would never think has amazing sandwiches, right in front of Toys ‘R Us in Chula Vista,” she says. “It’s delicious and different.” Martin also likes happy hour at Chez Loma on Coronado Island, “a quaint little French restaurant converted from an old house. I love sitting at the bar, with the French music and a prix-fixe menu on Wednesdays and half off wine bottles.” Grazing at the Liberty Public Market in Point Loma is a must, too, she adds: “The best cheese shop ever!”

Martin’s former co-anchor on San Diego morning TV, my friend Marc Bailey, has a foodie secret on Coronado, too. “Rent bikes by the historic ferry landing and cruise the beautiful bike paths that will show off the bay, San Diego skyline and take you under the Coronado Bridge,” he suggests. “Finish for lunch, dinner, coffee or desert at Tartine. A nice outdoor patio, even pet-friendly. Delicious fresh bistro food and desserts made daily -- huge dessert case. And try the cioppino fish stew! Call ahead, because the chef visits the fish market each day and only makes it if he likes the ingredients he sees. Twice the price if you order it at one of the big-name restaurants!”

Skip the City, Visit the Island

I love Coronado Island in the morning. Easily accessible from downtown via the State Route 75 bridge, the main drag is perfect for strolling or biking, with several tasty breakfast spots. Il Fornaio does very good Italian food and features great water views.

Martin shared a locals’ secret: To the right of the famous Hotel del Coronado, the sand dunes just on the other side of Ocean Boulevard spell out C-O-R-O-N-A-D-O. “It's so big you can't see it from the ground, but very cool from the sky,” she says. “I like to bring a blanket and a picnic with friends and watch the sunset on the O, the second letter in, right down the stairs by the Del!”

There’s great kayaking on Coronado, or you take a gondola cruise.

Skip the Theme Park, Head to Balboa

You could call San Diego the West Coast’s answer to Orlando. Theme parks abound here, from LEGOLAND California to SeaWorld San Diego to San Diego Zoo Safari Park. But you’ll find fun for kids and adults alike at any of San Diego’s beautiful parks. Don’t miss Balboa Park, often dubbed the “Smithsonian of the West,” with its 15 museums (the San Diego Air & Space Museum is a must), gardens, playgrounds and restaurants; you’ll even find a puppet theater here, as well as the world-famous San Diego Zoo. In my old neighborhood of Encinitas, Moonlight Beach Park is right by the water, with an awesome play structure for kids and a great snack shack in the summer; hone your agility on the rock-climbing wall at Cottonwood Creek Park nearby. Fly a kite at Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach, check out the art and feed the ducks at Kit Carson Park in Escondido and have a picnic after you swim at Fanuel Park in Mission Bay.

Skip the Gaslamp, Party in Hillcrest

The Gaslamp easily quenches any partier's thirst; the nighttime scene in this walkable 16-block zone, with 180 restaurants, 50 bars and 10 nightclubs, is legendary. Constantinou agrees. “You can step back into the 1920s at the underground Prohibition speakeasy (the secret entrance is an unassuming law office door) or dance the night away with celebrity DJs at posh nightclubs like OMNIA San Diego,” she says. But keep in mind that San Diego is a mix of many fun, eclectic neighborhoods, each one offering its own nighttime flavor. For example, Hillcrest, just south of Mission Valley, is well-known for its celebration and acceptance of San Diego's LGBT community; the annual Pride Parade, in July, features hundreds of entries and draws close to half a million spectators. For the late-night reveler of any persuasion, clubs of note include the Bamboo Lounge and Rich's. Wine-centric venues include The Wine Lover, and University Avenue is a dive bar hot spot.

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on San Diego hotels, spas, restaurants and activities at www.travelzoo.com. Have your own favorite spot? Let him know: @gabesaglie.