I often think of San Diego as Los Angeles's underappreciated little brother. While Seaworld, the San Diego Zoo or the movies Anchorman and Top Gun may come to mind, you would be surprised to see how much San Diego truly has to offer. Known for perfect year-round weather, scenic cliffs, clean beaches and obnoxiously fit residents, San Diego should be your next destination to explore. Located two hours away from Los Angeles and half an hour away from Tijuana (*cough*), San Diego is also the perfect low key place to settle down that is not only close enough to a huge metropolitan city but far away enough to enjoy the isolation of some of the most breathtaking nature that southern California has to offer.
In this article, I am going to give you my top recommendations for best scenery, best dining, and best local gems to explore during your next visit.
Best Places for Scenery
1. Balboa Park
1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA
Balboa Park is one of the most popular and widely known tourist attractions since it also houses the San Diego Zoo. I'm here to tell you when is the best time to visit and where to park. I visited Balboa Park the first time at 7:00 A.M in April. It's a bit ambitious to wake up this early but the entire park is completely empty, leaving all scenery unobstructed. The sun is rising and there is ample space to park (check out the parking lot in front of Casa del Prado). The entire space is tranquil, serene and at this hour it's a great place to connect with nature and get lost in your own thoughts. Balboa Park is huge and the best parts are separated by a bridge. On one side of the bridge are the gardens. My favorite is the desert garden and in early spring, you can witness the closest thing to cherry blossom trees. There are a few very tall trees with bright neon pink blossoms that are beautiful to photograph. The other side of the bridge houses several museums, the famous zoo and a slew of Spanish inspired architecture like the Casa del Prado.
2. Torrey Pines State Reserve
12600 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA
For all the hikers and outdoor buffs, Torrey Pines State Reserve is located north of San Diego in beautiful La Jolla. This is a great coastal state park with plenty of interesting, yet strenuous free hiking trails. The park is named after the Torrey Pine which is the rarest pine in North America. There are several trails available, each offering panoramic views of ocean vistas, vegetation, rock formations and various types of plant gardens. The weather can reach high temperatures so dress lightly and don't forget to pack plenty of water!
3. The Flower Fields
5704 Paseo Del Norte, Carlsbad, CA
Forty minutes north of San Diego lies Carlsbad. The famous Flower Fields is the main season attraction that occurs between March and May of every year. The entry ticket is $11 and allows you to access an entire rainbow of breathtaking flowers. There are strategically placed spots in the fields for photo taking. Otherwise, no one is allowed to enter directly into the actual fields beyond the photo spots.
4. Coronado Island
1100 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA
Coronado is located on a tiny resort island across San Diego Bay that is easily accessible from downtown San Diego. One of the most striking landmarks is the famous Hotel del Coronado which resembles a luxurious Victorian inspired castle. This hotel was the backdrop for Some Like It Hot and has housed famous guests including many presidents, film stars, and athletes. For about $80/person you can indulge in an all-you-can-eat buffet at the hotel's Sunday Brunch located in the Crown Room. The hotel has free Wi-fi in the lobby and a great view of the beach. You do not have to be a guest to access the beach behind the hotel. There are plenty of beach activities available including surfing, biking, volleyball, boogie boarding, and cabana rentals. Within walking distance from the hotel, you can explore the popular main street, Orange Ave that is home to many local boutiques, restaurants and tourist shops.
Best Places to Eat
1. Phil's BBQ
3750 Sports Arena Blvd, San Diego, CA
Why stop at Phil's BBQ? Just ask Yelp. With well over 5,000 reviews and 4.5 star rating this place cannot disappoint. Pictured above is what you should order - the full size baby back rib dinner which includes 10-12 bones of savory meat dripping in Phil's signature sinful sauce (c'mon, Ron Swanson would be proud!). This dinner comes with your choice of 2 small sides and 1 large side. If you are going to go all out, I highly recommend indulging in the fries as your large side. While your arteries may be crying, they cac be hushed for one night as your tastebuds and satisfied stomach will thank you later. This place is open until 10PM during the week and 11PM during the weekend. Did I mention it makes great hangover food? It's best to arrive later at night as this place tends to crowd easily. It's certainly no secret!
2. Manna Korean BBQ
4428 Convoy St, San Diego, CA
San Diego has damn good barbeque and if you prefer it in unlimited fashion, try reserving a seat at Manna. It's all you can eat barbeque from $20-$25 per person and the deal lasts two hours per table. The selection of meats is superb and if you've never had Korean style BBQ before, this is a very interactive way to eat with your family and friends. Each table has its own stove top where you can grill your own meat and vegetables until perfection.
3. Rum Jungle
4150 Mission Blvd, San Diego, CA
A trip to San Diego is incomplete without experimenting with the super trendy acai bowl. Rum Jungle is the prime spot in the heart of hip Pacific Beach for clean eats, power smoothies and fresh ingredients. I highly recommend ordering the Aloha bowl because where else can you eat Brazil's famous dish out of an actual pineapple shell? The pineapple is freshly cut in half and filled with ice cold acai topped with granola, honey, and pineapple chunks - perfect for those hot summer days.
Best Local Gems
1. Unconditional Surrender
St and N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA
The Unconditional Surrender statue is modeled after the famous kiss photograph taken on Victory over Japan Day in 1945. This 25 feet tall sculpture is located next to the USS Midway Museum in downtown San Diego. I recommend visiting the statue in April because to see the neighboring cherry blossom tree bloom which was planted to commemorate WWII.
2. San Diego California Latter Day Saints Temple
7474 Charmant Dr, San Diego, CA
If you drive north of San Diego on I-5, it's difficult to miss this peculiar fairytale like structure that often reminds people of a Disney castle. This is actually a Mormon temple that lights up beautifully at night. You can park very close to the temple and are free to take pictures. It is also quite visible from other locations such as the shopping plaza, La Jolla Village Square in La Jolla, CA.
3. Museum of Contemporary Art
700 Prospect St, La Jolla, CA
There are two locations for the Museum of Contemporary Art and I am going to recommend the one in La Jolla. The museum is situated near La Jolla's famous cliffs and beaches. Like most museums, it rotates through different exhibitions every so often. My favorite pieces of art include the miniature set of elevators that actually open and close. Another fun gem is a 10 foot tall carton of milk as pictured above.