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Five Things to Do in San Diego

San Diego is one of my favorite places to visit. Fortunately, I live in LA, so I try and go down there for a long weekend every few months.

My Favorite Places and Activities in San Diego

After moving to Southern California, my brother and I used to have a tradition where we would spend Thanksgiving in nearby San Diego since we couldn't afford flights home for such a short period of time. It's about a three-hour drive from my apartment in LA (though it can take much longer if there's construction or a lot of traffic). I look forward to this vacation every year since it's a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.

Now that my brother lives just north of San Diego, I try to make it down there every other month. Here are some of my favorite things to do there.

I have a map at the bottom of this article that shows where each place is located.

1. Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre park located right in the heart of San Diego. The park is free and open to the public, but some of the museums do charge admission. We opted to just enjoy all of the free museums since we were only visiting for one day and wanted to see as much as we could. The San Diego Zoo is also part of this park, but we didn't want to spend the whole day at the zoo. However, this is on my list of things to see, so I will update this article when I go to the zoo.

We parked in one of the free parking lots and took a tram to the park. Parking was plentiful and the tram came right after we parked. It was a really seamless experience, and I was grateful for free parking.

We spent about 30 minutes just walking around and enjoying the outdoors. We walked past the Moreton Bay Fig tree, which is a landmark in the park. According to Balboa Park's website, "The tree was officially measured in 1996 at 78 feet high, with a crown width of 123 feet and a trunk girth of 486 inches. It is one of the three largest Moreton Bay Fig trees in the state of California." It was beautiful to see and we spent some time just marveling at its size. I recommend bringing a book and just spending some time reading underneath it. If I lived closer, I would definitely do that on a weekly basis.

Here I am in front of the fig tree.

Here I am in front of the fig tree.

Best Gardens in Balboa Park

We checked out most of the park's gardens and these are the ones I recommend visiting:

  • The cactus and desert gardens
  • Casa del Rey Moro Garden
  • The rose garden
  • Botanical Building and Lily Pond, which is open to the public Fridays-Wednesdays from 10 am to 4 pm
Here I am in the desert garden.

Here I am in the desert garden.

Roses in the rose garden

Roses in the rose garden

Timken Museum of Art

If you're looking for a free museum to pop into, check out the Timken Museum of Art. It's a quick visit but it's filled with beautiful fine art and includes the only Rembrandt painting on public display in San Diego. It's also a great way to escape the heat on a summer day.

Finally, if you're visiting on the weekend, I recommend checking out the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages. It's really fun to see how each country decorates its house. There are sometimes events happening here, but we didn't catch one during our visit.

We spent about 4 hours at the park and didn't even see everything! I highly recommend spending at least a full afternoon here. Plan for longer if you want to visit one of the museums that charge admission.

Poland's cottage

Poland's cottage

2. Coronado Island

Coronado Island is one of my favorite spots to visit because I love driving on the bridge that takes you to the island. Plus, once you get there, you immediately feel so much more relaxed.

Both times I have visited, I've gotten extremely lucky with street parking. I recommend trying streets off-the-beaten-path and giving yourself some time to find a spot. I always steer clear of downtown and plan to walk a little ways to get to the beach.

Pro tip: Bring a beach umbrella. I brought one with me the second time and it was a game-changer. I stayed so much longer on the beach.

After you've laid out or swam in the cold water, take a walk down to the Coronado Hotel. It's a beautiful historic landmark that's worth seeing at least once. My brother and I toured the grounds and grabbed some ice cream (there's a little row of shops outside the hotel). In the winter, they set up an ice rink outside, so you can ice skate on the beach. I want to try it next time I go around the holidays.

If you're hungry, I recommend hitting up one of the taco shops in town on your way back to the car. We popped into Clayton's Takeout and the tacos were cheap and yummy.

If you can, stay for the sunset. You won't regret it.

3. Eat Some Tacos and Doughnuts

A trip to San Diego is not complete without eating some great food. As I mentioned above, you can pop into the taco shop on Coronado Island that I suggested. However, there are great tacos all around the city.

One of my personal favorites is Lucha Libre Taco Shop. While I enjoy the food, I really go for the ambiance and decor, which includes pink walls and Mexican wrestling memorabilia (check out their website to get a sense of what it's like). I like to stop in there whenever I'm in town. If you like seafood, be sure to order the Surfin' Cali burrito or the Surf & Turf burrito. I usually order the Classic Cali burrito or Smackdown Quesadilla. There are multiple locations around town too, which I love.

Another of my favorite places in San Diego is Donut Bar, which is near the downtown Gaslamp District. I highly recommend going as early as possible since the line can get quite long, especially on weekends! One time we went around 10 am and waited for over 30 minutes. You also risk doughnuts selling out. All of the doughnuts are great, but if you're going to try just one, try the French Toast Donut if they are offering it (the menu is constantly changing). Other standouts include the Maple Bourbon, Big Poppa Tart Donut and Oh My Birthday Cake Oreo.

French toast donut from Donut Bar

French toast donut from Donut Bar

4. Tour the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier

A friend in LA recommended we tour this ship when we made our first trip down to San Diego, and I'm so glad she did. My brother actually did a second tour when my dad was in town.

The USS Midway Aircraft Carrier was built in 1943 and was the largest ship in the world until 1955. It operated for 47 years, including during the Vietnam War.

The ship is now open for daily tours from 10 am to 4 pm. As of early 2018, tickets are $21 for adults, $18 for senior citizens and $8 for kids.

We spent about 4 hours here because there's just so much to see. You start on the Hangar Deck, where you can see vintage aircraft from World War II and climb into an actual cockpit. Then you can head up to the Flight Deck, which includes 26 restored carrier aircraft and a great view of the Pacific Ocean. The final part of the self-guided tour is the Below Deck exhibits, where you can see where the crew lived and worked. You'll see everything from the mess hall to the laundry services to the chapel.

There's just so much to explore and you really get the full experience of what it was like on the ship. We saw lots of kids when we visited and they make a concerted effort to make the exhibits kid-friendly.

Warning: Parking can be extremely difficult around here. I was lucky enough to find parking when I visited, but I think it's because it was Black Friday and everyone was out shopping. My brother and dad had a lot of trouble finding a place and ended up accidentally parking in a parking garage that charged $40! Be careful where you park, so you don't make the same mistake.

Flight Deck at USS Midway

Flight Deck at USS Midway

USS Midway

USS Midway

5. Explore Little Italy

I happened upon Little Italy on my last trip, and it was such a fun little discovery. It was an overcast day with light rain, so any outdoor plans weren't going to be happening. I decided to drive downtown and looked up nearby coffee shops. I found a place called Caffe Italia that had great reviews. I wasn't hungry, so I just ordered a Chai Latte, but the waffles looked great. I want to go back there and try the food.

Then I just walked around and popped into different shops. The neighborhood has such an authentic vibe to it and everyone was very friendly. I didn't have a chance to get any dinner, but the places looked really good. I recommend heading down there for a nice dinner.

If you also experience a rainy day during your visit, this can be a fun thing to do to pass the time since most San Diego activities are outdoors.

Little Italy sign

Little Italy sign

Where Each Place Is

© 2018 Allyson Byers