Sept. 20, 2013 -- San Diego is quintessential Southern California, with dependably awesome weather, a culinary culture on the rise and one of the country's pet-friendliest attitudes. Its family appeal is legendary, especially in summer and in October, when kids' admission to dozens of museums and theme parks -- including LEGOLAND, SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo -- is free.
And its beaches are the envy of the West Coast, with stunning cliffs meeting blankets of sand to create breathtaking waterside havens. Much of the appeal of San Diego lies in its expansiveness: from the Mexican border to Camp Pendleton, and from the ocean to the desert, its traveler offerings are astounding. And yet hidden treasures, wonderful, oft-little-known aspects of San Diego living, abound. Here are just a few of the really good ones.
Skip Prospect, Visit Avenida de la PlayaLa Jolla is one of San Diego's ritziest enclaves and Prospect Street is its nerve center, with tourists flocking here for awesome shopping and dining. But you should head to nearby Avenida de la Playa, instead. It's a much shorter stroll; we're talking three blocks. But this tucked-away avenue is where many locals escape for great eats, like Osteria Romantica, where the fresh fare and buzzing atmosphere offer a genuine taste of Italy. Dog-friendly La Dolce Vita, with its open-air courtyard, is a breakfast lover's dream. You'll find casual pizza and affordable sushi here. And a bevy of beachy shops, too, like Surf Diva and OEX, where you can rent kayaks or sign up for stand-up paddleboard lessons. The ocean is just at the end of the street. Stay around the corner, at the Hotel La Jolla, and mosey down here on their complimentary cruisers (and when you do need to head to Prospect, they'll drive you there for free).
Skip the Alley, Hit the LawnOn Sundays, the scene smacks a bit of The Great Gatsby: men and women dressed in crisp whites in a sophisticated match across a verdant lawn. This is the San Diego Lawn BowlingClub, which meets every day and year-round at two natural grass greens at popular Balboa Park. Players pay $2, but watching this oft-elegant sport is free. And if you're a San Diego resident, your first lesson with a club member is free, too. As for the white attire, it's only required on Sundays. And for the other bowling -- the indoor variety with pins and heavier balls -- San Diego offers a slew of great venues, including Kearney Mesa Bowl, Surf Bowl in Oceanside and East Village Tavern downtown.
Skip the Wine Bar, Giddy UpThirsty for wine? Rather than bellying up to the bar, pony up to Milagro Farm Vineyards, instead. This sprawling property in Ramona, about an hour inland from Carlsbad, is an Old West snapshot spread across 120 acres. Animals abound here, like peacocks and wild turkeys. But you're here to ride a horse. Vineyard Trail Rides offers a 90-minute intimate ride (groups are capped at six) that meander through vineyards that produce some of San Diego County's most acclaimed wines, including Milagro's chardonnay and cabernet. Once you hop off your steed, enjoy a tasting paired with chocolates.
Skip the Brew, Sip the JoeThe craft beer scene in San Diego draws big crowds, and for good reason. But don't skip the coffee (and we're not talking Starbucks). Beverage enthusiast Phil Carpenter has lived in San Diego since 1988, and when he moves his family to the U.K. later this month, it's the joe he'll miss most. "I really feel the coffee scene down here 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 Daniel at the Coffee and Tea Collective, popular for its elegant, balanced coffees, Chuck at Bird Rock Coffee Roaster in La Jolla, which draws crowds with its small-lot coffee brews, and Daniel at Dark Horse Coffee Roaster, who roasts special beans from his native Hawaii. 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 a sure bet.
Skip Your Lunch Date, Take a GuideWhy settle for one great eatery for lunch, when you can savor several of the best at once? Bite San Diego Walking Tours will lead you on a three-hour culinary adventure through some of the area's best foodie destinations. There are eight tours to choose from, including Coronado, Little Italy and the newly added Encinitas. Each tour will introduce you to at least five eateries you'll want to visit again.
Skip the Pub, Hit the PoolThe bar scene is alive and well in San Diego, from the Gaslamp Quarter to Pacific Beach. But some of the coolest cocktails in town are being made poolside, at some of the city's great hotels. The Poolside Café at the Pala Casino, in Northern San Diego County, serves up drinks with sweeping mountain views. At the Manchester Grand Hyatt, overlooking San Diego Bay, the 4th-floor Pool Grille, complete with fire pits, pours Latin-inspired libations, from mojitos to caipirinhas. Guests at the Hard Rock Hotel get VIP access to Float, the rooftop, poolside haven that features DJs by night and rentable cabanas complete with flat screen TVs; here, Intervention becomes one of the hottest pool parties of the summer, while Social Saturdays create a more relaxed cocktail scene year-round. Lounge at The Pool Club at the AAA 4-Diamond Hilton San Diego Bayfront and pair their Mandarin Splash, featuring Skyy Blood Orange Vodka, with the ahi tuna-coconut ceviche. And at Hotel Solamar's LOUNGESix, pretty much any of the dozens of wines by the bottle will pair with the delicious rosemary French fries.
Skip the Gaslamp, Party in HillcrestThe Gaslamp easily quenches any partier's thirst; the nighttime club scene is legendary. But Hillcrest, just south of Mission Valley, offers a unique alternative. The town 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 people. And the annual Mardi Gras celebration, in February, is festive, to say the least. For the late-night reveler of any persuasion, clubs of note include the Bamboo Lounge, Numbers and Rich's. Wine-centric venues include The Wine Encounter and The Wine Lover. And University Avenue is a dive bar hot spot.
Skip SeaWorld, Visit Belmont ParkParents know the tried-and-true, kid-friendly attractions in San Diego -- SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and LEGOLAND -- are the only reason some families come here. But for an experience that's less expensive and more quaint, do as they locals do and head to Belmont Park, located waterside at Mission Beach. Parking and admission are free. You'll have to pay for some of the fun inside, of course: rides such as the Krazy Kars and the Giant Dipper Rollercoaster are $2 to $6 (though an unlimited all-day pass is $26.95), a game of laser tag is $7.95 and an all-day pass to the plunge pool is $7 (cheaper on some weekday afternoons). You'll save money if you buy your ride tickets online before you go.
Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features a bevy of San Diego hotel specials, as well as local deals in San Diego at http://www.travelzoo.com/local-deals/San-Diego/deals.